There are few people as committed to creating and championing independent cinema as Memphis-based filmmaker Kentucker Audley. His site, NoBudge Films, offers cinephiles access to a rich and varied array of modern microbudget gems refreshingly devoid of the studio-approved gloss that permeates so many so-called indies. Many films on the site are available in their entirety, such as Audley’s acclaimed 2010 effort, “Open Five,” an intimate portrait of struggling artists, as well as its 2012 sequel. You can also find Joe Swanberg’s unforgettable vignette, “Marriage Material,” pairing Audley and Caroline White as a longtime couple who have differing views on the necessity of child-rearing.
Audley’s new film, “Sun Don’t Shine,” marks the directorial debut of veteran actress Amy Seimetz, who recently starred in Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.” Seimetz’s quietly riveting crime drama casts Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil as lovers desperately running from the law in the Florida backwoods. Sheil’s performance has earned worthy comparisons to Gena Rowlands’s galvanizing work in John Cassavetes’s 1974 classic, “A Woman Under the Influence,” while Audley evokes Rowlands’s co-star Peter Falk in his anguished attempts to maintain control while being perpetually in over his head.
On the eve of the film’s Chicago premiere, Audley spoke with Indie Outlook about the beauty of long takes, his love of Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” and his own distinctive method for blurring the line between narrative and documentary.
Q: How did you get your start in film?
A: It all started when I was growing up in Lexington, Kentucky. I went to high school there and that’s where the seeds were planted. I started writing scripts and making short films. When I moved to Memphis, there was a film cooperative called the Memphis Digital Arts Coop that was an office space/art house theater where people were making DIY projects. It was the place that helped me begin to understand that making films was possible and that people were doing it. You could screen your film after it was made and you could initially use their rental equipment to make the film.
Q: What was a film you saw that made you want to commit to the art form?
A: “Bottle Rocket” was a big one. That was the first film that I was obsessed with. The obsession was kind of all-consuming and that was something that I had never felt before. I had never felt that passion for anything else, and it took me years to realize that the passion I felt signified that filmmaking was where I was headed. I would be quoting “Bottle Rocket” incessantly with my friends and making pilgrimages to meet Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman.
What struck me in “Bottle Rocket” was the humor, the rapport between characters and their vulnerability. I responded to their sensitivity and their innocence, particularly within the Dignan character [played by Owen Wilson]. He was very excited about life but he was also very sensitive, and I think I responded to the combination of those two things. Even though my films aren’t stylized or scripted in the same way, I think that the ambition coupled with the innocence and sincerity remain in my work. Even now, putting those two things together is highly important to me.
Q: Some writers have referred to the “Open Five” films as narratives, while others have labeled them as documentaries. How do you personally view them?
A: The goal is to break down as many of the barriers as possible. I want to call myself Kentucker and be Kentucker in the films. I don’t want there to be a separation between myself and the persona I’m putting out for the film. I want it to be sort of one and the same. I want to stay as close and true to myself as possible. There are limitations to that, and there are barriers to presenting pure life onscreen, so there are constructions and recreations and liberties taken, but the goal is to get as close to me as possible and for the films to be as close to a documentary as possible. I would argue that my films are more of a documentary than a lot of documentaries, in that the extent to which we set things up and recreate things isn’t any greater than it is in a typical doc. I think the process is very similar to creating a documentary film. I’ve never completed one, but from how I understand the process to work, I think that it’s very similar, particularly in the way I’ve understood how Reality TV works. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that my films are a lot more real than Reality TV.
Q: Has your tendency to work with many of the same collaborators enabled you to be more comfortable and honest onscreen?
A: That’s the starting point, that’s the reason why I haven’t expanded beyond my friends circle in any large way. I feel a responsibility but also a comfortability with focusing on my subculture and not trying to make a larger statement. I’m 31 and those movies were made in my 20s. They were building toward something. I wasn’t comfortable at that point, and I still am becoming comfortable with telling a story about something that I’m not entirely familiar with or that’s more complicated than a relationship film. I’m trying to get comfortable with bigger themes and bigger stories. It’s not like I’m only interested in relationships, I’m certainly very interested in other topics, but my first intuition was to capture something small and make sure I knew it was coming from an authentic place. I wanted to have a cohesive understanding of it, rather than reach towards something larger that I didn’t comprehend completely but was pretending to understand for the sake of narrative or a more exciting type of cinema.
