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For a brief moment in the early ’90s, it seemed as if indie producers might become the new auteurs. That didn’t quite pan out. While it’s possible to identify a Todd Haynes film or a Todd Solondz film, there’s no way of defining, for example, a Christine Vachon film, other than to say that as a producer, she gets good value for whatever money is available, she’s extremely protective of her directors’ visions, and she favors sexually subversive subjects. (Vachon produced Solondz’s Happiness and all three of Haynes’s features.)
In those old exciting days before indie film was a household word, a director who’d never made a film could team up with a producer in the same situation, and they could figure it out on the fly. If they were talented, enterprising, lucky, and compatible, they might become as effective a team as Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier, who’ve worked together from Clerks to Dogma (premiering this week at Cannes). But today, with Hollywood wannabes crowding out more daring fare, it’s harder for visionary directors or producers to get started. For a first-time director, finding an indie producer with experience and a fat Rolodex is the key to getting a film financed, getting it on the screen in roughly the form originally imagined, and getting it seen by an audience larger than friends and family. Producers may not be auteurs, but they are much more essential than our director-worshiping and actor-fetishizing culture suggests.
“When we started at the end of the ’80s, we could cut our teeth on low-budget stuff,” says Scott Macaulay, indie producer and editor of Filmmaker magazine (published quarterly, it’s the liveliest indie-film journal). Macaulay, Robin O’Hara, and Jeff Levy-Hinte are partners in Forensic/391, one of the most active Downtown indie production companies. The company and its new, spacious Varick Street offices are the result of a merger between Macaulay and O’Hara’s seven-year-old company Forensic Films and Levy-Hinte, whose postproduction facility Post-391 is a favorite of editors and producers.
Macaulay and O’Hara met in 1985 at the Kitchen, where Macaulay was the performance curator and O’Hara was producing and distributing video art (I was then the Kitchen’s film and video curator). They have been a couple in their professional and private lives ever since. The relationships O’Hara forged with French and British television companies would prove invaluable to Forensic, which still counts on the money she makes line-producing European films shooting in New York. Among her credits are Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York and more recently Alain Berliner’s Passion of Mind, a Paramount Classics film starring Demi Moore. (“Come to the set,” said O’Hara in her urgent, little-girl voice, one day last summer. “I get to work with a really big crane.”)
The indie film Macaulay and O’Hara cut their teeth on was Raul Ruiz’s The Golden Boat, produced by Good Machine’s James Schamus, who at the time didn’t know much more than they did. “James made a brilliant choice with The Golden Boat. It went to every festival and it got his name on the map,” says Macaulay. “Trixie was in The Golden Boat,” adds O’Hara, referring to the tiny, extremely nervous dog who goes everywhere with her. “They said at the pound that she was unadoptable, but she was the right size and good-looking.” Since O’Hara has had Trixie around to act out her anxiety, she’s become a more mellow person.
As a result of their work on The Golden Boat, Ted Hope (Schamus’s Good Machine partner) hooked up Macaulay and O’Hara with writer-
director Tom Noonan, for whom they produced two features, What Happened Was . . . and The Wife. “Ted and James helped us and a lot of other young producers,” says Macaulay. “Ted would call up and say, ‘I’m having a workshop. Be there.’ ” Certainly there’s more cooperation among indie producers than among indie distributors, who have been known to bad-mouth and even punch out their competitors.
The merger between Forensic and 391 has made all three producers more attractive to investors. “Robin and I met Jeff two and a half years ago when we were trying to raise money to finish Jesse Peretz’s First Love, Last Rites,” Macaulay says. “We own an AVID, but we were using it for Gummo [Harmony Korine’s film, which Forensic coproduced for Cary Woods and Fine Line]. When we tried to make a deal with Post-391, Jeff saw Jesse’s footage and loved it. He thought he could get us another investor. At that time, he was coproducing [Lisa Cholodenko’s] High Art. We liked Jeff and he liked us so we decided to merge.”
Although they still operate with a minimal staff (an office person, an accountant, and for the first time, someone to oversee development), the Forensic/391 partners are involved in more films than they could possibly have done separately. There’s Frank Whaley’s Joe the King, which Trimark will release in the fall. Just finishing postproduction is Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s King of the Jungle, starring John Leguizamo. Also in post is Harmony Korine’s The Julien Chronicles, with Ewen Bremner, Chloe Sevigny, and Werner Herzog, and shot with a variety of small digital-video cameras. “Video allowed us much more freedom to improvise,” says Macaulay. “Harmony shot over 100 hours of footage. It was a very creative set. But anyone who thinks working in video is cheap is wrong. We spent more to fly in a PAL video rig from Europe than we would have to rent a 35mm camera package in New York. We also hired the cameraman and editor from Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration.” He adds with vehemence that, contrary to a recent article in the New York Observer, The Julien Chronicles is “not a Dogma film.” (Dogma is the filmmaking manifesto that Vinterberg and Lars von Trier unveiled at the last Cannes film festival. As far as I know, not even the authors subscribe to all the Dogma rules. You’d have to be an idiot to try.)
How does Forensic/391 choose its projects? “We believe in director-driven films so we have to be impressed with either a filmmaker’s script or with something about how they present a project in person,” says Macaulay. “And although I know development is a dirty word, we do work with directors on their scripts and they appreciate that. It’s not like getting notes from a committee.” Currently, they’re helping
Jimmy Smallhorne, who made 2by4, refine the script for his new film, tentatively titled Half Life. Levy-Hinte had been working with Smallhorne on the project for several years. O’Hara has been in Europe trying to set up Jesse Peretz’s next film, about a rock singer who models herself on the ’60s star Françoise Hardy. And the list goes on. Forensic/391 may not yet be as big as Good Machine, but they’re getting close. In this business, if you don’t grow, you don’t survive.