Adventures in Film Producing (as a Screenwriter) –  Part 2

So, with my second film Double Threat releasing in the US on June 3rd, I’ve been feeling a little guilty that I’ve not been writing more parts in this series that detail how I got here. As some of you know, I’ve written and produced two feature films since I wrote Part 1 and, well, there’s so much to talk about it’s all become a bit of a monster that I’ve finally started to tackle. Sorry for the two-and-a-half year wait! Here’s Part 2 – CJ

Going back to 2019 and giving you a bit of a refresh, I mentioned that I had attached to a new project with Shane Stanley, the director-producer of my first writing assignment Break Even. After shooting that feature, Shane locked himself in the edit bay and closed the shutters tight to get the job done but we stayed close and knew that we worked together exceptionally well. He came to me with a sort of pitch-deck/treatment for a sexy heist-thriller he’d thrown together with a wannabe writer-producer who felt he could both secure some funding and give us access to a fleet of Gulfstream jets. The concept he’d come up with was cool and there were some great scenes he’d come up with. The problem was a complete lack of structure, character development, and theme. They knew I was the right person to come in and address this and I was delighted they were knocking on my door with something exciting. This was where I found myself, as a result of my extended involvement in many sides of Break Even and without any expectation on my part, bumped up to co-producer status. This was a remarkable experience as becoming a producer was something I’d never planned to do or even thought I was capable of taking on. I’d organically grown into the roll and was touched by the proposed credit.

Setting Our Sights High

I jumped into writing the heist-thriller with tremendous enthusiasm, quickly knocking out a full development document with treatment and then moving onto the writing assignment act by act. I’d loved writing Break Even for Shane and this experience was no different, the extra cook in the kitchen, so to speak, being just as easy to work with and more than happy to see his concept taken to the next level. During this, I myself set about tackling a weakness I knew I had in writing final images and, after a ton of research watching as many movie endings as I could, finished the script on a high, bringing a lot more logistical and market knowledge to my writing thanks to my production experience. The profanity and runtime of Break Even had proven to be a big problem when it comes to sales meaning a broadcast TV deal was off the table and a lot of the film had been sacrificed on the cutting room floor. What I delivered was a tight 90pp screenplay with zero curse words that would make the most of the resources we had to offer.

Shane and I jumped into pre-production and our guy went to chase the money and get the go ahead to use the planes. Before seeking finance, it’s prudent to know who your stars are going to be and what the movie is going to cost to make. To do the latter, you have to go through the logistics and we’d found one major sticking point; we couldn’t find a fake plane interior on a soundstage that we could use to match a G650 and this was critical because a: you don’t want crew damaging the interior of a $65m private jet (and believe me, they will) and b: you don’t want to be buying permit after permit to bring a skeleton crew onto an active airport because, needless to say, that ain’t cheap. Then we hit a brick wall, our partner who held that essential link to the planes was sadly struggling to get the script read by their contacts. Without the plane owners onboard for the project, it was well outside of the scope of our typical budgets and financiers.

Lesson: What seems easy on the page sometimes turns out to be near impossible in reality. At an indie level at least, you can’t just pick up a phone and make your problems go away. You have to either figure something out or remove the issue entirely. We’d faced this with Break Even where we needed to perform a stunt with a speedboat. Concerned we could never borrow someone’s pride and joy and potentially damage it, we ended up buying a boat and getting it wrapped in graphics for the movie – a decision that turned out to be quite prudent. However, in this case, you don’t find private jets going cheap on Craigslist and removing this element would pretty much implode our story concept. Ideally, you want to be going into the writing process without any major logistical unknowns or, at least, a backup plan should the first solution fail to materialise.

Back To Humble Beginnings

While we waited for more answers and potential developments in funding, Shane and I found ourselves doing what a lot of indie producers do, we went sniffing around the cable TV networks to see if there was a movie of the week, or something like that, we could put together for them. The idea of taking what’s typically made, especially in the female led arena, and pushing the envelope a little toward something grittier really excited me, so I put together a treatment for a drama-thriller that Shane could take to meetings, which he did. This went down well with various people but there was no indication of anything potentially happening anytime soon.

