What was your filmmaking background before making Subprime?
JAMES: When I was in high school, I would make promotional videos for the school’s various fundraisers. So if they needed to get kids to come out to a carwash or whatever they were pushing, they would have me shoot a video with my friends to encourage student involvement, and it would play after the morning school news. Those same friends and I would make movies after school for fun.
At the time we were big into an MTV show called The State, so we would make sketch comedy stuff like that. Editing consisted of two VCRs and a boombox. It was all very poorly done and most of it is now funny for all the wrong reasons. At this point I still didn’t realize that filmmaking was an actual option in life. I always knew it was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t realize that it could be a career. “What’s a Director?” I really had no idea – the guidance my family provided was very limited and one-dimensional.
In college, I went to Business School but I took every film class that Florida State made available to me. Unfortunately for non-film students, those classes are limited to Film History and Theory type classes, so there was no hands-on training. In hindsight I think this was actually a good thing though because these classes built a foundation of understanding the art of filmmaking. It kept me from putting the carriage in front of the horses, so to speak. I’m big into subconscious communication with the viewer and film theory now, and I think these classes were the impetus for that.
Looking back, I’m kind of glad I didn’t go to film school. I think I’m a better filmmaker for it. Here’s a Terry Gilliam quote I love “There's so many film schools, so many media courses which I actually am opposed to. Because I think it's more important to be educated, to read, to learn things, because if you're gonna be in the media and if you'll have to say things, you have to know things. If you only know about cameras and 'the media', what're you gonna be talking about except cameras and the media? So it's better learning about philosophy and art and architecture [and] literature, these are the things to be concentrating on it seems to me.”
Too true Terry… Too true.
After I graduated college I moved to Los Angeles and befriended a bunch of filmmakers and writers. In LA I really focused on learning the craft of screenwriting. I did this for 3 or 4 years – and unsuccessfully I might add. I think after my 3rd feature, I started to figure it out and felt good about what I was writing and how I was doing it. In 2007 I was a finalist in the Page International Screenwriting Competition for my feature Cigar City, and everything has sort of taken off from there.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
JAMES: I was working as a banker in 2005 in LA making $35,000 a year while brokers younger and less educated than me were coming in cashing checks for 15 and 20 grand every month. Imagine that - an 18 year old, cashing a 20 thousand dollar check. I just couldn’t get over how much money these kids were making - this was the seed for Subprime.
I didn’t consciously say to myself “Oh I’m going to write a story about these entitled little bastards” but it definitely clicked – I knew there was a story there. About two years later – 2007 I think – I was living in Orlando and working at a brokerage with about 30 loan officers. In June of that year the Page recognized Cigar City, so with that I started work on Subprime.
I enlisted the help of Darius Amendolia, a coworker of mine that had similar tastes in film and music – he also provided a more knowledgeable and tenured perspective on the mortgage industry. After our daily 9 AM meeting, Darius and I would work on the script in my office until noon. Over lunch we’d discuss the story and character development and then around 1 we’d finally get some paying work done.
Writing about crooked brokers while working in an office with crooked brokers, I must say was awesome. Every character in Subprime is based off of someone from that office. Actual lines were used in the movie, from real lines we heard in the office – sometimes verbatim. If there was ever a disagreement between Darius and I over what the Nick character might say if put in a particular situation, we would just walk over to the office of the guy he was based on, and ask him.
The regional manager comes in and says, “Forget about your piece, you need to take your unfair share” – we used it. Broker X is overheard saying “Yes, I’m the quality control manager…” No he’s not – but we can use it. Every day was filled with moments like this – a bunch of snake oil salesman providing us with great free material. This went on for about 6 months until Darius got fired for low production (go figure, we were writing the whole time!). After that we would meet at my house once a week to push the script forward.
After we had our first draft, I worked on the rewrites alone. I think comedy is the only exception where it’s better to have multiple writers but certainly for drama you’re better off with one voice – taking on the rewrites alone made the whole thing much more balanced. It took about one year to have a readable version but I was rewriting all the way to and through the shoot. The scene where Ian is selling during the 9/11 tragedy was written 30 minutes before the shoot. Writing is sort of like filmmaking – you never really feel like you’re finished.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?
JAMES: Initially I had a 10 grand commitment from a friend/ex-coworker I had met in the mortgage industry. His investment was rooted solely in my showing as a finalist in the Page. When the final results from the writing competition came in; I don’t think he even cared what I was writing about, he seemed pretty confident that whatever I put together would be good.
For writer/directors, writing competitions are a great resource to build a resume. The Page for example has different categories you can enter to increase your chances of being recognized. You still have to be good at what you do – you still have to write something great – but instead of competing against 6,000 other writers, you’re competing against 2,000 dramatic feature writers. If you can say you’re better than 2,000 other writers and they publish your name, you’re going to impress somebody. It was enough to get an investment from my coworker, so with his commitment I knew we could at the very least get the film made, albeit on an EXTEMELY low budget level.
After the first draft was written I set a shooting date for about 6 months in the future with a two way plan.
1: Continue to hustle my ass off to raise more money. In the event I could raise a substantial budget, I’d put the project on hold to elevate the scope of the production.
2: If I strike out in finding another investor, c’est la vie, I’m making it anyway with the 10 grand.
From there I approached all my mortgage professional connections but struck out completely. The market was really starting to collapse, so they were all experiencing a drastic decrease in income. Had I asked them just a year prior – I probably could have raised 100 grand pretty quickly. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t the case anymore though.
This was really my only angle. There was no Kickstarter.com or IndieGoGo at this point, and if there was, I didn’t know about it. I was tempted to hit up my family but I think they ultimately would have said no, and their lack of belief may have jilted my confidence. For that reason I decided to run with the 10 grand, and just do the best with what I had – that’s all you can do. Do the best with what you have.
The low budget in the long run has turned out to be a saving grace for me. When you don’t have a lot of money to recoup, you’re enabled to turn a profit quickly. I figured even on a grass roots promotion level, recouping 10 is doable. You can print 1,000 DVDs, with case, plastic wrap and all for about 1,000 dollars. So at 12 bucks a pop you’re already in the black.
We set up a website (SubprimeTheFilm.com) and added a link for interested buyers. My team blasted everyone they knew on Facebook/Myspace/Twitter, and all through the post production and festival run we directed our traffic there – we’re still doing this actually (Go visit the site and add your name).
Just from the site we have close to 1,000 buyers already. For the fests, I would blast email/fax every real estate agency, mortgage brokerage, bank, lender, appraiser’s office and title company that shared a zip code with the location of the showing.
I contacted the city’s chamber of commerce and got leads on different businesses/clubs that would be interested in my subject matter. Posted on mortgage related blogs, craigslist, etc. I reached out to any periodical I could find that were located in the city of showing. I’d walk the city’s financial district the day of the show and pass out flyers about my film. I’d talk to anybody that would listen really.
I wish I could say we had a legitimate marketing campaign but when there’s no money, it’s just not an option. Again, you do the best you can with what you have and you make it work. As far as actual distribution goes, right now I’m sending DVDs to different production companies that have distributed films that I feel are on Subprime’s level. With the limited budget, there’s no point in sending a screener to Paramount, but Lions Gate just might consider the merit in my film.
I send the screener to as many companies as I can find – I talk about it incessantly – And above all, I’m polite and take the time to speak and listen to every person that expresses interest. Leaving good impressions on people has served me well.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JAMES: We used an HVX AG 200, with a 35mm Letus Film Adaptor. It’s a pretty easy camera to use and a lot of cinematographers are comfortable with it. It was the best camera I was going to be able to afford, I had a lead on one, and my cinematographer had used it before – so that was that.
I think the fact that the camera is so commonly owned was a life saver for us – definitely what I loved about it most. We were shooting a scene at Mons Venus in Tampa Florida; I had arranged a crane, a grip truck and about 20 extras for the scene. I had cashed in a bunch of favors and put in a lot of leg work to make the shoot happen for next to nothing, but there was no room for error. We had about 4 hours to get what we needed and no second chances. The crane was in place, everybody’s ready to go, I yell action, and… the camera doesn’t work. We had somehow damaged the imaging chip in transport and the whole project was nearly derailed.
Fortunately one of our grips owned the exact same camera so we just borrowed his for the day. Obviously my film adaptor fit and we continued our shoot having only lost 1 hour of time, for him to go pick it up. If the HVX wasn’t such a popular camera, I’m not quite sure what I would have done here. The whole movie would have looked primo except for that one Mons scene shot on my camera phone… Haha , we would have had a camera phone strapped to a crane – how awesome would that have been.
I guess what I hate the most about the camera is simply that it’s not film. You can emulate film all you want, the film adapter certainly helps, but if you’re not shooting on film, it won’t look like film. There are individual shots and moments in Subprime that will fool you, but on a whole it’s clear we didn’t shoot on film.
Did the movie change much during the editing process, and if so, how?
JAMES: As far as duration goes – yea it changed pretty drastically. The first cut was about 2 hours long which held true to the screenplay of 124 pages. However; given the subject matter of the movie, I don’t think 2 hours is the best idea. Holding someone’s attention for a feature film is no easy task, so once we got all the pieces put together I started chopping anything that was expendable to the story. We got it down to a tight 78 minutes and it moves very fluently now.
Not just Subprime, but Micro/No Budget Film in general is best between 75 and 85 minutes. The shorter run time will save you money on the actual shoot, and your low budget doesn’t provide the kind of production value that will sustain a viewer for 2+ hours anyway. I’m not saying you need a car chase or explosion to keep somebody watching for 2 hours but even camera movement is difficult to execute when you don’t have money. A well written great story is essential and in your control so it’s imperative that you provide this.
But duration is also in your control; if you keep your feature short, the viewer will give you a lot more latitude on what you can’t provide. A shorter film is also beneficial to festival directors that are choosing what they will program. If a festival is trying to fill a 4 hour block of films with 2 features and 2 shorts – a shorter feature is more likely to fit into their schedule.
This probably sounds like a silly reason to keep a runtime down, but why do anything that could inhibit success? For a Micro/No Budget film – the festivals are nearly all you have, so cater to them. I lost a few story lines in cutting my story down but I think ultimately the shorter version is a better film.
What was the smartest thing you did during production?
JAMES: The smartest thing I did was preparation. Like most everything if you prepare efficiently; when it’s go time you’re going to be alright. There are still disasters (like with the camera), people are going to quit on you, locations will try to reschedule at the ninth hour, the crew won’t show up, an actor will no-show because they booked a paying gig, basically if it can go wrong it probably will, but… I hate to keep going back to this… you do the best with what you have, and preparation is something you have – so if you prepare your ass off, you’re going to make it.
JAMES: Don’t be ridiculous John, I never do dumb things.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
JAMES: Wow, where do I even begin here? Everything… I’m currently trying to find investors for a project I’ve written entitled Dutch Book, and my entire approach is based on what I’ve learned from Subprime. Here’s a breakdown of some of the more notable stuff:
Writing: Less is more. Don’t try to dictate the situation to your actor or your viewer. Some of the best scenes don’t have a word of dialogue. Sometimes you need to let the actor make the scene play – you can’t always do it on the page. Also, unless you have serious money, as I said before, I don’t see any purpose in a screenplay beyond 90 pages. Keep it short.
Casting: If you’re not 100% on somebody, don’t pull the trigger. Wait it out, have another casting session if need be, but wait until you have the perfect actor for each role. Use real actors for everything, no matter how minor the role. Find and cast people that are active in the industry. Avoid the whole family and friends routine.
Subprime has about 20 speaking parts and 20 non-speaking – if I use 40 real actors here, I’m going to have 40 industry involved people talking about my movie to everyone they know. This is free marketing. I love Dar’s Brother, and Grandma Repici cooks some amazing lasagna, but even if I'm desperate, I can't use them - they’re not going to be a bit of help when it comes to getting Subprime into the right person’s hands. I also noticed 2 distinct differences in the type of actor that audition for something on this level; some of them are aspiring actors because they want to be famous, and some of them are aspiring actors because they love to act. Avoid the prior at all costs and cast the latter with confidence.
Investors – Subprime was my first film and I had everyone involved telling me I needed to wait until I raised more money. “There’s no way you can make this with $10,000.” – I can’t tell you how many people told me this. Several people quit on me (some multiple times) because of my insistence to keep moving forward with such little money. I’m glad I was stubborn enough to not listen to them. If it’s your first film – just do it. Don’t wait for somebody to come along and say “Oh you’re a genius, I love your screenplay, here’s some money!”, because it’s not going to happen. If you’ve never made anything, why would anyone give you money? Put together whatever you can and just make it happen on your own.
Pre-Production – Plan like a maniac, and if it’s possible, rehearse when you have your cast. Rehearsing is huge.
Production – In William Goldman’s, Adventures in the Screen Trade, George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) says of directing, something to the effect of “if the story is well executed and the film is properly cast, you’re job is nearly done”. His comment is so accurate. Take your time on the story and wait until you’ve perfected it. Then take your time finding the right cast, and watch it all come to life before your eyes during production.
Post – Editing is kind of like writing in the sense that, if it’s expendable just cut it. I don’t want to say this is true universally, but with Micro/No budget film you want to trim all the fat. As a writer it’s easy to fall in love with a certain scene or a certain piece of dialogue, but you have to detach yourself from that kind of thinking. On the page you might have something phenomenal but then on screen it might not play for any number of reasons.
And lastly, in general, I learned to never squander an opportunity. If you find you’re not getting enough opportunities, start creating them on your own. I email at least one person a day about my projects. I don’t even know the people I’m emailing – I scour the internet, find someone that I think could help, and I send them the most cordial email about what I’m working on and why they should involve themselves.
If you email 1,000 people blindly, 9,500 will ignore you, 400 will tell you to stop emailing them, 99 will tell you to go fuc! yourself, but 1 will give you an ear. And that one person is the opportunity that could get your project made. One of your readers could potentially help me. Hey! Yes You! … Reader! Do you want to invest in an amazing well written project? Do you want to invest in the most thorough, intelligent, and likable human being you’ve read about in the past ten minutes? Then you should contact me at JamesRepici@gmail.com and invest in Dutch Book…. You see, that was an opportunity, and I just took full advantage.