The Daytrippers and Fearless Filmmaking of Ocean Tribe

Liev Schreiber, Parker
Posey, Anne Meara, Hope Davis, and Pat McNamara in The Daytrippers.

If you write something we can
shoot on an ultra-low budget, say, $40,000, we’ll give you the
money personally." That offer, the sort of thing young filmmakers
dream about, was made to 30-year-old writer-director Greg Mottola.
The fact that it came from Steven Soderbergh and Nancy Tenenbaum,
creators of sex, lies & videotape, didn’t hurt.

Greg Mottola attended Columbia University’s graduate
film program. On the strength of his 11-minute short, Swingin’
in the Painter’s Room, which won prizes at several festivals, he
met Soderbergh and Tenenbaum. They read his feature-length screenplay,
Lush Life, and wanted to produce it with Greg as director. He was
invited to attend the 1992 Sundance Filmmakers Lab, where he developed
the screenplay, while Soderbergh and Tenenbaum started to raise
money and secure commitments from actors.

Then things unraveled. Deals fell apart, talent and
investors waffled, and the screenplay was endlessly reworked. "Scripts
are a binary equation," says Soderbergh. "They either
work or they don’t. And we never got Lush Life to the point where
everyone thought it worked."

Frustrated but still hoping to work with Mottola,
Soderbergh and Tenenbaum made him their $40,000 offer. Greg sequestered
himself and wrote his "suburban road movie," The Daytrippers,
in four weeks. "We saw right away that it worked," says
Soderbergh. "We didn’t rewrite it at all."

With Soderbergh and Tenenbaum producing, more investors
came forward, and Mottola was able to attract a superb cast of
New York actors including Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Parker Posey
and Anne Meara. The film was shot in true no-budget style in 18
days in Manhattan and Long Island.

The finished product was submitted to Sundance and
rejected. Undaunted, Soderbergh took The Daytrippers to Slamdance,
the guerrilla festival "across the street," where it
won the Grand Jury Prize. Deals were struck with Cinepix Film Properties
for domestic distribution, and Alliance for foreign. This spring,
the film received both a wide release and good reviews.

Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci in The Daytrippers.

George Wing (GW): How did The Daytrippers
cost so little to make?

Greg Mottola (GM): We shot quickly, and I
designed the script entirely around locations I could get for free,
like my parents’ house and my apartment. The night before shooting
we would call up a bunch of people and ask them to work the next
day. Steven and Nancy and our DP called in a lot of favors.

GW: Did the shoot go smoothly?

GM: On our first day of shooting, I was rehearsing
Stanley Tucci and Hope Davis for their first scene together, and
I noticed some kind of commotion among the crew. People were running
around and walkie-talkies were going off. I asked my AD what was
happening, and he kept saying, "Don’t worry, just do the work." Finally,
when I was ready for the first shot, I was told the camera was
missing. It had been stolen off our truck the day before. Our $35,000
Super 16 camera was gone, and we were out on Long Island on a Sunday
and all the rental houses were closed. I thought, "Okay, my
career has ended before it started. But by a miracle, someone on
the crew found a camera-and we had insurance for the stolen one.
We rushed through the first day’s shooting with everyone nervous
and uptight, but after that we relaxed-we figured nothing worse
was going to happen to us.

Director Greg Mottola

GW: How much did it cost to get the film in
the can?

GM: About $60,000. But to put things in perspective,
after we got distribution and paid for deferments, crew salary,
SAG limited exhibition step-ups, music rights and lab bills, the
whole film cost about half a million. The big advantage to shooting
so cheaply was that we owned it and no one could tell us what to
do.

I’ll tell you an interesting story. Five days before
shooting started, I got a call from a famous, powerful Hollywood
producer whom I can’t name. He had somehow gotten my script, but
had no idea that it was about to go into production. And he said, "I
really like The Daytrippers. I want to set it up at the studio
I have a deal with. They have to finance whatever I want to make.
I think we could shoot this on a low budget, say, five million." I
told him I was ready to go with 50 thousand. I thought he was going
to drop the phone or hang up because that sounded insane to him.

