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allison anders

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A graduate of UCLA's film school, Allison Anders has directed several independent films, including "Gas, Food, Lodging" (1992) "Ma Vida Loca" (1994), and this year's "Things Behind the Sun." In this interview, Anders says that the success of independent hits such as Miramax's "Pulp Fiction" (1994) upped the ante for other indie producers, putting pressure on them to score big at the box office. She also says that the popularity of digital filmmaking may make it easier for newcomers and independent producers to join the industry.

This interview was conducted in July 2001.

What drew you to the film business?

I think when I got drawn to film, I didn't know it was a business. I mean, like most filmmakers, I probably saw more films than a lot of people when I was a kid. But I watched them on TV as well. I was no purist about it. I spent lots of time in movie theaters, but I also watched a lot of films on TV. Like, I saw, very formidable movie, for me. I actually saw on TV, "A Stolen Life" with Bette Davis, and it turns out years later that it's, like, the first film she produced for herself. And you know, it's interesting when you find out later. And "Citizen Kane" I saw, and searched for that movie again for years and years as a kid, but of course before I knew that it was any big deal.

But what really happened was that when I was, oh, in my early 20s, I got very interested in Wim Wenders' films. And that kind of... He was the first real inspiration, where I thought, "Oh, you can do that? You can make movies like that?" It was just, also using kind of pop music, and as part of people's lives, as a texture of their lives, and not to just signify an era. ...

I was interested in the pace of his movies -- very interested in that -- how they took their time, and not necessarily a whole lot was said. ...You know, kind of going both ways. I don't know. It was just, like, there was something about his work that was very natural, and felt like real life to me. So that was a big inspiration. And I was already preparing my requirements that I needed to apply to go to UCLA Film School at that point. ...

Did there come a moment when you knew that this was the career you would always have?

Yes. I think it was making my first movie at UCLA. That was definitely... I made my first little Super-8 16-millimeter sound movie, which Wim actually came to UCLA and saw, which was incredible to think that he actually came. And he gave me feedback on the script. It was, like, amazing.

And when I made the first movie, I was, like, "Oh my God, this is pure torture." I went through this process of having moments of just watching the sound tape come on to the floor in the transfer room, and me just going, "I hate this. I'm never making another movie." But then once I got through it, you know, and the movie was done, I remember having to... in UCLA at the time, you had to sit and present your film, and take criticism from whoever felt like giving it. You had to stand up there and just take it. It was a terrifying experience, and I just was not scared. I was, like, "You know what? I don't care. I don't care if nobody likes it. I really like this movie."

And I was so satisfied with the product and with the process -- more with the process. I think that's the important part; even as difficult as it had, as stressful as it had gotten at a few points, I just really loved the process.

And fortunately for me, people liked the movie. Even the really tough professor that just hated anything arty or woman-centered, or anything like that, and he said, "I hate to say it, but God, I really like this movie." So I saw him not too long ago, and I reminded him that that was, like, a great encouragement that he had actually given me.

I was kind of hooked after that. And it never occurred to me that I wouldn't make movies, never occurred to me to do anything else, to pursue anything else. I think that in some way, I'll always keep doing something like this. I mean, I don't know. It's interesting. I also don't have my identity tied up with it, though. In other words, if it was no longer something that I love doing, if I wasn't getting what I wanted to out of it ... I'd be just as happy being a midwife. That's my ideal job.

Was your tending to work outside of the studio system a choice you made? Is that how your career took the kind of path it did?

It's so funny, because when you asked about the film business, you know ... there's a weird part of me that still doesn't acknowledge that it's a business. ... I think that in order to make the films that I make, I have to not think about it that way. I was always a little mercenary. With my first feature movie, ["Border Radio"], I got people attached to the movie [who], while they were not big stars, were people that could get an audience out to see it. They were people that could get us local press. They were people that could get a record deal set up, which actually helped us finish the film. ... And I still, you know, think in terms of things like that, but certainly not the way that the studios think. ...

When you asked about the film business, you know ... there's a weird part of me that still doesn't acknowledge that it's a business. ... It's never occurred to me I could make a dime, but money was never very important to me anyway.

