To start this year on the right foot, we wanted to celebrate innovators who made the world of film – and beyond – a better place last year.
It’s an unusually quiet day when I visit the Vanishing Angle headquarters this past summer. Much of the office is down in San Diego to shoot some material for the Navy, but Matt Miller, the company’s founder, and Natalie Metzger, the VP of development and production, have stayed back. Even if one weren’t aware of the aquatic origins of the Los Angeles-based production company’s name — inspired by the riskiest maneuver one can pull on the sea, leveraging the weight of a boat to reach its fastest speed — one might catch the drift in how they have refashioned the offices inside an old paper mill in Los Angeles into an ark, complete with wooden ceilings and all kinds of creative bunkers with both tight quarters for concentrated thought and open air areas that encourage collaboration.
The last time I was here it was to film a post-screening Q & A with director Jim Cummings for “Thunder Road,” which was set to screen across the country as part of Arthouse Theater Day, and it was striking then that Miller didn’t hand off the filming of something so rudimentary to someone else at the studio. Yet it’s equally apparent that he’ll take any opportunity to make himself useful and hierarchy has little place here. Everything at Vanishing Angle is geared towards building a family atmosphere amongst artists — since opening their doors in 2010, the studio has made a point of keeping them ajar for anyone from the larger creative community to come in to write or edit in their lounge, occasionally inspiring new collaborations amongst those who have randomly assembled for the free coffee or Wi-Fi. The same goes for the screening room that doubles as an edit suite – when someone from the office is bound to be there late anyway, Miller figured why not just keep it open to anyone who needed to use it – and the generosity has spread to those who have, with a colorist recently volunteering his time to a short he saw there because he was in between projects.
However, the egalitarian nature of the company has been in service of fostering some of the most unique filmmaking voices of the past decade, and while “independent” has become a descriptor for a certain type of film having nothing to do with how it was actually produced, Vanishing Angle has seemingly cracked a code for breaking free of the system that governs so much of filmmaking, ruthlessly figuring out how best to allow creativity to flourish within the unforgiving confines of a film shoot and creating artist sustainability in a notoriously unstable industry, a search that has led to exciting and distinctive films such as Cummings’ “Thunder Road,” Patrick Wang’s “A Bread Factory,” and Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s “Greener Grass.”
“What Matt does at Vanishing Angle – he shepherds young filmmakers and gives them a place to create their first works and that is invaluable to a filmmaker,” says DeBoer. “And Natalie is truly a goddess of independent cinema.”
Luebbe adds, “She read our script, she knew our budget and she was like, “Yes, I can make this work’ and she made it work…”
“And it shouldn’t have happened,” says DeBoer, cutting her partner off at the pass, noting something that could be said of most Vanishing Angle productions.
Matt Miller had an unorthodox film education, which undoubtedly bred some healthy skepticism about the way things are traditionally done. Like a number of filmmakers of this generation, he was inspired to get into filmmaking after being awed by “Jurassic Park,” but he didn’t want to follow in Steven Spielberg’s footsteps as a director, but rather as the guy whose name he saw as the executive producer on such varied projects as “Animaniacs” and “Gremlins.”
Upon learning someone from his hometown was attending the film mecca of NYU, he showed early ingenuity in making an arrangement with his parents that would enable him to informally audit film courses at Tisch while he was still in high school, gradually finding his way onto the sets of student films where the crews included then-director of photography Reed Morano and future “Wrath of the Titans” director Jonathan Liebesman. Miller got plenty from the experience, but he was seeing lesser returns for the full-time grad students who had completed remarkable shorts and still were running into roadblocks after securing their diploma, having to settle for projects that didn’t play to their strengths in order to ply their craft and pay their bills with the hope they could one day realize their potential.
“I realized that the power I would have is in knowing how to make a movie,” says Miller. “I’ll know how much it costs and I’ll know how to keep those costs down and if I know all that, I don’t have to have anyone tell me, ‘Now you can make your movie.’ And I’ll know how to make other people’s movies.”
Miller knew there was value in seeing both ends of the production spectrum and didn’t waste any time trying to get anything of his own made right out of school, opting instead to work as a first or second assistant director on films made for $5 million and under in order to understand how to make the best of a low budget production, and then building up a list of credits on big-budget productions as a set PA on such films as “The Dark Knight” and “Into the Wild” to see the benefits of working within the studio system.
