Imagine the ingredients for a perfect career — as an independent filmmaker, or in any field: creative control, enough success to keep working, the occasional critical or box-office hit, and a little recognition from your idols.
If that’s the ideal, then Mike Binder has it all: he makes a movie about once a year, he’s hit it big with The Upside of Anger and Reign Over Me, and while talking about his latest project, he was interrupted by an unexpected call from Mel Brooks.
“I love Mel. It’s really exciting. He’s one of my idols,” says Binder, apologizing for the interruption. In Reign Over Me, Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle attend an all-night Mel Brooks marathon, and Binder wanted Brooks to know. “We sent him the movie because he hadn’t seen it. He was thrilled.”
Reign Over Me hit video store shelves this fall, but Binder’s latest project is actually a different DVD release.
In 2001, Binder finished The Search for John Gissing, a screwball comedy starring himself, Janeane Garofalo, and Alan Rickman. Binder and Garofalo play Americans arriving in London. Binder’s character is here on business to close the biggest deal of his career. Rickman plays an officer at the company’s London office whose own career will be in jeopardy if Binder gets credit for the deal, so he deviously tries to cut Binder out of the loop.
The film played at festivals to good reviews in 2001, but that was as far as it went. “We couldn’t get a good distribution deal,” says Binder. The only offers were insults that would have forced Binder to give up ownership of the movie.
Fast-forward to 2007. Fans of Alan Rickman had been demanding a DVD of Gissing. Binder’s production company had done well enough producing movies, so they opted to self-release the DVD through their production company at TheFreeBird.com. “We’re just doing this ourselves,” says Binder. “I want to build to the point where I can distribute my own movies.” It’s a risk he says he hasn’t seen anyone else take.
Binder’s production company, Sunlight Productions, is a family affair with brother Jack Binder serving as producer and a cousin in a supporting role. “We’re a pretty tight group,” he says. “Sometimes I am capable of keeping them real busy and sometimes I’m tap-dancing to keep them busy.” Film production is cyclical in nature, which can be difficult for a small-time operation. “You need to have a lot of faith. You gotta really care about the things you’re doing, because if you don’t, you just can’t roll the ball up the hill. I don’t do anything I don’t really, really care about. The projects that I do, I love.”
When it comes to his own work, Binder is refreshingly frank. “I’m proud of The Seach for John Gissing,” he says. “I’m proud of The Upside of Anger. [...] I think [the critics] are right sometimes. I think there’s a lot of movies that I’ve missed on; I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I don’t really idolize my movies. I’m just moving on to the next one; I’m about having a body of work. I don’t need each movie to be perfect.”
There are times, though when the critics are wrong. “I think the critics were wrong about The Mind of the Married Man,” says Binder, referring to his HBO series that had a very male take on marriage. “I think they kind of beat that show up for whatever their own reasons were. A lot of the guys I met on the street came up to me and told me that was the truth.”
Whatever the critics say, Binder seems to have a career many young filmmakers — or most anybody — would die for. “I like to make a movie every year,” says Binder, who has been able to do just that. And before he can elaborate on why that’s a dream come true, he has to take a phone call from one of his idols.
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies