Adventures in Film Producing (as a Screenwriter) –  Part 3

So, I ended Part 2 of this series on a bit of a cliff-hanger… if you call a cliff-hanger the build up to something we all really know the ending to! After effectively writing three new spec scripts, re-writing a previous spec, and eventually getting a green-light on new feature film, our hopes were dashed at the eleventh hour as the pandemic hit and shut Hollywood down – CJ

Spring 2020 is for me, as it probably is for many others, a bit of a hazy memory as life (unknown to many of us at this point) was about to become woefully monotonous for a whole year at least. It’s now hard to separate one day in the office staring at documents and video feeds with another but thankfully I keep a lot of notes to help me recall the timeline as it happened.

One thing I do remember strongly was the sheer defeat I felt about us having to cancel our latest shoot. Defeat so cruelly timed it felt consciously Machiavellian and the actions of a cruel universe. I’m a fatalist at heart and neurotic one at that. Forgive my ego as best as you can when I say it all felt a little personal.

I also remember the confusion and speculation regarding the pandemic and how it was going to impact everyone in the near future. Film producing is unpredictable at the best of times but those uncertainties tend to be on the pitching and pre-production side. Now we were facing a whole lot of turbulence from the unions over how long productions would have to be shut down and when things would be opening up for sure – a huge issue for indie film where rescheduling even so much as an additional shooting day can be an impossibility.

Back to the Drawing Board

Break Even however was finally out of post after a Herculean effort by Shane Stanley to knock it into shape. We’d found, to our horror, that anything longer than a ~95min runtime was going to cripple us at the film markets when it came to TV and theatrical deals and this was a huge issue considering we’d shot a 120pp script that translated into a two hour initial cut. To make matters worse, the way we’d shot our green screen driving scenes was less than ideal when it came to applying our visual effects and a failure to clean and reset sensors each morning by some assistants had resulted in both hot and dead pixels popping up in footage. Pixels Shane had to find, mask, track, and blur in pretty much every scene and adjust for each camera by hand. Staying close to him through this was fascinating as it caused me to realise just how long a producer has to stay with their movie. Here we were just over a year from wrapping principal and still trying to get this pig in the pen while everyone else had been able to move on to other jobs and opportunities. This is the side of producing people rarely see.

Again, thanks to the pandemic, there was tremendous uncertainty on the sales and distribution side too. It was however amazing to watch our agent’s business-to-business marketing machine come to life with a kick-ass poster and trailer soon in circulation at the various film markets. For those that don’t know, low budget indie films pretty much sell off the back of their posters and trailers, their value being measured on the star power of the cast and the impression of production value. It’s a cold blooded world that doesn’t have much time for considering the art. We were also learning it didn’t have much time for vulgarity either as Break Even narrowly missed out on the TV deal we had hoped for. The script, and subsequently, the movie was packed with profanity to the point beeping it out would have made it sound like the entire film was speaking in Morse Code. Another important lesson learned. The film did however secure US distribution with a team that loved it and went on to get a DVD deal on the shelves of Wallmart which is rare to get. With a release date of Dec 1st, we were very happy with that given DVD sales were up now people were sheltering in their homes.

Something I’ve come to find, that hurts my heart a little, is how many aspiring filmmakers find anything less than a theatrical deal with a major studio somehow a massive failure – even a comical one as they snigger through the immortal phrase “straight to DVD”. I don’t think many people realise that 99% of films do not get a distribution deal of any kind. I don’t know why we mock anything less than A-list in our industry as it certainly doesn’t happen in music and literature from what I’ve seen. Musicians don’t laugh at the bands playing those small gigs in pubs and bars because they appreciate any opportunity to play in front of an audience is both a valuable one and a rite of passage.

Now living and working in one room with no social life to speak of and nothing big on the horizon, I threw myself into podcast interviews, writing specs, and running Script Revolution. Networking was going nuts since so many people had so much time. In fact, a manager who wanted to turn their hand to producing had approached Shane with a potential project that had a script ready. This knocked me back a little as I quickly saw how easy it is to watch your friends move onto other projects without you. You’re happy for them but it sucks to be left on the bench. In this case, Shane didn’t connect with the script and didn’t see how he could make it work in a time when productions were getting shut down left, right, and centre. Besides, this was a project intended to be pitched around town to various prodcos and those kind of projects are all too often a huge waste of time as people go round in circles chasing more money than the package is realistically worth. He wasn’t moving on without me just yet and candidly spoke about he loved my writing, cherished working with me, and wanted to make the kind of movies WE wanted to make. This new ally that wanted to join forces would have to get onboard with our vibe and that was made very clear early on.

