This week, Washington Filmworks reached out to one of our incentive alumni Producers, Colin Plank, to pen a guest post about lessons learned through the process of making a feature. Colin is a Producer at Centripetal Films based in Seattle. His film, Eden, will be released in theaters in early 2013. Eden is his first feature film. He can be reached at: colin[at]centripetalfilms.com.
“Basically a low budget film is a crisis waiting to happen.” – Christine Vachon, Producer
“I do know that it is a fact that of all the people who come to Hollywood, I have yet to have a person come to me and say, ‘I am anxious to be a producer.” – David O. Selznick, Producer
In the summer of 2011, I produced the feature film, Eden, which was shot in Washington State in 25 days with 2 additional days of exteriors shot in Las Vegas. With few exceptions, the crew was made up mostly of Washington residents while the lead cast came from Los Angeles and the supporting cast coming from Washington. Thanks to funding assistance from Washington Filmworks, we finished the film and premiered at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, where the film won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Feature. Eden will be released domestically in theatres in early 2013 through Phase 4 Films and it is also being sold internationally.
Eden is based on the harrowing true story of a young Korean-American girl, abducted and forced into prostitution by domestic human traffickers, who joins forces with her captors in a desperate plea to survive.
Richard Phillips wrote the original draft of the script that became, Eden. The original title was, “The Stable Girl: A Human Trafficking Survival Tale”, and it was 130 pages. I knew there was an incredible story from the first time I read it and felt as if I was watching a film and not just reading a script. Most Americans are not aware that human trafficking occurs here. I knew that if we could make this dramatic narrative we could give voice and create awareness for a problem that plagues society in the United States and the rest of the world.
But the story was too big in scope and size to be made independently and would have to be made smaller in scale, but no less powerful. I spent a month rewriting it myself but came to the realization that my greatest contribution was changing the title to, “Eden”. So I went searching for a screenwriter who could incorporate my ideas for the changes into the script.
I had a great experience working on Megan Griffiths’ beautiful 2011 film, The Off Hours, which she had written and directed. So I hired Megan to rewrite Eden. We met and talked about the script and I gave her my notes; a few weeks later, Megan handed in an incredible rewrite that managed to compress a story about an elaborate, nefarious underworld of human trafficking into a singular 95 page story that revolved around the main character, Eden. I asked if she would direct the film and she accepted. With an incredible Director to guide us, now all we had to do was hire 200 people and make it.
There are many different ways to produce a film so I can only speak about my own experience in making Eden. Based on that experience, I hope to convey what I know, what I learned, and what I hope to do when I make my next film.
1. Know what you know; know what you do not. The first one speaks for itself; for everything else, make sure you hire the best person you can for that position. I had a great Director so now I needed someone to help me produce the film. I am a creative producer, which means I oversee the script, casting, sets, props, costumes, locations as well as all the financing, legal, and marketing. I left the majority of the physical production decisions to my producing partner, Jacob Mosler. Jacob is a Seattle native who now lives in LA where he has been working on and budgeting independent films for the past 20 years. A member of the DGA, Jacob does everything by the book, which is how I want things to be done.
2. You can never have enough prep. Start the essential people: Director, Director of Photography, Line Producer, and Location Manager as soon as you can for as much time as you can afford. Those four people, along with you, will be responsible for making most of the key decisions that will impact how, where and how well you tell your story.
3. Be prepared to move on. For every single position you need to fill – from crew to cast – have at least two people you can reach out to in case the first is not available. Also, you should always set a time limit for when you need a crew member or actor to commit. If they cannot commit in the time you give them, you should move on.
4. Go Union. Go Local. Most indie films think it is difficult and costly to go union. However, since Filmworks requires that you pay health and benefits to the crew, I decided that we would be signatory to SAG, IATSE and Teamster so the benefits went through the unions and saved us from having to set up a separate health plan just for the film. For a low-budget, independent film, it was pretty amazing that we did that. In addition, it is a lot easier knowing that you have an experienced union crew who know their job and are vested in their career and your film. Another benefit is that working with unions means everybody knows what the rules are so there is no question as to when a meal penalty starts or what an actor gets for their per diem.
5. Everyone will not love you. As much as filmmaking is a collaborative process, you have to be in charge and make the ultimate decision on whether you can afford an extra day, go into overtime, or hire someone’s friend.
Thus, ultimately, you may have to make a decision – or many – that upsets people.
6. Don’t yell. The only exception is in order to keep people safe, such as, “Look out!” “Don’t point that prop gun at me!” “If you don’t move, that cube truck will run you over and we won’t make our day!”
You should also say, “Thank you”, a lot. Try to compliment people in public, as much as possible, and discipline them privately, whenever necessary. Unless someone has done something that is egregious or dangerous, make sure not to make a public spectacle out of the event. Just pull the person aside and say, “Can I speak to you in private?”
