“How'd they film that?!?” It's a question gullible audiences back in the day would ask at some remarkable stunt or special effect. (The kids today aren't so wide-eyed. Computers get credit for everything, even painstaking practical work.) Savvy audiences are more likely to ask this question not regarding a fantastic sequence, but about the greenlighting of a boneheaded film. In the case of a particularly putrid independent, it leads to wondering how it was able to get into a theater or onto VOD.
As an example, let's look at “In Our Nature,” a movie you might have had the misfortune to subject yourself to before you lucked upon this article. (I am, indeed, a hero.) How the hell did this trite and uninspired clump of dry mud end up in the marketplace? Well, it was in the face of buyers at enough festivals. So, we ask, how did it end up at so many festivals?
Not long ago a rather amusing meme circulated on Twitter called #sundanceloglines. People zinged away about the perceived cliches of independent films. (My fave, from @TwinCinema was “A teenager looks out a car window as the scenery flashes by. Also incest.”) This is a bit of an unfair knock against Sundance, a festival which truly does have a high bar for entries. It's more than fair game for others, however.
Among them are regional festivals which are compelled to program unoriginal, lifeless works of dross if they are shot locally and therefore likely to put butts in seats. There are also some of the one-notch-below Sundance fests which will allow some junk to slip in if it has some recognizable names in the cast that seem likely to do some promotion. If you watch the trailer for “In Our Nature” you'll see that it played at the Woodstock Film Festival (local) and at SXSW (because of its stars.) Okay, so how in the hell did it get any stars?
This is the real crux. No one – absolutely no one – would ever watch this movie if it didn't star a guy from “Friday Night Lights” (Zach Gilford) opposite a guy from “Mad Men” (John Slattery) paired with Jena Malone (a reasonably decent actress with some lad mag cred) and Gabrielle Union (the same, with in-roads to the urban demographic.) So how the hell did they end up in this turkey? Money? Unlikely. I don't have first hand knowledge, but my guess is that “In Our Nature” wasn't a big pay day for anyone. (I could be wrong – maybe a billionaire looking for a tax shelter intentionally overpayed the cast. Anything is possible.)
Actors are always looking for quick jobs to get some indie cred (and make a wee bit of dough) so as their schedules have gaps their “people” are on the prowl looking for smaller projects. The question that ought to keep you up nights is just how they all decided that THIS would be the one. All four of their managers have some 'splainin' to do.
The film's producers boast their association with Kelly Reichardt, a true auteur, and I suppose that lends a lot of favorability to a script, particularly when it is from a first time feature director. However, how one could ever read “In Our Nature” and think that this could be anything other than an exercise in torturing an audience is beyond me.
Basically, a young man and his estranged father accidentally end up at the family cabin in the woods with their new girlfriends on the same weekend. Whoopsie! What follows is a lot of talking. Talking in rooms, talking on porches, talking in a treehouse. To break up the insurmountable monotony there is a scene where everyone splashes each other in kayaks. It's the #sundanceloglines meme past the point of any reasonable acceptance. There's an over-the-shoulder shot sequence between Slattery and Malone as they share a joint that just never ends. I started to shout “take another shot!” at the screen the way my father does when he watches a New York Rangers' game.
Eventually a bear comes and eats all their food and everyone laughs and life lessons are had. It's horrible. It's criminal, really, because there are so many terrific independent movies out there that aren't lucky enough to get a Slattery-sized name in there and therefore won't get a real push on VOD (or reviewed by many top tier outlets.)
Just out of a hat, next week InDemand and Verizon is launching the no-budget comedy “Richard's Wedding”'s VOD release. It has no stars and isn't even all that original (it is about a bunch of wacky people going to a wedding) but it is sharp and clever and filled with a zest to do something vibrant and exciting. If you respect the spirit of true independent film you'll like that movie. Do a good deed and watch that one instead.