8 Pro Tips for Setting the Indie World Aflame (With Just $17,000) from the Bellflower Crew
Among this year's crop of true indie success stories -- this summer's Another Earth and Attack the Block among them -- is Bellflower, a film described as "a love story with apocalyptic stakes." Sweet and inventive -- then brutal and utterly devastating -- the debut feature from writer-director-star Evan Glodell was borne of over three years of sacrifice and dedication, DIY in spirit and in practice (as Glodell's homemade flamethrowers, groundbreaking camera rigs, and the tricked out car dubbed Medusa attest). So how did this $17,000 micro-budgeted labor of love (and pain) wind up with a distribution deal and some of the buzziest word-of-mouth of the season?
[Pictured above, L-R: Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes, Vincent Grashaw, Evan Glodell, and Jessie Wiseman - Photo credit: Getty Images]
Bellflower, a gorgeously lo-fi cinematic gut-punch like nothing else you'll see this year, is the intense tale of a Southern California slacker named Woodrow (Glodell) who, with his friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson), binge drinks, parties, and builds Mad Max-inspired mechanisms to "prepare" for the apocalypse -- until his relationship with the charismatic Milly (Jessie Wiseman) triggers a chain of events that bring Woodrow's world crashing down. After playing the Sundance and SXSW film festivals to strong raves and divisive reactions, Bellflower will be released by Oscilloscope this Friday in select cities.
Glodell (who turns 31 this week) and co-stars Jessie Wiseman and Tyler Dawson sat down with Movieline before a special screening at L.A.'s New Beverly Cinema to discuss their long but rewarding journey with Bellflower and to share some of the lessons they learned over the course of seeing their self-financed indie passion project evolve into one of the most talked about releases of the year.
1. Don't give up on making your film, and don't put obstacles in your own way.
Wisconsin native Glodell had been toiling away in Southern California for years, crewing on other people's projects and making his own shorts, having written Bellflower based on a bad break-up. "It was bad, and afterwards I thought, I've never seen a film that shows what it's like to go through anything remotely like this," he explained. But fast-forward a few years, and he hadn't yet made anything happen.
"All of a sudden, five years went by in the blink of an eye... and I started getting really depressed. I was like, 'Holy crap, I've been out here for how long? The whole reason I came out here, nothing has happened in that direction.' It hit me; this was the turning point. I had to get back on track. This is what I had to do, at all costs. There are only two roads to go -- one of them is something bad, and that's not an option, and the other is to figure out how to make this project happen."
2. Assemble a crew of dedicated, supportive collaborators who will commit to the long haul for little guaranteed reward.
After spotting actors Dawson and Wiseman in plays, Glodell cast them in Bellflower and assembled a crew of like-minded filmmakers and former collaborators, many of whom contributed their own money to finance Bellflower over the years. That group, now comprising Coatwolf Productions, which is already planning to shoot a film by composer Jonathan Keevil next, stuck together through the long, sometimes frustrating process of making Bellflower. "Whoever could sort of stick it out and handle working with us would come back and work more," Dawson said. "It's a tough process, especially on a budget like ours. There were often times when you would just have a nervous breakdown, from lack of sleep and food and overworking, and you'd just be like, 'Are we insane? What are we doing here?'"
"For us as actors, once the cameras were rolling and were doing it, then we knew," said Wiseman. "That's what we wanted to do. When you're doing the scenes and playing out this story that you love, that you guys all love, you get snapped back into why you're doing it.
3. Be prepared to wear many hats.
There's no room for vanity here -- everyone involved picked up second or third roles as needed. (Producer Vincent Grashaw went one step further; he stepped in to play a pivotal character in the film.) "If we were hiking out to do a crazy shot where we had to carry the equipment a mile and a half and there's only ten people on set, you weren't an actor," Dawson recalled. "You weren't driven over to set, you were carrying 20 lbs. of equipment out."
4. Do what you have to do, guerrilla-style.
Though they don't condone bending or breaking the rules to others, the Bellflower crew went guerrilla style when needed. Permits, safety crews, insurance and the like? Didn't have 'em. "We can't really condone that, but that's what we did," said Wiseman. Fiery stunts and homemade flamethrowers were at least "well researched," according to Dawson.
