Essays · Movies

How John Cassavetes Pioneered Independent Filmmaking

There’s a reason why people like Martin Scorsese frequently cite the writer-director as an influence.
John Cassavetes
Cannon Films
By  · Published on May 17th, 2018

The story goes like this: it’s 1956, and John Cassavetes is an ambitious young actor teaching workshops in New York City. One night, Cassavetes appears on Jean Shepard’s late night talk show, Night People, to promote some of his upcoming projects. On the show, Cassavetes starts griping about the artificiality of Hollywood and his disdain for the repetitive and formulaic drivel the studio system churns out. In a general sense, he insults the very project he was supposed to be there promoting. Cassavetes then tells listeners that if they want to see something authentic, unpolished, and intimate, that they should send him money and he’ll make it happen.

Shockingly enough, money started rolling in. Cassavetes amassed about $2,000 from the appearance. So he made good on his promise, and his directorial debut Shadows was born. Along with the crowdfunding — perhaps Cassavetes should be credited with pioneering Kickstarter as well — and financing from friends, as well as his paychecks from acting jobs, he secured $40,000 for the film. Compared to the amount studios usually spent on films at the time, this was nothing. (For some perspective: Paramount spent around $1.75 million on Sunset Boulevard in 1950.)

Cassavetes assembled a cast almost exclusively comprised of members of his acting workshop for Shadows, most of whom would be making their first film appearances. Regarding the crew, Cassavetes and his cinematographer Erich Kullmar were essentially the only two who had any real experience working on a film set. They obtained no filming permits, used handheld 16mm film cameras, and shot most of the scenes in the apartment that Cassavetes shared with his fellow actor (and wife) Gena Rowlands.

Shadows tells the story of three African-American siblings living in New York City, one of whom is the fair-skinned Lelia who often passes for white.  When she eventually brings home her white boyfriend, he reacts in shock when he meets Lelia’s brothers and realizes she is black. After the credits roll and the film comes to a close, a message flashes on the screen: “The film you have just seen was an improvisation.”


Lelia and one of her brothers (center) in ‘Shadows’

Today, when independent films are winning Oscars (see: Moonlight‘s 2016 Best Picture win), being shot on iPhones (see: 2018’s Unsane), and few topics feel too taboo to explore cinematically (take your pick), Shadows may seem like nothing special. But in 1959, the film was a revelation. Not only for its frank discussions of sex, race, and interracial relationships, but also for the fact that it was entirely independently financed and featured what can only be described as guerrilla filmmaking. At the time, no one was making movies with non-professional actors, and certainly, no one was making feature-length films that were largely improvised.

While Shadows wasn’t the first independent film ever made — some earlier ones include Fireworks (1947) and the short film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) — it remains a huge and early dent in the studio system. To get a better picture of how significant Shadows was, consider this brief history of Hollywood. The studio system for producing films was in full swing by the 1930s, with five major studios making the majority of films: 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Pictures and Warner Bros. Not only did these studios tend to work exclusively with elite talent, but the production code (which was at its height from 1934 until 1950) contained stipulations for the films’ narratives. For example, characters couldn’t kiss on screen for more than three seconds, and third acts had to feature a kind of happy ending. Creative visions were being stifled.

It also goes without saying that before the creation of digital cameras, filmmaking was inherently arduous and expensive. Aspiring filmmakers faced many barriers in addition to the monopolization of the industry by these major studios. But when Shadows came along in 1957, this mold was broken. As Martin Scorsese put it, Shadows meant that filmmakers had “no more excuses. If [Cassavetes] could do it, so could we.”

Scorsese has cited Shadows as being an extremely formative film for him on more occasions than one, even saying that “it was Shadows that gave me the urgency and the courage to try to make films.”  The influence is clear when looking at Scorsese’s feature-length directorial debut, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at my Door, which not only launched Scorsese’s career but also that of actor Harvey Keitel.

