Filmmaker Christopher Forbes is doing the nearly impossible. He’s making independent films that get distributed.
“It’s only been the last couple of years that I’ve been able to do this,” he said with a smile. “You can’t make a living based on the returns that the films are going to bring. You have to have some kind of budget when you’re shooting.”
Only 400 films every year get theatrical distribution. But thanks to newer and cheaper “pro-sumer” technology, about 1,000 indie films are produced annually in the U.S. Breaking through the background noise can be a challenge, but Forbes advice is to forge ahead.
“It’s like any other artistic endeavor,” he explained. The life of an artist, indie filmmaker, novelist or actor is essentially a series of freelance jobs cobbled together from connections and experience. The difference is that, for a filmmaker, the payoff requires an initial investment.
“My first three films I had to pay into them to have them made,” Forbes said. And even with successful independent efforts like “Battle of Aiken” under his belt, and horror film “Basketweave” enjoying national exposure from York Entertainment, the film business runs feast to famine. “It’s extremely inconsistent, a lot of ups and downs and absolute terror before production begins. A lot of times what will happen is, when you get these features going, people say, ‘Oh, this is really going to get made!’”
And that’s when investors are willing to take a chance: after filming begins.
You’d think it might be easier for Forbes at this point in his life. He graduated film school from Columbia College in Chicago in 1983, and worked “everything else in the film business that I could think of.” He bought and ran a movie theater in Indiana and managed a Blockbuster video somewhere along the way.
“I would go back and forth to L.A. about every three months, pitching projects to people,” he said, including New Line Cinema. But the studio system is a cult-like environment, full of nepotism and family dynasties. Scratch a car in a studio lot, and it probably belongs to a Scorsese or a Barrymore.
“I have no idea what it takes to actually get these people to do anything,” Forbes laughed. If it were passion that drove them, Forbes would have sailed into a director’s chair. He burns with it. This is a man who has incinerated whole towns to get his visions to the big screen, as he did in the making of “Battle of Aiken.”
For his newest film, made in conjunction with Augustafilm.com, Forbes completed an adaptation of the Civil War novel “Firetrail” by author Lydia Hawke. This time, Forbes left the town of Aiken undamaged. Instead, he just designed, constructed and burned a 110-foot wooden bridge.
“Virtually the entire Aiken County Fire Department was on hand. For that particular credit in the film, we have 30 individuals,” Forbes laughed. It was something of a treat for them. One of the firefighters commented, “We very rarely get to go out and actually set these things.”
Burning the bridge was essential to the story, which takes place during Sherman’s march through the Carolinas.
“The hero [Blake Winberry] is a Confederate cavalry captain who’s been sent back to Columbia to help defend South Carolina against Sherman’s oncoming army,” explained Hawke. The name of the novel refers on the surface to the famous trail of fire that Sherman’s army left in its wake, sparing few towns along the way — although Madison, Ga., claims an exception. But in an irony of war, the defending army did as much damage as the advancing troops.
“It was about 6,000 guys, and they know they’re facing about 60,000 guys,” Hawke explained. “This has got to be a little nerve-wracking.”
So in an effort to slow the Union army’s advance, Confederate troops intentionally damaged train tracks, roads and other modes of transportation. In “Firetrail,” Southern troops set fire to the bridge to prevent federal forces from crossing the river.
“A character says, ‘I think we burned about every bridge in the state,’” Forbes explained.
“Firetrail” also refers to the trail of tears that civilians followed during and after the war, abandoning homesteads before the advancing army could catch up and fleeing occupied territory for safety.
“There were a lot of refugees. It was a major problem in the South — displaced people. They were all over the place,” Hawke explained, and she used that as the backdrop for an intense personality-driven story. “[Blake Winberry is] struggling to maintain his demeanor in a very savage environment. He’s struggling to maintain his honor, his integrity and his humanity.”
Along the way, he meets a refugee, Judith Rogers, whose home was destroyed in the war.
“Those people found it dangerous to stay there, or uncomfortable to stay,” Hawke explained. “If you’re in the middle of an area where your house is burned down, you gotta either camp out or leave.”
It’s a three-hour historical romantic adventure that Hawke assures was carefully and meticulously researched. Forbes wanted to stay true to her story, and so defied the conventional 90-minute mark.
“I could have made a five-part miniseries out of the book,” he laughed.
Next up for Forbes is a film he’s neck-deep in post-production, “Vampitheatre,” about a traveling rock band that also happens to be vampires. After that, he returns to Civil War lore.
“We just got the rights to Lydia’s [Hawke] other Civil War book, ‘Perfect Disguise,”’ Forbes said.