“I felt like there was an approach producers had that was totally incorrect and that was [to] use [smaller-budget productions] as a stepping stone, not realizing all the assets and value that were included in the lower budget film,” says Miller. “And then having that mentality – abusing crew, not caring about long hours, not caring about destroying relationships with those crews and creating really toxic environments and as a result of that creating a really terrible creative environment, so ultimately making bad films anyway that you couldn’t leap frog if you wanted to because your priorities were wrong.”
Miller had hardly been the first to see a film set and think there has to be a better way, but he did have the rare vision to take the long view of things. He admired Pixar for the certainty they could provide their filmmakers that if they started a project there, it was going to get finished, and realized the way to get around many of the stressful issues he saw on other productions was to take much of the guesswork out of the limited time that one has on set, first developing the rapport between a crew working on a short before taking on a feature, not to mention having a resulting proof of concept, and then investing heavily in preproduction where the cast and crew would already be assembled to make many of the decisions that they would on the day in advance, saving time.
While this is common practice at a studio, it is a luxury for an indie production company, particularly when the filmmakers have to work on a number of side projects to survive, so Miller developed Vanishing Angle’s brand as a branded content company, creating a steady revenue stream for everyone who worked on their productions, freeing them up to do their best work on the films. And although there’s the obvious financial benefit of doing commercial work, one suspects Miller is equally excited by the other possibilities it offers, namely as an exercise in team-building.
“Before we started making features, we created an infrastructure to be able to do commercials because we [felt] if we were able to establish ourselves in the commercial space with brands, we could get those filmmakers we were trying to support work as directors or editors or production managers while they were developing their features and it’s the same with crews,” says Miller. “We could get a crew paid really well, create a more family mentality with that crew and they could trust us when we said we’ve got this lower-budget film production, ‘Could you come work for minimum wage for three weeks?’ because they knew we’d bring them onto a commercial after that.’”
Buying that time has afforded the filmmakers working with Vanishing Angle to think more carefully about the time they spend on set.
“When you talk to somebody about scheduling, you express a whole range of things,” says Patrick Wang, who first worked with Miller on his exquisite 2011 custody drama “In the Family.” “You’re talking about what the scenes mean, what’s important to you and how the cast and crew moves throughout the day in their psychological space. You talk about the risks in the production of these kind of moves, and the efficiencies of how you can combine certain production elements if you shoot in this order, and it seems like you just have a few moves to make. It’s all pretty basic, but you can be very creative with basic things, and that’s what I feel like working with Matt.”
Although Miller was only a line producer on “In the Family,” made slightly before he founded Vanishing Angle, it’s indicative of the films that he saw as being worth putting the time and energy into and the long-term relationships he sought to create. Notoriously, few saw the potential in the richly crafted drama when it was being offered to festivals with an intimidating running time close to three hours, but a berth at the Hawaii Film Festival and a resulting rave from the filmmaker Dave Boyle on Hammer to Nail paved the way for a presence on numerous critics’ top 10 lists and a Best First Feature nod at the 2012 Spirit Awards. While Wang’s voice as an artist is undeniable, it requires the belief of a producer like Miller to see things through that aren’t apparent to anyone but the director because of course that’s when the magic happens.
“When Patrick Wang gives me a script, I’m like…’Man, they’re tap dancing now? We’ve done a whole first movie and now we’re doing a whole second movie and there’s people tap-dancing?” recalls Miller of his first reading of Wang’s ambitious two-part third feature “A Bread Factory,” which along with his second film “The Grief of Others” was recently made available digitally by Grasshopper Films. “I don’t even think I got it until I was on set that I got they’re tap dancing because it sounds like texting, but I trusted Patrick inherently and I thought if Patrick sees that by the second [part] there needs to be tap dancing, by golly, I’m going to install a wooden floor for people to be able to tap dance on.”
Says Wang of his collaboration with Miller, “There’s things that are very obvious to him that he agrees with and there’s things he questions, which is very valuable for a person you’re working with. He will consider crazy ideas I have and will come up with some of his own too, and the world of crazy ideas is only useful when you at least have one person who can be a real partner-in-arms to run with you when it’s a really great crazy idea and then the person who can also ask the right questions, so you can both figure out if it’s the right crazy idea.”
