Creator of 'Unspoken' Returns to Discuss the Art and Challenges of Making Movies
This is part two to my conversation with the indie filmmaker, Marc Clebanoff. As preparation for a forthcoming review of Marc Clebanoff’s film, Unspoken, I sat down with the writer, producer, and director himself to ask him a few questions about the film. However, as we spoke, I saw there was going to be much more to our conversation. Clebanoff is living the dream of many college, independent, and amateur filmmakers. He has gone from tinkering with screenplays to studying filmmaking in college to producing his own feature length film, and working with some amazing and talented people in the process.
Clebanoff is a University of Southern California alum and Los Angeles resident He started Odyssey Motion Pictures (2004) as a platform to launch Unspoken, as well as MC Camera Works, a full service resource for independent filmmakers, including an equipment rental division, located in the San Fernando Valley just outside of Los Angeles.
While still on the topic of Unspoken, I asked Clebanoff about what inspired him. “I’m very much a fan of dark, underground, art-house films,” he said. “If it’s dark and done on a low budget, I want to see it. I just think those types of films more often than not are the films that really have something to say. I appreciate a good action movie but a lot of times, its just entertainment for entertainment value and nothing more. As a filmmaker, I think that I have a great responsibility. Aside from maybe politicians, we have the power to influence the most people. If I’m taking that responsibility, I better do something with it.”
Clebanoff went on to say, “I’m a big fan of anything that’s dark and provokes thought. The Aranofsky films, Todd Salondz’s films, as lewd as they may be, they’re interesting and they get a reaction out of people. Whether it’s a good reaction or a bad reaction, I just want to get a reaction, that’s my goal.”
I asked Clebanoff if he was intimidated comparing himself to big name directors. “Intimidated is probably the wrong word, but I am definitely inspired by a lot of people,” he said. “One of the things that drove me crazy about film school is that everyone wanted to be the next George Lucas or the next Steven Spielberg. The Matrix came out and everyone wanted to go and make the next Matrix. That’s great and it gives you something to aspire to, but I did not fit in very well because I wanted to be the first me. I wanted to do something that would establish me, not do something that everybody has already done. I’m not intimidated by anyone else because I am not trying to compete with anyone else. I am trying to carve my own little niche and I want to be known for something.”
Clebanoff went on to describe what he likes in films, what he aspires for with his own work. “Everything I do definitely has a darker element to it because we live in a dark world, so I think that it’s important to explore a lot of the emotions behind the things that we deal with and that we think about. There is the argument that people go to the movies because they want to escape the harsh realities of the world. I think that mindless entertainment is important, but I think that just as important are people going to a film that is going to make them think or question their own situation or the world around them. We live in a society where our thought process and our opinions are shaped by the media, and I want to do something more than just be dark or entertaining. I want to do something that will pose questions to people, as opposed to just giving them an opinion. I think that’s where I may stand out from other filmmakers.”
Clebanoff had some great things to say about the post life of his film, Unspoken. Things that apply to all indie filmmakers. “… Selling a film and making money off it is a simple equation: the lower the negative cost, the less money you have to make back before you start to make a profit,” the director explained. “However, something that a lot of people don’t take into consideration is the little expenditures after you make the film, like festival submissions. You can send out to 30 festivals that can cost anywhere from $25 to $75. Do the math. DVD dubs, making screeners to send out to distributors and festivals, those were costing me about $10 a piece because I was doing the DVD’s, the DVD boxes, the press kits, everything. Just in printer cartridges I was spending a small fortune. There are a lot of little things you have to take into consideration. A lot of indie filmmakers end up with maxed out credit cards. For a while, I was definitely knocking on that door.”
Feeling that Clebanoff had a bit of a different perspective from other filmmakers because he grew up in Los Angeles, the heart of the film industry, I asked him to tell me a little bit about his experiences. “I don’t think that Los Angeles was so much the influence,” he said. “I wanted to be a writer. I went into USC as a journalism major, found out real quick after the school paper completely rewrote my articles that I wasn’t cut out for that and I wanted to do fiction. I had done some screenwriting as early on as high school, just kind of as a hobby, not really taking it seriously. But after going to USC and seeing how predominant their film school was, I thought maybe it was somewhat of a viable career.”
