VENT! INTERVIEWS
Fred Carpenter
 
 
For those of you who don't know of Fred Carpenter, he's a producer, actor, writer and sometimes director of low budget independent feature films. Carpenter defines an independent film as "a film that is produced without a distribution deal and whose budget is less than 1.2 million dollars." He describes his own films as "leave-your- brains-at-the-door" entertainment. He proudly shoots all of his 35mm movies on his native Long Island, New York. His films are often violent and/or vulgar, with titles like Small Kill (and Small Kill 2, which is actually a recut of Small Kill with added scenes, starring Gary Burghoff - yes, Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H - as a psychopathic drug dealing kidnapper), Murdered Innocence (directed by Frank Coraci, who went on to direct comedian, and once college roommate, Adam Sandler in the soon-to-be-released The Wedding Singer) and, most recently, Schmucks (featuring a flatulent grandma toting an arsenal of guns, a scantily clad obese woman tied to the hood of a car, and Carpenter with a short-circuiting bug up his ass). All of his films have secured distribution through companies like HBO, Taurus United Artists, Showtime and Columbia TriStar. In other words, he's made a career of being a filmmaker.    
 
 
 
VENT!: How did you decide to become a filmmaker, and how did you get started?  

CARPENTER: Growing up I loved movies, and I had the movie bug. So I went away to Stony Brook (University) to study film and theater. Got away from the folks because they want you to get the real 9 to 5 jobs. Tell them you want to act in movies or make movies, they'll panic. Going away to Stony Brook I had independence, I was on my own, I decided this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. The second week of school, some kid got killed on the train tracks at Stony Brook, and I say to myself, fuck, I could die tomorrow, so I might as well try to do what I want to do for the rest of my life... And that was the thing that said, go for it. Everyone says work your 9 to 5 job, worry about retirement, but when that happened I said to myself, that poor bastard, man... I'll never forget that.  

Anyway, I always had the initiative to do it, and I studied as much film and theater at Stony Brook... People who graduated ahead of me in the acting program, they were waiting tables, so I said if I have to get a job and I have to throw out garbage, why don't I do it in a motion picture studio. So I applied to all the studios. At United Artists, I got a job in sales, then I worked in publicity at Paramount Pictures, worked for Tamara Rawitt who went on to produce (the television show) In Living Color, and I worked with a lot of famous people- Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Toback, who wrote Bugsy... So I really call that my postgraduate education because you realize with all these people, it's like let's make money, and it's a business. Really, what is a Hollywood motion picture? It's a multibillion dollar corporation putting out a product. I decided why don't I form my own movie production company to make low budget but quality independent films, and incorporate Long Island and use as much of Long Island, because it makes business sense. I'm not gonna go to some state I don't live in. I figured, I live here, I got a place I could put my head on a pillow... To date I'll be starting my eighth (feature) film in nine years in May of this year called Reunion, written and directed by Steven Peros, who also cowrote Murdered Innocence 

VENT!: Did going to film school have significant effect on how you went on to actually make movies?  

CARPENTER: Stony Brook really wasn't considered a "film school" like NYU. Basically, what you're doing is you're learning the basics. Probably what really prepared me most was working for Paramount Pictures and United Artists... I wasn't learning technically how to make films, but you're learning about the business. A movie in the Hollywood system is nothing more than a product that's going to be promoted and put out there, and if it's really good and the people love it, the second, third week people will keep paying to go see it. But let's not forget now the way things are. If Warner Brothers puts out a movie, Warner Brothers owns HBO and Cinemax and HBO Home Video, so you know it's got all those distribution outlets. Viacom owns Paramount Pictures, Paramount Home Video, and VH1, and MTV, and Showtime and the Movie Channel. So it's big business.  

As a matter of fact, (to be in) independent filmmaking, you gotta be a nut, because what you're doing, to make an analogy, is making a car in your backyard for a few dollars and now you're going to compete with General Motors. 

VENT!: So would you recommend a formal film school education?  

CARPENTER: Absolutely. The biggest joke I get is, especially when it comes to acting or directing, everyone who watches TV or watches movies thinks they can act or direct, but really 99% of the people can't. And in an independent film, I don't care how good you are, you're never going to show your full potential.  