Every Tuesday night, Vanishing Angle hosts an event called Funlab where everyone from the studio and outside filmmaker friends are invited to run the pitches for projects they’re working on past whoever wants to stop by. Attendance fluctuates from week to week, but the e-mail list of invitees has grown steadily since it was instituted at the studio.
“In a sense, Funlab is a microcosm of what Vanishing Angle is as a company because it’s this group of a lot of people that are makers in their own right, whether they work in accounting or they’re the office manager or they’re one of the directors or editors on the roster, and everyone can chime in and help each other out,” says Danny Madden, the writer/director who road-tested some early ideas for “Beast Beast,” which will be premiering at Sundance next month, at Funlab first. “It’s such a welcoming group of people and smart people who work in different parts of a film crew and everyone’s there out of the goodness of their heart, just being able to relate to the feeling of bringing in a script or an idea or a cut and just having the question of ‘Is this anything?’”
“It can be a short script, a feature script, a rough cut of something, a pitch they want to test out before bringing it around to different networks,” says Metzger. “It’s not like a writer’s group [where] it gets a little competitive or cutthroat because people are trying to do the same thing, it’s more like, “How can we make this project better and give you the feedback that you need in order to go to the next step?’ and it’s also very much about everyone having the authority and autonomy to be part of the creative process.”
“We also look at it as an opportunity to hone the skill of giving and getting feedback because it is a collaborative art form,” says Miller. “And it’s really strange how challenging that is for a lot of people, both how to give constructive feedback that is in support of the creative that the creative is trying to do, but also as a creative to hear someone’s feedback and really do something meaningful with it and not just be defensive.”
This supportive environment was what Metzger had in mind when she joined Vanishing Angle full-time. Initially, she came aboard to help Miller with some smaller projects after the two had met at a party thrown by Cinecause Women’s Initiative at the Hollywood Film Festival in 2016, and the company had grown beyond what Miller could personally oversee himself.
“That culture and community that Matt built from the ground up was something that really appealed to me because I produced movies with other producers where there was abuse of crew and didn’t care about long-term relationships,” says Metzger. “So when I first started working with VA, I was like, ‘Oh…There are people like me.’ It felt very much like coming home and now I’m here all the time.”
She isn’t kidding, as it is Metzger who is in charge of the company’s very busy social calendar, which ranges from Funlab to group hikes every other weekend to a quarterly party, which has included themes such as “‘90s Summer Blockbuster BBQ’ to “Puppy Party.” (The one constant – there’s a prom every spring.) These aren’t intended to be anything but a way to blow off steam, but it isn’t uncommon for Metzger to hear a pitch for a potential project at these events or see future collaborations take root from chance encounters between those who meet there, and the familial atmosphere also allows her and Miller to see who might work well together, an ongoing consideration at Vanishing Angle where casting a department head is as important as any member of the cast and can usually be see in practice on a short before taking on a larger feature.
“Some directors want really intricate set design, some directors want to do a lot of takes,” says Miller. And that’s part of what doing the short films does for us is it helps us learn that language with them prior to doing a feature, so that carries over to then constructing the film and having an efficiency on set is that if we understand those priorities and the same with the budget, we can then identify the team members who will have those same priorities or can communicate to those team members what those priorities are, so that not only are we being intensive about prep, but that prep is effective because everyone’s speaking the same language.”
Adds Metzger, “As soon as you can lock in that core team with that filmmaker, that team tends to stay the same throughout and grow together.”
To build that trust has been a necessity when working with filmmakers with unique creative sensibilities such as Madden, whose “Frolic and Mae” combined animation and live-action, or Amber Sealey, who followed up her evocative feature “No Light and No Land Anywhere” with the bold “How Does It Start,” concerning a 12-year-old’s sexual awakening. The predictive benefits of seeing a crew in action has proved crucial to the studio’s success where feature shoots last no longer than the teens, but cultivating that dialogue has also created an atmosphere at Vanishing Angle where one production can be helpful to another.
A case in point, Madden had wanted to make “Beast Beast” in his home town of Peachtree City, Georgia, which many producers would consider a blessing these days with the state’s generous tax credit. However, Miller and Metzger realized that the production wouldn’t be able to take advantage when its budget was too low. At the same time, DeBoer and Luebbe were making plans to film “Greener Grass” in Los Angeles, but their surreal suburban comedy about overly envious neighbors set in its own very distinct candy-colored universe was going to require every dollar they could get their hands on, and Weissner, the producer of “Beast Beast,” saw an opportunity to pair the projects as far as the tax credit was concerned, enabling DeBoer and Luebbe to boost their budget by 20 percent if only they shot in Georgia. Still, the Vanishing Angle team didn’t want to force anything onto DeBoer and Luebbe, especially when every choice they made on the project to create their own world had been so meticulous.
