James Merendino has been making underground indie classics since the 80s, including microbudgets. He's most known for SLC Punk! and his recent follow-up nearly 20 years later but has made 13 films, largely outside the Hollywood machine. Here he talks about how he got films made and his philosophy on filmmaking for ultra indie filmmakers.
Your cult film SLC Punk made you something of an underground indie film icon. But what’s amazing to me is that you’ve made 13 feature films mostly outside of the Hollywood machine. How have you sustained such an underground career?
Well. I have been rather lucky, but I also worked hard. I always believed that if you want to make a movie, make it. The more movies you make the more you will find opportunities to get your work financed. There is a catch. The movies you make have to be considered good by at least some people outside your personal support system.
You obviously now have established credentials, hard won over time – your sequel to SLC Punk, Punk’s Dead, was sold at the Cannes Film Market, which is not something that most newer filmmakers can expect. But before you had achieved that sort of stature, how did you finance and then distribute your films?
In the 90’s I was able to find people with cash that I could convince to give me money…. But, I kept the budgets low and made sure that I chose a genre that would make their money back. As for the Cannes Market. Anybody can sell his or her movie at Cannes. You have to put 15k aside for that market. Less for AFM in Los Angeles. Again… The movie has to at least look like a movie and have a voice or at least a sellable genre. Now, this does not mean you will make a profit. Profit for Indie movies up front seems to be a thing of the past. As in, since 2011. A new monopoly has arisen and it’s driving profits way down for us indie filmmakers. In the end, it will be broken up and competition will pay off even for current indie movies. I must admit, I didn’t see that coming.
Could you expand a bit on what you mean re: the new monopoly that is driving down profits for indie films?
Netflix! lol They've cornered the distribution market for indies and now want to create at least 50 percent of the content. So they can pay less. On the other hand, without them, a lot of movies would never have been seen. So, Keep that budget low. Unless you catch lightning in a bottle. That still happens.
One of the things that people often say – and I see it written on our Facebook page – is that DIY filmmaking is not “sustainable”; that you need large budgets, A-list actors, etc. Do you think that you’re an unrepeatable anomaly or do you think it’s something that any aspiring filmmaker can work towards? Do you think it’s genre-related?
I do not think I am an anomaly… But, you have to cast your movies with actual talent… Putting friends in your movie is great, but not very serious. Your friend/actor has to pull their weight just like you. Ask a casting director for suggestions. They usually know who is on the rise. And talent is usually the reason. Maybe your best friend is on that list, or maybe your best friend is totally undiscovered. All I know is that if your ass is on the line, make sure you stacked the deck in your favor and put your friends in the next film, unless your friends happen to be at least up and comers.
Genre is much easier. A well-written Horror film made for nothing has the best shot at any real distribution… Outside of that... make a movie that is unconventional and ambitious. Make a movie that breaks all the rules and looks like you had 10 million bucks. Then you get into big film festivals like Sundance or Cannes. Then you are on fire. But you have to be bold and it may not work. Safe is safe, but bold can go either way. If you want some assurance, submit your bold screenplay to the Sundance Lab… If they reject it and you are still committed and have the cash… Make that ‘in your face’ movie and shove it in the faces of critics.
What words of advice would you have for anyone thinking of making a no-budget or microbudget feature film? What should be their goal when they set out to make a film? What should they avoid in your experience?
Take 1000 dollars and spend it like it was 1 million dollars. Be bold and ambitious. Your script should be so new that it rivals the lackluster stories behind the big Superhero movies. Be small about it, production-wise, yet, huge story-wise. Make a legend out of nothing. Tell an epic story about a hermit. Use your camera like a weapon. Move that thing. Push it. Edit fast. Break walls, reverse timelines. Kill it. Win it. Fuck it. What do you have to lose?
Be your best self. LOL I think I got that last statement from ‘The Office’. Sorry.
What projects are you working on now?
I am making something called Arthur Kill Road. It’s a Magic Realist Urban Comedy that will blow everybody’s mind. Seriously. I never say things like that.
God Bless, Fight On. Win.
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