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A night with Independent Film Directors

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A night with Independent Film Directors

A night with Independent Film Directors

Lance HammerLance Hammer (Ballast), Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) and Tom McCarthy (The Visitor) are arguably the hottest independent directors in the US these days. Their films have won many prestigious awards around the world, and each is nominated for several Independent Spirit Awards. Frozen River recently received two Oscar nominations for its star Melissa Leo, and for Hunt’s original screenplay. The Visitor‘s lead, Richard Jenkins, is also up for an Oscar.

A couple of hundred eager filmmakers gathered in theatre 7 in the Landmarks in West LA to listen to the new pioneers of independent filmmaking. They applauded excitedly as their heroes marched in.

The directors talked about their career in film and the making of their recent projects. While The Visitor is McCarthy’s second feature, Ballast and Frozen River are Hammer’s and Hunt’s first features respectively.

These directors migrated into film directing from other fields. Lance started as an architect and slowly shifted into art direction at Warner’s, which ultimately lead him into directing. Ballast, a film about a black boy’s struggle to subsist in the Mississippi’s delta, was his first feature. It cost $500,000 to make, 45 days to shoot and 2 years to edit. It’s now being distributed by Lance himself.

Courtney Hunt

Lance wanted to authentically capture the Delta’s winter on film, so he shot it on 35mm with natural light. He also refrained from using music in order to capture the Delta’s muted sounds.

Courtney graduated from law school, but instead of practicing law, she opted to enrol in Columbia’s film school. After spending years researching smuggling at the US-Canadian border, she made a short about the subject. Then the success of the short in New York Film festival propelled her to expand it into a feature. Soon, however, she was faced by the grim reality of financing – no one wanted to touch it.

Determined to make the film, Courtney and her lawyer husband sought equity from private individuals, whom they knew would be interested in investing in movies. It worked, and they managed to raise $500,000. “Never give up,” she exclaimed, “Somebody out there is looking to invest in film, go find them.”

Determined to make the film, Courtney and her lawyer husband sought equity from private individuals, whom they knew would be interested in investing in movies. It worked, and they managed to raise $500,000. “Never give up,” she exclaimed, “Somebody out there is looking to invest in film, go find them.”

Tom McCarthyThe Visitor is a film about immigration. Tom was struck by the inhumanity of the detention centres he visited while researching the project. “These are warehouses, where they store humans in boxes,” he said. Therefore, he insisted on shooting on location in New York City, and consequently the budget swelled to $5 million. To Tom’s surprise – and delight – it didn’t take long to find the money, most likely, due to the success of Station Agent.

The directors also talked about rendering the script on the screen. Lance develops the script with his actors during rehearsals. He used non-professional actors and encouraged them to improvise their lines and use their own vernaculars. Courtney, on the other hand, didn’t have time to rehearse and, though she allowed the actors to improvise on set, she adhered to the scripted dialogue and action. Tom, an actor himself, frees the actors to deliver the scene (after discussing it with him), for they ultimately understand the characters they inhabit better than him.

Courtney couldn’t resist imparting some sound advice. “Learn to sleep,” she stressed, “you can afford not to sleep 5 days when making a short, but you can’t do it on a 29 day feature shoot.” She starts training herself to sleep well six months before the commencement of a shoot. She follows a strict regime of eating on a rigid schedule, going to bed on time, abstaining from alcohol and even meditating. “Without a good rest, your shoot will die,” she said. Tom leaned over with his microphone, “and you will die too.” he added.

Just before they left, an aspiring young director stood up and asked, “What is the best virtue a director should have?”

“Doubt,” the three directors replied in unison.

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