In 2010, Scotland-born yoga-instructor-turned-filmmaker DIANE BELL achieved what many first-time writer/directors dream about – her debut film (made for less than $150,000) was accepted to the Sundance Film Festival. That film, Obselidia, went on to win both the Cinematography Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance, and landed two Independent Spirit Award nominations the following year. Since then, Diane was selected for the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab as well as the Sundance/Women in Film Mentorship Program. In 2014, Bell and her husband/producing partner Chris Byrne founded Rebel Heart Film, a production company and education resource that offers indie filmmaking workshops.
Now Diane Bell’s second film as writer/director is ready for release. BLEEDING HEART is a thriller starring Jessica Biel and Zosia Mamet as estranged sisters who come together and take on one’s abusive boyfriend. Bleeding Heart premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and is being distributed by Gravitas Ventures on VOD November 3, followed by a theatrical release December 11. [UPDATE: The film is now available on IMDb TV, The Roku Channel, Hoopla, Vudu, Redbox, Peacock, and Paramount+.]
Bell was kind enough to speak with us about her new film, experiencing Sundance as a first-time filmmaker, and how crowdfunding is a lot like street performance art.
COLIN McCORMACK: Take us back to 2010 when your directorial debut Obselidia was accepted to Sundance. As a new filmmaker, how did it feel to get called up to the big leagues so early in your career?
DIANE BELL: [Laughs] When I got that phone call, I was actually out in Wyoming on a ranch working for [Die Hard] director John McTiernan… I was out on the ranch all by myself and pretty lonely, and I was feeling kind of down about Obselidia at that point… And I got an email from Sundance saying, We’d like to talk to you today. Is this the right number? And I immediately called up my producers on Obselidia and said, “They want to talk to us, but I’m sure it’s just to say, We liked it, but keep trying!” [Laughs] And when I actually spoke to – it was Shari Frilot, one of the programmers from Sundance – I literally was just on the floor crying. Because it’s a phone call that you always secretly dream of getting, but you never think you’ll get. And to receive it was just kind of mind-blowing and humbling and incredibly exciting.
CM: You’ve written a blog about how you’d do Sundance slightly differently if you could do it over. Could you expand on that? How would you have been more strategic in your festival-going with hindsight?
DB: Well, at the time– obviously Obselidia was my first film. Really, I had set out just to make a film and I hadn’t really thought about what to do with it afterwards, you know? Which sounds very naïve, but I think for many first-time filmmakers it’s the same. It feels like such a gargantuan task- just to gather the funds and actually do it and finish it feels so huge, that you haven’t really thought about what comes next. And when we got into Sundance we had absolutely no time and we were so out of our depths and we didn’t really know what we were doing. And we just Googled, “Getting into Sundance- what should you do?” [Laughs] Literally. [We] asked anyone that we knew who had any kind of experience, and they all said the same thing about getting a sales agent and hiring PR and all those kind of conventional [thoughts] about selling the film. And now I just think that with a film like Obselidia, that was a huge mistake. To think that we were going to go to Sundance with a film like that, that has no name actors in it, there’s no brand, there’s no audience built for the film, there’s nothing in place at all. And to think that we would then just score this great distribution deal and wouldn’t have to worry about it was just really silly. But you learn, because basically we did what we were told to do, and we didn’t get any good offers for the film. And we went on the festival circuit and I guess around a year later we “self-distributed” it, and by that I mean we were very lucky that Sundance had Artist Services, and through them we went onto a Video On Demand platform, and so on.
If we had been strategic– I think if you know there’s an audience for that film, you realize as a filmmaker it’s not just about making the money back for your investors… it’s also about connecting the film with an audience who will love it. And if you’ve spent that much time making a film and you’re making the kind of personal films that I love, there’s an audience but you have to work to find them. But it behooves you to do that because that’s what you have made the film for – to connect it with people who will appreciate it. And so now I feel very strongly that if I was ever so lucky as to have a film like that go to Sundance again, that I would really be planning my self-distribution. From the moment I got that call, I would be like, Okay, we have to get our ducks in a row so that we’re going to capitalize on the attention we’ll get from Sundance. [We’ll] distribute the film ourselves and make sure that the people who want to see this film when they hear about it will get to see it, and get to see it fast. Because one of the biggest problems, I think, is we have this very short attention [span], and there’s so much competing for peoples’ attention. And so when you have the attention, that’s when you want to deliver the film. You don’t want to have them wait six months. Unless you’re Star Wars, then you can have them wait [laughs]. But if you’re not Star Wars, if you’re a small indie drama, the day that they read about it… within the next month they can click our link and watch it. And I think that’s what you have to aim for.
CM: You also participated in the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab and their Women in Film Mentorship Program. What lessons have you taken from those programs that you continue to use?
DB: You know, both of them offered various things that I feel so blessed to have been a participant [in]. The Screenwriter’s Lab was really a deeply transformative experience. And I think for everyone who’s lucky enough to get the chance to go there, and go there with an open mind, they find it the same way. One of the biggest takeaways from that Lab for me was just about having the courage to take risks in independent filmmaking. And too often– making art is a scary business, and making films in particular because it costs so much money- even if you do it at a very low budget it’s still a lot of money, even if you do it for $5,000 or $10,000. A painter could paint a painting for zip – a couple hundred probably, right? To get materials? Filmmaking’s expensive. And I think people get afraid– it’s so public when you put a film out there and all these people jump on it, and everyone’s an expert on films and everyone’s got their opinion. Filmmakers, we then censor ourselves in a way and we get scared. And that’s what we need to avoid. That was something I really got at the Screenwriter’s Lab, the courage to go places where I perhaps was afraid to go before. And that is incredibly empowering as an artist, and I think that was the most amazing thing there. I spent a lot of the time at the Lab– it was intense, it was like artist therapy [laughs]. I remember really realizing that my limitations as a writer and an artist correspond exactly with my fears as a human being. The places that I’m afraid of as a human being I sort of shy away from in my writing. And I realized that to become the best writer I can be, I have to actually go into the fears. So it was pretty intense.
The [Sundance/Women in Film] Mentorship Program, I feel, was a very different sort of thing because– I wouldn’t call it therapy for artists, it was like therapy for businesspeople [laughs]. It was much more focused on how – particularly because it was Women in Film’s mentorship program – it was very focused on how as women we get more opportunities and create more opportunities and create sustainable careers for ourselves. It was not thinking about how do we become the best artist, but really how do we create sustainable careers and break from this abysmal situation that we’re in for women in the business at the moment.
CM: You talked about learning to take risks earlier, but you shot Obselidia, a feature, without ever making a short before, which is a big risk. How did you manage to raise the financing and get producers to sign on when you didn’t have a reel or a proven track record [of] shorts or other features you’d made?
DB: Basically, I had written a few other scripts and so I did have a little bit of some standing as a writer. I had sold something that had been optioned and I had written a couple of scripts for the director John McTiernan, and I wrote a commissioned script – a horror script that’s never been made – for a producer. And it was that producer actually, that I went to to finance Obselidia. Because I knew that he liked my work as a writer, [even though] I didn’t have a reel as a director. And basically what happened then– there [were] a couple of possible financiers for the film and I just went to them, gave them the script, I got a budget, a schedule, I had everything done to show how exactly I was going to make this movie. And both of them said to me, “We love the script, and the budget and schedule look fine and real and amazing. But we really have no clue whether you can make a film.” I was like, “Well that is a fair point!” [Laughs] So I went off then at that point on my own dime and… shot a concept trailer for Obselidia. So the DP who I’d been talking to to do it, he came from New York and brought his RED camera. The actress that I wanted to work with, Gaynor [Howe] was in London, she flew over on her own dime. The [other actor] lived here in LA, and we went out to the desert and we just shot a bunch of stuff and I put together this little trailer. And after [the financiers] saw that, they signed on. And it’s one of the things – I teach workshops in filmmaking and how to get films like this off the ground – and a big focus of it is, How do you put together the package to get you the money that you need? And for me that is a really crucial step. I don’t think that you necessarily need to have done other films – if you’ve done a short film you can show people, fantastic – but if you can shoot something that is a little concept trailer that really shows the character, the tone, and the feeling that your film is going to have, that’s going to convince people more than anything. It certainly did for us with Obselidia.
CM: Like you said, you teach filmmaking workshops. When you were making your first film, what resources did you find useful, be it books or workshops or nonprofits or anything like that?
DB: I’m trying to think if I read any books… I never went to film school, but I’ve been a completely obsessed cinéaste since I was like in my teens. And so I definitely had very, very strong ideas about the visual style of the film and the kind of film I wanted to make; the rhythm of it, the pace of it, and the style of filmmaking I wanted to attempt. So that was really clear. I think in terms of– I did not do any workshops I don’t think, which is kind of wild. But I think I did read a lot of books, ranging from The Guerilla Film Maker’s Handbook to Dov Simens’ 2-Day Film School, but I was trying to learn about the business of filmmaking, because I was trying to raise the money for it. So I think I read a lot of stuff like that, but I can’t remember anything in particular that stands out as something that changed my view completely on things. It feels like there’s a lot more resources now for filmmakers, I have to say. In terms of these websites, No Film School, Indiewire, Filmmaker Magazine, there are these incredible, real resources for people now. I’m thinking maybe they were there [back] then, but the world is changing rapidly, so I don’t know if they were.
CM: And with your company Rebel Heart Films, when did you decide to expand from just a production company into being educators as well?
DB: That really came last year, so it’s fairly new. And basically what happened was after I made my first film Obselidia… I made it completely off the grid and with no help from the main system whatsoever. After that, I sort of got into a conventional headspace and I started to do what was more expected: I got a manager and an agent and did these things in a conventional way. I took a little bit of time off to have my son during that period. After that I wrote this other film [Bleeding Heart], which got made in a much more conventional way: Production company, finance, and so on. What was interesting to me was when that experience was happening, making that film was actually really challenging in many ways. I felt I had to make a lot of compromises; it wasn’t always a happy experience. I’m proud of the final film, in particular the work of my cast and crew, but I can’t say it was a great creative experience. And I thought that it’s so weird that everybody thinks that you want to make these little films in order to make these bigger films, and I’m having this experience and I’m actually pretty depressed [laughs]. And I thought about that for a while and I thought, I don’t think I ever want to make another movie. And then I was like, No but actually, the way that we made Obselidia was kind of magical and I think that’s the way I’ll do my best work. It’s sort of like a completely revolutionary idea to me. Like we have this idea that we should start with small films and then move up to bigger budgets. That’s the idea of what we should all be doing, aspiring to bigger budgets, bigger budgets. And I sort of think that’s just bullshit. And that was the beginning of it; I thought I really needed to share this with people. And actually making a film it doesn’t matter what the budget is, the process is the same. And what’s important is you make the film you want to make. If you have a story you want to tell, it’s really important you get to tell it the way it’s meant to be told from your heart. When this all came to me I just felt, I have to share this with people. I know there’s a way to make films where you’re completely independent, where you have complete creative control, and where I think most filmmakers do their best work; where they have the biggest chance of making a film that will really stand out. So that was the beginning of Rebel Heart Film. When all this really started to make sense to me through my own experiences, I really felt completely passionate about sharing it, because there’s a lot of lies in our industry. There are just so many lies. People are constantly lying about their distribution deals, lying about the kind of success they’re having with their film, there’s just a lot of untruths, and I just feel totally compelled to share the truth as I know it.
CM: [Especially] budgets, I’ve noticed. It’s hard to get [accurate] numbers out of people.
