HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 4 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE, TWO, and THREE.

The STUCK! shoot was marvelous.

One of the best parts was the food.  See, when the cast and crew are only a handful of people it is possible to go to someone’s home for a dinner party.  You can eat superior food.  Feeding 42 people on a traditional crew likely means scraps and bulk-made meals.  And there is no intimacy about that kind of thing.  With a set like mine we eat homemade slow-cooked masterpieces every night.  We can sit around the same table.  It becomes a far more rewarding experience.

Like WATCH OUT, the STUCK! shooting days were just as efficient.  We’d work from 9 AM and wrap around 5 or 6 PM.  We worked every day with no days off.  It took less than two weeks to complete.

The reviews were amazing:  Film Threat writes, “Balderson just doesn’t make simple films, and this is no exception. It’s not in the words, or the plot or the story; but it’s in the air, it’s in the beat, it’s in the very soul of the work.” The LA Weekly said it was “Revolutionary.”  And UK Critic MJ Simpson writes, “Steve Balderson is the best-kept secret in American independent cinema. He makes his own films – which are unfailingly brilliant – and the rest of the world very, very gradually catches up with him.”

In February, 2010, the American Cinematheque hosted the LA Premiere of STUCK! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The cast was there with me to present the film and do a Q&A after the screening.  One of the people in the audience mentioned that because all the actors were there, talking enthusiastically about this new way of filmmaking, it spoke volumes about the process.

I signed a deal with a sales agent who is selling STUCK! to buyers around the globe.

In the fall of 2010, I put together another top-secret film shoot and produced my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  A couple new stars joined the group for this shoot: namely Kevin Richardson (from the Backstreet Boys), Daniela Sea (from the L Word), and acclaimed stage actress Jennifer Grace.  We made the film in Palm Springs in exactly the same way we made STUCK! and WATCH OUT.  The entire experience is captured in director Anthony Pedone’s documentary CAMP CASSEROLE.

The shoot was a lot like summer film camp.  We rented a few vacation homes that would serve as the locations, and also would house all of us.  Staying together in the same place was magical.  Each day we’d gather to film scenes, and if any actors weren’t working, they would lounge by the pool, read a book, and basically turn their time on the set as a vacation.  This aspect of the shoot was the best.  I made sure that we’re doing the work we need to do, but it’s just as important for me to create an atmosphere that is a rewarding experience personally.

Each evening we would have a meal sponsored by one of the cast or crew, or friends and family.  Imagine being at summer camp and coming together over a meal and singing Kumbaya.  That’s exactly what it was like!  Only instead of singing Kumbaya, per se, several people would pull out their guitars and do an impromptu acoustic concert; or, there would be fun short films being made; or, night swimming and gazing up at the stars with a great conversation.

One of my favorite moments filming THE CASSEROLE CLUB came whenever we needed to do some exterior shots around the Palm Springs area.  We’d just jump in my car and drive around until we’d find the greatest place, jump out, film it, then rush back to the car and speed away as if nothing ever happened.  This is the kind of freedom I love work in.  It’s exhilarating.

THE CASSEROLE CLUB premiered at Visionfest`11 in New York City where we were nominated for 9 Independent Vision Awards and won 5: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kevin Richardson, Best Actress for Susan Traylor, Best Production Design.  And the most overwhelming compliment came in 2012 when the U.S. Library of Congress invited the film to be a part of its permanent collection.

Making films in today’s distribution landscape is drastically different than it was even a few years ago.  It is very important to spend as little money possible to make your films.  If your film cost $200,000 that’s fine.  But maybe you could try to find a way to make two movies for $100,000 instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Be realistic when you’re planning your expenses.  Regardless of the storyline, regardless of the actors, stars or location, if you think your project will make $100,000 in sales, your best bet at sustainability is to make sure that project costs less than that.

These are just some of the ways the distribution landscape has changed the way films are made.

