Turning 24 Days and $1 million Into a Real Indie Film

Award-winning commercial director Ali Selim didn't find a clear path to the world of moviemaking. He knew what his first project would be when he first read a short story by Will Wheaton, "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," more than 15 years ago. It seemed like a natural for a low-budget feature that would be shot on 35mm in Minneapolis farm country, and would deal with a specific kind of immigrants' story. After years of development, including a stint at the Cygnus Emerging Filmmakers Institute that taught him a lot about story, and some time spent fruitlessly knocking on doors in Hollywood, he finally raised a little more than a million dollars among friends (and friends of friends) and got to work.
Sweet Land has no traditional distributor, but October Films co-founder Jeff Lipsky came out of his retirement from film distribution to find some screens for the film – it premiered in Minnesota last week, and opens this week on three screens in New York City, where the Times praised "scene after scene of glorious 35mm images" and the Village Voice cited "breathtaking levels of color and clarity from old-fashioned 35mm." Not bad. (It rolls out in a limited national release over the next couple of months.)

We talked with Selim and cinematographer David Tumblety about style and storytelling on tight budgets and short schedules. Watch the trailer for Sweet Land, then read the interviews below.

Writer/Director Ali Selim
FILM & VIDEO: It’s been more than 15 years since you started down the road to making this movie. When did you start actually planning the shoot? And where did the money come from?

ALI SELIM: Probably about 1995, I used the money I had made in commercials to hire somebody to put a budget to it. I sent it around to Gill Bellows and Alan Cumming, a couple of friends who were actors, and they both loved it. They said it needed work. Gill said it was like a perfectly laid-out campfire, but he couldn’t find the match to light it up. He stayed with it, though. And then in 1999 he founded an organization called the Cygnus Emerging Filmmakers Institute, which came out of a positive experience he had at the Sundance Lab as an actor. He invited me and the script to attend, and that was another place where I learned a tremendous amount – I really had a sense of the industry.

The original budget was, you know, “It’s a $5 million film!” We ultimately put a budget of just over $1 million on it. That seemed more feasible. And I banged around the studios for the next couple of years, but it never had that thing a production company was looking for. I was lamenting the fact back in Minneapolis in the spring of 2004 to a couple of friends of mine who were successful businesspeople, 20 years older than me. And they said, “We’ll write you a check.” They wrote me a check for a sizable portion of the budget, and wrote a letter to their friends that said, “Why don’t you sign up for the rest?” After all that time, I think I raised the entire budget in a span of six weeks.

Did that happen because of a change in your mindset?

I think it was just time to make it. In the spring of 2004 I was coming off a string of antacid commercials. And I’m not sure why I became the antacid guy. There was a two-year run where all I did was antacid commercials. And I came home one day and said, “I just can’t do it anymore.” And we cashed in all our chips toward making the film.

Why did you want to shoot film instead of digital?

I just think it’s that kind of story. There are things that should be shot digitally. It’s like, when do you use a pencil and when do you use an oil brush? It’s a decision you make based on the final outcome. It’s not “Is digital as good as film?” It just feels different. And this felt more like an oil painting. I didn’t think about it that long and hard.

How did you connect with your cinematographer, and start talking about how you wanted the film to look?

After 15 years, I think I knew exactly how I wanted it to look. My visual references for it come not from films, but from Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Mark Rothko. The DP, David Tumblety, came on probably two months before we shot. I hooked up with him through his agent, who I had known back when I was doing commercials. I really connected with him, and he connected with my visual references, and I thought, here’s a guy who has the gumption to do this in 24 days, but here’s also a guy who understands what I’m saying when I say, “It’s like that Andrew Wyeth painting” as opposed to some more technical thing. I’ve worked with technical DPs, and it’s not as fun for me.

And did you know at the start that you were doing a digital intermediate?

It was the subject of much debate. I was very intrigued by it. I have a friend who used to be my AD in Chicago who's really successful now, producing big movies of the week. He's the guy. He liked the script, and he often tried to help me get something going, and he was encouraging me to go with a DI. He said, "It’s the experience you’ll want to have before you make your next picture – because when you make your next picture, that’s all that will be out there." But we couldn’t afford it, and he actually ended up calling Technicolor and asking them to help us out, which they did in a big way. There’s no way we could have afforded it without their support.

Did it have any effect on the way you shot the film?

I don’t think anything could have had any effect on the way we shot the film in 24 days! We just shot it, and I think Dave did a beautiful job. I think if we had timed the print, we would have spent a lot more money in answer prints timing it, because when you’re shooting that much that quickly you can’t control the sun. A lot of the time the sun was our key light. The correction process in DI helped us balance the film probably more efficiently and cost effectively than timing would have done.

Some cinematographers feel like during shooting they can forego some extra lighting work if they know they can adjust it in the DI, and it helps them move a little bit faster.

