The Best Advice I Ever Received: How the Team Behind Slamdance Film Cortez Found the Courage to Make Their Film

The Man with the White Hair sat a long way away from me, his ’80s-era glasses slipping down his nose.

Next to me sat Cheryl Nichols, my producing-writing-acting-and-sometimes-bed partner (when I don’t snore). She was getting set to direct our movie Cortez. I was getting set to produce it and to try to remember all the lines I had written for myself, playing the lead role. Only one thing stood in our way: money.

We had done everything we could think of to get the necessary funds together. We had done a crowdfunding campaign, we had asked both of the rich people we knew, we had sold off the rights to our genetic material to various demonic entities. The result was that we were close to the finish line, but not quite there. We figured we still needed about $20,000 more to make our dream come true.

This is where the Man with the White Hair came in. He was an old friend, someone that I had met in my hometown of Taos, New Mexico, who had unilaterally cast me in movies he had produced, and had always been an open door for advice. Someone, incidentally, I was desperate to have the approval of. He couldn’t give us the cash himself, but 30 years spent in the trenches of independent cinema had given him the coveted knowledge that every producer wishes they had: where to find the cash. I.e. the most frustrating and most important question in all of moviemaking.

Director Cheryl Nichols also plays Anne in Cortez

The Man with the White Hair had the answer. It was this:

“You already have enough money. Go make your movie. If it’s any good, someone will give you money to finish it.”

“But, but—”

“If you have an excuse now to not make it, you’ll always have an excuse.”

This was the advice of a veteran movie producer, a Harvard-educated elite who had been nominated for major awards, whose movies had played at Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca, a man who could call Flannery O’Connor and John Huston dear friends. This was the advice I had traveled from Highland Park to West Hollywood for? (If you don’t know L.A., this is a long fucking way.)

“But I mean,” I stammered, detecting the beginnings of a smile on Cheryl’s face out of the corner of my eye, “we need to pay for things. We have to crew up, we have to pay for locations.”

“You’ll figure it out.”

That was, quite literally, it. Almost as soon as we had sat down in the Man’s plush house, we found ourselves out on the street. We hadn’t even been in there long enough to drink the glasses of water we were never offered.

Walking back to our car, I was disappointed, still afraid to pull the trigger on a production with no certainty as to its outcome. But Cheryl is a true maverick, a woman of vision, and she had her answer. With what we already had, caution be damned, we assembled the best crew on the planet, and we spent the next two months in Taos shooting the movie that would eventually be Cortez. We worked harder than we had ever worked before, harder than we ever imagined we would.

Judith Ivey as Sandy in Cortez

The sit-down with the the Man with the White Hair was just one in a long line of favors we pulled from my hometown. Over those next two months, the people of Taos gave us their homes, their bars, their art studios and even, in one case, quite literally the sacred lands of their ancestors, in order that a bunch of idiots, headed up by me and Cheryl, could make a stupid movie. That stupid movie had its premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2017, culled from a list of more than 7,000 submissions. The sizzle reel that Cheryl cobbled together a week after we wrapped was viewed by an investor, who in the end was so impressed with the film’s potential, they agreed to finance post-production.

Damned if the Man with the White Hair hadn’t called it just the way it went down.

Did we run into him again, and share stories of our success, letting him bask in the glow of his good advice? Every year he and his wife throw the best holiday party in Taos, and we always attend when we’re in town. When I shared with him the exciting news about Slamdance, though, he just nodded slightly, not impressed.

“And I wanted to tell you,” I said, “we wouldn’t have been able to do it without your advice. So thanks for that.”

“Advice? What advice did I give you?”

“Don’t you remember? At your house? You said to just make it; someone would give us the funds to finish it. And that’s exactly what we did. And that’s exactly what happened.”

He paused a long time. Then he peered at me over those thick glasses, the ones that made him look like a CIA handler circa 1983, in a tone that I found impossible to interpret:

“Is that what I told you to do?”

The question hung in the air and I stammered—I was always stammering with him—”Yes, that’s what you told us.”

“Huh.”

Another pause ensued as he nibbled around the dessert table.

“Are you going to be up in Park City this year?” I asked.

“Oh, god no, It’s a foul place.”

“Well. I’ll send you a link to the film. We’d love for you to see it.”

“Do that.”

He hasn’t watched it yet. I stopped holding my breath. But his nonchalance, I think, makes the ultimate point: Keep your head down and do the work. In the end, you may not have the whole world’s approval, or even the approval of those who’s approval you desire, but you will have the approval of the entity with the most “greenlight” power: you.

Cassidy Freeman plays Rosie in Cortez

An addendum: I would never give the Man with the White Hair’s advice to anyone. I would recommend that you budget backwards, starting with the submission fee and postage costs for the crappy festivals that still only accept DVD submissions and happen to be your last chance at a world premiere. I would recommend that you gather enough money to cover any and all contingencies, and hire a crew that’s just big enough so that no one has to work too hard.

But, if you insist on being bold, you can take a page out of Cheryl’s book. Or go have a chat with the Man with the White Hair. MM

Cortez screens at ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club on April 10, 2017 at ArcLight Hollywood, and April 20, 2017 at ArcLight Chicago.

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