Tagged: independent film

Charlie Kaufman is sad

Poor Charlie Kaufman. I’m feeling absolutely everything in his recent interview for IndieWIRE. It’s called Charlie Kaufman Reflects On His Career: ‘I Feel Like I F*cking Blew It.’ and with a title like that, I expect you’ll feel compelled to click too. For those of you who don’t, here’s a summary of his bummery:

In 2008, coming off the success of three brilliantly original films for which he wrote the screenplays, Kaufman took on the role of director for SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. And the film lost money. His second and latest film, ANOMALISA, has done just about as well – that is to say, not well at all.

In the interview, rather than trying to put a happy face on things, he explicitly airs his anxieties. Which, it seems to me, is a perfectly Charlie Kaufman thing to do. It also seems to me Kaufman mistook his hot streak for his new normal. No disparagement is intended: that’s one of those things that can only be evident in retrospect.



But it’s also not hard to diagnose his doldrums: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND each had measured amounts of melancholy, always tempered with sweetness and delight. The two films he’s since directed have retained all the inventiveness of his past work, but minus most of the fun. ANOMALISA is pretty bleak, and SYNECDOCHE is downright morbid. And that’s coming from someone who liked it.

So maybe he needs a creative course correction. Or just some fresh air and exercise, and a movie title you can pronounce. I find it hard to believe his career is over. There are natural cycles: you’re hot; you’re not. Better to have been hot, with the chance of heating up again, right? Me, I’ve been aspiring to be Charlie Kaufman (or at least someone in his general vicinity) much of my adult life.

So I sympathize with the creative angst, but then again… count yer blessings, Chuck. And that journalist interviewing you is right: all you need is one success and your doldrums will be over.

That goes for you and me both.

Three tips for short film-makers

A bunch of lanyards from film festivals

I’ve been to a few festivals in my day, and have been rejected from even more. So listen up, son.

Oh crap, I wrote a listicle. Recently a university film student wrote to me with some questions about my short film New. One of his questions was “what three tips can you give to a filmmaker entering a short film in festivals?” This is what I told him.

1) Have you made your film yet? If not, I’d say, make sure the script is as great as you can make it before you do anything else. If writing isn’t your forté, find some help. Once you have a script, get opinions from people you trust. Listen to them. Get some decent actors and do a table read. Listen to them.

2) Keep it under 10 minutes. The longer a short film is, the harder it is for programmers to fit it into their schedules. Once you pass 10 minutes TRT, you’d better have a fucking awesome film if you want to see it screen at a festival. “Gosh we all really love it, we just wish it were a little shorter” is not the call you want to get from the programmers at Sundance. Trust me. (The film in question was my short La vie d’un chien. 13 minutes.)

3) And if the film is done: do your research about festivals. It costs money to enter them, and there are LOTS of festivals. You could spend a fortune and have little to show for it. Find festivals that show the kind of film you have. Beyond that, I always ask myself: is this a prestigious festival to play at? …and if not, is it in a city I can drive to and get home from in one day? …and if not, is it in a city I’d like to visit?

Answering Joel’s Questions

A thrilling moment of discovery from "Zip and The Metel (sic) Box."

A thrilling moment of discovery from “Zip and The Metel (sic) Box.”

Subject: Hi, I’m a film maker and it would be great if I could interview you for my course?

Message Body:
Hi, I’m an aspiring film maker doing a course in Exeter college in England and I am making a short movie, for the course and we had to pick someone to research and I picked you because you make movies in the same style that I want to and it would be great if I could ask you a couple of questions?

guess that’s it? anyway, thanks for the help?

. . .

Hi Joel,

I’m very pleased my film inspired you to write to me.

1: What inspired you to make movies?
I’ve always had a vivid imagination and was drawing out adventure stories (with flying robots) pretty much as soon as I could hold a crayon. I made my first film in grade school for an extra-credit project. The teacher & class reacted so positively I was pretty much hooked. Also, it turned out film-making was a way to be the center of attention while simultaneously hiding in the back of a dark room, so it suited my personality to a tee.

2: Why do you make your style of film?
I’ve never been asked that question. “I gotta be me,” I suppose. Style or aesthetic, to me, comes out of what seems the right thing to do to execute the scene or idea I’m working with. It’s my personal solution & choices as to what stories to tell, and how to tell them. That equals my style, right? Then there’s the questions of influences. As I mentioned, I’m a visual artist first – I work as graphic designer and illustrator, too – and everything I see is an influence. Films of course, and TV, but also illustration and fine art, literature… everything, really. Life. It’s a lot of work making a film. My last one took me two years. So I have to love the idea – a lot – to commit to making it. It has to have a strong underlying idea, a good script, and also has to excite me on a visual level – it has to play like a film in my mind, so vividly that it demands to be made.

