By: Mut Asheru
Longtime, independent filmmaker Neal Miller took a moment out of his busy schedule to speak with Knowshi.com. His current project is RAISING FLAGG a film featuring Alan Arkin, Lauren Holly and Barbara Dana among others. He reveals how the film came together and also opens up about his film career.
“Raising Flagg” actually took over 7 years to make. Neal and his wife took several years to write the script the way they wanted it. At one point it looked as if the film wouldn’t happen. From loss of financing to the exhaustive search for a distributor, which was thankfully found at Cinema Libre, Miller reveals how the film came together.
Knowshi: How did you get such a wonderful cast together for this film on an indie budget? You are an indie correct?
Neal – Absolutely. I had done a film with Alan and Barbara Dana back in the mid 80s for American Playhouse series on PBS. We did a one hour Christmas special based on a short story about these same two characters Flagg and Ada Purdy. It was very successful. We got great reviews and so forth. The agent representing the author of the short story sent me a collection of his work and I found another story in there. The character names were different but it was obviously the same characters 15 years later.
So I sent the story to Alan and Barbara. They said we both loved those characters and would love to do it again. So I said why don’t we try it as a feature this time. Having Barbara and Alan on-board from the very start was a big help. After the screenplay was done the other actors , partly because of Alan being in the cast and the script appealing to them, came on-board even though they could have made other studio films making a lot more money.
Knowshi: What kind of adventures did you run into while making this film?
Neal – (chuckle) You name it. The first major adventure was half the money was supposed to come from this executive producer in Los Angeles and we were going to put up the other half. And the very day we started shooting, I was standing on the porch of the Purdy house in a small area of town outside of Portland, I realized this guy in L.A wasn’t going to come through with a dime. We were so committed at that point with the cast, crew and location. Everything was in motion. Nancy and I realized that we were going to have to borrow the rest of the budget which we did because we just weren’t ready to pull the plug on the project. So that was a big adventure right there.
But I had faced that kind of dilemma once before when I first got started in film. I was just writing and producing at the time on this film and the director was Joanne Woodward of a film that I wanted to do for PBS. Same problem. Had we not eventually had the film acquired by American Playhouse my wife and I would have been bankrupt. We’re used to taking risks on things we really believe in. That’s what you have to do as an independent filmmaker sometimes.
Knowshi: What kind of internal dialogue happens when those moments arise?
Neal – The internal dialogue is Do I risk this? Do I risk this much money on a film that doesn’t have distribution? It’s the old risk/reward game. Are you ready to take this kind of risk or not? There’s just a lot of anxiety associated with it.
Knowshi: At any point did you all want to go in a different direction with the script for “Raising Flagg”? What did you throw in that may not have been in there before?
Neal – Well, what wasn’t there was a lot of the characters. The story was basically about Flagg and Adam, but there was very little about the children. So we had to basically construct all of the characters in the story and the interaction between. Because we saw it as a somewhat as an ensemble piece about a dysfunctional family. Aren’t they all? The thing that appealed to us was that it dealt with the issue of forgiveness in a family. There hasn’t been that very much done on that subject. We feel very strongly about that.
We deal with what happened when they were growing up and particularly with a father as difficult as Flagg is. So once we hammered out what each character was like, what kind of profession they were in, what kind of interactions they’d had with their other siblings, their parents etc… then the story really unfolded from there.
Knowshi: As far as distribution goes, what kind of things have you been doing to get the film out there?
Neal – Well, we searched and searched for a distributor and had very little luck doing it. We tried showing it at film festivals and we actually “four walled” it in some theaters. That is we literally rented the theater and put the film in there to see how it would do.
We were getting great reactions from audiences. We realized though that it was a film that needed special handling. It wasn’t the film that a major distributor was going to grab onto. It doesn’t have a lot of sex and violence. It’s a family oriented character driven story and those are hard for a lot of distributors to sell even with Alan Akin and this great cast. So it took quite a while until we finally found one.
We had the same experience, for example, that My Big Fat Greek Wedding had, which they showed it to just about every distributor in the business turned it down and they finally ended up taking it out themselves. They hired the right person to open up distribution in three cities and the rest is history.
And we were turned down by everybody. And finally we found a distributor at Cinema Libre studios that really got it. He saw the film, he saw what audiences are seeing and he said “yes I want to go with this”. The problem you run into is that most distributors will only go to Cannes, Sundance and Toronto and maybe a few other festivals. They’re so busy, there is so much product out there they’re asked to look at that they want screeners. They want DVDs to where they can sit in their office while they’re doing other things and watch a film that way and this is not that kind of film it doesn’t play that way. And this wasn’t the film that big festivals wanted because it’s not dysfunctional enough. It really has to be seen with an audience on a big screen, the reaction is totally different that way.
But anyway, Rich Castro and the staff at Cinema Libre, made a commitment to it and they’ve been working on it because they believe in the film.
Knowshi: So what do you hope we come away with after watching this film?
Neal – A positive feeling. Someone in one of the film festival audiences said “…wasn’t this sort of a feel good ending and weren’t we sort of going Hollywood with it”. We were all up on the stage including some of the cast members and Matthew Arkin said, “What’s wrong with a feel good ending? We all know how things can end up miserable why not end something on a positive note. We don’t think it has a Hollywood ending.”
Flagg gets into an argument with a neighbor and he eventually sues him which doesn’t endure him with the neighbors. It’s a rural community. He get’s increasing depressed and wont get out of bed and claims that he’s dying. So it’s the family that has to overcome their relationship issues to try and get him out of bed. So there’s a glimmer of hope at the end
Knowshi: When an indie releases a film how long does it realistically take it to push it until it gains its own legs?
Neal – That’s a good question Mut. I m not sure there’s a right answer to that. It really depends on the film. I think distributors will take the best shot they can. In this case Cinema Libre is doing the best they can. They’re placing it in a very wide variety of places and theaters. From large multiplexes to smaller one/two screen art type houses;
university towns to big cities. They’re getting quite a broad cross section of the population I think to see how it does it does in different places under different demographics.
Usually you can tell something in the first weeks. If there’s a sign that it’s going to catch on. A lot of theaters, and this is what we ran into when we tried to release it ourselves if it didn’t do enough business it was gone after a week because they have the studios that say we need so many screens and they get priority so you’re out. And it’s not the kind of thing where a smaller theater will say “well we did pretty good business lets see if we build a bigger audience” and so forth. That’s really a tough one to call.
All in all, Neal says that even with the various anxiety causing adventures that can happen in the life of an independent filmmaker, he wouldn’t change a thing. His love for film would win out if he had the choice to do everything all over again. If you’re lucky enough to catch up with him; talk to him. He has a wealth of information and experience that he’s willing to share. And check out Raising Flagg when you get a chance. We caught it at the Angelica Theater and LOVED it. Alan Arkin plays one great cantakerous man, that you just somehow still gotta love.
For more information on Neal Miller and Cinema Libre visit: