When I am looking for inspiration as a filmmaker, when I feel a little deflated, tired out or I just feel like giving up as I limp along the long road to production, I turn to film.
It’s all very well watching Jurassic Park again, or something equally loud, shiny and hugely expensive, and I sometimes do. But what I should really be looking closely at are films with low budgets that have risen above the flotsam of indie and pseudo-indie releases (studio films masquerading as indie) and somehow and against all odds, have made money, enjoyed actual cinematic releases and still resonate, in short, the legends.
So here are a few of the best that indie film has to offer, some of them you might not even realize were made on a shoestring.
Many made with not even the smallest hope of success just to see if they could be done or because the filmmakers were not wise enough not to. These are some of my favorite, all from the last 20 odd years or so.
El Mariachi (1992) Robert Rodriguez.
I still remember going to see this movie at my local theatre, the buzz was huge! How did this totally unknown filmmaker, with a budget of $7,000 (money made by taking experimental drugs for money) and no crew, no equipment and hardly any actors manage to make one of the best indie films of all time, and then have it picked up, polished up and released with a million dollar marketing budget? It’s the ultimate unicorn of filmmaking and it’s absolutely excellent.
Run Lola Run (1998) Tom Tykwer
A brilliantly high-concept, ‘real-time’ movie that holds the audience to the very last second. An all-action, break-neck speed thriller, with one goal only, to build the tension until we just can’t stand it any longer. It’s fantastic and small and completely reliant on its leading lady to convince us of its authenticity. Simple and perfect.
Mad Max (1979) George Miller
The original. A much simpler and more stripped back film than its sequels, Mad Max is Australian for action. It’s worth noting that George Miller’s minuscule budget of $400,000 was made back many fold and started a cult following that created four more films, the latest being hugely successful and earning multi-Oscar nominations…not too shabby.
Grosse Point Blank (1997) George Armitage
John Cusack is a repentant hit man returning to his boyhood town for one last job, and to look up his former girlfriend whose heart he broke years before. A perfect film. Funny, slick, but not too slick, the best soundtrack ever and stellar performances from Cusack, Minnie Driver, Dan Ackroyd, Joan Cusak and Jeremy Piven. It set a very high bar for dark, action comedy and it was an indie!
Being John Malkovich (1999) Spike Jonze
This is one of the weirdest films on the list, but definitely in a good way…John Cusack again and a strange and oddly cast mixture of brilliance, including the actual John Malkovich. It proves that a film can be mysterious and wild and unhinged, but in a quiet, lyrical way and still be a success. How could this not be an indie.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) Daniel Murdock, Eduardo Sanchez
With $35,000, a camera bought at Walmart, and a bunch of seriously frightened people in a dimly lit forest improvising, it's genius. Add to that the master of all marketing campaigns - "Is it real? Or is it fiction?" It’s not pretty and it’s not perfect, but it’s still just as scary as it was the first time I watched it.
Lost in Translation ( 2003) Sophia Coppola
This is actually one of my favorite films…ever. Indie or not, it does have the bonus of Scarlett Johanssen and Bill Murray, both stuck in Tokyo, and lonely. With deft and subtle direction and lots of improvisation and lots and lots of leaping out of cars and filming frantically then leaping back into cars and riving away before getting arrested. It's an artful and beautiful ode to guerrilla indie filmmaking with movie stars…I love it.
The Usual Suspects (1995) Bryan Singer
What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said about this masterwork of modern filmmaking. It certainly started Bryan Singer's career and put Kevin Spacey on the map. Its phenomenal lineup, pun intended, also including Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro and Gabriel Byrne is a lesson in stylish killer fairytales, with twisted endings. It’s incredible, even watched a hundred times and the ending always makes me smile.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) Quentin Tarantino
Let’s end on a very, very high note. This film is such hilarious bloody perfection that I feel very strongly that Mr Tarantino has yet to best it. A lot of this film was actually shot in and around North Hollywood which is also cool. Excellent music and superb casting, he pulled in a lot of favors to get this cast and the script was written in just two weeks, while at work! This film has probably had the most influence of any independent film that I can think of on filmmakers today, letting it be known in one violent, gorgeous orgy of death that films can be action and dialogue and style and music and everything people all actually are, in equal and sometimes very messy measure.
The very best indie films can and do create their own unique place in the world and should always be touchstones for filmmakers. When we need a bit of inspiration, when we feel overwhelmed and lost in the vastness of it all we must return to the films that made us fall in love with the magic and find encouragement in their magnificence.
Then we have to get back to work.
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