Independent Film in the Smartphone Age: A Conversation with Chris Bergoch

Due to increases in accessibility and technology, filmmakers like Sean Baker prove moviemaking has become more expansive than ever before.

The Democratization of Filmmaking

By Alexander Marais and Anne Howard

Filmmaking today has never been more inclusive, as Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch‘s latest movie proves. The Scope Weekly had the opportunity to converse with Bergoch about easy-to-access technology and filmmaking.

Left to right, Sean Baker, Willem Dafoe, Chris Bergoch. Photo credit Florida Project Production.

The release of programs like iMovie, Final Cut Pro, and Adobe Premiere have trumped the initially exclusive process of advanced post-production, enabling Hollywood professionals and amateurs alike extraordinary capabilities with the touch of a button.  These programs, with particular regard to the first former, are also available at cost-effective rates and even come with computer packages, further enabling easy access for people across a wide margin.  Another key step culminating in a vast range of filmmaking techniques is the rise, and evolution, of the digital camera.

Fiverr

With film stock teetering towards non-existence, digital cameras capable of competitive, cinematic image quality are now available in all shapes and sizes.  This has resulted in films a la Hardcore Henry being shot on a GoPro Hero 3, to the upcoming Steven Soderbergh feature Unsane being shot with an iPhone camera fitted with a miniature, anamorphic lens.  It is this same ability that has allowed independent filmmakers unorthodox access to things they could have only dreamed of, years ago.  This ranges from guerilla filmmaking techniques involving entire infiltrations of copyrighted landmarks (the ending of The Florida Project being filmed in secret at Disneyland) to filming complex stunts and even action sequences on a tight budget without requiring a permit or attracting the attention of authorities.

Particularly pertinent examples of this new kind of storytelling are the films written by Chris Bergoch, and directed by Sean BakerIn spite of the latter project being filmed almost entirely on traditional, 35-millimeter film stock, Baker’s previous venture Tangerine was shot on location in Los Angeles, on three iPhone 5s smartphones.  The money saved from this enabled Baker the ability to hire more extras and shoot more footage in West Hollywood.

Speaking to The Scope Weekly in an exclusive interview, Bergoch stated, “We both are cinephiles, and one of our favorite things is for a film to take us to a place we’ve never been before, or tell a story that introduces us to characters we want to spend time with.  The thing that’s so great about working with Sean is that it’s not like we write this screenplay, and then he goes off and shoots it.  I am there with him through the whole process, from casting to location scouting and then on set rewriting the script continuously through the shoot, upgrading it right up to when the cameras roll…It’s a really great process, and one in which I feel gives his films such a feeling of reality and spontaneity.”

VEGAS Creative Software

With these attributes in mind, the correct expression for the future of the film industry may not be go bigger.  It would probably be closer to get smaller.  The pros outweigh the cons, with lo-fi digital filmmaking continuing to advance in terms of capabilities, including image quality.  Video editing and alteration programs are not only being adapted for use on small screens but invented for them.  Take, for instance, the iPhone app Filmic Pro, capable of altering image status, frame rate, audio, and enabling online sharing of video clips.  One could argue innovation, in this field, will be all about making things portable and contained, rather than continuing literal expansion.

In the case of Steven Soderbergh, shooting his latest feature with an iPhone camera proved to be a surprisingly successful experiment, and one he is interested in continuing.  Speaking at the Berlin Film Festival, the filmmaker said he initially thought Unsane was headed for streaming.  “It wasn’t until we got back from shooting that I watched the film for the first time in a digital coloring suite, and I thought maybe we should go theatrical and the conversation shifted,” he said.

Yet, in the eyes of traditionalist Hollywood, a lot of these films still seem dwarfed by their bigger budget competitors.  The Florida Project was widely considered to be snubbed of deserved recognition at the 2018 Oscars, nominated solely for Best Supporting Actor.  When asked about the film’s lack of nominations, Bergoch said, “I really can’t even guess…in fact, it could be argued that this is the most Hollywood thing Sean and I have conjured up…What’s more Hollywood than using your imagination to create your own magic?”

Part of independent film’s winning card is its lack of necessity to please.  Due to the lack of studio intervention, indie filmmakers’ approach to material often results in eclectic cinema not matching the cookie cutter formula of the typical blockbuster.  When asked about The Florida Project’s success with audiences, Bergoch told us, “I’m not programmed to expect that kind of success…I think this might be due to the fact you hear ‘No’ so many times when trying to get these things financed, so you’re almost set up for it.  So it’s especially nice when you resonate with audiences, and you find out you were right to not take no for an answer.”

He has also stated that his and Baker’s process as filmmakers has personally affected him in ways outside of film that he never expected.  Referencing to the poverty-stricken characters in The Florida Project, Bergoch states, “There are real Halleys and Moonees out there, so the more people are aware of this situation, the more something can be done about it.  I know more about this subject than I ever did before, and I hope to continue to be an ambassador for this cause.”

Next week we will be speaking with Darren Dean, a producer, and writer behind films such as Tangerine, The Florida Project, and the upcoming adaptation of adaptation of the graphic novel A Contract with God.

Feature image: Credit: Shih-Ching Tsou. From left, Mickey O’Hagan as Dina, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee, Radium Cheung and Sean Baker making “Tangerine,” directed by Mr. Baker and filmed with an iPhone 5s.


Remember to subscribe to our newsletter. Follow The Scope Weekly on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.

If you would like to become a contributor to The Scope Weekly, read our submission guidelines, and apply. For product reviews, click here.

More from Alexander Marais

Barbara Corcoran & Cousins Maine Lobster: How a Lobster Roll Food Truck Became An Enterprise

How a Shark Tank investor and two Maine natives forged an incredible...
Read More