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Making Movies in Fort Wayne
No, it’s not LA, and area film-makers are just fine with that
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Sometime in the 1990s, a new American success story was added to our pantheon of entrepreneurs, inventors, and captains of industry. This was the story of the independent film-maker, the passionate director/writer with an original vision who, against all odds, financed and made a film that went on to success and acclaim, all outside the Hollywood corporate monstrosity. Sure, it’s a myth, but one that’s proved very attractive to a huge generation of film-maker hopefuls.
Jane Roulon says that she has seen an explosion of independent film-making in Indiana in the last decade, and that it’s consistent with trends all over the country. Roulon is the director of the Indianapolis-based Indiana Film Commission, an organization that promotes Indiana for film and video production. This includes everything from marketing to providing services such as identifying and securing locations, and acting as a sort of clearing house of information.
There’s actually more film-making going on in Indiana at all levels of the industry than most people might think. Roulon says a surprising number of film production comes from outside the state to shoot. Cost is certainly a factor; location shooting is a given for many feature film productions, and Indiana is a relatively inexpensive place for all the extras that go into major production work like film crews, reserving shooting locals, and even catering. The main reason, however, is authenticity. Having the right look is important, something any movie-lover from Indiana who has ever sniggered at the rolling hills and vistas of the Muncie portrayed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind can appreciate.
But maybe even more surprising are the number of companies inside Indiana that work in film and video. The IFC says there are 377 video/film companies in the state doing production, post-production, set design and more. In 2002, the last year the IFC has numbers for, the film industry in the state generated $ 252 million dollars. “That covers everything — commercial work, corporate work. That’s the bread-and-butter of what a lot of people do,” says Roulon.
One of those companies is New Hollywood Studios, a professional production facility in Fort Wayne founded by Mark Archer. Archer produced of In the Company of Men and directed American Reel, two independent films made in Fort Wayne. A Fort Wayne native, Archer found himself on the road for months with post-production work on American Reel, editing on the East Coast and doing sound design in Canada. New Hollywood Studios lets him to do the same high-quality work and stay here. “Why not build professional production facilities in Fort Wayne?” says Archer. “It’s not about the gear or where it is, it’s about who’s pushing the buttons. I can push the buttons here, or I can push the buttons there, and I’d rather do it here. It’s cheaper to live here.”
That was the consensus among nearly all of the independent film-makers we talked to in Fort Wayne, people who are financing and developing their own movies in the area. And there are a lot of people doing that. When we first started researching this article, we were overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to talk to us — feature film hopefuls, experimental film makers, video producers, and more, living and working in Fort Wayne and following their own version of the indie film-makers’ dream. Desktop technology has made the process of editing and creating movies accessible to a generation who probably grew up with a video camera in the house in the first place. In the Company of Men was made as a full-length, professional feature on 35mm film — a far cry from many of the “shoot-on-the-weekends-with-a-digital-camera” projects of other film-makers we talked to. But many of the basic principles are the same, and the success of In the Company of Men is something that many of these film-makers aspire to. They haven’t reached the level of a professional like Archer yet, but that’s the goal.
The first lesson of independent film-making: how to make the most out of meager financial resources. Richard Yates and his writing partner Rodney Pasko made The Spell of Thirteen, a horror movie set in the old Holiday 1 & 2 Theaters, with one digital video camera and a lot of help from their friends. Brett Moore, a special effects artist from Hollywood, also lent his talents to the project.
Over the course of about three weeks, Yates and Pascoe meticulously mapped out every single shot, discussing every detail before hand. Part of this was just the way Yates wanted to do it; he describes himself as a “film geek” and talks about films with the passion of a true zealot. But on another level, knowing exactly what they wanted and needed before filming helped them stretch a very tight budget. “It’s such a mammoth project,” says Yates. “But people think we slapped some stuff down on paper, walked in there with some friends, and said ‘okay, say this.”
They shot around the work schedules of their cast and crew. Yates said that one of the actors worked second shift and could only be on set at two or three in the morning, so filming began in the very early morning and continued until the sun came up.
Day jobs and E-bay helped Yates and Pasko finance the entire thing themselves. Yates’ Trans Am makes an appearance in the movie, and Yates says he put it in there to memorialize it — he had to sell it in order to get the disk produced. Since The Spell of Thirteen is a horror movie, Yates wants to promote it at science-fiction and horror conventions. In the meantime, Yates estimates he’s made about 75% of his and Pasko’s initial investment back by selling copies of the disk.
This kind of sacrifice and patience is a common. Kyle Grooms lives in Fort Wayne and is part of the Fort Wayne Film Society, a loose organization of people in the area that serves as a resource for independent film-makers and people who want to get involved in any facet of film-making, from crew experience to acting. After making several short films, Grooms decided to try his hand at a feature, a full-length Western that he’s been shooting for over three years. “These days, when people ask about it, I just say that it’ll be done when it’s done,” he says. Grooms finances his film in drips and drabs and has to work around time constraints (part of it takes place in the summer) and the schedules of his cast and crew. “The part I hate the most is calling people to make sure they show up for filming the next day,” he says.
