Vail Film Festival movie-makers share tips on what it takes to make an indie film today 

Off script

click to enlarge Of Dust and Bones - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Of Dust and Bones

Carolyn Kras never planned on being a screenwriter. But at the 2018 Vail Film Festival in early April, her intercultural workplace rom-com, New Reality, took home the screenplay award for best comedy.

It's about a young woman who works for a virtual reality storytelling company. One day, they decide to lay off her entire department and replace them with international temporary workers.

"She has to train a man named Liu Shen... And she is torn between sabotaging him to save her job and falling in love with him," says Kras. "It's a bit like [the 2009 film] Up in the Air, where it explores different workplace trends, but also has a romantic storyline at the center."

Over the coming years, Kras will work with Denver-based Noggin Sauce Pictures and its co-founder, producer Jon Diack, to bring New Reality to, well, reality. Which ushers in the most challenging part of the filmmaking process, what Stephen Sondheim dubbed the art of making art: putting it together. It won't be an easy path; outside of the structured Hollywood studio system, filmmaking more resembles an entrepreneurial venture. But were Kras to pitch to a studio and go through that system, it's hard to say how much the final product would resemble the original screenplay.

Kras, a Chicago native, started her writing career with a playwriting class at Washington University in St. Louis during her undergraduate years, falling in love with the craft immediately. Later, after two years at a law firm, she committed to writing professionally and eared an MFA in dramatic writing from Carnegie Mellon University before moving to Los Angeles and working as an NBC page.

"I was like the real life [Kenneth] from 30 Rock," she says.

In 2016, she applied for a Sundance Sloan Commissioning Grant and Fellowship with a film treatment — a prose description of the story, typically written as a precursor to a screenplay — for what would become New Reality, and she was picked as a finalist. That's when theater friend Rachel Fowler, also of Noggin Sauce, decided to introduce Kras to her production partner, Diack. Fowler and Diack enjoyed Kras' treatment and, in January 2017, they commissioned the screenplay.

Diack, also present in Vail, specializes in the business side of filmmaking. He's spent 25 years in finance and accounting, working with Fortune 500 telecommunications companies. A resident of Denver's Centennial suburb, he's also been acting for around 14 years, including a turn in TheatreWorks' 2010 production of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor.

"I did some student films," he says, "and I saw these kids that... loved art, they were great artists, they were great movie-makers, but business-wise, that's where they needed their help."

And now that New Reality needs help to come to fruition, Diack will mentor Kras through what it takes to make an indie film today. One of the biggest factors involved, as in most art endeavors, is money.

Many states offer film incentive programs — tax breaks and loans designed to incentivize filmmakers to do business there. California's program is massive and well-funded, but the 25 percent tax credit they offer to independent filmmakers only kicks in once the budget hits $1 million.

Colorado has had such a program in recent years, offering loans up to 20 percent of a film's budget, plus tax breaks, so long as the film meets certain requirements, like shooting in-state and hiring at least 50 percent of cast and crew locally. But a July 2017 audit showed massive misspending, including incomplete paperwork and approvals for films that didn't qualify, and as of March 29, 2018, the program's funding had been axed from the House version of the budget. While Gov. John Hickenlooper has not signed a budget as of this writing, the program's future remains unclear.

That's unfortunate, as Kras says incentives make it easier to get loans to finance films. Money that's effectively committed to the product can be used to increase confidence in investors or banks. And given the 25 to 30 percent tax credits offered in nearby New Mexico, where The Avengers and Breaking Bad were shot, it's likely many people will look at shooting there.

"There's a lot of filmmakers, very successful filmmakers, in Colorado," says Diack. "It'd be nice to keep filmmaking in Colorado. That's one objective I have as a filmmaker."

Incentives aside, Diack sees two routes for putting the pieces together. The first is to work with an ultra-low budget, cutting costs by employing friends and family as actors, or by offering deferred payment contracts, meaning actors get paid once the film makes a certain amount of money or meets certain distribution goals. Risky for them? Yes.

Diack's other route is something of a Catch-22. Known talent — directors or actors — can be used to sell a script to investors. "But the challenge is sometimes they want to see the money up-front to secure the talent," he says. So it's a tricky dance of securing talent with money and securing money with talent.

Writer/director Diane Bell has her own model for making independent film. A Scot who recently moved to the Denver area, she and husband Chris Byrne run Rebel Heart Film, through which they make films, teach workshops and consult. The company is anchored to the 16-step Rebel Heart model that Bell developed from the success of her first feature film, Obselidia, and affirmed with the production of her third film, Of Dust and Bones.

click to enlarge Jon Diack, left, and Carolyn Kras on the red carpet at Vail Film Festival. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Jon Diack, left, and Carolyn Kras on the red carpet at Vail Film Festival.

