Today a great friend sent me a really well timed and much needed pep-talk email about my current producing efforts, which included encouragement to post positive stuff on the ol’ social medias about it. After all, I’m getting a lot of stuff done and successfully putting together the jigsaw puzzle of a feature film. If I’m not always 100% in control of everything, the world doesn’t need to know, does it? After all, who wants to work with a Debbie Downer?
He’s totally right. If I do post vaguely negative things on Facebook about producing, it’s meant in jest. I’m making light of the frustrations in my own way, but I know how it reads, and I know how I interpret that kind of thinly veiled negativity when other people do it. I usually think “hey man, don’t put bummer vibes out into the world, there’s enough of that out here already.”
My awesome friend wasn’t reprimanding me, he was encouraging me – and it really helped. He was saying “hey, you’re almost at the finish line, you’ve done so much work to get here, you should be so proud of yourself – failure is not an option!”
He’s totally right about that too. I am proud of myself for having played a massive role in raising nearly a million bucks to get a feature film off the ground. I’m proud of the creative work I’ve done with helping my writer/director refine his script, and I’m really proud of how well I’ve kept it together when the workload and the pressure has been overwhelming. I am totally rocking this, and (if I do say so myself), I am very good at it. I’ll knock this project out of the park, but I’ll knock the second one out of the stratosphere. I do feel very positive most of the time.
Even so, it’s a roller coaster ride, and it’s hard to stay positive all the time. Right now, for example, I’m dealing with a small financing shortfall that came up totally unexpectedly. It’s a problem we couldn’t have planned for, but that we need to solve on extremely short notice. We’re supposed to tie up our final contracts with our various funders by the end of this week, which means we need to fill that gap in, what? Three days? It’s a challenge, to say the least.
So, what’s a girl to do?
Not give up, is what. It’s a tough situation. But it has also brought some great people out of the woodwork who have been offering various kinds of help, and we might actually be able to put together what we need as a result.
If we can’t, there’s a very real possibility that we will lose some of the funding we’ve fought very hard to secure, and will have to start fundraising again. For a project that I was getting ready to shoot in April to suddenly go back to square one (or square three, let’s say) would be devastating, but c’mon. I’m not going to set myself on fire over it. I’ll start again with a new strategy and build the damn thing back up again.
Hopefully, the doomsday scenario will never come to pass, and you’ll be reading my gleeful production diaries in a month’s time as I shoot this sucker. And if not, then you’ll be reading my if-not-gleeful-then-at-least-very-upbeat fundraising diaries, as I piece it back together.
I started this blog in order to share my as-unvarnished-as-possible experiences as a first time producer with the world in the hopes that they might amuse some, help others, and help me by giving me a safe space to share my feelings, my triumphs, my failures and the lessons that I learn.
When I started down this road, I found the process of producing a feature film exceedingly mysterious, needlessly so. I didn’t understand why it was so hard to decipher the process, why it was so confusing to navigate the paperwork, and why everyone was always so tight-lipped about the details of how you actually raise money and get this shit done.
I wanted to pull the curtain back. Perhaps that was naive, but I still aspire to it. Obviously, I understand the necessity of keeping certain info confidential, but that doesn’t mean the reasoning behind it shouldn’t be explained. I don’t need to divulge the dollar amounts every funder is giving us in order to explain to you how financing works (and doesn’t work). I don’t need to name specific actors or agents in order to shed light on the world of casting. I certainly don’t need to incriminate anyone in order to explain the fact that some people in the film biz are hustlers.
I want to keep talking about the process because doing so helps me understand it better. I intend to stay as honest as possible here, and share my every challenge with you. I need to talk about the frustrations and setbacks because there are so many of them that not telling other people about it seems like a terrible disservice (here I am forced to admit that I vainly hope other aspiring producers read my blog in search of insights).
I want to talk about it all because even though it’s an infuriating process, it’s also incredibly rewarding and I couldn’t be happier about having thrown away a stable job in order to do this insane thing. I want share all that without being negative. I need positive energy, so that’s all I’m going to put out. Reap what you sow, etc.
Hashtag I love producing.