HONOR AT THE CINEMATHEQUE

One of the most special nights (thus far) of my film career came when The American Cinematheque honored my film STUCK! with a special event premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The theatre itself is a glorious complex just down the block from the famous Chinese Theatre, which is another spectacular (albeit touristy) place for Hollywood premieres.

STUCK! is an homage to black and white women in prison films, and was filmed in the noir style as if it had been made in the 1950s or 60s.  It stars the late great Karen Black, John Waters muse Mink Stole, my muse Susan Traylor, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman, CalArts alum and friend Stacy Cunningham, and newcomer Starina Johnson in the title role as the girl sent to Death Row.

Starina Johnson stars as "Daisy" in STUCK!

Starina Johnson stars as “Daisy” in STUCK!

I knew the American Cinematheque hosted events for Hollywood big-wigs and all the cinematic greats.  It was a total honor and pleasure to be included in that group, and be experiencing the event inside that very space and air.

I went to the Egyptian on the day before the premiere to set up a police line-up type of display (so fans could take their mugshots in front of it as if they’d just been “booked”).  I also taped posters to the entrance way.  Outstanding portraits of all the leading ladies on Death Row photographed by celebrity photographer Austin Young.

As an aside, the posters were printed at www.ShortrunPosters.com which is a top-secret place to get awesome posters made for $2 each.  The best part is that there is no minimum amount you can print.  You can just print 6 or 20 if you like.  You don’t have to print 1,000 (I have posters from the theatrical run of FIRECRACKER that I’m unlikely to ever get rid of).

I was asked if I wanted a full on red carpet type event, or something a little more casual.  I voted casual.  There’s something about a red carpet that’s fine and all, but I didn’t think hoards of fans and media would be turning up like they do for Brad Pitt.  I was mostly right, but surprised that when I arrived at the Egyptian the night of the premiere, there was a line of movie-goers stretching down the entire length of the Egyptian colonnade, out onto Hollywood Boulevard, around the corner and down the block.  There were so many people trying to get in that the guys at the Cinematheque told me we’d start the screening 30 mins later than planned so as to accommodate all these people.  It was wild.

In order to pass the time and keep people occupied, I was asked to go down in front and speak for a bit.  I froze.  What!?  I didn’t know what else to do than to take the microphone and walk out there.  When I saw the vastness of the theatre I was overwhelmed.  There had to be almost a thousand people in there.  I walked up in front, made eye contact with Karen Black and the rest of my cast sitting together in the front middle section.  I pretended they were the only ones I was speaking to.

I told the story about meeting screenwriter Frankie Krainz, the genius who created STUCK!  When Frankie and I met, I told him I’d love to make a women-in-prison film.  He said, “Oh, let me write it for you.”  I said, sure, and we went about the rest of our meeting.  Several weeks later Frankie called and said, “I’m done!”  And I replied, “With what?”  (I had no idea what he was talking about).  He sent me the script and I was floored.  It was so moving, poetic, and like a combination of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, only more to the point.  Reading it was hypnotizing.  And then I made it into a movie.

After the screening, which was a huge success—both technically (there were no audio/projection mishaps) and critically (everyone loved it), we went across the street for the VIP after-party and dinner at legendary Musso & Frank.  The owner of Musso’s had printed special menus for us, and Pleasant Gehman and Iris Berry (another punk rock royal) gave me a cake.  When I cut into it, the knife hit something hard.  I dug into it and discovered there was a huge file inside—perfect for use in escaping from prison!

It was such an amazing, special, incredible night.  As vivid in my memory today as if it happened last week.

Stacy Cunningham and Pleasant Gehman at the STUCK! premiere in Hollywood

Stacy Cunningham and Pleasant Gehman at the STUCK! premiere in Hollywood

IN WITH THE NEW

Each New Year’s Eve I try and be in bed as early as possible.  My favorite thing is to celebrate by having a great dinner and having a really nice sleep.  That way, I can wake up feeling refreshed and focused, ready to start the first day of the New Year in clarity.  It’s also quiet—no calls or emails to answer—because most everyone else stayed awake waiting for midnight to roll around, and are likely still asleep.  It’s really a wonderful way to start the year.