Q: I was elated to see Caroline play your girlfriend in the “Open Five” films, since I loved your performances in Joe Swanberg’s “Marriage Material” last year.
A: Caroline is my real-life girlfriend, and the approaches that Joe and I have are very similar. I like the idea that the films play off each other as companion pieces and that they’re referencing the same relationship. There’s an endless amount of territory to cover, even within two people. I’ve been accused of being narcissistic and self-important, but I don’t think that’s it at all. There is endless territory to cover and the deeper you go, the more interesting it is. Just because we made “Open Five” doesn’t mean that another film about us is not going to be interesting. I think I could make an interesting film about anyone not because I’m a talented person but because everyone’s interesting, and the deeper you go, the more interesting it’s always going to be.
Joe and I have a very similar process and we relate a lot on what we’re going for. The most impactful film I’ve seen in the last couple years is “56 Up,” which is the [latest installment of] a film series they’ve made every seven years in England about the same people as they age. That is hugely inspiring and poignant. This idea of time passing while focusing on the same people will always be fascinating and significant. One of the more emotional aspects about cinema is its ability to show how time passes and things change.
Q: Many of the productions you’ve been involved in have allowed the audience to explore the same people from many different angles as they evolve both as artists and as people. That’s part of what makes them so fascinating.
A: I’m glad you think that. It sounds like you’ve seen and thought about these films more than most film lovers. The more you see them, the more you begin to understand them as a whole, and that’s what happened to me when I first started seeing these movies in 2006, 2007. I saw them and thought, ‘This is the conversation that I want to be a part of.’ They seemed richer than an ordinary movie. There’s another layer to them, and there’s a tremendous amount of power to something that isn’t “just a movie.” Many films don’t want to make you feel as much or as deeply as you could because they make you aware that you’re watching a movie. But if you’re watching something that represents existence, that’s powerful. There’s more power in existence than cinema.
Q: One key example is the 15-minute take in “Marriage Material,” where you and Caroline have a frank conversation about your future and a great chasm of distance materializes between you, even though you happen to be sitting on the same bed. Was that always intended to be one take?
A: [laughs] Joe was pretty up front about not wanting to cut, and that was always the centerpiece conversation in the film. I don’t think either of us knew how long it was going to be. There wasn’t a scene breakdown. We just wanted to see how long we could make it believable. It was clicking and it allowed the film’s preceding set-up to pay off in a very gradual way. The idea of cutting away from it would’ve lessened its impact. It’s always exciting to see one continuous shot, and if it’s working and continuously engaging, there is no reason to cut away. It doesn’t let you have a breather, and it would be letting you off easy if it did, since this is such an intense conversation.
Most of the scenes in “Marriage Material” are done in one shot and we only did one or two takes of each. In addition to the aesthetic of not cutting, Joe was interested in the technique of making a film very quickly. We made that film over two days and that’s not possible if you complicate it, and I think there’s a beauty and power and simplicity in that approach. Filming two people talking on a bed without a cut is as simple as it gets. There is one cut because the data cards are only thirteen minutes long. The audio is uninterrupted, but we did have to cut in a shot of the fan while they were changing the cards.
Q: And the cut turned out to be fittingly symbolic, since it shows photos dangling from the fan that confine you and Caroline in separate frames.
Q: Amy appeared in “Open Five” before she directed you in “Sun Don’t Shine.” What sort of atmosphere does she create onset?
A: She’s an amazingly effective and clear-headed director. We both wanted to make a film that was more visceral and more plot-based, and there were some genre elements that we were both excited to play with. Amy was incredibly sharp and poised and I was very impressed with and inspired by her as a director. This is a period where I’m acting in large part because I want to see how other people make films and how I can improve as a director. Amy was very helpful to me. The way she made the film was very simple and intuitive. I think I have a tendency to complicate things and be neurotic and indecisive. Amy was very decisive in the way that she created the whole thing, and that extends to how she directed on a day-to-day basis. She’s very direct and since I’m often around a lot of awkward, indecisive, socially strange people, it’s very helpful to have people be blunt and to the point and uncomplicated.
