The road to becoming a filmmaker is beset on all sides by obstacles. Even after graduating from a top film program, many aspiring directors spend years as production assistants doing menial tasks; they slave away in the hope of moving their way up the industry totem pole, with no guarantee of ever getting that big break.
Working outside of the studio system is no easy task either. The cost of buying enough 16mm film stock for a feature can stretch into five figures. These days, films costing $1 or $2 million often – and usually undeservedly – get stuck with the “independent” label. A film should only be considered indie if it’s made without large studio assistance.
But for two UCSB alumni, there is an alternative to the alternative.
In 1995, when Brent Meeske decided to make a feature-length documentary, he really had only one format option within his price range: a small, first-generation, digital-eight camera. Inspired by the audience reaction to “Hoop Dreams,” Meeske made the realization that audiences were ready to see video on the big screen.
“‘Clerks’ came out at the same time and I thought, ‘This is a strong movie and it’s good but it really looks terrible and if audiences are willing and ready to sit through that, we can go to video now,'” Meeske said.
Wanting to make a film about counterculture, he set about living with the nomadic community of Dead Heads to shoot video footage for what would become “The End of the Road.” Three months into that adventure, when Jerry Garcia passed on, Meeske was forced to re-evaluate the tack of his film.
“I shot it and conducted all the interviews with a totally different mindset, not knowing, of course, that the movie would end up being kind of about the end or the twilight,” Meeske said.
After looking at the footage, Meeske found the story he wished to tell in the editing room, but “The End of the Road” would sit on the shelf for several more years until technology made the final stages of post-production affordable.
In 1999, while finishing off “The End of the Road,” Meeske got a call from former classmate and collaborator Steve Sobel, who was looking for help on a new project, “Resin.” Written and produced by Sobel, Meeske worked as director of photography in this fictional film told with a documentary feel and set in our own backyard – Isla Vista. The film is a think piece designed to shed light on California’s controversial three-strikes law from the perspective of a man convicted of selling Marijuana.
“Resin” has won several industry awards, including Best in Festival at the Vermont International Film Festival, and is distinguished as belonging to an elite group of other films produced under conditions outlined by the Danish film collaborative, Dogme 95 – a canon designed to extract more honest performances from the actors.
“Both these films are digital and we’re presenting them digitally. They will never exist on film,” Meeske said.
With movie house conversion to digital format, Meeske’s ability to compete with the big boys is growing stronger every day.
Both Sobel and Meeske have come full circle, returning to I.V. as filmmakers who have carved out their niche in a highly competitive industry. They will present “The End of the Road” and “Resin” at I.V. Theater as a double feature this Saturday, without the need for a single reel of celluloid.
“The digital revolution has really leveled the playing field between us and the major studios,” Meeske said. “I think it’s incredible that I can go out now with my little Dead Head documentary o n videotape and put an ad in the paper and compete with these big companies. To me it’s amazing.”
“It was kind of a repeat of the 106 experience I had because I invested so much time and energy into that film and then we didn’t get chosen. The attitude back then was ‘Fuck it we’re going to do it anyway’ and that’s kind of the attitude … we’ve taken ever since.”