By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
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"But every time I'd show somebody this stuff, no one would let me fast-forward. They'd want to watch every minute of it," Yeager marvels. It seemed he already had a movie.
The screenplay idea was shelved, but a documentary just about the Jimmy Story scam wouldn't be enough. Already extant were hours of footage documenting his life going back two decades, and he was still shooting video every day. Suddenly a new goal had presented itself: to fashion a film about an artist's struggle. "Jimmy's Story" evolved into the story of Yeager.
He dove, headfirst of course, into the task of becoming an independent filmmaker. Here was a new windmill worth tilting at. Yeager devoured magazines like Independent Film & Video, perused The Hollywood Reporter. The independent film market was burgeoning, and it was a Yeager-friendly, do-it-yourself scene, with plenty of low-budget, by-hook-or-by-crook success stories and mini-masterpieces. She's Gotta Have It, Roger and Me, Hoop Dreams, why not Jimmy's Story? Independent-film events like Robert Redford's Sundance Festival were providing instant breakthroughs for new talent, and submitting his film for consideration in 1997 became Yeager's resolute objective.
Compiling names and numbers as he had so many times before, standing in an L.A. phone booth pretending to be his own manager and wrangling meetings, Yeager apparently had a whole new slew of front offices to hector. Well armed for such battles, he had matured. Surely no more mailing of animal parts, as he once did to IRS Records in a fit of pique. No more fake managers, because independent filmmakers mostly managed themselves. He had learned something about fame, and rather than grasp at it, he stayed patiently motivated by a vision that sought to deflate it, his film-to-be.
The feedback flowed. Yeager says several people were intrigued by his rough, VCR edits, but few were willing to finance the project or tackle the raw footage and unformed story. Months of work, twice as much time as Yeager had allowed for, were projected, five-figure minimum budgets proposed. Outside help would be needed. Yeager knew nothing of the film-editing craft, and he certainly didn't have the equipment to do it on his own.
Eventually Yeager says he talked with John Pierson, the man who helped kick-start the careers of Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and the makers of Hoop Dreams. Pierson liked the footage and felt it could be good for his TV show on Bravo's Independent Film Channel. Yeager pitched his whole life story, but Pierson was only interested in a Jimmy Story short.
Yeager preferred, of course, his own vision for the film. As he tells it, the major player snickered his best wishes to the neophyte, warning that it would take a lot longer than he thought to wrestle this movie to the ground.
Urgently groping around for backers, Yeager customized videotapes and production proposals to feature specific names of potential financiers with their own "executive producer" credits. Targeted were every local entrepreneur, impresario, club owner, and high-profile personality he could think of. "Not a single one responded, not even to say no," states Yeager.
Trying to break into this new scene, he had been talking to local filmmakers like Elliot Mercelli, who suggested Yeager visit the Alliance for Media Arts.
The Alliance was formed in 1985 to promote avant-garde and independent film and video in South Florida. Mounting various programs and screenings at the Dade County Public Library, the Alliance eventually secured its own permanent space on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach in 1990. Featuring offices and an art gallery, its essential fixture was the Alliance Cinema, a 79-seat theater offering 35 mm, 16 mm, and video projection, all in Dolby stereo. A number of successful film showings featuring the work of local, national, and international filmmakers would be hosted here. Representing a consistent program of avant-garde and less-than-overtly-commercial "art" films, the theater's attendance often numbered more than 1000 patrons a week.
The Alliance Video/Film Co-op is perhaps the association's most important contribution to the South Florida creative community. Tucked away off the Lincoln Road mall, it is a humming little artists colony, its tiny cubicles filled with the abstract visions of earnest creators. It was the perfect place for cultivating a beginner like Yeager, even if his goals were less avant-garde and more immediate then the Co-op's usual membership.
So close to realizing his newfound destiny as a filmmaker, Yeager still had quite a way to go. Even if the Co-op's services were low-cost, he still lacked financial backing. All his source material, ranging from old 8 mm home movies to his amateur video verite, would have to be converted to digital code for nonlinear editing. Clueless about the process, he needed to find an editor, one willing to grapple with his mountain of footage at a breakneck pace in order for him to meet the Sundance deadline less than a month away. If he were to find such a person, the Co-op's Media 100 editing machine that he needed in short order was temporarily broken, another obstacle that seemed insurmountable. "I almost got discouraged," he admits.
But as so often happened to Yeager when his sheer force of will was not enough to alter mundane reality to his own ends, fate stepped in. On one fortuitous day, the same day the Media 100 came back on line, Billy met the people who would help him complete his movie.