Few filmmakers are fortunate enough to have Robert Redford in their film, especially first-timers. But with relentless persistence and a pocket full of credit cards, Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn were able to interview not just the Father of Sundance but hundreds of other famous people, including Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Stipe and George Stephanopoulos, for their road-documentary “Anthem,” which attempts to define America in the ’90s.
“We didn’t want to wait around in Hollywood and wait for someone to tell us we could make a movie,” Gabel says. “And we wanted to do something we felt we could finish on our own.”
So Gabel, 27, who spent two years as programming director of the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, and Hahn, 28, who co-directed and produced a two-hour radio special for the Human Rights Action Center, began sending out interview requests to Americans whom they considered visionaries. After only their third interview confirmation, the women began applying for credit cards and sending out proposals throughout the industry asking for money.
“We had friends in television who were making decent salaries and could afford a thousand here and a thousand there,” Hahn explains. “Because we shot mostly on video and some 16mm, the actual budget was really minor (between $30,000 and $40,000), but we literally slept on floors almost every night and ate Taco Bell every day.”
Armed with little technical experience and a Chevron card, they borrowed a car and drove cross-country, interviewing everybody from a Pennsylvania gas station attendant to an Iowa waitress, from Studs Terkel to Geraldine Ferraro — along the way racking up rejections, reschedulings and massive phone bills. After more than six months on the road, the women arrived home with more than 180 hours of footage and the daunting, expensive task of post-production.
However, a novelist friend suggested they write a book on the experience and introduced the women to a literary agent who assured them she’d sell the book — and did. “It was really fast and painless,” Hahn says, “which was the only thing painless about the whole ‘Anthem’ process.”
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a formula that we could say, ‘This is how we financed it,’ ” Gabel adds, “because the book got us started on post-production and that made it easier to get finishing funds.”
Before even knowing how they were going to cut the movie, the women put together a four-minute trailer, which they sent to select distributors, drawing immediate attention. Six months into cutting, and deep into negotiations with New Line, Zeitgeist Films became interested. Their instinct and initial vision for the film as a theatrical release led them to go with the smaller Zeitgeist.
“The films New Line are doing are financially and scope-wise so much more enormous than ‘Anthem,’ ” Gabel says. “We wanted to go with someone who was doing films like ours — truly independent.”
Now, after two years of long hours and financial instability, “Anthem” (now about half paid for) is ready for its July 25 premiere in Los Angeles. Gabel, who is preparing to direct her first narrative feature, and Hahn, who is executive producing a feature film for Warner Bros., find doors opening for them. They hope now that their next films, whether created together or individually, will be that much easier to get made.
“This film was always, in our minds, the beginning,” Hahn says. “And even if we don’t break even, it’s successful, because the second and third films are where we hope to start making a living.”