It very nearly resulted in a moment of alignment too. Now very much accustomed to quickly turning around two-page synopses, I had compiled everything Shane and I had to offer, including concepts we didn’t yet have scripts for. We had a portfolio of around twenty potential projects to send to people with the intention do get the ball rolling with someone. These varied from family friendly made for TV story concepts to my own very gritty spec scripts. The idea here was to offer a wide spectrum of possibilities to suit all kinds of outlets without the handicap of having to develop a full script before we had something to pitch. A bold strategy but one that suited the landscape we were facing. If one got us in the door, great, we knew I could expand the treatment into a script fast because I was turning features around now in just a couple of weeks. Besides, it didn’t look like the lockdowns on productions were going to lift any time soon so we had plenty of wiggle room if needed.

For quite some time, I’d been toying with a script concept I was calling “Night Train” (a name I’d seen when researching Harley Davidsons for an early spec). The story circled around a legendary souped-up pickup truck that was running illegal cargo down the highways in the dead of the night. Inspired partly by some of the female teamsters and stuntwomen I’d worked with on Break Even, I wanted it to have an “everywoman” type lead with the really flawed character in the story being the female detective that’s pursuing her. I also wanted to bring my love of engine tuning to the table by leaning into the “write what you know” principal. This was something gritty in tone and potentially drenched in Americana when it came to feel. This was a nod back to the 70’s carspoiltation movies I grew up addicted to with a progressive twist in terms of being female led and rich in message. Unable to get the idea out of my mind any longer, I woke up one morning, roughed out the story using my tried and tested Turn & Burn process, whipped up a two-page synopsis and sent it to Shane to see what he thought. He loved it, he’d loved the concept when I’d mentioned it in passing during our regular Skype calls, and he loved the story even more now I’d fleshed it out. After the usual correction of a few typos, Shane suggested we send it to our mutual manager friend under the reasoning of “why the hell not?”. I agreed, we sent it out, and the most remarkable thing happened; our new contact offered to fund it there and then. Now, it was nowhere near enough money to do the script justice but it was an incredibly positive reaction to what was only a few hours of work. We were onto something it seemed.

Lesson: I’ve been talking a lot about the power of a synopsis lately and this experience is partly why. Most scripts are promoted with just a logline with the hope someone will take the time to read through an entire script. That’s a huge jump from one to another. A good synopsis offers something between the two and allows an interested party to get their head around the core elements of the story in minutes rather than hours.

Pulled in the Wrong Direction

This powerful reaction to just one synopsis caused us to realise we weren’t utilising our manager friend in the most effective way. Here was someone with contacts who could be shopping our offerings around town on our behalf with the intent they would come onboard as a producer should anything get picked up. So, that’s what they did and things started well with them setting us up with meetings with some of the made for TV movie prodcos.

But, speaking with absolutely transparency, here’s the problem; it feels like everything in the indie scene, particularly when you’re under a certain budget, just drags you toward family friendly pseudo-religious content that plays things painfully safe. It’s weird. It’s like the type of films people mock when they get into the industry become the very thing they chase shortly after as soon as the going gets tough. It’s no secret that the likes of Hallmark, Lifetime, and Pure Flix have been doing incredibly well lately. You could even argue that we’re in some sort of family-friendly era of filmmaking. That’s fine. I have no problem with that or the content itself. It’s just not me. It’s not me at all. It’s like asking a punk rocker to start playing Christian folk – it’s a bad fit that can easily frustrate everybody.

Before long, I was hearing the same rhetoric that had killed any chances of my spec script For Your Dreams getting made only a few months before and I was starting to get -really- pissed off. As an artist, I am gritty and edgy and I am very proud of that. Break Even had been penalised for its profanity, all my specs were now off the table because they were so pulpy, and the networking Shane and I were doing was only pulling us further and further from where we ultimately wanted to be.