Talking about formal training, there was a girl that I knew, she was a secretary. I hadn't seen her in a while. Saw her a year and a half later. She says to me, "Fred, you know, I'm an actress now. I'd like to send you my head shot." I said, "Great. Where did you study?" She says, "I didn't. I got breast implants." And I'm thinking, if that's the case, Robert DeNiro must be the most well endowed actor in Hollywood. They just don't get it. If you have a cavity, would you go to someone to work on your teeth who didn't go to dental school? You got to get the basics, you got to get the background. 

VENT!: After you worked at United Artists and Paramount, what chain of events led you to produce your first feature? 

CARPENTER: I did television commercials as an actor, and then I got involved with music videos, which was a trip in itself, and then I got involved with making independent films... The first thing was, how much money can I get. In Hollywood, you get a product and they give you the money to make the film- you need 4 million, you need 40 million. In independent filmmaking, you get a penny to maybe a couple hundred grand. Your first film you're not going to get a couple hundred grand. I did a movie called On the Make (1989), it was finished off at $77,000. I knew I could get $75,000, so we wrote a script for the amount of money we could make the film that I thought would be sellable to the public. I didn't want to make "exploitation" or low-budget T&A shit, but I wasn't going to take the chance making an art film either. On On the Make I probably had the best reviews of all my films because it was an AIDS awareness movie and it had something to say. The hardest thing is to raise money. You got to go to family, friends and relatives. You make money for people, and then it builds up. When we got to Murdered Innocence (1996), we had an investment group. It's like anything else- it's a pool of people out to make money. But that's production. Then you need the distribution, to sell the film and make money on it. 

My first film was Chase of Temptation (1987)... then I did On the Make, then Small Kill, which aired on Showtime and the Movie Channel. How I did that film was I convinced Gary Burghoff, who played Radar on M*A*S*H, to come in for an image change. We paid him a decent amount of money for a week's work. We literally wrote a script, a shoot 'em up to exploit the Radar image. It wasn't like we had a script to present to him. It was, let's have him do this, let's have him do that. And we went nuts. We had him in bed with a guy, humping a woman in a chair, kidnapping kids. The only thing he wouldn't do was cut up a teddy bear with a razor blade, because (he said) "Now Fred, I draw the line."  

We then did Murdered Innocence which got picked up by Columbia TriStar, appeared on HBO Asia and was on video in 39 countries. One of the greatest things that can happen to an independent filmmaker is having your little independent film get picked up by one of the most powerful and biggest motion picture studios in the world, Sony. The downside is, it's theirs. Not only am I bottom of the totem pole, I'm like a piece of dog shit on the bottom of their shoe. It's like an afterthought, it's like don't waste our time. They put the movie out on video, and it's in like 5000 video stores. They didn't do a Blockbuster deal because they didn't want to drop the price. I can understand that, but when I call up to complain, their answer is, "Hey, Fred, we make movies for 40 million dollars- you're lucky we're talking to you." I'm thinking, I'm blackballed from this company because I got a big mouth and I'm fighting with them. But overseas they did a great job. In the U.S. I don't know what they're doing with this movie. I really don't. 

VENT!: So you began by raising money through family and friends? 

CARPENTER: Well, they're the only ones you can go to. Keep in mind, too, if somebody invests in real estate, and it goes down in value, you still got something. If you invest in a movie and it loses, you're never going to see a dime. Also, people research it... For every dollar an independent filmmaker has, Hollywood has thousands of dollars plus a distribution deal. 99% of independent films are never going to see the light of a projector, never mind making money. So you got to go to people like, "Mom and Dad, give me money and, if I make it, I'll move out of the house." 
  
I never made a movie for actually a million cash, but in Murdered Innocence there's a million dollars worth of production value in it. What we did was, we went into barter deals. I went into a partnership with trucking, lighting, camera, studio spaces, and incorporated what I could, so you end up making less profits, but you're making a better movie. As an independent filmmaker, if you spend a dollar and only get a dollar's worth of services, you're fucked. If you spend a dollar and get three dollars worth of services, you're still fucked. If you can't get five to ten dollars worth of services on that dollar, don't even attempt making the movie.  

