Louisville Innovative Film Alliance: Craft and community unite a local filmmaking collective

On a warm night in June, a gigantic helmeted football player glared facelessly from a mural on the side of the UofL football stadium, looking down upon the OPEN Gallery on Floyd Street; inside, people gathered within walls lined with art graphically depicting anime women in bondage. It is an intense visual; D.M. Meyer, host for the evening, needlessly explained that the gallery is an “uncensored” space, a place where creativity can be explored uninhibited — a fitting juxtaposition to the mainstream monolith just outside its doors.

We were there to watch movies: a portrait of a man’s inner demons clawing to the surface; a noir wherein a man returns to the café where he met his dead lover; a woman’s coming to terms with the truth about the disappearance of her lover; a foreign-language film about a man held at gunpoint and his son’s desperation; a heartbreaking look at the life of a homeless gay teen. This event was held to serve two purposes: to premiere the latter film, Meyer’s “The Early Year of a Statue,” and to publicly announce the existence of the Louisville Innovative Film Alliance (LIFA) while showing off the work of some of its members.

Louisville is a city which fosters and cherishes the arts. Art galleries dot Nulu and Clifton and the walls of local restaurants and coffee shops are often adorned with the products of local painters; writers can share their work at any number of regular literary events around the city; our music scene is, of course, thriving. Yet, there is very little emphasis on the art of film in our city. Once there was the prolific Louisville Film Society, presenting a wide selection of interesting and eccentric cinema, but except for very occasional film screenings, these days they are largely silent. Even with the Louisville Film Society, however, there was no definitive place for a would-be filmmaker to find a community to encourage his or her craft.

The local filmmaking scene is “something that needs a good bit of nurturing,” says Dane Becker, vice-chair of LIFA. Becker has loved movies his whole life. As a child, his father snuck him into PG-13 movies such as “Batman” and “Beetlejuice.” He became enamored with the idea of the filmmaking process, inspired as a child especially by the films of Tim Burton. He received his first camera at age 8, a MiniDV cam that he would later use to make his own versions of Indiana Jones and “Pulp Fiction” — the start of a lifelong filmmaking career. As an adult, Becker formalized his film education, attending a six-month film program hosted by Warner Brothers at the University of Southern California. He also attended the Rising Star program at the Savannah College of Art and Design where he learned direction, production and production design. From there, he got involved in Meddin Studios in Georgia, through which he was hired to work on everything from Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” to the second SpongeBob Squarepants movie to “The Paula Deen Show.”

After Meddin Studios went defunct, Becker returned to Louisville, where he promptly joined every local filmmaking group he could find on Facebook, sending messages to people about projects and attending any gatherings that occurred. It was at a meeting at Za’s Pizza that he met D.M. Meyer, who had been playing with an intriguing idea: a filmmaking collective, an official group that people could join to network and connect over their love of film and filmmaking.

Meyer, too, had been frustrated with the Louisville filmmaking scene — or lack thereof. His interest in film also came at a young age. Every Friday night was film night with his step father, who showed him classic films such as “Casablanca” and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. “It was mandatory, so I got this appreciation for film early on,” says Meyer. He had also been interested in writing from the age of 8. Encouraged by his parents, he wrote constantly, and the passion stuck. “It was the only thing I could do that I knew I could do, that I wanted to do,” he says. In 2010, after studying creative writing and film at Western Kentucky University, focusing on screenwriting and poetry, he made his first serious foray into filmmaking with a surrealist project entitled “The Hush.” Originally meant to be feature-length, it ended up as an under-realized short film. The detriment was a lack of resources and adequate funding. “It’s really hard to get connected to people who are doing anything with film in the city,” he says, “especially back then.”

His experience in making “The Hush,” however, inspired him in regards to the potential for filmmaking in Louisville — specifically craft-driven films with high-quality writing. After completing and copywriting the script, he sent it out to everybody film-related he could find locally and on Facebook, managing to even garner interest in places such as New York and Atlanta. “The reason why, they said, was because of the script,” he explains. “They hadn’t seen something as well-written as that.” Meyer is not naively bragging on himself — his following project, “The Early Year of a Statue,” is an intensely moving work, not merely because of its heartbreaking subject matter, but because of believable characters brought to life by effective dialogue and poetic narration.

Meyer made “The Early Year of a Statue” with literally zero budget, but with a larger network of people involved than his production of “The Hush.” “What I realized is when you have a lot of people together, you don’t need as much money,” he says. After completing his film in April, he spoke to his friend Michelle Jaha, a local production manager who has worked on films such as the recently-premiered “Where Hope Grows,” about the desire to make craft-oriented films, “or at least trying to push the boundaries.” Jaha, of course, knows film people, and with her help Meyer set up a casual get-together at Za’s Pizza — attended by, among others, Dane Becker. Ideologically, they connected immediately, and when Meyer approached Becker about his idea to start a nonprofit filmmaking group, Becker responded that, along with his extensive production experience, he has lawyers in his family. “[Dane] has the exact same kind of ideas and dreams as I do about the organization, so he’s kind of my right-hand man in this,” says Meyer. “He’s been phenomenal because he’s got a great eye and he’s extremely talented.”

Ten people attended this first unofficial meeting of LIFA; 30 people came to the second meeting; 50 came to the third — growth which was, of course, incredibly encouraging to Meyer. “Once I had established who was on our team, it was so much better than I could have ever dreamed it to be,” says Meyer. “Everybody who has come together, we’re all in unity on this and they’re all about the idea, so it worked out amazingly.”