2013 was a wild ride, to say the least.

In January I produced and directed my 13th feature film – a romantic comedy from Jim Lair Beard’s acclaimed screenplay OCCUPYING ED.  It was a welcome diversion from the pain of being blind-sided, betrayed and abandoned by my partner of 14 years two months earlier.  I was dreading the new year, but with the help of a new film and some great new friends, I managed to repair the broken heart, keep my spirits up and navigate into a new future.

While I was producing the new film, I completed my previous movie, FAR FLUNG STAR, which was filmed in Hong Kong.  Critic Richard Uhlig calls it, “a Visually-stunning gem, a NORTH BY NORTHWEST for the digital age.  This caper film doesn’t let you rest for a second.”  What a compliment!  You can watch the film here: www.Vimeo.com/ondemand/farflungstar

FAR FLUNG STAR premiered at London’s Raindance Film Festival in September, where I met up with my mom’s cousins Karen and James Lowther.  Karen is an author (her amazing new book THE PERFECT CAPITAL is out now), and James is co-founder of M&C Saatchi, one of the world’s largest ad agencies.  The Lowthers invited me to stay at their country house called Holdenby.  It was magical.

While in London I also taught my first Masterclass on Maverick Filmmaking to actors and aspiring filmmakers.  Teaching is an inspirational experience and I’m looking forward to doing it more frequently.

I also traveled to Santa Barbara, the wilds of Maine, Paris France, and even down to Texas (where I spent a surreal weekend at a festival with my friend Jane Wiedlin, her man Travis, and Rutger Hauer and his wife).

2013 also brought the passing of my dear friend, the legendary Hollywood actress Karen Black.  Karen starred in several of my films and became a dear friend to me over the years.  While losing her to a rare cancer was heartbreaking, reflecting on her amazing life and career and the fun we had together has been inspiring.  Karen planned her own funeral, and it was the first funeral I’ve attended that was actually fun!  Sure, everyone was moved and in tears, but the stories we all shared were hilarious and everyone was laughing out loud.  To have known Karen, and to have had the privilege of being one of her “insider” friends, has made my life immeasurably richer.  Though I will miss her, the support and encouragement she gave me will live with me forever.

I come to the end of 2013 feeling renewed and invigorated.  What started off fairly depressing has ended with much hope for the future.  Between several new film projects, some commercial work with 502 Media Group, the new teaching gigs and a new editing suite featuring the latest in technology, I’m raring to hit the new year with gusto and with creativity cooking on all the burners.

Join me!  There is no better time to finally put that pen to paper and write that script you’ve always wanted to.  Start a new project!  Travel and see something magical and expand your horizons!  Eat a wonderful meal with friends and dare to dream the impossible.  There is proof all around you that those seemingly impossible things are just within reach.  So grab them.

IS FILM A COLLABORATIVE … ART?

Filmmaking is NOT a collaborative art.  It is a collaborative PROCESS.  Those are two totally different things.  If you’re hearing this for the first time, it might seem shocking, but let me explain.

This goes across the board with any artistic endeavor, be it music, painting, or design.  Let’s use painting as the example.  One person can stretch the canvas, another person can mix the paint, but when it comes time, only one person can hold the brush—or it will look like it.  If more than one person holds the brush the painting will lack unity and the perspective will be off.  Then, of course, you can have another person sell to painting to a gallery, and yet another person at that gallery selling it to the consumer.

Sure, filmmaking by committee exists, and I have no problem with filmmaking by committee.  But people might confuse filmmaking by committee as a collaborate art—it isn’t.  It’s a collaborative process.  There always needs to be one person in charge—the head honcho—whether the director, a producer, or a studio executive.  If you have too many people making decisions, the end result will be chaotic and lack any kind of unity or focus.  Which sometimes happens, and we’ve all seen examples of the outcome.

When you’re about to make a film it’s very important to define who is the leader.  If you are merely a director who is translating what the producer tells you to do, you need to have a clear understanding of what that means.  And so does the producer.  You don’t want to wait until half way into your shoot and realize you’ve done it all wrong, that he’s in charge and you aren’t.

