I’m the most prolific filmmaker you’ve never heard of. I produced and directed 24 feature films for the US video and cable market, as well as those same markets overseas. . I worked with legendary actors and actresses, including Sandra Bullock, Robert Mitchum, Julia Roberts, Robert Davi, Telly Savalas, Danny Aiello, Shelly Winters, Edie Falco and Lance Henriksen. My films were distributed domestically by Universal, Columbia, HBO, Cinemax and Showtime and also all throughout the world. It was a heady, amazing run.
My unusual career was made possible by the explosion in the home video market in the 1980’s. This created a revolutionary way to distribute film product, which led to a revolutionary way to create that product. I was there at the home video revolution and now I’m here at the digital revolution with Raining Hell (available for rent on Redbox and for sale on Amazon).
As the Hollywood distribution system began to break down with the advent of video and cable, the studio production model, whereby most movies were produced by a handful of large studios, was thrown on its ear, as well. A flood of eager, rebel filmmakers, myself included, was released on an unsuspecting public and the demand for content in the new cable and VCR world created a gold rush sensibility. Mom and pop video stores sprang up across the country. The shelves of those stores needed to be filled. Hollywood, with its vast libraries of movies, balked at the idea of home video, afraid that distribution of their movies on video tape would lead to widespread home duplication and cut into their profits. They also worried about how home video would compete with their lucrative TV and cable sales, so they stayed on the sidelines. Hollywood’s hesitation threw the gates wide open.
With the Studios balking and an insatiable need for video product, there was a golden opportunity for independents to jump in. A surge of rebel indie filmmakers hit the scene, myself included, eager to produce as many films as we could before the party ended. Coinciding with the home video boom in the eighties was the rise of the festival driven, indie art film phenomenon. Small independent art films screening at festivals like Sundance, ignited bidding wars that saw million dollar sales to companies like Miramax and launched the careers of indie darlings like Steven Soderberg, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, along with my buddies Hal Hartley, Nick Gomez, Whitney Ransick and Bob Gosse.
So, how did we produce so many films so quickly and on such low budgets? Luckily, I'd been apprenticing under the legendary indie maverick Larry Cohen, working as a key grip on four of his films. When I got the chance to make my own movies after years of trying, I wasn’t going to let anything or anyone stand in my way. I certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone’s permission, let alone pay for it. Larry Cohen taught me the art of the sneak, which became a way of life for me and an important production tool. He taught me that what I lacked in time and budget could be made up for in daring and balls.
Shock Troop with Danny Aiello, one of my first action films, was made in ten days by a crew of me and five guys, all of whom doubled as the main actors, while on a road trip to Colorado. We drove from one national park to another in a rented station wagon, our props and wardrobe strapped haphazardly to the roof, scouting for locations for a movie about the Russian-Afghan war. When we arrived at the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, we convinced the Park Rangers working there to dress up as Russian soldiers and talked a bunch of tourists into donning the garb of Afghan Muhjahedin. They were all into it—after all, who doesn’t want to be a movie star? Driving by Fort Campbell, we noticed a large number of Army tanks driving around a field just off the highway. We pulled over, got in costume, and scaled the barbed wire fence, literally sneaking into the middle of live-fire tank maneuvers to film our characters hiding from enemy armor. We filmed and spliced in Danny Aiello later in a single-day shoot, our star safe and sound from live tank fire.
That’s just one of the many episodes that illustrate my take no prisoners philosophy of filmmaking. Because our budgets were low we had to beg, borrow and steal everything. In New York City we never bothered with permits and would always have to shoot as fast as possible before the police (or worse, the Teamsters Union) got wind of what we were doing and came to shut us down. Shooting Blue Vengeance, I knew that it was virtually impossible to get permission to film on the subway or the Brooklyn Bridge. Going for broke, we just went ahead and shot our chase scenes on the bridge and throughout the subway system, always employing the “cloak of vagueness” when challenged by authority, which meant sounding official, slightly annoyed and well-connected to someone far higher in the ranks than whomever was giving us trouble.
By the mid 90’s when I started working with my partner in crime Matthew Howe, we really began to take this philosophy to extremes. When we needed to get Navy footage for our action film Airboss, we managed to scam our way onto an aircraft carrier doing flight ops at sea. This permission had only been given to Top Gun before, which had a hundred times our budget. The Navy loved us so much that we were invited onto two more carriers and a nuclear submarine. Go figure. That footage made it into three more movies. Emboldened by this we wrote a script for Preemptive Strike, which called for a Space Shuttle launch. That’s right: a Space Shuttle launch. By posing as a Danish TV crew we got permission to film at Cape Kennedy and, of course, then filmed our actors wandering in and out of the top secret buildings at the Space Center. Priceless production value. In case you’re wondering, NASA loved us, too. They even sent us some of their own awesome footage to put in our movie.
What’s the takeaway? If you're a filmmaker, and you really have that fire in the belly to make movies, do whatever it takes. Given today's digital technology, we're entering a new age of opportunity for filmmakers. Digital cameras are inexpensive, small and light. Editing software is cheap and easy to use. A multitude of digital distribution channels are on the rise, gaining staggering popularity. It's easier than ever to make and distribute an indie film. What hasn't changed is the need for filmmaking skills, talent, ambition and fresh ideas. Learn your craft, gain experience by working film sets, and when your own big film idea hits you, have the balls to go out and make it.