Then we started to get a better idea of costs for our heist-thriller and well, let’s just say our pulses raised somewhat to say the least! A key issue was permitting and fuel. If we wanted to use a sexy airport in LA, and of course we wanted to use a sexy airport in LA, just having a jet running on the ground was going to be like tipping a barrel of money directly into the engine intakes. This combined with the very real possibility we would have to shoot interiors within the actual planes pushed our costing estimates into a dangerous vertical climb. This is one of those times you’re glad you haven’t gotten a greenlight and almost want the investors to pass so you can leave with your tail between your legs and relief in your eyes. Thankfully, in this case, nothing was likely to happen soon.

We needed to be driving something forward though and Shane knew this. He approached me with a neat little drama concept he’d been toying with that he felt could make a great ultra-low budget feature; the kind you shoot with DSLRs in a friend’s house with half a dozen crew and nothing but natural light. The problem was, I was badly burned out as a result of my life situation. Recently divorced, and still suffering the emotional fallout of that, I was living in my sister’s old bedroom at my parent’s house earning less than half of minimum wage while struggling to get by. I saw no way out, no future, and now I was writing scripts that were going nowhere it seemed. Keep in mind that I’d been led to believe that having a produced movie to my name would lead to producers, agents, and managers reaching out to me and that wasn’t happening at all. I was feeling very lost and pessimistic.

Lesson: I confided with Shane about my concerns and he was very empathetic. He opened up candidly about how tough the business is and how many end up paying to work. He himself had experienced it all from seven figure deals and global box office number-ones to scratching together his own cash and making a film for $5,000. He had this really inspiring philosophical mantra – if you’re going to be just sitting around eating pizza and playing Xbox to pass the time, why wouldn’t you put that energy into something that can you move you forward in life instead? It’s hard to argue with that stance if you love making movies and have a get-it-done attitude and it’s even harder not to accept that writing spec scripts is pretty much the exact same principal. Shane is full of wise philosophical approaches to issues like this and I couldn’t help but recall just how much I’d learned from his book What You Don’t Learn In Film School before we started working together.

Flirting with a Festival Darling

So, with a newfound faith, I leaned into the drama concept hard and turned a draft around fast. I wrote from waking up until midnight each day and handed in a well crafted and nicely polished script within a week. I did something even more impressive than that too – I made Shane Stanley cry with my writing for the first time. We’d created something remarkable together. Something highly artistic that could show the world we knew our craft inside and out. It was so remarkable that Shane decided to play one of his trump cards and get it into the hands of a former studio-head who liked it but could do nothing with it given that they were working on the small matter of a multi-billion-dollar business venture. We, once again, went back to the drawing board.

Before we could barely catch our breath, our heist-thriller came back from our sales agent with a strong recommend in coverage. There was no arguing that it was an ideal concept for the indie film market and well executed at a writing level at least. We had a hot script, two hot scripts in fact with our ultra-low-budget drama but they were at two opposite ends of our usual financing spectrum with completely different market prospects – one was a bit too expensive for our existing investors but had clear commercial appeal while the other was very low budget but would most likely have to negotiate the tricky world of festivals to gain any meaningful traction.

Lesson:  You really do have to consider the whole enchilada when walking into a new film project from what you can likely get financed, to what you can pragmatically shoot, to how you are realistically going to generate returns for your investor. These are the three pillars of filmmaking for profit, and they don’t always play nicely with one another. Being aware of it brings a whole new dimension to your writing.

Sex, Drugs & Rock n’ Roll

With no news of any new investors ready to throw private jet level money at us any time soon, we knew we needed something in the middle that would suit our existing financiers and Shane came up with a great solution. Before we’d met, and what had driven that initial connection, was Shane reading a spec script of mine called For Your Dreams. One-part Thelma & Louise and one-part True Romance, this gritty female led thriller with two country girls on the run in a muscle car had a special place in his heart. In fact, Break Even had conceptualised itself as a possible rewrite of this script that eventually grew into its own thing. Shane, knowing full well I would probably join the Foreign Legion if asked to write another script from scratch, suggested we make some budget related tweaks so it was ready to pitch as something we could realistically make and sell.

