Isaak James (center) with sister Eva (right) and co-star & co-producer Whitney Parshall (left) in Provincetown. Photo: Eugene Hernandez
Sure, some folks embrace homegrown when it comes to what they eat and drink, but what about filmmakers seeking success with handcrafted small-scale cinema aimed at niche audiences? With more and more movies being made, the growing national network of local film festivals offers an alternative path.
I was immersed in this year's Sundance Film Festival back in January when I received a Facebook message from a producer touting a new film, with a homegrown pedigree, not playing in Park City. She was pitching By Way of Home, a topical ultra low budget movie about the boomerang generation, or modern 30-somethings who are over-educated and underemployed.
Producer Eva James and her director brother Isaak James have seen a lot of friends hurt by the economy and moving back in with their parents. So they too boomeranged to shoot their new feature film and headed back to Cape Cod to their family home behind their parents' restaurant.
And they're not the only ones taking the local route in trying to build momentum for their new indie movie.
By Way of Home, a four figure budget film that features the producing and directing duo also starring as on screen siblings, and has their own mom and dad playing their parents in the movie. It had its world premiere at the 15th Provincetown International Film Festival last night. Not so many years ago, a premiere anywhere outside of a major American festival like Sundance or SXSW would send the wrong signal to the film business. But now, with filmmakers finding a myriad of ways to get movies to audiences, local festivals can give niche films a much-needed boost.
On the set of By Way of Home.
Set during a desolate Cape Cod winter, By Way of Home tracks the lives of the Massachusetts family as a lost friend returns for a visit. Key scenes were shot right here in Provincetown on the tip of the Cape, so a local debut made perfect sense and gave visiting press and industry a chance to sample the new film.
"I think it's sort of interesting that generally when you think of Cape Cod you think of this beautiful touristed place," Isaak James explained after last night's screening. "There's a whole flip side to that."
The James siblings borrowed a 5D camera and aimed to keep their budget under $1,000 for this feature. Shot mostly in their family home and at local spots, it offers a homegrown authenticity that resonated with Cape Cod residents. Local references in the film added to the enjoyment for the audience.
"It's a fictional story but these characters come from a very real place," Isaak James told to the crowd, which probed the two about the deeper implications of the intimate story.
Bound by their commercial production company Last Ditch Pictures, the siblings said that they could relate to the financial challenges explored in their film. They too often feel like they are just one freelance job away from being in the same situation as their characters, he said. Even so, they tried to harness that energy for their film.
"Although we’ve been known to complain about lack of funding for independent features, we’re reminded that an intimate story with a smaller production footprint always gives us a better film," Isaak James said in a recent Filmmaker Magazine interview. "It’s not just about control, it’s about preserving the sharpness and specificity of our vision."
Provincetown fixture John Waters. Image courtesy of UNIVERSAL / THE KOBAL COLLECTION / GARFUNKEL, HENNY
Festivals like the one here in Provincetown allow attendees to casually mix and mingle with filmmakers in a low-key environment. Harmony Korine, Christine Vachon Todd Haynes and Ed Lachman are among those who will be wandering around town this weekend, as will, of course, filmmaker John Waters, a local fixture who can be spotted around town on his bike or hanging out inside local shops.
Talking with Isaak and Eva James about their feature film last night at a small party that featured a beach-side bonfire on a breezy Cape Cod night, I started thinking about other homegrown cinema.
A friend, Mark Thiedeman, just debuted his Arkansas indie Last Summer ahead of its Los Angeles premiere at Outfest next month. Shot with the support of locals in Little Rock, the new movie tells the quiet and tender story of two teen boys, a young couple whose relationship is embraced by their Southern community, embarking on their final summer together before one heads off to college. The film is heading to LA with the seal of approval from home where it won the Arkansas best director prize.
Then, of course, there's BAMCinemaFest underway back in New York right now. Local Brooklyn stories like Eliza Hittman's It Felt Like Love and Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George are being showcased in the fifth edition of the popular festival in a roster packed with new movies by Brooklyn-based filmmakers (Farihah Zaman & Jeff Reichert's Remote Area Medical, Sebastian Silva's Crystal Fairy, Martha Shane & Lana Wilson's After Tiller, among many others).
The festival opened the other night with a bustling bash inside the massive main hall of the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower around the corner from the BAM Rose Cinemas, and a number of the Brooklyn filmmakers were showcased in a spread for The L Magazine.
Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin's Now Forager (ND/NF '12)
Here in Provincetown last year, the festival offered an opportunity to experience handmade entries from other parts of the country in a comfortable setting, including Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin's Northwest story Now Forager (ND/NF '12) as well as David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's Downeast about a small Maine fishing village.
Lacking financial resources and festival connections, Eva James told me back in January that she and her brother were unsure about the future for their low budget movie. They weighed other festival invitations in the interim and eventually decided to start their journey here at home.
While they hope to generate wider attention for their new film, last night inside the small Cape Cod cinema, Isaak James said that the local attention was a great way to launch the film.
"The emotion from the audience is the reward," he said last night.
By Way of Home will screen this evening and again on Sunday here in Provincetown. Later this summer the film will play at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Cape Cod. Siblings Isaak James and Eva James are aiming to line up other festival screenings, as well.
Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Follow him on Twitter: @eug.