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Low Budget Legends

13Bit Interview With Manny Kirchheimer Part 2


We recently had the good fortune to visit with Manny Kirchheimer, filmmaking legend as well as low budget legend.

Manny is best known for his groundbreaking work in “Stations of the Elevated,” as well as “We Were So Beloved.”

Legendary editor, director, teacher and mentor to many filmmakers, Manny was gracious to recently talk to us about filmmaking, life and, of course, the philosophy of low-budget filmmaking. We at 13BIT are not afraid to say that we love Manny for his philosophy and his artistic integrity.

Enjoy!

Most of my films were made with my savings, my own money. I tried 22 times to get a grant before I got my very first grant for Stations of the Elevated. And that was only because I said I’m going to devote no more than two hours to my proposal. I sat on this couch. Well, it was an earlier version of this couch with that coffee table and I wrote for two hours. And I said, “No more.” And I used bullshit words like ‘quintessential’ and they come — you know, in those days we were using tokens and I say, “These trains come from the token ends of the earth,” you know.

You know, very clever. I got the grant. It’s the first one. And it was only for $10,000 but nonetheless, that paid for half the film. Since then I’ve gotten very few. I did get grants for — not nearly enough for We Were So Beloved, but, you know, these were all on film. They were all mixed at the best studio, Tommy Fleishman at either Reeve’s or at Sound One. So it was real, you know, these were real. I spent money to do it. Nowadays, I don’t have to nearly as much.

13BIT:

So how much did it cost to make your first movie, then versus now?

MANNY K:

My first movie was a 15 minute film called Colossus on the River. Color reversal. And I think it cost me three and a half thousand dollars for a 15 minute film. Now that’s 19 — it finished in 1965. So, I think things have gone up ten times. So that would be like $65,000 today. Now, for $65,000 today I can make six or seven feature length films, documentaries today.

13BIT:

What’s going on with people — you know, people say you can make a documentary for $10,000. They can’t believe it. Like, what are you doing? What should everyone else be doing to make low budget documentaries?

MANNY K:

Well, not everybody else can do it, on account of I use former students as my crew. Not everybody’s got that, you know. I’ve got three or four lovely guys who are devoted to me and who help me. You know, I do — all I do is buy them lunch or supper as the case may be. Zachary is the head of the crew. He’s terrific — makes his living doing wedding films and he’s making an independent film. So he, too, you know, he’s got the bug.

And he does that without grants. He does it from the living he makes, and so on. You know, and so I’m able to use them as cameramen. And on the last film, on this film, I had two camera setups. So, of course other people would have to pay for that. Or, I’m always telling my students — I’m saying, “Look, you now know 40 other people in film because you graduated with them. You say, ‘Oh, I don’t have any connections.’ But, you do.” You know, and when one person gets a job and somebody says, “We need a PA or we need an assistant camera or we need — you’re going to call your friend.”

Right, and then when you’re not working or on weekends, you guys can get together and you will have — you know each other, you know he’s a good camera man. You know he’s a good editor. You know she can write. You know, so I think that’s the secret. I think the secret is to nurture your friends in the business, in the field, and to do for each other in that way. But, of course, you have to make a living. You’re not going to make a living doing that as you very well know. Right, you’re going to have to do something else.

And actors wait on tables. Actors ride cabs, because they’re so eager to act. Now, of course a big problem with students is that they’ve got to pay off gigantic loans when they graduate. So they have to try to get work in the industry, which pays better than waiting. The problem with getting a job in the industry is that you work your way up and pretty soon you’re making pretty good money. But, pretty soon you’re also married and having a psychiatrist and children and suddenly there’s no time to do anything. So you just have to be careful. You have to worry about stuff like that.

13BIT:

I mean, it must be exhausting.

MANNY K:

I would think so. I would think so. Yes, but most work nowadays is freelance. There are very few people who are attached to a company as it used to be. And for freelancers, you know, they could work a half a year maybe and not work three months, and that’s the time to do that. I mean, I know some people freak out when they don’t have work. So they’re on the phone all day or they’re visiting offices. But, I don’t know if that’s productive. I think, you know, you say, “Okay, one day a week I’m going to make calls. Or one day I’m going to see people.” It doesn’t pay to do that five days a week. You’re not going to get any further, I don’t think. That’s been my experience.

13BIT:

When you make your movie, what do you hope to get out of it from a personal level and then, what do you hope for your movie?

MANNY K:

I just want to make movies. I really love making movies. And obviously, I’m making them for people. So I want people to see them. But, since I’m a one man band, I don’t have a good publicity promotion staff, you know. And my films work their way very slowly. I’ve never — I have had income from my films, but I would say I’ve never made their money back on any film at all.

But, you know, I go to festivals. I have screenings like the one you saw which, I mean, after all that’s a 1985 film. So that film is, what, 25 years old, just about. Right? And it still has a life. Stations of the Elevated, I just came back from Sweden two weeks ago. I was there for the weekend. They showed Spray Masters, Stations of the Elevated and Tall, the skyscraper film in two theatres in two towns at four screenings. They showed Stations of the Elevated in Sweden.

Now, that’s a 30 year old film. So, as I like to say, maybe only 2,000 people see one of my films, but I get to meet every one of them, you know. I mean, it’s a joke. But, I really dig that, you know. I mean, I really — it’s an excuse, sure. Would I want ten million people to see my films? Yes. But, I was almost resigned from the beginning that I wasn’t going to be big time, but I was going to try to make good films. And that’s really what I get out of it.

And by the way, I love the work on the film. I love editing. It’s like I’m a child, you know. Every day I get up and I’ve got this puzzle to put together, you know. It’s a challenge. I get a great deal out of making the film. Once it’s done I have to, you know, make phone calls and say, “Come see my film.” I don’t like that part. But, then I go on to another film.

MANNY K:

I mean, look, this Brecht forum that you came to, right, came out of the blue. We get a phone call one day because they’re doing something on public transportation. You know, I mean, what happens I think if you live long enough, things begin to happen. You know, because I mean, 30 years ago I might have been in despair. But, I noticed that, you know, the more films you have the greater the chance is that somebody’s gonna call you for something. About five, six, seven years ago, something like that, there was a group that put a screen on a tugboat. And it went up and down the Hudson, up and down the East River. Did you know about that?

13BIT:

No.

MANNY K:

Yeah, and they would show harbor films on that screen. It was a little outfit. They got a grant or something. You know, so they called me and they asked me for my first film, which is about the docking of an ocean liner. You know, out of the blue, you know, they — so, and that’s without any publicity, any promotion. So, things, you know, I mean this year in particular, this is the best year I ever had

13BIT:

We’re saying the same things. Obviously we want to make good movies. We’d love to get a lot of people to see them. But, you know, we keep saying, “Well, we’ll concentrate on making a good body of work that we like.”

MANNY K:

Right. I think that’s the spirit.

13BIT:

Like, hone your craft kind of thing.

MANNY K:

I think so. I agree with that 100 percent.

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