The Struggling Indy Filmmaker
by Jay Scott
So, I want to introduce you all to a very good friend of mine.
His name is Robert David Sanders, and he is a filmmaker.
A lot of his work can be seen on his website, Starway Pictures. I recommend checking it out, and watching some of the things he’s done. Yeah, I know you haven’t seen his work, but I have. Let me tell you something, Robert could stand toe to toe with the best of them. He’s been making films since I have known him, and we met when we were in High School. Robert was working on a Super 8mm feature called “Heartbeat City” with mutual friends. Now, me having wanted to be in this industry since I was nine, well I knew Robert was someone I wanted to hang out with. We became pretty good friends over the years, worked on lots of projects throughout high school and what little time we spent in film school, and for years after. To me Robert has always “had it." You know, that thing, that vision, that ability to see a film from start to finish and make it compelling. If you watch some of the trailers on his site, things like “Shadow Falls”(pops) “The Dead ”, “Expired ” and “Day 11 ” will knock your socks off. Robert's always been the guy whose coattails I thought I would ride all the way through; after all, he is pretty fucking good at this. So the day I was able to get him a meeting at both Sony and Silver Pictures was a proud one for me. After all, here was my friend, the filmmaker, and I got to put him ‘in the room” for the very first time. And with real deal makers. Now, nothing ever came of it, but it was pretty god damn cool to walk onto a lot with your friend and know you got the meeting for him.
Robert just finished making two very expensive "proof of concept shorts." (Shadow Falls and The 23rd Letter) in the form of extended trailers for two projects he intends on making. Robert is lucky enough that his wife, Barbara, also a dear friend, is also his producer and partner. So these two are on the road to the Land of OZ together, and someday, its my hope that I can shell out 15 bucks, sit down in the Arc Light Theatre and watch a film by Robert David Sanders. After all, coattails were made for riding.
I made this week's column an interview with my friend Robert, the Struggling Indy Filmmaker.
Q: Ok, so what's the film that made you want to be in the industry?
A: I know the trendy to thing to say from my generation is Star Wars. And Star Wars was definitely a seminal event in my life. But I’d have to boil it down to two films. Blade Runner was the first film that really grabbed me when I was young. Still being young and inspired by science fiction, it was the first nihlisitc, dark, noir film I’d seen. Later in life I’d grow a deep appreciation for film-noir in general. But Blade Runner was the first. John Carpenter’s Halloween was probably the second most influential on me. Mainly because it scared the shit out of me. It was the first film that got me thinking about wanting to make my own movie. I really wanted to scare other people like that film scared me. And from that point forward I was hooked on a string of horror films from the late 70’s and early 80’s with a bedroom strewn with Fangoria and Starlog magazines.
Q: Do you remember your first movie going experience as a kid?
A: I think it was Jaws. I was only 7. I didn’t see much of it. I feel asleep. My parents and I were at a drive-in theater and I slept in the cab of our pickup truck. But I remember seeing the opening scene with the girl in the water and thought, “ok. I’m outta here.”
Q: What was the first film you made?
A: Of course it was a horror film. It was called The Haunter.
A: We couldn’t convince any of our parents to let us use their Super8 cameras. You have to remember these were the family “camcorders” of their time. Therefore they were still considered valuable. And what on earth do a bunch of junior high kids want with a camera anyway? So a good friend of mine suggested we shoot the film on slide film since he owned a 35mm camera. And that’s what we did. We made our first film as a slideshow with an accompanying audio track on cassette tape. It was really goofy.
A: I can’t pick just one.
A: Every director has their strengths. Some are amazing visual stylists. Some are amazing story tellers. Spielberg and Frank Darabont are two of the few who can do both. David Fincher never ceases to amaze me. James Cameron is the modern George Lucas. Francis Ford Coppola can pull amazing performances out of his cast.
Q: What film that’s been made in the past 10 years do you wish you had a shot at making?
A: Hulk. Dark themes. Supernatural powers. A man on the run from secret government agencies. What’s not to love? Other than the abomination that was made.
Q: What would ya have done different?
A: Everything. It would’ve stuck to its core. It was would’ve been about Dr. Banner running from “the man” and running from himself. It would’ve dealt with his personal demons and his futile attempts to control them. It would’ve been dark. It would’ve been rainy.
A: Martin Scorsese. Because he’s contributed some of the best damn cinema in history.
