It’s Just Movies recently had the chance to interview Garen Topalian, executive producer of “The Beatnicks,” an independent film starring Norman Reedus, Mark Boone Junior and Elodie Bouchez, and co-starring Eric Roberts, Patrick Bauchau and Jon Gries.
Topalian has produced two movies. The first one, called “squeeze…,” was distributed by Miramax films, and the second was “The Beatnicks,” which was made in 2000.
Topalian currently is self distributing “The Beatnicks.”
IJM: How did you get into the movie business?
GT: I was in my third year at Boston University studying International Economics and some friends in film school came back from Morocco after a Christmas break, having filmed a documentary on super 16mm called “Arms of Atlas.” I watched the footage, believed in the project, started a production company and raised the money for post production. We entered it into the IFFM in NY as a work in progress and screened at the Tribeca Film Center. While we were at the festival, we passed around business plans for a feature film we wanted to make called “squeeze.” The interest in the project was fantastic and the momentum for “squeeze” took over our lives and we made the film, which eventually won several awards and was picked up by Miramax films.
IJM:How did “squeeze” come together and what did you learn from making your first feature film?
GT: Community, friends & family is how “squeeze” got made. We raised enough money to shoot, on 35mm, a few scenes over three weekends in order to cut a teaser together. This was in November of my senior year and by the spring we had raised enough cash ($120,000) to get the film in the can. The crew worked at reduced rates (with deferred compensation), the equipment houses asked for only a token up front with the balance deferred, all the locations were incredibly cooperative, etc…. The film was very community oriented, and everyone participated because they really believed in it.
As for what I learned aside from all the nuts and bolts of taking an idea on paper and making an hour and a half feature film out of it — I learned that when you are playing in the big leagues you have to be extremely careful, because there are sharks everywhere, waiting to take a bite.
IJM: Have you ever done anything other than produce when it comes to making films?
GT: My very first experience with film=making was acting in a few of Wes Anderson’s short student films. I spent a few years in Texas when I was young and went to school with his brother, Eric, and together we all made a few short movies by just running around with the camera and shooting, re-enacting scenes from big movies and making a few shorts. “Dead Poet’s Society” was also shot at the high school I went to. I remember hearing a rumbling and looking outside to see a dozen 18-wheelers driving onto the St. Andrews campus in the middle of Delaware. I asked what was going on and was told that the school was chosen as a location for the filming of the movie. Having Robin Williams walking around campus and hearing Peter Weir give us a lecture seemed larger than life and very inspiring. That experience of watching a film get made from behind the scenes over the course of three months was intriguing enough to make a lasting impression on me.
IJM: Why did you make “The Beatnicks”?
GT: My mission as a filmmaker is to create commercially-viable art. When I read the script, I was working on Wall Street at a hedge fund specializing in risk arbitrage. I had left Boston after “squeeze” and decided to move to NY to get my business skills together. After two years, I really wanted to produce another movie. I loved the script and could see the film as I was reading it. My investor pool had done very well with “squeeze” and were willing to support my next film venture. Elodie Bouchez was attached to the project as well as Norman Reedus and it seemed like both a commercially-viable project as well as being a film that I considered to be an artistic film; one that many people would watch and interpret differently.
IJM: Both films you produced had first-time directors. Is this a co-incidence or was it by design?
GT: I never intended on working strictly with first-time directors, so it is a coincidence. With hindsight, however, I loved the process. With both films, it was very organic. The directors had a vision for the film but were also open to creative input from outside sources. As far as collaboration was concerned it could not have been a better experience. Part of my desire to be a independent film producer stems from collaboration and the first-time directors seemed to be more open than a lot of other directors we could have worked with.
IJM: “The Beatnicks” was made in 2000 and was released in 2010. Why did it take so long for the film to become available for purchase and rental?
GT: When we first tried to secure distribution for “The Beatnicks,” the Hollywood market rejected the film. We showed the film to every distributor who was in business at the time. From the top-tier independent distributors all the way down to specialty film distributors I had never heard of. I thought that the talent in the film would be enough to at least secure foreign distribution, and we were at least able to secure French distribution. After a year and a half of trying to sell the film without any success, I decided to shelf “The Beatnicks.”
In 2008, fans of Norman Reedus (pictured at right) started contacting me via www.thebeatnicks.com, asking to buy a copy of the DVD. I took this demand as a sign and decided to distribute the film myself. I started a MySpace page and fostered the online presence as the only cost at that point was my time and I loved doing it. I never intended on promoting the film or self distributing, but the momentum that the film gained online was not something I could turn my back on. By that time, Netflix had become a major player in the rental market and I sent the film in as a blind submission with a letter with links to the website and the MySpace page. They passed the film on to a film distributor that they work with called Passion River Films and one day I got a call from them telling me they saw the film, liked it and wanted to give the film a wide retail release. I was very excited as it gave a me a reason to re-release the film so to speak. Since then, the online presence of “The Beatnicks” has exploded with a Facebook page and the dedicated fan base that is growing. A group that calls themselves Team Beatnicks has been formed and as with the making and the distribution of the film, the promotional aspect is now also growing organically and I can’t help but stay involved as its finally getting to its core audience and they are reacting well.
IJM:Do you think this film is for everyone?
GT: Well, I would have to say that almost everyone should at least see the film, but is it for everyone? Probably not. It is a surreal independent film. I have had people tell me they love it and I have had people tell me they really did not like it. Overwhelmingly, people who like indie movies really like “The Beatnicks” and fans of Norman, Mark [Boone Junior], Elodie and the rest of our cast also react very well. We have had some amazing reviews comparing the film to indie classics and we have also had some bad reviews. Fortunately, the good reviews have outshined the bad.
IJM:What inspired you to self distribute “The Beatnicks”?
GT: The fans inspired me. I honestly do not think the film would have ever had a life if the fans had not asked for the it.I had already moved on to another career after making “The Beatnicks” and I could not see myself ever going back. In many ways, the film was a burden for me that was costing me money and never went anywhere. This recent uprising of fan interest and social media community participation has been inspiring enough to dedicate a part of life to the film and nurture its momentum.
IJM: In one word or phrase for each, what were your biggest challenges during pre-production, production and post-production?
GT: Pre Production: Casting the monkey. Production: Directing the monkey. Post Production: distribution!
IJM: You say that “The Beatnicks” never got distribution and you say you have put everything you had into it. Since the movie was made so long ago, how have you been making a living?
GT: During the two years while trying to sell the film and chase after foreign distributors, I started freelancing as a Mac technician in NYC. I did not want to go back to Wall Street and I really wanted to work for myself. I ended up perma-lancing at a corporate event production company and started going on the road to provide IT equipment and support for large events and meetings — product launches, trade shows, equity conferences, etc… I saw an opportunity in a niche market and started my own company called Aslan Information Technology, which is a boutique IT consulting firm that provides conference and event IT support for large corporations.
IJM: Who is your biggest inspiration and why?
GT: My biggest inspirations keep changing, but my most recent one is George Lucas. I had the honor of meeting him last year and spending a weekend at Skywalker Ranch. Hearing him talk about the process of making “Star Wars” and inventing an editing system for “Return of the Jedi” that almost every filmmaker in the world now uses a version of totally blew me away. I felt like I was in the presence of a living legend as he offered me wine from his vineyard, literally. Here was a guy, just like anyone else, who had a dream, pursued it and stopped at nothing to make it happen. His story is inspiring and actually reminded me of what we are all capable of and what I had once set out to do, but never finished. He was part of my inspiration to take on the challenge of distributing “The Beatnicks” for the second time.
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Follow Sean Gerski on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DoubleDown44.