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'Cheap Thrills' Producer Gabriel Cowan on being a 'truly independent' filmmaker

New Artists Alliance co-founder Gabriel Cowan likes to use the term "truly independent" when characterizing his company's filmmaking approach.

Vincent Piazza and Gabriel Cowan at Palm Springs International Film Festival Film
Photo by Jason Kempin

'Low budget' has this feeling that it's not going to be good, that's why I want to coin the term 'truly independent," said Cowan during a recent interview at SXSW. "New Artists Alliance is a 'truly independent' [filmmaking studio]."

Since 2008, Cowan has written, produced and/or directed over 17 feature films, including producing last year's SXSW Audience Award winner "Cheap Thrills," which is currently available On Demand and opens in limited theatrical release this Friday, March 21.

"Cheap Thrills" stars Pat Healy as Craig, a down on his luck family man, who after losing his job runs into an old high school friend Vince (Ethan Embry) at a local bar where they end up trying to one-up each other in a series of increasingly twisted dares for cash offered by a sadistic scheming couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton).

Next month, New Artist Alliance will premiere Adam Rapp’s "Loitering With Intent" which stars Sam Rockwell and Marisa Tomei as well as Courtney Cox's first feature film "Just Before I Go" at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

The film was written by David Flebotte ("Desperate Housewives") and stars Seann William Scott ("American Pie") as a suicidal man, who travels to his hometown to make amends.

Its a very dark comedy," Cowan said. "It covers a lot of important themes, and its got a lot of heart."

Cowan describes the film as a "suicide comedy about a guy that has given up on life, but by giving up he ends up reengaging with life in a new way."

There's a hysterically funny scene with Kate Walsh as a sleep walking masturbator," Cowan said of the film's twisted sense of humor. “Working with Courteney was incredible. She’s a mastermind behind the camera and, as a director myself, I found myself having an up close directors masters workshop as I saw her working with actors."

The film's cast includes Olivia Thirlby and comic actor Rob Riggle in a surprisingly dramatic role, as well as David Arquette, Garret Dillahunt and Missi Pyle.

Formed in 2010, New Artists Alliance was founded by Cowan, who teamed up with a high school friend, Amiee Clark, and filmmaking partner, John Suits to create a company that could support emerging filmmakers and inspire social action.

Cowan wants to model New Artists Alliance after Participant Media, a company known for films that tell compelling and entertaining stories, but also create awareness of real social issues.

Since graduating with a Masters in film directing from the California Institute of the Arts in 2008, Cowan has become a prolific filmmaker. He sold three of his films at SXSW in 2013 ("Cheap Thrills," "Bad Milo" and “Static").

We champion first-time filmmakers," Cowan said. "Last year, we won an audience award with first time director [E.L. Katz] "Cheap Thrills" at SXSW and we just finished a film with a higher profile first-time director in Courtney Cox with “Just Before I Go," which premieres at Tribeca next month. That's what we do. We find things we love and do what we can to make them great. It starts with surrounding yourself with talented people, like Evan and Courteney. We know how to make our films look great for a price and we build a team around that to make it better and, when we can, we share the profit with everybody on our crews."

Cowan started his career as a musician, playing in bands such as Ear Two Thousand with friends Sam Music and David Arquette. They toured America and Europe and in 2000, with Cowan receiving the first of two Platinum records for songs he cowrote and recorded for the films "Scream 2" and "Scream 3."

In 2001, after Ear Two Thousand split, Cowan composed his first score for the Roger Corman film "Take it to the Limit" and spent the next few years producing and recording a series of albums and demos including performing and recording with Jackson Browne and Ry Cooder.

As I was approaching 30, I was always one of these guys who had a video camera with me and was making little shorts," Cowan recalled. "When the music industry started falling away... I knew I wanted to make this transition into [filmmaking] so I went back to school... that's where I met John Suits and at the end of our first year we made a half-hour short film in a weekend... We thought to ourselves, if we can make a half-hour short in a weekend, we can make a whole feature in a week. So we went to our teachers and asked if we could get insurance and equipment from the school but all the teachers were like 'No, no, no, you're not ready, yet.' So we said 'Screw you guys, we're gonna do it anyway.' We went out and got some friend's equipment and we made this little feature for $20,000 called 'Breathing Room' which we sold to Anchor Bay and worldwide... Compared to its budget we made a lot of money -- and felt like 'Oh my god, this is the easiest business ever.'"

With the money from the sale of "Breathing Room," Cowan made a documentary about forgiveness and reparations in post genocide Rwanda entitled "Flower in the Gun Barrel," while helping produce his filmmaking partner Suits' drama "Family of Four."

For his next project, Cowan wrote and directed "Growth" which was shot at Martha's Vineyard using one of the first RED One digital cinema cameras.

A lot of people didn't believe it was real," Cowan said of the early RED cameras. "I gave them the $1,000 deposit and we got one of the first RED cameras. It was an incredible shoot. We went to number one on iTunes. We sold to Anchor Bay and got worldwide distribution."

Cowan also points out that he utilized a small Korean crew on location in Seoul and was able to location scout, and audition and shoot virtually by using Google video. They shot the sequence for a mere $2,300, including a crane shot. They made a short behind the scenes look at the process:

The success of "Growth" put the fledgling filmmakers on the map with the film airing on Sci-Fi Channel.

