NINETY DAYS LATER: EDDY VON MUELLER AND EVAN LIEBERMAN Image

How have things been since “The Lady from Sockholm” premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival?

Evan Lieberman: It’s played in a lot of film festivals.

Eddy Von Mueller: It’s actually getting very wide play.

EL: It seems to be getting a very, very strong, positive response.

EM: It won Best Animated Film at a festival, which is kind of infuriating to me because I study animation, and it’s—.

EL: It’s not animated, but people don’t really know how to deal with a puppet film.

EM: We’re gonna tell everybody that they’re digital socks, so that maybe we can get a job at Disney-Pixar.

The film has hit ten festivals now?

EL: Yes, ten film fests—at least. It’s funny; the only way Eddy and I know about the film, frankly, is through the web site.

EM: We hear about it on the street.

EL: Yeah, then people will tell us things.

EM: Usually, independent films exploit, as much and possible, cast and crew to help pimp the project, but not in this particular case. On a big film, you have companies and agencies whose sole job is marketing and promotion. At the small end, it’s important that everybody—even people who were just day-players or minimally involved—have a sense of ownership on a project. They should, because you’re not compensating the crew the way you would on a full-scale shoot. Everybody who feels excited and part of the film’s collaborative community know people all over. I had a student approach me who had no relation to the film at all, but who happened to be from the town in Indiana where one of the festivals was that it played at, and those networks…can get more people enthusiastic in more places, and that can only be good in a film.

EL: We hear what’s going on with the film entirely second-hand. I can’t imagine that it won’t find distribution. There’s a good audience for the project. Kids have responded to it very strongly. I have cousins who watch it over and over and over again. They know all the dialogue and speculate on the other aspects of the characters’ lives. To me, this shows a strong potential for distribution in the younger audience market.

EM: The next step is stepping out of the festival circuit and towards the “Kid Pic” market, to embracing the playful, kid-friendly, family aspect of the film as we move out of the round of festivals.

EL: Lynn is doing a tremendous getting it out to festivals.

EM: Her approach seems thus far to have been very successful. Maybe she’s realized our brand of pants-less anarchy is not what she wants in promoting it. (some more laughter). From the standpoint of talking to other filmmakers…I think it’s important for them to understand that when someone bankrolls your movie, it’s not your movie anymore. It’s their movie.

EL: They determine how much you’re going to be involved. In the case of “Stomp! Shout! Scream!” for me, I’m much more involved. Even though I’m a producer and director of photography and not the director, Jay has….because it’s his show, Jay has kept me very involved at every point. It’s really at the desire, at the volition of….

EM: The mercy of the money—wherever it came from.

Speaking of Jay Edwards, when I talked to him, he had mentioned that prior to meeting you, he basically only knew of TV people and no film people. How did it happen, what was the context?

EL: Jay and I were introduced by Arma Benoit. She had been friends with Jay for years and had been my student at Georgia State. I had shot a film that Arma made about a woman’s unusual relationship with her dogs…not unusual in that sense. She knew a lot about big-budget, commercial and music video production but didn’t know how to make a full feature film on the kind of budget she would normally use for thirty seconds. The person who she knew who knew most about this was me. I had done it several times, and I knew about low-budget, independent production. She also knew that I loved these old B-movies. She introduced me to Jay and we hit it off very well. We have a shared love of beach party movies, monster movies, of all those kinds of genre films that are often looked down on. One of the things that’s true—I think of Eddy as well—is that we love these movies not looking down on them, not because “they’re so bad they’re good”…but because there’s a kind of innocence and….

EM: Authenticity.

EL: Yes, authenticity is a good word. Jay and I also shared this sensibility of low-budget, independent filmmaking: shooting fast, shooting cheap, not worrying about every detail. The ironic thing is we shot fast, cheap, and out of control basically. On the other hand, the finished product looks very, very professional.

