“In those days, I used to ride my motorcycle across America,” says Robert Bella, without a jot of wistfulness. Those days were 1996. Dolly was a cloned sheep, eBay was a startup and DVDs had just been introduced… in Japan.

As he rode down the nation’s open roads, Bella — a sometime NYC actor, sometime valet in the Bronx — had a vision. He would make an independent film. He would make an indie film and fill it with his actor friends from The Atlantic Theater Company, people like William H. Macy, John C. McGinley and Martha Plimpton. It would be “like Clerks, but with better acting.”

The script was already in place. His friend and fellow valet, Tom Morrissey, had written a comedy about two rent-a-cops guarding the grave of a recently-deceased rock star, a sort of Waiting for Godot meets Spinal Tap. The name of the rocker, and the script: Colin Fitz.

And like the namesake of the film, a music god whose death no one will accept, the film would have a roaring life and an untimely demise.

In a way, the story of Colin Fitz is a typical one for an indie film. It’s just that it isn’t typical of the ones we hear. We only hear the unalloyed success stories, not the almost-success stories. On the stage at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica last night, fourteen years later, Robert Bella paraphrases his mentor, David Mamet: ‘You don’t have to take advantage of your lucky break, you have to take advantage of all your lucky breaks.’ Colin Fitz took advantage of hundreds of breaks, but it missed a few, and that was enough. A festival hit, it couldn’t break through quite enough for distribution.

Thus, like so many indie films, it became a ghost haunting a filmmaker’s life, a negative in a shoebox and a credit card bill for $100,000.

colin-fitz-lives-castThe Sundance Call

September, 1996. With $150,000 borrowed from friend and family “investors,” Bella and his crew camped for a rain-soaked two weeks in a Bronx graveyard and environs, shooting color 35mm (!), filming sometimes ten pages a night. He cut a video offline of the film and sent it out to festivals. Who should call first but none other than Geoff Gilmore.

“Geoff who?” Bella recalls saying.

“This is Geoff Gilmore, the Director of the Sundance Film Festival. We’d like to have your film. You’ll need a 35mm print. You have one month.”

There was no time to raise money from the original investors (and it was doubtful they had more to give). Thankfully, Bella had a plan. For years, he had been taking credit card companies up on their mass mail offers. He kept a stack of cards in an envelope and joked that they were “his independent film.” Now it wasn’t a joke. To make a print would cost $100,000. But it was a no-brainer. He’d go to Sundance, sell the film, and pay it right back.

And he almost did. After great acclaim at the ‘Dance, there was an offer on the film. But it was too low to cover the additional finishing expenses and pay off investors. There was another offer to buy Colin Fitz if it won the audience award at Sundance. It almost did. Later, there was an offer to buy it if William H. Macy won an Oscar for Fargo. He almost did.

And then, after a great run of festivals — like the title character’s popularity in Sweden, Colin Fitz seems to have been extraordinarily popular in Texas — the film went away. No deal; plenty of debt.

Bella said his life was made miserable by the verbally-abusive calls from collection agencies. He lived out of a storage unit. He considered bankruptcy, but that would take away the one thing he couldn’t part with: the original negative of the film. If he filed for bankruptcy, it would’ve become the property of his lenders.

“Part of me wished that it was a bad film. That I could’ve said, ‘Here, take it.’ But I knew audiences liked it. I knew it made them laugh. Roger Ebert told me he liked the film. Harry Knowles…”

There were other follow-up projects that never came to be. Four of them in the next six years. Bella was always one lucky break away.

Finally, about five years ago, Bella said he gave up being a professional artist. “I’ll always be creative,” he says, and talks about a screenplay he just wrote. But now he is content, he says, to help other filmmakers. For the past few years he has been working as a post-production supervisor in L.A., working on films like the Wes Craven-directed My Soul to Take. It’s his “post-graduate” degree in film.

I get the sense that Robert Bella finally accepted the death of Colin Fitz. And, like a good movie twist, once Bella gave up, the movie gave up being a ghost.

Colin Fitz Lives

I met Robert Bella in 2004, when he was teaching at the Atlantic and I was a fresh-faced NYU student. I didn’t know the battles he had been through. I just knew he was a true independent filmmaker.

He directed a short film I wrote — ten pages in one long cold night — with an even hand and an implacable spirit. I took lots of notes. Here was someone I could emulate. Since I met him, I’ve run into many people who were students or acquaintances. They will all nod reverently at the mention of his name, “Ah, Bella. Hellava guy.”

So it was with joy that I heard that 14 years since that vision on the motorcycle, after another round of favors — this time from his friends in post production — he was able to make a digital scan of the Colin Fitz negative and make a print fit to be a deliverable, meaning to the specifications of distributors. The film was sold, it seems for a pittance. “I still have hopes that I’ll be able to pay the investors back,” he says. But it will finally be seen outside the festival circuit: IFC Films is distributing it Video On Demand through their Sundance Selects program.

All those former students and friends who nod reverently — they were there at the Aero last night. So were David Mamet and William H. Macy. The packed house laughed uproariously at the film, newly-christened Colin Fitz Lives!, and applauded the filmmaker who says, when asked if he would do it all again…

“In a second. In a second.”

MORE:
Netflix page
IndieWire article by Robert Bella

Note: The quotations in this article are from my notes of the talkback Robert Bella gave after the screening. I tried to be as accurate as I could, but I’m sure if a recording exists, you would find they are not verbatim. Robert Bella was given a chance to correct any errors or omissions.