The Genre of Indie Films Vol. I: When the Outsider Moved In
From the 1980s to 2018, looking at how Hollywood embraced independent cinema
As much as I try to keep my fingers on the pulse of the film industry and be aware of what audiences want to see, sometimes I just don’t understand popular opinion. Last year, there was one film that drove that point home for me more than any other: Lady Bird. I feel as if I’m one of the only few people who just didn’t get the hype behind it. I thought it was well-written and had a charismatic lead in Saoirse Ronan’s titular “Lady Bird,” but, in my opinion, it was just a good version of something we’ve seen countless times before. It wasn’t visually interesting, its soundtrack didn’t stand out, and it wasn’t an exciting new premise. It was just another coming-of-age film. If you see the trailer, you know the story. Was it good? Sure. Was it game-changing? Oscar-worthy? Not in my opinion.
However, I don’t want to rant about Lady Bird; I want to rant about what Lady Bird represents. It is the latest in a long line of “indie darlings”—films that are made by smaller studios, come out of nowhere, and make critics trip over themselves as they race to the top of Rotten Tomatoes to preach about its quirky offbeat greatness. I almost feel indie itself is its own genre all because Hollywood became fascinated by something called “quirkiness.” I’m not one for Hollywood quirkiness, but before I go in on it— I want to know exactly where it came from and why it just won’t go away.
As far as I can tell, Lady Bird is the latest step in a journey that began sometime around the mid-1980s to 90s, and got off track in the mid-2000s. During those years, two different generations of filmmakers redefined what independent films were supposed to look like. For now, let’s talk about the ’90s.
Laying The Groundwork
Well, I’ll get to the ’90s in a bit. I want to focus on the transition from ’90s independent art to ’00s indie quirk. To do that, I have to mention what those ’90s directors grew up watching.
First off, I’ll just say that I don’t think many artists do new things. They usually do old things in new ways. The writers and directors of the late ’80s to ’90s grew up during the era of New Hollywood; the period of time after censors loosened up, and sex and violence were in fashion. The creation of film ratings (like PG and R) allowed films to approach stories in a way they couldn’t before. Compared to the films made before the late ’60s, New Hollywood films had a darker edge to them. Prior films weren’t allowed to let the bad guy win, there couldn’t be any sense of counterculture, or anything that challenged America patriotism. There was usually a defined story structure and clear moral systems for audiences to follow; everything had to be family friendly. New Hollywood saw the rise of films like Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, The Godfather, Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver– films that challenged those norms. After the box office and critical successes of films from filmmakers like Scorsese, Kubrick, Polanski, Bogdanovic, and Coppola (to name a few), Hollywood was ready to fully embrace the new and the youthful. This included a temporary return to the idea of directors as auteurs, which is the most powerful people involved in a production, the ones running the show and getting their demands met by the studio.
The New Hollywood era didn’t last past the very early 1980s. Largely attributed to Michael Cimino’s 1980 follow up to Deer Hunter: Heavens Gate. A monumental flop that is only equaled by the ambition and scope of the film itself. Like blood in the water, the studio heads swooped in and snatched the power back and put an increased focus on action, comedy, marketability, and acceptability. Thus, ushering in the wasteland of 1980s cinema.
Sundance and The New Class of Auteurs
The New Hollywood era opened the door for young filmmakers and new kinds of films, but independent films weren’t openly embraced. Prior to the 1990s, independent films were thought of as being the campy, Roger Corman-esque style. They were associated with the grotesque side of filmmaking, and thought of as poorly made sideshows to the mainstream studio audiences (likely one of the reasons independent horror films thrived). They were as varied as the filmmakers who created them, but they were typically seen as lesser than to their big budget counterparts. It was the era of Troma films and The Toxic Avenger.
