When Noah Baumbach (“Kicking and Screaming”) premieres his second film “Mr. Jealousy” at the closing-night gala of the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival on Monday, he can afford to be relatively calm: His movie has already been bought by Lion’s Gate Films for release in June. But calmness at a film festival packed with industry types is rare for an independent director, as Baumbach knows from experience: “You don’t think, ‘Oh, how nice to see this with an audience.’ It’s more like ‘Do they think this is a marketable item?’ That can take some of the fun out of it.”
Baumbach empathizes with the struggles of the unfunded indie crowd: Getting his first film, “Kicking” (1995), to the screen was an exhausting battle. Producers were wary of the script — a smartly written comedy about a group of directionless college grads — because it sparked memories of “Reality Bites,” which had performed poorly.
Baumbach finally tempted Trimark Pictures, which was nervous about the film’s lack of a bankable star. So Baumbach quickly faxed Eric Stoltz, who had previously agreed to play a small cameo role. “I basically begged him to play a larger part that hadn’t been written yet,” the director says. Stoltz agreed within 24 hours, and Trimark committed the budget. “I had spent three years getting to this point, and the script was sacred to me,” says Baumbach, “but it was the part I made up in one moment that ended up getting the movie made.”
The critical success of “Kicking” made it easier to find backing for “Mr. Jealousy,” which again stars Stoltz, this time as a substitute teacher who infiltrates a therapy group to learn about the ex-lover of his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra). Raising money for a new project, however, is still a challenge — which is why Baumbach convinced the crew assembled for the $2.5 million “Mr. Jealousy” to squeeze in another six-day shoot (with most of the same cast) for his third movie, the $250,000 “Highball.” “It’s much easier to keep shooting than it is to start a movie,” he says. “We went from shooting four or five script pages a day in ‘Mr. Jealousy’ to 25 pages a day in ‘Highball.'”
Although his low budgets and closing-night spotlight at LAIFF give Baumbach strong indie cred, he has no snobbery against the studios and considers “independence” to be in the eye of the director. “I’ve always felt the standard is independent vision,” says Baumbach. “Martin Scorsese makes independent films, even within the studio system, because they’re so distinctly his.”
For more on the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival:
Wednesday: How to be indie in the land of the studios
Monday: Eric Stoltz, king of the indies