IT'S JUNE 17, SIFF's closing night. The largest film festival in the U.S. is concluding with the world premiere of the new picture from a prominent American director with 29 years in the movie business and 19 previous features. There's an accordingly long line at Pacific Place, where the biggest theater is filled to capacity. Yet how many among the buzzing throng of SIFF-goers know that Investigating Sex was co-written on Puget Sound, edited in Pioneer Square, and created by the Northwest's most successful director?
In fact, seated there among the generally appreciative audience was Alan Rudolph, a 15-year resident of Bainbridge Island, best known for Welcome to L.A., Choose Me, Afterglow, and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. The lights dimmed, the crowd hushed in anticipation, and then the flick began.
Nerve-racking? You bet. "It's a tough sit," Rudolph explains, adding that festival director Darryl Macdonald had asked him to screen the new print (almost still wet from the lab). "The reason I showed it here was to get witnesses. Let people know it's there. Selfishly, I wanted to show it to human beings."
He also wanted to show Sex to a theaterful of actual movie lovers, not to the suits who run both Hollywood studios and indie film companies. "McMovies, that's what we're making, or that's what they want us to make," laments Rudolph. "It's the backwards process now. Marketing is what determines what a studio will make—or even these independents. The vocabulary's in place now, everyone has the same formula of how to get a movie made."
Then, if you make a movie that's a little different, the marketers may claim that they don't know how to sell it. Such is the case with what Rudolph calls "my orphan film," which is now fighting to gain theatrical distribution here in the U.S.
NOT EXACTLY a self-promoter, Rudolph generally keeps a wary distance from the press, especially after the personal attacks he's suffered over the years and what he calls an unfair drubbing of 1999's Breakfast of Champions. ("I have some deep scars," he says.) Moreover, he doesn't maintain a high profile in the Northwest. Instead of ferrying starlets about town in a long white limo, he spends his time quietly typing on B.I., he and his photographer wife occasionally taking the ferry into town to visit SAM or meet buddy Tom Robbins for dinner. (The Rudolphs also keep a place in Manhattan.) If that sounds like an idyllic life, the guy isn't sitting on the dock staring at the sunset or otherwise resting on his laurels. "It's all about survival. I live film to mouth," he says.
Sex is just such a survival story. Although set near Boston, it was actually shot outside Berlin last summer in a scant 21 days with a minimal budget of $4 million. The deutsche marks came from German financiers with access to film production funds derived from government-sanctioned tax shelters for movies then filmed—or reinvested, as it were—in the Heimatland. The presence of Teutonic actor Til Schweiger (Driven) would help the film's profile in Europe (although it wasn't finished in time for this spring's Berlin Film Festival). Rudolph got final cut but not final control of the picture, which most crucially comes down to its distribution—in other words, how, where, and when we see it in theaters (if at all).
Explains Rudolph, "It's like Nick [Nolte] said about our film: 'The reason it's such a struggle with the distribution is because it's too much work for everybody.' They have to actually think. They have to craft a thought process, an advertising campaign for this particular film. The rubber stamp's not going to work. They don't allow you . . . to have a film continue from the essential creative explosion that created it. It's always like, 'Oh, we got this thing—now how do we make it seem as if it's like everything else?'"
BITTER WORDS? Not exactly. In a series of conversations since SIFF, the personable, articulate Rudolph hardly comes across as a ranter or a crank. Low-key, thoughtful, and almost professorial (for a guy who scorns film schools), he's been around the movie business long enough to understand its nefarious workings. Still, while assessing the commercial prospects for Sex, he frets, "It's in limbo right now. There's no way Miramax is gonna pick this up. The studios are totally off-limits."
In the battle to screen Sex, the veteran director recalls past campaigns that span several chapters in the history of indie cinema. Harkening back to Welcome to L.A. (1977) and Choose Me (1984), he elaborates, "The same problems have always been there . . . I think because it is a business to most people first. But I think within 25 years ago and today the curve has changed, and it did reach—somewhat now in retrospect—a golden period, when people weren't so quick with labels, and before the grosses were discussed by the 10-year-old kids. And I guess that would be in the late '70s and the early '80s. And I must say Welcome was one of the first American independent films. There was no such thing as cable, no such thing as cassettes. There was no such thing as American art films.
"But now it really is quite similar to the beginning, in that even though there's an encouragement for so-called independent films—which is strictly a label now, and an abused label, and almost a dangerous one—the ground rules are so hard and clear. They're inflexible, what people expect out of films now. The difference between the major studios and their offspring . . . is just a decimal point. It's just one decimal point to the left. They want the same kind of actors for less money, and they want the same kind of movies, or at least movies that are going to be accepted without a struggle."
WHAT REMAINS CLEAR for Rudolph is the value—the downright necessity, in fact—of making proudly personal movies that don't shrink from words and ambiguity. "For better or worse, I'm a language freak," he says. "The essence of film never changes . . . but the uses of film have dramatically changed. And I think a lot of young people now don't really know that films can change your life in a profound way, in the literate side of film. I was kind of shocked to find . . . that [a film] that's predominantly language would be considered so out of place because of that. Because the mysteriousness of life—and somehow of film—is truly what it's about. It seems the mystery of film is the part that's the least focused upon in the marketplace now."