The real question with that movie was 'Can we do something and make it look big budget?'" Cowan recalled. "After proving we could do that, our next question was 'Can we do something and have it be good?' Let's have good be our goal; let's spend some time on the script. Our previous scripts we wrote in only two or three weeks. It was get a draft done, do a reading with a bunch of actors, get notes, implement notes, go shoot the movie, and you feel it. I'm proud of those movies but we knew we could do better."

So for Cowan's next movie, the sci-fi drama "Extracted," the New Artists Alliance team worked hard to make a movie they could be proud of and have it be good.

The film tells the story of a scientist who has invented a technique to watch people's memories, but finds himself in a dangerous situation after he's tasked with entering a heroin addict's mind to see whether the man committed murder.

It got really good reviews," Cowan said. "We worked with talented first time filmmaker Nir Paniry, and got into a major festival (SXSW). We had a great cast including Sasha Roiz and the extremely talented Dominic Bogart."

As for upcoming projects, Cowan is collaborating with director Ben Lear with an assist from "Short Term 12" director Destin Cretton on a project involving the juvenile justice system in California.

I started a screenwriting program for juveniles being tried as adults for violent crimes," Cowan said. "In California, we have something called Fitness Hearings to decide if a minor should be in Juvenile Court or if the charge is serious enough for them to be tried as an adult. If they lose their fitness, they face trial as an adult. The screenwriting workshop began about a year ago in Sylmar. It's like a prison within a prison. We have a 17-year-old in the program who is facing 250 years in prison. I felt that if we could have these kids write a 20 page screenplay, and I could go out and get it made, they would have something to write home to their families about. Something they’ve accomplished and could be proud of and maybe that would lead to them accomplishing more things. Destin Cretton was part of the project. He fell in love with the kids and helped them develop their stories and we brought in actors to perform in the short film project. It was such an exciting thing for them. Ben Lear documented the whole process and what is happening with the juvenile justice system. He is another incredible first time filmmaker. Wait till you see his work!"

The documentary entitled "The Ordinary World" is directed by the 25-year-old, Lear, who originally came to Cowan with the idea of making a fictional film about Alzheimer's in prison.

Through Cowan's juvenile justice connections and their subsequent research, "Ordinary World" was born as a project. They also got help from "Hangover" producer Scott Budnick, who has championed new bills in the California Assembly for juvenile justice reform.

Budnick, who founded and runs a politically influential nonprofit, The Anti-Recidivism Coalition, is one of "The Ordinary World" project's biggest champions, according to Cowan.

New Artists Alliance also produced an upcoming thriller "The Scribbler" from a screenplay by Dan Schaffer based on his graphic novel and directed by NAA partner John Suits.

The film stars Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg and Eliza Dushku in a story about a young woman dealing with her destructive multiple personalities using an experimental new procedure known as "The Siamese Burn."

Cowan also directed the drama "3 Nights in the Desert" which premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.

The film tells the story of former band-mates, Travis (Wes Bentley from "The Hunger Games"), Anna (Amber Tamblyn from "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"), and Barry (Vincent Piazza from "Boardwalk Empire"), who reunite after seven years.

Following up on a pledge from better times, the three estranged friends meet up at the now reclusive Travis’s home to celebrate their collective 30th birthdays.

The weekend promises to be full of music, reminiscing and relaxation but when the initial excitement wears off and they are forced to face their pasts, and each other, it quickly becomes apparent that time has not healed all wounds.

Written by award winning playwright Adam Chanzit, "3 Nights in the Desert" is described as being in the vein of thirty-something coming-of-age films such as "The Big Chill" and "Little White Lies" with its story reflecting upon lost loves, forgotten dreams and missed opportunity against the backdrop of the desolate and enchanting California desert.

It's a real contained drama," Cowan said. "We definitely made that for a price.... I’m an okay writer, but I prefer being the story guy. I will come up with an idea and bring in an outside writer to put together a screenplay. I'm more of a creator. It's fun to use that part of the brain to come up with an idea and have a writer flesh it out. We seek out scripts and ideas that are socially relevant and character driven."

As for advice to aspiring filmmakers, Cowan says:

I mentor a lot of young filmmakers and the thing I run into more than anything is an unreasonable expectation in terms of return on investment. If you look at the number one sale ever coming out of SXSW, it's under $1,000,000. That's the top of the mountain. You're talking about hitting a grand slam home run. Typically your movies are going to make $200,000-$300,000 but maybe no money or $50,000. And that's if they're good with a couple [recognizable] names in it. Now that's in U.S. sales - you will likely make money from foreign too but it really is a tough business.... It's important to know the marketplace, know who the players are and to consistently produce good material and build your relationships with buyers so that way your production [budget] numbers will gradually eek up and the [buyers] know it's a safe investment because you're a person that's going to deliver."

Cowan also felt that because of New Artists Alliance's successful track record with their recent films, the company has built up a solid reputation on the film festival circuit and with the Hollywood community.

So far we have made every movie that we’ve said we were going to make," Cowan said. "And that’s why agencies will give us their young talented actors because they know the movie is going to get made and that their clients will be in a quality movie. As you know, movies fall apart all the time in Hollywood, but if you make them for a low enough cost you can just go out and do it."

Maybe that’s the key to being truly independent.

For more about New Artists Alliance, visit:

Special Thanks to Gabriel Cowan and Monique Moss with Integrated PR for this story.

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