Just what is an independent film- maker? The 13 whom Mario Falsetto has homed in on are certainly a disparate group. Anna Campion grew up in 1960s New Zealand, which she memorably describes as "like living in Albania". Philip Ridley's father was a long-distance lorry driver. Alan Rudolph was a child of Hollywood - his father started in silent movies with Mary Pickford, and later worked with Cecil B. DeMille. Richard Linklater came from small-town Texas, dropped out of university and worked on oil-rigs. Atom Egoyan's family moved from Cairo to British Columbia when he was three. Terence Davies, in working-class Liverpool, was bullied and beaten for years, both at school and by a tyrannical father. Benjamin Ross enjoyed a bookish, middle-class North London Jewish upbringing.
Few of the 13 - the others are Michael Almereyda, Nicholas Hytner, Neil Jordan, Alison Maclean, John McNaughton and Michael Radford - went to film school. Linklater did not bother, Jordan could not afford it, Maclean and Ridley went to art school, Hytner read English at Cambridge and went into the theatre, Almereyda went to Harvard where he "sat in on a lot of film classes just to watch the movies". Campion, though, after detours as an actress and a painter, studied film at the Royal College of Art - finding it "a misogynist outfit". Radford was in the very first class at the National Film School, and Davies was accepted there too - but only after making his first feature film.
What they all found, through their own routes, was the extraordinary magnetic power of the cinema. "Movies were the cornerstone of our social lives," says Linklater about Huntsville, Texas (speaking also for Liverpool, Dublin, Victoria BC and the East End of London). They each then went on to discover and hone an ability to transmute their own experience into film; and to develop two further and crucially related abilities. The first, to channel the resources of the international film-industry conglomerates - "Hollywood", for short - into genuinely audacious or original works of art: films such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies), The Sweet Hereafter (Egoyan), The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy (Jordan), Slacker (Linklater), Il Postino (Radford) and The Young Poisoner's Handbook (Ross).
The second was to remain in control: to be a personal, auteurist film-maker rather than the studio's hired hand. Jordan, Ireland's first and best film-maker and the one in this book with the most substantial track record, has been badly bitten. First with The Company of Wolves , adapted from Angela Carter's short story, and released in America by Cannon as a horror movie. "I don't think they actually saw the movie. I think they just saw the trailer and paid a lot of money. They pushed it like a slasher movie. The audience felt cheated." Then came High Spirits , which reads here as a textbook case of man against the Hollywood machine. But as Jordan himself concludes, "It's silly to pretend that you've no relationship with Hollywood. Every director does, anywhere in the world, because in the end their films have to be distributed by that system. But I won't make a movie where I haven't got the freedom to do what I want to do. I won't do that ever again." He is slightly baffled though, or perhaps disingenuous. "I'm only a marginally successful director commercially, but for some reason they continue to allow me to make films."
This set of conversations, conducted in New York, Dublin, London, Toronto and Los Angeles in 1997 and 1998, was transcribed, edited and corrected by Falsetto - a professor at Montreal's Concordia University - in collaboration with his interviewees, who had the opportunity to clarify or rethink some of their original responses. It is a simple but effective methodology, and apart from the occasional authorial outburst ("I strongly doubt that Terence Davies would be alive today if he had not channelled his painful experiences of growing up into some form of creative outlet") and short introductions to each film maker, Falsetto probes but rarely intrudes.
The conversations, covering the genesis of a film (Linklater in particular is illuminating on this) and its progress from idea to screen, will inevitably provide valuable source material for journalists. But of more worth are the messages they give to young film-makers and to those concerned with the future of the film industry: passion, a dogged determination and a powerful visual memory will take you a long way; and Hollywood, despite its crassness and its formulaic scripts, will always want the individual voice. Whether it will know how to market it is a different question.
Paul Howson is director of film and television, British Council.
Personal Visions: Conversations with Independent Film-makers
Author - Mario Falsetto
ISBN - 0 09 479900 8
Publisher - Constable
Price - £14.99
Pages - 392