HOW MANY SCREENWRITERS out there are just like me, I’d often wondered. We’re anguished when we hand over our precious creations to others; we’re saddened when we’re shoved aside as the producers take over; we’re disillusioned as the director goes on to completely alter our original creations… That hasn’t always been the case in my career. I’ve encountered a few self-confident directors and producers who actually wanted me around to do rewrites and be on the set. But those instances have been very rare indeed.
So four years ago I thought, hell, why don’t I just produce my own damn independent film? What chutzpah! I knew even then that ignorance is clearly bliss in the inception of any worthwhile endeavor-especially this one called low-budget moviemaking. Still, leaving the sanctity of my office for the chaotic world of low-budget moviemaking was certainly a little more than I bargained for.
I started by enrolling in a workshop given by Dov Simens, a selfappointed guru for budding moviemakers. As chance would have it, I met a woman there, Gaynelle Sloman, who was also experiencing a mid-life crisis, and we decided to join forces. She would raise the money and I would write the script and organize a production team. Teaming with Gaynelle was one of the few smart things I did. I later learned that trying to do everything yourself is pure lunacy. I had another break early on, as well: Gaynelle’s contacts were all in Ohio, where she lived. In this game you’ll quickly discover that people outside of LA and New York aren’t nearly as jaded about the industry. They still see this kind of risky adventure as something romantic- and a hell of a lot more exciting than investing in government bonds. From Dov I learned that if you’re short on funds it might help to set your story in as few locations as possible. That might seem pretty obvious, but it’s often something you don’t think about before writing the script. Hungry Hearts is a dark comedy about an ambitious chef who caters a party for four zany Beverly Hills women only to discover they have a shocking surprise in store for him: it’s a suicide party. A little dark and edgy, and from what I could glean from the film festivals I’d gone to, dark and edgy is good. Being a screenwriter, the writing part was naturally the easiest for me. I got to stay in the confines of my office for months at a time, still not having to face that real, unpredictable world of investors, lawyers, agents, actors and crew. But it wasn’t long before I had to leave my warm cocoon and face up to the normal share of disasters every new moviemaker gets to know so well. Here’s just an inkling:
Here’s just an inkling: The director is locked in. He’s a well-known cinematographer who happens to be married to a “name” actress. This would be his big opportunity to direct, so it seems perfect-I get two for one. Wrong! He walks just as we start casting, so I also lose my female lead. In the next 24 hours I hire Rolf Schrader, a talented Canadian director I’d met when I was teaching at AFI. That was close- but wait. Immediately, I lose an experienced producer, who’s frightened by the leanness of our budget. I bring on Hagai Shaham, a friend of the director’s.
It’s now two weeks before our start date and we have no location locked down. The place we want gets pulled at the last minute. I’m freaking out, of course—nothing is going as planned!
In an amazing stroke of luck I meet a woman at a party who says she always wanted to have a film produced at her house. Take my word for it, this is not a common sentiment in LA. Her house doesn’t quite work, but it’s right next door to an amazing house with a pool, filled with gorgeous artifacts—a one-of-a-kind location in Glendale. The place looks just like Beverly Hills. So we rent both houses at the very last minute. If that’s not enough, 48 hours before we’re set to shoot, we have to fire our lead actor. By now, I’m unfazed by anything. I’m in the zone. Bizarre mayhem is the norm. My director tells me: “Don’t worry, it all works out somehow.” And you know what, he’s right. In all of these cases, we end up with better situations and people.
I GET TO UNDERSTAND it’s not the most talented, experienced people one should look for in this kind of production, but those folks who see this as an opportunity. They’re the ones you want. Since the money for my movie is pitiably tight to nonexistent, the irony is I really can’t afford to enlist someone who sees this as a freebie, someone who might just desert the production when things get rough. So I bring on people who are recently out of film school, who need feature film credits. To our great good fortune, none of our key personnel jumped ship.
Things just somehow work out. It’s now my daily mantra. It’s not exactly ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ but it’s close. That’s not at all what you learn toiling in your screenwriting office. In there, things never work out. You keep rewriting and rewriting and no one ever seems to like it. But now I’m out in the real world and there’s a certain flow out here that is definitely more liberating and wilder. The hardest decision I had to make involved that same lesson. I had to decide to finally pull the trigger, to go for broke. I set the production date, hired a casting director and brought on the production team.
Again, it was “if you build it, they will come.” When we set the shoot date, I didn’t have enough money, but the director’s words rang in my head: “There’s never enough money.” It’s as true when you’re making big budget movies as when you’re in this arena. It was during the shoot, when it was now or never, that Gaynelle and I raised the rest of our shooting budget. That’s the best time to ask for money, as investors can come to the set and actually see it’s happening. Same thing for post. I have to raise a good deal more money there, but by now I have the mantra going big time, and new investors seem to appear just when we need them. It’s kind of like magic. Everyone out there is free to use the mantra as well. Believe me, it works. Try it… MM