We all love a good movie. That joyous feeling of sitting back with a bucket of salty popcorn and being swept away to a different world for an hour or two.
Some of the greatest movies ever made are indies, films traditionally made on an almost bare bones budget outside of any major film studio system. Often these productions address topics not found in mainstream cinema, like same-sex relationships, family trauma, teen angst or just your run of the mill existential crisis.
Indie films often take you on a journey of subversive, gritty, alternative visions of reality involving characters you think you know but that gets represented in whole new ways. Just think about the work of stellar indie directors like David Lynch, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Stanley Kubrick and Luc Besson.
“For me, independent film means free,” famed indie actress Tilda Swinton told The Guardian. “It means you’re free to say what you want. It does not necessarily say you will be able to do it very easily and anyone is going to give you any money to do it…but it does mean that you don’t have someone breathing down your neck.”
To celebrate the world of independent movies, we’ve gathered ten fascinating facts about some of the best-known indies that will surely blow your mind.
10. Birdman was deliberately made to seem like one continuous take
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 winner for Best Picture is a startlingly original fable about a faded American actor who gets tormented by the character of Birdman, a superhero he played in a film trilogy decades ago.
From its inception, Alejandro envisioned the movie as one long continuous take, like a play, but with the camera movements and pace of a film. The filmmaker overcame the obvious technical challenge of shooting an entire movie in one take by carefully choreographing key scenes of seven to ten minutes each. And by some movie magic, he seamlessly stitched them together to make them appear as one.
Luckily the director and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, succeeded wonderfully, both winning Oscars.
9. Before Sunrise was the first of 10 collaborations between Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s name was thrust into the popular media after the release of Boyhood (2014), an ambitious independent drama shot over eleven years. It stars Richard’s regular collaborator, Ethan Hawke, who has worked with the director numerous times over the last two decades.
Back in 1995, Ethan was making waves as the dashingly handsome star of such films as White Fang and Dead Poet Society, but it would be the indie gem Before Sunrise that would cement the lasting relationship between the actor and his most frequent collaborator. Three years after Before Sunrise opened to rave reviews, Ethan starred in Richard’s The Newton Boys (1998), along with his other muse Matthew McConaughey.
Ethan also starred in many of Richard’s other films, including Tape (2001), the two sequels to Before Sunrise (Sunset in 2004 and Midnight in 2013), Fast Food Nation (2006) and the aforementioned Boyhood. Richard also appeared in Ethan’s directorial debut, Chelsea Walls (2002), as well as his second feature behind the camera, The Hottest State (2006).
8. Neuroscientists regularly reference Christopher Nolan’s Memento in their recommendations
Long before Christopher Nolan found his massive fandom in directing the rebooted Batman series, the filmmaker behind such blockbusters like Inception and Interstellar made a name for himself with 2000’s innovative psychological thriller Memento. The film tells the topsy-turvy story of a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia – the inability to form new memories.
Christopher and his brother, Jonathan, originally conceived the idea for their first movie whilst driving the 2000-mile journey from Chicago to Los Angeles back in 1996. The director begged his brother to whip out a draft of their idea, which he did in the form of a short story, Memento Mori. Eventually, the Nolan brothers got it made into a film widely praised by audiences and critics alike.
Memento also enjoyed a wealth of commendations from the scientific community over its realistic portrayal of memory loss and other psychological disorders. Apparently, representatives from the National Institute of Mental health deemed the movie “close to a perfect exploration of the neurobiology of memory,” with renowned neuroscientists Christof Koch calling it “the most accurate portrayal of the different memory systems in the popular media.”
7. Ellen Burstyn spent four hours a day in the makeup chair for Requiem for a Dream
You might know him as the director of the biblical epic Noah or that “twisted ballerina movie” Black Swan. But long before that, Darren Aronofsky was making a name for himself directing gritty indie projects like 2000’s drug-fuelled psychological drama Requiem for a Dream.
Few who have experienced the film’s tragic portrayal of drug addiction have forgotten it, with many images seared into our brains forever, including the mesmerising transformation of actress Ellen Burstyn. Known mostly for her Academy Award nominated role in Resurrection (1980) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (for which she won the award in 1974), Ellen was almost unrecognisable as the addictive Sara Goldfarb in Requiem.
The makeup team spent four hours a day to apply the various prosthetic necks (of which there were four) that helped make the actress look older, heavier, thinner, or unhealthier depending on the scene. She also had to wear two different fat suits and nine different wigs throughout the production.
6. The Last House on the Left couldn’t be shown in England for 34 years
He’s the well-known master of horror, directing more than two dozen films over the course of his lustrous career. But for Wes Craven, who sadly passed away in 2015, it all started back in 1972 with his debut The Last House on the Left.
Wes made the famous exploitation horror after a brief stint as an English professor at Westminster College in Pennsylvania. He eventually found his footing in the post-production world, working for a company in Manhattan as a sound editor. He directed his first movie while he was still learning the ropes of the industry, made clear by the disgusted reviews The Last House the Left got upon its first release.
The film follows two teenage girls who are taken into the woods and tortured by a gang of murderous thugs. Wes relied on guerrilla tactics to get the film made, partly out of necessity and partly because he didn’t know better. The crew didn’t apply for any permits to shoot in public places, rather shooting scenes fast before anyone could tell them to move along.
The film changed the horror landscape forever and launched the careers of Wes and producer Sean Cunningham. But it was also met with a lot of controversy surrounding the horrible violence. The British Board of Film Classification denied the film a certificate when distributors first tried to release it there in 1974. It was deemed too obscene for British audiences. And while a lack of certificate didn’t mean it was legally banned, exhibitors wouldn’t show uncertified movies.