3: Do you have a mentor that got you into film?
No, though at times I’ve wished I had a mentor, for artistic and career reasons. But I just got a camera and started doing it. That’s the best way to learn.

Good luck with your film,


PS: offering one piece of writing advice for you, Joel, unsolicited: it’s OK to use question marks at the end of actual questions. For statements, regular old periods are a great choice as well. 😉


checking the USA Projects campaign total while on location shooting NEW

Pausing to check on incoming donations while on location shooting NEW. Oh, modern life. Photo by Skot Christopherson.

Yesterday, around noon, we hit our fundraising goal for our film, NEW.

Our heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who has donated and helped spread the word. Because of you, we’ll now be able to make a film we’ve been burning to do for a year now! We plan to be shooting soon, and have a movie for you all to see before the end of the year.

USA Projects has extended our campaign through May 24, so if you’ve not yet supported us with a donation, you still have time! The $22K goal represented the minimum budget need to make the project – any additional funds will be put to good use. That’s a promise!

Our deepest appreciation, from me, Sheila Harden, Don R. Lewis, Skot Christopherson and the entire NEW crew.

John Harden
Writer/Director, NEW

The End is Near

A poodle shills for a desperate filmmaker. It's sad, really.

This photo may serve as damning evidence that 7 weeks of crowd-funding has taken its toll. Then again, people DO like puppies.

These are the end times, friends: the campaign for our sci-fi film NEW concludes Wednesday night, May 15, at one minute to midnight, PST. If we fail to reach our goal of $22,000 by then, all shall be for naught. Everyone will have their donations refunded. And We. Get. Nothing!

That would be, as they say, a bummer.

To sweeten the pot and (for some reason) reward the procrastinators out there, we are now offering a choice of two BRAND NEW PERKS to anyone who can donate $200 or more! Please view the video above to learn more about how donating to the NEW campaign will bring total fulfillment to your life.

Once again, thank you for your support! Now, please share the link to this project with someone today. No, really, like, right now. Here’s your cut and paste:


And check back for more updates soon!

: : :


Many people have stepped up in many ways, to give of their time and money and effort to support our cinematic aspirations. Here are just some of them:

The Arts Council of Sonoma County
We would not be here on USA Projects at all, if not for the seminal support of our local arts organization. Thanks to John Moran and Jennifer Sloan and everyone at the council.

USA Projects, and Rose Kuo from the Film Society of Lincoln Center
It’s a honor to be invited to use the USA Projects platform to promote and fundraise for my work. USA Projects has supported us in many ways, notably by choosing NEW to receive April’s Creative Vision Award: $5,000 in matching funds that have helped us immensely in approaching our goal. The guest judge who selected us to receive the award was Rose Kuo, so our deep appreciation goes to Rose as well.

Armstrong Creates
My boss, Tom Armstrong has been generous with his time, money, and resources to help me realize my dream of making NEW. It’s all really quite counter-productive, because he knows if this project takes off in a big way I might have to quit working for him to go make the feature film version of NEW. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

The American Cryonics Society
Is cryonic preservation right for you? If you’ve been thinking it over, these are the folks you want to talk to. Edgar Swank, president of the society, has read the script for NEW and ACS has been a supporter of our efforts from early on. An article about NEW will be forthcoming in the next issue of their magazine, Long Life.

David Brin
Deep appreciation to this friend of NEW, the noted futurist and Hugo-award winning science fiction author, for great endorsements on his Facebook page and his blog, Contrary Brin. You should totally buy all his books. In hardcover!


DIY Sci-Fi



Sci-fi fans! Hollywood got you down? Are you drowning in the mainstream? Weary of TRANSFORMERS transforming? Of mugging movie stars dressed as superheroes? Do you despair at what passes for science fiction on the big screen?

Hell, maybe I’m projecting. Maybe you think all that stuff is awesome. It takes all kinds to make a world. That’s why they make more than one flavor of ice cream.

Love or hate it, or love it and hate it, you can be more than a passive consumer of sci-fi film. Do what these guys did, and make some of your own!

Some of these films are unabashedly inspired by the mainstream aesthetic of Hollywood and Lucasfilm. Others serve as reactionary rebuttals. All substitute sweat and ingenuity for blockbuster budgets. Some are charmingly home-made in their look, others are polished productions that give Lucas a run for his money. This is DIY sci-fi.

These are labors of love: no studios and no investors. Budgets are shoestring, and often crowdfunded. Labor is often volunteer.

This article isn’t a comprehensive list of DIY sci-fi, not by a long shot – just some interesting projects I happen to know of. I’d like to know about yours, too. My intention is to append this list over time. Feel free to add your links in the comments.