Once I was working with a make-up person who wouldn’t create the “faces” and looks I wanted, but rather, wanted to do it his way.  He said, “but this is my art.”  I replied, “No it isn’t.  This is about PROCESS.  It is your job to use your abilities to translate what I want, because this is my vision, my perspective.”  If we had our actors wear the make-up he wanted them to wear, the movie would’ve looked like a cartoon.  He had been hired based on his technical skill, not his taste.

On the flip-side, there are artists I’ve worked with that have an absolutely keen eye.  When we filmed THE CASSEROLE CLUB, I asked Jane Wiedlin to be my second set of eyes.  I value her opinion as an artist, and in this case, we had reached an aesthetic understanding of what we were creating, so I knew that if she had any ideas, they would be worth considering.  And they were.  Still, she knew I was in charge, but I gave her the freedom to speak up if she had an idea that could make the scene brighter, or point out something that didn’t seem right, or props that weren’t historically accurate.

As a director, if you can define your vision and share those definitions with people, chances are that when you set them free inside that spectrum, they will create something you love.  I usually like to make a list of rules that apply to every aspect of the process.  I make a “look book” that illustrates what we’re going for.  If you tell someone to make it “exotic” or “gothic” and not much else, they could come back with something appropriate for a Tim Burton movie, or at the other end of the spectrum, a look suitable for Twilight.  Neither of which may be what you want.  But, it isn’t their fault.  It’s yours.  Because you didn’t communicate effectively.  Remember: the meaning of communication is what the other person hears—not what you say.

It’s very important to illustrate verbally, visually, and in great detail, what it is you’re creating so that everyone’s on the same page.  Then, the collaborative process can be an enjoyable one.  But, remember, there must always be one person in charge and it’s important to define who that is right at the start.

MEETING RUTGER HAUER: Part 2 of 2

Part One was last week.

So, I was outside with My Fan, from FANS R PPL 2 and a woman came out screaming and crying, “Where are you!?”  I was mortified, and she tells me that the festival director, Anthony Pedone, a longtime friend of mine, just gave a 10-minute speech about me that moved people to tears and that I was winning an honorary independent filmmaker award of some kind, and that when he called me down to accept my award, I wasn’t there!  Instant panic.

I darted into the theater just as Jane Wiedlin was getting up on stage to accept the award on my behalf.  I ran to the podium and couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “Remember my Fan with the teeth thing?  His mom was coming to pick him up and I was just outside, and, I’m…” stumbling, then saw Rutger Hauer staring at me, I just shouted “Thank you Victoria!” and kept rambling.  I did manage to calm down and began to speak clearly, and said that I was so moved by the community that I’d decided to film a movie there in the future.  Everyone applauded, so it sounded like I hadn’t embarrassed myself too much.

The ceremony continued and while no one would tell me the actual name of my award I’d nearly missed receiving, it suddenly occurred to me that this was why the festival invited me, and why they decided to not have me on the Jury.  Duh.

The Closing Night after party would be held a bar nearby (that no one had bothered to find out was closed).  So when everyone learned there was nowhere left to go, the after party was moved to the only place open on a Sunday night in Victoria, Texas… Olive Garden.  Yes, that’s right.  Olive Garden.

En route, I checked the clock: 9:45 p.m.  I was starving and had a suspicion their kitchen would pack up before I had the chance to choke down some mass-produced fettuccine.  I called the restaurant.  I discovered that the entire Olive Garden would be closing for business at 10 p.m.  I didn’t know what to do, but I thought I ought to warn the guy: “We’re in town for the film festival, and while I’m not the guy in charge, you should know there are about 150 people driving there right now for our after party.”  He was speechless, yet firm with the news that, “If you’re inside and seated by 10 p.m. I will serve you but no one else will be allowed inside.”

