By Tom Dever · May 3, 2018
It was the last weekend of July 2016 when I formally left the first feature I ever directed. I had been a part of the project as the writer, director and producer for close to 18 months at that point. I had seen it all the way through development, pre-production, a 20-day shoot, several cuts with the editors and had it to the point of sound design.
I also had a very tumultuous relationship with the financier who was also an actor in the film. I originally signed up just to write the script and help produce. I was as surprised as anyone when they asked me to direct. I was certainly not opposed to doing it and liked having control over how my story would be told, I had just never really done it before.
Nonetheless, I worked hard and assumed the role of director and really developed the project with a certain vision. Only, that vision didn’t gel with his vision at all. Despite being a director and producer, I had no control over casting, the script, I wouldn’t have final cut, and didn’t really have any control over the managing of the finances. So what was I?
On one hand, I was so excited to have an opportunity to make a film with a decent budget. I was convinced this was the opportunity that would change my life. But what was I to this project? A writer that didn’t have any control over the script? A director that couldn’t cast or tell actors? A producer that didn’t have say over finances? I was appreciative of the opportunity but deep down I knew I’d be putting my name on something that did not reflect my work. To a creative, I truly don’t know if there is anything worse.
That disconnect would manifest in long arguments about virtually anything. The financier developed an abusive attitude towards me. He would call me early in the morning, late at night, while I was still working my day job and talk for two hours in which he accused me of stealing money from him and submarining the project. At one point, he wanted me to sign an addendum to my existing contract that would make me personally responsible for any amount the project went over budget (again, I didn’t have final say over finances). I offered to quit that day but he insisted I stay on.
These sort of endless arguments continued for over eighteen months. The final argument was the production sound designer wanting a slight alteration of the terms in his deal memo. He called me to explain the issue, which was reasonable. When I passed it along to the financier, he accused me once more of conspiring behind his back.
At that point, it had been a year and a half of constant anxiety, misery, stress, and fighting that had no end or amicable resolution in sight. I had nothing left to offer the project, a project that hardly had any of my creativity or voice in it in the first place. I truly felt it would progress better without me. I forewent my final payment, which had been dangled over my head for seven months, and wished them the best of luck.
That weekend, I attended a wedding in Cleveland and still vividly remember sitting in the airport bar at LAX totally depressed. I kept thinking I had blown my one and only chance at being an independent filmmaker. I was twenty-six years old and had been given the chance to make a feature film with a budget of a hundred thousand dollars. I was frustrated with the financier for making everything so much more difficult than it needed to be but also frustrated with myself for not being better at the things I did control. It seemed like the greatest opportunity and by formally quitting I had to face the reality that I had fucked it up.
Over time, I developed a self-deprecatory disposition. I was able to realize my mistakes. I was able to find humor and joy in some of the experiences. I was able to maintain friendships with some of the crew members. We would reflect on the experience in this very gallows humors sort of way, which allowed me to move on from the self-loathing portions of it.
I started to notice, though, when I would speak to other producers—like highly successful career producers—they didn’t seem surprised by anything I said. It was always a very casual “Oh yeah, sounds like a typical first film.” I vividly remember meeting with producer Liz Destro, who had produced a film called Joshy, which I absolutely adored, and telling her about the project. She said, “Oh well, you’ll get another shot. Be better on the next one.”
She said it with such casual certainty. To that point, I hadn’t even considered the fact that I would even have the opportunity to make a second film. But the thought of it really energized me. Maybe this wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe I was just being dramatic or naïve.
That really stuck with me. I started thinking about the type of film I would make if I did get another crack. Rattled from my experience with a demanding financier, I wanted something much cheaper and something where I had more control. I wanted it to be an original story I took the time to develop. The previous had been a feature adaptation of a short.
I started to really fantasize about this idea of a small cast and crew of friends rolling up their sleeves, tapping into this survival instinct and making a feature-length film over a short amount of time. No matter how awful or stressful it could be, when all was said and done, we would have something finished and completed to show for it.
I also saw two films in a short amount of time that helped frame the story I was looking to tell. The first being About Elly by award-winning Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi who did A Separation. It’s about a group of friends who go to a vacation home for a long weekend and one of the guests disappears. This mystery around her disappearance and some secrets about why she was there in the first place comes out. It struck me because the story seemed to translate to American society so well, particularly with the rise of Airbnb.
The second was the aforementioned Joshy. It similarly is about a group of friends who stay at this rented cabin in Ojai they booked for a bachelor party weekend, only the main character Joshy’s fiancé commits suicide. Again, a similar setting but more importantly, the film clearly did not have a script and there was a ton of freedom for the filmmakers and the actors to create the story as they go. That felt like this amazing collaboration.
I loved the idea, but I was still just kicking it around. Ironically, a group of friends and I went to an AirBnB in Palm Desert for the weekend. We were kind of drunkenly sitting around the hot tub at two in the morning when I pitched the idea to a friend of mine who works as an editor. Immediately he seemed to grasp the idea of both the narrative I was trying to tell and the camaraderie of making a feature in such a short amount of time.