A: Sometimes. People look up to you when you’re making an honest attempt. There are so many shysters out there, so many talkers, so many non-doers that when you find someone who’s really following through with what they say they’re gonna do you cling on to them. You root them on. And that feels good. But that sense of euphoria goes right out the window when the rent comes due or when you watch your friends and family move past you in life because you’re spending all your spare cash and time on film, cameras and projects.
A: Because if you’re successful there’s a lot of money to be made. An obscene amount, really. And it’s a pretty small business. There’s only so many films and TV shows made a year. So there’s only so many jobs to go around. So the gates are guarded securely.
Q: If you could change one thing about how you have done things, what would that be?
A: I would’ve moved the Los Angeles and wormed my way on to sets at a much earlier age.
Q: Ginger or Mary Ann?
A: Definitely Mary Ann. No brainer.
Q: Sir David Lean or Orson Welles?
A: Good one. I would have to say David Lean - mainly because I think Lawrence of Arabia is one of the best movies ever made. Don’t get me wrong. Citizen Kane is awe inspiring. But it’s no Lawrence of Arabia.
A: I can’t think of one. Most of the film’s I’d like to remake are not really considered classics.
Q: So what is it about all the tools available to regular people now that you find as a negative? As a positive?
A: Well it’s certainly easier to make a film that looks decent because of digital cameras and modern desktop editing systems. You no longer have to fight the technology. Just layering multiple tracks of audio used to be a big headache when working on Super8 or 16mm if you had no budget. Keeping picture and sound in sync used to be a nightmare. Today’s young filmmakers have no idea how difficult that used to be. It used to be triumph if you made a film by simply overcoming the technology.
The positive side would be that today’s young filmmakers have to actually make “good” films. There’s no longer bonus points for making a good looking and good sounding movie. Now you have to make a compelling story.
A: I’ve done a lot of bigger projects since EXPIRED. But it’s still one of my favorites. It’s a short little sci-fi cautionary tale about how technology distances people from each other. I had the idea germinating in my head for a while when the second season of Project Greenlight was announced. And they opened it up to directors this year. So I thought it would be a hoot to enter a film. We threw it all together pretty fast. And it was just one of the projects that just gelled, had synergy and was blessed by the movie gods.
Q: What do you think of the whole Project Greenlight thing?
A: A film has to sit with me for a very long time before I even begin to write it. I don’t write the screenplay any more. But I do work out the story, the characters, the arcs and the resolution very clearly. And then I work with a writer to develop the script. And then I filter it through my producer, who is my wife and the paragon of taste, and then we re-work it some more.
Q: What frustrates you about this industry?
A: It’s fixation on star power and mega budgets. What does the industry decide to do when suddenly confronted with declining box office receipts? Make fewer bigger budgeted movies! Insane. What does that really mean? It means the studio has more riding and invested in its projects. Which translates to watering down scripts, taking fewer risks, putting more pressure on the director and hiring bigger name stars irregardless if they’re right for the part.
Q: Think it will ever change?
A: I think a bigger and bigger opportunity for films being made in the Robert Rodriguez style is opening. Modestly budgeted, high-concept films that have smaller risk.
Q: Who do you really want to work with?
A: George Clooney. James Newton Howard.
Q: Ok, have a favorite line from a film?
A: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Q: What would you say to anyone who wants to be a filmmaker just starting out?
A: Just do it. Stop talking about it. No one cares if you know the name of every director in history and every film they made. No one cares that you watch 10 movies a week. No one cares what your opinion of so-and-so’s film is. The only thing that matters is “what did you do?” It’s simple: Put up or shut up. Because the more you put up the better you’ll get. And the better you get the better your odds of getting noticed or making the kind of film that’ll get into a major film festival.
So take note kids, some real sound advice in there. Robert is a filmmakers filmmaker. I knew he'd get his day from the first time I sat watching the premier of “Heartbeat City” in glorious Super 8mm in his backyard with over 100 of our nefarious gang in attendance. It was pretty damn cool. Somehow that film is lost to history, but I’m sure we will find it again, somebody has a copy.
So folks, that’s this weeks slice of my world. If you got a film you're itching to make, just go and do it. Put up or shut up. Advice I shoulda taken many many years ago, because we all have one film in us don’t we? I know I do.
I’ll leave you with this gem from one of the greatest films ever.
“You're a fickle boy, Mink. The Dane finds out you got another amigo, well, I don't peg him as the understandin' type.”
Produced By is being modest. He has more than one film in him. And we at FTTW know he will make them. And he better not forget us when he becomes famous.