Credit: Daniel Patterson
American Movie is probably a more accurate representation of most aspiring filmmakers than the wonder kids we see hit the big time once in a blue moon after their Sundance debut. Even for directors who aren’t terrible who get their movies into the festival, they usually don’t windup cashing in some golden ticket. It’s rare to get your foot in “the” door after a successful festival debut, even if you’ve made a good movie, which is the case Shaka King’s Newlyweeds. The film opened to strong reviews at Sundance in 2013 and was picked up for distribution, but it didn’t make box-office splash most indie filmmakers dream of, including Shaka King.
Two years after King’s first feature film premiered in Park City, he’s returned to the festival with a short film, “Mulignans,” a racial satire that co-writer/editor Kristen Sprague initially envisioned, thanks to the “there goes the neighborhood” attitude found in Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale. It stars King himself, which kicked off our conversation about the realities of working as a hungry independent storyteller.
Not only does King share a nice reality check ‐ don’t expect bags of money to be thrown at you after you sell your movie at Sundance ‐ but shares a considerable amount of tips for any aspiring or first-time filmmakers. For example, don’t expect Walmart to sell a DVD of your film if it’s cover art is drug-related. A severed head or foot for a Saw poster, though? Not a problem.
Here’s what Shaka King had to say:
You’ve said you wouldn’t mind acting with people you’re comfortable with, especially since directing doesn’t always pay the bills. Since Newlyweeds came out, what do you do for work between developing projects?
I’ve made two shorts since Newlyweeds. One short… I can’t really talk about it, because they made me sign a NDA. It was this high-profile celebrity who wanted these several directors to do a few short films about a subject, that, again, I can’t talk about it. The short didn’t pay any money, it didn’t come out, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to come out. Before I made Mulignans, I made a few short documentaries at Verizon, which put some money in my pocket. It was a godsend. The only money I really made directing was from that gig and winning an Independent Spirit Award cash grant. That’s it. Other than that, I try not to spend too much money when I have it and when I don’t… [Laughs] I pray.
After getting your film in Sundance, I imagine you had high expectations, maybe about landing commercial work or whatever else. How did those expectations compare to reality?
It’s been up and down. 2013, between Sundance and the release of the film, was a terrible year for me, emotionally. I had all these expectations. I had this tremendous high. Everyone close to me witnessing this dream come true had a different perspective than what was actually happening, because what was actually happening is I felt the movie wasn’t really getting out the way I hoped, I wasn’t making any money on it, and I still haven’t made any money on it.
I wasn’t getting any offers to direct commercials, studio movies, etc.. I got really down and depressed. I started to wonder if I’d ever make a dollar making movies. I haven’t honed any other talents or skills over the last 15 years, because I’ve only been focused on trying to do this. Was that a lost cause? Did I make a huge mistake? I really asked myself those questions.
In January, 2014, I got an Indie Spirit cash award, which reinvigorated me creatively. I remembered why I do this: I love creating and making movies. Once I had some money in my pocket and didn’t have to worry about how to keep the lights on, I could just create. That’s what really drives me; it’s what brings me pleasure in life.
I realize, at this point in my life and career, I’m going to live check to check, but the checks I’ve gotten have been from creating work, so I’m a professional, to some degree. It hasn’t been the deal where I’ve been offered a studio movie, after getting a movie into Sundance. I don’t have an office on the lot of Paramount, and I don’t know if I’d want that, either. Everything I’ve worked on I’ve been passionate about, and I’d rather be passionate than being paid to service someone else’s vision.
Mentioning that rough year you had, I imagine that’s common for a lot of filmmakers after Sundance.
I think probably most filmmakers that come out of Sundance have that experience. Even if you sell a movie at Sundance, it’s… I mean, the guy who made The Kings of Summer is making the King Kong movie and the Jurassic Park helmer made Safety Not Guaranteed, so it happens, but, for the majority of the folks at the festival, they have to go back to the drawing board, to make the next movie from scratch. For me, I just got specific stories to tell. I want to see them through. That’s all I want to do.
You hear all the time about people who get their first movie into Sundance, but you don’t see anything from them for a while, and I think that can be attributed to a lot of things. I know, to some degree, nothing can stop you. For people who don’t deal great with adversity ‐ your movie doesn’t get picked up at Sundance or isn’t released ‐ some of them just say, “Fuck it. At least I made a movie that got into Sundance. I’m going to get a 9-to-5 and make some shorts on the side.” I’m not like that, because I am in all in. I’ve gambled everything. Nothing is gonna stop me from making something.
I imagine you learned just as much as you did in the film school, if not more, making your first feature. What did you glean from directing Newlyweeds that you weren’t taught about in a classroom?
I learned so much making that movie. There’s a ton I learned about the business side. On a technical level, though, I learned, on this budget level, pick the right collaborators and trust your collaborators. Other people I’ve spoken to who’ve made movies on that budget level who chose the wrong collaborators definitely think it prevented the film from having the success they desired, whether it showed up on screen or came after the movie or affected the distribution of the movie.