I don’t think we made the final decision to go DI until deep in the editing process. We were talking to Technicolor and our heads were spinning. We were throwing around words like “4:4:4 color space" and that kind of stuff. But the DP kept shooting, believing that it could go either way. We pulled some tests that Technicolor did so we could see what our shots looked like. We compared a chemical print with a DI and projected them back-to-back, and, aside from one sky shot with some hard lines between sky and grass where I could see a little movement, a little buzzing, I couldn’t tell the difference. I really believe in the process. I think this is the way to go – especially after being in the commercial world and color-correcting everything I do that way. Otherwise, I could come to film and have a real sense of color and saturation and not be able to execute it because I don’t speak “timing.” I think this was a blessing.

Sweet Land has a very specific and unusual pace and feel. Was that determined in the script or in the editing room?

A lot of those things come from within. It’s how you decide to tell a story. My storytelling references are painters and writers. I think the way Ethan Canin writes influences my pacing more than any filmmaker.

It feels very adult without being explicit in any way. It’s as if you’ve made this movie without paying attention to received wisdom about what’s sellable ‘ you haven’t tried to hot it up to reach a specific audience. It feels a little bit out of time.

It probably is. I hope that doesn’t kill it at the box office. But as involved as I’ve been in everything along the way, including distribution, I don’t know if I could tell that kind of story. Let me tell you the story the way she [gesture to an hypothetical viewer] would like the story to be told. I’m just telling it the way I know how to do it. Maybe it’s not even good. Maybe it’s just different.

You don’t have an imagined audience or an imagined viewer in your head?

I really don’t. I know it’s not hip urbanites. But I have to tell you, a lot of them see it and they say they really liked it. I showed a rough cut to a young class at the University of Minnesota, where a friend of mine teaches a film-appreciation course and he brought me in to show a rough cut. All of them were 20 years old, all of them had kind of a hip-hop rhythm to them. I didn’t expect them to like it at all. There were 105 people in the room and. if they were being genuine, most of them really liked it. Including this one girl who had the ultimate hip-hop rhythm, sitting in the front row, and she said, “You know, I kept waitin’ for the throwdown” – I didn’t know what that meant at the time – “and it never came. But now I think about it? That’s the sexiest movie I’ve ever seen.” And I thought, that’s great – I didn’t make it for you, I didn’t withhold for you, I didn’t even think about you when I was making it. But that’s great.

Has it been a struggle to find an audience without a traditional distributor?

It’s been a struggle to get distribution. We are not having trouble getting screens. We are having tremendous success getting screens, which is actually surprising me a little bit. But I would never do this again. I would never be like, “To hell with convention.” Because it’s really been a battle to get it out there. If audiences respond, I don’t think I’ll say, “I’m going to make another one like that.” And if audiences don’t respond, I have to say, “That’s the film I intended to make.” I don’t have any commercial apologies for it.

Cinematographer David Tumblety
FILM & VIDEO: What was your strategy for the film’s look?

DAVID TUMBLETY: I wanted it to look somewhat natural. What we saw [on location] looked so beautiful. We had to move very fast, so there wasn’t much we could do. I kept it very simple and tried to use as much natural light as possible. I bank on a little luck, and I think we got lucky with our weather. Some scenes we didn’t finish in a day, and they were cloudy days. It would be sunny for a couple of days, and then we’d have to finish the scene – and suddenly it would be cloudy again. We had some amazing luck. When you’re shooting a 24-day schedule for a movie like that, you have to count on that, or at least hope for it.

Did you approach the framing scenes, which take place in the present day and in 1968, differently?

I have my own 35 camera [an old Arri BL, which was used on the shoot along with an Arri BL 4S] with some older Zeiss lenses which were made back then, or maybe in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but they’re very sharp, and I decided to go with those for that particular period. The idea behind 1968 was that we were eavesdropping, with a documentary feel. So I used those older lenses to make it feel like a documentary from that period. When we did our digital intermediate, we gave that a different color scheme and a softer look in the DI. We tried to make some of the colors more pastel-y.

Was there anything especially challenging?

We shot some sequences day for night, which I haven’t done much of. That’s always a little hard to pull off. I thought it looked pretty cool on the movie. Even if we had a huge budget, we probably still would have tried to shoot those day for night. We could have tried to get a Musco light and do it that way.

Did the DI help you grade those scenes to be more convincing?

For sure. You definitely have a little more control over it. Early in the movie there’s a shot of the farmhouse from across the way – you see these corn blowers behind it – and we shot that in the middle of the day, but I think it really feels like dusk. I underexposed a little bit and took very bright lights and put them shining out through one window to give the illusion that it’s darker than it actually is.

How important do you think the DI was to the final look?

I was resistant to it because I thought we could get something very similar with contact prints. But we wouldn’t have had as much control. When you’re doing it with the traditional method, you sit with the timer and ask, “Can you do this, can you do that?” They say “Yeah, sure, sure” and make a print. It comes back, and you say “Oooh, not quite right,” and they have to go back and do it again. It’s not as exact a science. The other thing about the DI was we got a very good video copy. You usually have to make a low-contrast print to get a good video copy of the movie, and a lot of the time people simply run out of funds.