Boiled down, LIFA is about two things: craft and community. Meyer sees the two as intertwined: “It’s hard work these days to raise any money for a film that’s got artistic leaning,” he says. “If you’ve got a film that’s influenced by Fellini or by Godard, once you start saying those names, people are like, ‘I don’t know, it’s not going to sell as much…’ We can, as a group of people, more readily raise money for local art films,” noting as well that art films are also often cheaper to produce, as they generally contain fewer explosions and visual effects.

Becker describes the idea of craft-driven films in our community as “something new. Most people don’t go into film with the drive of craft. Students do, but people who build companies like this, they don’t care. They just want money.”

Meyer hastens to add that just because somebody wants to make a zombie movie doesn’t mean it can’t be an art film. “It just means … don’t make a zombie film for the sake of a zombie film. Make a zombie film because you’ve got something fresh or different,” he says. Within LIFA, “we’ve got people who are going to make horror films, we’ve got people who are going to make genre films, and then we’ve got people who want to break the boundaries, and that’s what it’s about.”

“It doesn’t always have to be … a story that touches people, something about homelessness or feminism,” says Becker. One of Becker’s inspirations is Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead,” a low-quality, shoddy-looking film which is immensely popular because the idea and the excitement connected with audiences. “I always wanted to make an ‘Evil Dead,’” he says. “I want something that’ll thrill audiences, because that’s what cinema is: It’s something you experience.” He emphasizes the importance of not only the technical side of craft-driven filmmaking, but also the raw passion of the filmmaker. Drawing a comparison between a film as notoriously bad as Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” and as great as Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” he says that “you can almost feel the man holding the camera; you can feel the filmmaker behind it, whereas most blockbusters, it’s like paint by numbers. You can’t feel any of the filmmaking behind it because there is none.”

If craft is the driving force of LIFA, community is the engine that keeps it going. Meyer imagines a person sitting at their typewriter in their basement working hard at what could very well be the next “Citizen Kane,” but with no one to turn to and nowhere to look for resources. This is essential: Filmmaking is perhaps the most necessarily collaborative art form there is, and Meyer wants to reach out to that lone person who doesn’t know what they’re doing and doesn’t know where to start. “It’s hard to find filmmakers who reach out and take on people who are new to the whole thing,” he says, “but it’s also hard to find filmmakers who do that and also want to set a higher bar, artistically.”

Becker agrees as to the importance of being available to the less-experienced. When asked what he wants to see out of LIFA, he responds, “Number one, I want the space to be able to teach people how to do this and nurture any sort of creativity that comes through us … If you’re a writer who doesn’t have a camera, if you’re a director who doesn’t have a crew or a script, we have all those things; you can just come over here.”

Becker is himself a wealth of knowledge and experience. He produced his film “Escena,” which he screened at the event at OPEN, from a script brought to him by a Latino film student — and Becker, who does not speak Spanish, managed to make an exciting, compelling foreign language film. “I can make mostly anything,” he says. “People have thrown at me, ‘I want an ‘80s action sci-fi that looks like it was filmed on a crappy VHS.’ OK, we can do that.”

Becker emphasizes the importance of a community in the world of independent film, describing the output of places that don’t have any kind of a group as “horrible … Like, black-and-white movies about lesbians and pudding” — apparently an actual thing — “it’s just really awful stuff.” People who want to make movies but don’t have the knowledge or the experience, he says, often end up either giving up or just making the same kind of thing over and over again. However, “if they get with people who are of a bit of a higher standard, not egotistically, but they just have more experience … then they could actually make their vision into something that could be really great.”

Members of the group are encouraged to bring their individual projects to the table not only for networking with people and resources, but also for workshopping. LIFA currently meets monthly at OPEN, where members can present their ideas to the group for discussion or bring in a screenplay to workshop. They have also discussed the idea of making collaborative films — films conceived and made by the group, or sub-groups — and of hosting quarterly film premieres, not only for these collaborative films, but for individual output.

The idea of the Louisville Innovative Film Alliance was conceived in April, but within only a few months it has grown into a fully-realized organization. In July they established a board (with Meyer as chair and Becker as vice-chair) and official nonprofit status is pending. As of this writing, they are still in the process of hiring a treasurer for the group to manage a business account, after which they can accept donations. Meyer also plans to implement membership fees. With the money, he dreams of being able to rent a studio space for open usage, as well as, perhaps, an editing suite.

“We’ve got to establish Louisville as not just a place that makes B-movies,” he says. “Louisville is also a place that has people who are deeply engaged in wanting to make films that could go to Sundance and win, as opposed to going to a horror film festival.” He hopes to grow large enough to be able to exploit tax incentives and attract great actors and “real top people.”

If this rapidly snowballing process is at all overwhelming, Meyer doesn’t show it — he comes across as totally assured about the whole mission. “There’s a lot of confidence in place because there’s so much of a need for it,” he says. In addition, those who are already involved are completely committed to the idea, and Meyer feels that it shows in that they are making the most unique films in Louisville. “One of the proudest things that has happened is [at] the screening for ‘The Early Year’ and the other films, there were a lot of people who commented that they came looking to see a student film and what they got was more of a Hollywood grade.”

Meyer is completely optimistic about the future of LIFA. “We’ve got enough support for it to grow,” he says. “There are a lot of thirsty filmmakers out there.” He emphasizes that even if for whatever reason financial backing takes a while or falls through, they are at this point an established group regardless; the network is firmly in place. “If you have a film and you put it out there, we’re gonna make it, and we are making them, so we’re already successful — it’s just, how much more successful can we be?”