The 1990s are often heralded as the bastion of independent film. With directors like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh bursting onto the scene during the decade, it’s understandable why people still view it as the pinnacle of indie film. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand just how hard it was for these filmmakers in the early stages of their career. The reason why most of them were successful is due to their determination. Yes, film stock and equipment were a little cheaper than before and a little easier to get a hold of, but that’s not the real reason why these filmmakers were successful. They were successful because they refused to give up. They stuck to their guns and it completely panned out for them.
Kevin Smith was a twenty something film school drop out working at a convenience store when he finally decided to make Clerks. He took stock of what he had immediately available to him, and wrote a movie utilizing it. Clerks showcases the small-town New Jersey life of two convenience store workers. It shows the mundane day to day goings on of suburban life, but with an emphasis on dialogue and character. It’s also was one of the first films to receive wide attention that utilized the principle characters discussing pop culture artifacts like Star Wars and comic books in a big way. Today, every film has a sequence where the characters dissect some popular movie. In 1992, this was far less common. Due to his distinctive dialogue and idiosyncratic characters, Smith’s Clerks became the indie darling that could. Now, nearly three decades later, he’s still a household name.
Robert Rodriguez believed in himself so much that he literally was willing to die for his dreams. He sold his body to science to get enough money to buy film for his first feature, El Mariachi. He went into an experimental drug program where he took unmarked pills for a month in order to raise $8,000. With that money he was able to pay for El Mariachi, an action adventure movie, largely shot in Spanish, and single takes. The film played extremely well on the festival circuit and allowed Rodriquez to really be able to gather enough industry clout to make a sequel/remake film starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek titled Desperado.
Quentin Tarantino had written a few scripts before Reservoir Dogs was funded. He met Laurence Bender at a party. The two hit it off talking about the home invasion movie Bender had produced titled The Intruder. Tarantino showed Bender his script for Reservoir Dogs and Binder said that he thought he could find some money for Tarantino to make the film. He thought that if he just raised enough to make it work that it would surely be a success, just based off of the dialogue and inventive storytelling structure. The script eventually got into Harvey Keitel’s hands and the rest is history. The film launched Tarantino’s directing career, and cemented itself as an instant classic.
Sex, Lies, and Video Tape
Supposedly, Soderbergh wrote Sex, Lies, and Videotape in eight days. He quickly went into production and finished the film relatively quickly. The film went on to be shown at Cannes, win the Palme d’Or, and cement Soderbergh as someone to watch. Roger Ebert went so far as to dub Soderbergh “the poster boy for the Sundance generation.” Today he’s gone on to direct both quirky indie films and massive blockbusters, but Sex, Lies, and Videotape shows exactly why he’s still a household name.
Filmmaking is hard. There’s a reason why it’s at the top of the artistic pyramid. You need numerous people, money, and resources to make films. You need to fully embrace the fact that things are going to change and evolve over the course of the creation process. The individuals listed above embody that, to a tee. They’re all individuals who have made a name for themselves specifically by creating works on their own terms. The film industry of 2016 is much different than it was in the 1990’s, but thankfully their examples prove as positive reinforcement for creatives attempting to walk their own paths today.