5 Questions With is a recurring feature where we sit down with a member of the film community to get their unique perspective. Here, we discuss the changing landscape of independent film, and pushing the boundaries of storytelling with filmmaker/experience designer Lance Weiler ahead of his visit for our upcoming screening of his film, The Last Broadcast (1998). This show will mark 20 years to the day since its world-premiere at the County Theater.
“The Last Broadcast” was among your first major efforts as a filmmaker. What was it like jumping into a project like this for the first time?
Stefan Avalos [Co-director/writer/star of The Last Broadcast] had made a feature film previously, called The Game (1994). I’d been trying to raise upwards of $250,000 to shoot a sci-fi movie, but was not successful. This was around 1996, and at that time I was working as a camera assistant on commercials, music videos, documentaries, feature films, things like that. I was waiting at Penn Station, flipping through a magazine, and it had an ad for a card that you could put into a computer that would allow you to edit video. That was very novel at the time because most editing systems were incredibly expensive, cumbersome, and not really accessible to the masses. I saw it and thought that was really interesting. Subsequently, Stefan and I started talking about it and ended up getting one of those cards, building a computer, and then thinking “I wonder if we could make a movie for no money?” We kind of gathered a bunch of friends and family and hatched this plan to kind of tell a story that would be accessible to us.
It was really kind of about breaking from permission-based culture in some regards. At that time it was very difficult to make movies because they were all shot on film, they were more economically challenging, so this card and the ability to make something digitally really democratized the process for us, and it became incredibly liberating in terms of making the work. In some ways it’s interesting because the film was made for so little that it felt like we had incredible freedom with it. We were able to do it in a way that was liberating both in terms of the production, and also creatively.
I always think that’s interesting, and I’m always trying to get back there in terms of the beauty of that naive sensibility of that time where anything was possible. I think if somebody would’ve told us, or we would’ve known how hard it was going to be, we might not have done it. It was this beautiful moment where the technology became accessible, we had a story that we were burning to tell, and we were able to make it in a way that was accessible.
Our upcoming screening of “The Last Broadcast” marks 20 years to the day since its world premiere at the County Theater. What do you think has changed in the landscape of independent filmmaking in that time?
It’s interesting because some things have changed radically, while others have not changed at all. In certain regards, the way in which a lot of films are delivered to theaters today is very similar to what we were doing 20 years ago when we were innovating and releasing the movie digitally. At that time, pretty much everything was released on film, now you’re hard pressed to find film prints in the vast majority of larger theater chains. In that sense, it’s kind of interesting how the delivery has changed, but then a lot of the distribution challenges remain the same. If anything there’s more and more work being made, which is wonderful, but at the same time, it makes it harder to exhibit that work. Some of that’s related to the attention economy, and how many different options that people have, but in some respects it’s given rise to the democratization of the technology I was talking about. It’s given rise to all these new, emergent and wonderful voices, diverse voices that maybe didn’t have access or opportunity prior. I think we’re seeing a really interesting expansion of the definition of what independent film is, but I think the gatekeepers might have just shifted. You have the rise of streaming-based platforms like Netflix and Amazon. You have groups like Facebook and Apple moving into original content, it’s just a different time. In some ways, during the nineties when we were making The Last Broadcast and releasing it, that was almost a golden age of independent film. It was really kind of booming at the end of the decade, and as we entered the early 2000’s.
I think there’s really wonderful work being made, but the challenge of that work reaching people is still an issue. Interestingly it’s not an infrastructural issue now, but rather more of an attention economy issue, whereas when we were doing it 20 years ago, it was an infrastructural challenge. It used to be difficult to go direct to an audience, now you can go direct, but there are so many other things competing for that time. I’d say the quality of the work and the production value of the work is improving, but I think that it’s becoming more challenging for artists to be able to sustain themselves. A lot of the opportunities that existed prior have just evolved and changed. It’s much more challenging now to get a film up and running. There’s a lot more focus now on serialized content, short form content, and other modes of storytelling. In some regards independent film is thriving, but the culture to support it is struggling.
I think that’s what’s really amazing about the County Theater, what you’re doing is celebrating independent film, and independent voices, as well as providing wonderful programming and access to films that are maybe harder for people to see, while allowing people to see them in a communal way, which is challenging too.
You seem committed to pushing the boundaries of storytelling and how we connect with technology, most recently with your interactive work, “Frankenstein AI.” What can you tell us about your approach to these projects?
A thing that I’ve become really fascinated by is that at the end of the day I believe stories are really about connection. Inherently, all of us are storytellers, I think it’s kind of baked into our DNA. This is what I’m interested in doing, both in my work, and at Columbia University, where I’m an associate professor in practice, as well as a founding member and director of the Columbia University School of the Arts Digital Storytelling Lab. I’m fascinated with exploring new forms and functions of storytelling, and forms that might be using things like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, or the internet of things. The functional approach kind of looks at how stories might used in a way that they can help mobilize people, or effect policy change. They can help to educate in some way, or create a greater sense of understanding in addition to being something that can be wonderful as a way to entertain. I’m very excited when I think about that work, because when we started The Last Broadcast, we were kind of scratching at this idea of where story and code kind of collide, and where, as we move forward, with things like augmented reality, that narrative can spill into the world in ways that have never been possible before. As we move forward as storytellers, we have a whole new kind of palette that we can play with, a new canvas that’s emerging. I’m fascinated by this because the rules haven’t been written for it, the grammar isn’t there yet. When they first started making film, they were pointing the camera at a stage and mimicking what they had seen in theater, then one day somebody realized “Wait, we can take it off the tripod! What if we take the camera outside?” At that point they started to shape a new grammar, in terms of these ideas of reverse-shots, close ups, medium/long shots, and so forth, it created a new language. I think we’re at this really wonderful place where a lot of that is not written yet, and there’s tremendous opportunity to explore what that might mean. It could change the way that multiple industries work, but also most importantly, it means that we can reclaim what it means to tell stories, and be a part of how narratives are shaped. We see this happening all across society now in the way that certain political narratives are shaped. We lived in polarizing times, so I think the ability to be a part of a shared or a collective narrative, or even just being able to understand how they can be a part of shaping a narrative is exciting. I think we saw the rapid democratization and commodification of those tools and now sit at a point where we can break away and not be so fixated on the technology. We can begin to push into the realm of “How can we truly be expressive with this?” and “How can we tell stories with this?” I find myself kind of at the edges of that.
