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Independent filmmaking? Pick your metaphor. For D.C.-based musician and filmmaker Jonathan Spottiswoode, it’s “building the Pyramids.” You decree that something phenomenal must happen, and somehow you and your group of dedicated cohorts, all of you working for practically nothing, create a monument to your faith. You make something you hope will outlast you all. “I think it’s the closest thing there is to religion these days,” Spottiswoode says.
For Sam Serafy, Spottiswoode’s collaborator on a 30-minute feature called The Gentleman, independent filmmaking is a rude and delicate business, rather like “trying to hold a wedding at Hechinger.” In the midst of the chaotic and the mundane, you try to create something holy. Something that looks vaguely like what you envisioned at the outset, something that approaches art. “It’s a war,” Serafy says. “You’re constantly battling with all this technical stuff and trying to maintain some soul.”
Whatever metaphor they choose, both men acknowledge that a project like theirs is essentially an act of will. The day The Gentleman stopped being a dream and became an often frightening reality was the day Spottiswoode and Serafy put down a rental deposit on the Church Street Theater, where they planned to build their primary set. They hadn’t finished putting together their production team. They hadn’t even started scouting locations, and they didn’t have anywhere near the money they would need. But they had decided their film was going to happen, so they set about making it happen. That first commitment was the key; it established momentum, meant that other elements of the enterprise had to fall into place by dates more or less certain. Church Street was, fairly literally, the point of no return.
The Gentleman actually got its start a little under a year ago, when Serafy and Spottiswoode, who studied filmmaking at American University (AU), found themselves at what they describe as a quintessentially Washingtonian dinner party. The host, a Greek woman, lived in one of those anonymous Cleveland Parkish apartment buildings, and the assembled guests were a United Nations in microcosm: an Englishman (Spottiswoode), a man of mixed British and Egyptian parentage (Serafy), a German woman, her Greek husband, and two Americans (one redheaded, one gay). None had blood ties to the city, and several expected their careers to take them elsewhere before long. The whole evening had that queasy air of dislocation, of detachment and rootlessness, that characterizes so much of Washington. “The city feels like this large airport lounge,” Serafy says. “Everyone’s from somewhere else, and no one’s sure why they’re here. They’re just waiting.”
The talk at this particular dinner party turned to romance, and suddenly Spottiswoode found that he and the hostess, by virtue of their differing opinions on the subject, had become the center of attention. Their banter became verbal sparring, which became genuine anger, and the party ended with a triumphant, bitter joke that left one bewildered, the other brooding. “The evening just by itself seemed to develop into a kind of narrative,” Serafy remembers, “and over the next couple of days, Jonathan and I just looked at each other and said, ‘This is exactly what we’re both looking for.’ ”
Spottiswoode and Serafy had been hunting for a story to tell on film, and one had just fallen into their laps. So they wrote up a screenplay, passed it back and forth until it felt right, read tight. And they set out to make their movie.
They found actors. The two leads have done mostly stage work: Jon Tindle, acclaimed for his performances in Round House’s The Swan and Studio’s Talking Heads, plays Jonathan, the cynical Spottiswoode character, and Carol Monda is the drama-loving hostess, a high-strung, Callaslike creature called Evelyn. Serafy plays himself; Lucy Symons (a stage actress whose day job is as a Washington City Paper receptionist), Michael Sainte-Andress, Jeff MacRedie, and Nick Galifianakis (a USA Today graphics artist with no acting experience) round out the supporting cast.
They enlisted friends from AU’s film program. Deb Martin had worked on “Portuguese Woman,” a music video for Spottiswoode’s band, the Zimmermans, and she had just finished shooting The Perfect Pair, her own short film about a woman’s search for the ultimate pair of boots and what happens when she finds them. Martin signed on as assistant director. Glenn Greenstein, who shot Chris Alistair’s “An Orange Inch of Moon” video with a friend and a single camera, and who recently worked on a reality-based TV pilot called Triple Date, took the line producer’s job, with all its attendant logistical nightmares (though on any independent film, job distinctions tend to get blurred). Spottiswoode, who has three Zimmermans videos and a student Emmy to his credit, shares director’s duties with Serafy, whose “vaguely absurdist” autobiographical feature Watch With Mother has been picked up for distribution in a collection of international shorts.
