Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/10/2004.
Having wished Bill Gates out of existence in Nothing So Strange, Brian Flemming went on to attempt the same trick with Jesus Christ in his controversial 2005 documentary, The God Who Wasn't There. The DVD's available from the film's website, and includes a slightly inevitable Richard Dawkins commentary track. Flemming is currently working on a fictional film based around the same premise, titled Danielle.
Amber Benson made a second film in 2006 - Lovers, Liars And Lunatics - which is again obtainable from the website. IMDB claims she's now in pre-production for Drones, and co-directing with Adam "Warren off of Buffy" Busch. They're an item, I believe. Which is funny if you remember Warren and Tara's last scene together on Buffy.
Up until recently, it was assumed that if a recording artist was selling their own CDs via a website, it was a sign that their appeal (in the immortal words of Ian Faith) was becoming more selective. But loads of people seem to be doing it now, claiming it gives them more control over their material while allowing them to stick it to The Man. So if this can be done with CDs, why can't it be done with DVDs, allowing filmmakers to bypass the multiplexes and sell their films directly to the consumer? Well, it can be done: it's just happening on a very small scale so far. Here are three recent examples of movies that, for the most part, you'll only be able to see by ordering the DVD direct from the people who made the film.
A few years ago, did you get the address of a website called Bill Gates Is Dead in your email? Yeah, me too. You may have assumed that the site was just maliciously wishful thinking, but in fact it was part of a sneaky promotional campaign for the film Nothing So Strange, directed by Brian Flemming. It's a fake documentary based around the reaction to the assassination of Bill Gates in December 1999. The facts are well documented: while involved in a charity event in LA's MacArthur Park, Gates was shot in the shoulder and the head from a hotel rooftop. During the ensuing search for the gunman, a policeman was killed in the stairwell of the hotel. And then a few minutes later, a rookie cop cornered a man holding a rifle in the basement car park, and shot him dead. The death of Alek Hidell appeared to make it an open and shut case, but there were a tantalising number of loose ends. Why was the cop shot with his own gun? Who was the man seen running out of the car park shortly after the shooting? And what exactly did he say to the cafe waitress? An action group called Citizens For Truth, led by David James and Debra Meagher, took it upon themselves to campaign for a full investigation.
Part of the joy of Nothing So Strange is the slow discovery of what the film's really about. Sure, for anyone who's ever used Microsoft software, there's the vicarious thrill of seeing Bill Gates having his brain pumped out through the back of his skull in the opening minute. (It's not just a computer industry thing, I'm sure. I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut with a perfectly normal London cinema audience back in 1999, and the death of Gates in that film was the one bit that actually got applause.) But gradually you come to realise that it didn't really need to be Gates, just any enormous public figure whose death would lead people to call conspiracy. Inevitably, there are unspoken parallels with the Kennedy assassination (both Kennedy assassinations, if you're paying attention), but the most interesting thing is watching the dynamics of Citizens For Truth slowly warp as they go deeper and deeper into their investigation.
All too often the fake documentary format is used as an excuse for sloppy filmmaking, but there are a number of distinct visual styles at work here - the hand-held verite of the meetings, the carefully framed interviews, the glitches in the cable access TV show - and they're all reproduced accurately with no cheating. And for increased realism, Flemming also filmed a number of key scenes in the middle of real-life public gatherings. In the best example of this, Citizens For Truth actually set up a stall at the 2000 Republican Party Convention and held a small-scale rally in the middle of it. All this attention to detail means that an inattentive viewer could almost believe this is the real thing - though British audiences might be pulled out of the film's reality by the presence of Laurie Pike playing Debra Meagher, as she had a low-level TV presenting career here in the mid 90s. But it works, to the extent that you find yourself squinting at the few bits of repeated footage of the shooting, to make sure you haven't missed anything.
And this meticulous approach continues beyond the movie itself. Apart from the sleeve insert, there's nothing on the DVD to suggest that this is anything other than a historical document. No actors are credited, and there's no reference to the events being fictional: even the commentary features Flemming talking as if he's made a real documentary, intercut with interviews with Meagher and James discussing how their campaign has changed since the film was made and shown at festivals. For any material that depends on you knowing that the film is made up, you have to go to the "virtual DVD": a set of downloadable special features available for tiny amounts of money on the film's website, using the BitPass micropayment system. So for example, for a mere 79 cents you can download an MP3 of the "real" commentary track, in which Flemming and the actor David James (as opposed to the character of the same name he plays) gleefully reveal the secrets behind their film. If you buy the film from the website, you should theoretically get access to some of these features for free: in practice, the voucher code they emailed me didn't work, though I'm prepared to believe that this was because I let four months elapse between buying the disc and watching it. But anyway, the features are so reasonably priced that I couldn't begrudge Flemming the cash. They're the icing on top of what's already a very rich and satisfying cake.
