#8 Do as I say, not as I do

As the four of you know, I didn’t blog last week.   But I got so many calls and emails like, “Hey man, write your next post, I need to know what happens!”  And by that, I mean no one mentioned it.

Part of my absence was because I was working on some new ideas, and another part was that I wanted to share some news about the movie, but wasn’t able to do it  just yet.

Well, I still can’t “officially” share the news, but The Shower was accepted into two more film festivals.  I can’t name them because they haven’t announced their movies yet.  I can tell you that it’s not SXSW (South by Southwest in Austin, TX,) Portland, Sedona, or Pasadena.  We were rejected from all of those festivals, and I’m the type of person who dwells on the negative.  SXSW is the one I really wanted.  Portland sent their rejection email after they announced their lineup.  Pasadena didn’t even have the courtesy to email a rejection.  They’re the only festival we’ve submitted to that didn’t inform us one way or the other.  It’s a festival run by actors, so what can you expect?  (Actually, Shriekfest is run by an actor, Denise Gossett, and she’s great, so I don’t want to stereotype all actors as lazy, stupid and unreliable.)

I’ve been drinking less.  My first week total was 11.  Second week was 11.  Third week was 15.  I kinda went wild last Saturday night and had a whopping 7 drinks (6 beers and a glass of Prosecco) so I abstained a couple nights after to stay in my “Gladwell Positive Drinking Inverted U-Curve” safe zone.  Having said that, I’m going to go grab a beer.

All right, I’m back.  What did I miss?

I left off in the last entry with writing the script for The Shower.  That was the only easy thing on the movie.  The only part that went how I wanted it to go.  And of course, I had no idea that would be the case back in May 2012.

(It’s late and I’ve got a lot of work to do, so no pictures this week.  Sorry.)

I wrote the first draft in less than 3 weeks.  When I’m writing a script, I set a goal of writing 5 pages a day, 7 days a week.  It can be more or less than 5 pages, depending on how things are going, but I want to have 35 pages by the end of the week.  I write and edit as I’m going along.  I like to read the day’s work before I go to bed, hoping my subconscious will work on it while I’m asleep.  When I pick up the next day, I start with editing the previous day’s pages and get writing.  Ideally, this will lead to a solid first draft.

I’ve been told that most scripts should be between 100-110 pages, so my work rate is a good fit for writing a fast first draft.  (Each page is roughly equal to one minute of screen time.)  With The Shower, I thought it would be good to have something a little shorter, and the first draft came in at 93 pages.

I sent it to a few people and most of the feedback was positive.  There were some notes that I took, and others that I didn’t.  At the time I was working under the belief that this would be a no-budget movie made by a group of friends.  I wasn’t trying to write the perfect script.  I wanted to write something fun and cheap that I could make and would move my career, and the careers of my friends, forward.

THIS IS WHERE THE CAUTIONARY PART OF OUR TALE BEGINS. WHERE THINGS WENT OFF THE RAILS, SHALL WE SAY.  

I WRITE THIS TO BETTER UNDERSTAND WHAT HAPPENED, TO PROVIDE INSIGHT INTO THE PROCESS, AND IN THE HOPE THAT SOME WAITER OUT THERE READS THIS AND DOESN’T MAKE HIS FIRST MOVIE AND REPEAT MY MISTAKES. 

Rachael and I partnered with 5 other people, all friends, who would serve as producers on the movie.  Andy Hoff, Drew Benda, Mike Kuciak, Stephanie Tobey and Suzanne Sena.  These are all smart, hungry and talented people.  Everyone but Mike would be acting in the movie.  (Which didn’t turn out to be true, because Mike does make a few appearances.)

Inspired by Rick Schmidt’s “Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices” I wanted The Shower to be made by a collective.  And each person who worked on the movie would get an ownership share in the movie, just in case it actually turned out well and we could make some money.  The shares would be divided up by the amount of work each person put in.  So as writer, director and editor I would be spending the most time and I would have a larger, pre-determined share.  But each day a person worked on the movie would give them a share.

Am I a socialist?

A dictator?

A socialist dictator?

I was pretty damn naive.  Or I was too pliable.  Maybe it was both.  My hope was that everyone would work for free.  Yeah, I guess that sounds crazy.  It still doesn’t sound crazy to me.  I’ve almost exclusively worked for free since I moved to Los Angeles.  I did an unpaid internship for 27 months.  The only time I was paid to write was when I wrote a screenplay for a couple of actors/waiters back in 2011.  And I was paid $2,000.  And it’s a good script, probably better than The Shower, especially if you’re my father, or prefer dramas.

So, money was not part of the equation.  I just wanted to make something.  And I thought I’d find people crazy and hungry enough to do that, too.  At the worst, it would be a learning experience by a bunch of people who were not getting the opportunities they hoped for.  We’d take our shot.  The actors could show their chops.  I’d direct and edit a feature.  Maybe people would get a little footage for their reels if nothing became of the movie.  Best case, we get into Sundance, of course.

My cousin had shot a feature with friends from NYU that premiered at Slamdance and everyone worked for free.  Ah, young people.  Still fresh and enthusiastic, their souls not beaten to a bloody pulp by years of rejection and poisonous personal relationships.

Well, I didn’t find people crazy and hungry enough to make the movie for free.  (This was actually just to find someone to shoot the movie, a Director of Photography.) I dropped a few lines in the water and the usual response was “What is the pay?”   One guy even quoted me $13,000, and he had one credit on a short film and balls the size of Alaska.