I loved the idea. For Your Dreams, the second screenplay I’ve ever written, has always been a special script of mine that seems to make things happen and, being quite pulpy in content, is much more on brand for me as an artist. So, I made some changes and literally danced around my room once it was ready. The thought of making this script filled me with joy and we quickly set about looking at casting two female leads, which was proving something hard to do in general. Finding Tasya Teles to front Break Even was no small feat before and discovering her had been the result of a sprinkling of remarkable good fortune and a tip-off from a show-runner in the industry. Here we were looking for two more Tasyas with a country girl twist that had value and who could hopefully throw a muscle car around a little if not drive stick at least – that’s a big ask in a world of “cheesecake” female actors who make a living smiling and batting their eyelashes in various low-budget made for TV movies (sorry, but it’s true). We had ideas though, people on our radar, enough there to look an investor in the eye and genuinely assure them we could deliver.

Then, at the eleventh hour, at the cusp of my potential first spec sale, at the possible genesis of someone making a genuine CJ Walley script that aligns with what I want to do artistically – disaster struck. Quite possibly the most harrowing moment in my short screenwriting career. Before we met with an investor, Shane had the wise idea of getting a second opinion on For Your Dreams from our sales agent and the response was not good at all. We’d actually been down this road before, hence why Break Even had been created previously. I got the call in the early hours of a morning and Shane gave me the unfiltered lowdown; what we were proposing at a conceptual level was likely to be a sales failure. A list of logical reasons was relayed to me as my jaw clenched, my veins filled with adrenaline, and my mind spiralled. Long story short, For Your Dreams was just too damn pulpy for most buyers. Phrases like “Why can’t you make this about a girl who returns to her hometown at Christmas” were uttered and I tried my best not to throw up in my mouth. Shane, ever the one to look for solutions rather than problems, tried his best to convince me that taking out the drugs, the sex, the shootouts and injecting in a plot about stolen jewellery in their place could make it work but I was already on the metaphorical ledge. There was no way I was butchering one of my most precious scripts to steer it closer to a Lifetime/Hallmark movie and I stated as such before climbing into bed and struggling to sleep, paranoid that I had just thrown my career away and a dear friend who needed a script to make under the bus with it. I was furious too, furious that the very things I wanted to write about had no commercial appeal. The light at the end of the tunnel closed up for me that night but ultimately, I was proud of my artistic integrity when facing it. This was a hill worth dying on.

After eventually crashing and getting some shuteye, I awoke to find Shane already checking in on me and wanting to Skype. I logged in expecting a dressing down or even a fight. After months of roadblocks, I’d become the roadblock and he had every reason to be mad at me. Instead, what I got was understanding and a way for us to potentially move forward with, guess what, yet another script. He already had the concept and had even written the opening. I think this made me even more frustrated because, goddamn it, he was right. This was the way out and I think this was the moment I became a true producer in spirit because giving up wasn’t an option.

Lesson: Something I’ve come to learn the hard way is that a good sales agent keeps their clients tethered to reality as best as they can. The more truthful a sales agent is, the more likely it is for precious artists to hate their guts. However, much like a mechanic who’s simply trying to tell you your car isn’t fit to drive, it’s important not to shoot the messenger. Sales agents are our portal into the film markets and it’s important to appreciate that’s not the same thing as the audience. It’s whole other world that buys on the strength of posters, cast lists, and trailers. A world that looks for the tried and tested and gets punished for taking risks. It is utterly devoid of artistry because first and foremost it is an economy and trying to fight against it alone is like trying to reverse the flow of a river with your bare hands. I’d already accepted that an indie film needs to be ~90mins (and thus a script needs to be ~90pp) and contain no profanity to stand the best chance in the low-budget indie markets. Now it was time to accept that drugs, sex, and violence ideally needed to be curbed too. I was already churning out content I was proud of that satisfied the former, so what was stopping me from tackling the latter and still maintaining at least some of my artistic voice?

Trying to Find the Goldilocks Zone

With a roll of my eyes and a resigned but light-hearted “here we go again!”, I leaned into writing a new road-movie and ended up penning one of my favourite action-comedies to date over the period of a couple of weeks. It was touching and hilarious, just what Shane and myself needed, and to top it off, it was within our logistical remit and ideal for our targeted investor who Shane pitched to and everything we assumed became confirmed; our heist-thriller was exciting but too big a financial commitment while our road-movie was certainly their kinda thing, they just needed some time to think about it as they had some other large construction investments to get through first.

