Don’t Chase Trends

Cee Lo Green put is so succinctly in the latest evolution of his career, “I’d be a pretty good thug but that wouldn’t compare to a great me” Don’t chase the trends. Don’t try and be like everyone else. Every time the hot new thing becomes a trend, the industry jumps on the bandwagon. But few realize the person who sets the trend only did so because they did not get on the bandwagon, they’ve been doing their own thing all along.

I just saw Ryan Coogler,’s Fruitvale Station, and it’s a great example of filmmaking, but an awesome example of low budget Indie filmmaking. It’s also not a movie that comes around much these days: The urban story of a young man doomed to die. Didn’t ‘Boys In the Hood,’ and ‘Menace II Society’ come out like 20 years ago? Yup. And don’t Indie films tend to flirt with more lighter topics like comedy or over the top Horror? Maybe. But just doing his thing, he’s  won Best Film at  Sundance, been picked up for distribution by the Winsteins and they’ll probably run the ball for another Oscar for Octavia Spencer…. because that’s what they do.

Hot Topics

Now many will say Coogler is following a trend by making a movie about a hot topic. As an Oakland native myself, I can tell you that sadly, there’s nothing hot or original about African American men being killed by the authorities in the Bay Area. Yes, he got rights to a murder that was pretty high profile, abut topping out at 120 murders in 2009, rights to victims stories are a dime a dozen. (Yeah, I know, Oscar Grant’s ‘incident’ was technically found to be manslaughter in court, … but just watch one of the many the videos on YouTube)

But if you think a Hot Topic is finding a subject that’s relevant to a small audience… Then why split hairs? My point is that Hollywood doesn’t think this is a hot topic anymore, so making this film, Coogler isn’t competing with Pacific Rim or Lone Ranger… He’s appealing to people who want to see this kind of movie.

New Technology

I know a ton of Filmmakers that hold their breaths and wait until they can afford the hottest camera and the most precious lenses. Fruitvale Station was downright grainy. It was at least shot on HDSLR, but it might have been shot on tape. (MiniDV anyone?) He didn’t wait for that Arri Alexa package or his homie with the RED to come through, he just shot the dang movie. Once it’s in the can, he had choices – namely, releasing the film to correspond with the Trayvon Martin trial. So suddenly, his film wasn’t just relevant to Oaklanders, the President of the United States was on TV talking about this kind of stuff. You can pay for that sort of marketing and endorsement. But you will pay if you get caught ‘waiting for the right time’ to shoot your film, only to see the perfect storm of events pass you bye.

Old Styles

The thing that impressed me most about Fruitvale Station was the cinematography. This wasn’t a bunch of wide shots, or dry static singles. The film had a definite film that seemed alive, and engaged with the story.  In an interview with Elvis Mitchell, Coogler said he wanted the story to be optimistic, despite you already knowing the end. Coogler went on to mention how he took lots of notes from the French New Wave movement, and he went in with the intention of creating a very personal voyeurism in the story. Yes, Coogler attended film school, at UCS no less, and he work shopped the script at the Sundance Lab. Some say this gives him a particular advantage in making a quality film, (and securing investors) but I say he took the time and did the work. He knew what story he wanted to tell and found techniques that supported the story. He didn’t use a bunch of lens flares and VFX shots because that’s popular these days and didn’t fall into other current trends, instead he made a film that really stands apart.

Fruitvale Station is a great example of what can happen if you do you. The filmmaking process takes forever it seems, especially for your first feature, and if you try to imitate what’s hot today, three years from now when people are just seeing your film, it’ll look dated, contrived, and derivative. Early on in your work, that’s OK, but that’s what short films are for, to  help you find your voice. But once you find it, you may discover you’re a little less Justin Bieber and a little more Willy Nelson. And that’s OK.

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