Day 3, March 15, 2015
I was already starting to feel the toll of the midnight lifestyle by Sunday, so I decided to do something radical. Radical for “festival travel” and “business travel” and even “vacation travel”, for me, anyway. I decided not to set an alarm for Sunday morning. I ended up waking up relatively early anyway (9ish?) but the lack of pressure really helped me feel less like a person who is swimming with lead weights on. Sign #56845697 that I’m getting old: an inability to stay up until 2am for more than two nights in a row without wrecking my productivity the following day. Oh well, it’s festival life, who’s complaining?
Colin and I had a leisurely breakfast and caught up on a few emails before heading to the nearby B-Cycle station to zip down to the convention centre for our first panel, “So You Want to Make a Midnight Movie?” which included lots of useful info and a great pitch from an audience member for a slow-burn horror film called The Venison Eater. He had me at … well, The Venison Eater.
“Catching up on emails” is one of those tasks that back home, when I’m on a regular schedule and mostly on top of my work, is no big deal. While I’m away, on the other hand, it feels like a crushing avalanche of busywork that I will never be able to dig myself out from under. I have so much Birdland stuff to do, it’s unreal. Being mostly offline (except in the early mornings and late nights) doesn’t help. It means that if I respond to something at 9am and then leave the house (and its precious wifi zone) until late in the evening, any followup that might have been required at, say, 10am has to wait until the following morning. Losing entire workdays like that is very painful. When I get back, I’ll have to stuff five workdays into two. But for now, I’m in Austin, where the streets are paved with brisket, the rivers flow with beer, and it’s always summertime. Not complaining. Checking my jet-setter privilege, etc.
After the midnight movie panel, we met with Jeff Wright (here scouting for CMW‘s film programming, among other things) and scoped out the technology side of what’s currently going on at SXSW. I don’t understand the Interactive festival at all, but I know that I’m just an old grandma shaking her fist at the sky and grumbling that she doesn’t “get the twitters”. Clearly, some of the stuff being showcased in the huge interactive arena of the Austin Convention centre is a bit nutty, but much of it will just as clearly change all our lives sometime soon.
I shook hands with an amputee who was using a fully-functional 3-D printed arm (each finger could bend and move at each joint, just like a real hand) and met a pair of Swedish composers who create “audio identities” for companies and products (you know how you have a logo and letterhead … well, like that, but sounds).
After checking out the very tip of the interactive iceberg, we went to a beer tent that seemed to me like a very SXSW-ish thing, even though I’ve only been here for a few days and may not have a complete sense of this festival’s identity. The outdoor lounge was sponsored by mophie, a company that makes portable battery packs for iPhones (I use one, it’s great) and they had not only free beer, but a Saint Bernard petting zoo. Yep. A tech company sponsored a patio on which you could drink for free and play with big dogs. A+, SXSW.
From the Saint Bernards we went to a happy hour hosted by VHX, then to another happy hour hosted by the North Carolina film commission, where we drank our fill of Cheerwine and met a guy who was working on a “stripper horror” film called Peelers. Good times!
Dinner was one of those fun, impromptu events that brings together a bunch of cool people – Jeff, Zach Hagen (the producer of He Never Died, which is premiering at SXSW) and our friend Diana, who has a super cool job with a company that holds the rights to a story that takes place in a galaxy far, far away. We had steaks, we had fun, and then we had to keep ourselves peppy and awake for three hours before the midnight screening of We Are Still Here. Luckily, we had the fabulous Nick Robinson to help us with that endeavour.
I was very glad to have stayed up for the film, because the finished product was tense, had great atmosphere, a fantastic look, creepy sound design and was a really fun watch. It’s such a pleasure seeing friends get to make their dreams come true, and watching Ted get up on stage to introduce the world premiere of his film was really touching and awesome!
Some things are worth staying up late for.
Day 2, March 14, 2015
On Friday, everyone in the world is starting to descend on downtown Austin. We woke up early and decided to walk from our hosts’ home to the Convention Centre (about 40 minutes, totally enjoyable in the glorious weather, in spite of what some car-accustomed Americans led us to believe).
Once we got down to the convention centre, my first task was to figure out how ticketing works at SXSW. Turns out, it’s really not as complex as I’d been led to believe. It just involves lining up, which, for those of us who came of age in the public screening line-ups of TIFF, is no big deal.
Hard tickets exist, but they’re mostly for filmmakers and their friends. If you have one, you will get into the film, and it works just like any other ticketed event. If you are a badge holder (which most people seem to be at this fest) then the process is quite straightforward. There’s a badge holder line-up outside the venue. Show up early enough, and you’ll get in. That’s it. Of course, there are different types and levels of badges, each with their own set of benefits and perks. But the basic process is: you have a badge, you line up early enough, you get in.
