First things first: Why are you angry?
KELLEY: I'm angry for a lot of reasons. I'm pissed that good films can't get distributors because they don't have stars. I am angry that all sorts of Hollywood 5 and 10 million dollar pictures are called "independent" when they're not. I'm angry because a lot of doors have been closed to Real Independent Filmmakers and very few filmmakers seem to care. I see filmmakers give their movies to distributors for nothing, no advance. If you don't get an advance you'll probably never see any money!
I see too many people wanting to be filmmakers for the wrong reasons, to make lots of money and to be famous. And filmmakers aren’t working together to help each other. So many independent filmmakers from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were going to change the system, and now they are part of it. They are more interested in money and being critical darlings then fighting the system the way they once were. They have been sucked in to the system and most went down without a fight.
What's wrong with independent film today?
KELLEY: The independent film industry is no longer even remotely independent. It's been mainstreamed by Hollywood and is now simply another over-hyped product. Like commercial radio, pop music and Starbucks coffee, the industry has become a homogenized mess of conglomerates owned by a handful of extremely powerful corporations. It begs the question: Independent from what? We need to take the word "Independent" back!
Indie has become a marketing phrase. I have a tough time sitting through a ten million dollar "indie" movie. I want people to recognize that "indie" doesn't mean stars and all of that other crap. WE are Independent Filmmakers and WE make movies whether WE have a deal or not. I want to see more theaters and media art centers providing places for us to show our work, instead of just giving us lip service about how they support independent film. I am fed up with these "independent" film festivals that show all these movies with big names in them.
Real Independent Films are still being made; they just don’t have access to audiences. I always say that independent filmmaking is a live and well, it’s independent distribution that is dead. You have to play by the industry’s rules to get your film seen if you want a decent sized audience.
I opt to do things differently. Like early punk bands, we have to find our audiences and cultivate them. That’s why I spend half the year on the road touring and showing my films.
I've told filmmakers forever to never put their films on credit cards. Give me your best argument against that habit.
KELLEY: I’ll use my own experience for this one.
I spent a ton of money on my first feature, Birddog. A lot of people told me they would help me get distribution when I made my first feature. I believed them and I probably shouldn't have. I was the Sound Designer on films like Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, Far From Heaven and Finding Forrester. I had my "indie street cred" but that didn't seem to matter ultimately. I had a screening for friends in LA and everyone liked the movie, then they told me how hard it was to get a distributor and they all walked away.
No one helped. So I arranged screenings for distributors. I screened in LA, New York, Toronto and London. We also had it at the IFFM. The distributors all said the same thing, "We really like this movie but we can't distribute it because it has no famous stars in it." I told them it was an independent film and they said that was fine, but if you make an "independent" film you still need a big star in it.
Anyway, I ended up owing a ton of money to the IRS... Since all of these people had said they were going to help me find a distributor, I took all of the money I should have paid in taxes and used that to fund the film. When it didn't get picked up ... I still owed the money. It took my lawyer and I seven years of dealing with the IRS to finally get everything straightened out. Ultimately I had to sell my home of twenty years and just about everything I owned. It was hell!
I gambled and I lost. I understand that. I listened to certain people that I shouldn't have trusted. Ultimately it was my fault. I made the decisions and I paid the price. I don't want others to go through what I did.
There is no guarantee you will get a distributor, (if you want one), and most people end up paying off their movies working jobs that they hate at 30% interest.
Don’t use credit cards or go way in to debt; if you do you’ll be one of those people.
What's the smartest thing a filmmaker can do before starting their feature? What's the dumbest?
KELLEY: Spend time in pre-production! Too many filmmakers think if you’re not shooting you’re not making a movie. I spend 3 – 4 months easily in pre-production. I try to work everything out long before I start shooting. I rehearse for weeks, just like I’m doing a play. I want all of the actors to know their parts and their characters long before we start shooting.
I only write for locations I know I can get, and I don’t write scenes I know I can’t shoot, (like car chases).
I continue to write throughout this period as well. On Birddog I started pre-production with draft 11 of my script and still made changes throughout the process. On all of my films I don’t even think about shooting until I have done a ton of drafts. I have people I trust read my scripts and get lots of feedback. Your odds of making a good film increase if you have really worked the script over and over. If you have done the work to have a good script the odds get better that you’ll make a good movie. You can still make a bad movie from a good script though, this isn’t a science.
I think you just really need to take your time in pre-pro, don’t rush it. Since I never have any money, the better organized I am, the more efficiently I work and the smoother my shoots go.
As far as the dumbest, I think that is to hurry up everything so you can start shooting long before you’re ready. And using your credit cards. Using friends who aren’t actors in your films. Your friends aren’t good actors no matter what you think. Get good actors. I think there are lots of dumb things you can do if you don’t take your time.
What's the best advice you ever got about filmmaking?
KELLEY: You need to be a shameless self-promoter and self distribute your work. We always hear those bullshit lines; I make my films by any means necessary! Well why aren't you getting your films out by any means necessary? Why are you sitting on your ass waiting to see if you got in to some film festival? Why aren't you burning DVDs and selling them at screenings? Why aren't you promoting your movie on the Internet?
You gotta get the word out, and you have to do it yourself. It has to do with getting your films seen. If no one sees your movies, how are you going to build an audience? I tour, I teach and I have developed a fan base. One person at a time! Has it been easy? No. It's not supposed to be. At then end of the day all you have is your work and if no one knows about it or you, whose fault is that?
Finally, which current filmmakers (independent or otherwise) inspire you?
KELLEY: I will watch anything that John Sayles does. Same with Jim Jarmusch although I thought that Broken Flowers sucked! I like Danny Boyd’s work, Brian Johnson, Beth Harrington, John deGraff, lots of people that most people have never heard of. Janet McIntyre is a filmmaker to watch, she makes docs.
I watch lots of different types of films so I am inspired by films more than I am by filmmakers. I still try and watch lots of docs and foreign films to get a different point of view of the world.
I actually think I am more inspired by writers and musicians than I am by filmmakers. I am inspired by people who don’t give a shit what others think, they push forward and make the things that they want to make. I like things that are passionate in some way or another.
I don’t have a television, so I read more than most people and I love to visit museums. That is the way I have always been…
Did I answer the question?