SARAH: I’ve worked in many areas of film production and that was somewhat orchestrated. My very first job, while still in college, was working for producer Chuck Gordon at Twentieth Century Fox. I was an intern for maybe a week, then his development person moved on to Joel Silver so I was given her office. I wasn’t even 20 years old.
What followed was working in casting at Paramount, assisting a literary agent, a stint working for Michael Jackson’s manager, and then I was a writing coordinator for Mel Brooks, and a personal on-set assistant to Jim Carrey and Nicolas Cage. You could say my experiences gave me an insight into this business that most people don’t ever get. I was fortunate.
Now you may also be asking if knowing these people helped in making my movie. Not even remotely. In fact, one of them even fired me after learning I wanted to make a film.
Where did you get the idea and what was the writing process like?
SARAH: I started with one simple sentence – A father can’t tell his daughter he loves her. My goodness, I wrote this so long ago, I can’t even remember the process! I’ve written two scripts, three television pilots and a book since then. But I will say this. Don’t wait for inspiration to write. It’s about the time in front of the computer. I never felt like it. But if you sit long enough, the creativity will come. Just schedule it.
SARAH: One of the smartest things I did was hire a casting agent. I hired Dino Ladki, who I had worked with at The Comedy Store a few years prior. I loved the casting process. The first time I watched a live human being say the words I wrote, it blew my mind. No, I can’t say the script changed much. Not that I wouldn’t have been open to it, but the actors were so professional, they just made the words work.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?
SARAH: After exhausting traditional financing avenues – studios, production companies, negative pick-up deals, private financing – I was faced with the reality that either I self-finance or I don’t make the film. I don’t recommend that, but seriously what choice do we have?
A plan to recoup? I keep saying I feel like King Kong, pounding my chest and screaming from the top of the Empire State Building for people to notice my film. Only if they do, can it recoup the money. So thank you, John, for providing a building.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
SARAH: Great question. I used a super 16mm camera. I loved the way it looked. If I could’ve afforded a 35, I would’ve gone with that. I do not like the way digital looks at all. At all. Given a choice, I will always shoot film.
Did the movie change much in the editing and, if so, why did you make those changes?
SARAH: The film will always change in editing. Pacing in your head doesn’t translate to the screen. So yes, had to cut a few scenes, and rearrange in the beginning. We found we needed to get her on her adventure sooner, but that created a new problem. I had screened the film for a couple of people early in the editing process. One of them kept blurting out “Where is she now, New York?” Not good. So I added a voiceover that wasn’t in the original script to clarify things.
Cutting scenes or moments will be debated. They may not move the story forward, but they can certainly add flavor. I tend to favor the flavor, but if you do too, be prepared to battle.
SARAH: Besides hiring a casting director, I guess I would say the smartest thing I did was persevering, which really isn’t an answer. Everyday was a mountain to climb but to pick just one of our challenging days – it was a night shoot. The location was an hour away. Everyone was there, awaiting the grip truck, which was carrying all the equipment. I was pulled aside and told we had a problem. I had heard that a million times before, so when I was told the grip truck exploded, I simply said then let’s get it fixed and over here. “No Sarah, there’s nothing left to fix. The truck blew up.”
What happened was the engine caught on fire, so the grips pulled the truck over to the side of the road. The fire quickly spread, engulfing the whole truck. The firemen arrived and grabbed as much equipment as they could before the truck disintegrated. Somehow, an erroneous call went out for a rescue helicopter and when it arrived, its propellers spread the flames, causing a brush fire.
So the police came and closed off the highway – at 6pm on a weekday. It was just a total mess. But my only thought was we could not lose a day of shooting! The police had the charred shell of the truck, with the toasted equipment inside, towed to a salvage yard. Of course they were closed because it was at night. We were told we could not go until the next day - but that just wasn’t an option.
So I had an employee get the manager out of bed and on the phone. “Get that piece of shit off my lot first thing in the morning!” Hello to you too. Somehow I talked him into letting us in that night for 15 minutes.
We grabbed as much fried equipment as we could, literally dried it off, and shot until the sun rose. It was like I was flat lined. I had such tunnel vision that nothing rattled me.
But it’s not like I did anything different from all the other filmmakers who somehow make it happen, because if you don’t, you simply won’t have a film. Filmmaking is just too expensive to buy more time. You have to make it work.
The dumbest? How much time do you have? I had an opportunity to hire an experienced First A.D., but I thought I couldn’t afford him. I regretted it every single day.
SARAH: All any distributor wants is a ‘name.’ I heard for years that I had no stars, and if I had, I would’ve been in the driver’s seat. They don’t care about the quality of the actors’ performances; they care about their star power. I struggled with that for a long time.
Then I was offered worldwide distribution from a good company. But I soon found myself at the foot of another mountain. I had gone with the experimental SAG contract, which is a deferred agreement. To release the film, I first must pay the astronomical salary sum. I had assumed the distributor would pay it, but no distributor was giving any kind of advance, especially for a small film. I couldn’t accept the offer.
A bit later, Brigid Brannagh, the star of the film got on the hit Lifetime series “Army Wives.” Lifetime would pay for an acquisition. They would not give me the time of day. Even with Brigid on their network, and my persistence, I was stonewalled. A festival director even called on my behalf, campaigning for them to consider the film. She too was dismissed. They wouldn’t even watch the screener. It is very, very difficult to get distribution.
But if you think about it, how many networks, cable stations, or theatres play small, indie films? If you come up with an example, I bet there is a star or powerful producer or production company behind it.
We are competing with films that are 5, 10, 20xs our budget. Where do we go? It is just now that the internet is becoming a viable option, but it’s not a given. To get onto iTunes Movies, you need a distributor or an aggregator. And they are turning down films left and right. But that was my plan.
I approached the Screen Actor’s Guild and it took about a year to complete all the paperwork, which included getting permission from each and every actor for me to release the film and an agreement that the actors will get first dollar out until they are paid in full. I can happily report that the film is currently on iTunes Movies and doing well. And I must say too, that I’m glad this is the route the film took. I don’t think if I had gone with a traditional distributor any of us would’ve seen a dime.
So in hindsight, I would seriously reconsider working with a guild again if I don’t have the money to afford them.
Also, a bit of a PSA if you’re a filmmaker, keep an eye on your IMDB. I am battling them now, and I hear over and over and over again how they screw filmmakers over. The stats on my film are so wrong and they will not change them. They are refusing! Refusing. No.
They fancy themselves the permanent record of all films, yet they won’t honor what the filmmakers themselves are telling them about the very thing they created and what for some unfathomable reason they feel they know better about. And their shit is just wrong, all the time. I needed to start working on them years ago. It just never occurred to me that what they said would matter. But it can hurt your film. After all you go through, a thirty-second google search can hurt your film. Please stop using them for reference.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
SARAH: I’ve recently been irritated by the phrase ‘first time director.’ It’s thrown around like a badge of honor. After completing my first film, I will be 10 times better on my second, 20 times on my third. I have respect for those who have made more than I have. First timers are crawling. I learned so much I had to write a book about it.
The Fair trailer from Sarah McAnally on Vimeo.