If you don’t want to line up for an hour to ensure that you’ll get a seat, you’ve got one other option. At the start of each day, a certain number of “express passes” is released at the SXXPRESS Box Office in the convention centre. If you snag one of those, you go into a separate, shorter line that gets let in first.
Do you see what I’m saying about it being pretty simple? I think industry types are used to festivals like TIFF where an entire “press and industry” shadow festival allows them to breeze in and out of 90% of screenings, and when they come to a fest that expects them to line up like everyone else, they get sniffy about it. It’s actually very easy to navigate this place. The problem is not that it’s confusing. It’s that there are a thousand things happening in every time slot and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
On the advice of a producer, we decided to check out The Boy, a film that seemed to make it onto everyone’s “must see” lists for the festival. The premise is simple enough: in the summer of 1989, 9-year-old Ted lives with his father (David Morse) in a crumbling hotel in the American West, and the boy’s darker impulses are further unleashed with the arrival of a mysterious drifter (Rainn Wilson). The finished product is a wonderfully atmospheric and creepy-as-hell portrait of a disturbed youngster, which the director apparently plans to turn into a trilogy about the boy’s life as he grows up. The film was produced by Elijah Wood’s Spectrevision label, which has been doing some pretty rad stuff, actually. They were also behind A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and last year’s Sundance hit, Cooties, which I have yet to see.
The film was playing at the Alamo Ritz location, and it took all my strength to not order everything on the menu, because the idea of eating and drinking in a theatre is still so delightfully novel to me. After the film, we contemplated getting right back into line to see another well-recommended title, A Bone in the Throat, but the desire to spend time with friends won out, and instead we went to a backyard BBQ and hung out, chatted and watched some fireworks get set off (and nearly set Colin on fire – see his video on Facebook for proof). The ribs were to die for.
We figured out how to use Austin’s very handy B-Cycle system (similar to our Bike Share program) and tooled around from theatre to residential neighbourhood across the river and felt free & easy & kind of out of shape. The service only costs $8 per day, so for us, it was heaven-sent compared to the hassle of getting cabs (it’s nearly impossible especially downtown during this festival madness) or the inconvenience of Uber (everyone loves it, but everyone is also American and not offline due to exorbitant roaming charges, whereas we are not and therefore can’t use the damn app).
After the back yard party, we hitched a ride with some friends back downtown and attended the cocktail party for Deathgasm and We Are Still Here, the two midnight titles that Dark Sky is repping here. A great opportunity to see old friends and make some new ones. I met Alejandro Brugués, who directed the Cuban zombie film Juan of the Dead, and we chatted about everything from hair colour to marriage to the benefits of working in episodic television, to being bold about the projects you work on.
After cocktails we went back to the Alamo Ritz to watch Deathgasm, where we found Deathgasm baseball caps, buttons, and free beers provided by the director. Pro-tip: when you’ve been at a cocktail party for the past two hours and someone hands you a free beer, don’t also order a margarita just for the novelty of getting it delivered to your seat at a cinema! Anyway, the film was fun but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the lead actor looked exactly like Kiera Knightly from certain angles. It’s not really visible in the picture below, but trust me. He’s the one on the left.
Day 1, March 13, 2015
We arrived in Austin around midnight on Thursday March 12th and hung around the airport waiting for a couple of friends to land so that we could share a cab into town. When we arrived at our final destination (the home of the generous and wonderful Tim & Karrie League), our host and the other people who are staying at the house were in the basement enjoying some fine bourbon and conversation.
If you start socializing at 1am, don’t be surprised that it’s after 4am by the time you roll into bed!
Our actual first day was fine and mellow. We woke up on Friday and had a light breakfast, in anticipation of the crawfish boil that would be taking place at the Leagues’ a few hours later. A perfect start to any festival? A cookout in a friend’s back yard.
After the crawfish, we rode downtown with the inimitable Aaron Hillis (our impromptu date for the day) to pick up our badges. The process was simpler than anticipated, and even though the crowds did seem chaotic and endless, SXSW does not seem to be as complicated to navigate as I was led to believe.
Next up, Aaron took us to a taco stand by the side of the road, a completely delicious pitstop before our first screening of the fest – Jonathan Demme presenting a programme of Austin-made short films from 1980.
