The Raleigh News and Observer

Independent's day

by Howard Henry Chen (staff writer)  

Published: July 31, 1996

Orson Welles once said of his film career that it started at the top, with "Citizen Kane," considered by many the best thing ever seen on celluloid, and went downhill from there. But if you mine recent American film culture and you'll find success stories of young and ambitious independent filmmakers producing some intelligent - OK, maybe just interesting - films: Whit Stillman, Ed Burns, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith, not to mention that Quentin Tarantino hack.

And they started from the bottom.

Now, a 26-year-old Chapel Hill filmmaker wants to join that fraternity. Brett James has just finished shooting his first feature-length film, but unlike other virgin productions, he didn't shoot it in a cool city locale, in a coffee shop, or inside a clean, neat warehouse studio.

He shot it at his brother's house in Durham.

He shot it inside his parents' garage. A garage he built himself. From a story he wrote himself. With equipment he bought himself.

Like other first-time features, most recently and notably Burns' "The Brothers McMullen," James' "Cold War" is a family affair. He built sets inside the unfinished garage at his parents' home in Chapel Hill. When the actors needed to cool off, they dove into the backyard pool. And forget Reel Catering. James' mother, Jean, cooked the meals for the actors and production staff during the 20-day shoot that wrapped up last week.

James, a lanky and soft-spoken man with wire rim spectacles and blonde hair shorn to the scalp, is sitting in the back deck of his parents' Chapel Hill house, chain-smoking cigarettes and talking about his film for which he had just finished shooting the promos minutes before.

The film takes place in hidden nuclear missile bunkers beneath the Rocky Mountains. Military officers are stationed there to keep watch, and the film, according to James, focuses on the interactions and personalities of six very different men within the confines of those bunkers.

"There's a great sense of discovery in the film," says James. "It's very character-driven and actor-driven."

"Cold War" is his second film project. He made a smaller, shorter film three years ago called "Ever," a psychological meditation about a woman and the townspeople around her that are murdered one by one.

That first foray resulted in a 35-minute film and was shown at the Ottawa Film Festival. He directed and helped edit "Ever," but "Cold War" is his first writing experience.

Like any independent film production that isn't financed by a studio but by savings and maxed-out credit cards, James ended up doing much more than just directing.

Listening to him talk about the trials involved in making a first feature-length film is like mentally watching him bump his head against imaginary tree limbs, or stepping on upturned rakes that spring up and smack him on the nose. Every little experience and snafu taught him new lessons, lessons other directors have had to learn during their early careers.

James, like a host of other filmmakers, is doing it right: He's starting at the relative bottom, without a huge budget and with a staff made up of family and friends. And he's learning that if necessity is the mother of invention, then pressure is her bastard love child.

"I pulled the story for 'Cold War' out of my {head}," says James. "I originally was working on a script about a policeman in Chicago in the twilight of his life." But he discovered that shooting at multiple locales, and a trip to Chicago, was impossible due to his limited funds. So last October, he started the first draft of "Cold War," and five drafts later, he had a working script.

Now he just needed to find a way to film it.

In show biz and, more importantly, in any business, never, ever underestimate the magical powers of nepotism. You think Tori Spelling would be anywhere without Daddy Spelling? How about Sofia "I Got This Role On My Own" Coppola in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather, Part III"?

When James graduated from college in 1991, where he studied theater production and direction, he moved back to Chapel Hill and, like any good young artist, tended bar and waited tables. His brother had been working for IBM, and said he could get his baby brother a job. He applied. And got a rubber-stamp rejection.

"Then my brother went to his boss and said, this guy is my brother, you need to hire him," says James. "So I went to work for IBM. It doubled my salary, and everyone said I was copping out and selling out as an artist."

While working for a client in Philadelphia, James realized that he was moving in the wrong direction with his life. He had strong desire to get out of corporate life and a casual desire to explore filmmaking. And while researching how to make a film, James discovered what any visual artist or filmmaker knows: Without money, funding, or a grant, you're nothing.

To make his first short and then "Cold War," James bought approximately $15,000 in camera, sound and editing equipment. He's expecting the work print for "Cold War" to cost about $30,000 to make, with the final post-production tab to run almost $50,000.