After many attempts and a few censored releases, the uncut version of the movie was finally approved in March 2008 and released on home video. The film was remade in 2009 with Wes acting as a producer. The remake also received criticism for its excessive gore.
5. The editor of The Usual Suspects is also its composer
We know him as the director behind some of the most successful X-Men movies ever, but before Bryan Singer started making superhero films, he was renowned for making gritty indie dramas. The Usual Suspects, which premiered back in 1995, was one of them. The famously twisted and original tale of a small-time con man quickly garnered a cult following.
On the surface, The Usual Suspect appears to be some form of hybrid between Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1991) and Rashomon (1950), with its exploration of an elaborate criminalistic plot gone wrong. And at its centre a seemingly untrustworthy lone survivor (Kevin Spacey) recounting what happened.
Something very unusual about The Usual Suspects is that the film’s editor and composer are the same. Now, writer/director combos are common. Even a director who’s also the cinematographer. But a composer who’s also an editor? Well, if anyone can master that, it’s John Ottman. This prolific filmmaker has both composed and edited most of Bryan Singer’s movies, including the blockbusters X2 (2003) and Superman Returns (2005) as well as directed some of his own movies along the way.
Bryan met John while they were working on a student film at the University of Southern California. Later Bryan asked John to edit his first film, Public Access (1993). When that film lost its composer at the last minute, John – who had dabbled in the world of music before – stepped up.
4. Sofia Coppola wanted Bill Murray – and only Bill Murray – for Lost in Translation
The unconventional romantic comedy about the friendship between an ageing actor (Bill Murray) and a neglected wife (Scarlett Johansson) charmed audiences into massive box office successes for Sofia Coppola’s second outing as a director. As the friendship between the two blossoms on the streets of Tokyo, and that familiar hints of romance emerges, Sofia, who also won an Oscar for her original screenplay, stays clear of cheesy sentiments and rather grounds the hypnotic Lost in Translation in expertly crafted subtlety.
While she was still writing the movie, a mutual friend showed Bill an early draft of the script. He liked it so much he agreed to meet with Sofia at a restaurant in New York. Legend has it the two spoke for five hours, mostly about other things. At the end of the evening, Bill verbally agreed to do the movie, but never signed a contract.
Afterwards, Sofia was very nervous, especially since more than $1 million had already been spent on pre-production. She didn’t hear a word from Bill or his representatives. “It was nerve-wracking,” the actress-turned-director told Filmmaker magazine. Then, one week before principal photography was due to begin, Bill arrived in Tokyo. Sofia never thought about recasting the role at all.
3. The distributors wanted O.J. Simpson to play the Terminator
He told you he’ll be back, and it seems the Terminator never left. James Cameron’s 1984 creation spawned an entire franchise of sci-fi thrills, generating more than $3 billion in revenue over the course of five films.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has become eponymous with the titular character, reprising his role numerous times (and for a massive paycheck, of course). In casting Arnold, James accentuated the Austrian muscleman’s strengths: a hulking presence, brute physicality, and the ability to nail biting one-liners like a pro.
At the time of his casting though, Arnold only had one legitimate role in a movie before, 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. However, the former Mr Universe was eager to expand his portfolio and met with the head of The Terminator’s distributors at a party. Originally the distributors wanted Arnold to play Kyle Reese, the human fighter sent back in time to kill the Terminator, who they wanted to be played by NFL star O.J. Simpson of all people.
Ironically James initially wanted neither man for the role. He planned to storm into the studio and demand a new actor. Instead, James and Arnold clicked over a conversation when the bulky Austrian told the director his vision for the titular villain. The actor was signed the next day.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger inadvertently inspired the idea behind Little Miss Sunshine
One of the most beloved indie films ever, Little Miss Sunshine (2006) told the unlikely story of a motivational speaker, an angsty teen, a depressed Proust scholar, a surely grandpa and the cutest little girl ever taking a road trip in an old VW bus.
Michael Arndt ended up winning an Oscar for his delightful screenplay, but as the writer explained at a 2007 bookstore appearance, his inspiration came from a very unlikely source. A speech Arnold Schwarzenegger gave to a group of high school students struck a chord with him. The Terminator told the students “if there’s one thing in this world that I hate, it’s losers, I despise them”. This led to a profound revelation for Michael, who told the audience in the bookstore “I though there’s something just wrong with that attitude. There’s something so demeaning and insulting about referring to any other person as a loser, and I wanted to…attack that idea that in life you’re either going up or you’re going down”.
Finally, after languishing in development hell for half a decade and several rounds of failed pitches, the producers found an independent investor to finance the film. The distribution rights were scooped up at the Sundance Film Festival by Fox Searchlight Pictures in one of the biggest deals in the history of the festival.
1. A lot of people thought the three actors in The Blair Witch Project was actually dead
Made on a minuscule budget of just $25,000, collaborators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez wrote, directed and edited what turned out to be one of the most profitable independent movies ever made. The Blair Witch Project scared enough audiences back in 1999 to earn almost $250 million at the global box office. Not a bad day at the office at all.
The film tells the fictional story of three student filmmakers, played by Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard, who go hiking in the Black Hills in Maryland in 1994. The trio enter the woods to make a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. With its rogue found footage style, minimum editing and eerie sense of realism, many audience members thought the events depicted really took place.
As part of its viral marketing campaign, Artisan, the now-defunct studio that bought the distribution rights to the film, went to great lengths to keep Heather, Michael and Joshua away from the press to up the hysteria that they actually died. Even their IMDb pages referred to them as “deceased”. It got so bad that Heather’s mom started getting sympathy cards from random strangers.
Of course, none of the three actors really died during production. But only Joshua is still working as a full-time actor. Heather quit the industry and became a medical marijuana grower and author. And Michael works backstage at a theatre in New York to support his wife and kids.