Daniel Kremer is the independent filmmaker behind such acclaimed films as EZER KENEGDO (2017), RAISE YOUR KIDS ON SELTZER (2015) and THE IDIOTMAKER'S GRAVITY TOUR (2011). As well as being a resourceful, prolific, award-winning film writer-director, Kremer is also a professional film archivist and the author of the biography Sidney J. Furie: His Life and Films (2015). His biography on Joan Micklin Silver (HESTER STREET, CROSSING DELANCEY) will be published soon, and he is currently researching a biography on Henry Jaglom (TRACKS, SITTING DUCKS). Kremer's latest film is OVERWHELM THE SKY (2018), an ambitious, profound and stimulating epic drama that celebrated film critic Gerald Peary has described as ''Antonioni's BLOW-UP filtered through early David Lynch, with echoes of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. '' In the third part of a three-part interview, I spoke with Kremer, about how much he considers the marketplace; the current state of the festival marketplace; how he has progressed and developed as a filmmaker, and what projects he is currently working on.
Parts one and two.
How much do you consider the marketplace when you're making a movie?
The irony is that I thought in more commercial terms on my previous two films, and while we got some nice screenings and reviews, it didn't leave me anywhere I was itching to go. I mean, EZER KENEGDO (2017) featured Josh Safdie in a supporting role that he was perfect for (he resembles the real-life Chasid I based the character on). It played a couple spots and just died. I thought we'd do a lot better on that one and it left me a bit heartbroken. People are generally fascinated by Orthodox Judaism and we had a hot name in the cast. Plus Rob Nilsson in a memorably fiery performance. Didn't mean scheise. RAISE YOUR KIDS ON SELTZER (2015) got predominately good reviews and some play dates, yet once again, established no momentum. I've never had a lot of money behind me for promotion and publicists and whatnot, but still.
So along comes OVERWHELM THE SKY and I figure, "To hell with it. Give them black-and-white, let it run long, stack the mystery, make it weird and atmospheric, what have I got to lose?" And it just took off and I was gobsmacked. Of all my films, THIS one is the first film I have that resembles a hit? Well, okay, I'll definitely take it. But irony of ironies, success came when I said, "Screw commercial concerns! Balls to the wall, I'm making this patently unusual, unclassifiable, and personal film and no one is going to stop me!" And there's still a lot going on with the film that I cannot spill the beans on just yet. But it's been stupefying for all of us involved.
How do you feel about the current state of the festival marketplace, which of course is very important for independent filmmakers?
I'm sorry, but I feel that the American festival scene is a cultural wasteland. I won't mince words, especially when Mr. Sylbert taught me not to. And this is not sour grapes. I've gotten into some good festivals and have wondered just what the hell is going on with a large percentage of the selections. And the audiences seem listless and inured to mediocrity. Films ain't what they used to be, to use the cliché. Sundance to me is a joke. I've liked virtually nothing coming out of Sundance for I don't know how many years. It's just a venue for rewarding these prefab, posturing 'off-Hollywood indies' that I so abhor. I often dig the documentaries coming out of Sundance, but truthfully, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011) and TANGERINE (2015) were the last Sundance Lab narrative films I remember finding really exceptional or extraordinary. Recently, in a piece I read online, I copied the following passage: ''… feels like a collection of leftover Sundance tropes trying to wrestle themselves free from a straitjacket.'' I just thought, ''Yeah, that kind of statement resonates.''
The paradigm has shifted and everything is kind of screwed. Studios now only make tentpoles and glossy, empty, star-driven romcoms and farces. That means that these lesser budgeted, 'smaller' (by their yardstick) films get shunted off to other investment sources and boutique studios, which depend on the festival scene to build their products' profile and momentum. The festivals need prestige and marquee attractions to meet their own revenue demands, and they're often cornered into programming stinky product, if there's an angle they can use to sell it to attendees. And with the democratization of the medium, everyone is making films and the market gets oversaturated, so you have thousands of submissions in a single year. Plus, I won't countenance these 'pop-up' festivals. I have heard too many horror stories.
America prefers film as product, like wholesale items, and marquee value is the whole ballgame. In Europe, it's different; the programmers and the audiences are much more attentive and observant. My Q&As are more invigorating and stimulating overseas. And I really do believe that they love cinema more. So I've been sending my work off to Europe a lot recently.
How do you think you have progressed and evolved as a filmmaker through the progress of making the film?
Film after film, I get more effective at talking to actors (and occasionally tricking them, har-har), I get a little more savvy with staging for camera, and I get a little more efficient in getting it all to come off. Boredom and impatience aren't commonplace anymore with my dear co-conspirators. I went to film school but I learned more from making my own stuff than from anywhere else. And as someone who writes about film professionally, from a film history perspective, you only truly understand what your subjects do and what they undergo by doing it yourself. The one endeavor informs the other, and vice versa.
If you could listen to conversations between people who had just seen OVERWHELM THE SKY, what kind of responses would make you happy?
"I need to see it again. I wonder where and when we can."
"Yeah, there's a lot there to unpack."
What projects are you working on next?
I'm editing an eighth feature called EVEN JUST, which I shot completely solo as a one-man crew. It's also my take on Kieslowski's CAMERA BUFF (1979). On the subject of length/runtime, this one shouldn't run a smidge over 90 minutes. I like to do one of these one-man band films every 5-6 years, just to prove that it can be done and I can still do it. Plus, I can really go hogwild with experimentation in a way I cannot when I'm working with a crew. Keeps me chipper and sharp and more informed about what crazy thing might work when more people are around and the pressure is on. I recommend every filmmaker at least try it.
EVEN JUST is the first film in the proposed Small Gauge Trilogy – three experimental narrative features about our small-gauge (8mm, Super-8, 9.5mm, et al) motion picture film heritage, and its impact on the lives and histories of ordinary people who've lived behind the viewfinders and in front of the lenses.
I'm also prepping a next 'big' project, plus working on a documentary about Sidney Furie and an essay film about Swissvale, the now rusted-out neighborhood in Pittsburgh where I grew up. And literally I'm trying to get to the finish line on Joan Micklin Silver. I've also been researching my volume on Henry Jaglom. I worked with both Joan and Henry one-on-one, and these are the first books written on their careers. In terms of the latter, get ready for some incredible stories about many Hollywood legends.
THE SKY has been playing at film festivals in its roadshow version
since July 28th. The theatrical cut will open in New York on November
15th, with a couple of roadshow screenings as well.
Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2019. All rights reserved.