Lesson: It’s really hard to fight the undertow when it comes to your artistic career and you’re at the mercy of what’s in trend at any given time. The opportunities that easily come to you may mean short-term income but they may also mean painting yourself into a corner artistically. I’ve heard too many horror stories about writers becoming popular for the kind of content they don’t feel passionate about and then finding themselves unable to break free of the association that builds.

A True Partnership is Formed

I wanted to stay close to Shane but the last thing I wanted were credits that may squander any future of being the edgy kind of writer I want to become known as. I felt like this could pull us in different directions, especially considering this new manager had decided contractually to represent him but not me (yes that hurt), and we had a heart-to-heart. One of the best things about our working relationship is how honest we are about the things that really matter to us. During this conversation, Shane came out with one of the best lines I’ve ever heard while playing Devil’s advocate to my artistic concerns and in reference to taking on work we don’t feel passionate about, “Your bank account won’t notice the difference”. He was right and I was even considering inventing a pseudonym to write family friendly scripts under when a remarkable thing happened.

Having done a lot of soul-searching himself, Shane decided to put his foot down and told this new “agent” in simple terms that he wanted to continue making gritty female-led scripts with me as his writer and people could either take it or leave it – we came as a team. This was an incredible display of loyalty that nearly brought a tear to my eye as all the fears that had been keeping me up at night suddenly washed away.

Shane had in fact very much caught the gritty female-led bug and was becoming increasingly determined to make something along those lines happen again. He’d been toying with an idea of his own that he was calling Gypsy Road based on a completely out of place young woman he’d once seen working in a remote convenience store in Mexico. He sent me the first thirty pages of this action-thriller and it was right up my street as it had a strong Tarantino/Rodriguez vibe where it opened during a brutal store robbery that demonstrated the female protagonist’s deadly fighting skills. Like most of Shane’s writing, it was an exciting stream of consciousness that he wanted me to structure and develop into a fully fleshed out story. The problem was I was deep into growing Script Revolution and finishing a couple of spec scripts of my own. I just couldn’t find the mental energy to take on anything else, especially after hitting so many brick walls. But then, another plot twist.

A friend of Shane’s approached him with some savings and an interest in doing something micro-budget that Gypsy Road might just be ideal for. Despite having turned down the opportunity to develop it, the concept had stuck with me and caused me to have a few ideas on where to take it. Something that had really bugged me about the pages I’d seen was how the female lead had fallen into this cliche of fleeting between being a cold surly assassin in one scene and a giggling girl-next-door in the next. It was, to a large extent, a male fantasy I wanted to steer clear of but it coincided with some studying I was doing in psychology within film. I’d only just learned about Dissociative Identity Disorder during an analysis of Fight Club and how it differs to schizophrenia. This had given me an idea. Gypsy Road could be an ideal opportunity to satirise cliche strong female characters by having a female hero who genuinely has two completely compartmentalised personalities that she switches between when the going gets tough. We could have our cake and eat it by saying something about how women are portrayed in film in a highly entertaining way while remaining sympathetic to a condition many suffer from due to overwhelming trauma and abuse.

Shane, a mental health advocate himself, loved the idea of taking things in this direction and relayed all this back to an investor who was getting just as excited as him. We liked the idea of doing something micro-budget at this point as the unions were struggling to give any sort of direction with Covid lockdowns and essential policy. This would allow us to dictate our own strict safety protocol without fear of being shut down over something as innocuous as an out-of-context Instagram selfie posted while on set (yes, we actually watched that happen to another production!).

There was however a rather large elephant in the room.

There’s some discrepancy when it comes to what “low”, “ultra-low”, and “micro” budgets entail when it comes to exact numbers but the long and short of it was this – our entire production budget from soup to nuts would be less than the typical WGA writer gets paid on a studio movie to write a script. That of course brought into question how muggins here was going to be compensated in a way that didn’t feel like a kick to the groin and also didn’t knee-cap this potential project by stripping it of much needed funds. With my producer hat now firmly on and getting tattered around the brim, I knew only too well that every cent counts. I also knew that Shane was desperate to throw something my way as this had been almost a year long journey trying to get another film going together with a growing list of spec scripts written au gratis on my part.

