LONDON – It’s taken two years to get the goods up on commercial screens, but Neil Abramson is proof that every indie direc-tor’s career can have a silver lining as long as you have a day job as well.
The history of Abramson’s first feature, the raw B&W psychological drama “Without Air,” is a mirror of many independent filmmakers’ experiences. Inspired by a personal meeting, shot on credit card financing, hauled around the festival circuit for more than a year, it’s finally getting a limited U.S. release starting in February through Phaedra Films, a division of Filmopolis.
Abramson’s introduction to the long process of finding distribution was characteristically brutal. “We showed it virtually wet from the lab in the Berlin market in February ’95, and at the end of the screening there was one person left in the theater the Vari-ety reviewer,” he recalls. After some small changes, the pic went on to some two dozen fests, including the Los Angeles Inde-pendent Film Festival, Toronto, Sundance, Thessaloniki, Mill Valley and Mannheim, winning best first feature at the last event.
“It’s been a fantastic learning experience about the film biz as a business compared with my intentions as an artist,” Abram-son says. “I never viewed it as that. For me, it was always a passion.”
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1963, Abramson moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1979, where he attended UCLA and Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, graduating in the mid-’80s. After viewing a demo, Capitol Records gave him a musicvideo to direct, launching him in a full-time career that so far has clocked more than 30 commercials and some 40 mu-sicvids, plus long-form video docus on musicians. For ad work, he’s repped by Palomar Pictures, where his own production company, Winghead Films, is based.
“Without Air” came out of a meeting with Lauri Crook, a Memphis-based singer to whom Abramson was introduced in L.A. by his longtime colleague, John Bick. “I’d been thinking for a while of making a film about people afraid of being loved,” Abramson recalls. “At the time, the theme was very pertinent to me personally, and as soon as I met Lauri she mirrored those emotions.”
Around 1992 or ’93, a script started to take shape inspired by her character the story of a dead-end stripper-cum-singer, Shay, scraping by in Memphis’ underbelly between emotional storms with her slacker boyfriend, Radio. “Initially, Lauri was very skeptical about the idea,” Abramson says, “but then one day in ’94 John and I just decided to do it, got in a car and showed up on her doorstep in Memphis.”
Abramson won’t reveal the pic’s budget, apart from noting that it was ultra-low; at the time, they had just enough coin for the actual shoot. That was done in 13 days around early June, following two months of workshopping with the actors. “The script really changed when we arrived in Memphis, though the characters and context stayed the same. By the time we started shooting, we were well-prepared.”
Aside from the business element, Abramson found the whole festival process an education in audience responses. “I was surprised by how little it takes to make people react. You don’t have to show huge amounts of pain and happiness to reach people’s thresholds. Europeans were maybe a little less shockable, but in general the film’s reception depended on personal reactions.”
For Crook, the pic has been “a major catharsis for her life,” Abramson says. “Professionally, nothing has really stuck, but she’s doing incredibly well personally.”
Aside from its U.S. theatrical release, the movie has racked up some TV sales in Europe and looks likely to go to cable’s Sundance Channel. Meantime, Abramson’s bigscreen career finally looks set to move up a notch, with two projects likely to go this year. First up is “The Last Pimp,” starring Benicio Del Toro as a guy from the Midwest who gets caught up in New York’s black hooker scene. Abramson calls the script, by L.A.-based writer John Steppling, “very ’70s, with a street feel to it.”
Abramson has penned another script, “Stiltwalker,” about a deaf kid who learns from a circus performer how to walk on stilts. Described as “very different to the other films, quite lyrical,” the story was written for the Midwest but could end up being shot in Spain, due to financing from Esicma.
Aside from ongoing commercial work, Abramson has kept his hand in directing with an hourlong episode of the series “Dangerous Minds” that aired on ABC in December. “Shooting nine pages of dialogue a day was another education,” he says succinctly.
About the “Without Air” experience, he’s reached a philosophical stage. “Filmmakers must understand that each movie has its own natural cycle, and you’ve got to listen to that inside. You will win out in the end.”
So long as that day job doesn’t disappear.