Making a Killing
San Francisco has a great reputation around the country - if not the world - for food, art and music. And yet, apart from that chase in BULLITT, our fair city has never had a high profile in the entertainment industry. But here I am, sitting in a lovely, wood-paneled chophouse on a snowy afternoon in Park City, Utah waiting to meet with two guys who are working tirelessly to change all of that. They are called the Butcher Brothers.
Park City? You're thinking, I've heard of that before. Of course you have. It's the site of the Sundance Film Festival, the grand dame of American independent film, which has just wrapped up a furiously successful opening weekend and is now slipping into its traditionally calmer second half. Unlike the snowstorm outside, which seems to be picking up steam.
I might be exactly the wrong person to write this piece. You see, I know the Butcher Brothers - or, at least, I knew the guys who became them. We shared an amazing, ten-day debauch back at the CineVegas Film Festival in 2004, when they were two unknown filmmakers screening a quirky comedy called LURKING IN SUBURBIA and I was a festival employee. But now I work for Sundance as one of the shorts programmers and I wrote the note in the festival catalog on the Butchers' new film THE VIOLENT KIND, a hallucinatory slasher epic that revels in its insanity.
Not to mention that I am scheduled to introduce their flick at what's sure to be a raucous midnight screening later on this very night. Hell, I've been rooting for these two for a long time, so journalistic impartiality just isn't an option.
My worries fade when my two friends appear, looking like they have been having at least as much fun at this festival as we did back in Vegas. Phil Flores and Mitchell Altieri - The Butcher Brothers. "It's not good to drink this much," says Mitch as he orders a beer to match mine. Phil sticks with water. "I actually think I proposed to a girl last night," Mitch continues, "I may have found my wife." The story that follows involves an NFL quarterback, his equally imposing posse and the Bros' - who are short in stature, but altitudinous in joie de vivre - misguided attempt to win a drinking contest against the same. The result: Mitch's possible (probable?) engagement. Sundance, baby.
Please understand, despite all the seemingly Hollywood antics, these Butcher Brothers are Bay Area through-and-through. Born and raised in South San Francisco, they met at El Camino High School and discovered a shared love for storytelling, collaborating on ideas and character studies. They made their first short film soon after, using equipment 'borrowed' from the local cable access station. Their inspirations were all around them, as they lived in what Mitch calls "the Jersey of the Bay Area." Phil agrees, noting that many of their films feature "the odd types we grew up with: Big Ben, Little Mike and the Guy With Messed Up Knuckles."
So - what happened? How did two mild-mannered Bay Area guys take on this sanguinary moniker and transform into purveyors of the craziest, most inspired gore of this new century? At first, Phil explains, it was an attempt at compartmentalizing themselves. "We wanted Mitch and Phil to stay those nice guys who do comedy and drama, while the Butchers could focus on dark content." But the success of their first project THE HAMILTONS meant transformation, and now, "It's kind of fun that people are scared of us."
Mitch and Phil have no plans to leave the Bay, saying they consider themselves 'lucky' to be part of a vibrant, close-knit film community. Phil explains, 'We're two of about ten working filmmakers in SF, so we can reach out and create a community. Everyone shares equipment. Everyone ends up working on each other's films." "We even all have the same attorney," adds Mitch with a smirk. "It's changed, and the Butcher Brothers helped change it."
The Butchers are doing it - living the independent film dream of working on the projects they care about with the people they love. A few hours later, as I'm standing in front of a hyped-up midnight crowd, this same feeling of satisfaction (mixed with a little booze) will well up inside me as I tell the audience how proud I am of these two guys. Then I'll relate an embarrassing story from our Vegas days.
Back at the chophouse, I ask a last, leading question: So, are you guys like the Godfathers of modern, independent Bay Area Cinema? The Butcher Brothers laugh, not taking the bait. "We're more like the Drunken Uncles," chortles Mitch, delighted. And then he signals for another round.
Due diligence is the name of the game; you owe it to yourself and your collaborators to know the territory you're about to enter. For example, making a horror film? You better watch all the genre flicks that have made the festival rounds in the last 5-10 years. Lots of these movies never get it into theaters, so your best bet is to make lists off the festival sites, then scour Netflix, Hulu and Google for the titles.
Got an amazing idea for an epic trilogy set in the 5th dimension with 100 characters and the biggest, baddest space battle ever? Sounds sick, but save it for when you have access to a big budget. For now, you've got to build a story that you can fully realize. It doesn't have to be small in scope, just reflect what you can actually spend. I've seen too many clunky sci-fi extravaganzas that unwittingly cross the line from special effects to very special effects. (Speaking of which....)
Time to go fundraising! Hopefully you have a rich great-aunt or a trust fund just waiting for your flash of inspiration. But, for the rest of us, budgets come from friends, family, credit cards, savings and everywhere else. Again, stay grounded. Don't assume you can raise millions off of a cool short or showreel - that rarely happened ever and almost never does now. And be sure to save some cash for contingencies, lawyers and (hopefully) festival expenses.
The hidden truth here is you don't need tons of actual currency. Follow the Butchers' lead and always help out other filmmakers with their projects. You'll learn a ton and feel good about yourself. Also, when it's time for you to shine, you can call in favors and field a crew for a fraction of the price. Same goes for studio time, dub houses and props....
Here's a fact: no one's first try at anything is usually very good. Even those hotshot twenty-something directors you saw triumphing at Sundance have been slaving away for years on student films and shorts before they even got near a feature. You have to learn your craft, ideally by watching someone who knows what they're doing. Then make shorts, music videos, commercials - anything.
This year at Sundance we received over 6,000 short film submissions and accepted only 73. You know which got in? The ones that showed us programmers something totally new, or something familiar done in an exciting way. You don't have to create a new genre or technique of filming, but don't be derivative! If your film is about a director making a movie, or an adaptation of 'The Tell-Tale Heart', or is a crazy sequence of events that turns out to all be a dream, just know: we've seen it before. Your project had better be fresh or it's never going to stick out.
This is where your circle of filmmaking friends really pays off. It's one thing to show your rough cut to your family and friends; they're going to be impressed because you made it and they love you. What successful films require is constructive criticism from people with enough cinematic knowledge to actually be helpful. Ply your friends with booze and get them to be brutally honest.
Not every film is going to Cannes, Sundance or Toronto - and not every film should. To use our horror movie example from above, you need to find festivals that represent the aesthetic you are going for. Get on Withoutabox and do some digging. Films do sell from smaller, more niche festivals like Fantastic Fest and the late, great CineVegas.
So you've found your project, wangled the funds, press ganged your friends, run out of favors and made your highly original film. As soon as you start showing in festivals, everyone's only going to have one question for you: What are you working on next? Have an answer.