By Adam Neustadter Nov. 11th, 2013
Julien & Claire is a micro-budget mood piece that examines the romance between a young American dancer and a struggling French musician, after their chance encounter on the streets of Paris. This was a movie made on a whim, and shot in France over ten days. Here are some of my thoughts on the process of making a film, without much of anything, and then trying to get that film seen...
I knew I’d be spending part of the summer in Paris, and about a month out I got the crazy idea to make a film while I was there. The spark came from a friend of mine in Paris, Olivier Bernard (Julien). Olivier had left his band Die Romantik in New York City and moved back to his hometown of Paris, where he began busking daily. He was one of the few people I knew in Paris, and his new life there became the inspiration for the film. Olivier, his music, his girlfriend, his mother, his friends, and much of his world would be documented on screen. The filmmaking process began with a treatment. It was a rough story outline, but also a manifesto of sorts on how this production would be an experiment to try and make a movie with just the essentials and nothing more. I definitely referenced the French New Wave a lot, but also spoke about what was happening in the music industry and what we could learn from it. Dan Lewis, a producer friend from New York, came on board for what many would have seen as a fool’s errand. But he was up for the challenge and became an integral partner for the remainder of the process. I wrote a script in about two weeks, while the treatment went out to a few potential financiers who were all generous enough to give us some money. Indie film is never a safe investment, but these folks were cool enough to let us run with this experiment and I’ll always be grateful to them for that.
Next, I went to Paris and prepped as much as we could in about two weeks. During this time I was planning to rehearse with Olivier and his then girlfriend Matilda Kime (Claire), but the couple decided to leave town on holiday instead. They did some homework and prepared in their own ways, and luckily they returned to Paris on the first scheduled day of shooting. Our small team of friends and collaborators from New York and the UK – Dan Lewis (Producer), James Henry (DP), Theo Maniatis (Executive Producer, VFX), and James Swift (Camera Operator) – assembled in Paris, and with a few helpful locals we hit the ground running. In ten days we ran all over Paris and Normandy, shooting the film without permits. Our crew was as small as it could be. No 1st AD, not even PAs. We kept things loose, adapting to whatever issues came up on the day, improvising set ups and scripting new dialogue on the spot when new locations were discovered. Surprisingly we got most of what we thought we needed. It was an incredibly fun experience. It was grueling at times but it never felt like work. It felt like an adventure. I got to live out my New Wave fantasy, and it was exhilarating. We left Paris feeling pretty good about what we did. In my mind, Richard Brody of The New Yorker would be praising this bold picture in a year’s time. Well, that didn’t happen.
From here on out, things were not as fun. Post was a nightmare. When you can’t pay editors what you should be paying them (and what they deserve to be paid), it’s easy for them to flake on you. And this happened for a long, long time, with a few different editors, until the talented Sofi Marshall stepped up to take the reins. She started over completely and turned around a cut lightning fast. As brutal as the editing process was, not all of post was so painful. My friends and close collaborators Dominic Matar and Elliot Thompson did excellent work on the audio side of things. Dominic, who was Olivier’s bandmate in Die Romantik, composed a gorgeous score that really elevated the film to another level. Elliot did all the mixing and sound design. My friend Theo Maniatis was also a huge asset. He graded the locked picture and dialed in the distinct look of the film. Once the movie was finished, we wanted to get it out there as soon as possible since we had lost so much momentum in the editing stage. We knew the film wasn’t for the big festivals and that any potential distribution deal would be primarily digital, so we decided to try something new. Chill.com, a popular social video site, offered us the opportunity to be the first narrative feature to launch their new direct-to-consumer VOD service. Chill had 23 million active users so it seemed like there was a huge built in audience, with the social tools to spread the word quickly. Julien & Claire was instantly available to stream or download on any device, anywhere in the world. The day after the launch, our trailer and clips from the film were featured on the top of Chill’s home page, getting tons of views and immediately engaging that community. It was awesome.
Then just days after the launch, the social video side of the site was killed to focus solely on VOD. That meant the community of millions now had no reason to visit the site, and the seemingly built in PR machine was no more. The team at Chill is super smart so I’m sure they had good reason for the change, but I felt it was unfortunate. The VOD platform was still great, and gave us the chance to interact directly with our viewers. It also gave us the tools to sell the soundtrack and offer other unique experiences to the audience. But we quickly learned that one platform, without an active community supporting it, is definitely not enough.
When Kentucker gave us the chance to feature our film on NoBudge, we decided to do a one week free run as an experiment. Well, more people watched the movie in that one week than had purchased it in months of being on Chill. That was interesting. What this proved was that there is an audience out there for a small film like this, but they don’t necessarily want to pay for it. And the truth is, I don’t necessarily want to charge them for it either. So as we slowly roll out on to other digital outlets like the ad-supported Hulu platform, via the new distribution site Kinonation, we’ve decided to throw it back up on Vimeo as well. Having a clean, ad-free version online that’s easy to watch and doesn’t cost anything is important for a film this size. Vimeo’s new On Demand service is fantastic, but at this point I think the “Tip Jar” option is enough for us because it gives people the choice to pay what they want. If they feel like throwing us a couple bucks, that’s great, but they don’t have to.
Hollywood and most filmgoers don’t know what to make of a film like Julien & Claire, even though it’s reasonably accessible. You can’t give a disclaimer that says, “before you watch this, keep in mind that it was made in 10 days in a foreign country with non-actors and no money.” Knowing all that doesn’t make it any less imperfect. The only way this film could have been made in the small window of time I was going to be in France was at this size and with these elements, so it is what it is. But some of the indie film community can understand a film like Julien & Claire for what it is, rather than dismissing it for what it’s not. It seems like the best way to find this niche audience without a PR budget is to make it as available as possible. The more platforms and screens it can be watched on, the better. I’ve often compared this film to an intimate album written and recorded in a bedroom with a few friends, where the limitations led to improvisations that became part of the recording’s charm. Not every home recording sounds like Elliott Smith, but hey... Not only do people need to keep making them, but we have to make sure the audience who actually wants to hear them knows they exist and where to find them. That is what makes sites like NoBudge so important. The internet is so big and full of criticism and bullshit, but if passionate people can curate and share their tastes with like-minded people, it can be incredibly powerful.