DB: Absolutely! Absolutely, there’s a complete lack of transparency. And I understand it on one hand. The reason there’s a lack of transparency is everyone wants to appear more successful perhaps than they are, so they can continue to do it and move up. And also there’s that idea that bigger budgets are more validating somehow. Somehow we think someone who’s making a $5 million movie is more of a filmmaker than someone who’s making a $50,000 movie. And I just don’t think that’s true. As I was saying, the process is the same. My second film cost ten times the amount of my first film [and] I got one extra day of shooting. Okay, ten times the budget- and the process is the same, I got nineteen days instead of eighteen days. I feel like blowing the smoke off a lot of it. And also [teaching] realistic expectations of what you can do with your film at the end. Because I feel a lot of first-time filmmakers trying to get these bigger budgets, they think that validates them more, they think that’s a better thing. But actually to be honest, in today’s world it’s really hard to make money from your movie. Making a million-dollar movie, it’s really hard to get your money back unless you have certain stars in it. Whereas if you make the movie for $100,000, you’ve got a good chance [of making money] if you play it smart. So one of my things is really just sharing that knowledge. Because people read the trades and we all know that movie got this distribution deal, blah blah blah. What they don’t say is half the time those distribution deals are actually service deals, i.e. the filmmakers are paying the company to distribute it. In many cases, the distribution company is paying the filmmaker zero to acquire the film, or a symbolic penny or something. None of this gets mentioned, it’s just sort of, Oh they got distribution, that’s amazing! Great! And everyone just imagines that they all got loads of money out of it. And it’s just not true. So my thing is, how do we help filmmakers succeed? If you’re going to make a film, how do you do it in a way where you’ll get the chance to do it again whether or not you win the lottery? So maybe your film is amazing and you get plucked out to direct Jurassic World or whatever, but maybe it just doesn’t stand out that same way. But how do you create that situation in which no matter what, you will get to do it again? And I think one of the ways is really empowering yourself with true knowledge about the situation in the film world right now. And you don’t get that from the trades. You won’t get it from reading those kinds of things. You will get it if you talk to other filmmakers who are honest with you… I talk to all my filmmaker friends all the time about really, how much [money] did they get? How much did it cost and how much did they get from it? If you can empower yourself with that knowledge, you’re going to give yourself a better chance at actually making your money back from your film and getting to do it again.
CM: So in addition to Bleeding Heart’s budget being ten times larger than Obselidia, you also have some recognizable actors [now] in Jessica Biel and Zosia Mamet. Could you tell us a little bit about casting the film and how you got your script into their hands?
DB: We were very lucky. I was working with a production company, Super Crispy [Entertainment], who had a decent track record, so that was definitely a help. And then we worked with a Casting Director called Richard Hicks, who was phenomenal. And he’d done Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity and really big movies. He read our script, and I think he’d seen Obselidia at Sundance and he loved it, so he had some time and he took on our movie, which was really, really helpful. Because I know then when he was calling agents and reaching out to people, they’re answering his calls. Plus we had a production company who were actually making offers. It wasn’t just like, Hey we’d like to attach you to go raise our financing. There was an offer, it was real, and it was happening. I think also, Jessica- who is just phenomenal in this film, both of them are phenomenal and unexpected- and I think for both of them, what drew them to doing this film was that they got to play parts that were not typical for them. Jessica is honestly I think such a phenomenal actress, and in this film she gets a chance to flex those muscles. She really goes through so much and she’s just incredible in it. And Zosia likewise, obviously who’s best-known for playing Shoshanna on [HBO’s] Girls, I remember when Richard Hicks first brought her up to me, “What about Zosia?” And I was like, “No way! I know her from Girls and she’s not going to be this part.” Because the part in the movie is sort of a young sex worker who’s pretty street and pretty sassy, and of course [Zosia’s] part on Girls, she’s the opposite of that. And Richard got her to tape an audition in New York and she sent it over and – this is really embarrassing to admit – but at first I wouldn’t even watch it [laughs]. ‘Cause I just thought, She’s so wrong, it’s never gonna work! She’s not going to play that part. And finally– the casting it required– it’s really a tough part, because the girl needed to be believable as sort of street and sassy on one hand, but also be someone that you fall in love with, like not too rough. It was an odd mix of qualities that was very difficult. Richard, finally he was like, “Please just watch her tape.” And I watched it and the second I started watching it I said, “Oh my God, that’s it. She’s the girl.” It blew me away. The audition tape just blew me away. I immediately also had ideas about how [to] develop the character from what [Zosia] had done, and got on the phone with her that very day, and she did another tape at night and sent it to me and it was like, hands down there’s no doubt she’s the one for it. And I think people will be equally as amazed as I am. It’s a strange casting because people won’t expect to see her in that kind of part, but she’s honestly just an incredibly talented woman. She brought it.
CM: Jessica Biel’s character in the film is a yoga instructor, which is what you did before you were a filmmaker.