Apparently, Demme, saw the program back in the day and was so impressed that he took the collection to New York to present there, and was returning to re-present them in Austin this year. The hit of the night was a manic, black & white, Super 8 short called Invasion of the Aluminum People.
After the screening, we decided to skip the official opening party (and the undoubtedly countless other parties that were probably going on) in favour of an early night’s sleep to prepare us for a hefty weekend of socializing ahead.
Lessons learned on Day 1:
- Just like at any other festival, you can choose the hyped films & activities, or you can make more obscure choices at SXSW. It can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.
- The number of people in downtown Austin during this festival is just bananas (I know, it gets worse once the music section starts, but damn, it’s already crazy).
- Alamo Drafthouse cinemas are the undisputed kings and queens of film exhibition. It doesn’t get better.
- If you are a badge holder at SXSW, you can pretty much get into anything you want, as long as you’re willing to line up early enough. It’s not so hard!
- Austinites may dispute this, but I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a bad taco in this town.
p.s. HOLY GOD THE WEATHER IS SO GREAT HERE! FORGIVE ME FOR GOING ON ABOUT IT, BUT I AM, AFTER ALL, CANADIAN!
I’ve been working on Birdland for over a year. Maybe even closer to two years? Working on it has felt very real to me since the beginning. No, it’s not my full time job (yet, although it’s getting closer to that by the day) but it’s certainly been a very serious and very “real-feeling” endeavour. I have spent hours putting together complex funding applications. Some of those applications have even been successful – and what could be realer than having someone tell you they’re going to give you money?!
But somehow, the film getting really, truly, for-real made has never felt entirely real.
We’ve spent the past year chasing money. We’ve had countless meetings with people, set up partnerships with a post-production company, a transmedia company that’s going to create a cool digital extension to our marketing plan, a sales agent and distributor. We’ve confirmed many members of our key creative team, including the director of photography, the production designer, the editor, the line producer, and others.
And still, even as we did all this, it felt precarious to me, like something that could fall apart at any moment. Like a house of cards that we could be forced to rebuild from scratch if just one tiny thing went wrong.
Then we got money from the feds! And that was a miracle. We submitted a package to our hopefully-soon-to-be-confirmed interim lender, we activated our casting director and started hunting for locations. Over the past two weeks, we’ve met with several actors and we’ll be holding a casting session in two days and auditioning a dozen contenders.
And still, it feels unreal to me.
Last week, we got a call from the feds that we were worried would be bad news (or at least difficult news – “here are five more obstacles you must overcome before we hand over the money”, that kind of thing), but it turned out to be great. They found more money to top up the amount they’d already committed to giving us. The extra influx of cash allowed us to eliminate a few of our deferrals, turning more of our budget into “real cash”.
Fake cash, for those who are wondering, includes things like deferrals, which are basically the equivalent of someone saying “you’re supposed to pay me $X, but I agree to not get paid until after the film has been made and sold, and then I’ll take my fee out of your future profits”. Those profits may never come to pass. Or there may be other investors who are first in line to be reimbursed. It’s risky, and it’s a bit like asking people to work for free (or semi-free), but it’s one way to make the financing work. And even though deferrals do reduce the amount of tax credits that you’re able to get on the money you spend on labour, they don’t eliminate the tax credits entirely, so you do eventually, theoretically, hopefully get what amounts to a tax refund for those deferred fees. Which you also put into your financing plan. Slightly-less-fake money, tax credits. They may not get to you until a year after you make the film, but they come from the government, and that’s about as real as it gets.
Fake cash is also cash that people do get paid, but then immediately reinvest back into the picture. It’s another way of getting what amounts to free services on the promise that you’ll totally pay it back later, when you start turning a profit.
Long story short, we got more cash, reduced our deferrals, have a much more solid and less anxiety-inducing budget, and … it still doesn’t feel real to me.
Until the day I am holding the offer letter from Rogers Telefund telling me that they will indeed give us that interim financing loan, and I am also holding the long-form agreements from all our funders with their signatures still wet on the page, I just can’t get my head around the fact that it’s really, truly, actually happening.
I spend more than 50% of every workday on this project, and fully intend to start full-time prep in about two or three weeks and be shooting it before the end of April. That’s like, five minutes from now. And yet, and yet, and yet.
