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The Sundance Kids

For alumni of America's most prestigious film festival, winning is less than half the battle.

"To survive on the fringes making these films, I'm basically a miser," says Walkow, who shot Crashing for $7,500, on DV, with a five-person crew. "I'm pretty non-materialistic. I think objects own you; you don't own objects. And I'm just real sensitive to the fact that our lifespan is shockingly brief. So, what do you want to do with your pitiful few years on Earth? Do you want to be a lawyer and do contracts all day? That's great if you enjoy that. To me, making art is the most engaging thing to do. It's sensual; it engages every aspect of my being. I would rather live simply and be able to come to a little office and do that every day than live on some grandiose scale and not be able to do that. And I think that's possible in our culture."

The way Jill Godmilow sees it, that utopian artist's life may not be so possible, at least for the next crop of aspiring filmmakers. "I have students graduating with $90,000 in debt," she tells me over morning coffee at her Tribeca apartment, a few days before she's due back at the University of Notre Dame (where she has taught film production since 1992). Her demeanor is stern, but caring, and strands of her long, graying blond hair fall around her face as she speaks. "I have wept with my students when they realize what that means," she goes on to say. "You've basically got to walk into a cubicle the day you graduate and start paying that debt off until you're 45. What it takes to be an artist, the kind of time you need -- you can't do that and be paying off $90,000. That's why the revolution won't start in this country."

Like Walkow, Godmilow pinched her pennies in the years after Waiting for the Moon, a lyrical and bittersweet portrait of the relationship between the writer Gertrude Stein and her lover/muse Alice B. Toklas. Living in New York on as little as $20,000 a year, she applied for grant money and tried to parlay her Sundance success into a second dramatic feature. "I wanted to make more," she says. "I thought I was a rank beginner when I made that film, and I wanted to do better. It wasn't because I had to be a Hollywood director; in fact, I respected other kinds of cinema much more. But I had my shot, and I wanted to do it again. So I did develop three projects, and they were all good, and they all should have been made."

Of those projects, the one that came closest to fruition also proved the most stinging loss. As Godmilow was heading back from the Paris shoot of Waiting for the Moon, the expatriate American filmmaker Robert Kramer (Ice, Milestones) gave her a copy of Raymond Carver's short-story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. She was halfway across the Atlantic when she began to see the movie version in her head. "I figured out that even though the stories were about different characters, they were all stories from his life and that you could string them back like pearls, with blackouts in between," she says. "That way, the Carver would be preserved." Soon, Godmilow had a script, a partner in future Brokeback Mountain producer James Schamus, and $1.5 million of a projected $2 million budget. "There were 10,000 permutations. I had an agent by now. Everything looked good. We were in pre-production twice. James and I scouted locations. But we could never pull it off. We could never get that last $500,000."

Then, the death knell -- and a lesson that the independent filmmaking arena can be as cutthroat as the mainstream -- came in the form of the late Robert Altman. "Somebody gave him a book of Ray Carver stories," Godmilow recalls. "He then got ahold of our script -- he knew we had the option, that we were out there raising money everywhere -- and he just starts to raise money for the same material. He would call me up here and say things like, 'Look, just give me the rights. You're never going to make this film.' Eventually, the option ran out, and we didn't have the right to endlessly option the material. Ray, who loved our script, had now died; Tess Gallagher, his widow, was worried about how she was going to survive. I've never seen Short Cuts, and I never will."

It was that experience that chased Godmilow into the world of academia, where she has since managed to make three additional nonfiction films, including What Farocki Taught, her extraordinary 1997 "remake" of a 1969 film by the German documentarian Harun Farocki. Bruised but not defeated by her misadventures in the Hollywood trade, Godmilow today has few regrets. But like almost everyone I talked to for this story, she's understandably livid about a recent New York Times article titled "Survival Tips for the Aging Independent Filmmaker," which made a pathetic, pitiable figure out of the maverick American independent Jon Jost (who edited his best-known film, All the Vermeers in New York, in Godmilow's apartment) simply because his films play to small audiences and failed to bring him copious amounts of fame and wealth. "The people who write articles like that can't imagine that there's anything else to do in cinema, or that anyone would choose to do those other things. But [at the time of Waiting for the Moon] I had already made Far From Poland [1984], which was a breakthrough documentary shown all over the world. I didn't have to play games with Robert Altman in order to have a life."

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