DB: Yes, I did.
CM: Has your yoga experience been an asset during production on particularly stressful days?
DB: I think it informs everything that I do. I think yoga – because I’ve practiced a lot [laughs] – I think for ten years it was the focus of my life or something. And as a result of that, I tend not to get stressed. People will say on my films that you never see me stressed, and sometimes inside I’m like, Oh my God how are we going to make this day? But I never show it. Yoga just gives you a firm foundation somehow to be focused on the process, to let go of attachments to everything else. Just to be present. And I think that’s the biggest gift that yoga has given me. For me the film Bleeding Heart– [why the main] character is a yoga teacher– I was interested partly in the yoga world, and [how] it’s really easy to be peaceful and spiritual when we’re around other spiritual and peaceful people. When it’s not so easy is when we’re confronted with people who are not, or situations that are not. Like how does someone who is committed to a path of peace… [is] suddenly confronted by someone who’s absolutely hell-bent on violence, then what do you do? And that was the starting point of that movie. And it’s a conundrum that I don’t have an answer to, and I think the film goes on a certain journey that hopefully still raises the question that yes, how do you deal with somebody who is just completely violent and is not going to sit down and reason? Who’s not interested in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict that’s there? And I don’t have an easy answer to that, there is no easy answer to that question. But it fascinates me, because obviously the underpinning of yoga is absolutely to find peace and unity.
CM: I’ve heard the film described as a “feminist revenge thriller.” Are there other films in either the revenge genre or feminist genre that you took inspiration from while you were writing Bleeding Heart?
DB: Oh yeah, yeah. Definitely Thelma & Louise. Part of my thing was– this movie is a little bit of a fantasy. When I wrote [the screenplay], I felt like I was so sick of seeing women always as victims. I’m just sick of it. And you switch on the TV any day, you watch any TV show, and it’s basically they’re the victim. And it gets so tiring to be a woman. I don’t think people realize it. I remember once I was in my local café and there was a TV on and it was [on] CNN, and it was like story after story– the women who were kidnapped in Nigeria, and then these women who had been released in Cleveland who [had been] prisoners for a decade. And then they talk about, Why do women not have confidence? You read this thing about the “confidence gap,” that women don’t succeed as well because they’re not as confident [as men]. I’m like, Well why do you think we’re not so confident? All we’re hearing all the time is we’re weak and we’re victims. And so I was really in this mood where I just wanted to make a movie where actually a woman kicks ass for another woman [laughs]… As simple and as silly as that [sounds]. I just felt, I want to see that on-screen. I want to create a story where a woman goes all out to rescue another woman and help her no matter what. And that was just kind of fun to do.
CM: You premiered at Tribeca, but did you cast a wide net in terms of film festivals? Were you looking at more genre-specific ones, like female-centric film fests or every [type]?
DB: It was really up to my producers to choose [festivals]. I would have loved the film to have played at more festivals– I am just a huge fan of film festivals and I think that it’s an amazing way to connect films with audiences. But my producers have a certain approach– and Tribeca really loved the film. I think they saw quite an early cut and they thought that was really a good fit for the film, premiering in New York. And it was a good place. Tribeca is an amazing film festival and I think the film played really well there. It is quite a dark and gritty drama, so I think it was a good choice.
CM: For your next film Of Dust and Bones you raised the funding through Seed&Spark. Could you tell us a little bit about how that process went?
DB: It was one of the scariest and most amazing, great things I’ve ever done [laughs]. Part of what we were teaching at Rebel Heart… you can raise the money by yourself and make these smaller films. And after Bleeding Heart I just really, really wanted to make a film- one) where I have complete creative control; and two) where I just had time to make the film. Like I said with Bleeding Heart, I shot it in nineteen days, and there were guns and stunts and difficult things; it was a tough schedule. So for my next one, I just wanted it to be me and the actors, in one location shooting like two-thirds of the day, where we just have time. Really have time to get into the scenes and dig into them with the actors, and also take the time to really set up the shots and get the lighting perfect and all that stuff. So that was my aim, and I really realized through Rebel Heart and what I’ve been teaching, the part of these ideals that I feel very excited about is engaging the audience early. And one of the ways to do that is through crowdfunding [as a way of] involving people. So I decided, I’m going to do it, I’m going to have to walk the talk. Have you ever crowdfunded for anything?