7. Protect and support the Director. Your job is to provide the Director with everything he or she needs to bring the film to life. The biggest part of that is insulating the Director from all the chaos that goes on behind the scenes. Unless it directly impacts the creative direction of the film, the Director does not need to know about it. Keep all the concerns about budget overages, agent issues, or the one billion other distractions in your head so the Director always feels comfortable and secure.
Also, never get between a Director and the actors. The Director is the only person who should be directing the actors. If you have a note about a scene or a performance, always ask to speak to the Director about it in private.
8. Hire an entertainment lawyer to do your paperwork. The Producer is usually the one who has to sign on behalf of the company. Don’t sign anything for the film until your attorney reviews it. There’s no reason you should be rushed to sign anything – ever. Also, make sure everyone signs a deal memo – or a waiver – before they show up on your set.
9. Cast is everything. Besides having a great script, having a name star is probably the most important thing you can do. Fortunately for us, Jamie Chung, who came off the success of Hangover II, read and loved the script and starred as Eden. She was supported by the equally talented Matt O’Leary, who just starred in Fat Kid Rules The World, and the veteran star actor, Beau Bridges.
We wanted to make a great and important film about difficult subject matter; but in the world of distribution, that can make it hard to sell. Thus, it is important to know who your audience will be for your film before you make it. I chose Eden because I believe a narrative is a much more effective way to get people to talk about the insidious problem of human trafficking. Fortunately, our distributor feels the same way; the hope is that filmgoers will feel the same way early next year when the film is released.
10. Making and selling films are two different skill sets. So unless you are blessed with both of these, you will probably want a sales agent to help sell your film. Cinetic Media repped Eden domestically and Cinema Management Group are repping the film internationally.
If your film is great, people will notice it and you could win an award. Obviously, it helps to get any award(s) at a festival. We won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Feature at South by Southwest, which was a great accomplishment since the festival is known mainly for comedy and horror. Audience awards also say more to a potential distributor of a film because the sales agent can say that more people liked your film as opposed to a jury with a limited number of people. For Eden, since the subject matter was so difficult, it helped show that the film had broad potential. Megan also won the award for Best Emerging Female Director and Jamie Chung won a Special Jury Recognition for Lead Actress at South by Southwest. At the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival, Megan won the Lena Sharpe Award for Persistence of Vision; Eden won the Seattle Reel NW Award; and Jamie Chung won the Golden Space Needle Audience Award for Best Actress.
However, in some circumstances, you may not need a domestic sales agent. If your film is good enough, and you manage to get into a major festival, spend money on a good public relations person. Just make sure you have a good entertainment attorney, who has specifically worked on distribution deals, to negotiate the terms of any distribution offer.
You definitely need a foreign sales agent unless you know the hundreds of distributors in the more than 40 territories outside North America.
11. Pick the right festival to premiere. There is little doubt that Sundance is the top US film festival. Every major distributor attends the festival and they are the ones you want to see your film. Be selective about the festivals you apply to because you do not want to dilute the uniqueness of your film. Just because 20 festivals want to screen your film does not mean you should screen in all 20. Ideally, you sell your film when you premiere and let the distributor decide what festivals to screen the film.
Also, film festivals are expensive and a lot of work. While we loved premiering at South by Southwest, it was a lot of work for the producers because we had to handle travel and schedules and hotels and then making sure everything ran smoothly with actors and press.
We premiered at South by Southwest, which is a great festival and they treated us well and the audience loved the film. However, it is not well attended by distributors the way Sundance is. To get in front of buyers, I had a network of friends in LA who would drop off the film for a distributor and then wait in the lobby until they were done watching it.
You want people to think that your film is special and exceptional so do not give a copy of your film to anyone who asks. By having distributors watch the film in a conference room without interruption is the closest you can get to having them watch it in a theatre. You do not want to drop it off because you hope they will watch it sometime in the next six months. Distributors already have 50 other films they plan to watch in that time. And new films are coming out every day to compete for their attention.
12. Make your film in Washington State. It has the best rebate (technically called “funding assistance”) in the country. Getting 30 percent cash back on our in-state spend in 30 days enabled us to complete the film. Also, I loved making a film in my home state since it was easier on my family. Although, considering the amount of hours I spent at the office or set, I may as well have been shooting in Sri Lanka.
For more insight into producing, I recommend Christine Vachon’s “Shooting to Kill” in which the venerable independent producer at Killer Films, who’s credits include Boys Don’t Cry and I’m Not There, regales you with the troubles and triumphs of contemporary independent filmmaking.
To get a sense of early Hollywood when producer’s controlled every aspect of filmmaking, read, “Memo From: David O. Selznick”, edited by Rudy Behlmer. Selznick produced many films, including Gone With the Wind, which he made through his own company, Selznick International Studios in 1939. His infamous memos, which Selznick sent to directors, actors and producers, give tremendous insight into the myriad challenges facing a producer.
Follow Colin’s film Eden here: http://www.edenthefilm.com