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8 Established Filmmakers Who Reinvented Themselves With Risky Low-Budget Efforts

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by The Playlist Staff
August 1, 2013 3:57 PM
12 Comments
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This Friday will see the VOD release of Paul Schrader's much talked about "The Canyons," a film both inspired by and conceived for the post-theatrical era (though it will receive a limited theatrical run starting out in NYC and Toronto). The film revolves around the toxic relationship between a producer (adult star James Deen) and his girlfriend (Lindsay Lohan) and is a collaboration between "American Psycho" author/enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis and "Taxi Driver" scribe Schrader, whose directorial career includes "American Gigolo" and "Affliction." After the duo failed to get a studio-financed shark movie off the ground, they decided to pursue something on a smaller scale that would require fewer gatekeepers. Schrader emailed Ellis with a mission statement, "Enough of this. Let's just do something ourselves. The economics are right. You write it, I'll direct it, we'll pay for it, and we'll make cinema for the post-theatrical era." And so "The Canyons" was born.

Since the rights for all of Ellis' published works were already tied up at various studios, he came up with an original story of "beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms," which could be filmed around LA for little money. Before "Veronica Mars" and Zach Braff stormed Kickstarter (and raised the ire of critics), Schrader and Ellis took to the crowd-funding platform last summer and raised nearly $160,000 without much backlash at all. The pair kicked in an additional $60,000 of their own money and set out to make their film with virtually no one to answer to. It wasn't all smooth sailing—a NY Times piece detailed the myriad problems with the indie production—but despite these setbacks, you get the feeling that Schrader wouldn't have it any other way. Just compare the freedom he had on this "troubled production" to his experiences just a few years back, toiling away on a studio movie that was completely shelved and reshot in its entirety by another director.

With digital equipment lowering the barrier for entry, not just for burgeoning directors but also for established auteurs, the last decade has seen a wave of filmmakers retreating from the comforts of the major studios into much lower-budgeted efforts that offer them the opportunity to do things differently. For some, it's just a temporary pit stop between more traditional fare, but for others, it's a chance to completely reinvent themselves. Recently Spike Lee made headlines by attempting to crowd source his next feature and though Lee is the latest, he certainly won't be the last celebrated filmmaker looking to get back to his indie roots. Here are eight notable films from established directors who reinvented themselves in the aughts with modestly budgeted efforts that allowed them the freedom to break out of their comfort zone.

1. "Bubble" - Steven Soderbergh (2005)
Budget: 1.6 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Though his unprecedented hot streak ran from 1998 to 2001—from "Out Of Sight" to "Ocean's 11" with his double-Best Director nominated films "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich" coming in between—in 2005, Steven Soderbergh was arguably still at the peak of his career. Though he was coming off a pair of commercial disappointments (the misunderstood "Solaris" and "Full Frontal"), an experiment in TV (HBO's short-lived series "K Street") and contributed a little-seen short to the anthology "Eros," he had also just scored the second biggest hit of his career with "Ocean's Twelve."
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? No filmmaker in the aughts (or maybe ever) took advantage of the one-for-them, one-for-me model quite as well as Soderbergh. It's worth noting that he had already rebooted his career once with the arty head-scratcher "Schizopolis" and after a string of hits that defied the genres he was working in, he decided to push even further into the extremes with his subsequent features. Soderbergh knew that if his risks didn't pan out, he could always make another 'Ocean's' sequel to get him back into the studio's good graces (which he did, twice). But he realized that even his lower budgeted efforts like "Full Frontal" came with their own set of expectations and in order for him to really get his freak on, he'd need some outside help. In April of 2005 Soderbergh signed a pact with billionaire Mark Cuban's 2929 Entertainment to direct six low-budget digitally-shot features to be released day-and-date theatrically and on VOD over the next few years. (Keep in mind, at the time this was a pretty revolutionary concept.) For Cuban, he had only had to invest around $10m for a half dozen features by an Oscar-winning filmmaker and for Soderbergh, he had the creative freedom to make pretty much whatever the hell he wanted within a budget. The first film to emerge from this revolutionary deal was "Bubble," a small town murder story featuring a cast of non-professional actors who improvised their dialogue based on an outline provided by writer Coleman Hough ("Full Frontal"). Soderbergh had such a great experience making the film that he had hoped to make the other five films in his deal much the same way: utilizing non-actors in different stories across the country forming what he called "a quilt of Americana."
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Unfortunately for Soderbergh, this would never come to pass. After the excitement about the cross-platform release died down, the film grossed a meager $145k which led to just one more film in his six-film deal, "The Girlfriend Experience." To help ensure its success, he cast porn star Sasha Grey to entice the VOD audience, but the film only did marginally better, still falling a million dollars short of covering its production budget. Soderbergh continued to bounce between larger and smaller efforts until his "retirement" earlier this year and the day-and-date model that Soderbergh and Cuban pioneered is now widespread with IFC Films, Magnolia, Radius and Sundance Selects all using it to roll out their indie efforts.

