ADVENTURES IN INDEPENDENT FILMMAKING

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					ADVENTURES IN INDEPENDENT FILMMAKING

Mary Blackwood
Co-director, Landlocked Film Festival




I am walking the perimeter of a friend's organic farm not far outside Iowa City. The day is warm
and bright; a soft breeze cavorts amid the alfalfa and clover. The air has a sharp, fresh, clean
edge. We rustle through tall grasses, escorted by dragonflies. The Iowa summer greens are
emerald-deep: towering trees along the creek bed, glossy cornstalks in a nearby field, and grapes
growing wild in the shade. It is truly beautiful, and like every beautiful vista I've ever seen, it
makes me stop and think to myself:

"Hey, this would look great in a movie."

Raised on storytelling, from Tanglewood Tales to Dad’s updated versions of Dracula and
Frankenstein told beside a crackling hearth, I’ve always been spooling my own mini-movies in
my head. While learning 16-millimeter filmmaking at the University of California, San Diego, I
had that same thought when I saw the Anza-Borrego desert (“Hey, this would look great…”) and
wrote a Woody Allen-esque script about the lost thirteenth tribe of Israel. Along with my usual
dedicated sound and grip crew, I had several male friends who looked awesome in beards and
flowing robes and a couple of female friends who looked like biblical Earth mothers. I imagined
a 25-minute epic set against the striking desert backdrop. When I wanted my lead actors to walk
into the frame by climbing a steep hill, and there was no hill steep enough, I had them crouch
down and pretend to be walking up a slope, rising slowly higher and higher as they walked in
place and their heads appeared from behind a dune. They felt like fools but I assured them it
would look convincing on film. And I was right. I have the footage to prove it.

Unfortunately, I met my Waterloo in Anza-Borrego. Inducing thirty people to drive two hours
each way to the desert for four weekends in a row was hard enough, but when they never failed to
stop at Dudley’s Bakery along the route, even though they were supposed to be on camera that
very second, how could I complain since I wasn’t paying them? Sure, I’d already been through
the Dudley’s line in the dawn hour and the bear claws were waiting on location, but this was
before cell phones, so the sun raced across the sky, taking precious daylight with it, while my
actors malingered in the bakery line. Later I told my professor that my friends were getting tired
of acting in my movies and serving as my gofers. He recommended I find some new friends to
exploit.

Perhaps one day I’ll have the nerve to look again at the incomplete footage hibernating in film
canisters in my basement. It remains my only unfinished film; I learned a tough lesson, which is
that a movie set can spin out of control in a heartbeat, so keep it as simple as possible. My next
project was a science fiction short filmed entirely in UCSD’s concrete tunnels within a ten-minute
drive of everyone’s apartments. That one got finished, not without frantic last-minute phone calls
and store runs for extra batteries, yet it was worth the effort because filmmaking can be
enormously gratifying. Creating a movie from little more than exhibitionist friends and thrift-
store costumes is a siren song that tantalizes independent filmmakers everywhere. Robert
Rodriguez, now a top-drawer director, started out a nobody in a dusty town in Mexico. He
inventoried what was available to him: a dog, a guitar, a guy with a rickety old bus. He combined
such assets with imagination and came up with El Mariachi.
Iowa is growing its own crop of independent directors, like Lonnie Schuyler, who looked into the
dark, dank heart of the night woods flanking the Mississippi River and saw something creepy
below the surface, just waiting to emerge from the water, dripping and weed-choked, and grab an
audience by the throat. Schuyler and his crew and actors made the movie by camping out in the
woods, shooting footage at night, and using a generator when lighting effects were needed. The
result of their work is Beneath the Mississippi, a ghostly, grimly gorgeous film that will screen at
Landlocked Film Festival in a couple of weeks.

My mind drifts back to my friend’s farm and its possibilities. It turns out that my friend is an
accomplished equestrian with access to actual horses. My inner storyteller kicks into high gear.
“Hey, what if I want to shoot a western, and I need some horses….”

Now I know where to find them.