But it was important, he added, to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground when it came to his expectations. “I was keeping it realistic. That’s why I’m not out trying to make $10 million movies. I think that it’s hilarious that there are aspiring filmmakers and writers out there writing the next Matrix or Star Wars, thinking that as someone fresh off the plane from wherever, someone’s going to hand them $40 million to go direct their film. It doesn’t work like that. Even the big people had to take baby steps.”
Clebanoff has done his homework when it comes to knowing the ins and outs of shooting in Los Angeles, and California at large. “Growing up here, I know places where I can shoot for free, I know the people I can approach. Anything I need is at my disposal here. If I go somewhere else, I am starting from scratch. If I need a restaurant location, I’d have to find someone willing to let me do it. Whereas here, I know three restaurant owners who would probably let me shoot there in off hours. LA is definitely conducive to shooting, not to mention that something that independent filmmakers would love to be clued into is that California now has one of the most competitive incentive programs.”
Clebanoff remarked on how California is working to keep the film industry in the state. “The state of California will reimburse you for all of your production expenses for anything you shoot on state owned property,” he said. “And it’s just a matter of filling out paperwork for the most part. Granted, that’s just site fees, equipment rental, permits, all of these costs that incurred. If you are on state owned property, you will get that money back at the end of your production after you file your paperwork. That’s very appealing.”
Unfortunately, this didn’t help him with Unspoken. “I wasn’t able to take advantage of that with Unspoken,” Clebanoff said. “But that is something that is out there. I have two films shooting this year and both are utilizing that. It’s great, you go out and shoot a movie for a couple of million, two weeks into post production, you get a check from the State of California for $200,000 and you can put that right back into the movie, or start paying back your investors; they’d be thrilled.”
Although the city offers so many advantages, Clebanoff isn’t looking to remain here for the rest of his life. “I don’t care to spend the rest of my life [in Los Angeles], but as long as I’m shooting a film I’m going to be here. I hope that someday I can afford to live elsewhere and come here when I need to work. LA is a very accommodating, yet very very harsh city. But its where movies are made.”
In addition to his film aspirations, Clebanoff’s rental company has been a growing business. “My dad motivated me to create a rental company,” he said. “He invested in the first camera. He told me, ‘Build this up, because if this film thing does not work out, you can at least tap into the business, take advantage of it, and have a very prosperous career.’ These rental companies thrive, if you can do them correctly. And for me, that’s starting to launch as well.”
Owning your own film equipment rental company has other perks, as well. “It helps me save a lot of money because I already have a lot of equipment,” Clebanoff said. “But at the same time, I am helping other struggling filmmakers get their stuff done. I am getting them equipped for a lot cheaper than they would be able to elsewhere. You have to stay realistic; you can’t just come out here and just be the next Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, John Woo, or Quentin Tarantino.”
Winding up our interview, I asked Clebanoff what advice he would have for his fellow aspiring filmmakers. “Start small,” he said quickly. “I definitely learned everything I needed to know to make Unspoken, but my advice is to start small. Don’t take on something that you’re not qualified to handle. Aside from the fact that it will be next to impossible to raise the money, even if you get the money, it could be a disaster if you have not had the experience doing something small first. My bigger film is going to be a lot better because of the experience that I had making Unspoken.
“Know your constraints and let them work for you instead of against you,” he continued. “I made Unspoken in a way that I want people to look at it and say, ‘good choice,’ instead of, ‘He only shot digitally because he could not afford to shoot 35 millimeter.’ A lot of filmmakers do that and it’s very obvious. I did something that would be complimented by that look. I new my constraints and I built around that. One primary location, five principle actors… I kept it very modest. And to do that, obviously the strength of the story has to be superior, because obviously it is going to be what carries it. But I kept it simple and I was able to at least get my ticket punched.”
With some relative pride, Clebanoff finished by saying, “At least now I am not a first-time filmmaker. I can go to people and say, ‘Look what I’ve done.’ People have not even seen Unspoken, but their already ready to put money in my next project. Just because of the fact that I’ve done it. There are resources out there, specifically for struggling and independent filmmakers.”