Interview: Hal Schwartz

“Never take ‘no’ for an answer,” Indie Producer Hal Schwartz (Wake, Crazylove) says. “As much as writers hear ‘no,’ in producing it’s ten times worse.” You can’t get offended by that, it’s just the way it is. Every person I know who’s made a movie has heard ‘no’ way more than they’ve heard ‘yes.’”

And when he does get a “Yes,” or several to lead up to getting a movie made, Schwartz says the most rewarding thing(s) about his job is “working with creative people [and being] creatively involved. It’s tremendously rewarding to work on material, be on set, and see it come to life. Then it’s a thrill to walk into a theater and see your movie being played, to hear 1200 people laughing at your movie in the right places, reacting how you want them to react. No amount of money can buy that incredible feeling. And then you just want to do it again.”

And how did Schwartz prepare for his producing career?

HS:  I graduated from NYU Law and then moved out here. In law school, I discovered that it was not for me. The state of the legal industry is a different interview altogether. (Laughs.) When I came out here, I debated between The Peter Stark Producing Program or screenwriting at USC. I had taken a screenwriting class at NYU and my teacher said, “You have a real talent.”

TSL:  So you went with writing?

HS:  Yes, but at the end of the day, I realized I was no Aaron Sorkin. The hardest thing to do as a writer is give each character an independent voice. I could never get that down. But structure and plot, I was great… I was getting very frustrated with being a writer. I don’t like to sit in a room and write, which of course you know [what it’s like]. My talents were much better suited to working with others’ material. With producing, you are out there working with people, putting something together – which is a different kind of challenge. It’s lightning in a bottle, you never know.

TSL:  How did you segue to producing?

HS:  After USC, I found a screenplay which ultimately became our first movie, Crazylove, by Carol Watson. She was a wonderful writer. Unfortunately, she got sick and passed away. I really felt strongly that the screenplay should be made, so I went to her mom and said we should do something with it. A company optioned it, but as these things tend to go, it was a series of near misses. The option expired and people were saying to me, “Hal, you can do this. Do it yourself as an indie film.” So that’s what I did.

TSL:  That’s sad and wonderful at the same time. Were you working a day job in the meantime?

HS:  I was working in development for a variety of companies and seeing every hot script in town. I can’t even begin to fathom how many scripts I read. I’d get a script at 5 p.m. and we’d have to make a call on it by the next morning. [Luckily,] I am a night person…

TSL:  Were there a lot of rewrites with Crazylove?

HS:  We didn’t want to alter it too much since Carol was not alive to change it.

The writer who wrote Wake, Lennox Wiseley, we have a very complimentary partnership. It’s not just me saying do this, do that. The director, writer, and I, we did start from the very beginning, with input every step of the way. In the indie world, it’s a collaborative effort. You’ve got to be ready to be part of the team at the very start. I am a friend to the writer. We all want that next Little Miss Sunshine.

TSL:  And where did you find Lennox?

HS:  We went to USC together.

TSL:  Were there a lot of rewrites with Wake?

HS:  It was a semi-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship. By the time it came to me, we did not have to make many changes, [just] budgeting ones, to do it in the manner we needed to. To her credit, Lennox understood. You just want to make the script as perfect as can be. Ultimately, you want to go out and make a movie. It’s a balancing act – you want to take out the best material [script], but you don’t want to have too lengthy a [development] process. Then, if an agent wants to attach ‘x’ talent that means nothing, that’s well and good, but I can’t finance a movie with ‘x’ person.

TSL:  So you knew Carol and Lennox from USC. Do you only work with friends’ scripts? Don’t worry, I won’t tell all of our readers to send you loglines or synopses.

HS:  Not just friends’ — I get submitted material, too. With Sisters in Crime, our next project, Lennox came up with the idea.

TSL:  Now what about that law degree? Did you ever practice law?

HS:  I never practiced law as a member of the Bar, but I practice law every day. I handle all our negotiations, backed up by good legal counsel, of course.

TSL:  So your background obviously helped prepare you for producing…

HS:  I’m lucky; I am able to save us a lot of money. Also, with talent, I read contracts. Relationships should be defined, that’s what contracts are for; they will prevent a lot of problems down the road. At the end of the day, someone has to have the last word. Battles go on forever how a film will be cut, etc. – that’s not what you want to be doing later. It’s already a battle to get the film in the can.

TSL:  That’s an excellent point about contracts and getting everything in writing in advance.

HS:  I heard of a [production] where they wrote the contract on a cocktail napkin. We [at Bull Market Entertainment] are operating like a studio movie – with less money. If you are lucky enough to get distribution, the contract on a cocktail napkin will be a big problem. What I would say to anyone, if you are shooting a movie, [especially] with friends, make sure everything is laid out in advance. I cannot say how many stories I’ve heard where this didn’t turn out well and then the movie cannot be distributed because no relationships were defined. If you cannot hire a professional, there are books or look online, you can print any [legal forms] out. They are not perfect, but better than a napkin. For people who can [hire someone], it’s always best to consult with legal counsel. Ours is Mike Saleman. He works on a lot of indie films and really knows his stuff.

TSL:  Talk about indie versus big budget filmmaking. Why do you prefer the former?

HS:  With studios, it’s so hard to break in. Studios are making fewer films and have shot down most of their indie divisions: Fine Line, Warner Independent, etc. Even ones released by the studios are indie…  

TSL:  What about distribution?

HS:  With actors, the chances of you getting the first person [you want] is very slim. But you keep going. Same thing with financing. We’re in an incredibly tough financial environment now. With Wake, we were very flattered by the attention, but the nature of deals these days and the state of distribution is really difficult – you have to hold your ground. We wanted to get the film out there to the widest audience possible.