About twenty years ago, Stefan and I were recognized by Wired magazine as being two of twenty five people helping to reinvent entertainment and change the face of Hollywood. I’m excited that we’re still doing that; I’m excited that we’re still at the edge of what’s happening twenty years later. I’ve shifted from making a digital work at that time, which was next to impossible, to what I’m doing now where I had a project at Sundance this past January, which was one of the first AI based projects they’ve ever featured. I’m still pushing and experimenting and learning. A lot of that is done now both through the university, where I lead and shape the vision for that, but also in my personal work as well. I still work in traditional film and television but I’m really interested in this new territory. I think with Frankenstein AI, there’s something really interesting within that project because it’s the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s seminal novel, and within that there are a lot of themes that are incredibly relevant today. She explore these ideas of isolation versus connection, science versus nature, this notion of “the other”, the idea that something that you create could get out of your control. Arguably, she created science fiction as an 18 year old woman. I hope to keep exploring that type of work and infusing it with new, emergent technology, so we can move away from some of the dystopian narratives that exist around artificial intelligence. It’s not going away, it’s one of the largest advancements of our time and if we’re not all actively engaged, or we don’t take the time to understand what it is, or the implications of it, we’ll find ourselves in a situation where we’ve unleashed something beyond our control. You see that very apparently there’s a lack of full understanding of technology. Arthur C. Clarke would often say that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I think the more that we can understand these emerging technologies and the more we can weave humanity into them, the better. Hopefully we can be in a place we’re able to shape these technologies before they shape us.
What are some of the biggest influences on your work?
Well it’s kind of a crazy, eclectic mix. One that jumps to mind is Buckminster Fuller, who was a visionary and an architect. I really enjoy delving into systems thinking, which may not be a choice that people gravitate towards initially. Stan Brakhage comes to mind, the experimental nature of his work and the visual tapestry he was able to create, definitely influenced what I’m interested in. Also, I just love the fact that the vast majority of his films were silent. On another side, I really enjoyed the Cinéma vérité of Frederick Wiseman. He would release something like High School (1968), in this area the film was banned, as were a number of his other works. When the people would see his films though, they would feel that it was an honest representation of who they were. I just think that the power of what can be done in terms of documenting or sharing something like that is really important. I really love Stanley Kubrick’s work as well. I love the meticulous nature of it, the very strong visual design, and the attention to detail. I was just recently at Thomas Edison’s laboratory with my son over the summer, and was just struck by the tenacity and the number of tries it took to create a filament for the lightbulb, just thousands and thousands of times of trying something. I really have a respect for that willingness to fail and pick yourself up and try again. My work sprawls across a whole bunch of different areas; I feel more and more that I want it to draw from as many different sources as possible.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m working on some new film and television projects at the moment. I’m also working on a new project called Where There’s Smoke, which is something that I kind of started and stopped over the last seventeen years or more. I’ve built it out into this live documentary, meets immersive theater, meets escape room. I just recently did a showing of it in New York, and I’ll soon be taking it out and touring the world with it. It’s a bit of a collaboration with my father that explores memory and loss, life and death, and looks at growing up in a fire-fighting culture. I’m very excited about it. I’ve also just been really leaning into what I’m doing at Columbia, I really love it. It’s this amazing space that we’re creating for experimentation, to have that freedom to experiment is very exciting.
Lance’s closing thoughts on the 20th anniversary of “The Last Broadcast.”
I think that what’s so wonderful about The Last Broadcast, looking back at it 20 years later, is that there are things that we were exploring in that that are now so relevant. This was pre YouTube, Facebook, and social media. Stefan and I were exploring this idea of what’s real, what’s not, and the question of “How can you make sense of the world around you when things start to become digital, and anything can be manipulated?” When I looked back on it in a screening earlier this year, I was struck by what a wonderful time capsule of the late 90’s it is, how different the internet and culture were at that time, and how we were making a comment on that all the way back then. A number of these things actually happened over the course of those 20 years that have passed, which is really exciting. The film has this wonderful kind of cinematic-historical footnote where it was truly innovative in the way that it was released, and the subject matter has become so relevant today.
I feel very fortunate and honored that it’s gone on to become a cult film, and that it’s been seen all over the world. When I look back on it and know that it all started there at the County Theater in Doylestown, I mean, it’s just been a wild ride. I know Stefan would feel the same way. We feel really excited to bring it back and celebrate the 20th anniversary where it all started.
The Last Broadcast will be playing at the County Theater on Tuesday, October 23rd at 7:30pm, and at The Ambler Theater on Wednesday, October 24th at 7:30pm. Both screenings will be introduced, and followed by a discussion with filmmakers Lance Weiler, and Stefan Avalos.
You can also join us for Frankenstein (1931), playing Wednesday, October 25th at 7:30pm at the Princeton Garden Theater. Presented as part of our Prof Pics series, the film will be preceded by an introduction and presentation by Lance Weiler including more information and a small demonstration of the Frankenstein AI project.