The SUV peeled into the parking lot and we all darted inside.  Jane Wiedlin and her beau Travis were already seated at a long table across from Rutger Hauer and his lovely wife.  I took the seat at the head of the table next to them.  It occurred to me that after watching FANS R PPL 2, and hearing the moving speech about me, and witnessing my tardy acceptance of the honorary award, I didn’t need an introduction to Rutger.  He already knew who I was.  That was kind of cool, although totally surreal that we were about to embark on our first inspiring conversation over an endless supply of bread-sticks.

As the others from the festival arrived, there was turmoil over who would be allowed in, threats we’d all leave, dozens proclaiming “Don’t you know who I am?” (I didn’t say that), the manager caved and allowed everyone inside for what would become known as the Occupy O.G. movement.

The next surreal moment, as if there could be another, was when, after everyone had ordered tons of food, drinks and wine, and the bread-sticks kept coming, the co-founder of SXSW, Louis Black, picked up the tab for the entire party.  Wow!  Thanks, Louis!

While leaving Occupy O.G., I was reminded why I love film festivals.  Even if some are the most disorganized events you’ll ever attend, you’ll meet incredible people, embarrass yourself to no end, get a massive sunburn, make new friends, and share memories that will last a lifetime.  If you’re a filmmaker, artist, actor, writer, or anyone interested in visual storytelling of any sort, I highly suggest attending as many film festivals as you can.  Regardless of their size, scope, or location.  Just keep in mind how far south (or North) you are, and pack accordingly.

MEETING RUTGER HAUER: Part 1 of 2

I accepted an invitation to be a Jury member at the 2013 Victoria (Texas) International Film Festival, not knowing what I was getting myself into.  My friend Jane Wiedlin would also be on the Jury and I was looking forward to spending some quality time with her.  Then I learned Rutger Hauer had a film in the festival and would be there, too.  Doubly excited.

After the festival purchased my airfare, I asked them if there were any movies I needed to watch and judge before hand, or how that would all work.  They replied, “Oh, we don’t need you on the Jury anymore, we have plenty of people already.”  Oh, okay, that’s all right.  But then why am I coming?  Should I do any seminars or workshops or anything?  No.  None of my services were required.  They decided to screen my film CULTURE SHOCK, so I was thankful I could participate somehow.

The first day of the festival it was simply gorgeous weather.  65F with sun that warmed the soul.  I sat riverside all afternoon sipping champagne and working on a screenplay, meeting new filmmaker friends and talking all things show business.  After six-hours of leisure, I decided it was time to visit the VIP room at the festival for free wine and to meet more friends.

The next morning I woke up and was surprised to find that my face was as red as a lobster.  Yes, I’d totally failed to realize the two-hour drive south from Houston was SOUTH of Houston, near Corpus Christi.  Me, fresh out of the Kansas winter, with no sunscreen, in bright southern sunshine for six solid hours.  Oops.

Some people recognized me, and knew who I was, and those who didn’t now knew me as That Sunburned Filmmaker.  I didn’t mind the attention, because it was so comical, but little did I know it was only the beginning.

A few weeks prior to the festival, a fan of mine sent me an email on Facebook asking to meet me.  I looked him up, thought he seemed nice, and agreed.  We exchanged numbers and the texts began, trying to find a time to meet.  I tried calling him, but he didn’t answer, and finally a text came telling me he’d been in a tragic accident the week prior and that his jaw was wired shut.  He could get around fine, and kind-of talk, but not for long periods of time.  His pain medication would fizzle out and he’d need to take more, and then sleep.

I shared this with my new filmmaker friends (most of whom were actually on the Jury and hadn’t been kicked off, like me), and they made some fun jokes at my expense, which I thought were pretty funny.  “I have a fan…” and before I could finish the sentence someone chimed in, “Only one?”  To which I agreed, “Yes, just the one.”  And I explained that he was coming to meet me in public, with all of them present (you never know, some fans can be insane, see), and that his jaw had been wired shut so to not freak out.  Then came their questions, “How do you even know he’s your fan if you can’t understand a thing he’s saying?”