We both found ourselves in similar boats. I didn’t go the traditional film school route, but he did. Either way, you step out of college and think you’re going to work on all these fascinating narrative projects you fell in love with in school. And while you’re definitely going to find work in Los Angeles, the odds of it being the sort of projects you dreamt of are quite low.
We both had day jobs, his editing digital content and mine completely unrelated to film production. When you relocate your entire life, he from Florida and me from Ohio, to do something and end up not doing it, it starts to take its toll after a while. I would say we had more determination than desperation but it was a very feral mindset.
He was immediately an incredible creative partner. He referred me to the films Coherence and Bag Head. Coherence being this incredibly complex single location sci-fi thriller which, if you haven’t seen it, you really owe it to yourself to do. Baghead is a Duplass Brothers film that meshes the mumblecore style with a horror film. It also has no production value. It has like anti-production value. If such a film could still work and get distributed, it gave me hope for ours.
Things really took off at that point. I read that Jeff Bana, the director of Joshy, had what he called a twenty-page “scriptment” that had very clear summaries of each scene but never a formal screenplay. We set about writing our own scriptment in a similarly loose style. There were never sluglines or specific actions. There were occasional lines of dialogue, but they were never meant to be treated as gospel. We always wanted to leave room for what the cast was going to bring to it.
Which brought us to our first huge challenge: how do you cast a film like this? How do you explain to people that there’s no script and you’re going to shoot this thing in four days? I didn’t even want to insult a casting director with that assignment. We knew we would have to cast it ourselves, we just didn’t know how.
I was fortunate enough during this time to go to a friend’s comedy show at IOS in Hollywood. The show was really funny, but I was more captivated by how good the cast was at accommodating. Certain things would happen that were clearly unplanned that would make someone slip up or laugh and they would all just immediately go with it and take it in this new direction. They were doing this on the spot, in front of a live audience. It clicked right there that those were the kind of people we needed. We needed people who could adapt and change make something bigger on the fly.
I reached out to them through my friend in this very “hey here’s this crazy idea I had, would you be interested?” Luckily, they were all very excited at the prospect of doing a micro-budget improv feature and came aboard. They were very helpful in referring us to other people to round out the cast. We had to make a few adjustments in making some characters older, some a little more sympathetic, and adjust to their actual personalities instead of this rigid conception of our narrative.
The rehearsals were incredibly helpful. It was difficult to get that many people’s schedules to align, but it paid off so much in the end. Rehearsals allow you to get comfortable with your cast, your cast to get comfortable with their characters and the story, and for all of you to get comfortable working together. We added storylines, made adjustments and even switched roles for actors based on the rehearsals. It made it an infinitely better project.
Obviously, with a budget like this, you need to have a crew but can only afford to pay for the essentials. I had the chance to work with the same DP I worked with on the previous feature. He did an excellent job under the harsh circumstances and we saw this as an opportunity to exorcise those demons.
When he heard we were doing a four-day improv shoot, he immediately suggested a two camera set up. The line producer in me cringed. That would be another crew member with a day rate times four. This is how your mind works when you produce. Either way, it would be a hit to the budget. But when he explained to me how much easier it would be for an editor to always have something to cut to, I acquiesced.
Finding a sound person proved a little trickier. Some people flat out told me it was impossible to get quality dialogue with seven people improv-ing over each other. Other people seemed suspiciously optimistic about the process. Always be suspect of anyone that tells you it’s easy. It’s not easy. Making a movie is the opposite of easy. Anyone who says otherwise probably wants the payday.
We met a highly recommend mixer who said the opposite of what every other person I had spoken to said. Conventional wisdom had me thinking we would need to lav everyone up but he said, “No you won’t be able to use that. You need me and a boom.” Again, adding a crew person meant more money, but he appreciated his straightforward honesty so much I acquiesced once more.
So we had our script (kind of), our director, our editor, our camera department, our sound department, our cast and two friends who volunteered to PA. What’s left? So so so so much.
When you produce something like this with your own money, the rest is going to fall on your shoulders. So if you can’t afford to pay an Art Department, a Costume Designer, an AD, a Script Supervisor, Locations Manager, Craft Services, etc., it means you get to do all of those things. You get to do all the props, costumes, call sheets, the budgets, the contracts, and so on and so forth.
Everything you didn’t hire someone for is ultimately your responsibility which is equally terrifying but also very exciting. The success or failure is going to come down to how much you are willing to put into it.
Nine months after that drunken pitch session in the hot tub and just over eighteen months after that night in the LAX Airport Bar, we have finally gotten everything together. I never thought I would get this chance again but here I am. Most people think we’re nuts and what we’re trying to do can’t be done, and maybe they’re right. In four days, we’ll know one way or the other.
Tom Dever writes for The Script Lab.