All my films have grossed over 2 million dollars worth of business on world wide television and video. Every one of my films to date has made money, except for Disco! The Final Dance, which is probably never going to be released because of (legal) problems that really have nothing to do with the movie. My movies Schmucks and Small Kill 2, which will be out in 1998, haven't made their money back yet because we just signed two deals with BRI Releasing in Santa Monica, California, which I am very happy with. They're one of the top television distributors in the nation.  

VENT!: How did you approach distributors?  

CARPENTER: In the beginning, when you don't know anything, you're sending out tapes, and you're getting assistants of assistants of assistants looking at your work... Everything I'm about to tell you is what I heard from the public, so how true it is I don't know. Ed Burns first got turned down by the company that then picked up The Brothers McMullen because Robert Redford took it under his wing. Quentin Tarantino never made an independent film to my knowledge, but got blessed by Bob and Harvey Weinstein (of Miramax) when they saw his talent.  

A lot of people in acquisition, especially in major studios, they play the percentages. They got a better chance of keeping their jobs by not committing to a project to be picked up that could lose for them than by picking up a project at all. That's what you're going up against, too, in a corporate system. Plus, these people who are looking at it, they're looking for the big Academy Award winner, the great acting, this and that. You're not going to find that in an independent film. The bottom line is you need a businessman. You don't need a film evaluator to see your movie. That's the mistake- when you give your independent film to a film evaluator, they're just people looking for the script, the acting. First of all, they have no clout to pick up the movie. It has to be the businessman or woman who says, I can make money on this, because the film to the film evaluator may suck, but if they can make money on it they'll pick it up. How many slasher horror films got picked up in the eighties because of that? You've got to get these films NOT to film evaluators. You're wasting your time. It's getting it to the businessperson who says, "I can make some fucking money on this thing." And that's all they care about. Hollywood is a racist industry. They see a color, and one color, and that's green, the green of money. The Hollywood studios are so big that they can see a movie and think we can make a million dollars on this movie, but it may not be worth their while. 

Steven Spielberg, who had made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had a one billion dollar proven track record when he went to Columbia Pictures to make E.T., and they turned the project down. If Spielberg, with a billion dollar track record, can't find a studio to make his movie, how tough do you think it is for an independent filmmaker to find a distributor for his film?   

VENT!: Who are these business people? 

CARPENTER: They're people in the studio distribution companies. If it's a small distributor, it's the owner of the company. If it's a studio, it's someone in the hierarchy who really is the acquisitions person, not just a title. 

VENT!: And how did you manage to get to these people?  

CARPENTER: I've made a lot of enemies. I'm the biggest fucking pain-in-the-ass you've ever seen in your life. I can't tell you how many people probably hate my goddamn guts, but what am I going to do? I had to get through it.  

If you want to make independent films, you certainly can't be a politician, because 90% of the people are going to hate your fucking movies and they'll tell you they hate them. On the other hand, you can't be "hey, you're wonderful, you're beautiful" to everybody. You've got to go above people. They may hate your guts, but they know you're an aggressive scumbag, so someday if you have a film that they really like, they'll put money into you because they know you're out there to make money. To make money, you got to be aggressive. I've had fights with the hierarchies of Columbia TriStar Home Video, where I'm "f- you, f- you, f- you." I had to fight for my movie. Hey, I understand where they're coming from. If I were them, I'd worry more about my forty, fifty, seventy million dollar film too. But, big fuck, they got my movie. What am I supposed to do? Just sit back like everything's rosy? 

VENT!: What are the best distribution deals to make as an independent filmmaker?  

CARPENTER: Realistically speaking, I think, right now, to make a film thinking a distributor is going give you all your money up front is bullshit. Try to get yourself aligned with someone who just specializes in selling your film for television in the U.S., someone who's going to take care of video in the U.S., and someone for foreign. Forget about going to only one distributor, unless it's like Columbia TriStar.  

I would say align yourself with an agent or a distributor who's not going to give you money up front, but is going to sell your film in one certain medium. There's really no answer to it. If you think that Robert Redford is going to come along and discover you, or a John Pierson, or if you're going to get blessed by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, you and I have a better chance of winning the lottery this week.   

