Looking back at Gotham’s indie scene
When I was reading Peter Biskind’s ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’ a few years ago, I was literally shaken by Biskind’s observation that “in the ’90s there were three New York-based companies comprised of producers making director-driven indies; Good Machine, Killer Films and TSG.”
My first thought was “Oh, I helped start the Shooting Gallery” and my second thought was “What did the De Niro character say in “Casino“? ‘We had it all, and we fucked it up big time.”
That moment led me on my path to making a documentary, “Misfire,“ about the rise and fall of the Shooting Gallery. It was a time in New York City when indie filmmaking was exploding with such emerging directors as Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Spike Lee and producers like Ted Hope, James Schamus and Christine Vachon.
At the Shooting Gallery, we contributed our own talents to the revolution in the early 1990s and before the fall happened around the dawn of the millennium, the rise part of the story was nothing short of spectacular:
- The first feature we produced was Nick Gomez’s 1992 “Laws of Gravity,“ which was a bona fide critical hit and moneymaker.
- We produced Billy Bob Thornton’s Oscar-winner “Sling Blade“ (1996, for adapted screenplay), which was, in indie terms, a blockbuster (with $24 million).
- Bob Gosse’s “Niagara, Niagara“ was a critical hit and actress Robin Tunney won the Venice Fest actress award.
- We produced Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me,“ another critical hit that was nominated for two Oscars.
After reading the Biskind book, I reconnected with Larry Russo, one of the co-founders of TSG. It was in his family’s building at 359 Broadway that the original Shooting Gallery came together. As we were reminiscing I mentioned the idea of a documentary and he immediately signed on to help produce.
I floated the idea to TSG co-founder Bob Gosse to help me produce it along with producer-editor Gil Gilbert, who would be key to giving us objectivity as Bob and myself were so close to the project, both the joys and the tears.
As it was Bob who originally came up with the idea of TSG, Bob was one of the few people that was at TSG from the first day to the last. I knew his perspective was key as he could provide an insider’s account as well as reach out to numerous TSG participants.
Bob and I had a long history together and our roots at SUNY Purchase were the real roots of TSG, with alums Edie Falco, Nick Gomez and Michael Spiller. The idea of working together again wasn’t that much of a stretch, even if reopening the wound of TSG wasn’t high on any of our agendas.
I wasn’t surprised that Bob was hesitant at first. He was at TSG for the full 10 years. The demise of the company was still painful. But as it had been roughly 10 years since closing and more than 20 years since its creation, enough time had passed for Bob to revisit the TSG story.
Bob soon reached out to all of the TSG participants and aside from co-founder Larry Meistrich and financier Stephen Carlis, the key team members agreed to sit down for interviews. To get the historical framework of that time in New York, essential indie players such as Hope, Schamus, Vachon, Eamonn Bowles, John Sloss and others agreed to share their views and helped illuminate the head-spinning changes of the New York indie film scene.
As we put the film together we quickly noticed the story of TSG (open from 1991 to 2001) mirrored the obvious change in independent film in the 1990s, especially in New York, where an infusion of capital changed everything.
When we started, both Sundance and Miramax were a few years from becoming the titans that they became in the 1990s.
For example, when “no-budget films” like “El Mariachi“ were all the talk in the media, TSG did “Laws of Gravity“ for $38,000.
When purchase prices for indie films started to explode, TSG sold “Sling Blade“ to Miramax for $10 million.
And, unfortunately, when “new media” was all the rage, TSG followed, dealing a lethal blow to the company.
There have been plenty of good articles about what happened during the American indie film boom; “Misfire“ tells the story from the perspective of the people that were part of the boom and experienced one of the worst episodes of the bust.
We know the art vs. commerce story from the front lines and I hope “Misfire“ conveys a bit of the joy and talent that went into our best films, while also dramatically explaining the pitfalls that are around the corner of every indie filmmaker’s dream.
“Misfire“ helmer Whitney Ransick’s credits also include “Hand Gun“ and series including “Smallville“; “ER“ and “Supernatural.“