Interview with the Four Eyed Monsters
The Four Eyed Monsters (FEM) story is almost classical: a couple of young artists, Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, get eaten up by the system. So they start fresh, relying on themselves, on grassroots, to reach out and find their audience. They succeed, but more importantly they did it with style.
In late 2005, a New York Times article on the Four Eyed Monsters film had this to say: “The movie was well received at its Slamdance Film Festival premiere in January and screened at 16 other festivals. But like so many independent labors of love, it has yet to attract a theatrical distributor.” It was incredibly depressing message to aspiring filmmakers. There had to be another way.
Soon after that the FEM filmmakers started video podcasting all the behind-the-scenes drama of the film in order to promote it. It seemed like the perfect time to start a podcast: iTunes now had a podcast feature, Video iPods were flying off the rack, broadband was commonplace. The result was somewhat expected.
The Four Eyed Monsters podcasts caught on quickly among social network sites like Myspace, but also through word of mouth (which is how I found out about it). On average, the episodes draw about 60,000 views. That is a huge number for a podcast. Part of its success is its almost awkward honesty, but a bigger part, is the incredible filmmaking. A style reminiscent that of Agnes Varda, Vincent Gallo, and Harmony Korine.
My chat with two filmmakers covered some of the stuff that I was curious about — the Myspace phenomenon, their future plans and their collaboration with themselves and others. Ok, enough of the intro, let us get on with the interview:
Ajit: The New York times article painted a rather depressing but honest picture of the failure of “Four Eyed Monsters” the movie. It was like a warning shot to younger filmmakers. But with the success of the podcasts, the opposite message is coming through, namely, to discover or create other methods of distribution.
Susan: That’s the job of mainstream media, to naysay independent media.
Arin: I looked at the NY times as a bit obsolete the second it was printed, but a good chapter of the FEM saga.
For FEM podcasts, Myspace was big in your success, why or how did you decide to use that channel?
Susan: Myspace seemed the best place to ‘social network’ because 1) it’s got the most people of any social network and 2) many of them are creative and they’re all young, and that’s who we have things to say to. Our work speaks to a young audience not the ‘film festival’ crowd who tend to be middle aged and older.
Is it a lot of work to keep up with Myspace? How much time do you spend to make that work?
Susan: Maybe an hour a day is spent on Myspace. Sometimes more, sometimes I avoid Myspace completely in order to just focus on editing.
Arin: I usually find myself wanting to get back to people who have sent messages or just see if there are any opportunities to attend to, we are to the point where bigger leads come in through Myspace messages then email.
I’m subscribed to the podcast through iTunes, is that how most people find out about a new episode? Or is it through Myspace?
Arin: Most people find out about a new episode through iTunes, and then come to Myspace to comment on it, that is something iTunes doesn’t allow, yet. Another way is our auto updating code that we allow people to put on their page. When there is a new episode the image on their profile changes to show the new episode.
Is auto updating code common? Or it is a Myspace thing?
Arin: No, we kind of came up with that. It’s not limited to Myspace. It’s the idea that people have their own personal home pages and they want to put things there. We give them code to put there. Like a digital sticker but with functionality. We get a lot of traffic to the episodes from other peoples pages.
How do you guys keep up with all this? Besides all the tech stuff you have to keep up with being filmmakers, you also now have to keep up with all the web tech?
Susan: Arin and his friend Andrew geek out on this web 2.0 stuff all the time. They are obsessed with the future of the internet. It’s part of his passion. But we want to make this easier for other filmmakers so you don’t have to be passionate about the web to do this stuff
What are you thoughts on podcasts in general? Do you think they will create a better distribution model for indie filmmakers?
Susan: I think podcasts are just another avenue to create and express, and are also a good way to establish yourself to an audience. I think there will be more and more ways to distribute films and podcasts are a part of giving something to your audience, giving something for free.
Arin: Yeah, to me podcasts are an extension of thought, mixed with email, mixed with media, mixed with creativity. You have an idea, you construct it and throw it down the pipeline. Someday everyone will be doing stuff like that, just like everyone sends email.