CM: I’ve donated, but I’ve never been the “asker.”
DB: It’s terrifying! [Laughs]
CM: It’s like a full-time job I’ve heard.
DB: It is a full-time job, there’s no doubt about it. And I don’t know– you feel so vulnerable. You literally feel– I read this thing by Amanda Palmer, she’s this singer who’s also a crowdfunding extraordinaire. She’s a recording artist who made like a million dollars on Kickstarter and then did a [TED Talk] about it, and then she actually wrote a book about it [The Art of Asking]. And I read the book before I crowdfunded and I was so grateful to read it. It really inspired me. She worked for years as a street performer– she was a living statue who if you put money in her hat, she would give you a flower. And she writes so eloquently about it and about– as an artist doing what she was doing, just standing on the street with a flower saying, “You can take it.” And ninety-five-percent of people don’t want to take [the flower]. They won’t even look at you. And that’s fine. [She wrote], you don’t need ninety-five-percent, you just need three-percent to put money in the hat and you’ll make a living. I really took that to heart and I felt like when you’re crowdfunding, that’s exactly how you feel. You’re just standing on a street corner with your flower, just holding it out. And most people are going to ignore it, and some people will stop and have a look and give it a kick and leave it, and some people will kick a few bucks in, and that’s how it is. What was amazing to me was how many people that I knew from like twenty years ago who would suddenly kick in money… Most people that do contribute to your campaign are connected to you in some way. And it’s really humbling and really beautiful and really extraordinary to experience it. It also made me feel bolder about the film. Like suddenly I felt, Oh my goodness, there are all these people that want to see this, that are engaging with it, that are giving me money to make the film. And I feel lifted up by them. Often filmmaking is so lonely and it’s such a trudge, and suddenly you do this [campaign] and you’re like– I have a whole tribe now, I have a whole village who are a part of this movie. And it’s their film, it’s not just me now. This is not about me, this is about all these people. And that’s just incredibly energizing and liberating somehow. So I was kind of shocked– I started this off like, [dreading] Oh my God, and by the end I was like, [sigh] Wow. It wasn’t what I expected at all. I learned a lot of lessons, and [it being a] full-time job is definitely true, but ultimately I found it incredibly enriching and I strongly recommend it to any artist. I feel like it’s a very empowering and nourishing thing to do in a strange way.
What’s the first movie you remember seeing in theaters?
Grease. I loved it! I think I’d seen other ones beforehand, but that’s the one I really remember.
What’s your go-to drink order at a bar?
Oh, it’s probably a glass of white wine.
Recommend a movie you love that most people haven’t heard of.
Oh that’s hard, because I’d never presume to imagine what people haven’t heard of. I’m going to have to think about that… The movies I love that I think a lot of people haven’t seen are old classics, things like Ozu’s Tokyo Story… But Tokyo Story is a film that I think every filmmaker should see… I’ll stand by that. [Laughs]
What’s an interview question you never want to hear again?
Nothing really bothers me. It’s funny, the other day my friend and my editor John-Michael [Powell] said to me– he was reading an interview with a woman and she was asked about, Was she trying to have children, and how would she cope having children and a career? And she got really pissed off– I’ve never even been asked that! I understand why she got pissed off, as a woman it’s just boring to be asked something like that. You wouldn’t ask a man that. But I’ve never actually been asked anything like that. I can’t say there’s anything I’ve been asked about that’s annoyed me.
Finally, where and when can people see Bleeding Heart?
Bleeding Heart comes out on my birthday on Video On Demand! So it comes out on November 3, Video On Demand, and I think it comes into theaters on December 11. So if you want the full theatrical experience– I have to say, the soundtrack to this movie– the first half of the trailer that they’ve released just now has the music from the film, and the second half is I don’t know from where. And the music is so extraordinary, so there is something to be said about seeing this movie on the big screen, partly because of the music and also the cinematography. My cinematographer [Zak Mulligan] did great work. So it’s a good one to see in the theater as well.
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