A little over two weeks ago I wrote my review for Jamin Winans' The Frame, soon after I got the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions about his latest film. We talked about working on a budget, the importance of a good score, film distribution woes and why we probably won't see him working in Hollywood anytime soon. That and a lot more of course, so let's jump right in.
Niels Matthijs: Urban fantasy is a genre that's not too popular in cinema. It seems that big studios consider it too big a risk, while indie filmers have a hard time pulling it off with their limited budgets. What draws you to the genre?
Jamin Winans: Honestly I never identified it as "urban fantasy" before, but I like that title. I've always been a big sci-fi/fantasy fan because it's an opportunity to go crazy with the possibilities of the unknown. I'm someone who believes there's an enormous amount going on that we can't see, haven't discovered yet, or our brains just don't have the capacity to understand. So sci-fi/fantasy is a way to at least try and push into those possibilities.
At the same time my mind (like anyone else's) is planted firmly in very real human struggle. I'm someone who doesn't find sci-fi/fantasy compelling unless it somehow gets at the heart of deeper questions of existence, pain, love, etc...
So "urban fantasy" is a way to come at those big real world questions from a radically different perspective. And hopefully by changing our perspective we can get some sort of wisdom out of that.
Were there any things you left out of The Frame because you figured the budget wouldn't allow you to do it properly?
Nothing thematic, but in early drafts of the script I had planned on more ambitious action sequences. Mainly just more destruction in the sequences that are there. Fortunately I don't miss any of it.
The best films are often the ones where creativity overcomes budgetary limitations. What part of The Frame are you most proud of, taking into account the limited budget you had to work with?
Above all else, the actors. That's often the first thing to go in low-budget "genre" filmmaking, but we pressed hard for the right cast and were truly fortunate to get them. David and Tiffany hold the whole thing together and that's saying a lot because it's a pretty insane piece of material.
That said, I'm really proud of the actual technical camera work that went into the film. We had some very specific rules about what the camera represented and how it behaved. Those rules made shooting and planning a big pain in the ass, but we also did some things I haven't seen before in other films. Had we had more money, we may not have been forced to shoot the unique shots the way we did.
The Frame was obviously made with a clear vision in mind, but it seems you leave it up to the audience to piece everything together. Do you hope they will faithfully reconstruct what you put in there, or do you prefer people to find their own version of the truth?
I do of course have a specific intent with the film, but I know that if I want someone to understand and connect with it on a truly deeper level, I have to leave space for them. A lot of people don't like having that space and don't want to do the mental work, which I get, but this isn't that kind of film. Anyone really wanting something substantial from a story or a piece of art has to put themselves into it, be a part of it.
There are things I hope people walk away with, but in the end, I really do want them to combine the experience of the film with their own life and let it speak to them in their own language.
You spend a lot of time constructing elaborate and unique universes in your films, layered with thick, mysterious atmospheres. Are you afraid people will just submerge themselves in the worlds you construct, ignoring the questions and deeper meanings that are there, or do you embrace such an experience?
In a perfect world we're always making something multi-layered that can be enjoyed at different levels. Most people watch movies to escape from their lives and be transported and I hope our films do that. But for the person like me that wants to go deeper, well then I hope they can and will do that too.
I always feel that most directors underestimate the impact of a good score. They see it as a necessity rather than an opportunity to make their film better. Is that the reason why you wrote the score for The Frame yourself?
I think there's a couple schools of thought around film music. For most, yeah it's an afterthought. We need music because that's what films have, so let's hire a musician.
Then there's the filmmakers that hate scores because they feel like music is manipulative. I understand that point of view and think going without music is great for some movies. That said, everything about making a movie is arguably manipulative from the dialogue spoken to the edits made, so I don't think the blanket rule of "music is bad" makes sense.
To me filmmaking is the ultimate artform because it includes so many other art forms. One of those is music. I've always responded to movies when the music intimately works with the story so that's what I try to create in my own work. I write the scores myself because it's the easiest and fastest way to work, it allows me to integrate the two more intimately, and quite honestly no other musician would put up with my crap.
I think I read somewhere that you wrote most of the score before you even started filming. How did that influence the film?
Working on the scores early on helps me to find the tone of the movie which is really helpful. Tone is closely linked to theme in "The Frame". When I was experimenting with the music early on I ended up creating a piece with an almost breathing quality like a resting giant. That drove a huge part of the aesthetic of the eventual film.
You even go one step further in The Frame, letting the characters connect with each other by having them murmur the film's main theme. Is having music as part of the plot an idea you'd like to keep exploring in your next films, or did it just feel right for The Frame?
It's definitely been a big part of the last several films. Our short film "Spin" is about a DJ who controls the world with turn tables, "Ink" had a character who taps into the beat of the world and to your point the characters hum the theme in "The Frame". So there's definitely a trend there. I think there's a good chance it will continue.
You wrote, composed, edited and directed The Frame. Is there some other aspect of film making you think you could learn to make your films even more personal?
Boy I hope not. It takes me too long to make a movie as it is. And I don't think anyone needs to see me try to act.