Like many independent film makers, Grooms’ goal once the film is done is to get his movie to one of the nation’s many film festivals. The problem is that many of the film festivals are like marketplaces populated entirely by merchants. John Hartman, whose film d.r.o.n.e. (a 30-minute sci-fi flavored feature about a video game that allows people to re-live their day and fix the mistakes they made) eventually made it to the New York International Independent Film Festival after rejections from Sundance and Slamdance, describes his festival experience: “There’s a thousand people like us, trying to get a thousand people like us, to see movies that were made by a thousand people like us.”
Hartman, camera man Ty Black, and producers Courtney Heiser and Janette Luu made d.r.o.n.e. on a shoestring budget, with local talent, and Hartman shot the film at various locations around Fort Wayne. Hartman’s dream for d.r.o.n.e. is to find a studio or production company willing to fund him for a full-length version. Whereas once upon a time this would have included moving to Los Angeles, New York, or another movie industry hot bed, Hartman says these days there’s really no need to. If Hartman found studio funding for d.r.o.n.e., he’d shoot the full-length version right here. “The production talent is totally here in Fort Wayne,” says Hartman. “Maybe I’d get a big name to star in it or something, to fill the seats, but there’s a lot of talent here in town that would love an opportunity like that.”
Richard Yates agrees. Yates sees The Spell of Thirteen as a sort of audition tape: “I want someone to see it and think ‘Wow, if this is what they can do with next-to no-money, think what they’d be able to do with a bigger budget.’” Yates is an admirer of Richard Rodriguez, the action director who got his start with the ultra-low budget El Mariachi, and now does all his production and post-production work — everything but the actual filming — from his house in Texas. Yates doesn’t see why, if given the money, film-makers in this region couldn’t do the same thing. There’s a lot of talent in the area, Yates says, and a lot of people eager to develop their skills. Who needs to move to LA?
“If I had moved to LA when everyone told me I was supposed to, I would probably still be waiting tables,” says Mark Archer.
As the producer of In the Company of Men, Archer has lived the dream of every indie movie-maker: low-budget film made by virtual unknowns comes out of no where to win awards at the prestigious Sundance Festival and become one of the most talked-about movies in years. That’s the popular account, anyways, and while In the Company of Men was certainly a success, Archer points out that a lot more went into making that movie than motivation, a good script and a vision. “There’s a lot of sheer, dumb luck with a lot of indie success stories,” says Archer.
Before In the Company of Men, Archer’s experience was in working on industrial and training videos. This may not sound like the most glamorous beginning for a film career (“when you start to talk about the nuts and bolts of producing indie films, the glamour of it sort of disappears”), but that kind of experience is essential for anyone who wants to get into producing or directing film. “The reason that film (In the Company of Men) came off without a hitch and made it to Sundance, was that there were a handful of us who had done this for years,” says Archer. “Neil (LaBute, the one-time Fort Wayne resident who wrote and directed ICM) knew what he didn’t know, and let us do what needed to be done. You either need to take a few years to learn the business, or surround yourself with a bunch of people who know what they’re doing.”
Archer is often approached by other local movie-making hopefuls. “Independent film-making is starting your own business, and starting your own business is not for the faint of heart,” he says. “You’ve got to have thick skin. Usually the first question I ask people is what else have you produced. 9.9 times out of 10, they have never shot anything ever before. That’s kind of like saying ‘I decided this morning that since I’m a runner and a swimmer, and I know how to ride a bike, I’m going to do the Iron Man next week.’ You need to start with something small. You need to do a dozen, two dozen short films, because if you’ve never shot anything, you can’t possibly know what you’re up against.”
If Archer comes off a little jaded, he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t mean to be discouraging. He’s happy to give his time and advice to other independent movie makers, but… “It gets frustrating to some extent, because I want to see more production like that happening in the Midwest. The more of it that happens, the more it encourages the available crew base and talent base, which benefits all of us,” he says. “But I also want people to take the business seriously, and learn about it before you start jumping off into features.”
Many of the beginning film-makers we talked to began with shorter films or served as theater directors, producers, and assistants. John Hartman was a production assistant on In the Company of Men. Bryant Rozier, another film-maker affiliated with the Fort Wayne Film Society, makes what he describes as more experimental short movies. Now, he’s preparing a feature. “Learn what you can with the small films, and once you’re ready, move on to the bigger projects.”
Learning the basics, maximizing resources, taking your craft seriously… of course, none of this guarantees success for the independent film-maker. During our talk, Mark Archer repeatedly says that getting your movie out and getting people to see it is an entirely different game from shooting and editing. Film-making is a tough business, but so little of what makes it a tough business has anything to do with where you’re working. If you haven’t done everything you possibly can where you are, moving to Los Angeles, New York or another film-making epicenter is not going to make you more productive. And if you really have a passion for making movies and working in film, you can make it work anywhere. “If we had tried to do In the Company of Men in LA, it would have cost us 10 times as much to get half the resources,” Archer says. “When you’re trying to make a movie, the things that matter are how far can you stretch a dollar. It’s about what you do with what you have.”