Apparently, shooting a feature wasn’t as appealing as I thought it would be.  In hindsight, who knows what their reasons were.  Maybe they didn’t like me.  Maybe they didn’t like the script.  Maybe they’d already done too much free work and decided they needed to get paid.  Whatever, they’re all dead to me.

I quickly got over it and realized we’d have to pay someone because I wanted the movie to look like it was shot by a person who knew what the hell they’re doing, and not by someone like me.

Anyway, the no-budget movie went to a $10,000 budget movie.  I thought we could spend $2,500 for our permits and insurance.  $2,500 for camera.  $2,500 for sound.  $2,500 for everything else like food, location and props.  That was no sweat.  I could put half of that on my credit cards.  I wouldn’t have to ask anyone for money.

Again, I know it’s kinda insane, but I thought to keep costs down, and if people really wanted to do it, everyone would just cover their own expenses.  Like buy your own wardrobe.  Do your own makeup.  Bring your own lunch.

All right, I am a dictator.  At least in my mind, because that’s not what happened.

And truthfully, I never communicated this to anyone outside of the movie’s producers.

My rationale was that we all spend money to do things that we hope will further our careers.  So why not this?

Yes, why not this?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, SAG.

AKA

THE SCREEN ACTOR’S GUILD

You see, when I decided to make the movie and brought on the producers, I believed that SAG actors could work for deferred pay in a no-budget feature film.  (I think that means they get paid if the movie makes money.)

I believed this because that’s what I was told by a couple of nameless SAG actors.

Well, they can’t.  It’s a minimum of $100 a day, and goes to $150 with overtime.

That’s for any day you want to work with the actors, not just shooting.

You have to pay them to rehearse.

I knew the only way I would be able to make the movie was with extensive rehearsals, so when we stepped on set, we could shoot quickly to keep down our other costs.  Plus, I’m a first-time director.  I need to figure shit out.  Talk to the actors.  Help them.  Help myself.  See what’s working and what’s not working.

We had to rehearse.

$100-$150 a day? Plus 17% to SAG?  (Yes, the producers pay SAG, too.)

That’s a deal breaker.

Of course, it wasn’t.

Listen, I’m not against SAG, in most cases.  They have rules that any movie with a budget under $200,000 is called “Ultra-Low Budget” and pays that $100 rate.  Clearly there’s a big difference between $10,000 and $199,999.  If I had a calculator handy, I’d tell you what it is, but trust me, it’s a lot.

For an actor, the fear is that SAG would kick them out for doing non-union work.

I had been told that SAG doesn’t go after the little guys who are making movies. (That’s not completely true, as I’ll tell you about later.)

On the SAG Indie website, it says SAG actors who do non-union indie films are “naughty actors.”

Not really the gallows if you ask me, but I’m Catholic and I can understand the fear that “the almighty” (SAG) provokes.

That $200,000 number feels arbitrary to me in a time when you can shoot a great looking movie on a DSLR camera, like a Nikon D7000, which we shot The Shower on.  That camera costs $1200.  I have Japanese tourists taking pictures of french toast and eggs benedict at my restaurant with cameras that cost 3X that. (The Canon 5D)

In the meantime, it also became evident that my made up budget of $10,000 was not adequate.

$20,000 was a more “reasonable” number.

We estimated that going SAG would add at least $15,000 to that budget.  $7,500 was to pay the SAG actors.  $7,500 would go to SAG which they would hold for an indeterminate period of time to be sure we paid our actors.  (That money could then be used for post-production, which I had not accounted for.   Post-production is sound editing, color correction and visual effects.  I  didn’t account for that because I was clueless, and because I thought we’d make a rough movie that would be so good it could play at film festivals and a distribution company would buy it and pay for post-production.)  So when you hear a movie cost $5,000 or $15,000 or $30,000,  it  was non-union and it’s not including real post-production.

There was a debate among the producers of if we should go SAG or not.  It would mean a lot more money.  It would mean less shooting days.  We couldn’t afford to pay for rehearsals.

I was opposed.

It got heated.

I was ready to take my ball/script and go home.  Part of it was fear: “This is the perfect out.  It’s scary to make this big leap and do the thing I’ve been thinking about for 17 years.”  The other part was “Now this movie is quickly becoming much bigger, much more expensive and something that I’m losing control of.”

We had an informal vote to see where everyone stood.

It was 4-3.

In favor of NOT GOING SAG.

However, that was going to blow the movie up with this producer team.

This was the first of many times in the process where I realized how fragile the whole thing was.  It could collapse in a moment.

It was a strange GUT versus HEAD conflict.  And also the first of many to come.  I’m still not sure which part was my gut and which was my head.  Was my gut saying “Don’t do it because it’s not how you need it to be.”  Or was my head saying that?

I think the part that won out was my optimistic side.  And that optimistic side is a lot dumber than my pessimistic side, but I need them both to survive.

This was my opportunity to make a movie.

The time was now.

We were going to have to raise significant money, which is something no one wanted to do.  And no one knew if it was even possible.

I’d be betting on my script.  Betting on myself.  Betting on my friends.

Ah, fuck it.  I’m a 35 year-old waiter with my second kid on the way.

Let’s go make a movie.

And we did.

Author: Alex

A married waiter/filmmaker with two kids.