I understand you tried out Hollywood for a short while but couldn't really fit in. While I get this need to create films that are very personal to you, aren't you at least a bit curious what it would be like to create a studio film?
Well, I wouldn't say I tried out Hollywood. I reluctantly signed with an agent after Ink, did some general meetings with studios in order to see if there was any way I could get our films funded within the system and still retain final cut. As I expected, very few people in the studio system are making original work (non-franchise material) and virtually no director is getting final cut in Hollywood, let alone a wee fellow like me. So, I've opted to just keep making films the way I always have.
I'm actually not that curious about studio filmmaking. I think that's the ultimate goal of a lot of filmmakers, but it seems like most really creative and talented filmmakers who jump into that system end up making very expensive films that are ultimately less interesting than their indie work and they no longer have a voice. I just have this strong belief that life is short and I don't want to spend any of it making someone else's movie, even if it means I'll be poor the rest of my life.
Would you know what to do if some rich investor came up to you and said "Here's 100 million dollar Mr. Winans, make whatever you like but you have to put every last cent I give you into this film"?
Do you know someone?
Yeah, like any filmmaker, I would be happy to spend the money, but not if it meant I had to make it back. More money means more financial responsibility and that usually means less risk-taking artistically. But if none of that was a concern, then you bet, I would build some insane sets and do things I always dreamed of.
In another interview you said: "our trajectory is to always do something better". Do you start by analyzing your previous film, looking for things to improve, or do you start fresh and take what you learned from your prior experiences to create something new (that will hopefully end up being better)?
"Better" is ultimately very subjective. What I don't want to do is focus on making something the audience will perceive as better. I don't read reviews and generally stay away from audience feedback because I don't want to be influenced by what audiences do or don't like about what I've done.
For me "better" is knowing that I'm pushing myself further, going deeper, and not allowing myself to get comfortable and redundant. I had a teacher say once, "Just write for God and no one else." I think that's good advice.
It seems that your cinema exists in a niche of itself. The only other director I could see you being compared to is Shane Carruth. Where in the big picture do you see your films fit in?
Good question. Hopefully they don't fit in anywhere. Hopefully they're seen as unique enough to be their own. If people can't quite describe what they are or fit them into a specific genre, then we've done something right.
Do you still watch a lot of other films and do they inspire you? Or do you find your inspiration elsewhere?
I do still watch a ton of films and love them, but I'm realizing as I say this, they don't inspire my process as much as they used to. I think that's probably natural. In the beginning you riff on things that you like, but as you find your voice you depend less and less on other influences.
Your films are quite niche and you've said no to Hollywood before. Does that mean you dislike Hollywood films, or is it just something you don't see yourself doing but can still respect/enjoy on a different level?
I love a lot of Hollywood films, but fewer and fewer take any chances. I haven't been really excited by a Hollywood film in a really long time.
I think there are great directors and craftsman making movies in that system and they're doing phenomenal work, but they're doing phenomenal work for franchises that require very specific results.
What struck me as awesome when I looked at the Blu-Ray and DVD of The Frame was the Region 0 encoding plus the inclusion of French, German and Spanish subtitles. 20 years ago things like that where advertised boldly to push DVD sales, but in reality DVD did very little to get rid of geolocking people out of watching films. Was this a very conscious strategy?
Yeah, we're very pro self-distribution and make sure we're not tying up our movies with some ancient business strategy of geo-locking. It astounds me that companies are still doing that. We have fans in France, Germany, Spain, Latin America and all over really. If we had the money and resources we would have subtitled the film in every language, but unfortunately we could only afford our three biggest languages.
Ink blew up in the online piracy scene, I'm sure The Frame is encountering similar problems. Still I heard you say you are "pro-access" (a lovely term). Things are slowly improving with services like Netflix and the EU committing themselves to make cross-country distribution rights more transparent, but on a global scale it's still hard to watch films on a try & buy budget. How do you see that changing in the coming years? Will services like Netflix finally take over, or will studios win their power back?
I think access will ultimately win the day. Trying to control how people watch movies and listen to music is futile. If you don't provide access, people will create their own.
I don't necessarily think people expect everything for free, but they do get tired of not having access and they get tired of prices being unreasonably high. You see an amazing trailer for a movie on YouTube, but you have no way to watch it in your small town in Uzbekistan. So you're going to pirate it.
Services like Amazon and iTunes are making it easier and easier for people to watch anywhere in the world which is great, but their digital pricing is based on DVD prices from 15 years ago. Most people don't want to buy a digital file for $15 and a good deal of the world can't afford it.
This is driven by the studios who are still dependent on an old and dying model. The fact is the new digital model isn't nearly as lucrative as the DVD/Blu-ray model and that sucks for content creators and distributors, but it's unavoidable. And by trying to hold onto this old model, studios and distributors are helping to create a larger and larger base of pirates who feel justified not paying. That's not a habit you want to create because it's going to be very hard to reverse.
All I know is that piracy is rampant because the current system is not working. Give your audience easy access at a fair price and I think many many more will pay. We have an $8 digital download of "The Frame" that includes the film, soundtrack, and Art-Of book on www.DoubleEdgeFilms.com. And that's done well.