Another filmmaker, Elizabeth Spear (director of ROUNDBALL) had a hilarious idea to make a short film, an SNL-like comedy skit, about me meeting my fan with the wired jaw.  Only the fan would be trying to ask me for Mike Patton’s email address and I keep misunderstanding him, thinking he’s asking for my autograph.  In real life My Fan is also a fan of Mike Patton’s from Mr. Bungle and Faith No More days, and learned about me when my film FIRECRACKER came out, starring Mike.  So it was basically real to life, except that My Fan was also a fan of mine!  Really!  Elizabeth told us it would be shot improv-style and in about an hour.  My Fan showed up, was totally game, and we did it.  It’s called FANS ARE PEOPLE TOO.  Here’s a link to the skit:

FANS R PPL 2 was edited in mere minutes it seemed, and then would screen before the festival’s closing night ceremony.  I thought it was fun to make fun of myself by playing an exaggerated Myself, and My Fan seemed to have fun with it, too.  Mike Patton emailed me, he also thought it was hysterical.

After the skit aired at the closing ceremony, My Fan’s jaw started to hurt (from laughing so hard all afternoon), so he called his mom to come fetch him.  (Side note: My Fan is 30 years old and wouldn’t normally need his mom to come pick him up.  Just clarifying).  So I went outside with him to have a smoke and thank him for being such a good sport.

A while later the door burst open and a woman, crying, screaming, “Where are you!?”  I turn, mortified, and she tells me that the festival director, Anthony Pedone, a longtime friend of mine, just gave a 10-minute speech about me that moved people to tears and that I was winning an honorary Maverick Filmmaker Award of some kind, and that when he finished his moving speech and called me down to accept my award, I wasn’t there!  OMG.

Click here for Part 2.

NEED STARS?

A question a lot of aspiring filmmakers face is whether or not to cast movie stars.  Do movie stars help your film get funding?  Do stars mean you’ll get a solid distribution deal?  Does it mean your film will be successful?  I’m here today to tell you that it’s all a myth, and it doesn’t matter a bit.  Nope.  Not at all.

Certain people in the Industry will tell you that it’s totally necessary to have a movie star in your movie.  If it’s a distributor telling you, chances are their motivation truly stems from laziness.  If there’s a star in your movie, they don’t have to work hard to sell your movie.  In fact, it won’t matter what your movie is about, because they’ll just pitch it to buyers as a “so-and-so” picture.

If it’s an Industry executive looking to produce your movie, they’ll say it’s important because it looks good on their resume if they worked with “so-and-so” instead of someone they’ve never heard of.  Aspiring actors will do the same.  Some actors will even showcase that famous person in their reels in hopes to appear more qualified than they actually are.  Tricking directors into thinking “Wow, she starred with Julia Roberts, she MUST be important.”

Truth is, it doesn’t matter whether there are stars in your film or not.

My first film PEP SQUAD has no stars in it.  Yet, it was acclaimed, and then sold and released in nearly every country on Planet Earth.  In fact, there was a 10-year anniversary re-release on Blu-ray in 2011.

When searching for investors on my second film, one of the actors cast was Dennis Hopper.  Surprisingly, even with Dennis Hopper attached, we couldn’t find funding in order to make it.  I ended up replacing him with the musician Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle), and suddenly we had funding.

My film WATCH OUT had a few people in it that were in recognizable projects (Peter Stickles from Shortbus, for example), but none of them were “stars” per se, and when that film came out, it debuted at number 27 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

And then there’s Mink Stole, Karen Black, Pleasant Gehman and Jane Wiedlin in a women in prison movie—together!  (My film STUCK!)  I mean, one would think that would be an easy sell, right?  Well, it didn’t sell as well as PEP SQUAD or WATCH OUT.  But it was a B&W film with homage to 1950s style filmmaking, and some people didn’t get it on a commercial level.

So, you see, it doesn’t matter who’s in your movie.  What matters is that your movie is well made with a captivating story and solid performers.  We’ve all seen movies we love with a cast of no one we recognize.

Remember that when casting your next film.  Stars don’t always bring in money.  But they can sometimes cost a lot of it.