EM: Jay made contacts with people who actually knew what they were doing, and I think it’s why it doesn’t look fast, cheap, and out of control. This is also true of a lot of the kind of low-budget, schlocky stuff that Jay loves. The good exploitation films are made people who got extremely lucky or people who happened to know something about what they’re doing. If you have competent, experienced people, it doesn’t matter what your budget is—you can still come out looking completely professional.

EL: In Jay’s case, he had a very strong vision of what he wanted and was able to communicate that vision very clearly. I believe the film looks like what he wanted because he was able to tell me and the other people around us what he thought this was gonna look like.

From your experiences with on various projects, is translating a screenplay to the filming process one of the hardest aspects of filmmaking? To have to be able to improvise and maybe have to convince people that “no, it’s okay to change something”?

EM: Ideally, what you want is a crew and a cast that knows enough about what they’re doing or that trusts you and trusts the vision of the project that you don’t stop to say why. The worst days are when you have to stop production and start justifying. You start second-guessing yourself; everything slows down. On a big show, if I’m paying somebody union-scale—$900 a day or whatever—I expect them to drop down and give me twenty pushups if that’s what I want. They’re going to do it because they’re getting paid enough to make it worth their while. On a little show, what the crew really wants is a feeling that we know what we’re looking for, and we have faith that they’ll be able to give it to us. The contract becomes one of communication. I’m gonna communicate to you what I’m looking for, and then I’m gonna walk away, and you guys are gonna do it. The puppeteers went with that, and the lighting crew went with it.

EL: Oh yeah, absolutely.

EM: But you’ve got three layers of translation there. There’s the script, and then you break the script into shots, but those shots may not be the ones you take.

EL: They’re your ideal shots because you have to have somewhere to start, but it’s not where you end up…and that has to be okay. If you have enough money, you could draw a picture like Steven Spielberg does, or have a picture drawn, and do that picture. But that takes a lot of money and a lot of time. Generally, the way we’re working—and this true in the local context—we don’t have that luxury. What you think you can do, all of a sudden when you’re in the real space, it’s very often not possible; and therefore, you improvise. You keep a picture in your mind of what it all should be, but there’s a lot of flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants even in the most well-planned low budget film. A lot of times you just get a wild idea, and you go with it. That to me is the best: when you get an idea, and you’re sitting there at the camera, and you go “I got it; let’s do it.”

EM: I’m a little different there, but you’re right, it is a lot seat-of-the-pants-flying. When it comes to your crew and cast, you want people who don’t have any fear of that kind of flying. Some people just do not have an improvisational mindset, and they get afraid, and that fear turns into pessimism.

EL: And anxiety.

EM: And that pessimism can be contagious on a set.

EL: Yes, this is what cannot be on a low-budget movie set. There can be no pessimism, because that pessimism is viral. People pick it up and you have a disaster.

EM: If I’m somebody who’s volunteered for eats to carry apple boxes on a set, and I see a guy who may have no more experience than me but I think he has a lot more experience than me…if I see a grip saying, “ah geez; we’re never gonna get to dinner,” and they’re pessimistic, I become pessimistic. After a while, a little cloud starts to spread out. Everyone is going to model themselves on the people they think are experienced, just like grips don’t wear pants. They all wear shorts, `cause they go to a set, and they see the more experienced grips only wearing shorts.

The cargo shorts with lots of pockets?

EM: Yes. They all wear cargo shorts. This applies all the way up the mode-of-production hierarchy. In the same way morale can sink a company or a military campaign, morale sinks films all the time.

EL: At the low-budget end, sometimes it’s all you got.

EM: Yeah, you’re running on morale.

EL: On Jay’s movie, the morale was generally quite high. Part of it was that we were all in Florida at the beach for a lot of it, and people were really happy to be there…and didn’t have anything else to do. Melissa Sandefur, the wardrobe/make-up person, slept three hours on Jay’s movie for the second week. She would stay up all night partying and work all day, never a bad attitude.

