HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?

The independent film is making a comeback. But did you even know it was gone?

Certainly indies have been challenged to make their voices heard, given the financial tumult of the last few years. And because many independent films that were produced in the late ‘90s through the middle of this decade were financed through hedge funds, that train roared off a cliff along with the rest of the American economy.

Thankfully, we are now seeing a new kind of independent film that is both artistically and financially savvy. Producers and directors seem to really understand that IATSE members are willing, able and excited about doing these kinds of films. One of the best films I ever made, Testament, was done for $700,000, which nearly three decades ago seemed like a good deal of money! And, once again, we are seeing that ultra-low budget level [films from $500,000 up to $1.85 million] falling under a Local 600 contract.

And these are not insignificant works, mind you.

Higher Ground, shot in upstate New York by Guild DP Michael McDonough, with a Local 600 crew that included A-camera operator Jeffrey Dutemple, 1st AC Nate Slevin, 2nd AC Nadine Martinez, B-camera operator Manuel Billeter, and B-camera 2nd AC James Daly, is a great example of overachieving on a tiny budget. Its first-time director, actress Vera Farmiga, was wise enough to utilize a union camera team, and guess what? Higher Ground is playing this year in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance! Other examples of how low can you go for the best quality possible include Louisiana-shot films like Area 51, with DP Yaron Levy, and Super, shot by Steve Gainer in Shreveport. Vamps, shot in Detroit, Mich., was done by cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt, ASC, under an ultra-low budget agreement with veteran indie director Amy Heckerling at the helm, and a cast that included Krysten Ritter, Sigourney Weaver and Malcolm McDowell.

Of course one of the great rewards of Local 600 DPs and camera teams working on low-budget indie films is the chance to revel in the discovery of a first-time director. When I shot Donnie Darko nine years ago, Richard Kelly was 23 years old and had never made a feature film. Yet that movie went on to great acclaim at Sundance, and was a hit with audiences and critics alike; today I count Kelly as one of the most talented writer/directors I’ve ever met. It’s also exciting to be able to raise the production level of a low-budget film to a bar that only IATSE crews can provide. Prior to our low-budget contracts it felt like filmmakers were running the other way to avoid shooting Union, while now they are doing everything in their power to bring us onboard. The reason: We can deliver the best possible film they can make for their money.

Certainly this rebirth of independent film (if it was ever moribund at all) has been helped in great part by the many film festivals dedicated to providing a springboard. Sundance, of course, remains the premier festival for independents, but there are also platforms all over the world determined to highlight low-budget movies with unique artistic voices. That’s why Local 600 spends as much time as we do to help our members get the honors they deserve from these exciting projects.

Fraternally,

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600