Filmmaking history is full of stories about writers and directors who’ve gained lots of adulation from their first feature. Films such as Another Earth and Monsters have deserved every glowing review thrown their way, and their directors (respectively, Mike Cahill and Gareth Edwards) will no doubt go on to achieve similarly great things.
There’s an inevitable flipside to those Cinderella-like success stories, though, which brings us to the 2009 sci-fi fantasy, Ink. Shot for just $250,000, what writer and director editor and distributor Jamin Winans, along with his executive producer wife Kiowa, have achieved is remarkable. And yet, in spite of its obvious quality, it was overlooked by major Hollywood studios, was barely distributed in US cinemas, and went straight to DVD and Blu-ray in the UK.
Ink’s plot is an intriguing, enigmatic mixture of Snow White, Alice In Wonderland and A Christmas Carol. We’re introduced to John (Chris Kelly) a wealthy businessman who’s addicted to drink, drugs and making huge sums of money, to the exclusion of his wife and young daughter, Emma.
Against this backdrop, an unseen war plays out between the angelic Storytellers, who bring us pleasant dreams while we sleep, and the evil Incubi, who terrorise us with nightmares. It’s a battle that has gone on for eternity, it seems, while the rest of us have all been tucked up in bed. Then, one night, a grotesque, gargoyle-like figure named Ink arrives at the foot of Emma’s bed, and in spite of the Storytellers’ fighting skills, manages to spirit her away to another plane of reality.
There are so many possible influences in Ink’s story and aesthetic that it’s difficult to know where to begin. At times, its exotic visuals look like a Terry Gilliam movie. Its fights are like a more rough-and-ready version of The Matrix. Its stark use of light and shade recalls Dark City. There are moments that play out like a fairytale, while others resemble a comic-book brought to life.
Whatever Ink’s influences may be, it’s an often stunning-looking film, shot and edited with a skill that far outweighs its tiny budget. Its antagonists, the Incubi, are weird and perfectly unsettling. Its music (also written by Winans) is subtle and effective.Ink’s story, too, is unusually intricate and ambitious for a low-budget film. At first, John’s real-world addictions, crises at his workplace and estrangement from his daughter seem disconnected from the drama playing out in the realm of dreams. But we then learn that the two are closely intertwined – if the Storytellers are to retrieve Emma from Ink, it’s vital that John takes a Scrooge-like step towards redemption.
If this sounds a little confusing, then that’s because Ink constantly plays with the lines between dreams and reality, though the film’s characters provide a valuable common thread through the story. Unpleasant though he is, John’s an endlessly watchable character, largely thanks to a superb performance from Chris Kelly. The Storytellers are engaging characters, too – especially Jacob (Jeremy Make), a blind Pathfinder who can subtly alter the course of history. Ink deftly, efficiently constructs an enticing fantasy world, populated by sympathetic characters, and builds to an unexpectedly moving conclusion.
By rights, the film should have garnered lots of attention through word-of-mouth alone – and it did. Shortly after its release, Ink spread across the Internet, and was illegally downloaded by an estimated 500,000 people in 2009.
Although piracy is widely regarded as a Bad Thing by the film industry, the repeated downloads of Ink have had one positive effect – everyone started enthusing about it, to the point where this tiny, barely-distributed film was ranked number 16 on IMDb’s top 20 popular movies.
With that kind of popular attention, it would seem logical that a Hollywood distributor would pick it up for a wider release, but the phone never rang. Exactly why is a bit of a mystery – shortly after Ink’s release, its production company, Double Edge Films, came up with its own theory about Hollywood’s eerie silence.
“Not only can’t we get any attention in the mainstream industry press, you would think that a tiny indie film with over 500,000 downloads in a week would demonstrate enough of an audience for a distributor to step on board,” executive producer Kiowa Winans wrote. “My theory is this: distributors don’t dare step up and validate the pirate community as an audience. They must keep their staunch stance against them, and to pick up Ink now would mean they’re saying, ‘Wow, this really is an audience.’”
What’s equally strange is that, even if the executives of Hollywood didn’t want to market Ink, the film should surely have served as the perfect calling card for a multi-talented filmmaker. After all, there are many instances of Hollywood producers getting in touch with artists whose short films have gained their attention, as this Den of Geek article proves.
The problem with the Internet, it seems, is that while it provides a ready platform for independent filmmakers, the sheer amount of competition also means that, sometimes, even the finest voices struggle to be heard above the background noise.
Then again, maybe Jamin doesn’t need Hollywood. He certainly doesn’t appear to need the help of expensive special effects artists, or big-name actors or composers, or writers, editors or cinematographers. What Jamin does need, though – and certainly deserves – is plenty of recognition and fan support.
Ink truly is an underrated fantasy gem, and you should most definitely seek it out if you haven’t already done so – this is simple enough, since you can watch it on Lovefilm and Netflix, or if you’re feeling flush, purchase a signed, boxed DVD copy from the director himself.
Winans made the short film Uncle Jack in 2010, a chaotic five-minute comedy featuring the same cast as Ink, which is so funny, we had to include it in this post. Here’s hoping the director’s next film gets the mainstream attention it deserves.