Of course, there are other, more traditional reasons why a film bypasses the commercial distribution machinery of Hollywood. And Chance bypasses that machinery for the most traditional reason of all: it's terrible.
For those of you looking at the picture to the right wondering why the girl in it looks familiar, that's Amber Benson. She's probably best known for playing the role of Tara in two seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, displaying sufficient kooky charm to turn Willow lesbian almost overnight. Since leaving the show, she's probably had the most interesting career of all the Buffy alumni, with a succession of low-key roles in a variety of indie movies. Chance - on which Amber has writing, producing, directing and acting credits - is her attempt at making an indie movie of her own. Again, you can buy it through her website, though curiously there's no online ordering (just a form you can fill in and send in the post). It's only available via some sort of dodgy deal where you pay an extortionate amount of money for a signed poster, and get the DVD thrown in for free. Apparently she needed to do this to finance the initial pressing, and hasn't quite got around to stopping yet. (Alternatively, you can order it online from Forbidden Planet's mail order department, which is what I did. But be prepared to wait a couple of months.)
Chance (Amber Benson) is a twentysomething slacker trying to make sense of her life. She's got a loser ex-boyfriend who won't leave her alone, her own personal stalker lives across the way, her mum is going into mental meltdown because her dad's run off with an 18 year old, there's a singer she has a serious crush on, and there's a dead lesbian in her bed. Not to mention the ongoing problem of Simon (James Marsters), her smelly roommate. And who knows how that one's going to end up? Oh, you do. All this is stretched out to feature length with breaks every ten minutes for interludes from Grant Langston, playing a wandering troubadour who comments on the action in song: a bit like Jonathan Richman did in There's Something About Mary, but without the charm or the prospect of a mangled penis shot to take your mind off the useless music.
The Buffistas amongst you will have registered the name of James Marsters in the previous paragraph: he's best known for playing Spike in Buffy. And Benson does seem to have called in a hell of a lot of favours from her previous employers: Andy "Lorne from Angel" Hallett has a supporting role, the show's producer David Fury contributes a cameo, and the opening song's written by boss Joss Whedon himself. In fact, you suspect that Buffy fans are the key market for this film, if not the only market, given the way it's been sold: the first time I became aware of it was around the time the series finished, when a fan event was advertising a joint public viewing of the final episode plus clips of Chance. But even if you're a fan of Buffy, this film isn't worthy to sharpen its stake.
It's one of those stereotypical indie slackercoms that's low on plot and interesting characters, and high on quirkiness. And it's ham-fisted, leaden quirkiness to boot, with groansome dialogue, murky DV photography, and an attention-grabbing opening that's been completely pissed away 75 minutes later. It wants to think it's operating far outside the mainstream - at least that's the impression the sleeve gives - but it falls prey to all the old Hollywood cliches. It even wraps up its standard romcom plot with the revelation that once again, wise gay people have the secret knowledge of what makes heterosexual relationships work: knowledge that has been hidden from mere breeders for several centuries. With the song interludes removed, it'd be a vaguely acceptable 50 minute sitcom pilot, but its chances of pickup would be slim to none. There's no denying Benson has talent: the work she's done for the BBC on their web serial The Ghosts Of Albion is testament to that. But that seems to imply that her strengths are in the fantasy genre, rather than in carbon copies of the sort of dreck that clogs up Sundance every year.
Amber Benson doesn't really feel right in this company: she's a TV star slumming it, rather than someone who's cutting every corner just to get their film made. Compare her with, say, Behn Fannin and his film ...the making of.... As with Chance, the director takes on a number of other roles in the production, including writer, producer, editor and star. But he's also the person who emails you personally to thank you for buying the DVD when you place an order. And if the handwriting in the opening titles is anything to go by, Behn even wrote my address on the Jiffy bag the film came in. The hands-on approach extends to the DVD itself, a two-disk set that has the definite look of being home-burned on a PC. (Minor caveat here: I've tried ...the making of... on two domestic British DVD players so far, and both disks have failed in both of them. I suspect these are DVD-Rs that might only play reliably on a PC. Just be aware of that if you buy it.)
Fannin's control freakery is also in evidence within the movie itself, because he's a director with a Vision. Or at least that's the case with the character he plays, a movie director called Ben Fannin. And his Vision is this: he wants to make a completely self-reflexive film. He wants to produce a making-of documentary, following a film crew as they make a movie. And the movie they're making is the making-of documentary itself. Ben's producer Dustin Rettenmund (Dustin Charles) has some major logistical nightmares as a result. For example, we see him arguing with the company that will rent lights for the movie. The problem is, he needs those lights to shoot the scene in which he rents the lights. You get the idea.