Where did he get the money?

"I worked for IBM," he says smugly. But a fat bank account isn't all that's needed. You need talent. A vision. A voice. And a cool mom.

He asked his mother to call around to try to set up warehouse shooting space. Cost: about $5,000 a month. Too much for James' budget.

"So she came back to me and said, 'Your father and I are going to Hawaii for seven weeks, and how much room can you get by with?' " says James. "They had these plans to build this garage, so I helped them build it and then built sets inside of it. That was the nice thing. My parents let me treat it like a real stage."

That's not all. As his 27th birthday present, she said she would provide food for his actors and production crew: three meals a day, plus drinks and snacks, for 20 days for more than 10 people. Cost: approximately $1,200. (Home-cooked meals during film production isn't unheard of, though. Jean James is in the fine culinary company of Ishmail Merchant of the notoriously tight-fisted Merchant/Ivory production team, who cooks North Indian cuisine for his crew).

James learned that shooting on location can give rise to problems unforeseen. It happens to the best of them. David Lean couldn't get the scores of extras to cooperate while filming desert battle scenes in "Lawrence of Arabia." Coppola's crew worked around bouts of dysentery and a whacked-out Dennis Hopper while shooting "Apocalypse Now" in the jungles of the Philippines.

And then there's Kevin Costner, who, while making "Waterworld," lost a bloody two-front war against soaring budgets and a receding hairline.

James learned that shooting at home, while having the run of the place and the luxury of never having to ask where the restrooms are, can also brought on some unusual problems.

"Even with the amount of control I had," says James, "it was an incredibly frustrating experience. We have these tree frogs that croaked constantly at night that interrupted filming."

During Hurricane Bertha, for instance, he called short the filming of a serious monologue, went out to the back yard and fished out 60 frogs which had taken refuge and found chorus in the pool.

And there's more: Because of the storm and low cloud cover, jets were rerouted not over the ocean, but over the house.

He's now bunkered down to edit the film, add sound and music, then do some cleanup filming in the fall. He wants to have a finished product by the time the applications for the Berlin and Toronto film festivals are due late this year.

"And then there's Sundance," he says.

As with any artistic career, until you sign a contract, move the film, or hawk the book rights, you will toil in relative obscurity and bear sole witness to your genius. But James knows that the Sundance Film Festival is still fairly far off.

"For me this isn't a money-making venture," says James. "It's a prestige thing for me and everyone associated with the film. Money would be great, but recognition is very important now, and getting it into a theater. But with a project like this, you can't expect much of a turnaround. Just getting it into the theater is the most important thing."

"I can see doing this for the rest of my life," he says. "Now I just have to convince others that that's a good idea and that I can do it."

And he's already begun to rehearse the arguments that every young filmmaker goes through: Should you sell out to Hollywood? How can you tailor your artistic sensibilities to the marketplace whims of your corporate masters? And how can you pander to the impoverished, philistine tastes of the masses and still look at yourself in the mirror?

"A lot of first-time filmmakers have been starstruck by people like Tarantino and Rodriguez ("El Mariachi"), but with a lot of them it takes four or five films before they get invested in," says James. "Ed Burns and Kevin Smith came in under the independent film {genre}, only because they made their own films, but I think they want to go more Hollywood. I'd like to a do a mixture of both."

He wants recognition now, mostly, and later, fame, and all that comes with it: prestige, wealth, a contract with International Creative Management, and the biggest, fattest prize of all, the chance to chat up with Regis and Kathie Lee.

Until then, he'll have to deal with pesky, smalltime newspaper reporters.

"But I'm getting better at this interview thing now ... hopefully I'll get a lot of practice," he laughs as he walks back into the house to have lunch with his crew, a lunch of sandwiches and chips, prepared, of course, by his mother.

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Article includes 4 photos. Captions: Brett James on the set of 'Cold War.' At left, directing promotional shots. At far left, a sign warns visitors, and at lower left, James watches from off camera. The indie's life: cleaning up the kitchen after a day of filming.
Credit: Staff Photos by Roger Winstea

Copyright 1996 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.