2. "Gerry" - Gus Van Sant (2002)
Budget: 1.5 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Though he had been primarily known for his indies, Gus Van Sant's career took a strange turn after the monster success of "Good Will Hunting." He followed up that film with his shot-for-shot remake of "Psycho" (which actually holds up better today as a time capsule curio of 1998) and the limp 'Will Hunting' retread "Finding Forrester." The former was critically eviscerated, the latter became a pop culture punchline (probably best remembered for spawning the meme YTMND) and Van Sant knew it was time to start over.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? Though he had been attempting to alternate his studio projects with smaller films all along, the filmmaker credited his agent at the time with successfully scaring him away from them. Once his agent was out of the picture Van Sant was finally able to get one of those smaller projects off the ground. After 'Forrester,' Van Sant was offered a million dollars and carte blanche from a German financier which resulted in "Gerry," a minimalist experiment featuring two guys (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) who get lost in the desert. Van Sant had originally planned to shoot the film digitally (which still looked fairly crude at the time), but Affleck convinced him to shoot on 35mm, which Van Sant credited to altering the entire identity of the film. "Once we did that, everything changed, and we were no longer making the film I originally thought we were making. Along with that came other ideas when we were writing it together and committing to certain ways of shooting it. Everything started to roll in a certain direction." Inspired by John Cassavetes and Bela Tarr (two disparate influences if there ever were) and featuring improvised dialogue and extremely long takes, the picture stands as perhaps Van Sant's boldest work and arguably his most divisive too, as it tested the patience of even the most devout cinephiles.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Though he would return to studio polish in recent years with "Milk" and "The Promised Land," Van Sant spent most of the decade working in this stripped down mode with "Elephant," "Paranoid Park" and "Last Days" all following the sparse naturalistic blueprint the filmmaker had laid out here. While none of these films exactly lit the box office on fire ("Elephant" was the only one to break $1m in grosses), they did re-establish Van Sant as a serious filmmaker not afraid to take risks.

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12 Comments

  • Brian | August 1, 2013 8:54 PMReply

    Inland Empire's reputation "is mostly as a failure"? It got 72% on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes as well as some rave reviews and, as you said, it ended up on Sight & Sound's list of the best films of the 00's. If anything, I'd say it's reputation has grown since it's release.

  • Cory Everett | August 2, 2013 10:47 AM

    You guys might be right about this. I think it's regarded as a disappointment for most certainly coming after the success of MULHOLLAND DRIVE but maybe not a failure so I edited the paragraph to reflect this.

  • Smyth E. Alan | August 2, 2013 7:57 AM

    That comment baffled me too, and seems to the writer's opinion (valid), rather than a valid assessment of its critical standing - which as you mention is quite high for a film of its ilk.

    I personally disagree that it merely traverses "much of the same themes as Mulholland Dr" myself....but don't ask me to tell you what it's about!

  • oogle monster | August 1, 2013 8:09 PMReply

    Off topic but I love that you guys continue to do these lists. Really sets this site apart and has my daily attention!

  • Jen | August 1, 2013 7:02 PMReply

    "Rachel Getting Married" deserves more love and respect . The brilliant Bill Irwin , the legendary Debra Winger , & Rosemarie Dewitt all deserved Oscar nomintions with Anne Hathaway. This movie may be my most favorite American family drama since " Ordinary People " .

  • Chris | August 1, 2013 5:19 PMReply

    "Finding Forrester" was NOT critically "eviscerated." 73% on Rotten Tomatoes and it landed on several top-10 lists that year. Do your homework.

  • James | August 1, 2013 5:16 PMReply

    Sony didn't release Slumdog Millionaire, it was Fox Searchlight that took it over from Warner.

  • alex | August 1, 2013 4:41 PMReply

    What about David o. Russell??

  • Matt | August 1, 2013 5:45 PM

    His story is kind of the reverse, he came from making quirkier movies and reinvented himself with more mainstream films.

  • Serena | August 1, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO was a deliberate attempt to make a cheap B-horror movie. He hired crew from his TV series because they knew how to work quickly, and made his movie for $800,000 (to give some perspective, his previous effort, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, cost over $3 million).

  • Glass | August 1, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    One of the earliest examples of this would be Stanley Kubrick coming off of 2001 (HUGE production, big crew, 2 years to shoot - including effects shots) and doing A Clockwork Orange on a very low budget, shooting mostly on location with 'available' light. It's not like he came off a bad streak of films, but he hit the reset button on the size of his productions.

  • D | August 1, 2013 4:09 PMReply

    Cory Everett is da man <o/

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