Shane’s intent to pay me meant more than enough and offering me what would be considered reasonable to all parties in this situation would actually do more harm than good. I would be left underpaid and the production would be left underfunded. The clear answer here was for me to participate on the back-end in a meaningful way (i.e not monkey points) as this would make everyone’s life easier and put the project first.

Still, logical and with best interests at heart, this was a nerve-racking conversation to instigate. Therefore after plucking up the courage to say something, I was surprised when it went actually like this;

ME: Look, I don’t think it’s best I take a fee on this.

SHANE: So, you want to participate?

ME: If that’s an option.

SHANE: Good. I was thinking the same.

As ever, despite the 5,000 miles that separated us, we were operating on exactly the same wavelength and, just like that, I suddenly became not just a producer but a producing-partner. I effectively owned a slice and was now making the kind of spit-and-handshake deals I’d read about when studying heroes such as Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola during the early days of the seventies auteur revolution.

Lesson: Becoming a producing partner on a project is a whole new level and, since your income is tied entirely to returns, you take the business side even more seriously. It’s also important a screenwriter operating within in the indie scene thinks about their producer’s position at all times and what’s best for everyone in the long-term. This wasn’t a power-grab or anything like that on my part. It was a well-meaning solution to a significant problem.

Back on Track

Of course, much like busses suddenly showing up in threes, we had a curve-ball thrown at us with a potential new investor based in Cyprus. They really liked the look of our sexy heist thriller involving private jets and had the financial resources to make it a possibility. The twist? We’d have to shoot on the island to take advantage of tax credits. Sadly, given the rural look of the area and the potential nightmare of sudden travel bans to and from various regions, it just couldn’t work.

Besides, Gypsy Road, despite how small and humble it was as a concept, had really captured our hearts. It was potentially the kind of plucky down-to-earth movie that should be getting made during a pandemic. We also had a North America release date of December 1st looming for Break Even and, despite it already being September, we could potentially get this going and be able to talk about what we’re working on next during any interviews.

I got to work wrapping up a TV pilot spec I was working on and Shane started looking at the logistics of shooting in LA over the next few months. Then another remarkable moment of serendipity came our way.

One Monday, while talking about potential casting, Shane and I spoke about how much we still loved the idea of working with Danielle C. Ryan. Gypsy Road would be an ideal vehicle to highlight her various stunt-performer skills while also giving us the opportunity to inject a ton of high-quality action into our little low-budget movie. We concluded that she absolutely had to be the first person we’d approach to attach so imagine our surprised when, upon calling her manager the next day, we found out they’d been having the exact same conversation about us and how we just had to make something, even if it was tiny, together.

Lesson: The right people are often very close and trying to reach back out to you and a lot of positive movement can be going on behind the scenes without your knowledge. It’s critical to figure out what you can make happen together in both an artistic and business sense. In this case, Danielle’s stunt skills blended perfectly with my exploitation writing while bypassing the need to employ a stunt double. It was a marriage made in heaven in terms of content and logistics.

Off to the Races

So, just like that, we had our lead actress and the backing of her manager who was keen to help us in a producing capacity. We had two new partners and a huge amount of positive energy.

What we didn’t have was much movement from our new potential micro-investor who had gone cold. This sadly happens a lot with smaller investors who are often proportionally taking on a larger risk with their personal savings and need the approval of family members to move forward. This was a good problem to have however as the sum they were offering wasn’t really enough, especially when factoring in the costs associated with Covid we were becoming more and more aware of.

We needed to secure more appropriate financing and we knew just the person to go to; the investor who had given us the greenlight on the drama we’d had to put on hold as the pandemic reared its ugly head. While Shane put together some numbers and a pitch, I studied Danielle’s portfolio of stunt work and put together a treatment.

All went to plan and, within five days of us all meeting together, we had our green-light and, dig this, not only the offer of funding for one movie but for two. The investor had been blown away by our determination to make something happen and refusal to give up despite all the odds being against us. They wanted to make multiple movies with us and knew some sort of slate was the most sensible way to start.

