Two weeks ago, Katharine Emmer’s Life in Color made its debut on iTunes and Amazon. Now available to rent on the same platforms, the superbly acted dramedy tells the story of two people in their late twenties still chasing their dreams. Serving as the film’s star, producer, writer, director and editor, Emmer ended up passing on offers from distributors and chose instead to release the film on her own following its successful festival fun.
“The consensus was that our film was just too small for larger distributors,” said Emmer. “We did get offers from some smaller distribution companies. However, they all had the same sort of offer: no money upfront and they take a huge chunk of the backend.”
Ultimately, the decision to release the film on her own matched Emmer’s approach to making the film itself.
“My approach was that I wanted to be as hands-on as possible from the conception of the idea to distribution for a wide audience. Coupled with the fact that I funded it myself with my nanny money, it was important to me to try and make what money I could back.”
Katharine noted the fact that she didn’t go through a conventional film school also influenced her decision, in that there wasn’t really a stigma for her to adhere to in regards to releasing her film.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to just take that money you would have given to a place like USC or NYU and go make a film on the ground? You build great connections at film school, whether you go for acting or film studies, but at the end of the day they’re not going to necessarily help you make films. They’re just going to give you the tools.”
In a world where the tools of filmmaking are more readily available than ever, some would say that the amount of content available now is hurting the industry. Ever the optimist, Emmer is thrilled to be a filmmaker during this period in cinema. Otherwise, she may not have been able to tell her story.
“I think a lot about what it was like back in the days when few people were able to make films for public consumption. Now it can be a challenge to get people’s attention. The market is saturated. However, I always come back to, if technology wasn’t so accessible, I wouldn’t have been able to express myself in this medium. Many other people wouldn’t either. It would be a job for the elite few. The amount of content is growing, but that also forces the artist to be unique, offer your authentic voice. See what works.”
An incredibly kind and engaging conversationalist, Emmer seems to have no regrets in choosing to forgo a traditional studio release, but she will likely tweak her strategy for her next film.
“I’ve learned perhaps it’s best to be available to rent the same day you are available to purchase. I liked the models the studios were implementing – putting the film out to purchase first for a short window before rentals are available. But I think that strategy works best for larger studio films with more awareness. I think audiences are more likely to take a chance on smaller independent films as rentals.”
As this writer has already mentioned, Life in Color is definitely a film worth taking a chance on, one of the many reasons being its affable cast. Working on a shoe-string budget, Emmer couldn’t afford a casting director, so she sought out people and friends that she believed were just right for the part. Choosing a costar was an incredibly important part of the process, and it would be hard to argue she didn’t make the right choice with Josh McDermitt.
“Josh was in an acting class with me, and I really fell in love with his talent and his ability,” Emmer gushed. “This was before he was on The Walking Dead. He had been on a sitcom for a few years that was cancelled, so he was primarily known in the industry for comedy. When he would go up and do these dramatic scenes, he would remind me of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work or Paul Giamatti in Sideways. I thought that I would love to see that from him on a larger scale.”
McDermitt effortlessly portrays an interesting and complex character. Like the rest of the film’s eclectic cast, he shows us someone that is tangible and believable. Emmer feels just as real, and her willingness to be open about events in her own life ultimately imbue the film with that layer of believability.
“I think I was at a point where I felt pretty comfortable in being honest,” she reflected. The times where I didn’t censor myself were the easiest times to write, and the writing just flowed through me better. I was at a point where I’d been in Los Angeles for six or seven years and not doing what I wanted to do. So I think I needed to have that downtime where I was artistically starved to get to a point where I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t need to censor myself. I wasn’t worried what people thought about me. What I kept coming back to was that I feel most alive when I get to create stories and when I get to act. That was the number one thing that was important to me. All my mentors from my education told me to write what I know, draw upon my real life and what makes me tick. Because I didn’t have a writing background, that was extremely helpful and helped shape the piece.”
But Emmer’s involvement in the film extended far beyond writing. For Life in Color, she took on multiple creative roles out of necessity.
“Nobody was giving me acting work, and I wanted to create my own work. I’m so glad that I took on the roles because it gives me a new appreciation for the many hats and jobs it takes to make a movie. I loved editing and fell in love with that. When I direct again I would love to edit my own work. I don’t necessarily need to write it. For me that’s the hardest part of creating a film because it’s lonely. It’s just you at a computer. I like collaborating more. I really like the collaboration of directing, acting and producing.”
Taking on so many roles is a big challenge, one that many have not overcome. Keeping that in mind, Katharine stressed the importance of planning when making a film like Life in Color.
“I started prepping months before shooting. I was even working on Christmas Eve. Had I not been organized, it would not have gone so well. It just moved so fast. When you’re short on people and don’t have a lot of extra hands on set you have to be so organized. We have a little shed in the back, and I tried to line up all our props based on our schedule. That way I could wake up in the morning, grab what I needed, put it in the car, and get going. The more organized I was, the smoother it would go.”
Though she may not take on as many roles in her future films, she is better off for doing it the first time around. Although she’s been away from the film for a while, she is still learning from what she did.
“I think I’d have a different relationship with the piece if I hadn’t edited it and maybe just acted in it or wrote it. When writing, directing, acting, producing and editing, I was so intimately involved and very excited for audiences to see it for the first time. It was always nice to have a few months where I was working on my next script then come back to seeing it with a new audience at a different festival, to see where the beats are that they laugh and become emotionally connected to the piece. I was picking up new nuances and things when I had some time away from it.”
Like any dedicated artist, another important part of her planning was drawing from those who inspired her.
“I tried to watch all of the Duplass Brothers’, Ed Burns, Lena Dunham’s and Joe Swanberg’s films. I didn’t have time to watch anything during production, but watched a ton during the six months I was working on the script as well as during pre-production for inspiration. Some additional films were Another Earth, Like Crazy, Before Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight & lots of Louie because I love how he throws out all of the conventional filmmaking rules when he makes his show. It gives me confidence to do the same.”
But all the planning and inspiration in the world is no match for a great partner in crime.
“My partner, Lance, has been undeniably my biggest secret weapon. He’s a genius when it comes to what makes a story better. He has unbelievably high standards for story-telling. I know I didn’t fully match them with this first film, and perhaps I never will, but I can’t wait to keep trying. Most importantly, he believed in me. I keep saying this, but it’s true: we all need that.”