Hey folks Harry here with a damn fine interview with Stephen Kessler, the director of the genuine discovery of SXSW, THE INDEPENDENT. This was the film without distribution that just really won the audience over in the Narrative film area. I laughed my ass off and missed whole bits of dialogue due to the laughter in the room. You'll get a damn good grasp for what the film was like and aiming for in this in depth interview that Flesh Gordon and Dr Peter Blood conducted with Mr Kessler. Here ya go...
Flesh Gordon and Peter Blood here, bringing you an interview with Stephen Kessler, the director of THE INDEPENDENT.
Flesh Gordon: During the Q and A session after the debut of THE INDEPENDENT Sunday night, you said the films of Morty Fineman (the fictitious director depicted in THE INDEPENDENT) were mostly based on the films of Roger Corman. How did Corman feel about the tongue-in-cheek nods to his work? Did he enjoy the chance to cameo in your film?
Stephen Kessler: I think Corman loved it. He loved the script. When I sent out the first round of letters, Corman answered in two days, "I'll do it." I literally brought a little camera to his office. I had a few scripted things for him, and the scripted things were O.K., but they were not as natural as I wanted them to be. When I heard Roger innocently making the mistake about not knowing that the character was still alive,… as soon as Roger said "You know now that he’s died..." In my head I just knew now I'm going to say "He is not dead." and Roger just did that thing of "Oh, he's not dead?" What no one knows is that I had originally written that very exchange for Peter Bogdanovich, but one day people can watch the DVD and see really what was happening. It really gives the illusion that it was a natural type of thing. He hasn't gotten to see ECO ANGELS (a trailer parody) yet, but he did read the script.
F.G.: What is your take on the exploitation genre? From watching THE INDEPENDENT, I would imagine you love it. Your film covers a lot of ground in the area, including blaxploitation. Is this something important to you?
S.K.: The films of Marty Fineman I never thought of them as film parodies. I hate when they do a film parody of a blaxploitation movie and, like, the lighting is bad, the acting is bad. I hate that. I wanted to do something that where, when I looked a Morty's films, I wanted to make those films as good as I possibly could; the way Morty would. My D.P. used to laugh, saying that I spent more time thinking about how to light CHRIST FOR THE DEFENSE (another trailer parody), than I did the actual movie. I’m not overly knowledgeable about the genre, although I watched hundreds of Corman and Andy Sidaris trailers.
Peter Blood: That leads right into a question I had. Did you come up with the film trailers that are in THE INDEPENDENT before or after writing the script?
S.K.: It started like this. I read an article where Steven Soderburgh had written the script for SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE in ten days and I said to Mike "let's write a script in ten days". So we started out writing these different parodies, most of which are not in the film now. CHRIST FOR THE DEFENSE was one. BALD JUSTICE was one of the original ones. THE WHOLE STORY OF AMERICA was one of the original ones. Once we wrote the script, which was basically just a series of those things. We had a small story around it about Morty and his daughter. As we got more in to O.K., we are actually going to make this film, we were saying no the film has to have a more interesting thread going through it, and it would really help if you could somewhat care about the characters. So then we worked more on that stuff. MS. KAVORKIAN was something that we added on later. At first we didn’t make the connection that Morty’s films were socially conscious. We made that connection after hearing Jonathan Demme talking about Roger Corman. Then we went back and did ECO ANGELS. We wanted something like THE MINISKIRT MOB.
F.G.: Morty Fineman in THE INDEPENDENT is one of the better roles that I have seen Jerry Stiller play. Was the part written by you and Mike Wilkins with him in mind?