Together, the four fledgling filmmakers have managed to put together a production crew made up of local veterans who don’t mind working on the cheap. This is where Spottiswoode’s notions about “building the Pyramids” begin to sound like more than just artsy babble. “People have been willing to come work with us for less than what they get paid in the regular market because they love [the craft],” Martin says. “All the film people in this city do horrible industrial jobs”—documentaries, political commercials, in-house corporate videos—“to pay the rent. When they get an opportunity to work on something that has some modicum of artistic sensibility about it, they’re thrilled.”
On the one hand, that’s great. “Our crew is fabulous,” Martin says. “Some of them have been doing this for 20 years.” On the other hand, it has increased the psychological pressure on the creative types. If The Gentleman, which started shooting March 31 and is scheduled to wrap this week, doesn’t turn out to be everything Spottiswoode and Serafy hoped, they’re not the only ones who’ll be disappointed. “It’s no longer a selfish enterprise,” Spottiswoode acknowledges. In a very tangible way, their cinematic experiment has become community property.
And inexpensive labor or no, The Gentleman is one joint asset that hasn’t come cheap. No one seems to want to discuss specific figures, but Martin says the benchmark number for an indie film is around $1,000 per minute of finished footage. “That’s what you never want to spend more than.”
The reality, Greenstein says, is that making movies “costs as much as you have. And then some. When it comes down to it, you can find a way to spend every penny you can dig up. Or you can find shortcuts to compensate for money you don’t have. You change your preferred camera angle so the shot doesn’t include that ugly dumpster you can’t afford to have hauled away.”
And it was ever thus, notes Spottiswoode, even on bigger-budget features. “Sidney Lumet asked Kurosawa why he framed a particular shot a certain way, and Kurosawa’s reply was, ‘Well, if I framed it any more to the left you’d see the Tokyo airport, and any more to the right you’d see the electrical plant. And that wouldn’t be so good in a period piece, now would it?’ ”
The ugly truth, Spottiswoode says, is that The Gentleman is already over budget, and there’s still plenty of post-production work left to do. Spottiswoode and Serafy say they haven’t been financing the project on their credit cards, and they don’t intend to start, which means more fund-raising. As it is, the four principals barely have enough energy to breathe.
“We’re zombies,” Serafy says. “It’s such hard work; it really takes everything out of you.”
Martin concurs. “You don’t sleep,” she says. “If you’re not on the set, you’re worrying about what’s going to happen on the set the next day, or wondering if you got that exposure. And if you finally do sleep, you’re dreaming about it. I actually dreamed last night that we didn’t have the right color chair covers for the dining-room scene. This was my nightmare.”
“You expect to get sick,” Martin continues. “You expect to break down at some point. But you love it.”
And when you’re done shooting? When the film’s in the can, the crew dispersed, the actors gone on to other projects or back to their day jobs?
“You spend the first week sleeping,” Martin says, “and the second week wondering why you’re still alive. Because there’s no reason for your life anymore; you’re not getting up to work on the film.”
“I for one will welcome this postpartum depression,” Spottiswoode cracks. “I will embrace it.” And then he and Serafy will settle into an editing room, splice their raw footage together, and make a film. They will submit it to various festivals, hoping someone will notice. Maybe it’ll be their El Mariachi—a sort of cinematic calling card that inspires backers to underwrite a bigger project.
“Although we hope it’s better than that,” Spottiswoode says.
“We’ve always approached this film as something we hope we’ll be pleased with in our overall body of work 20 years from now,” Serafy says. “Something with a shelf life.”
And of course, no one would complain if The Gentleman turned an actual profit.
“Sure,” Spottiswoode says. “We’re hoping somebody gets something out of this.” CP