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From Shadows to Fassbinder, Herzog, Stranger Than Paradise and Beyond: REID ROSEFELT Interview

Film publicity consultant and former publicist Reid Rosefelt has, according to one of his on-line resumes, "worked on films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Andrei Tarkovsky, Paul Verhoeven, and Jim Jarmusch (on “Stranger Than Paradise”). For seven years I was a unit publicist on studio films, working with directors like Ridley Scott (“1492”), Peter Weir (“The Mosquito Coast”), Susan Seidelman (“Desperately Seeking Susan”), Mike Nichols (“Heartburn”), Adrian Lyne (“Jacob’s Ladder”), and Francis Coppola (“The Godfather: Part III”)".

That is perhaps one of the most impressive lists of work experience in all of art/indie/foreign film that I have ever seen. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Rosefelt a few questions this weekend regarding specialty film, his career & passion for film, and film publicity.

Sujewa: You have been a part of the indie & specialty film business since way back, certainly since the beginning of the current wave of US indie (which I place in '83/'84 w/ Stranger Than Paradise), were you surprised that w/ in 10 years after Stranger Than Paradise independent film became a mainstream product/something that generates a lot of revenue (Pulp Fiction for example) & gets mainstream press coverage (Sundance Film Fest for example)? Or did US indie film always have that potential to break big, even back in the mid-80's?

Reid: It really depends on how you look at things. You could say that there’s nothing new, and little has changed. The studios always used to make art films for very low budgets like “Driving Miss Daisy.” This was just one of the things they did in those days. They made some cheap high-quality films that they hoped would do well at Oscar time. But it’s always a risk when you try to do quality films.

“Stranger Than Paradise” is a classic, but I think the real milestone was “Sex, Lies & Videotape.” That showed that there was a huge amount of money that could be made from low-budget independent films. And it was found at Sundance. That movie put both the Sundance Festival and Independent Film on the map.

As things developed, the stars realized they could revitalize their careers by doing these films. And the studios discovered they could pick up these cheap films with stars. The stars worked for scale and everyone on the crew starved. At the end of the day you had a very good movie that was made for a fraction of the cost of a film made by a studio. And the studio could see how the film looked and played with a festival audience, critics and journalists—eliminating a lot of risk--and pick it up. And that’s the way it was for a while.

Eventually, you get to the place you are today and so many “independent films” are produced by the studios and the mega-billion dollar corporations that own them. Some with a classics division and some, like David Lynch and Wes Anderson’s movies, by the major studio directly, in their cases Disney. You need certain stars in order to get them greenlit and the scripts are developed with studio executives. When I started “Independent Film” meant independent of the major studios. Now it means nothing at all, which may be why the term “indie” is used so much. It’s a spongy term that can mean just quirkier, or weirder or more intense than “Talladaga Nights.”

Anyway, at this point in time I think Independent Film is just a useful marketing term. Of course people finance films independently and bring them to Sundance, but I fear that a lot of them are hoping to be discovered and work for the majors. In the old days, Spielberg made “Amblin” and Lucas made “THX” and that’s exactly what happened. They just had to find their way to the big time without Sundance. And guys like Sayles produced their films themselves by writing screenplays or whatever.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Wonderful movies are coming out of this. If someone will give people like Christine Vachon or James Schamus or Ted Hope money...this is a cause for international celebration.

Sujewa: Were there any great indie movies, of Stranger Than Paradise's quality or better, that just fell through the cracks & did not get the breaks & did not get famous - indie movies from the 80's & early 90's?

Reid: There were lots of good American independent films from decades before “Stranger Than Paradise.” A lot of the best loved 70s classic films, like “Five Easy Pieces” and the rest, were produced independently. All of Cassavetes. I got to New York in the mid-Seventies. There were movies like “Short Eyes,” “El Super,” “Northern Lights,” “Return of the Secaucus 7,” “El Norte.” “Hester Street.” Susan Seidelman’s “Smithereens” premiered at Cannes the year before “Stranger” did. These films all got well-reviewed and had national releases, some bigger than others. And Jarmusch came out of the east village downtown/art/music/performance scene. There were films being made by Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Beth & Scott B, Bette Gordon, etc. Not too many of these got national release and many were only seen in places like the Mudd Club. So there was lots of interesting work going on in the late 70s and early 80s, but they didn’t get the attention that American Independent films get today. And certainly the major studios weren’t interested. Small distribution companies mainly handled European films in those days.

Sujewa: Back in '83/'84 did you think Jim Jarmusch & Stranger Than Paradise would become the icons that they are now; when you first saw Stranger & met Jarmusch? Any related stories about the early days of Jarmusch would be much appreciated. I see his career (the high profile/level of success) as being very odd & unpredictable - as in, typically things that get big in America, American art & entertainment - seems to have a lot of flash, noise & drama to it - specially in movies - Stranger certainly does not, at least not in any kind of a typical way. Like I can watch an early Scorcese or Spike Lee or Speilberg movie & believe that those directors would catch on in America (let's pretend that I did not know those directors were famous already), Stranger doesn't send out the same vibes. Anyway, let me stop here so you can answer :)

Reid: I actually wrote about this in my blog:

The main thing is that Jim was not seeking or expecting any kind of commercial success. He was just hoping that “Stranger Than Paradise” would go to festivals and that he would be able to make more films. The world that he made “Stranger” in did not hold out the same kind of delirious expectations that people have now. And even if it did, I know Jim would not have been tempted. But “Stranger” didn’t become a success because of Jim’s integrity. It was because Jim is a unique and huge talent. This was recognized by everyone before the film was even done, when it was just a 30-minute short.