It occurred to me last year that I actually achieved what I always wanted. I wanted a career like Wim Wenders. He was my hero. That was my ideal of what being a success would be, you know, that you got to go to film festivals, and people talked about your work, and you got to make the films you wanted to make, and you got to put cool music in movies. That was really all that I ever wanted. ... So in a weird way, I achieved what I wanted to.

But it's hard to remember that in the industry we work in. And I would see over the years if Wim would get discouraged, or any of my heroes, you know, by the way that the industry works, I would think, well, why do they care? They're, like, art filmmakers. ... And now, of course, I see how it works on you. ... It's interesting. You tend to forget that you actually, you know, this is the career you wanted. It's never occurred to me I could make a dime, but money was never very important to me anyway. ...

What do you think of the state of Hollywood movies today?

It's really strange. I was just talking with my friend Alex Rockwell today, as we often commiserate. (We worked on a film together, "Four Rooms," with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. ... We kind of started at the same time ... in the late 1980s. We met up with our films at Sundance.) ... I was just talking about the box office for one thing, the whole box office thing, and how that's reported every Monday. And I was, like, this is so ridiculous.

You know, when we started out, we didn't have to compete with that. ... Indie films didn't have to compete with the top five box office winners. And it's made it really difficult for indies to survive, because now the local anchorwoman's going, "Oh, I haven't seen any of those on the top five. I better get out there and see those five movies." That's what she's going to see. And then some guy in Idaho's going "Well, God, what was the winner this weekend? Well, I better go see the winner." Which is, like, what is that? ... I consider it a little scary, a bit fascist, really, how it's kind of dictating.

And I was telling Alex that was the most brilliant thing they ever did, to report the box office to the public. It used to be that it was only reported to the trades. Nobody cared. That wasn't what determined what movies people went to see. I said that was really the most brilliant thing, really. It was brilliant at keeping everybody else out. And I think that indies have really... There's no question that we've suffered at the movie theaters.

What do you think the forces are that are driving the changes?

I have no idea. I imagine that it's really marketing, corporations. ... It all seems very corporate-driven, you know, just the same as with the music world. And the scary thing about that for me is that there's no quality control. There's no room for anybody else to compete. There's no moral police.

I was just with my kids in the car today, two of my kids, and I get in the car ... and they've got some rap thing on, Top 40 radio station, with this guy talking about his 9-millimeter gun. And I turned it off. I was, like, why do they keep promoting only this? ... The thing that's so nihilistic about it all is that I feel like ... people will sell anything. They have no interest in what the content is. They'll really sell anything as long as it sells.

And that's what bothered me about hearing this song. It bothers me that nobody can get on the radio, but this can get on the radio. They've made it so much more impossible for independents to ever get on the radio. And I feel a very similar kind of connection. ...

It's no secret that ... that entertainment, as much as it's pretended to be very liberal, has been a very capitalist-driven kind of business. ...

In addition to having to compete at the box office, have you seen any other dramatic changes in the last 10 years or so? ...

Well, I think that the biggest thing was when "Pulp Fiction" had the outrageously good opening box office weekend -- which could just be something good for a filmmaker, you know, that's how we all saw it -- and presumed that it was something good for ourselves as well. But in fact, that victory was sort of the beginning of the end for the rest of us, because very few indie films can compete in that same kind of a way.

But [independent companies] always wanted that kind of success. And so they set out to duplicate that kind of success. And I think that that's when it really became a problem. It became a problem for character-driven stuff that takes a long time. People need to wait, you know. They don't go right away to see stuff like that, if it's non-genre, kind of a slow-moving tale with no violence, and not with big stars.

It takes time for people to discover those movies. And that became impossible. It's impossible now. It really is impossible for films like that to be discovered now. It used to be that a critic would write something wonderful about your movie that would get people out to the movie theaters to see your film. And the movie theaters themselves were not so corporately owned that they had to... They could let you have time.

Is the audience to blame for the state of movies today, or do you think it's the studios?

... I don't think that audiences are the problem. I really do believe that corporations have really found a way, that nothing is ever enough. No success is ever enough. It used to be that our little successes were just fine. We made our money back. I've never not made my money back for distributors. So they made their money back, and that was fine. They made back what they put in and maybe a little bit more. They were happy with that.

But they're obviously not happy with that any more. And they're not autonomous any more either, the independent film companies. They're all owned by bigger studios. And so that kind of put an end to the dream that we had in the early 1990s.