“Most people don’t know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, It’s very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to… As an artist, I feel that we must try many things – but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad – to be willing to risk everything to really express it all.”

The sentiment behind this Cassavetes quote remained at the heart of his career until his death in 1989. After Shadows, he continued to capture living and breathing people just as they were in real life: beautiful and broken and each looking for something unique. Cassavetes was making movies that simply could not be made within the studio system. And while Shadows was panned when it first came out, this is often the case when something so groundbreaking comes along. Never forget that Stanley Kubrick was nominated for a Razzie in 1981 for worst directing for his work on The Shining.

Cassavetes eventually directed Faces in 1968. Once again, the film was independently financed and filmed in his own home and featured his signature handheld camera style. This film also marked the beginning of one of the greatest cinematic collaborations of all time: that of Cassavetes and Rowlands. The husband and wife duo went on the make seven films together.  Faces was nominated for three Academy Awards: one for Cassavetes’ screenplay, as well as acting nominations for Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin. This helped prove that independent filmmaking could indeed be profitable and that these kinds of films had mainstream appeal.

After Faces, Cassavetes went on to make A Woman Under the Influence in 1974. The film starred Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti, a woman struggling with the confines of society, motherhood, and mental illness. Rowlands’ performance is often cited as one of the greatest of all time and for good reason.

One of the many things these three films, as well as 1984’s Love Streams, have in common is interesting and complex female characters. Lelia loudly and frequently demands independence in Shadows. Faces explores a broken marriage by showing in equal measure both the husband and wife engaging in affairs with younger suitors. Simply put, Cassavetes and Rowlands were integral in proving that the intricacies of the female experience were cinematic. Cassavetes had this to say about what seemed to be the standard for women in film at the time:

“I’m very worried about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s gotten worse than ever and it’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, with whom, and how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.”

A Woman Under the Influence, Love Streams, and Faces were all movies built entirely around the conflicts that arise from societally-forced domesticity. Rowlands has stated that she never actually helped Cassavetes write any of her roles, and when asked how he was able to write women so well, said: “I don’t know. He didn’t even have a sister. He liked women, and he had a lot of sympathy for women. Things have gotten easier for some of us, but they weren’t always that way. We were at a disadvantage. He saw that.” It should be noted that Rowlands isn’t giving herself enough credit here; while she may not have contributed to scripts, she brought her husband’s words to life in an inimitable fashion and her contributions to his films and therefore their lasting impact cannot be overstated.

John Cassavetes Gena Rowlands Love Streams

Cassavetes and Rowlands playing brother and sister in ‘Love Streams’

In the film Videodrome, this is the explanation the main character gets when he tries to understand better the power of the Videodrome Network: “It has something that you don’t have. It has a philosophy, and that is what makes it dangerous.” There’s a reason why Cassavetes’ films have had such a lasting influence on American cinema. They weren’t simply influential because they were the first to do what they did, but because Cassavetes’ filmmaking had a philosophy that was deeply linked to his worldview and his perspective on the human condition.

Many of his ideas remain incredibly relevant today, and this very philosophy is what made his films dangerous (to the studio system, that is). Through his unique and unwavering vision, Cassavetes blazed a trail for the indie filmmaking we know and love today. Here are some parting words of wisdom from the director from the book “Cassavetes on Cassavetes” to reflect on:

“These days, everybody is supposed to be so intelligent (…) But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, like, ‘What is bugging you, mister? (…) Why, why, why do you refuse to recognize you have problems and deal with them?’ The answer is that people have forgotten how to relate or respond. In this day of mass communications and instant communications, there is no communication between people. Instead it’s long-winded stories or hostile bits, or laughter. But nobody’s really laughing. It’s more a hysterical, joyless kind of sound. Translation: ‘I am here and I don’t know why.”

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Enjoys watching sunrises and sunsets, but prefers watching the Richard Linklater trilogy.