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'We Stuck With the Team': Filmmakers Remember Their First Times

The Reeler trekked to Cooper Union over the weekend for the Tokion Magazine Creativity Now Conference, that annual paean to, well, the dynamics of creativity in contemporary arts and entertainment. Despite the controversy stirred when planners scheduled two days of panels without one female participant (the speaker list miraculously grew to include at least four women once Wooster Collective took the lead on calling bullshit), a queue wrapped around Fourth Avenue for Saturday's opening discussion: First-Time Feature Directing, moderated by John Cameron Mitchell and comprising filmmakers Phil Morrison (Junebug), Justin Theroux (Dedication), Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) and very late add Zoe Cassavetes (Broken English).

Direct influence: (L-R) John Cameron Mitchell, Justin Theroux, Zoe Cassavetes, Mike Mills and Phil Morrison chat Saturday at the Tokion Creativity Now Conference (Photo: STV)

Other than perhaps Cassavetes recalling her father John once asking her to make 37 sandwiches for one of his typical do-it-yourself crews, I would have to say the subdued chat yielded few real "highlights." One subject of perpetual interest -- advice for those attendees considering making their own first film -- did emerge eventually, revealing a nifty cross-section of counsel that appeared to surprise and enlighten the crowd in the building's Great Hall.

"To be patient," Morrison recommended. "Which really, I know, goes completely counter to another completely legitimate piece of advice, which is to be impatient and just do it. That's what gets confusing. For me, it makes sense to be really, really patient. I also think that watching tons of movies and watching movies that your nature is to dislike but the world has said is good? I think it's really important."

"Like what?" Mitchell asked. "Personally, what do you dislike that people say is good? That you learned from?"

"I went from disliking Bresson to him being really super-important," Morrison said. "That's what makes it really difficult. I think you learn a lot more."

"Make the film as if it was the last film you're ever going to make in your life," Mills said. "What are you going to do? What's that film? Because you only have that one opportunity. And then I would make it as cheap as you can, and it doesn't matter if it's made out of cardboard or what. That's so much more important than feeling franchised in any sense: If it doesn't look good, (discovering) how to promote that rather than waiting for four years to get $3.5 million."

Cassavetes agreed. "It's true," she said. "You can't wait. Finish your script. Say, 'This is what I'm doing.' Everybody else will try to tell you what you should do -- especially financiers. And if you can focus on what you want you want to do, you can almost convince -- you have to convince -- everybody else to give you money for actors to come in and for crew to come in. Just stay really focused and don't listen to anybody else. ... Collaboration is one thing, but it's your vision."

"I think so much of it is about focusing and getting everyone in the same place, but anyone can make a film," Theroux said. "Really. Anyone can make a film. That's the wonder of digital. ... But really, I've found -- and it's probably my one biggest shock -- that so much of filmmaking is about rejecting bad ideas and not listening to the thousand people around you saying, 'You know what you should do?' And then if you have any insecurity, you start to say, 'Oh, maybe you're right.' And then at a certain point, you just have to be like, 'Fuck it. This is the film I want to make.' ... You just have to stick to your actors and your designers and make that your sort of army and reject everything else. And it was very hard for me to stay that focused."

Mitchell nodded. "One thing I've found in editing, though, is that you get to a point where you don't see it anymore, and screenings with people you respect are very important," he said. "But you also are going to get this wide range of opinions. I always feel like a good rule of thumb is that if a large number of people are saying there's a problem in a certain section, they're probably right. If you get someone very strongly saying what you should do, and he or she is the only person saying that, they're probably wrong. You should listen, and let the ones you remember the next day be the ones that guide you."

"I think that's absolutely true," Morrison said. "But I think that at that stage -- or really at any stage -- it's good knowing that your movie isn't going to be liked by everybody and it shouldn't be and you're not trying to pursue that. We had a large section of (Junebug) where people generally didn't like the movie loved this section. But people who liked the move thought that section was lame. And we had to decide: Do you mollify the people who didn't particularly like it or stick with our team? And the way I'm saying it, the answer's obvious. But it wasn't at the time."

"Did you stick with the team?" Mitchell asked?

"We stuck with the team," Morrison said. "But at the time, it's scary."

Posted at October 16, 2006 8:14 AM

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