VENT!: Do you use union or non-union cast and crew?  

CARPENTER: First of all, you can never make an independent movie with a union crew. The unions know that. They're not going to bother you. They want you to grow, so when you get into Hollywood making thirty, forty million dollar films, you're going to hire their people. The teamsters are great when it comes to independent filmmakers. They don't break your balls like the rumors you hear. They're not stupid. These are very smart people who run these unions.   

The problem is when you want name talent you go through the Screen Actors Guild. I'm a proud member of SAG. I'd been a foot soldier to reduce the low-budget contract agreement from 1.7 million to 1.2 million. But I'll tell you right now, my last two films I've gone non-SAG, and I've used SAG actors. If the union wants to fuck the SAG actors in my films, my SAG actors' attitude now is "fuck 'em," because there's 81,000 members presently in the Screen Actors Guild and less than 10% of them are making over $10,000 a year. So is it better to be one of the 70,000 unemployed SAG actors or act in a non-SAG independent movie? Independent films can't go SAG. I had a fucking $47,000 SAG payroll on Murdered Innocence. I had to be out of my mind to have done that. I must've been dropping acid on that one. That was bullshit. Any nobody actor who's in SAG who doesn't do a low-budget or independent film because it's not SAG, they're legends in their own minds and they're never going to get work. It's not like playing a guitar in a coffeehouse or being in a play. You've got maybe one or two independent films a year that are decent. You've got to give it a shot. A lot of people are very naive where actors think, "well, if I'm in SAG, next thing I'm going to do movies with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro."  

VENT!: You've had Jason Miller (The Exorcist, Rudy), Gary Burghoff (M*A*S*H) and Ellen Greene (Little Shop of Horrors, The Professional) in your films. How much does it help to sell your film if you have name actors in it?  

CARPENTER: All it does is give your movie some credibility, meaning if someone doesn't know me and I tell them I make movies, the first thing they think is I'm doing is porno. Then when they see my movies up on the marquee or on Showtime, it's like "Oh, you make real movies."  

All (using name actors) does is give your film some name recognition. The bottom line is, unless you have like a Tom Cruise that if you did dogshit it'd be sellable- and you're not going to get a Tom Cruise in your movie- but you get some jerkoffs in film acquisitions saying, "hey, you've got to get a name in your movie." Like who? "Oh, like Marlon Brando or Tom Cruise." Let me get this straight, I make a film for $200,000, but I raise another $25 million for a name actor? These assholes don't know what they're telling you. You can have all these recognized actors in your film, soap opera stars, but if the studios or the distribution companies feel they're not going to make money on it, fuck it, it's not going to happen. 

Or you get the other person who's trying to show you that he's making low-budget independent films, telling you he's making his film for $5 million, because he hears the average movie costs $30-40 million. So when he bullshits over his cappuccino with everybody, "I'm making an independent film for 5 million," he wants to work for you for $800 a week. You say, "why don't you cut yourself a check for a hundred grand? Why do you want to work for me for $800 a week?" Because he's bullshitting. 

VENT!: What is your experience with agents, entertainment attorneys, and/or producers' reps?  

CARPENTER: When it comes to agents, I don't care how fucking talented you are, unless someone really takes a liking to an unknown, these agents, in my opinion, are no different. They don't want to take 5 to 25% of nothing. They want to see that you're a marketable quantity. That's how it works. I don't think CAA or William Morris is going to pick up an unknown unless they're friends or relatives to a marketable movie star, director or producer. I think Joe Schmo will never get picked up unless he proves himself by making a buck... 

Right now, you need a lawyer, one who takes a liking to you. You don't want to get involved with some scumbag who's going to also exploit you or use you. Find someone who's up-and-coming , maybe just out of law school, who wants to go into entertainment law, and his career is going to grow with your career. But to go with somebody paying them by the hour, you're wasting your time. I had one woman who'd call me up and say, "How you doing?" and I find out she's billing me a hundred dollars for her fucking phone call to me.  

VENT!: Do you take your movies to film festivals?  