As Rudolph explains with a rueful chuckle, the very word "sex" is simple enough to market, as demonstrated by a poster devised to sell his film in Europe. Splash a scantily clad woman on a billboard with her legs in the air and, hey, you've got a movie! But when presented with the reality of Investigating Sex, he recalls, his producers reacted differently. "They want a different film now. They changed the rules after the game. They were thrilled all the way through the first cut of the film. [Then] they thought, 'Oh, we're actually involved with a film of some kind of wit and intelligence.' That, it turns out, is harder to sell.
"I only blame them for having no character," Rudolph continues. "I don't want this to sound like I'm complaining, because I'm really not. The producers want their money back. They've been very crass about sexploitation. But that's not the real problem . . . because however they deal with it in Europe, I can't control."
Still, he's hoping that "the film will get out true to itself and maybe have a better chance."
BUT WILL IT? Part of what makes Rudolph's woes so troubling and illustrative about the film biz is how an unholy consensus gets formed between marketers, media, and audience. Everyone's guilty, from jaundiced newspaper critic to innocent Starbucks reader. This summer's big movies were predetermined a year ago, when studios began staking out weekends—like Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day—and formulating ad campaigns to seize the popular imagination. That imagination is fueled by editors—this one included—who negotiate with studio publicists over access to stars and on-set visits (often conducted months in advance of a movie's opening).
It's an insidious feedback effect: We in the media depend on you the public to pick us up (or tune us in) by focusing on the "event" movies. If Seattle Weekly only wrote about small art-house flicks, ads might dwindle, circulation might drop. Who wants to risk that? How do we find a balance between commercial hype and critical scrutiny?
Rudolph asks the same questions, knowing firsthand the importance of early festival buzz: "The life of a film sometimes is that first review, and it's not because the public reads it, but it's because the lockstep mentality is that 'Oh, we're going to get a bad review in The New York Times so we can't afford to distribute your movie.' Careers have turned on one review, and lives have been shattered or made.
"Nobody's taking any risks anymore. Critics, I find in general, take fewer chances than audiences. You really just want people to see the film at least the way it was intended. Sometimes that turns the fate of a film."
Indeed, there was a critic from Variety attending the SIFF premiere of Sex, and his review wasn't exactly a rave. That said, this critic basically disagreed with every dispatch the guy posted from Seattle; anyone who liked Tortilla Soup has highly suspect judgment.
But did industry folks read that Variety review and write off Rudolph's movie? Doesn't the Seattle audience reaction mean anything? Answers Rudolph, "I have no illusions about this little movie. I felt good after that screening. I felt it was a 90 percent attentive response. I was quite pleased by it, because I thought, 'Can you imagine if they'd been prepared? Can you imagine if we actually tried to target people who might be represented here who might respond?' That's what we did with Choose Me."
IN THAT SPIRIT, the L.A.-born director—the son of a director—is now contemplating a self-distribution scheme that would begin in his adopted home. He and Nick Nolte are showing the film to various investors with the idea of raising some $500,000 to buy Sex's North American rights from its German producers. "The key is to position it properly," Rudolph continues, "to let people know what they're going to see instead of what always happens to me—that these distributors present the film they wish they had instead of the one they do have. We're discussing opening it up in Seattle first. Nick is on board, and he loves the film and he's fighting for it; he's one of the producers."
"The cachet I have is basically with actors," Rudolph says. "They get paid so much to react that they will act for not much if they believe in what they're doing. They see a certain freedom. They don't have to say those things that they know are false. That's actually what's kept me going.
"I'm proud of the work," he concludes about Sex. "I've always said, 'I'm always painted into a corner, and I don't mind that as long as I have the corner.'"
That said, a pensive Rudolph heads to the ferry that'll take him home, where he's already working on several new scripts.
Home run fever
SPEAKING FROM New York, where he's in postproduction on Gosford Park (expected here in January), Robert Altman knows what an uphill fight Alan Rudolph is facing with Investigating Sex. The creator of Nashville and The Player employed Rudolph as an assistant director in the '70s, then later produced several of his films. But times have changed. "Everybody's looking for the instant home run," Altman says, "and they want all the American Pies. When a picture like Alan's comes along, it doesn't have a big studio behind it, and they say, 'Well, who's gonna distribute it? It's only gonna do so much [financially], at best.'"
Of Sex, he continues, "It's not a kids' picture, and I run into the same thing. This picture of Alan's, I think, is very commercial. It's got a terrific cast. It's got ideas, and it's talky. And it comes out of real things. It's a shame that there aren't people releasing these kinds of films. They don't cost much. Nobody's going to lose any money on it."
Has the climate for indie film distribution worsened of late? "Oh yeah. I think it's much tougher. It started changing in the last 10 years. The independents—what they want to do is become majors. So they either . . . fail (they're no longer there), or they succeed, like Miramax. And then they're not interested. They're going for their stockholders.
"I think there's an apathy about quality. If something really good gets lost, they say, 'Oh well, nobody seems to care.' And if something really bad goes out, nobody seems to care. It's all popcorn and not much protein."
At the same time, Altman notes how traditional art-house audiences have become more complacent about moviegoing. "The grown-ups, who might want to see a film like [Investigating Sex], they'll say, 'Oh, we'll wait until it comes out [on tape]. We'll get a video of that.' And consequently, these things only play three weeks—the hits!--and they're gone."