TSL:  And not settle.

HS:  [You have to have] good movie elements distributors care about. I hate talking like that. But the reality is we got to make a movie, had the responsibility of getting money to make it, then get it distributed. I didn’t want to go back to people [we got financing from] and say we couldn’t get it distributed.

TSL:  And where did you get your financing for Crazylove and Wake?

HS:  Our first two movies were financed by private equity. With Wake, I worked with Bill Shraga in raising it. Money depends on the project. Certainly packaging plays a large part of it these days — the budget, cast, etc. Obviously, the financing game is difficult right now, not that it was ever easy. With Sisters in Crime, some will be state incentives, some may be equity. Michigan [cutting film tax credits] affected tons and tons of people, a lot of filmmakers like us. Oklahoma has great [incentives], but their entire fiscal year was taken up months ago.

TSL:  Maybe some films will not go–

HS:  Yes, so many indie films are in development, but 90% are not made, for casting, financial reasons, etc.

TSL:  What would you tell someone who wants to be a film producer?

HS:  I’d tell them to stay where they are.

TSL:  Or go to USC to meet their future business partners — you, Carol, Lennox, and Adam all went there…

HS:  There is something to be said for going to film school. [Like] networking.

TSL:  Expensive networking. I am still reminded of that aspect every month when I pay the Department of Education. But I didn’t go to USC. Sorry.

HS:  In today’s world, you don’t have to go to film school to make a movie. The technology is out there. There’s Canon cameras, beautiful, high-def video people are using in Hollywood movies like Black Swan, etc. With Final Cut Pro, you can sit in your house and edit. With Crazylove, Adam was editing and we worked in his apartment. The technology is such that for anyone who wants to make a movie, it’s really easy.

But when something is so easy, you get a lot of crap. Not everyone is cut out to be a filmmaker. The technology opens doors up and you can find an opportunity that otherwise might not have been there. It’s really remarkable.

TSL:  What about living in L.A.?

HS:  You don’t have to be in Hollywood to be a producer these days. With the 5D [camera], 7D… This [idea] is nothing new. Edward Burns did it 20 years ago. People can break through at the festival level. Festivals are really competitive these days.  

One of the most fascinating aspects [these days] is micro-budget filmmaking, take a camera and shoot a movie for $25,000. For one thing, that’s the way to make big money… Anyone with a camera can produce. The things you can do now, it really is remarkable.

TSL:  You love that word.

HS:  How about mind-blowing? To think you can buy a camera for $2,000 and shoot movies and distribute them… It really is remarkable.

We shot both movies on film. But you have to develop it, buy film stock… When we were shooting Wake, we were doing a very difficult scene and it was taking a very long time, a very dialogue-intensive scene where characters were speaking over one another. We were downtown in a studio space late at night on a holiday weekend. Someone said, “We don’t want to scare you, but we’re using a large amount of film.” I asked how much was left. Potentially, we could have run out of film. There are ways to get more, but very costly.

TSL:  And as you said, you are great at saving money and budgeting–

HS:  (Smiles.) The above would not have been an issue with a Canon or RED camera. I love the look of film, but we’re never going to shoot on it again. It’s expensive and takes longer — you have to wait for dailies to come back, all these issues. A lot of studio movies are not even shot on film anymore. Lenses for the RED and other cameras are emulating film, ultimately. Now, a lot of people have gotten their starts without Hollywood.

TSL:  But don’t people need to move here eventually?

HS:  If you are Jim Cameron, you don’t need to be in Hollywood. It depends on the length of your career, Hollywood or maybe New York.

TSL:  What about moving to L.A. and working at an agency? Is that a good thing for an aspiring producer to do?

HS:  Agencies may help in the sense of connections. But there is no easy answer for that, producing requires a lot of different things. Some people are economical producers, some are creative. I’m both. In the indie world, it’s common to be both.

TSL:  Speaking of producing, we all hear on-set horror stories and mishaps. What’s an example of one?

HS:  On every film, you are thirty seconds away from disaster at least once a day. Producing is problem-solving. A quirky example – which there are many – was when we were shooting in the valley on Wake. There was a neighbor who was very upset and claimed we sent her gardener home. I went to talk to her and said we may have told the gardener to hold off on using the lawnmower, but we did not send him home. Maybe he wanted to go home and used us as an excuse. We paid for the gardener; it was the neighborly thing to do. I get it, [filming is] an intrusion. If someone wants to use my house as a location, I am slamming the door so quickly…

TSL:  So sometimes you have to pay for the gardener. Great advice. And aside from incidents like that, what is the most challenging part about your job?

HS:  Negotiating a nudity rider is one of the least pleasurable aspects of producing. You have to get very technical. You are discussing stuff that in most professions you would never be discussing. It varies case to case, but you can negotiate the number of frames or seconds a nipple can be shown, for instance. One time, an editor called me and was pretty sure they could see a nipple. I said it was impossible, they were working off low resolution. So I called the post house and said I had to see the master take. I dropped everything because we were about to submit to festivals. Someone offered to go with me and I said, “I think I know what a nipple looks like.” I ran up to the post house, and we were literally looking at it – “Is that it?” “Is that it?” “I think I see it slightly.” That’s the magic of post-production. We dialed it down to eliminate any possibility. I can’t tell you if something was there or not, but we had to protect against it.

Crazylove is available on Netflix streaming and DVD. Wake is on DVD, iTunes, currently airing on Showtime and moving to Starz in November.