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Denis Cote: How to Get Ahead in the Independent Film World (EXCLUSIVE)

Canadian filmmaker Denis Cote has won multiple awards at top festivals, including Berlin with “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear” and Locarno for “Curling.” This week he has been mentoring a group of student filmmakers at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where he advised them on how to get ahead in the independent film world. Variety was given exclusive access to the discussion.

Although he is genial, Cote doesn’t seem like a man to take hostages. He told the 10 students – gathered together by European Film Promotion as part of its Future Frames program — that they were “shy,” and given the context of the discussion – how to get your films selected by film festivals — it wasn’t a compliment.

“You need to be social. If you are this kind of weird poet director who has no friends and is always alone you might be a genius but… you need to talk to people,” he said. “Cinema is a social world. It is not like playing a guitar alone in your room or painting. Cinema is the most social art.”

Young filmmakers needed to be proactive when trying to get on the festival circuit, and not leave it to others to put their films in front of festival programmers. “Never trust sales agents, distributors or films schools when they say they are taking care of your film. Send [the submissions] yourself.”

He cautioned against being overly pushy. “There is a thin line. You need to be respectful and not annoying. The moment you become annoying everybody knows.”

Cote’s go-getting attitude is also applied to generating projects. “I’m my own job provider. If I don’t write a new script, no one will write it for me. I’m my own locomotive bringing people with me. I’m open to collaboration but it’s never happened to me.” He explained that he has developed the reputation for being “this alien weird guy making these weird films,” which may put off writers from sending him their scripts to direct. His “weird” – a.k.a. experimental — films include “Bestiaire,” a documentary in which a variety of zoo animals stare into the camera, and “Carcasses,” about a man who collects wrecked cars, and four teenagers with Down Syndrome, carrying guns, who invade his junkyard.

He advises young people to be brave and not to wait too long to go into production on their first feature. “Young filmmakers are just afraid to shoot sometimes,” he said. “If they feel that they don’t have the right budget for their story they don’t start.”

Many of his films have been shot with very little money and just a few people. His latest feature documentary “A Skin So Soft,” which follows six body builders, was shot over 27 days on a budget of Euros 40,000 ($45,700). Although unconfirmed, the intention is for the film to have its world premiere at Locarno.

Cote’s love affair with cinema started in his early teenage years when his diet was purely horror movies, mainly European artistic genre filmmakers like Dario Argento, who filled his head with images of “witches, zombies, skulls, blood and cannibals.” When he went to college at 18 his film teacher opened his eyes to the delights of arthouse movies by the likes of Fassbinder, Godard and Cassavetes. “It changed my life,” Cote says. “I never watched horror cinema after that, but its DNA was still inside me, so when you watch some of my films there is a feeling of menace. There is always something that I borrowed from horror cinema because it has stuck in my head and my personality somewhere.”

After college he became a film critic on community radio, and later worked as the critic for a local publication. He then decided to make his first feature film. “I said, ‘I’m going to show the world what I can do with zero money, a video camera and four people,” he recalled. “I was pretentious like that.”

He decided to “make a movie at the end of the world” and so chose a village at the end of a road heading out of Quebec. “Drifting States” (2005) featured a man driving for 16 hours – shortened to two minutes and 45 seconds in the film – until the road stopped (“For me that was super poetic,” he said), and then starting his life afresh. The film won the video section award at Locarno and the prize money allowed him to quit his job and follow the film as it appeared in around 50 festivals over one and a half years. When the film won $10,000 at a festival in Korea, he used the money to make his next film, “Our Private Lives” (2007).

Bigger-budget films followed, like “All That She Wants” (2008) and “Curling” (2010), but Cote has repeatedly returned to low-budget filmmaking. He remains an independent film guy at heart and admits he has an aversion to folks from the mainstream movie industry. “I can’t be around these people. I hate these people so much.”

Future Frames

The Future Frames participants were — in the back row from left — Elsa Maria Jakobsdottir, Maria Eriksson, Damian Vondrasek, Giorgi Mukhadze, Katarina Morano, Liene Linde, Kirsikka Saari; and, in the front row, Michal Blasko, Joren Molter and Matei Lucaci-Grunberg (Photo courtesy of KVIFF)

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