Miraculously, these movies still get made. But distributing them has become more and more difficult. ... You still get the movies made. A filmmaker can always scrape up money to do a movie. The passion drives it. And you'll get the money. Money's the easiest thing. But the hardest thing is finding a way for people to see your movie.

Have you noticed a change in the atmosphere in town or the way that business is being conducted since these big corporations took over?

I've done every kind of financing from German TV money in the late 1980s, which was funding a lot of the independents then. I've kind of gone through the whole history of the independent film financing experience. ... I went through HBO. I went through the studio system. It's incredible, because now you really have to have huge stars. I mean huge, for, like, a $2 million movie. You're like, "Well, I'm not getting paid anything. Why is this? For a $2 million movie, this person is not bankable enough?" It's really crazy.

And it's not going to get people to see the movie any more. That's just the thing. It's not going to get people out to the theaters. ... But they have to be big stars for these independents now, which is really strange. ... And unfortunately for women, this is very difficult, because most female stars are not bankable in the same way that men are. So if your protagonist is a woman, and if she happens to be over 30, you got a long battle ahead, because most women over 35 are not bankable. Hollywood's tossed them out at that point, most of them. ... It's really difficult.

Do you think the town has gotten meaner?

Oh, I think they were always mean. I think there's been meanness from the very beginning. ... I just saw something on Jack Warner -- whoa, scary, scary person, mean person, mean person. So I think they've always been mean. ...

The problem is that, when you were dealing with mean bastards like that back then, at least you were dealing with them. And the difference now is that it's, like, a big bunch of guys you're never going to see sitting at a desk. I don't know, it just reminds me of some big corporate meeting somewhere where you're never going to know who these people even are that are controlling your destiny, and that are controlling the movies that everyone goes to see.

I don't even know who those people are. I think that in the earlier days, you would have known who your enemy was. But nowadays, I don't think you know, really. I think that must be true in the music world as well.

Why are movies important to you?

I don't know that movies are important. But I know that stories are important. Movies may disappear. They've only been around, for God's sake, for the last hundred years. ... I think that it's the need to tell stories, and that people need to be told stories. It's the old sitting around the fire, you know. ... And I don't think they really care how they get them either, but people really need them. And they'll either get them through movies or they get them a lot through TV now, which I think is great also. They'll be getting them through the Internet and any way that they can get them in the future.

I think there's some great hope, actually, for the new generation, because I really expect that technological inventions are going to help tremendously. And I don't just mean getting a digital camera. Once again, I always feel, like making the film is not really that difficult. If you want, if you've got the passion to make a film, you can make a film. So the fact with digital cameras and stuff like that, I mean, all the better. You can make your character-driven stuff. You can make your personal weird-ass whatever you want to do. You can really go make that now on very little money. ...

When I think about the huge places we used to have to edit in, rooms and rooms of footage, and, and now you're sitting at a computer doing that. It's incredible, in a little tiny corner of your room. And kids can be doing that in their dorm. It's amazing, the changes. And that's fantastic.

But the big thing is how they're going to get audiences to see those movies. And I'm really hoping that the Internet or different kinds of things ... maybe broadband cable, all kinds of things I think that are coming may really help that. I think that if people can get access to ways to distribute their work, that's the key, really.

So you have some hope for the future of movies?

I do, because people will always have to tell stories, and people will always want to hear them, no matter what. ...

And I kind of feel like it'll go in a different direction for young women filmmakers, black filmmakers. When I was at Sundance this past year, I was talking to Sherman Alexie, the American Indian writer and filmmaker. He just shot a film on digital. I was talking about my experience working on digital, which I loved. And I said ... I know that women, and Indians, and blacks, and Mexicans -- we all helped contribute to the beginning, to the birth of motion pictures, but we were cut out so early. Once it became a business ... Once MGM became a studio, they really got rid of all of us. And so film always felt to me like a very borrowed medium.

It was a very strange thing. It always felt like it belonged to someone else, and I was just getting to use it for a while. Whereas with digital, when I used a digital camera -- and this was not me shooting it, because I'm hopeless, a hopeless photographer -- I really felt, like, I understood something. ... I understood the language of the camera. I really did. I felt like I understood the medium, and that it was accessible to me, and that it was mine, that I could own part of this, whereas [with] film, I always felt like I was shut out. And [Sherman Alexie] said to me, he goes, "Digital is the freeing device for women and brown people." So I think it's really true. I think there's something about it ... I'm excited about it. And it's not just because it's cheap and easy. It's really the idea that nobody is telling us we can't use it.