Of course there are still a lot of people like that—people not longing for a Hollywood dream--but now it would be very difficult for them to do the kind of things that Jim did in those days, like keep control of his negatives. And these things have had a lot to do with the freedom he enjoys to this day.

Sujewa: Your on-line resume says the following: " My career dates back to the late 1970s and early 80s, when I worked on films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Andrei Tarkovsky, Paul Verhoeven, and Jim Jarmusch (on “Stranger Than Paradise”). For seven years I was a unit publicist on studio films, working with directors like Ridley Scott (“1492”), Peter Weir (“The Mosquito Coast”), Susan Seidelman (“Desperately Seeking Susan”), Mike Nichols (“Heartburn”), Adrian Lyne (“Jacob’s Ladder”), and Francis Coppola (“The Godfather: Part III”). My production publicity resume is on IMDB." Let me just say WOW! that's one impressive resume. Do you have any interesting stories about working with the films of any of the following directors: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Andrei Tarkovsky?

Reid: Do you have a few months? I knew Werner Herzog well—I worked on many of his “documentaries” (“Land of Silence and Darkness,” “La Soufriere,” “The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner”) plus “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Stroszek,” "Woyzeck,” and “Fitzcarraldo.”

I worked on over a dozen Fassbinder films when I was at New Yorker Films. Talk about an amazing man. Or a tribute to what a lot of drugs can do? He could write six movies in a year, plus plays, TV shows, and write and star in films by others. I heard he could write a script on a plane ride. We couldn’t bring them out fast enough. Dan Talbot, the head of New Yorker Films, and some of the New Yorker staffers would go on a Friday night to this kind of bare space on Broadway and 62nd. You couldn’t call it a screening room. And he would just keep putting Fassbinders on. Crazy. And the critics would get involved in something he was doing, like his Sirkian movie period. And he’d have already moved on to something new. We just hadn’t released the movies yet. He wasn’t exactly the friendliest guy you could meet—he was damned surly--but I knew a lot of his collaborators very well, particularly Hanna Schygulla, who played the lead in “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” and the late Dieter Schidor, who acted in a lot of his films and produced his last film, “Querelle.” I also was acquainted with some people from his production team, like editor Ila Von Hasperg. I was pretty deeply involved in the world of Fassbinder at the height of his creative powers. As he was my favorite director then, I found that a heady thing.

Here are two stories from those days. Fassbinder made a film called “Wildwechsel,” which I think means roughly “Game Cross” (like a warning sign saying that wild game were crossing the road.). It was an adaptation of a play by Franz Xaver Kroetz. I think one English title I heard was “Wild Game.” I thought that was a pretty bland title. The story was about this guy getting involved sexually with an underage girl. So I went into Talbot’s office and said, “We should call this film ‘Jail Bait.’” I think I was joking. But he got on the phone right away with Fassbinder. And Fassbinder didn’t speak English that well so he wasn’t sure exactly what jail bait meant. But a few minutes later the film was really called “Jail Bait.” And as it happened, when we released it there was a porn film playing in New York also called “Jail Bait.”

When New Yorker was about to release “Aguirre,” Herzog gave us a dubbed version. Herzog and Talbot were really excited about having an English language film. But the dubbing was terrible; Werner did it very quickly. It sounded like a bad Spaghetti Western. I was just a kid, but I asked if an English-subtitled German language version existed, and it turned out there was one. And it was a completely different movie, so much better. But even that had some dubbing because the cast of “Aguirre” is very international—the priest is American and Brazilian director Ruy Guerra is in it. (I worked with Ruy years later when I did Miramax’s first foreign-language film, “Erendira.”) But the dubbing was less Kung Fu than before and it just felt more like a Herzog movie. One thing that I liked is that the translations were slightly different. A guy got a spear through his belly. In one version, he says “It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.” And in the other version he said, “Longer spears are in fashion.”

Sujewa: Re: your line of work: what exactly can an indie filmmaker expect from a publicist? What can a publicist do for a film?

Reid: Like everything, it depends on the publicist. All movie publicists prepare press materials, get a film reviewed, set up interviews, etc. There are basic things that are done by every publicist on every film. But each publicist has a different style. Some have great taste and critics know that if they have taken a film on it is likely to be good. Some have charm and build up warm relationships over long periods with the press. Some are kind of scary and wield power with great effect. The trick is to get the publicist with the skill set that matches your film. And that’s why many directors and producers have long-term relationships with publicists.

