Classic Films Have a Strong Independent Past
People often forget many a Classic Film was not produced by a major studio, but made by an independent filmmaker who very likely was turned down by a major and turned to their own resources in order to bring their vision to the big screen. The results have often been pretty impressive and in some cases even groundbreaking. When one thinks of independent films one usually thinks of the latest Sundance winner or festival circuit darling. But Independents have been around a lot longer than you may realize, and succeeding in ways most people hold in reserve for the big studio pictures.
I’ve been working in the Los Angeles film industry for about a dozen years now, but years before I moved here I was very much involved with production on low budget Indies. Even now I find myself pitching in on some friend’s special pet project now and again. Most recently I had the pleasure of driving about an hour North of Bakersfield to lend my production know-how to a feature written, produced and directed by my old next-door neighbors. They have aspirations of becoming successful filmmakers, and I have no doubt they’re going to make it, even if not right away, certainly eventually. They just don’t know how to give up on their goals, and that pretty much describes the one common denominator for succeeding as an independent.
You may be familiar with the more popular names of the independent world, including Spike Lee, Robert Rodriguez, and of course, Quentin Tarantino. All of these individuals made a name for themselves with small budget films (some smaller than others) that made a big impact on audiences, resulting in (relatively) large box office returns that in turn caught the eye of the established studios. Each one is a great rags-to-riches story, but certainly not the first. You’ll have to go a lot farther back than “She’s Gotta Have It” to acknowledge the most impressive accomplishments in independent filmmaking. Long before Spike, Robert and Quentin there was Dennis, and before him Burt, and even before him Lawrence.
Dennis Hopper shocked Hollywood and the rest of the world by directing and writing (along with co-star Peter Fonda) “Easy Rider”. Not only was this anti-establishment, cult classic nominated for two Oscars (Jack Nicholson for Best Supporting Actor and, Best Screenplay for Hopper and Fonda), but it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969, and earned Hopper a nomination from the Director’s Guild of America. Not bad for a first time filmmaker.
Burt Lancaster is better known for his bravado performances in such films as “Elmer Gantry” and “From Here to Eternity”, but he also wore the hat of independent producer for such as the 1955 Academy Award winner, “Marty”. Along with his producing partner, Harold Hecht, Lancaster guided “Marty” to four Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay), a Golden Globe for Best Picture, a Directors Guild of America Award, and to the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. All this for a small film nobody thought would go anywhere because it had already been produced on television.
Lawrence Olivier is also better known for his acting in anything and everything in which he’s ever appeared. But interestingly enough when the director of “Henry V” suddenly became incapacitated the knighted thespian took it upon himself to single-handedly keep production going by stepping up to the job, which not only earned the production a special Oscar for inspirational achievement during war time (WWII was still raging when Olivier blocked the massive battle scene), but led to Sir Lawrence directing the Academy Award winning, “Hamlet”. The 1948 production of “Hamlet” received Oscars for Best Film, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes and Best Actor for Olivier himself. “Hamlet” is the one and only time anyone has directed himself to an Oscar. Again, this is a pretty damn impressive achievement for an independent filmmaker, especially one who came to the game unexpectedly.
And of course, there are scores and scores of other names I can mention ranging from Charlie Chaplin in the Silent era to Melvin Van Pebbles during the height of Blacksploitation films in the 1970s. The degrees of success vary, but the independent nature holds firm as well as the strong endeavor to create something unique that the studios are too unwilling to attempt. That is the core of great independent filmmaker financially successful or not; the willingness to explore that which would otherwise go unrepresented.