So, with a positive outlook on the horizon and a potential green light, we started to get our ducks in a row so we could hit the floor running when we needed to. Locations we had easy access to were written into the script. It was casting we needed to look at seriously and this was getting like Groundhog Day. It felt like every few months we’d go in the same circles, going through the same lists, and looking at the same female actors, reaching out to some reps, waiting weeks and getting a thanks but no thanks because either we didn’t have enough money, or the role was too radical for them. One name kept coming up and that was Danielle C. Ryan who was this fascinating enigma; on the one side, she was fitted into that beautiful yet cute girl-next-door cheesecake category I mentioned before but, on the other side, she was a highly skilled martial artist unafraid to spin, kick, and punch things ten times her size – in many ways, the kind of action heroine we’re told doesn’t exist and to stop writing. She was, to me, a dream come true. I’m a sucker for women who do their own stunts after all. She’d come up a bunch of times, even as early as casting Break Even, and it was about time we reached out to at least confirm she’d entertain an offer and look at a script.

Danielle’s manager turned out to be more amenable than most we’d dealt with and was an open book when it came to collaboration, quickly realising we were a good fit. Within a few days we had a raucous “F**K YEAH!” from Danielle over our little road-movie but then, once again, a spanner was thrown in the works. The manager was willing to finance the movie themselves but wanted us to seriously consider putting their partner in the movie, replacing the lead teenage friend with what would be a much older aunt. Once again, my forehead and palm collided at a ferocious speed as it felt like yet another catch-22. It often seems the elements most special to us are the ones that seem the most vulnerable and this was one of the best young female characters I’d ever written now potentially on the chopping block if we got a green light at this stage. Worse still, our rebellious tale of two co-eds who won’t back down was steering dangerously toward a farcical comedy for middle-aged moms. I’ve spoken before in my book on screenwriting about what I call “taking the jam out of the donut” and this was very much looking like the case here.

Then a whole different type of spanner was thrown into the works – a good one – a new investor who’d been watching us for a while and loved what we were doing approached with a simple request, what could we do for relatively low cost so they could get their feet wet? This was a fantastic opportunity as we had our ultra-low-budget drama ready to go and, since we didn’t have a green light on our road movie yet, we could possibly squeeze this simple production in before that and effectively have a slate to work through in 2020.

We were off to the races with me signed on as co-producer. We needed to source a house in Los Angeles plus a couple of lead actors. The house turned out to be oddly tough to pin down. Film LA seem to like making a film in their region near impossible for indies but actors signed on fast. We had a female actor from an Oscar winning film and a hit TV show that I had adored for years ready to sign on the dotted line and an Academy Award nominated actor who just needed to negotiate his fee. We had a schedule. We had a fully costed budget. We were pretty much there.

Lesson:  Much like on set, “hurry up and wait” seems to apply to project green lights too. You spend months upon months struggling to get anywhere and suddenly you’re looking at the next few months like a deer in the headlights with the first shooting day barrelling toward you at speed. This is why it pays to have as much planned out as possible as early as possible.

The Hightower Surprise

So, ummm yeah, remember how I said 2020? This was March and I was growing concerned fast. Being in the UK, I’d seen the wave of Coronavirus work its way through Asia and Europe with devastating consequences. It was obviously going to become a global problem and only get worse with our little movie scheduled for early summer. To make matters even more sensitive, our male lead was elderly and thus more vulnerable than anyone.

We watched and we prayed as the UK went into lockdown and California started to follow suite. Questions hung in the air over how long the pandemic would last as swathes of industry members stayed home, locked their doors, hoarded toilet paper, and stated they’d only be venturing back into the light when this had all blown over. One thing we knew for sure; for all the talk of the Coronavirus being little more than flu, was that a vaccine wasn’t going to be developed and rolled out before summer and there was no way we were putting an elderly actor at risk so, after seven months desperately trying to move the needle and finally getting somewhere, we had to do the unthinkable, something Shane had never resorted to having to do before during decades of producing – we had to cancel a shoot.

Needless to say, a very self-centred part of me was feeling somewhat cursed by the whole affair. I’d already spent the past year pretty much in a form of lockdown since I was back in my hometown with no social life to speak of. I’d thrown all my energy into my work with the understanding I’d get to travel at some point as a guest on set and watch another movie I’d written get made with the added kudos of being a co-producer on it too. That was all now dashed and, little to my knowledge, it was going to get even more bitter sweet over the next two years.