CARPENTER: I've only been in the Long Island Film Festival. I don't really bother with them. For the top major festivals I've read you now need to hire a publicist for yourself. That's fucking ridiculous. I need money for the fucking transmission in my car. Where the hell am I gonna get the money for a publicist? Hey, if I made Gone With the Wind, I probably wouldn't get in. 

VENT!: What advice would you have for other aspiring independent filmmakers?  

CARPENTER: (laughs) Stop now before it's too late! Get off the ship, baby. Run away, get in another line of work. 

If you really want to do it, just keep going forward, but you're going to sacrifice a lot. If I was married with kids, I'd be divorced by now. I've lost a lot of money because you're not making a steady salary. You're making money in chunks, and it's not easy. You've really got to make a sacrifice.  

When I meet someone who's in independent filmmaking, and I ask, "What are you?," they say "I'm a director," or "I'm a producer," or "a writer," or "an actor." And I say, "no, you're not." You know what they are? They're a director, producer, writer, actor, caterer, insurance person, garbage man, driver. You're everything. Anyone who makes an independent film thinking they're one person, it's not going to happen. It's like owning a restaurant. You open up a little restaurant, you got to be the cook, the waitress, the cashier, the painter, the cleaner-upper... When you're an independent filmmaker, you don't have tons of assistants. You've got to do everything. You've got to suck it up, get tough, and it's a lot of mental stress. 

I can honestly say that, as far as truly independent filmmakers, guerrilla filmmakers, I'm the top-of-the-line guy, but I am bottom of the totem pole compared to a Kevin Smith or a Quentin Tarantino. And those guys are the bottom of the totem pole compared to a Steven Spielberg.  

VENT!: After having made seven films and about to start your eighth, what have you learned about pursuing a career as an independent filmmaker?  

CARPENTER: I realized that doing these films for ten years and continuing to do what I'm doing, I need a psychiatrist. All you do is hustle for money, you got to fight for what you got to do, you're making a film for pennies, and then you're evaluated by people for your work, and then when they do pick up your film, they treat you like dogshit, especially the studios...  

I'm at a point where I don't step on people's toes, but I really don't give a shit, because this is a business that breeds jealousy, backstabbing. Fuck 'em. You want to be an independent filmmaker, you've got to be a warrior. Don't be afraid of getting blackballed, don't be afraid of getting fucked, people badmouthing you, because they're going to do it anyway. You got to kick ass to get there... A lot of people have their own agendas, good luck to them, but how many more knives can you get in your back? As time goes on, if you're going to get fucked, at least this time get fucked with Vaseline. 

The hardest thing you got to deal with are people who do give you money and invest, and they don't get their money back right away. Or, in one case in one of my films that people are going to lose their money on, you get people calling you and hassling you. It's a pain in the ass, as it is a pain in the ass going to people for money. How many people have I gone to for money where I became nothing more than their entertainment? One guy, he's a doctor, I meet him first with his wife and he may come in for ten grand. A few days later, he gives me a phone call. I meet him in a restaurant- now he's with his 22-year-old girlfriend. He's coming in with $50,000, he thinks I'm a genius, and I'm believing this shit. I don't hear from the guy for two, three, four weeks, then I see him in his office and he tells me, "I don't have money." The guy got a blow job at my expense. I'm telling you the truth, I never did drugs in my life. This is my drug. The sad thing is, if I could go back in time, I'd still be doing this shit. It's crazy. 
 

 
SMALL KILL 2

A FRED CARPENTER Production of a ROB FRESCO Film
Starring GARY BURGHOFF and JASON MILLER

Tired of a life full of constant ridicule, psychopathic genius Fleck 
(Gary Burghoff) sets a goal to become the new druglord in town. Disguised as a female fortune teller, he devises a devious plan to rape clients of their life savings and is willing to brutalize anyone who steps in his way. With the help of a washed-up alcoholic (Jason Miller), the police are closing in on Fleck's hidden identity in a combustible contest of cat and mouse through the seamy underbelly of society.

CRITICAL PRAISE FOR SMALL KILL

*** (three stars) - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times 

"BURGHOFF becomes a heavy with excellent results... gory makeup effects are well done." - Lawrence Cohn, VARIETY 

"POWERFUL! You'll be on the edge of your seat!" - WOR Radio, NY 

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