Michael Almereyda is a filmmaker and Sundance Institute alum who has participated as a director, screenwriter, and Creative Advisor at various Sundance Labs. He is using Kickstarter to fund his most recent project, The Ogre's Feathers. Click here to learn more or help fund this film.
Three Sundays ago we were shooting outside a hotel on 155th Street in Washington Heights, a neighborhood that had been invisible to me until Frank Harts, the central actor in The Ogre’s Feathers, gave me a guided tour. (The tour took place last August, which gives you an idea of how long this movie has been in the works.)
Frank Harts as the young man in The Ogre's Feathers.
The scene called for an actor to step down the smoky marble steps leading from the hotel lobby, and to embrace another actor standing on the sidewalk. Simple, but our contact at the hotel had stopped calling us back, for reasons unknown, and there was a 60 percent chance of rain—so we were primed for trouble but decided to just show up, a half dozen of us, cast and crew, at 7 a.m. on a gray Sunday morning.
Blake Ashman-Kipervaser, the film’s stalwart producer, talked to the receptionist and, just possibly, slipped him three $20 bills that had been in my pocket a few minutes earlier. The delicacy of the operation had to do with the fact that this once-magnificent hotel is now a halfway house for people diagnosed with HIV.
I’d been drawn to the building’s aura of battered nobility, an atmosphere of faded glory, as evidenced in the marble steps, the door’s elegant metal grillwork, and the forlorn plastic window that separates the receptionist from the residents. The place fit the movie we were making, a fairy tale updated to the present. The not quite conspicuous component of sadness and hope seemed somehow, unavoidably, part of the picture.
We’d been granted permission to shoot there back in March, when we worked from 4 a.m. until sunrise to avoid interfering with the residents. It had taken all this intervening time to coordinate the participation of two other actors for a sunlit, exterior scene.
So here we were, now, on an uneven stretch of sidewalk, assembling the camera dolly and track for the humble Canon 5D—a complicated rig with tubes and fasteners resembling pieces of an oversized Tinkertoy kit. Occasionally people emerged from the hotel, frail-looking men, some supporting themselves with canes, and they’d glance at us with only mild curiosity. We were so far removed from the clamor of conventional filmmaking, there was nothing to hold their interest.
And it occurred for me that no one in the hotel, perhaps no one in the neighborhood, was likely to see the film we were making. In fact, I could admit to myself, with unshakable dismay, that it’s increasingly difficult to imagine much of an audience for my movies beyond film festivals, museum screenings, universities, and “micro cinemas” where I’m occasionally invited to show up and answer questions. How did this happen? And how to reach past it? How to get singular, eccentric, personal movies made and seen?
I’m not inclined to attempt to answer these questions here. Rather, I’d like to speculate about the minor miracle of a Kickstarter campaign, which has buoyed this particular project in its final stretch.
I was, at first, reluctant to do the Kickstarter thing—it seemed too much like rattling a tin cup in people’s faces, asking for loose change, when the world is full of needier cases and causes (Consider, for instance: our venerable hotel).
All the same, the Kickstarter experience has been humbling and heartening. We shot the scene in Washington Heights—without being ejected by management or thwarted by rain—and later that night I learned we had reached our goal of $5,000, less than 10 days after the pitch was launched online.
I posted an update, a collective THANK YOU for the 30 contributors who pushed us to that point, but it felt unequal to the occasion—tossed into a void—and the update was attached to a lame admission that we had aimed low and, in fact, we need more money to finish the movie.
It’s awkward to convert apparent success into yet another plea for cash, but it happens to be a necessary plaint. We’re facing steady expenses—unstoppable costs and conditions. The Ogre’s stomach continues to grumble and growl.
For instance: the tale involves three scenes on a ferry—but shooting on actual ferries in the post-9/11 world is illegal. So we’re resorting to rear-screen projection, a process requiring studio time with a special projector and screen and a technician in attendance, plus lights and a fan to simulate wind. You can add to this, soon enough, considerable and necessary post-production costs. The sound design—ironically, as this is, superficially, a SILENT film—will be crucial, and music will be incredibly important. (For the rough cut, we’ve layered in patches of Stravinsky. He’s hard to beat, but dealing with music rights is not easy or cheap.)
Producer Blake Ashman-Kipervaser prepares for his cameo in The Ogre's Feathers.
And so yes, again, THANK YOU to my cast and crew and to the 51 contributors currently listed among our backers. And hello to the inscrutable 142 folks who’ve registered that they “like” the campaign. It’s been bracing, at any rate, to have such a direct dialogue with an audience, paying customers, strangers, and friends.
You start a film, hoping each time to touch the wild reality that lives outside your limited imagination – even, or especially, if the story is a fairy tale. You want it to become not just another movie but an experience, something to measure time with, to address and include a wider world. And I don’t mind rattling the Kickstarter cup—counting down, another week to go—if it brings us closer to these immodest, impractical goals.