“Cineaste” #1: To L.A. & back

“The Double Life of a Cinéaste”
At the Intersection of Hollywood & Centerbrook

Our new columnist provides back story about filming indie in Indiana

by Tyler Tharpe


“The Double Life of a Cinéaste” follows contributor Tyler Tharpe as he balances the business of running a drive-in theater in the Midwest with the long and arduous process of filmmaking.

For some reason, I just can’t make more than one film a decade.

Some filmmakers can really crank them out. For instance, Fred Olen Ray (HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS) makes at least one movie a year and has logged a whopping 94 director credits since 1977(!). I can’t quite fathom how you could make even one film a year. Terrence Malick, on the other hand, only has five features under his belt since 1973 including THE TREE OF LIFE, opening in May. I certainly fall into this category.

So far, I’m responsible for FREAK (1999) and RETURN IN RED (2007). As you can tell, that’s a long span between films and it looks like my next film, PHANTOM COMPANION, won’t be completed until 2014. I shot FREAK in my mid-twenties and RETURN in my mid-thirties; PHANTOM will finish up when I’m in my mid-forties! One reason for this, and I think most filmmakers would agree, is that a feature film takes an incredible amount of time and energy from start to finish. For me, it takes one to two years to write, another year to produce, another year to edit, and another year to shop it around. When you do sign with a distributor, yet another year will pass before it’s released. Then, if you’re lucky enough to get your film released, it’s nice to sit back and watch the response roll in. At this point, at least for me, it’s time to rest for a while.

A second reason that contributes to my slow output is that I am currently buying and operating a drive-in movie theater, which soaks up about seven months out of the year. But, that’s a good thing. Running a drive-in is nearly as much fun as filmmaking but, more importantly, it pays the bills! FREAK and RETURN IN RED cost a ton of money to make, mainly because I chose to shoot on 16mm, and luckily I did make most of my money back on both films. But, I’m not “living” off of them, if you know what I mean.

I fell into the role of drive-in owner back in 2008 just after Image Entertainment released RETURN IN RED. I had been working at the Centerbrook Drive-in in Martinsville, IN, about 20 minutes southwest of Indianapolis, for seven years as their projectionist; in fact, I wrote most of RETURN in their projection booth. The owners had been trying to sell it for years and I finally approached them about buying the drive-in just after the 2007 season ended. I initially tried to get a bank loan and was turned down – in this current economic climate, no surprise there – so I asked the owners if they would be willing to finance it. After a long winter of back-and-forth negotiation, we ended up with a land contract that we both liked and I started running it the following spring.

I’ll never forget the awesome feeling of sitting down with stacks of exhibitor/distribution agreements at my local coffee shop, and going through and signing all those agreements with the major studios out in Los Angeles. It felt great to be “working” with the studios, albeit on the exhibitor end. Crazy! This all comes from a filmmaker who, when I initially got out of college in the early Nineties, went to L.A. to pursue “the dream.” After about two years, I called it quits and returned home to produce my first feature, FREAK. So, there I sat 15 years later, signing agreements that would actually see me start making money off of Hollywood.

Don’t get me wrong. You may not believe this, but I’m not one of those filmmakers who dreams of signing a “three-picture deal” or whatever and making studio films. I’m too fiercely independent for that. I like making my own films on my own terms and not answering to anyone; spending those two years in Los Angeles helped me come to that conclusion. Although I will admit, like any cocky 22-year-old coming straight out of college, I set out for Hollywood in hopes of making a living out there.

I didn’t have a bad start, landing an internship right away at Summers/Quaid Productions, the joint production office of actor Dennis Quaid and producer Cathleen Summers which happened to be right smack dab on the Columbia Studios lot. (In fact, it was that very summer when Sony bought Columbia; I came into work one day and found Sony had plastered their name over the ages-old Columbia Studios sign. Quite depressing, actually!) They were shooting HOOK (1991) and it was quite a sight to behold. On my daily walk from the parking lot to Summers/Quaid, I’d pass by loads of pirate extras at the chuck wagons and, on a few occasions, Julia Roberts, Dustin Hoffman, and Robin Williams. I saw Williams the most; he’d buzz around on a bicycle with a basket and was very personable, very much “Robin Williams.” Once I was lucky enough to visit the set and watch Steven Spielberg direct a few of the climactic scenes on the ship with Williams and Hoffman.

All of this, as you can imagine, was exciting and quite dizzying but after a year and a half of paid work on the animated movie BEBE’S KIDS (1992), I just felt like it wasn’t going to fly. It didn’t help that Paramount Pictures pulled the plug on the production company that hired me to work on KIDS; my guess is it happened mostly due to that film bombing at the box office. The company was nice enough to recommend me to Disney, then gearing up for POCAHONTAS (1995). I interviewed three times for a “video shooter” position – I would have been in charge of test shooting the daily hand-drawn animation cells of the production on video – and as far as I know I didn’t get the job. So, I packed up and headed for home.

Who knows? If I would have been hired on POCAHONTAS, I might still be out there. (Disney may have called back to find my number disconnected but I guess we’ll never know.) But, would I be making my own films? Probably not. Los Angeles is a very insecure place and to be able to thrive as an independent filmmaker is nearly impossible … for me, anyway. I’m sure some filmmakers are able to make movies in L.A. on their own terms and retain “final cut” and be a true auteur, but not many.

Back in the comfort of my own home, I set out to spend thousands making my own first feature film. And that I did. To some, it may seem like I gave up, but quite the contrary. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to make, so far, the two films I wanted to make. Both have been released world-wide and played film festivals which enabled me to travel to the likes of England and Montreal, places I probably never would have visited otherwise.

Currently, I believe I’ve found a happy medium as a filmmaker slash drive-in theater owner. Owning a seasonal business gives me half of each year to write and shoot my next films. I think I’ve accidentally stumbled upon the perfect opportunity, at least for me anyway, and I sure hope I can make this thing last to the grave.


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Tyler Tharpe is an Indianapolis resident who has a B.A. in Telecommunications with an emphasis on film from Ball State University. He is currently an independent filmmaker and drive-in theater owner/operator who can be reached at tylertharpe [at] yahoo [dot] com.

“The Double Life of a Cinéaste” no. 1 © 2011 Tyler Tharpe.
Photographs courtesy of and © 2011 Tyler Tharpe, except
DVD Artwork © 2007 Image Entertainment/courtesy Tyler Tharpe.
Used with permission.

CUBlog edit © 2011 Jason Pankoke

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