PRINT September 1996


ELMORE LEONARD’S EQUATION of a film producer with a petty criminal in Get Shorty may not completely miss the mark. Films such as Robert Altman’s The Player and George Huang’s Swimming With Sharks and real-life exposés of the drug-crazed antics of Don Simpson and the ogreish office politics of Scott Rudin (not to mention Julia Phillips’ bridge-burning autobiography, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again) have posited the film producer as a modern-day Mephistopheles. Certainly, this caricature of the producer as part huckster, part thug, contains a grain of truth. But fortunately, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The success of American independent film in recent years is due in no small part to the personal integrity and financial savvy of a new generation of producers more interested in film’s artistic potential than its mass-market appeal. Los Angeles–based, 27-year-old Andrea Sperling has already produced eight features and three shorts by such directors as Gregg Araki, Jon Moritsugu, and Christopher Münch. By transplanting the New York model of no-budget filmmaking advanced by Christine Vachon and by James Schamus and Ted Hope (of Good Machine) to L.A., Sperling has helped to create an alternative film community in Hollywood’s own backyard. Perhaps more significantly, she has also challenged Hollywood’s fear of formally innovative and thematically complex films by rethinking traditional models of film distribution and marketing. With her new film, Münch’s Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, Sperling looks past Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality to make films that are both artistically ambitious and financially viable.

PETER BOWEN: You studied film theory in college. How did you make the leap from theory to practice, or, in this case, producing?

ANDREA SPERLING: In my last quarter at U.C. Santa Barbara, Gregg Araki taught a class in guerrilla underground filmmaking. Before that I had planned on continuing my critical studies in grad school at NYU. I had studied experimental filmmakers—people like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage—but hadn’t realized that there were still people making these types of films today. I was also fascinated with the business of film. I interned at Avenue Pictures for four summers during college. After Gregg’s class, I was excited by the prospect of merging my two interests, experimental film and business, to fill a niche I saw, namely, producing experimental or unconventional independent features.

PB: With one film you went from being Gregg’s student to being his producer?

AS: In 1990, right after graduating college, I jumped in and produced my first film, a 40-minute experimental short by Mary Kuryla called Memory Circus. After that I offered to work on Gregg Araki’s The Living End for free. I really liked his first two films, so he put me in touch with Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans [of Strand Releasing], who at the time were busy running their distribution company and allowed me to take over the production. I proved quite useful to all of them, especially Gregg. I was able to put the movie together from preproduction to production to postproduction for very cheap. Marcus and Jon were grateful and gave me an associate producer credit. After that, Gregg asked me to produce his next film, Totally F***ed Up.

PB: Producing is perhaps not the most publicized filmmaking role. Were there models for you? If so, who? And why?

AS: I had several role models. Laurie Parker, who produced some of Gus Van Sant’s films [My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues], as well as others I respect [Mark Peploe’s Afraid of the Dark, Claire Peploe’s Rough Magic], represented someone who worked successfully within the Hollywood structure, while at the same time subverting it by working with writer/directors who were cinematic innovators. Also Jim Stark [producer of films by Jim Jarmusch, Alexandre Rockwell, and Fridrick Fridricksson], with whom I am fortunate to have worked on two of Gregg’s films and Chris’ film, is a true renegade. He forged independent financing overseas, outside of Hollywood circles, and his latest film, Fridricksson’s Cold Fever, is an excellent example of how to self-distribute a movie successfully. Finally, Christine Vachon [producer of films by Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Mary Harron, and Cindy Sherman] and James Schamus and Ted Hope [producers of films by Hal Hartley, Ang Lee, and Ed Burns], who I first learned about in Gregg’s class, later became producing mentors for me. Not only do they produce amazing films, but they also published handbooks for New York filmmakers on how to make films for little or no money. I took their model and made it my own in L.A.

PB: At 27, you’ve already produced eight features and three shorts. What are you doing now?

AS: I am currently setting up a feature for Britta Sjogren entitled Claire’s Bones (her first feature, Jo Jo at the Gate of Lions, gained notoriety at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, and her short film, A Small Domain, received a “Special Recognition in Short Filmmaking” award at Sundance this year) and a queer-punk, new-wave lesbian flick with filmmaker Jill Reiter. In addition I am reuniting with my first director, Mary Kuryla, on a project we developed six years ago called Bunny Girl. And Chris [Münch] also has a new script.

PB: Is there a particular kind of film—or filmmaker—you look to produce?

AS: Absolutely. The films have to push boundaries in one way or another. Ideally, a film would have all of these qualities: formally experimental and structurally unconventional; politically slanted to the left; socially conscious; feminist; narratively or thematically subversive—and also have an ounce of intelligence.

PB: Do you think it’s a coincidence that you, and the women producers you admire, have risen to fame producing gay male directors: Tom Kahn and Todd Haynes for Christine Vachon, Gus Van Sant for Laurie Parker, and Gregg Araki for you?

AS: Perhaps, but I suspect not. It is a difficult question fraught with issues concerning the socioeconomic and political climate of the times. I suppose an entire thesis could be written, if it hasn’t been already, on the advent of the queer new wave. What I do know is that the marginalization of gay men and lesbians (or any perceived minority) is often reflected in their esthetics, and that is something I personally respond to.

PB: For most people, producing is a rather mysterious occupation. What do you, as a producer, do, and how is that different from all the other producing titles that appear in a film’s credits?