When will it start to feel real? When we sign the contracts? When we get the first cheque? First day of shooting? Last day of shooting? Festival premiere? When I’m holding a DVD in my hand? Right the hell now would be a good time.
Every year I set a vague goal for myself to “read more”. Much like the “exercise more” or “drink less” or “go to bed earlier” resolutions that dominate most people’s lists, “read more” actually means “change your lifestyle enough so that you have time for this activity that you love (and have always loved) but that requires a certain amount of your actual focus and attention, and is therefore difficult to wedge into the end of a 15 hour workday when your brain is screaming for the love of god, just turn on the television.”
My downfall when it comes to the “read more” resolution is usually an overly ambitious reading list. It’s all well and good if you already have the sort of life-schedule that allows you several hours of quality alone-time every day so that you can really sink into Moby Dick (on my list, btw). But if all you can manage is a half hour before you literally pass out mid sentence at the end of the day … well, that’s fine too but it’s not always conducive to really getting into heavy, dense 1,000 page tomes.
This year, I decided to be ambitious about quantity (50 books! Nearly one a week! Take that, 2015!) but less ambitious about quality. That doesn’t mean I’m reading garbage. 50 Shades of Grey is not on my list (although this blog about it is). I am, however, reading a pleasant mix of literature and just-plain-ol’-fiction. And I’m bringing non-fiction into the mix, because I find that when I get into non-fiction, I love it almost more than anything else I could be reading. But I rarely think to pick it up. Similar to the relationship I have with documentary films.
I’ve done two things this year that are going to immensely improve my numbers, and already have:
A) I got an e-reader. This one.
Let me confirm, first of all, that I am absolutely a “book person”. I love the feeling, the texture, the smell, the heft of real books. I don’t feel at home unless I’m surrounded by full-to-bursting bookshelves. I find it impossible to part with books. Even books I don’t particularly like, or ever plan to read again. I love (LOVE!) books.
But (there’s always a but, isn’t there) I can’t afford to buy every book I feel like reading, and I certainly don’t have the space for them all in my home. For better or worse, I’m used to being able to access most things close-to-instantaneously, because that’s my relationship to music and TV and films, so it’s annoying that I can’t do that when it comes to books. I use the Toronto Public Library system a lot, but sometimes I wait for months for a book I really want to read to come available, and by that point I’ve forgotten why I was so excited about it.
I also do a fair bit of reading for research and for work, and that reading usually comes in the form of PDFs – scripts, articles, excerpts from books and so on. I rarely find the time for this kind of reading during my workdays, and I’m not interested in printing thousands of pages to read at bedtime, so the only solution is to read it on a device. A device that’s not my iPad, that is, since that activity is apparently killing us all.
I’m also an avid transit-reader, and I ruin many books that way, by dragging them around in my messy, dirty backpack or wedging them into my too-small purse.
The e-reader addresses all of those problems and more. And I find the e-ink incredibly easy on the eyes.
B) I signed up for Audible.
Actually, Colin did. I log into his account on my phone and listen to books while I’m walking. I never thought I’d have the attention span for anything longer than a 30-ish minute podcast because I’m so easily distracted (I can’t listen to music while I work – too distracting), but in fact, I am loving the experience of having a book read to me by a disembodied voice. I’ve listened to two so far, and it’s been brilliant.
Anyway. It’s the beginning of March, so here’s my first book report! I’ve finished seven books. Three were actual paper books, one was on the e-reader, and three were audio.
1. The Widower’s Two Step, by Rick Riordan
Two summers ago I picked up a $0.50 book at a church sale, a pulp detective novel called Big Red Tequila. It was about a dryly-funny-literature-PhD-having-tai-chi-doing-Texas-living private eye called Tres Navarre. I found it really enjoyable (and not badly written). Turns out it was the first in a series of eight books. Last year, I bought the other seven online. The Widower’s Two Step is #2, and it finds Tres Navarre trying to solve a case of corruption and possibly murder in the country music scene of Nashville producers and aspiring songbirds. I’m looking forward to my third rendezvous with Mr. Navarre, but I’ll probably wait until summer. It is really holiday reading.
2. The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker
I’ve never ready any Clive Barker before, so I figured I’d start with the book that Hellraiser was based on. It was short, full of sharp descriptions and clear, efficient prose. It was like drinking an ice-cold glass of water. Bracing, refreshing, totally thirst quenching. It’s a deceptively simple novella, and in many ways more disturbing than the film. I loved the internal voice of Julia – a far uglier and better picture of selfishness than the more overtly evil Julia in the film. The book made me appreciate short-format-horror, perhaps for the first time? I’m looking forward to reading the Books of Blood and continuing the love affair with even shorter stories.