Publicity alone cannot make a film successful. It needs to be a film that people want to see. But likewise, a film that people enjoy won’t necessarily become successful without good marketing. It’s like the old stories about radio promo men and payola, etc. They could only get the records played. They couldn’t make them hits.

Sujewa: What can a filmmaker who gets into Sundance or one of the bigger/important film festivals expect? Or, what should the filmmaker prepare to do at these festivals in order to increase her chance of getting a good distributor & a good deal for her film - if that is one of her goals?

Reid: The key is not to see success at a festival as your ultimate goal. Your ultimate goal should be seeing your film playing in theatres. It’s wonderful to have success at a festival, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to success outside the festival. And likewise many of the most successful films don’t get bought or even get much attention at Sundance. So of course you’re goal at a festival is distribution. There is no way around it—you should try as hard as possible to get a producer’s rep. They work on commission, so it doesn’t cost money. They just have to accept you. So if you have made a brilliant film for a few thousand dollars, you can get a rep. Of course if you become the toast of Sundance without a rep, a lot of people will be quite happy to offer their services at that point. With publicists, it’s money and they also have to accept your film. It’s very expensive to hire a publicist, but if you’ve put your whole life into a film, it makes sense to take it that final mile.

Sujewa: You also offer consulting services to filmmakers. What can a filmmaker expect from those services? Or what's the benefit of having a consultant for press & publicity work? And what's the difference between your consulting services & your publicity services? And I guess the price ranges for those services would also be relevant here.

Reid: I don’t offer publicity services any more. I haven’t since I closed my company. Being a consultant is just advice and teaching, really. If people can’t get a press agent for any reason, then they can hire me for less. They’ll be in a lot better shape than if they went alone, and they’ll have special knowledge that they can use throughout their career. There is more information on my website ( about what exactly I do. To be completely frank, this is an experiment. I want to see if I can offer this service without destroying my livelihood, which comes from other things. I think that the greatest interest will be just before festivals, and this is when my regular business heats up too. So I’m not taking on many people and I will limit my access in various ways. In time, I imagine that might change. There is an email contact on the site where people can ask about my rates.

Sujewa: And the final question: what drew you to specialty/art/indie films in the first place & what keeps you still involved in that world? Why do you care about indie film? I am composing these interview questions on a Sunday - a day where a lot of Americans reflect on spirituality & morality; and I think indie & art film is, among other things, protest art, sometimes works that fully or partially hints at or calls for a better world, or at least celebrates individuality, the idea of the individual being significant & valuable (a rare idea still in much of this world), in novel ways. Anyway, that's one of my reasons for liking indie film, OK, your turn:

Reid: Jesus! What a big question! Why have I stayed in this field? It sure wasn’t because of the money.

When I was in my teens I was a big reader and did a lot of acting, writing and playing in rock bands. I wasn’t really all that interested in movies. I wanted to be an actor, so I went to movies in order to watch people like Jack Nicholson work. One day, I remember standing outside the art theatre, the Majestic, in my home town, Madison, Wisconsin. And they were playing Cassavetes’ “Faces.” And there were all these reviews outside the theatre, talking about what a great film it was. The idea that film could be art was not something that ever occurred to me before. So I went in. And when I came out, movies became the number one thing for me, more than acting. I started making short films. And this interest developed when I was in college, because there were a lot of film societies in Madison. This was before video of course. So I would show a film in 16mm at my film club. And then I would borrow some prints from some of my friends. Then we’d go to a bar and talk about movies until it closed. And then we’d go to my little apartment and we’d watch movies all night long. We were truly movie mad. We’d get into huge fights about directors.

So you see independent film as being about things like protest art, celebrating the individual, calls for a better world? I don’t know. I don’t necessarily like films because they celebrate anything or even if they’re “moral.” This seems like something I should do, but I know that I don’t care. I love the “Saw” movies. I always felt I could love Ozu and Sam Fuller too.

I guess I’m not looking to feel I’ve been taught a lesson. I like to feel something that I can’t put my finger on. I like to be drawn into mystery. Herzog certainly does this as does Michel Gondry and David Lynch. Is “Mulholland Drive” a moral lesson? Does it make the world a better place? That’s the beauty of the cinema, because it has acting, images, music, camera movement, color—and all these things have the potential to bypass spoken language, to escape what is literal and obvious. I don’t like filmmakers like Michael Moore or Oliver Stone who know the truth and want to explain it to you. I like filmmakers who know they don’t know anything. These are the really brilliant ones—geniuses like Errol Morris. This is art to me: exploring the void. They aren’t afraid to dive into the strangeness and ambiguity of the world. And take you along.

I guess that’s why I liked the nude wrestling scene in “Borat” so much. I’m not joking.

Sujewa: Thanks a lot Reid. I liked Borat too, the nude wrestling scene was painfully hilarious. And Mulholland Drive has definitely made the world a better place in my opinion (even if only in a very small way, even if just for David Lynch fans :). Thanks again for the interview!

Visit Reid's site for more information on his consulting work & career. Read his blog entires here.

- Sujewa


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