Rolling with the Punches: Reach Film Fellowship Alumna Kaz Phillips Safer Reflects on Forced Flexibility in Indie Film
Cinereach’s 2011 Reach Film Fellowship concluded in April. Now that the fellows have had a little time to reflect on their experience making their films during the program, and because we miss having them around, we’ve asked them each to share something that has stuck with them. The first to report back is Kaz Phillips Safer, whose Jolly Friends Forever More is currently being submitted to festivals.
Rolling with the Punches
a guest post by Kaz Phillips Safer
One of the defining moments for me in my relationship with my mentor Karin Chien, was a somewhat frantic meeting during the final weeks of pre-production for my Reach Film Fellowship short, Jolly Friends Forever More. I was in the middle of a fairly typical and yet typically terrifying pre-pro crisis. Jolly Friend’s lone location was a public park, and I had a location in Prospect Park in Brooklyn that I really wanted to use.
Having shot in Prospect Park before, I knew that permitting could be tricky, and that due to our low-budget, fee-waivered status we’d be pretty low-priority (read: if the only motivation the parks folks have to process your paperwork is that you handed it on time and properly filled it out, it may well not happen). You have to bug them and bug them, and show up in person and pester and plead until someone signs or stamps or does whatever it is you need them to do. I am not hating on the parks, this is just what my experience has been.
As a preventative measure, and to give us both peace of mind, my producer Christina King and I had reached out to the Parks Department literally months before with our shoot dates and desired location. We were told we should be fine, and that we didn’t need to actually submit the paper work until a few weeks before. A week and a half out, while making what seemed like a routine call to check on something in our permit form, we were unceremoniously informed that our location was absolutely not available for the dates we needed it, as there was a parade through the park that weekend. They weren’t sure why anyone had ever told us it would be fine to shoot that weekend, but it certainly wasn’t, and there was nothing they could do for us.
A week and a half out we had no location, and the very stomach-sinking situation I had been working for months to avoid was suddenly all up in my face. However, it was made even worse by the fact that, literally the day before, Christina had gotten a call for a short paid producing gig, working on a commercial. Being a multi-tasking freelancer type myself, and knowing that as much as you love any project you’re working on for free, when a paid gig comes around sometimes something has to give, I gave her my blessing to go MIA for a few days. After all, everything for the shoot was pretty much in place.
So suddenly I found myself with no location AND no producer in those critical final days when we needed to re-scout, re-lock, re-shot list, etc. a brand new location. Suffice to say, we did, which is a testimony to Christy’s stellar, nay, near-supernatural producing skills, but in that moment, trying to keep myself together as I enjoyed a nerve-jangling coffee with Karin, I was feeling the weight of working on a low-budget project where the Parks people give you the run around, and your producer has no choice but to say yes when a conflicting paying gig comes up because you don’t have enough money to pay her.
And I said to Karin, you know, I know it’ll be fine, but oh man, do I long for the day when I’m working on a project that everyone involved can be 100% focused on, and I don’t have to worry about folks having too much other stuff on their plate. And Karin just kind of looked at me and was like, Kaz, that’s never the case. People always have too much on their plate, always have three other projects going on the side, nineteen other places they ought to be, regardless of the size of the project. And I immediately knew she was completely right. I had been looking at Karin as someone who was blissfully free of this kind of pitfall, and in that moment she reminded me, you’re an indie filmmaker. It’s always like this. Success means the MIA producer comes back, not that they never leave in the first place.
And in a weird way, it kind of gave me a bit of a thrill. To be reminded, yes, you, for whatever combination of reasons, have chosen a career—an entire lifestyle—that is actually sort of designed for disaster. Built to spill, as it were. And that actually, if you consider the way industries and art forms work as having a sort of evolutionary existence—having the shapes, patterns and tendencies they have for a specific reason—then it’s reasonable to say that the volatile nature of indie film production is actually quite adaptive. It can actually make for better projects, not worse ones.
Case in point, my location disaster did in fact require my team to shift into location hunting overdrive, but the park we ended up finding, Owl’s Head Park in Bayridge, Brooklyn, was a vastly superior location than the spot in Prospect Park that we’d initially settled on. The upheavals may not be fun in the moment, but ultimately, they make you think harder, look further, and consider more possibilities.
And I guess it’s a good thing, because as Karin reminded me, there’s no end of the tunnel where it suddenly gets easy. Thank goodness, right? Where would be the fun in that?
Kaz Phillips Safer is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker & video designer. She studied writing at Princeton University while also taking select filmmaking courses at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the video artist in residence for internationally acclaimed NYC-based dance theater company Witness Relocation. Her video work has been presented in France, Denmark, Poland, Russia, Australia and across the United States. In 2009 she was accepted into the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women where she developed and directed original HD short, Megafauna. The film went on to win AFI’s Jean Picker Firstenberg Award for Excellence and was released by IndiePix in October 2010. Kaz is currently developing several feature scripts, one of which is the recipient of a 2010 Jerome Foundation Development Grant.
Karin Chien, Kaz’s RFF mentor, has produced eight feature-length films, including Circumstance (2011), The Exploding Girl (2009), and The Motel (2005), which have won over 75 festival awards, premiered at Sundance and Berlin, and have been distributed internationally.