Peter Bart: “Very Indie” Filmmakers Find New Tactics To Work In Challenging COVID Times

'The Planters' 1091 Pictures

“Just start shooting.” That was the advice the legendary A.C. Lyles delivered to young filmmakers when they asked him how he managed to produce five films every year. “Don’t waste your time waiting for some nameless executive to give you the green light,” Lyles told them.

His approach was problematic, but in today’s stalled pandemic economy, it makes perverse sense. Two young female filmmakers successfully pursued his tactic this year with festival-winning results that might inspire others to follow suit. So did a distinguished 87-year-old director who has finished shooting his new film built around two veteran stars, ages 82 and 90.

In both cases, the filmmakers knew the odds were stacked against them – too much experience on one side, too little on the other. They thus decided not to wait in vain for a studio green light, instead scratching together their resources until they could finally shout, “Action!”

The films, like the filmmakers, are a study in contrast: One is a dark comedy, the second a moving Holocaust story, and both have had promising screenings amid a bleak COVID-19 landscape.

“This is the way important films are going to get made,” observes Sidney J. Furie, the senior filmmaker of the group. “The year 2020 may prove to be a throwback to the early ‘60s, when ambitious young filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick found a way of borrowing or stealing cameras and making micro-budget films.”

The upshot today might thus be a new genre beyond the “indie film” – call it the “very indie film” — shot without the assurance of a core financier or distributor or streamer, U.S. or overseas.

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Example 1: The Planters opens this week around the country with playdates ranging from virtual to drive ins. The film stems from the partnership of Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kotcheff, who share credit as co-writers, co-producers, co-directors and co-stars. They also constituted the total crew and, as such, bore the consequences of a 30-day shooting schedule that ballooned to more than 120 days.

Both acknowledge that they should have known better, having grown up in filmmaking households. Leder’s mother is director Mimi Leder, while Alexandra’s father is director Ted Kotcheff — both filmmakers with formidable credits. “By Day 3, we realized our schedule was delusional,” says Hannah. “But we also knew, ‘This is it – our big shot, the most wonderful blank canvas we’ll ever have.’ Besides, what studio would finance a movie by two novice female filmmakers?”

Here’s the trailer for The Planters:

Furie’s film, coincidentally titled Finding Hannah, re-unites Barry Newman and Diane Muldaur, who co-starred in his 1970 Paramount film The Lawyer. The story is set principally in present-day Israel as Newman searches for a Holocaust survivor who figured importantly in his past. “We wanted to deal candidly with Israel’s current tensions,” says Furie, who also wrote the script. His past hits ranged from The Ipcress File in 1967 to Lady Sings the Blues (1972) to Iron Eagle (1986).

By contrast, dark comedy The Planters is set in a somewhat mysterious desert town, where an independent-minded young woman struggles to support herself by selling air conditioners. She welcomes the intrusion of an eccentric traveler who has excellent sales ideas but also an array of multiple personalities that appear at unexpected moments. Embellished by segments of animation, the plot takes on spiritual elements as well as daft comedy.

I happened upon the shoot one summer day when the co-stars and co-directors were filming at a small Episcopalian Church in Palm Springs. After carefully positioning her camera, Alexandra blurted, “Action,” darting quickly to join Hannah in the shot she had just set up. Looking surprisingly relaxed, they nimbly covered a page and a half of dialogue before Alexandra leaped back to the camera.

“Wouldn’t you like someone to help?” I asked naively, “Or at least to yell ‘Cut’?”

“It expensive to get someone to yell ‘Cut.’” Hannah advised, as she adjusted makeup for their next take.

Starting with crowdfunding, the two women, friends since elementary school, assembled their funding from several sources, including a Women in Film grant. Hannah, 34, persuaded her musician husband, Phil Danyew, to write five songs and Alexandra, 33, elicited a score from her brother, Thomas, a composer.

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Screening the cut for their parents was the moment of truth. “They cried,” testified Hannah. “They also smiled a lot,” said Alexandra.

The smiles became broader when the movie was accepted in a series of festivals, ranging from Raindance in London and AFI in Los Angeles to still others in Nashville, Taipai, Omaha, Fargo, Cleveland and Austin. Awards included Best in the Fest (Nashville) and a Comedy Vanguard Jury Award (Austin). In August, the film landed a distribution deal with 1091 Pictures and is available in select theaters and virtual cinemas.

Hannah and Alexandra already have finished their next screenplay, titled Peachville. And they might announce their next start date soon.

Not surprisingly, The Planters and Finding Hannah are a study in contrast stylistically. The Planters is oblique, occasionally opaque, as though challenging its audience to compute its amusing message. Furie’s movie is earnest and realistic, encompassing tragic encounters spanning two generations.

Lyles, a genial producer whose heyday was in the 1950s would gladly have fostered both of the films. But he would have been more comfortable if both had been Westerns. With perhaps a quick cameo guest starring Elvis Presley.

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