“They Googled [Danny’s] hometown and discovered it was the golf cart capital of the world,” says Metzger, of what now is one of the film’s most memorable elements. “[Suddenly, they] were like, ‘It has to be there! We’re changing the whole script so it’s golf carts instead of cars.’”
In 2014, Miller and Erich Lochner, his then-partner in Vanishing Angle, were brought onto co-produce “Too Late,” the hard-boiled tale of a private investigator that had an intriguing proposition besides its star John Hawkes. Each scene was a single take, done on 35mm using special cameras that allowed each take to run slightly over 22 minutes, so they were the longest takes ever done on 35. It was an exciting formal challenge for director Dennis Hauck and his cast and crew, who knew that each of the five scenes that comprise the film was over when the reel ran out, but it posed a great conundrum when it came to eventually distributing it since most theaters that were capable of screening “Too Late” on celluloid when it began production had converted their projection to digital by the time it was ready to be released and the filmmakers were adamant that they wouldn’t make a DCP when they believed presenting the film in 35 was one of its biggest selling points.
Still, there was interest in distributing the film, namely from Drafthouse Films, whose theatrical arm was a champion of celluloid and had just distributed Vanishing Angle’s previous film “Amira and Sam,” but then again, the timing wasn’t great since Drafthouse wasn’t looking to take on any new titles as founder Tim League was in talks with then-Radius chief Tom Quinn about merging operations and starting the distributor that would become Neon. It would be at least a year before the new company could even seriously consider a new acquisition, so Miller, doing his due diligence, decided to ask what it would take to distribute the film on his own and given the goodwill the company has engendered over the years, he got a straight answer.
“I was like, ‘Just out of curiosity, and no insult to you guys, what do I need you guys for as a distributor as I consider all these other offers that seem terrible or like they don’t have a strategy?’”And they were like you don’t need us at all,” Miller says, still a little incredulously. “And I was like, ‘No, of course I need you. I didn’t mean to insult you.’ But they [said], “We’re serious. You don’t. Other producers do. But you have all this infrastructure and the things you would need, we can point you in the right direction on. You need a booker. You need a PR company. Your booker will recommend a PR company. You need marketing materials. Well, you can cut your own marketing materials. You have a poster [for festivals], and you do commercials, so you know what that looks like. They basically were just like, ‘Go, do it.’”
By traditional box office standards, it would be hard to look at “Too Late” as a success, ringing up just $60,000 during its initial theatrical run in March of 2016, but it proved invaluable to the growth of Vanishing Angle as a self-reliant studio. Ironically, while the company wasn’t going to budge from giving “Too Late” the film-only theatrical run that the filmmakers wanted, Miller and his international sales partner on the film struck a deal with Netflix for its post-theatrical life that gave them the money to get it into theaters in the first place and received a special dispensation from Kodak, whose president at the time caught the film at a festival screening, to get all the film stock they needed for prints for free in exchange for a “Presented by Kodak” title card on the film. While time-consuming, Vanishing Angle also developed their marketing prowess in terms of cutting trailers and creating other materials to the point where they began to offer their services to other companies, formalizing this branch of their operations only recently as a new division called FireShip.
All this made the decision easy when Vanishing Angle had what they thought was a true breakthrough on their hands with “Thunder Road,” Jim Cummings’ debut feature about a cop who has trouble keeping it together in the wake of his mother’s death. The dramedy had already been proven a success in short form, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2016, and although Cummings didn’t expect it to be a building block for a feature-length version, once the idea sparked, he brought on Vanishing Angle with whom he and his longtime producer Benjamin Wiessner had worked on numerous shorts and commercials and it became every bit the sensation on the festival circuit that the short had been and then some following its premiere at SXSW in 2018 where it won the Grand Jury Prize.