If all this is giving you a headache, don't worry: ...the making of... is a trim 45 minutes long, and just about manages to sustain the joke for that time. Anything longer would be self-defeating, and Fannin's smart enough to realise that. The second DVD in the set has another thirty minutes or so of deleted scenes, all of which are of the same quality as the main movie, and which could have easily been edited in to draw it out to full feature length: but they actually work better in isolation. For example, there's a long sequence where the crew sit down to watch the first ten minutes of the movie completed to date, only to find that those ten minutes end with a shot of Fannin and Rettenmund ushering the crew into the screening room to watch the film, followed by the two of them standing outside bitching about the production. It's a lovely scene, but it would have killed the flow of the feature stone dead.
Fannin's script - with presumably a fair amount of improvisational input from his cast - has a messy mixture of subtle gags (nobody mentions where the make-up artist's worst work is on display) and broad ones (a couple of slightly overlong freakout scenes). But the structure is simultaneously strong and loose enough to cope with that mix: as the producer explains at one point, "this is a film within a film, nobody expects it to make sense." In fact, Dustin Charles gets most of the best lines in the movie, including the one that sold it to me from its internet trailer: on the phone to a prospective crew member, he has a conversation that goes "Hi, I'm with Ben Fannin's production company and... hello?"
So, three examples of self-distributed movies: and I'm sure there are loads more of them out there. But where? Genuine question. Getting back to the music analogy I started with, normally a band with CDs to sell can go out and tour to make people aware of their product. To a lesser extent, filmmakers have film festivals where they can display their wares, but the audiences there are a bit specialised. Ideally, there should be some sort of forum out there where filmmakers with DVDs to sell can be introduced to a public that wants to buy them, with links to websites featuring trailers and other advertising guff. So is there any single source where this information's on offer? If there is, please let me know, because I'm curious to see more of this sort of thing. Maybe my DVD collection is esoteric enough already, but I've got no problem with picking up a few disks that make it even more so. Being a monkey, and all.
Nothing So Strange has a comprehensive website about the film, and among other things it allows you to buy the DVD and read Brian Flemming's production diary. This is also where you can get access to the online-only special features, though you'll need to set up a BitPass Spender Account [dead link] first. Warren Ellis says it's the future, so it must be true. [He was wrong.]
Bill Gates Is Dead [dead link], as this website was saying long before anyone had even heard of Nothing So Strange. It's just one part of a fiendishly detailed web marketing campaign: a network of sites so convincing that they've even had a knock-on effect on the Korean stock market. You can read the Garcetti Report into the assassination, find out what Citizens For Truth are up to nowadays, and much much more. Strictly speaking, Kill Bill Gates isn't part of all this, but it's rather funny.
Brian Flemming's blog will tell you about what the director has been doing since Nothing So Strange. In fact, that's how I initially found out about the film, following a report in The Register about his reaction to the RIAA's anti-downloading campaign. I never realised until now that he's also the co-writer of the book of Bat Boy, the musical that's opened recently in London's West End to a somewhat unfavourable response.
Chance's website is a little thin on content: mainly, it allows you to order the DVD (or rather, the poster and DVD package), and to read the script of the movie [now has excerpts only]. It's actually a subsection of The Essence Of Amber [dead link], a well-maintained Amber Benson fansite. [The Chance site is now a subsection of the site for Benson's second movie, Lovers, Liars And Lunatics.]
Forbidden Planet International is the mail order department of the comics and fantasy merchandise empire. They're the best place to go if you want to order Chance online [dead link], but be advised that you may have to wait a month or two for them to pick up a copy.
The Ghosts Of Albion is an interesting web project co-created by Amber Benson and Christopher Golden for the BBC Cult website. A beautifully detailed fantasy spread across animated episodes, text stories, audio plays, character weblogs, and much much more.
thisinternetsite.com is the predictably recursive name for ...the making of...'s website. (Thanks to BoingBoing for bringing it to my attention.) You can see trailers, read about the concept and (inevitably) buy the DVD. You can also buy CDs of Behn Fannin's music project, Umbilical Bif.
Remote Control is a short film by Behn Fannin, which you can watch online courtesy of iFilm [now Spike]. It's a spoof music video that he hopes will eventually form part of a full-length Kentucky Fried Movie-style feature called The Television. (And yes, I know streaming sites like iFilm are another way of getting films distributed, but those of us who only live at 56000 bps would prefer a DVD instead, thank you.)
American Dreams [dead link] has just started a new season on Sunday nights on NBC, and actress Caroline Macey now has a recurring role on the show. This is relevant because she's the wife of Behn Fannin, and also has a show-stopping cameo in ...the making of... as an auditioning actress whose party piece is a tap-dancing Ophelia. Having a name like "Behn Fannin" must make it a piece of piss when you're searching for yourself on the internet, I'd imagine.