3. Clay’s Ark, by Octavia Butler
I’d never heard of Octavia Butler when Colin recommended her Parable of the Sower to me a few years ago. I was completely blown away. Why hadn’t anyone else ever told me that there was a brilliant female sci-fi author out there whose protagonists were always women of colour?! I’ve read several of her novels since, and each one has been perfect. Butler knows how to bring a post-apocalyptic world to life, but she’s even better at envisioning those terrifying moments just before the world ends, the moments after you realize the end is inevitable, but you have to soldier on anyway. Clay’s Ark featured the best version of an “alien virus that could kill us all” that I’ve ever read.
4. Lock In, by John Scalzi
This was my first Audible experience. It’s read by Wil Wheaton, which charmed me immediately, but then it turned out to be really fantastic sci-fi in its own right. Lock In is a murder mystery that takes place in a very plausible near future in which a large percentage of the population is afflicted with Haden’s, a disease that leaves sufferers “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move. Two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, in which the locked-in can interact with others. The second involves allowing the locked-in to operate in the “real world” through android bodies. It’s a good mystery that happens to take place in an incredibly well-realized world.
5. Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, by John Scalzi
This bonus novella was attached to the end of Lock In and featured “interviews” with everyone from scientists to politicians to members of the media and the public about the outbreak and spread of Haden’s Syndrome. How it got its name, how the new virus was identified, how the therapies were developed, what the early days were like, everything. Moments that were only subtly hinted at in the novel are described in great detail here. The novella felt like non-fiction, a government report about a real pandemic. Every author’s job is to make you believe in the world they’ve created. John Scalzi accomplished it better than most.
6. Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
This ensemble-cast book weaves together a number of stories about a sculptor-turned-serial-killer, the detective who’s chasing him, her teenage daughter and daughter’s BFF, and an obnoxious blogger who falls into the middle of the investigation. This was my second audio book on Audible, and I found it less enjoyable than Lock In, but perhaps just because it was not as good a book. This one was read by several different voice actors, which I liked in principle, but I found it quite grating when the male actors would do “female voices” (not something I took issue with when Wil Wheaton did it, perhaps because he didn’t make the women sound lame).
7. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
This Pulitzer Prize winner was a title that Kobo recommended to me when I got the e-reader, so I thought “sure, why not” and bought it. It’s narrated by Theo Decker, who starts the story as a thirteen-year-old New Yorker who miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Over the next couple of decades, Theo’s life unfurls, his fate forever tied to a painting that he saw the day his mother died. I couldn’t wait to come back to this book every evening. Even at its most floridly-descriptive or rambling moments, it never fails to be a page-turner. Theo is a compelling narrator, and his observations are surprising and insightful.
That’s it for the first book report!
Books that I am currently reading and might appear on the next report include Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Collected Novellas, The Troop by Nick Cutter, The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy by Dave Madden (non-fiction!), and The Genome, a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, the Russian dude behind Night Watch.
My reading list is long, but I am always up for recommendations. If you want to share one with me (newer works especially, since I think my backlog of classics and older books is already too enormous), by all means!!
Way back at the beginning of November (what honestly feels like five years ago), I got a call I’d spent months crossing my fingers for, about Birdland. It was the call from Ye Olde Federal Film Entity (who shall remain nameless until they finally give us the money, but you all know who I’m talking about), telling us that they will support the project, as long as we sent them a few outstanding documents and updates by Dec 1.
A month to tie up loose paperwork might seem like a reasonable timeline to you, but in this case, it was like asking us to cook a Christmas dinner in half an hour. I can make “a dinner” in half an hour, but turkey just don’t roast that fast.
Some of what they wanted was relatively easy to pull together, but some items required time and finesse. Like, for example, casting.
It should surprise no one that after rushing like crazy to hand everything in on deadline (we sort of did, and got an extension on a few things, and then handed those in on time in early January), we’re actually still waiting for them to review the paperwork and get back to us. They are slower than The Turin Horse on quaaludes. Don’t get me wrong. I like The Turin Horse. But holy mother of pearl, this process is slow!
Anyway, now that we’re at least at the “paperwork is happening” stage of things, we’re able to move on with one of the more exciting parts of the process – casting.