S.K.: No, the part was written with actually no one in mind. Mike and I had an idea for a short film with Morty's character. At first we thought of people like Harvey Keitel. After pursuing a certain actor for 2 years and him finally dropping out, several people were telling me "How about Jerry Stiller?" But I was like, "All I have seen him do is yell." One of my friends said that he had done an American Playhouse thing for PBS with Robin Williams that was really good. At the same time we also thought we might be able to get James Caan; we might be able to get Alan Arkin, and of course then there was Jerry. So what we did was put pictures of Janeane (Garofalo), Max (Perlich) and each of our three possible leads onto these sheets of cardboard, took them around to independent theaters in L.A. and asked people leaving which of these films they would rather see…this cast, this cast, or this cast. Most people pointed to Jerry. But back to your original question, after the initial shoot, which included a full day of interview segments that I later cut out, I felt Jerry finally understood who Morty was. So we rewrote a lot of scenes with our new understanding of the character and did a round of reshoots. The opening scene on the rock (P.B. note: a classic!) was filmed during these reshoots, the cooking scene in Jerry’s apartment… I think that early on, we didn’t make Morty sympathetic enough, so that scene helped us show him doing something nice. That, of course led into the TEENY WEENIE BIKINI BEACH sequence allowing us another good joke film.
P.B.: Janeane and Jerry really seemed a perfect match. I assume they already knew each other through Ben (Stiller) …
S.K.: You know before the shoot they really didn’t know each other. They had met at maybe half a dozen social occasions before, and Janeane had heard some stories from (friend and former boyfriend) Ben about his father and growing up. I think that Jerry worked great with Max as well. There’s a totally improved scene that I didn’t add into until fairly late where Morty and Ivan (Max Perlich’s character) are in this Mexican restaurant. I shot that on my video camera before the initial reshoot to make sure Jerry was back into character. I was showing it to my editor, and he said it was great footage, something we didn’t have anywhere else in the film, and we should use it, so it wound up in the film.
P.B.: These are a few scenes obviously shot on video and you mentioned all the interview footage you cut out, but as a whole the film lack the pseudo-documentary film of, say SPINAL TAP and has a much more narrative feel.
S.K.: This was one of our biggest challenges. Our original intention was to make it a Mockumentary. We talked to several people who said that film studios and audiences are turned off by mockumentaries. When I look at film I think are genius like WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, I wonder why they don’t get the audiences. So I started looking at it as more like a REDS or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, not that I think THE INDEPENDENT is in that league, but the whole idea of interviews detached from the narrative. Nobody accused Woody Allen of making a mockumentary with SWEET AND LOWDOWN. In the end, we decided the audience would understand, especially younger audiences.
P.B.: I think it works much better that way, and you may have a shot at a bigger audience because of the more narrative feel.
S.K.: You every step of this film seems to have happened for a reason. When Mike (Wilkins – the co-writer and producer) and I decided to make the film Janeane wasn’t available, then we had to wait a year for other reasons and suddenly she was available. The whole deal with getting Jerry; that happened for a reason. The fact that we sent Sundance an earlier cut and didn’t get in, but instead came here (to SXSW); that really happened for a reason. I think it was all a lucky accident.
F.G.: Movie fans reading about your movie on the site will want to know how they will be seeing THE INDEPENDENT. What are your distribution plans?
S.K.: Well, let me back up a minute first. When I was making Vegas Vacation, I really wanted to make it a return to the old Chevy Chase that I loved, but for various reasons, it didn’t work. There are moments that are exactly what Mike Wilkins and I had in mind, but there was too much studio involvement. After that experience, Mike and I wanted to just make a film on our own and figure out how to sell it later. Let’s not have to try and explain to studio people why what we were doing was funny. We would just make it, and let the audience decide what was funny. So now we’re up to the point where people are getting interested. In Aspen, we sold out a 300 seat theater and some distributors approached us. After the Sunday screening here at SXSW, a lot more people are interested, but I’m actually shocked that a lot more aren’t. I think it’s a hard movie for studios to understand. We’ve gotten some very devoted interest, and we believe that it should be screened in theaters. We’ll just have to see. We’re hoping that the website might prompt some interest as well.
F.G.: Everyone that I have talked to about it here has really liked your marketing style of extending the tentacles of THE INDEPENDENT out into the real world. You have distributed fake movie passes of Morty Fineman films that do not actually exist, and t-shirts of the same. Is this something that you are just doing for the film festival circuit, or eventually for the mass market as well?