Q: Your scenes with Kate are so phenomenally intense in this film. To what extent did you flesh out your character history prior to the events that occur in the film?
A: Due to the time constraints and due to the fact that we were taking a lot of liberties with conventions and genre, I didn’t think we really needed to have a backstory. The forward motion of the story was the important part. Amy and I are of the opinion that exposition is extraneous and takes away from an audience’s involvement. The idea is to keep it vague and not set up anything we don’t have to. That being said, we talked at length about where these people came from. Kate and I rehearsed scenes where our characters fell in love that didn’t make it into the film.
One complaint people have had about the film is that they can’t understand why these two people are together. I just think that the time frame of the movie is not the point at which you’re going to see these people being in love. We could’ve done a flashback and then maybe people would’ve believed it, but that was never the point of this film. The film was always set after the crime and before the punishment, so we couldn’t flesh out the connection between them in any major way. We tried to hint at it here and there, but I think that to say we shouldn’t be together or that you don’t see the love between us is missing the point.
Q: This film reunites you with another frequent collaborator, co-editor David Lowery, who cast you in his directorial effort, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
A: David has been instrumental in my moviemaking and I hope that he continues to be in it. I have a very small part in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” but it’s an incredible movie, and I’m happy to be involved in it in any way. David has seen and worked with me as much as anybody. I respect him tremendously in his versatility. He can edit and shoot and I’m so excited that he’s doing well and getting a lot of attention because he’s been helping people and honing his craft for years. He’s just such a pleasant, smart person. I always hope that I can work with him, whether it be acting in his films or having him shoot my films. He’s an amazing collaborator.
Q: What inspired you to create the site, NoBudge Films?
A: I felt like there was an absence of a curatorial presence for underground films of a certain ilk that are truly independent. There started to be a glut of movies with the ascendence of digital technologies, many of which were interesting and personal, but they weren’t being picked up by festivals or distributors. It just became abundantly clear that there were a lot more great films than there were places to play them. I felt like there was no home for my own films, and I had seen several films around the time I started NoBudge that were incredible. I submitted my films to festivals, got rejected from every one and had no ability to attract a distributor because there was no festival play. These films were just languishing. I thought it was necessary to start a brand or home base for films that were in danger of being lost.
The types of films I’m looking for are varied and encompass a lot of different styles, but I’m always looking for a sense of authenticity in each of them. I’m not interested in films that are reaching to assimilate into a mainstream idea of what makes a successful film. I like all kinds of films, and I hope I’ll be able to expand the curation to people apart from myself. Up until now, I’ve chosen each of the films. It’s a curated, self-release platform and I just make sure that I like each one that’s on the site. Since I have no aspirations to become a distributor, I don’t aspire to spend a lot of time on publicity. I’m not taking credit for these films, I’m just trying to create a platform for filmmakers to put all their energy into getting their work seen.
Q: The independent distribution arms of major studios have somewhat bastardized the concept of “indie filmmaking.”
A: Yeah, absolutely. That’s what NoBudge is. It’s free from so-called indie films over the last generation that were made for a million to ten million dollars. They are playing on a completely different field than these true indies, and I’ve been trying to build up a base free from larger influences and more established tastemakers. There is room for another tier of indie that is forming right now and that I’m hopefully trying to reference and be a part of. I like to call it “True Indie,” and that’s the most accurate description of what I think it is. “Indie” doesn’t mean anything anymore. You look at the films associated with “indie” on iTunes, and none of those movies are under a million dollars. I feel like it’s our responsibility to create a new term for the films that NoBudge is intending to focus on. It’s not an effort to overtake the indie term, because that isn’t going anywhere. My goal is to focus on the tier below indie and stay clear of the Focus Features and the Fox Searchlights and the bigger established tastes.
“Sun Don’t Shine” opens for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting Friday, May 3rd. For tickets, click here. The film is also available on iTunes, Amazon and VOD.