What do you think they do for the audience?

... I think that films should not be a rollercoaster ride. ... That's for amusement parks. But what films should really do, even the most commercial films, should make you question something. ... The whole purpose of going into that darkened theater and taking those images in and taking the music in, the sound and the actors, is to really reflect on something personal for yourself. You should come out of there having asked one question. Not to have anything answered, but to just go, or to identify with one thing in it.

For example, in "The Fast and the Furious," I didn't even know what race those people were. ... Were they Mexican-Americans, were they Italians, what were those people? I knew that they were living in Echo Park, because I shot a movie there. But I couldn't even figure out who these people were. I had absolutely no connection. And I don't think that there was anything really to connect to. It really was a rollercoaster ride. It was loud and it almost gave me a heart attack a couple of times. ...

I think that big-budget movies should give you more than that. If they're spending that much, and I'm making somebody rich, they should make me ask one question. It used to be that way, you know. Hitchcock's movies were commercial. They made me ask a question or two, and continue creating meaning for me years and years later. So I don't see why we have to throw that out. I think that there's room for it all. ...

What do you think about the future of filmmaking?

Well, I'll tell you. My experience working with digital was threefold. The first thing was that it cut a third of my budget right there, by going digital as opposed to film. The other thing was this access to the language, where I once again felt like it was my medium and not a borrowed medium.

The other thing was the incredible flexibility I had. It changed performances. I have the best performances. I always tend to work with really great actors anyway, but the performances in this particular film are tremendously superior to work that I've been able to do before. Partly I've learned more, but also I think it was because there was so little... It was less equipment in the room; it was less interference with them. They were able to create very intimate environments. The tapes run longer. It was interesting working that way.

And actors love digital. I thought that the actors were going to walk into the room and go, "What the hell is that? That's the camera?" ... But of course, that didn't happen. Actors love it, because there's less space that the camera is taking up. Less equipment in the room and more time for them to stay in character before there's a big change. So for actors, it's fantastic. I want to continue working in digital. I don't really see any reason to move back to film. I might alternate back and forth, but I really love working in it.

And I really think that those kinds of things, the flexibility of the camera and the equipment, [will] really change things a lot. I think it makes for better storytelling, actually. And because, ironically, I think it's less techie than film, which is so weird to me. I thought it was just be the opposite, especially when I went to do my post-effects. I mean, those guys all came from Industrial Light and Magic that I worked with ... And it was quite a different experience, color-timing my movie with this kid that looked like he was in an indie rock band, as opposed to the old men who had worked with, like, John Ford and Hitchcock. When I timed my first color movie, [they] were looking around, like, well, when does the director get here, because I was a woman.

It was a very different experience. ... I think you're more in control. You could learn Final Cut Pro yourself and be editing half the time. So I just think it puts more in the filmmaker's hands. It's not some mysterious kind of network that you have to involve yourself in. You can really make your own destiny.

Do you think that telling a good story will ultimately win out?

Well, I'll tell you. I think down the line, ten years from now, probably more people will remember good stories than they're going to remember ... this weekend's box office winner. They're not going to go, "Oh, I remember when 'Legally Blonde' was the box office winner." They're not going to remember that. They're going to remember some story that really meant something to them.

But I have to say, I do have my dire moments where I'm, like, "Why does this continue... How is this ever going to get any better?" I really think it's up to young people to really start a revolution. I'll back it up. I'm a little too old to start a revolution at this point. And it really shouldn't be people my age; it really should be younger people. ...

I feel like there should be some really renegade young filmmakers out there, and, like I say, I will totally back them up 100 percent. But it really has to come from young filmmakers. And I think we did that in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. ... In film school, I remember going, "God, the French New Wave and New German Cinema -- why can't we have a film movement? I want a film movement, too."

And then one day I woke up and I was part of it; I was at the forefront. And that was pretty exciting. We went for a really long time. Most of these movements only last five years. Any great art or pop culture movement lasts about five years. We lasted over ten. So it's time for somebody new to shake it up, really.

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