Will Four Eyed Monsters podcast solely focus on the movie or is it launching point for other ideas, other projects?
Susan: Once the film is released the podcast will become a launching point for other projects
Arin: It’s a feed right. It has subscribers, why not utilize that for future endeavors. That’s our audience base and we don’t want to loose it.
Are you thinking of adding advertising to your podcasts?
Arin: There is no point in bothering people with products that have nothing to do with our project. It would be just so off topic and such a jolting break in the experience to have some SUV climbing over mountains at the beginning or end. But for another type of video podcast, that might be seamless.
I guess I am a little naive by asking. How will this be profitable to you? Financially speaking.
Arin: Our goal right now is getting our film out in a way that people have access to it. We look at that as our opportunity to get out of credit card debt. In terms of profitable, we hope that the art can be a break even endeavor, but are willing to go negative as we have, in the interest of making sure the work gets done. Eventually, this will not be the case.
Ajit: Is it challenging to look ahead? At new projects?
Arin: Filmmaking is kind of like a war, you’ve been in the shit if you’ve been through that. Of course, as soon as we can get financially solid enough to be able, there is no shortage of ideas.
Susan: The next project is always the hardest you know? It’s always hard to muster the strength for the next thing. Maybe that’s why we are still working on FEM. We’ll begin our next project in ’06 I believe. Releasing of the film is approaching soon and we’ll have to spend time doing that, promoting and what not, running a business but i think the next project will begin sometime this year.
Arin: Yeah, but it’s tied in with not being willing to compromise. We could have dropped FEM without it getting to an audience and jumped right into something funded by someone else answering to them for how it should be but I think that would be a huge compromise. We’ve talked about how what we are trying to do is be a micro-studio, totally under the radar of mainstream movies and even independent subsidiary companies. Do our own self contained thing that lets the previous project fuel the next, both in audience building and in budget.
The last episode was quite dramatic. What was interesting was that so many of the people that helped you with the film felt so close to it. Like they had a stake in it. Was that something you cultivated?
Arin: We encouraged that, but I hope not in a manipulative way as we’ve since been accused of.
Susan: We, of course, wanted people to feel invested but at the time the feeling was mutual. Each person we collaborated with, we felt was vital to the film. But once what they had to contribute had been contributed, the film had to move on. Most people didn’t see a problem with that, a few very sensitive actors did.
Do these filmmakers help you with the podcasts?
Susan: We do the podcast pretty much on our own, perhaps because of the past drama. Everyone’s feedback and comments of course are helpful but it’s just me and Arin slugging it out on the MACs. Every once in a while we’ll show an early cut of the podcast to someone for feedback. Filmmakers aren’t really collaborating on this stuff with us, more musicians than anyone.
Arin: I feel like Susan and I have learned certain things about collaborating by having the experiences we’ve had, and these things apply to any collaboration. What we’ve learned is that basically you just really get behind any contribution someone is making and let people feel their efforts are critical. But the problem with certain personalities is this goes to their head and runs away from them and their input becomes over inflated. This is fine but if they can rationalize that this isn’t reality. But when that rationalization isn’t there, feelings get hurt when the world contradicts what they feel they contributed.
Ajit: What about your collaboration? Who does what? How does the dynamic work?
Arin: We both sit in a dark damp basement for hours on end.
Susan: We both do many of the same jobs. We both write together though our writing process is not typical, we both edit and we both come up with ideas. We brainstorm everything together but Arin is definitely more involved with the promotion and web stuff because he’s more web savvy but he catches me up on the technology and then we figure out the conceptual ideas together.
Arin: Right, we’ve found it’s a process of coming together and then going apart to work on our individual components of something, and then coming back together for feedback and input.
How much writing do you spend on the podcasts? Do you already have an idea of what the next 3 or 4 episodes will look like?
Susan: We do have an idea on what the next few will look like but once an episode is released we find we have to go back and rewrite the initial idea. We have episode 7 rough cut but now that 6 is out we have to rethink 7 because 6 changed so much throughout it’s preparation. Writing takes place for every episode, it’s more than just cutting all the raw footage.