5. Don't fear pushing boundaries to play it safe.
Many a young actress might have balked at the things Wiseman's role called upon her to do -- fearless nudity and live cricket-eating among them -- but she took on those challenges head-on in the name of the film. "For me, that's the kind of actress I am and I'm glad if it comes off as bold or courageous and not compromising. I mean, these guys were sitting in cars with gas tanks behind them, possibly going to die -- I can't take my bra off? I don't know, we were all just like, whatever. And we wanted it to be real. And I knew that. You can't cut any corners because it will throw you out of the story. That's basically how I approached it."
6. Don't compromise your vision -- and whatever you do, do not delete your hard drives!
The Bellflower filmmakers didn't let their financial constraints derail their overall vision; instead, they got creative. "We didn't want to just make an indie movie that was limited to locations and dialogue, we still wanted to have these extravagant things," Dawson said. "We wanted it to look a certain way. So we were sort of forced to creatively tackle those problems. There's a whole amount of love that went in because we couldn't just do it with money."
Meanwhile, an entirely different element gave Glodell pause during filming: Was Bellflower way too personal a project to share with the entire world? "Sometimes it feels way too personal to me," Glodell admitted. "At the very end, when I feel like I'm letting people look into my mind and personality more than I want people to, there's darker stuff and obviously people can abstract and analyze that if they want and go, 'Oh, this guy's fucked up. He's been through some shit, and he's got weird thoughts,' whatever it is. I would get scared and wonder, 'Am I putting too much out there?' The whole time I was working on the movie, every couple of weeks I would wake up in the middle of the night and be like, 'I need to delete my hard drives!' I wanted to gather up my hard drives and smash them, but I never did."
7. Manage your expectations and stay humble.
When they first heard that Bellflower got into Sundance, Dawson recalls, "No one believed it. I didn't tell anybody until I saw it officially announced." The long, oft-delayed process on Bellflower and hopeful false leads on interest in the film taught him and Wiseman to manage their expectations of what might come. "Sundance was super exciting and we were all ecstatic, but I think there was a feeling among the group that that might just be it," he said. "That was a big deal, but it could have just been the end of the road. I mean, there's a hundred films, how did we even get in, we're just going to go... and things just escalated from there. I think every step of the way you have to stay practical about it and not get your expectations out of control, and be humble. It's like a tidal wave. You have to sort of let it pick you up and take you with it."
Wiseman echoed the sentiment. "After everything happens, you're like, 'Well, if this is the only thing, I'm stoked.' If it was just Sundance, I'd be awesome. If we'd just got sold and gone to SXSW, we're happy. If we just have one line around the corner at the New Beverly, that would be awesome."
8. Keep it all in perspective.
The biggest change Bellflower's success has brought to their lives? "All my ex-girlfriends want to get back together," joked Dawson.
"The guy who stood me up at prom is Facebook messaging me," Wiseman offered.
But after years of struggling to break into Hollywood, it's a stroke of good timing that has allowed them to process their first measure of success. "I've been an actor a long time, and you spend a lot of time thinking about what success would be and how it would feel, and I think a big part of you thinks it will validate everything in your life," Dawson shared. "Once I am successful, then I'll be happy, then this will happen... it's been amazing and great, but you don't wake up one day and everything's solved."
"We had to get rid of our apartments and we're subleasing, and on paper we're losers right now," Wiseman added. "But we have this great thing that, emotionally, keeps me grounded a little bit."
"We're happy we're not a bit younger, too," Dawson continued. "There's a time and a place when I think this group couldn't have handled success. I think we would have just ripped ourselves and each other apart, so it's been nice that we're all mature enough to handle this well. It can be an interesting change -- the attention and the dynamics in the group change. You see bands that get signed and they tear themselves apart before they even put out an album. For us, this has happened at an ideal time where we're all grounded and we've become really close through it. We're like a little family."
Bellflower opens in limited release Friday.