The only thing we didn’t like was the title. Gypsy Road felt too slow and drama like. In a moment of genius while getting ready for bed, Shane came up with the perfect new title about our action hero with a split-personality, “Double Threat.

I wrote the script for Double Threat in six days with gutter punk blasting in my ears. To date, it’s one of the most fun and hedonistic scripts I’ve ever written with a love story that’s impossible not to find endearing. There’s genuinely something special about it and a lot of that was down to capturing the energy we were all feeling at the time. Changes needed were minimal with just typos needing correction and minor dialog edits, something that blew our new producing partner away who wasn’t used to the speed Shane and I work at the results we get so fast. It was incredibly lightweight too, requiring only a cast of five and minimal locations.

The serendipitous moments of alignment just kept coming too. We secured a deal with the bands Bubble and Total Chaos to use their tracks in the score and the brand Members Only to use some of their clothes in costuming. Canon also sponsored us with some of their bodies and lenses. Plus, our stalwart co-producer and head of Transpo Neil also hooked as up with a ranch to shoot on and an old Suburban from the TV show Bosch to use as our hero car.

We attached a favourite we’d loved working with on Break Even Mo Gallini (2 Fast 2 Furious, Chicago Fire) as a day player in the role of our mob boss and the up and coming Kevin Joy (Grimm, NCIS) as his son and lead antagonist. Kevin was an unexpected find coming from a mostly family friendly background but completely blowing us away when his evil side came out during his audition tapes.

Our male lead was harder to secure as it was becoming hard to find named talent willing to come out and play during the pandemic. Most actors seemed to be happy to sit in the gardens and survive on their savings while a few couldn’t hold back the urge to get out and do what they’re born to do – act. It wasn’t until the name Matthew Lawrence (Mrs. Doubtfire and Boy Meets World) was floated around that something clicked. He loved the character, the script, and our attitude (Matthew is an indie producer himself) and couldn’t wait to come play in the dirt with us.

The big, unexpected twist came in the form of our henchman who we could’t find the right actor to play. It was a male role as we’d kept the need to attach female talent to a minimum. This was due to having our fingers burned so many times trying to search out and cast the right women. However, with time running out fast, Shane fancied throwing a hail Mary. He was a huge fan of Dawn Olivieri (Heroes, 1883) after seeing her in House of Lies and we found out she was itching to get on set and do something. We threw her the script with the male role being offered and, in true Dawn style, she accepted. We now had two amazing women onboard.

I rapidly studied Dawn’s showreels and rewrote all her character’s dialogue to suit. The character was even better and I had confirmation of that when Shane opened our next call with “nobody quite writes female villains like CJ Walley”.

Lesson: Just when you think you know the lay of the land, the whole landscape changes. That’s why, as a producer, you have to always see the script as organic. Nothing is locked until the picture is locked. Until then, everything is up for potential change in a bid to get over the finish line. Some of those changes can be tough but many can also bring huge positives along with them. It’s best not to grow too attached to anything.

Rousing the Rebelles

During all this, I did something I never thought I’d get to do. I incorporated my own production company “Rebelle Rouser” here in the UK ready to handle all the paperwork that comes with being a producing partner. I owned a chunk of a movie and a bona fide one at that. It was time to get serious. With that came my first IMDb producer credit and whole new level of self worth too. It was absolutely bizarre to go from writer on my first project to partner on the next but here I was pitching, developing, attaching, and scheduling as per the real deal.

The major fly in the ointment was the US travel ban which made travel in from Europe impossible and sadly wasn’t going to be lifted any time soon. That meant I couldn’t come out and be a guest on set. Given our modest budget and the strict Covid protocols dictated by the unions, I wasn’t too upset by that. I wasn’t going to be missing out on the same kind of fun I’d had watching the production of Break Even.

The only thing that really bothered me and kept me awake at night was the possibility of being rewritten without even knowing it. While making Break Even had indeed been fun, I’d had to tear page after page from the script and butcher scenes to help get that made against a daily dose of bad luck. I just didn’t see how a script could survive intact without its writer there to defend it and here I was having to catch a glimpse of any results via social media posts from the crew and the occasional WhatsApp message from those closest to me.