There was an unspoken assumption that no one chose to make independent films; they just couldn’t get any better work. The reality is that independent films were just that: independent. They were made outside of the traditional major studio system without major studio financing, and often without their distribution. They were driven by casts and crews aiming to create films that big studios didn’t want to directly make. There was an implicit hierarchy with independent directors hoping to find legitimacy by moving into the studio system, but that’s mostly because Hollywood had no interest in backing independent auteurs after Heaven’s Gate. Independent directors either had to move up the corporate structure and acclimate to the mainstream, or stay on the outskirts as a niche director embracing weirdness for the sake of weirdness. There wasn’t any sense of prestige attached to just being an independent filmmaker; they were just part of the system.
That all changed at the start of the ’90s and the Sundance Film Festival. When Robert Redford created the Utah Film Festival, he wanted to make it a showcase for independent filmmakers. Though, founded in the late ’70s, the festival didn’t come into its own until 1991 when it officially became the Sundance Film Festival. With Sundance, independent films gained a new level of prestige, and independent filmmakers gained a new level of access to both audiences and distributors. For young directors, rising up through Sundance meant rising up by the merits of their own filmmaking abilities, rather than studio politics. It meant selling their own vision, and more than anything, it meant being a Hollywood cool kid.
As a result, the 1990s saw a return of auteurs: Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Richard Linklater, Darren Aronofsky, and David O. Russell. They all made names for themselves by finding success through Sundance, and each one contributed to film’s expanding style. They all grew up watching Classic Hollywood films, of course, but they were raised at a time that New Hollywood experimentation was in fashion. Their films all had a style, and that style was all based around going subvert to contemporary Hollywood’s expectations. Independent films birthed the “indies” we know today because of the Sundance generation.
If New Hollywood was about deconstructing the stories audiences expected, the Sundance generation was about reconstructing them and turning them on their heads. Everything became a choice, and every choice made had to reflect the independent director’s style more than anything else. The independent directors of the ’90s accepted that they were popular and accepted film trends, but they asked themselves why those trends were there and what would happen if someone broke them. For example, young ’90s directors absolutely loved filming in black and white. At that point, color films had become fully standardized, therefore filming in black and white was, for the first time, a straight up artistic choice that didn’t have much to do with financial constraints (except for making lighting scenes an easier process). In addition, there was a move toward mundane surrealism, stylized naturalistic dialogue, and narrative experimentation that was a throwback to the ’60s and ’70s. The independent films of the ’90s were just as radical for their time as the ’60s independents were in theirs. Case in point: Darren Aronofsky’s Pi:
Independent directors solidified their reputation as the tastemakers of film with features like 1992’s Reservoir Dogs— a film that barely saw any distribution, but started to go whatever the 90s’ version of viral was. That film did the opposite of what a Hollywood film would do; even though the main event of the story is a diamond heist, all the onscreen plot takes place before or after said heist. It was a choice made out of financial necessity and artistic ingenuity. As good as Reservoir Dogs was, the true catalyst that made major Hollywood studios acknowledge independent films was Tarantino’s 1994 sophomore effort, Pulp Fiction. Of course, the independent film renaissance wasn’t exclusive to America. On the other side of the pond, then-little-known Scottish director, Danny Boyle, and his second film, Trainspotting (1996), were helping to create a global push to change cinema. Trainspotting revolved around the lower class youth of Scotland and their struggle with heroin. It mixed young talent and an amazing soundtrack. Like its US counterparts, it was more focused on telling a human story with sharp dialogue and surreal sequences, rather than being a CGI spectacle.
By the late 1990s, the outside was now inside and Hollywood would once again develop an appetite for young directors with a fresh take. There was a sense that independent filmmakers in this period, at least the ones who came up through Sundance and the indie circuit, were using their positions as outside filmmakers to make something that major studios would legitimately be unsure about making. They were united by being different, and by making films that were against the mainstream style of Hollywood.
Of course, the journey from independent to indie quirk has just begun. Look out for part two next week as I examine the Dogme 95 movement and Jim Jarmusch.