Just hours before Of Dust and Bones' world premiere in Vail, she gives a two-hour workshop on her model, which she usually teaches over two weeks. She acknowledges that it's far from the only way and not necessarily even the best, but it worked for her. At the core of the method and the indie film ethos: Commit to an idea and execute it as completely and honestly as possible.

"If you love it, someone else will love it," says Bell, offering counterpoint to the studio system. While multi-million-dollar Hollywood films have to reach big-block demographics to profit, independent films can serve specific niches that get ignored, and still profit.

Of Dust and Bones, a challenging and atmospheric film, is "not for fans of action movies," she quips over the course of the festival. In the film, a widow, Clio, has fled from society and, in mourning, exiled herself to a ranch house somewhere outside of Pioneertown, California, near Joshua Tree National Park. She's visited by Alex, a news producer and friend of her late husband, war photojournalist Bryan, who wants Bryan's last photos to get out into the world, continuing the work he did in life. It's a unique meditation on grief in Western culture.

"We've seen so many edgy independent films with messages that wouldn't be shown at every festival," says Claudia Murdoch, a producer with New York-based Cup of Joe Film. She's in Vail for the world premiere of The Invaders, which she co-produced with Carrie Radigan. It also ponders lives to which Hollywood doesn't give much screentime.

The Invaders depicts a young woman named Jayla, played by Iraqi-Swedish actress Isra Elsalihie, as she is followed home and, ultimately, gassed to death by men in uniforms and gas masks — a horrifying extrapolation on state-sponsored violence against minorities that exists today. It begins tight and intense, reading pursuit-thriller, then backs off to show suburbia, complete with a neighbor child watching the proceedings, the banality of evil on display. Stories like this need to be told, and indie films can make it so.

click to enlarge The Invaders - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • The Invaders

Through her film career, Bell has made films both independently and through studios. Her second film, 2015's Bleeding Heart, was produced through a studio. It was ostensibly a step up from the success of Obselidia, but she didn't feel that way. There's always conflict between director and producer, but this production was particularly adversarial, and the final product was poorly reviewed. The Hollywood Reporter's Frank Scheck called it "too schematic and obvious to have the desired impact" after the film's Tribeca Film Festival debut. The film has a 43 percent fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com, with an audience score of 32 percent.

After Bleeding Heart's completion, Bell considered leaving film altogether. Instead, she took some time and reconnected with her first film. Seeing her ideas through from start to finish, on her terms, was what brought her so much joy in making Obselidia. It only made sense to do it again.

Bell's first step is, intuitively, to write and revise the screenplay, getting a few rounds of feedback from friends and colleagues and making sure, critically, that there aren't any boring parts.

Next, she sets a start date for filming, at least six months out. Metaphysically, she suggests that setting a date will help the director and producer bring everything together, partly by making the project more real, partly through aligning universal energies, if that's the sort of thing you're into. More practically, a start date looks good as part of a fundraising package and makes the project more real to potential investors.

Following those steps, she builds a package for pitching investors on the movie, starting with a budget and shooting schedule. This should be prepared by a professional line producer, she says, as a bad budget or schedule will guarantee a film's failure. She aims for the $100,000 to $300,000 range — any less, it's tricky to make sure everyone who works on the film gets paid their fair share, and any more usually suggests bigger-name talent should be involved in the production in order to make it profitable.

Like Diack, she equates each film to a separate entrepreneurial venture, and any new business needs a business plan, preferably one as simple as possible: Who's in it, what's the movie about, why is it great, who's the audience, and what's going to be done with the finished product?

For building excitement and interest in the project, Bell's a big fan of the concept reel, a short video "sketch" to tease potential investors with some of the most exciting scenes and give them a sense of the story's core conflict. Bell shoots her concept reels without audio, adding music and voice-overs, keeping the shoot to one or two days at most. With the reel, the business plan, the budget and the schedule, it's time to look for finance.

"The money's out there," she says, but people will say no — and desperation is a bad look. Rather, she starts by making make four lists of people: prior supporters, people who support the arts, alumni from the crew's alma maters, and anyone with a special interest in the film's content. Anyone on more than one list will probably give — and since failure happens, it should be money they can afford to lose. Direct requests, she says, have better results than indirect social media blasts, and smaller shares are fine. Bell's also fond of crowdfunding for this purpose.

click to enlarge Film viewers line up to watch indie films like Of Dust and Bones at Vail Film Fest. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Film viewers line up to watch indie films like Of Dust and Bones at Vail Film Fest.

And while film grants exist, they're scarce and hard to get early in a filmmaker's career. Which will direct filmmakers to check those aforementioned state incentive programs for benefits.

The apparent mismanagement of Colorado's film incentive program feels especially disappointing given how our state hosts a number of thriving film festivals, not just Vail's, but Telluride's, Boulder's, our own Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival, and more. At least for now — however the fundraising process comes together — it'll make shooting in Albuquerque look all the more tempting to bring a fledgling film to reality.


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