EM: The message in the end is: “There is no ‘I’ in independent film…except for the first letter…after the initial ‘I,’ there is no ‘I’ in independent film.”

(we all laugh).

Or you could say, “there is no ‘I’ in low-budget film.”

EM: No, you can’t say that actually. Or, “paracinema.”

EL: (laughing) No, there’s an “i” in “paracinema” as well. “I’s” all around.

Can you talk about Fake Wood Wallpaper?

EL: Hugh is phenomenal.

EM: We like Hugh.

EL: Hugh was not one of my students at Georgia State, but several of those guys were my students, particularly Mike Brune, who was an outstanding student and an outstanding guy. He is in some ways an all star—several of them too…they do a lot of different things. On “Kathy T” I got to know Adam Pinney, who is also a tremendous guy. He was a great help and always focused, always doing his job.

EM: I’ll tell you what I think of Fake Wood Wallpaper. They are an example of film education working, because these are guys who—and I’m not gonna claim any credit for it, it may not come from us at all—manage to learn a lot about film and not stop liking film. A lot of times when you study film, you stop liking it. They carried the experience of learning a lot about film into filmmaking…I think they did it the right way. They started out helping out and assembled the skill set; and I think of them as strong, creative, crew-friendly sorts of personalities.

EL: They’re great.

EM: Mike is a very, very good actor…good grip.

Where do you see the Atlanta’s film scene going?

EL: I’m more optimistic at this point than I have been in a long, long time. There are talented people here doing interesting stuff. I think everyone always wishes there was some greater sense of community. It’s nice but not necessary for there to be a greater sense of community. What matters is that there are people here with ideas, and that there’s capital…

EM: Capital.

EL: …Of some kind dedicated to the production of movies. The quality of films being made here in recent years is much higher than what we’ve been seeing. We just have to all restrain from moving to Los Angeles and New York the way the actors all do—and I can’t blame them.

EM: So many of them come right back. Atlanta’s problem has never been a dearth of talent. It’s a problem of community because there isn’t a more cohesive sense of a film scene. It’s more like “scenes”…little pockets of people doing interesting stuff. The future of the Atlanta independent film community is going to depend on things that have nothing whatsoever to do with Atlanta or its community. It’s gonna have to do with the way things are headed in terms new means of delivering content to people.

EL: Yes.

EM: It’s going to have to do with how much of the ever-expanding cable bandwidth and ever-expanding DVD market is gonna be open to films that come from a context outside of Los Angeles and New York. There’s a reason why all the actors go to LA or New York. The movies that get positioned best—whether for the home market or the cable market or any other international, domestic theatrical—and therefore best capitalized, are films that come from those contexts. It’s an exciting time in independent film. Every day there are mini-revolutions going on in where movies come from, where people get their movies. If that continues, then the future is… brightish.

EL: The person whose work I’m most excited about is not a filmmaker at all, but is Chris Klaus. He is Kaneva Platform, an internet-based content delivery system that acts as a distributor for films, video games, and music—it could be anything. What it does is provide an outlet for product, to use an all-encompassing word which I don’t usually like, to get out to people who want to see independent films, who want to play maybe lesser-known video games, who want to develop video games. Chris is making a game engine available on Kineva so that people could write their own games.

EM: These new mechanisms of content delivery have definitely demonstrated that, to some extent, culture is about distribution…creating links between cultural producers and cultural consumers. The internet has definitely proven that there’s an audience for every damn thing. Whatever your predilection is as a filmmaker, as the technologies and modes of delivery emerge …if you want to do abstract, feminist, animations with meat…you’ll be able to find your consumer. It may be that the future of independent cinema isn’t in the hands of independent filmmakers at all, but in the hands of the people developing this kind of…

EL: New delivery system. I think what Chris is doing with Kaneva is going to change the landscape so radically that it makes it possible for people to make small budgeted films and get them out to people. His revenue model means that the independent filmmaker could actually make money. That’s a new situation.