Surprisingly however, my fears were completely unfounded. The shoot for Double Threat was one of the smoothest and most pleasant of Shane’s life-long career. Pretty much everything went swimmingly and Shane called me in high spirits every morning has he drove the crew van onto set.

There was in fact only three frustrations;

1. In typical movie car fashion, our Suburban, which was really a hodgepodge of three junked Suburbans kept having mechanical issues but thankfully didn’t catch fire like the previous one did on Break Even.

2. A pivotal cliff jump scene we had our heart set on proved unrealistic and had to be completely rewritten only days before. I was able to think on my feet here and we arguably ended up with something better.

3. Daily Covid testing was really taking its toll on everyone and eating up precious time in the mornings but, thanks to the diligence of everyone present, we didn’t suffer from a single positive case.

The script itself was shot with barely a change. My words had been respected and every effort made to turn them into reality. Actors built on what was there and occasionally buttoned up some scenes in way that only added more comedy.

Meanwhile, the marketing machine for the release of Break Even sprang into life and gave me my first taste of launching a movie. While it was heavily compromised by lockdown, the film got a mention in US Weekly and Steve Guttenberg waxed lyrical about his role on KTLA Morning News. The launch party took place virtually on Facebook and I sat with my mum in my bedroom while we watched Tasya Teles, Brent Bailey, Alisa Reyes, and Erik Fellows take questions from the audience before Shane made a surprise appearance straight from finishing a day’s shoot. It was a lot of fun, a welcome break from the monotony of lockdown, and I felt very proud of what I was part of.

Break Even got polarised reviews upon release, hurt badly by how much we’d been advised to cut on top of the compromises to the story various production issues had caused. While that pained me, I’d learned from it as a writer and was now addressing it as producer. I knew at least that Double Threat would not face the same issues because I’d kept it to a lean 98 pages.

Production wrapped on Double Threat in mid-December. We’d gone from initial concept meeting to shooting principal in just three months, despite all the restrictions and procedures required to work around Covid. It still blows my mind that we did that.

It also blows my mind every time I see the stunt work performed by Danielle C. Ryan. Another amazing attachment we were able to secure was the support of the legendary Doc Duhame (Ray Donovan, Westworld, Django Unchained) as our stunt coordinator. Danielle, Doc, and the rest of the stunt team took the action in the script and really ran with it, totally understanding the tone I was going for. My inspiration had been the work of Cynthia Rothrock whose martial arts fight scenes always made it feel like she was against the odds and one failed move away from death. I’d been adamant right there on the page that we weren’t “doing any of that one at a time bullshit” where the goons take it in turns to fight the girl and that had been honoured with a surprising amount of the moves I’d written being turned into reality. Double Threat contains a lengthy hand-to-hand combat scene full of twists and turns, a car chase involving a horse plus a bow and arrow, a cat and mouse style shootout all around a junkyard and Danielle had refused to use a stunt double even once. What’s more, it transpired that Matthew Lawrence spent much of his youth racing cars in the desert so all his stunt driving became his own too. This was the kind of thing I’d gotten into screenwriting for and we’d all brought our best to the table, the finishing touch being Shane, and Frank Reynold’s top-tier editing skills which truly did all that hard work justice.

We’d done it. As the end of the year approached, we’d gotten our second film in the can despite the odds continually being against us. What’s more, despite so many forces pulling us away from our artistic goals, we’d actually landed on something closer to them than ever. We’d made a gritty, female-led “dirt movie” which went against everything we should be doing in the eyes of those within the industry. Our rebellious nature and refusal to back down had led to us creating something fun and charming while the world itself felt pained and defeatist. Double Threat put so many smiles on people’s faces throughout production and I know it will go on to put so many more smiles on the faces of those who watch it.

Lesson: Entertainment on the page should always mean entertainment on the screen. It’s all too easy to find ourselves writing material we lack passion for because we feel it stands a better chance of getting made or making profit. Writing something you can do easily with a fun attitude can lead to a much more fun production because that enthusiasm becomes infections and inspires everyone else to bring something equally passionate to the table. Sometimes a couple of you just have to pick up the guitars and start thrashing out riffs in your garage to start a party everyone wants to be join in with.