We had to get four actors to “commit” to the project in advance, as a requirement of our funding, in time for that December deadline. I put the word in quotation marks because the commitment is loose – basically a letter saying “if a wide variety of unspecified conditions are met, I’d be interested in starring in this film”. It’s a low-impact thing to get from an actor, but they still have to like the project and be theoretically available on your schedule. So, unless you have an actor friend who will flat-out lie for you, you do have to find actors who are legitimately interested in being in your movie, even though the letter is by no means binding.
It’s also not easy to get on short notice, because you need to give the actor a respectful amount of time to read the script and think about it. Ideally, you don’t want to simultaneously ask two actors for a letter about the same role (just in case they both say yes – in which case you have to awkwardly tell one of them that it’s been snapped up – a maaaaaajor faux pas). Approaching actors one at a time means waiting until each person says no before approaching your second or third choice. That takes time.
Anyway. Incredibly enough, we did manage to get letters from four very good Canadian actors – indie stars, even! Obviously, nobody’s signed a contract yet, so I can’t publish their names, but I can say this: it was heartening to see talent-of-a-certain-caliber take interest in our ultra-low-budget movie. I say that not because I have little faith in the project, but because I have little faith in people’s willingness to work for below-scale rates, as we will be asking them to do because our project is part of Actra’s Canadian Independent Production Incentive Program (CIPIP for short – pronounced “see-pip!”).
There were lots of agents who blew us off as well. Which is really the thing I want to talk about in this post.
Because we weren’t yet green-lit and weren’t yet able to hire a casting director, we were just cold-emailing agents ourselves to say “hey, here’s our script and our plan, whaddayasay?” Sometimes, that worked. Most of the time, that got us a polite brush-off. Many said “yes, thanks, I will pass it on to Ms. X” and then never got back to us. That type of “thanks, we’ll look into it” basically means “no” in my books, because as I’ve learned, movie people really never say “no”, even though they mean “don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Bub”! In a few cases, all we got was icy silence. Life is harsh in Agent-Town.
We were lucky to find an ally at one of the big Canadian agencies, a powerful agent by local standards, who really liked the script and helped us out by not only signing up one of his clients but lobbying on behalf of the project to his colleagues, so that we were able to get another great actress on board from within his agency. Lucky us – and I truly un-sarcastically mean that. His enthusiasm was a huge help. But lots of agents said no without really bothering to read our materials, and that’s fair enough. They get flooded with material, they’re protecting their clients, or steering them toward a certain type of movie, or a certain budget level, or whatever, and c’est la vie.
But now! Now we’re doing the paperwork and moving forward. Now we’ve got a casting director on board. And honestly, it’s a whole new world.
Now that we have a casting director, our film seems legit, and when she puts out a call with descriptions of the roles we’re trying to cast, we suddenly get a flood of names submitted – including some whose agents wouldn’t return our calls about those exact same roles a month ago.
This is only phase one of the whole process. Just because an agent has thrown their client’s name into the hat for a certain role doesn’t mean the actor’s schedule will actually be open during our timeframe. It doesn’t mean the actor will like the script or feel that they’re right for the part. It doesn’t mean that they will ultimately agree to some of our other requirements (nudity, for example).
So, you might be saying to yourself “I get it, seeing an actor’s name on the potentials list means almost nothing”. But there, you’d be wrong. The one crucial thing it does mean is this: the actor’s agent, who to a large extent controls the career decisions they make, has looked at our synopsis, our budget level, and our abysmally low rates of pay for actors, and they have said “sure, I’d be willing to put my client into this production”. And that, in itself, is a big deal.
Next week, we’ll be meeting with a bunch of actors who are a bit too big to audition (at this budget level, especially) but are willing to meet us for a coffee and discuss the project, and that feels like a big step forward. In a week or two, we might be able to publicly announce a few of the names who are attached, and that will help us get the others on board.
The dance continues.
In the meantime, how does an intrepid young producer sublimate the stress of this process without just setting the whole town on fire and walking away? Baking, of course.
Sure, the prime season for gingerbread may have just passed, but I’m sharing this recipe anyway, because delicious loaves of cakey, gingery bread should never be out of season.
I used this Martha Stewart recipe but cut the sugar from 3/4 of a cup to about 1/2 a cup. It turned out great. And it wasn’t “hairy”.