All I Think Of Is You (Short, 2012)
In this stylish and moody short, a widow is hounded by a stranger claiming to be her dead husband. It’s currently doing well on the festival circuit, but you can see the first two minutes at writer/director Shad Clark’s website. Poke around and you’ll find some of his other videos, including an unsettling little diversion involving misuse of a safety razor. Shudder.

The American Astronaut (Feature, 2001)
Director Cory McAbee (lead singer of San Francisco cult musical act The Billy Nayer Show) cast himself as the lead in what RottenTomatoes.com described as “ERASERHEAD meets BUCK ROGERS by way of an MGM musical.” See the trailer here. McAbee’s singular vision took him to the Sundance Film Festival. Although, like McAbee, I live in the Bay Area, I’ve managed to miss every chance to see his film. What can I say? It’s in the Netflix queue. [Update, April 4, 2014: It’s also now available online for free from online distributor SnagFilms. Search the SnagFilms site or watch it here in this article on Indiewire.]

Bellflower (Feature, 2011)
This hallucinatory bromance depicts two guys preparing for an apocalypse they seem convinced is coming. How? By building a souped-up super car and a fucking FLAMETHROWER of course. It’s broken hearts and brain injuries, it’s geek culture meets machismo, and it will get under your skin. This debut feature played Sundance, is distributed by Oscilloscope and is probably a bit high-profile for this list. But the DIY aesthetic on display is undeniable, both in front of the camera and inside it: the filmmakers shot Bellflower on a home-made digital camera pieced together from vintage camera parts and Russian lenses.

La vie d’un chien (The Life of a Dog) (Short, 2005)
Would I be blogging about DIY sci-fi if I wasn’t making some of my own? My story of a scientist and the serum that turns him into a canine is told in a montage of black-and-white stills. This technique allowed me to depict biological transformation and societal upheaval for a pittance, while serving as homage to Chris Marker’s masterpiece La Jetée (DIY sci-fi from 1962!).

Microgravity (Short, 2006)
A tense, surreal thriller about an astronaut alone in orbit. Loneliness and boredom turn on a dime into claustrophobia, panic and fear of that cold, hard vacuum just outside the bulkhead. Beautifully, expressively shot. Great set design too. Watch the entire film, below:

Pig (Feature, 2011)
Pig begins with a somewhat familiar movie premise: amnesia. As the lead character tries to unravel the mystery of his own identity writer/director Henry Barrial demonstrates that sometimes it’s less about premise and more about execution. Strong performances from the leads keep this slow-burner absorbing, right through to the revelatory final scenes. [Update, April 4, 2014: PIG is now available via many outlets including iTunes and Amazon. Or cut out the middleman and get it from the filmmakers.]

Primer (Feature, 2004)
Shane Carruth’s debut feature marked the first time a science fiction film took the top prize at Sundance. It’s very self-assured filmmaking. What begins as a low-key, brainy story of engineers who accidently invent a time machine becomes increasingly strange and confusing as the plot begins to loop back on itself. I have yet to meet anyone who claims to fully understand it. Rent it. Or go to Carruth’s website for a digital download, and a preview of his second film, which looks to be even more disorienting.

Project Arbiter (Short, 2013)
It’s World War II. The Nazis have invented an invisibility suit, and the Allies have to steal it! Who wouldn’t want to see that movie? They just wrapped post, so you might be able to, very soon. Meanwhile, here’s the trailer and the website.



Project London  (Feature, 2013)
It doesn’t get more DIY than this! Chockablock with cool vehicles and giant robots, this futuristic feature out of Seattle, Washington was birthed by an all-volunteer crew using Blender, a free, open-source 3D software. Currently in post. Will it be any good?! Check out the trailer and Project London website and see what you think.

The Third Letter (Short, 2010)
Both director Grzegorz Jonkajtys and producer Bastiann Koch are SFX pros with serious industry credentials. It bleeds from every frame of this tale of futuristic dystopia.

Radio Free Steve (Feature, 2000)
This “1980s vision of the future” is like BELLFLOWER’s idiot trailer-trash cousin. It’s your basic post-apocalyptic road comedy, with nods to DAMNATION ALLEY and containing a crazy “lost film” backstory about the supposed director, one “Lars Von Biers.” Loose, profane and occasionally quite funny. The producer somehow managed to secure songs for a soundtrack that includes tracks by Luna and Boards of Canada. Watch the NSFW trailer here.

Radio Free Albemuth (Feature, 2010)
This indie feature based on one Philip K. Dick novel which is apparently so weird Hollywood hasn’t found a way to make an action movie out of it. I have yet to see it but it should be noted RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH has earned the approval of hardcore Dick fans and the Dick family estate.

They’re Made Out Of Meat (Short, 2005)
After an extensive survey of planet Earth’s dominant species, an alien reports his astonishing findings. A clever staging of the clever (and much-circulated) short story by author Terry Bisson. Watch it!