S.K.: I think it’s critical for the marketing of the film. It’s important that the same marketing techniques we used here are used to sell the film. I used to direct commercials; I did all the Snapple ads with that woman Wendy sitting behind the desk. The whole idea there was that the people who write in are the real stars. We started thinking that the real stars of this film were the films Morty had made. That’s how we sold out a 1200 seat house; we had all these crazy film titles on postcards and t-shirts and people got interested. Originally, we were going to make a traditional movie poster, but we couldn’t get everyone together for a photo shoot, so we used the HEIL TITLER poster and others for the post cards we handed out. Another of those happy accidents.
F.G.: I’m glad we brought up the website. Filmmakers reading this interview will be excited to know that they can create mock trailers for the Fineman Films website (FinemanFilms.Com) What are you looking for, and what is the submission process?
S.K.: They can go to the Mortyplex on the main page and check out what films don’t have anything listed yet, and they can write up reviews, make up a still or even a trailer and e-mail it to us. Then we’ll try to get it into the site. To us, that’s the coolest part of the marketing campaign. It’s a total companion piece to the film. That was our intention.
P.B.: How early in the process did the formation of the site come to you?
S.K.: Mike and I came up with the idea of the site around July of 98, just after we completed the first round of shooting. We didn’t build it until this past October, but we knew what we wanted to do back then.
P.B.: Of course now with the success of BLAIR WITCH, websites have become very important for smaller films.
S.K.: To be honest, I’ve never been to their site, but Mike and I looked at the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT as a success model. What they understood that the studio sites still don’t is the concept of the site as an extension of the film, not just a cheap promotional gimmick.
F.G.: What’s cool is that Morty is presented as a real guy and there are guys like him in Hollywood. Morty would have a site like this. It makes it much more real, in a way…. It’s much more interactive.
S.K.: Mike and I have even talked about if the movie does well, selling the concept of "Morty Presents" to a cable station and let people actually make the films; have Jerry up there going "Hi, I’m Morty and this is my film from 1977, S-E-X That Spells Sex. I’m thrilled at the idea of other people making these films.
F.G.: I'm going to ask you a more personal question now. What have been some of the parallels between the troubles that Morty Fineman had making his films and the problems that you have had making yours? How much of you is Morty Fineman?
S.K.: That is a great, great question, because when I look at the film now even though you start out to do work that is totally impersonal as a filmmaker it's almost impossible. I will talk to you guys more about VEGAS VACATION if you want, but VEGAS VACATION to me... was my dad is a chronic poker player and crap shooter. So to wanted V.V. to be about how Las Vegas is trying to say its a family town, when all it does is get a family there and then does everything it can to try to separate the father from the children and his wife, so the father can go gamble. This film (THE INDEPENDENT), I didn't understand this when I was making it, I now understand this film to be so autobiographical that it's really incredible. I mean, like Morty, I ran out of money. Like Morty, I had to beg people to be in the film who sometimes didn't want to talk to me about it. Like Morty, I had done a film that had made a tremendous amount of money. I was now doing a film for no money, because I really believed in it. And like Morty, I was making a film that to me had an important message, but really was a film full of Penthouse Pets, and Playboy Playmates, and porno actresses, so like Morty it's hard for me to see my own life... like did I make something that is exploitative of people, or did I make something that makes a point, or did I do both? I can't figure it out.
F.G.: I think the film celebrates the little guy (in hindsight, I would have to say more specifically individual expression).
S.K.: Well, that's very cool. That makes me very happy. Although, sometimes in my office they will say to me, like if I start getting on people about saving money on something ridiculous, they say O.K. Morty, O.K. Morty, we’re going to do it.
P.B.: Well, we’re starting to run a bit long here, so on behalf of everyone at AICN, Steve, I’d like to thank you for sharing some time with us and good luck with THE INDEPENDENT.