AS: It’s definitely confusing, partially because a producing credit is easy to give away, which is why lots of times there are so many producers listed in the credits. Often these people have little or nothing to do with the making of the film in its entirety. Typically, an executive producer finances the film, raises the money, structures the deal, and/or lends his or her name to help finance the film, while a line producer is a hired crew member who manages the shoot and whose job ends when production is complete. As a producer, I oversee everything in-between, from helping to raise the money, to being the point person between the financiers and the filmmaker, to supervising the making of the movie from preproduction through postproduction, to finally selling the film and working with the distributor to market it. Altogether this means that each film takes up two and a half to three years of my time.

PB: Is there a creative role for you in all of this?

AS: Yes, both artistically and financially. Artistically, I work in close conjunction with the writer/director to get inside his or her head to make sure the vision is realized on screen. For instance, long before preproduction begins, I spend time with the director going through the script scene by scene, asking, “How do you see this?” Then it is up to me to create a budget. And how I allocate the money determines how the film is ultimately going to look. For example, in Gregg’s films, I budgeted a lot of money for the art department to enable the building of sets in order to create a look that doesn’t exist in reality. In Chris’ film, on the other hand, I allocated more money to allow for the payment of location fees and travel, because we decided that the look of the film would benefit immensely from the authenticity found only in existing buildings from the period, 1945.

PB: What is it like working on Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day?

AS: Chris is a complete and utter pleasure to work with. Like Gregg and Jon, he is an assured filmmaker and knows exactly what he wants.The production of the film was an adventure. We traveled all over California and Nevada with a tiny crew in only one passenger van and a cube truck for equipment. In Yosemite, we stayed in tents in the middle of a snowstorm. My favorite story happened when we arrived in this tiny little town, Eli, Nevada, and Henry Gibson—who I think had Michael Stipe in tow—opened his motel room door to find this huge, fat, naked man on his bed masturbating. Apparently they assigned Henry the wrong room. The story got funnier each time Henry—who you remember was on Laugh In—told it.

PB: So besides incidental masturbation scenes and having less money, is there a basic difference between producing a $30 million blockbuster and, say, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day?

AS: Studio films are all about high-concept ideas, mass appeal, and packaging. I would like to believe that independent films are less about these things and more about the films themselves, the filmmaker as an artist, and a more specialized, perhaps underrepresented audience. Most Hollywood producers are less concerned with the art of filmmaking and more intrigued by the eloquence of deal making. For me, putting a film together is about working very closely with the immediate people involved.

PB: Do you need to work with smaller budgets to do that?

AS: Not necessarily. There needs to be a new, better definition of independent film that has little or nothing to do with the budget or the way it was financed, but more to do with the artist’s vision, intention, and political stance. An independently financed no- or low-budget film can be as conventional in spirit as some big studio movie. Likewise, a multimillion-dollar Hollywood film can be quite independent in spirit.

PB: Can you think of one?

AS: Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, or Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Scorsese, Coppola, and Woody Allen all maintain their independent vision despite their budgets.

PB: Interesting point. Independent films used to be defined as such because of the necessary relationship between their esthetics and financing. That is to say, one had to seek independent financing outside the studio system to get more difficult films made. But recently there have been a lot of conventional films being labeled independent. It often seems to be just a marketing tag. What does that mean for someone like you, who really is making independent work in its purest sense?

AS: It means I have to push the boundaries even further to make it more difficult for Hollywood to co-opt the concept of independent film. I think that my films represent an opposition to Hollywood, but Hollywood is smart enough to accept them, at least superficially. To be honest, I would love to use Hollywood’s money to make the films I want to make.

PB: And what sort of budgets do you work with?

AS: Gregg’s The Doom Generation and Nowhere were produced for about a million dollars each. Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day was significantly less than that. And Jon’s films usually come in around $20,000 to $30,000 each.

PB: The usual line studios give for not financing or buying somewhat experimental work like yours is that there is no market for such films. How do you convince people that there actually is?

AS: It can be very difficult. We try to prove to distributors that there is both a preexisting and an untapped audience out there for each film. For example, Chris’ film has a preexisting Merchant Ivory intellectual-type art-film audience. But I also know that there are thousands of untapped Chinese Americans, historians, and train fanatics who would love Chris’ film. If someone spent the necessary time, money, and effort, we could easily get them into the theater.

PB: Who is the untapped and preexisting audience for Gregg’s films?

AS: For The Doom Generation and Nowhere, it’s the alternative-music crowd that has yet to be tapped—the market consists of the type of kids who go to Lollapalooza, watch MTV constantly, and hang out at punk, gothic, and industrial clubs. Gregg’s preexisting audience consists of the liberal gay community, because of his earlier gay-themed works The Living End and Totally F***ed Up; the art-house audience, due to his previous critical acclaim; hip and trendy kids, such as an older Clueless crowd; and pervs everywhere.

PB: Is there a politics behind distribution for you? For example, in convincing a distributor that there is an untapped market, do you think this mobilizes a certain audience?

AS: Yes, if you actually succeed in getting them into the theater, then you have created a new market by forcing the mainstream to recognize an underrepresented economic power. But distribution is not just identifying an untapped market and expecting them to go see the film. It takes a lot of energy to market the film and mobilize not only the distributor, but the journalists, exhibitors, and publicists as well. And an audience can be fickle. With the alternative-music crowd, for example, once someone tries to label them, they rebel.

PB: What would be an ideal model for a new film culture for you?

AS: The French New Wave is a good model in terms of the films they made, the politics they supported, and the theoretical film discourse they created through debates and journals. What we are lacking now is an intellectual environment that welcomes different film approaches and encourages intriguing discussion. Perhaps today’s new wave would celebrate not only directors as auteurs, but producers as auteurs as well.

Peter Bowen is senior editor at Filmmaker magazine.