EM: When you think that fifteen years ago the idea that an American cable channel would be able to produce in the United States animated TV series for grownups and find both an audience and revenue, it would’ve been completely unthinkable. Cartoon Network. What the landscape is going to look like next year, I don’t know.

What’s the story about Atlanta’s almost-film-historical-significance-moment story?

EL: (laughter). Though the historical record is somewhat ambiguous on this subject, there’s been wide speculation with some good evidence that Atlanta was supposed to be the site of the first commercial presentation of motion pictures at the Cotton State’s Exhibition in the summer 1895, roughly six months before the Lumiere screening in Paris. But, Armat and Jenkins, the people who were going to put on the show, had a fire in their hotel room…supposedly that either burned up the projector or burned up their films.

EM: Most likely a boxing picture, wasn’t it? Or a film of a boxing match?

EL: It might have been a boxing match, which would’ve made sense because a lot of the early films were boxing-match films. That was extremely popular. It was maybe the first major genre of cinema. Atlanta could have been the site of the first commercial exploitation of projected motion pictures. The Edison Company had had kinetiscopes working for quite some time, for several years, and so they were making money. But that was never going to be a viable model for commercial exploitation of movies.

EM: The revenue came in too slowly, and the material was too fragile.

EL: Exactly. Armat and Jenkins patents were eventually bought by Edison. It’s another one of those mysterious moments in the history of cinema.

EM: Atlanta has had a number of “almost moments,” and not all of the failures can be blamed on the Teamsters. I don’t think there were Teamsters in Armat and Jenkins’ time.

EL: No, there certainly were not, but there was a time in the late 80s and early 90s when Atlanta was really a center of film production. Hollywood would come here. We had TV shows, television-movies, feature films…although, I still feel that the best feature film ever shot in Atlanta was “Sharky’s Machine.”

EM: Undoubtedly. “Man Hunter.”

EL: But only a small amount, so that’s why it doesn’t count. “Sharky’s Machine” was directed by Burt Reynolds and written by a guy named Bill Diehl.

EM: Starring Rachel Ward and Burt Reynolds.

EL: It was a great, Southern noir-detective film. It had a different feel to it, the kind of feel that you would imagine a regional film could have.

EM: For a number of years, Evan and I have been talking about this idea of “regional cinema.” I have to say it’s one thing I no longer believe…I don’t think that Atlanta will develop a kind of regional cinema. Fine films are being made in Atlanta, but I don’t think you’d look at them and say, “That’s an Atlanta-feeling film.” It would be nice to think that regional, idiomatic vernaculars in cinema could emerge—that would be kinda cool.

EL: Not connected to Atlanta, but we see it somewhat in the work of someone like David Gordon Green. He’s working in the Southern vernacular.

EM: Making cinema, y’all.

Did you always know you were going to grow up to do something related to film or were there phases of wanting to be a meteorologist or secret agent?

EL: Since I was pretty young, I had the idea that this is what I wanted to do. I also wanted to be a musician and a college professor. I never had an idea of “one thing.” Maybe that’s a bad thing. Maybe I would be much further along in one or another career, but I would be less fulfilled.

EM: I wanted to be, from birth, a paleontologist. That was my thing for the longest time. Then I thought I was going to be a cartoonist. So, I guess that’s both related to cinema, since cartoons are in the movies and dinosaurs are too. It’s a complete accident that I even wound up taking film as a graduate program at all. Had things zigged a little bit when they should’ve zagged…the weird thing is that even though I’m a late-comer to cinema, to movies as a career, everything in my life made sense the minute I realized, “oh yeah, I’m supposed to be making movies.” I’ve always loved movies, but I was not up there with….well, actually, we made a lot of super 8 movies.

EL: Yeah, when you’re a kid, you do the normal super 8 movies thing.

EM: I never thought you could do this for a living, and yet here I am.

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