By Melody Morgan
FOCUS ON is a regular interview series profiling independent filmmakers and their projects. Up this week is Chris Shellen, producer of Marwencol, which airs Tuesday, April 26 on Independent Lens.
When/How did you decide that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I decided senior year of high school to go to film school. I was one of those kids who’d make personal film projects with friends of mine and then I found out you could actually go to school for that. That was back in the days of editing in-camera; I used a VHS camera.
What do you wish they had taught you at film school that you had to learn on your own after graduation?
My transition was weirdly not hard because something bad happened to me in film school. I was fully funded with scholarships and financial aid, and at the end of my junior year I lost a lot of that. I had to get a job. A friend of mine worked in the ICM mailroom and I got a job as an assistant. I worked there by day and then took classes at night and on the weekends.
I learned more at ICM about the film business in one year than some film students learn in four years. I think the biggest mistake a lot of film schools make is nurturing this idea of a person immediately becoming a director — and that rarely happens — as opposed to focusing on skills filmmakers can market when they graduate, while they continue to try to get their films made and practice their trade.
You used to work at Paramount Pictures-based Cort/Madden Company. What was the transition from the studio world to independent filmmaking like for you?
I switched from the studio world to the interactive world in 1999 — right before the bust. I was attracted to the internet and new technologies because it was a new way to tell a story. With respect to Marwencol, it wound up being a good thing in that I learned a lot about marketing and the internet. There’s little-to-no money for marketing independent films like Marwencol, so you have to get creative.
How did you get involved with Marwencol?
I’d known Jeff back in film school — we were friends — and then we ran into each other at a PBS party. He’d already started Marwencol. After we started dating, Jeff asked if I wanted to help with the film as a producer, and I said yes immediately because I thought it was an amazing story. (FYI — on Valentines Day, Independent Lens produced a little vignette about the Marwencol couple — which you can watch here;-)
And at that point, what was the status of the project?
He’d been shooting for about a year or two, but he hadn’t started editing yet. We took a couple of trips out to New York to film Mark. Around that time, we also applied for Sundance grant funding and part of that application involved writing a synopsis of the film. We hadn’t thought about it in those terms yet; it had always been this sort of ethereal idea. So I worked with him on articulating the story, which helped us identify some voices that were missing.
We interviewed Mark’s mom and his best friends, and then Jeff started to edit. His editing style is really interesting. He puts together these colored note cards, with colors for each theme, and puts them on a board and finds ideas that fit together. Then he’d edit those into short scenes, which he’d show to me at the end of the day, and I’d give him notes — unless it was perfect, which in some cases it was.
What was the first thing that surprised you about Mark Hogancamp’s story?
When I saw how much his doll’s stories mirrored what he’d been through — things he hadn’t talked about before. Things he did not even remember, like his attack. When Jeff was editing a scene about Mark visiting his attack site, I asked if Mark’s doll had ever been attacked like that. And Jeff pulled up these Marwencol photos that were eerily similar to his actual attack — none of which he remembers. It’s fascinating.
What was the biggest challenge about completing this film and how did you survive it?
The biggest hurdle is the same most indie filmmakers face: getting enough money to do it. Jeff and I both had day jobs and we would work and work and work, and we’d take off three or four weeks to work on this. We had to work on it in chunks. Jeff did that for four years.
I’ve been told “artsy” films can be hard to sell. How was your experience with finding a distributor for this “artsy” film?
We actually had four things running against us: it was as you say “artsy;” it was really hard to describe; it had no recognizable subject or stars, and the director had never made a film before. Right now the majority of the films being funded are issue-based documentaries. Artistic documentaries are much harder to get funded and distributed.
Sundance liked our film but they didn’t know where to put it in their festival. But they helped to put us in touch with Janet Pierson at SXSW, which was perfect for us. Once we played there we got a distributor. After that, we faced those four challenges again when we tried to find our audience. But I think we did a good job of building awareness for the film.
You’ve had a very impressive festival run with this film. If you could give film festivals advice about how to make the experience more enjoyable for filmmakers, what would it be?
Every filmmaker will say this: it helps if the festival can give the filmmaker a little bit of money. We played about 65 festivals and attended around 13. At first we were like, “Why are filmmakers complaining about money? We are so lucky to play these festivals!” But when you factor in costs like travel and shipping, and the hours or even days it takes to deliver materials to each festival, it really adds up.
What’s next for you?
We’ve started dipping our toe into one or two things right now. Francis Ford Coppola just got a lot of flack of calling indie filmmaking a hobby. But I think that’s just the reality — we still have our day jobs. But we do have more opportunities for funding, so as soon as we can put our finger on our next project, hopefully we’ll have a bit more help.
How do you deal with having a day job/double life?
A lot of my friends are hyphenates: journalist-filmmaker, copywriter-author, marketer-producer … a lot of doc filmmakers edit, produce, consult on marketing and distribution. Everyone seems to be wearing more than one hat. I think it’s almost nice that we started now instead of five years ago because it was a different business then. Now it’s very much DIY.
What keeps you going?
It definitely doesn’t hurt that the film was well-received. But what really keeps us going are all of the incredible stories out there, like Marwencol. It’s also that there are so many things happening with documentary. People keep calling it the golden age of documentary — whether or not that’s true, it is a really interesting time. We see the films our friends are making and we’re inspired to do it again. It’s like childbirth — you forget the pain and get excited about the next one. And you just keep going.
What was your favorite movie when you were 16 years old?
This will be embarrassing.
It probably would have been E.T. That’s why I went to USC film school. My mom is one of those people who loves to see movies over and over again. We probably saw that in the theater 18 times.
This BTB interview was conducted and condensed by Melody Morgan.
Watch Marwencol Tuesday, April 26 on Independent Lens.