Hollywood, home of the US film industry, houses the world’s oldest and largest film studios. Frequently working on budgets greater than $100-200 million dollars, directors within the studio system benefit from a level of security rarely found in the independent film making world.
Yet in spite of the obvious difficulties in competing with the studios, many of the best features of the past few years are actually independent productions. These films are made at a fraction of the cost of major studio releases and are often distributed by their branches, such as Paramount and Fox. Independent films are seen as having a unique style and allow the director to tell his/her own story. By this definition, the film-makers below have reached the top of their game for innovation, originality and that all important factor- sustainability.
10. David Gordon Green
With his latest feature, Joe, currently on the festival circuit, recent reviews of David Gordon Green have centred around the superb acting performance of the film’s star, Nic Cage. A Southern Gothic drama, it tells the story of an ex- con who is forced with the choice between redemption or running when he meets a 15 year old hard- luck kid.
Gordon- Green’s aim has always been to tackle a range of genres; he worked as a hired script writer for many years in between films. His first features were coming of age stories in the American West, which were atmospheric in a style similar to that of Terence Malick. He quickly switched gears, making a series of studio comedies, including Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter, before heading back towards genre defying indie film with Prince Avalanche (2013). Described as part comedy bromance and part contemplative meditation on friendship and manhood, Prince Avalanche was described as a mix between the old and the new Gordon-Greens.
Trademarks of Gordon- Greens films include their locations, acting and photography style. Long interludes of landscape play an important role in Prince Avalanche, while in George Washington, Gordon- Green photographs the industrial poverty of North Carolina with slow deliberate shots, accentuating the interaction between setting and his films. With regards to his work with actors, Gordon – Green has previously described himself more as the ringmaster of the circus, rather than an authority on directing.
9. Todd Haynes
As an MFA student at Bard College, Haynes made the controversial short, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) using Barbie dolls as actors to present the pop singer’s struggle with anorexia and bulimia. As well as whittling the body of the Barbie Doll away with a knife to create a skeletal look, the film also contained several dream sequences in which Karen imagines being spanked by her father. Haynes’ feature film debut, Poison, won the 1991 Sundance grand Jury Prize, granting him further acclaim. A triptych of queer-themed narratives, the film explores traditional perceptions of homosexuality as an unnatural and deviant force. Its producer Christine Vachon has since produced all of Haynes’ feature films.
Haynes’ greatest commercial success to date has come with Far From Heaven (2002), a 1950s melodrama about a housewife Cathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore) who discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is secretly gay. Inspired by the films of Douglas Sirk, it features the stylised mise-en-scene, colours, costumes, cinematography and lighting of Sirkian melodrama.
Openly gay, Haynes’ films are preoccupied with ideas of sexuality as a disruptive force. In their worlds, artists are the ultimate subversive force. This makes it hardly surprising that he has frequently portrayed artists and musicians in an unconventional fashion, including his fictionalised account of the life and legend of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, where characters based on the musician were portrayed by six actors. The movie was approved by Dylan himself.
As well as his unusual approach to storytelling, Haynes has frequently appropriated cinematic styles, including extensively referencing sixties art-house cinema for I’m Not There, as well as utilising the documentary form in Poison. In Superstar, Haynes managed to showcase hus technical skills, using slow zooms and a tighter and tighter view to accentuate the tension of scenes between characters; effectively creating emotion in characters ‘played’ by dolls. Haynes has also used the close- up shot frequently to accentuate emotion.
After a seven year break, critics are highly anticipating Carol. Currently shooting in Ohio and starring Cate Blanchett, Kyle Chandler, Rooney Mara and Sarah Paulson, it’s based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, ‘The Price of Salt.’
8. Noah Baumbach
Born in New York, Baumbach’s writing and directing debut, Kicking and Screaming was a comedy about four young graduates which premiered at the New York Film Festival. Several other comedies followed before the semi-autobiographical The Squid and The Whale, inspired by his parents’ divorce. This went on to win 2 awards at Sundance and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The hallmark of Baumbach’s films is of intimate, low- budget movies focused on relationships, as well as coming of age stories.
In September 2013 it was reported that Baumbach was secretly working at Dreamworks on Flawed Dogs, an adaptation of work by the cartoonist and author Berkley Breathed. This ‘secrecy’ is common occurrence in productions by the talented indie film-maker over the past number of years; his involvement as director of Frances Ha was revealed just before its premiere at Telluride. Seen as a stylistic departure from his other movies, Frances Ha draws comparison with Woody Allen’s Manhattan, as well as with the film-making styles of Jim Jarmusch and Francois Truffaut.
The director compares his film-making process to that of a student film, saying that passers-by in New York would scarcely have known that Frances Ha (a charming black and white comedy written with and starring his wife Greta Gerwig) was shooting. His cinematographer used a Canon 5D camera and Baumbach embraced the grainy mistakes and the notorious difficulty in focussing it. Yet behind the low key exterior, Baumbach is a fastidious director who expects his actors to stick to the lines given and famously shoots 30-70 takes of each shot.
7. Sofia CoppolaShe may have a famous name, but the newly announced director of The Little Mermaid ( apparently set to be a live action animation) doesn’t work with big budgets or within the studio system. Lost in Translation, for which she won an Academy Award for best screenplay, was made on a budget of $4million; even the flashier The Bling Ring had a modest budget of $20million.
Coppola’s films are known more for their character observations than narrative progressions, often featuring characters who are isolated from the world. Locations define their lives; in Lost in Translation, hotel rooms emphasise loneliness, while Coppola was granted access to film in Versailles for Marie Antoinette. Her editing style and cinematography further encourages the viewer to ‘regard’ and contemplate her characters. Features are shot on an intimate scale, with a preference for film ( The Bling Ring was Coppola’s first digital feature). Coppola frequently uses handheld cameras and shoots using available light where possible.
As well as being an Oscar winner for Best Screenplay, Coppola was the first American woman nominated for the best director award, in 2004. She is an example to female film makers, frequently casting former child actors in leading , well developed female roles. Importantly, she makes the films she wants to make, stating that the ‘obnoxious’ The Bling Ring was a welcome change after the slow paced, Somewhere.
6. Terry GilliamBeginning as an animator and later a full member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Terry Gilliam used the time between Life of Brian in 1979 and The Meaning of Life in 1983 to become a screenwriter and director. Initially, he says, he thought of his films in terms of trilogies. His self-penned Trilogy of Imagination about “the ages of man” consist of Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and depict the need to escape from our ordered society using whatever means possible.
Gilliam’s 1990s Trilogy of Americana (The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), based on scripts by others, were less fantastical than the previous trilogy, but still showed examples of his surreal film-making style. The distinctive photography achieved by Gilliam and his long term director of photography Nicola Pecorini creates an unnerving atmosphere of psychological and society imbalance. His unusual camera angles, including low and high angle shots and Dutch angles, as well as the extremely deep focus achieved by using rectilinear ultra wide angle lenses on almost all of his films, further increase this hallucinatory effect.
Gilliam’s latest movie, The Zero Theorem, is a sci- fi fantasy starring Christoph Waltz and Melanie Thierry which has received mixed reviews from critics, although as one commented, at least it’s made in his own way.