A Talk with Rich Brauer
2009 Michigan Filmmaker of the Year Burns No Bridges

One of the home-video distributors through whom Past the Popcorn requests screeners for review is MTI Home Video.  The handful of MTI’s titles that we’ve reviewed have been unmistakably low-budget films; and yet they’ve all been professionally and competently made—and better yet, have felt refreshingly different from the usual multiplex indies.

The latest of these was last month’s Mr. Art Critic, starring Bronson Pinchot—and my wife and I both enjoyed it thoroughly.  When preparing to write my review, I discovered that director (and 2009 Michigan Filmmaker of the Year) Rich Brauer and I shared a mutual friend in Brauer’s fellow Traverse City resident Matt Kinne, an indie writer and producer who is also a colleague of mine at Hollywood Jesus.  Matt connected me with Mr. Brauer, and we chatted over the phone for half an hour or so a couple of weeks ago.  What follows is a transcription of the first half of our conversation.

One of the big stories in indie film right now is the collapse of the market, essentially, with so many of the smaller films failing to get picked up for distribution the way they usually have at the film festivals and stuff.  Does that concern you much, the way your business model operates?

Rich Brauer behind the camera on Barn red

Rich Brauer:  You know, it’s funny about that because I’ve done films for 32 years now.  It’s what I do for a living, and I do corporate and commercial work as well as theatrical stuff.  And Fitful represents my tenth feature.  What’s interesting about the model—You live this long, and you start to see the world changing; so nothing stays the same.  So I’ve witnessed the ups and downs of both the commercial and theatrical industries.  What that’s done for me is built in a kind of trust, an extra measure of hope, and patience.  Even though that perhaps sounds kind of lame and naïve, it actually enables me to focus on the craft.  At the end of the day, though, this is an expensive hobby, and it can’t sit there and be unmarketable.  So that’s the part that causes me a bit more concern. 

You know, with my films, I basically never have a distributor before I make them; and I never pursue a distributor while I’m making them.  It’s not until a film is finished to my liking that I go running around with it.  At this point, I have a number of good relationships with distributors, and I obviously start there and see if they like it.  They’re the ones who get up in the morning gnashing their teeth wondering about how to penetrate the market with the product.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting back here with my next movie.  So I’m sitting in a really good spot, I think; but eventually they have to turn it into money… so I still have a place to work out of, for my kids, you know.

I’m sure I’m not answering your question like I’ve given it much thought, but it’s a huge question—and it relates more to a layer of hope, and I’m not stamping out license plates here, you know? I’m selling art.  And therein lies the insanity of it all.  And I’m blessed to be able to do this stuff.  I had my birthday while filming Fitful, and the crew was really great.  They said, “It’s your birthday—you wanna do something special?”  And I said, “I’m already doing something special!  I’m hanging out with you guys!”  If I could do this every birthday I’d be the happiest person alive. 

I enjoy it so much—but we’re really organized; we shoot these films fairly quickly; we never shoot past nine or ten hours.  Ten hours is it, tops, on any one of my movies, per day.  And we don’t work weekends.  And we still get them done in less than a month.  As a result, it becomes more of a lifestyle than an aberration, like “Oh my gosh!  We’ve got to hurry and get this done NOW!  This movie’s gonna be the greatest thing in the world, so we’ve got to burn all our bridges and stay up all night and do this…!”  It’s like, “You guys, how about not.  How about we act like adults here and have breakfast in the morning, screw around, and show up on set about 8 o’clock?” We’ll work hard, break for an hour at lunch (which I’ll pay for, like I pay for breakfast), where we’ll get together as friends and talk about what’s going on; and we’re generally done by 6 o’clock.  And everyone goes back for bowling or whatever they want to do for the evening, and the next morning we’re refreshed and ready to go again.  So the reason I’m going here with you, is that the industry I’ve carved out up here is kind of like a lifestyle. 

And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you.  When I saw Mr. Art Critic, the feel of the movie itself seemed so consistent with the feel of the Mackinac community in which the film is set—a community of artists content with the Island, with not needing approval from the Big City.  But the big hope for indie filmmakers, it seems, is not just to get distribution; there are always avenues of some kind for distribution.  It’s that you’re going to get picked up for distribution by one of the Big Five, and suddenly wind up playing on three thousand screens—like Paranormal Activity.  But clearly, you’re not invested in that kind of hope.

RB: Naw.  In fact, I’m very realistic about this stuff.  The one-in-a-million movie that gets that kind of release is like a basketball player.  Out of tons of good kids that are vying for that thing, it’s one little lucky break, one little something that kicks it into gear.  And it doesn’t mean that the other players aren’t good; it just means that something else happened that allowed that athlete to prosper.  But at the end of the day, this is why I’m kind of going into this lifestyle thing:  As long as we can treat our crew and cast well, have some fun, and entertain the masses with some new and different films with different voices—and if we can eventually get paid for it—that’s really good.  I don’t have any ambition or interest in working on big movies.  I think those just tend to be really complicated, and Hollywood has those figured out. 

They pretty much do, don’t they?

RB: Yeah.  There’s no way I would even want to compete with that stuff.  That’s crazy.  So I try to pick quirky little stories that are entertaining but aren’t going to change the rotation of the earth or anything.  It’s just fun, and it allows us to be creative—and make a living, you know?  And I like that!  You know, it sounds kind of like I’m not very ambitious.  But sure—I’d love to have Mr. Art Critic, or Fitful, or Barn Red, or any of these get out there.  And they do go out internationally on DVD, generally now. And that’s nice.  It’s very comforting to get a note from somebody in Australia who’s seen Barn Red.  It may not be Oscars and stuff; but this is kind of a fun and productive life.  And I like it.

So what’s Fitful about?

RB: It’s a really dark comedy about a woman who works for the National Historic Trust.  And she winds up stuck on this boat overnight with this creepy caretaker.  Not a chainsaw massacre thing, just a very fun, weird, dark, suspenseful deal.  It’s a little like Groundhog Day meets The Shining.  

Download the teaser for Fitful.