Arin: Right, in the final stages of an episode, it always gets tweaked in the last couple days to have something we didn’t expect it would have, and that changes the future outlines and rough cuts we are working with. Writing is done sometimes in the form of an open mic that is then cut, that is the “podcasting” aspect of this. Except I guess most podcasts don’t do that much cutting.
Aesthetically speaking this is some of the best editing I have ever seen or even filmmaking for that matter.
Do you guys come from the same school of aesthetics?
Susan: um, I don’t know. I think our aesthetics just melded together.
Arin: Well our aesthetic formed through early collaborations together.
Like an old couple looking the same. You guys make films the same?
Susan: Well. it’s not that. It’s more we develop things together. We haggle over stuff. And eventually come out with what we come out with.
Arin: Process is different then aesthetic. We arrive at an aesthetic that has pieces of both of us, and we use various strengths each of us have to get to something we both feel is good. We challenge each other a lot.
Susan: If we were to work on our own projects separately, I think the outcome would be very different. But yeah, we challenge each other and we each bring different things to the table. In terms of how to get things across and the combination of those ideas is what leads to the result
Arin: A collaboration and a competition are very similar so we walk the line to challenge each other to do better and better stuff. We keep our expectations of each other very high.
Ajit: Do you wish that the film was incredibly successful and never had to deal with any of this podcasting business?
Susan: hmmm, interesting. I’m really really proud of the podcast. So no i guess.
So what happened was actually the best thing?
Susan: I wish we were doing better in general and I wish that Arin and I always got along and weren’t broke. But my feelings for the podcast are really strong, it’s a purer experience for me than the film was so I’m glad we’re doing it. I think it’s what I needed. The stuff with Brad really shook my confidence that was already not high, creatively speaking. The podcast has really given me more faith because we rely on ourselves so much and less on other people but I do think we should work with others in the future.
Arin: The podcasting is a part of the experience we are designing for the viewer. We want them to see that and to see the film, we are thinking of both as adding to the same experience. We also consider the grass roots aspect of the project part of the experience too, and it’s a part of it that I like to think adds a good context to the whole thing. In terms of a creative achievement, the fact that we’ve without a doubt created it on our own, helps us know that we can, and know that we are a good team, even though we do get shaky sometimes.
My wife did the voice-over for my short. Incredible how many little fights broke out.
Susan: It makes me feel better that other couples struggle with collaborating and that it’s not just us. It raises so many issues because there is a certain degree of competition that comes up. And your love partner is supposed to make you feel good not ‘less than’ but when you’re competing you want to come out on top.
Is there something you can part with us on that? How to be better collaborators?
Susan: hmm…advice on making collaboration easier
Arin: Well, being in a relationship is a collaboration, of course. So all the same principals and struggles are there. But honestly we don’t really know, in fact we are probably the ones that need advice, not to be giving it.
Susan: Criticism has to be okay. But when good ideas are had or when something goes right, celebration must ensue, job well done, is in order.
Arin: And like I said, that applies to just normal aspects of the relationship too.
You guys sound so wise. I don’t mean to flatter you. But you guys are young.
Susan: Haha, we don’t feel wise, smart maybe but still so short sighted.
Arin: As far as wise, I was going to say the same, we don’t feel wise.
Susan: We have insight into our relationship and ourselves yet life isn’t easier. We still fight about stupid stuff and get depressed over the wrong things.
Arin: But we do hash out a lot of shit and talk every aspect of what goes on through, so we have trained ourselves to be observant about this stuff.
The Four Eyed Monsters film could very well be coming to a theater near you. As part of the grassroots approach, the film will be released in areas where there is a big enough interest. So I encourage you to go to the Four Eyed Monsters website and fill in your email and zipcode. If you are one of the unfortunate ones, you can always get the DVD of the film which is scheduled to be released sometime this summer. To subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, click here. You can also vist Susan & Arin on Myspace.
Thanks to Susan and Arin for their time and energy. Also like to thank Katherine Rosie for making the interview possible.