However, in spite of its obvious crowd pleasing potential and Cummings’ growing notoriety thanks to honing his ability to harness the power of social media over the course of making “Thunder Road,” the film was receiving distribution offers reflective of a marketplace where distributors have grown content to collect the guaranteed if limited returns from a courtesy theatrical run and eventual VOD afterlife that put the onus on the filmmakers to raise their film’s profile above the countless other releases that seek attention since they’re not about to put in the effort themselves. Thankfully, this particular group of filmmakers were prepared for this moment.
“When the time came for “Thunder Road,” we won the award at South By and Natalie, Ben and I fielded all these distributor calls and we basically evaluated them on what are the assets you can bring to the film that we can’t bring ourselves, especially now knowing we can release a film in at least 10 cities, probably 30, and we can put it out digitally ourselves?” recalls Miller. “And despite interest from [various distributors], none of them were presenting assets greater than the ones we had internally. And what Vanishing Angle had at that point, which we didn’t even have on “Too Late” was Natalie and Ben, and the social media mind of Jim Cummings. His ability and excitement about tapping into that marketplace was just something we hadn’t wrapped our head around [yet].”
Like “Too Late,” which had some of its risk mitigated by its partnership with Kodak, “Thunder Road” benefitted from the timely intervention of Sundance’s Creative Distribution Initiative, which would provide some much-needed resources to get the film out into the world on the right foot, but Vanishing Angle would do much of the legwork themselves. Cummings’ shrewd promotional instincts had already taken the film to another level in terms of awareness, but the team also had been developing the ability to serve as their own sales agent which, like being able to create their own marketing materials, made it easier to more directly draw on the filmmaker’s insight into what audiences they could attract. Self-distributing the film domestically, they chose to play the film in cities where Cummings or someone from the film could travel to turn their screenings into events, but Miller’s relationships throughout the global marketplace opened up unforeseen opportunities in other countries such as France where a deal with the French distributor Paname led to one of the film’s most successful runs. (Naturally, this has led to another division of the company, run by Weissner, that recently took on the Sundance 2019 drama “Mope” as one of its first outside projects.)
“Each project has its own personality and its own vibe, so depending on the project, it might make more sense to partner with someone else or it might make more sense to do it ourselves,” says Metzger, noting that after the success of “Thunder Road,” they went a more traditional route with “Greener Grass,” joining forces with 30 West to sell the film ultimately to IFC Films. “We evaluate each one because we’re not a one-size-fits-all company and we really do try to make everything tailored to each project and each filmmaker.”
As with all successful companies, Vanishing Angle faces the challenge of keeping that personal touch while growing — there are plans to spin-off the commercial division into its own entity called B13 and they’re opening up their post-production services to all under the name DryDock, creating businesses around the production pipeline that they can use for their own projects. But after establishing a rhythm between making three to four shorts per year and now three to four features to match, they’ve fine-tuned a formula that can give filmmakers stability on their first features, such as Mari Walker’s upcoming drama “See You Then” which arrives after the award-winning short “Swim,” and a platform to make their next a little bit bigger, as is happening with Cummings’ next two features, “The Werewolf” and “The Beta Test.” Soon, Metzger plans to follow suit with a sci-fi short she plans to co-direct with plans already to turn into a feature, and while Miller insists that there is no expectation for filmmakers to work with Vanishing Angle after getting their first film off the ground, whether that’s a short or feature, they seem to have a habit of coming back.
Miller and Metzger just need to take a look around the room that we’re sitting in to look how far they’ve come.
“This used to be our office,” said Miller of the cozy confines near the front door of Vanishing Angle’s offices that they now use as a small lounge to entertain guests. “I didn’t sit over there. I sat over here. And one day, one of our directors, completely unannounced…”
“…Hammered this painting onto that wall and just walked away,” Metzger says of the gloriously baroque portrait of a ship that at once is acknowledges the company’s name and their perverse sense of humor, given the relatively humble trappings around it.
Adds Miller, “We half-expect that one day it’s going to fall and there’s going to be a treasure map on the back.”
Naturally, however, Miller doesn’t plan to wait around for that to happen, musing aloud about putting up a world map to track all of Vanishing Angle’s projects when on this seemingly uneventful day alone, three of their films were playing on three different continents besides the production going on in San Diego.
“Our poor [office manager] will have to track it all and move the pins around,” laughs Miller. “But I just think it would be fun every morning to look up and think, ‘Oh, that’s where all our stuff is today.’”
Then he’ll start thinking about tomorrow.
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