Another lesson I learned is you want more experience on your squad than you might necessarily think you need. In our case, almost all of us on the creative and producing side were first-time filmmakers, from our art director to three out of four of the producers and a ton of the actors. In some instances, that gave the film a unique energy, but, at the time, it affected some of the business decisions we made. We made some errors a more seasoned veteran would’ve cautioned us against making. I’m speaking specifically for micro-budget filmmaking, but you should find that creative balance between people with experience and new voices ‐ that’s a key.
What are some of the decisions or mistakes a veteran wouldn’t make?
In my opinion, I think we should’ve waited until after Sundance to sell the movie, to push it ourselves a bit more on the festival circuit. Selling at Sundance, we didn’t really get a chance to play at any other festivals. It does cost money to go to a festival and get the word out, but it’s very cheap promotion, and it can go a long way. Even with the local festivals, not just the big guys, you can noticed in markets where your movie is playing on VOD, and that’s a way to get the word out. We missed out on opportunities to spread the word on the film. We wouldn’t really able to get the word out properly, having not played those local festivals or going on the tour. Not every distributor is gonna cap your festival run, but ours did, and obviously that didn’t help us.
Is getting the word out one of the toughest parts of making a movie?
That’s by far the hardest thing to do. Not only to sell the movie to a distributor, but to the public. You have to cut through all these other features coming out that can play commercials before the NBA All Star Game. More than ever you’re competing with people’s attention, because there’s so much at their disposal. You have to start early to find a way to get it out there.
Personally, as a filmmaker, what can you do to help promote your work?
I’m the worst person ask about that, but I think… well, I know, actually, that the year we were at Sundance we did by far the most viral videos. We made about 10 short videos ‐ some comedic or others candid about what the process was like. We made them, but then what? You tweet them to death, but that’s enough. You have to get a celebrity to tweet them? I really don’t know what works.
Let me ask you this, then: what are some lessons you took away from making Newlyweeds you’re going to apply to your next film?
That’s a tough question. You know, we made the movie we wanted to make. I think what made the movie compelling is that when you looked at the characters you thought, Are these people acting or are they the characters? Yes, they are acting, but because you’re not looking at a guy who looks like an actor or someone who goes to the gym three times a day, you’re looking at real people. The thing is, if you cast Drake in the lead role of that movie, you’re in 600 theaters. It may not be the right movie, but it is a movie in 600 theaters. With the second movie I’m doing, I’m thinking, “I want this to be seen by more people, so I have to cast it as such.” I want to make the movie I want to make, so I still have to cast it appropriately, so I can’t cast it just for the theaters. It’s a tough balance: casting a name actor and the right actor.
Am I wrong or did you have Spike Lee and Todd Solondz teach some of your classes at NYU?
I did, I did.
Do you recall any information they shared that’s stuck with you as a filmmaker?
With Spike, it’s preparation. I was always a person who prepared, but he’s a guy who really, really prepares. His work ethic is insane, and he gave us a real look into his creative process. With Todd, he really emphasizes story above all in his class ‐ and that’s something I definitely applied to my next feature. Newlyweeds was really a series of vignettes I strung together into a story, but with this other movie…I started with the characters first, but I built a story around them early on, so I knew where I was going when I started.
My final question, because I’m very curious about the DVD art for Newlyweeds…
Yeah, it’s terrible. Terrible.
The poster was great, though. Why the change?
Well, we had an agreement with our distributor we’d have meaningful consultation on all the key art. When we first started designing the poster they allowed me to pick the artist for it and come up with an idea for the design, which the artist then beautifully rendered. I think the distributor made the artist come up with eight other posters, but we agreed the psychedelic one was gonna be our theatrical poster. Then there was another pink poster which was a bit more tame, and we agreed that was going to be the DVD cover.
When the distributor started pursuing a Redbox and Walmart deal, they thought the chances of us being denied because of the smoke in the key art was probable. A week before we were coming out in theaters they sent us an emailing saying, “Good news: Redbox has agreed to distribute the movie. The bad news: they have given us 24 hours to change the key art.” Mind you, that seemed bizarre, as the deal hadn’t been signed yet, so I don’t know how they could’ve been given 24 hours to change the key art.
They ended up changing it to what you saw, which is the terrible key art for our DVD. You know, we really, really, really fought them on it, but this was a week before we came out, so we were already extremely preoccupied trying to open in the movie in NY with little financial support. It was a difficult time. At least for theaters, iTunes, and Netflix we got to use the poster we wanted, which is how most people will see the movie, so they compromised. I think the DVD art is absolutely terrible, though [Laughs]. It doesn’t look like a movie you’d want to give your full attention to.
Newlyweeds is currently available on Netflix instant and iTunes.