In 2004 I attended the Cannes Film Festival as an intern for this program they have there called The American Pavilion. Essentially what that meant is that I, along with a hundred or so other film students, received individually appointed tasks for six or so hours each day, the remainder being yours to do with what you will; for me this meant seeing three or four films. For others it meant schmoozing with whomever would let irritating twenty-year-old Americans, reveling in their ability to drink openly and freely, hang around and collect business cards.
It was, in some ways, an amazing and life changing experience. I watched the other ‘interns’ gather business cards by the dozens, cramming them into pockets and bragging about all the opportunities they may have just made for themselves upon their return to America. They’d gather and look important (never stopping to realize that at the age of twenty there is no such thing) and get ‘dressed up’ and play pretend. What struck me the most was the game of ‘guess who I saw today?’ The rules are simple: talk about which prominent directors, actors or producers one had spotted that day. Bonus points for talking to them, game over if you got the business card and set up a lateral move to become their intern at some later date.
The game confused me. The only victory I coveted for myself was to be on the other side of it. I was nineteen at the time and told myself that the next time I went to a film festival, I didn’t want to be helping or bothering filmmakers. I wanted to be helped by the festival staff, making my visit to exhibit my own work as easy and pleasant as possible. I never had another internship.
Five years later, in 2009, I had finished my first film, IMPOLEX, an absurdist fantasia about V-2 rockets inspired by the research I felt compelled to do after finishing Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It cost $15,000 and was filmed in seven days in the summer of 2008 with a crew that could all fit around a single table.
Aside from sound recorder Adam Grass, who is presumably taking this photo, this is essentially the entire crew of IMPOLEX: two actors, cinematographer, me, and my girlfriend.
I was twenty-three when we made it and twenty-four when I was given my first ever all expense paid round trip ticket with full hotel accommodations, to go to the CineVegas Film Festival and present it. This felt like mission accomplished. I was three years out of film school and this goal I’d set for myself was coming true. And that was the end of that; nothing else would ever be a challenge.
Except it wasn’t the end of that at all. CineVegas was an incredible experience, but it was also damned humbling. IMPOLEX played in the midnight section, right where it belonged, and I believe the total attendance for two screenings was about fifty. With nothing to compare it to, this felt great, even though the festival was held in a commercial multiplex with theaters that sat over two hundred. Remember: I was twenty-four and looking out over the 85% empty screenings, felt my life’s work had been accomplished. It even got some notices in the press, mostly due to my incessant badgering of people and also a retrospectively mortifying persistence to get every single person I met to come see it.
I met a handful of great filmmakers at CineVegas, not to mention the excellent programmers of the festival, Mike Plante and Trevor Groth. It was incredibly meaningful this past January when Trevor introduced the premiere of my newest film Listen Up Philip at Sundance to an audience that numerically exceeded IMPOLEX’s at it’s first two-dozen screenings combined. The first thing I said after he passed me the microphone was a memory about arriving at the Palms Hotel and Casino, so eager to be at my first film festival as a director that I went to the filmmaker check in before even going to my room, and was greeted by him and Plante only to be mocked for wearing a tie, apparently having been misinformed about the dress code in Las Vegas.
However something interesting seems to have happened to that crop of filmmakers. Aside from Bob Byington, whose film Harmony and Me was a highlight of the festival and who immediately turned into a friend and collaborator, we haven’t seen new films from just about anybody else I met at CineVegas. There were some very interesting and original films there, and I got to know their makers well. But as of 2014, I haven’t re-encountered these directors at other festivals, and I am unsure what happened to most of them. It’s curious, and I wonder why it is that five years later I have made and premiered two more features and completed a (currently unviewable) television project.
I had this discussion with my friend and fellow filmmaker Chad Hartigan recently, and the conclusion we arrived at was this: the smartest and also stupidest thing we could have done after making our minimally received first films was to quickly make second films. IMPOLEX didn’t create any immediate demand for a follow up. I could very easily be somebody who made a film that played at CineVegas in 2009 and as of this day, have yet to complete another feature. But at the age of twenty-four, that trivial scrap of encouragement was not only enough to keep going, it was more than enough to, as we did in many late night blackjack games in the Palms, double down and go bigger, bolder and broker on the next one.
Chad and I realized that we were put into enviable positions at relatively young ages with our somewhat under-screened films. We had enough momentum to keep going but had neither wisdom nor caution. Being youthful and naive is valuable if you have only one goal in mind and haven’t yet grown into being smart enough to have a logic center that points out how foolish your endeavors are. Premiering IMPOLEX at CineVegas provided me with the perfect cocktail of excitement and ambition necessary to make another film, The Color Wheel, just one year later. During the production and post-production of that film it finally hit me: this is likely a huge mistake. Going double or nothing is crazy, and I am likely to be left with nothing.
IMPOLEX, it turned out, wasn’t endgame for me but was instead just step one. I’ll never forget, nor miss an opportunity to tell of, meeting Dennis Hopper poolside in Las Vegas and telling him that his film The Last Movie was one of the biggest inspirations for IMPOLEX; his status as the celebrity chairman of CineVegas made the whole festival experience even more profound. But that’s not to say that in order to have the feelings of encouragement and support, you need to be flown to a nice film festival. Even in five years, the landscape has changed enough that I believe people can find that positive feedback in any number of places. If IMPOLEX were being finished in 2014, it would probably be on NoBudge within a week of its festival debut, if it even had one. (The 2009 edition of CineVegas turned out to be [its] last. In a way, I felt like IMPOLEX was on the last chopper out of Saigon; I have no idea if a prominent and well funded festival would have thrown support behind the film in 2010, though I must mention that it was also embraced by several excellent underground festivals, such as Migrating Forms, Chicago Underground, and Melbourne Underground.) All being flown to Las Vegas and given a hotel did for me was perpetuate the myth about myself that I needed to believe in order to forge ahead, an experience currently available in many more ways and places than it was then, at the last gasp of the old guard.
I guess I finished The Color Wheel soon enough after IMPOLEX that whatever minimal scrap of momentum I had was still there, thus allowing the new film to have a life that greatly exceeded that of its younger, scrappier, weirder brother. Of course I still hold IMPOLEX very close to my heart; until I finished Listen Up Philip I routinely said, and meant, that it was my favorite of my own films. I still can’t really explain my intentions in making IMPOLEX, though my fondness stems from it being about 95% what I wanted it to be. I’ve learned that is a very high percentage and I’m proud of getting so close on my first try, whether or not it connects with anybody else or makes a lick of sense to them.
It’s pretty rough and, like most first films, laden with choices I can no longer justify. But, thanks to my friend and the film’s first and biggest supporter Ronald Bronstein, the word ‘unjustifiable’ was always in the official synopsis, so I guess it all comes full circle. Leos Carax has said that your first film is the only one you wait your whole life to make; IMPOLEX is far from perfect, but when I look at it now, I see the ambition of a young filmmaker nervous that this will be the only one, so why not just go for it.