He called Nancy and very respectfully said, ‘I don’t
want to complicate things for you, but my offer stands to make
a five-million-dollar film from Greg’s script.’ So I agonized for
about 24 hours, until I realized that if I accepted, the cast and
crew would have to be fired, the script would have to be rewritten,
I would lose control and possibly end up like so many of my friends
from film school who are endlessly rewriting scripts for the studios.
I recognized that I had a bird in the hand, and went ahead with
the original plan.

GW: Any advice for people setting out to make
a no-budget film?

GM: Because you’re not going to get everything
you want, decide the element you’re not going to compromise on-and
fight for it. It might be your visual style. For me, it was the
acting.

Will Geiger (flannel shirt) directs a scene from Ocean Tribe.

Fearless Filmmaking: Ocean Tribe
Will Geiger Shoots for the stars in Mexico

Dangerous stunts? Multiple locations in a foreign country?
Surf photography with specialized equipment? Trained dolphins?
On a low-budget indie film?

"Everyone said we couldn’t do it," recalls
Will Geiger, the writer/director/producer of Ocean Tribe, a hit
on the festival circuit this year. "I talked to dozens of
people and went to every IFP event looking for my producer. The
only people who said, ‘yeah, you can do it,’ had no producing experience.
So I had to produce it myself."

Ocean Tribe tells the story of four friends who return
to the Northern California town where they grew up surfing together
upon the news that another friend, Bob, is terminally ill. They
kidnap him from the cancer ward and hit the road for Mexico for
one last surfing trip. Bob is weak, bald from chemotherapy, and
does not want to be seen in his present state. But his friends
shave their heads in a gesture of solidarity, fit his board with
special handles, and promise to help him in the waves. Bob’s spirits
lift as the five friends make their way down to Baja in an ancient
Oldsmobile ambulance with their boards and Bob’s wheelchair (sometimes
with Bob in it) strapped to the roof. At their favorite Mexican
beach, they surf, bond, reminisce, reconcile lingering differences,
and wait for the really big waves to appear. Bob gets worse, and
the friends increasingly question whether bringing him so far was
the right thing to do. The big waves come and Bob insists on surfing.
And the question settles itself in a poetic, and beautifully photographed
resolution.

Ocean Tribe succeeds as both drama and surf movie.
There’s also plenty of comedy, balanced by moments of suspense,
as when the five surfers, resting on their boards, see a grey triangular
fin racing toward them. At the last moment, a dolphin leaps clear
out of the water, then sticks around to play.

Geiger, 34, first worked in film and television production
in Rome, Italy, after going there on an acting job, and later returned
to the United States to attend the Orange Coast Film/Video Academy
("a poor man’s USC"). He has made several short films
and a music video, and is an accomplished photographer, but Ocean
Tribe is his first feature.

What was it like to shoot in Mexico?

"People said, ‘Don’t shoot around water. Salt
water is the worst. And whatever you do, don’t shoot in Mexico.
It’ll be a nightmare.’ People were talking about banditos and corrupt
cops and everything, but what about the gangs here? What about
filming in downtown LA and getting shot or having all your stuff
ripped off?"

Geiger’s only serious Mexico-related problem occured
when he lost his grip and camera truck for a full day when they
were detained at the border. The truck’s papers listed fewer C-stands
than it actually carried, and the production was fined $3,500 by
Mexican Customs.

"But once we got past the border, everything
was fine. We didn’t need to worry about permits, and everyone was
so excited to have us there. Getting insurance for a Mexican shoot
was tough at first, but we found it through Disc of L.A. We went
down to this tiny little town about two hours South of Ensenada,
which had only two telephones. The entire 30-person cast and crew
had to line up to make phone calls, and the phone lady would sit
there with her Mickey Mouse watch and time the calls and charge
us. But there was a great variety of locations nearby-desert, beaches,
a golf course. The roads were rough, though. We had 14 flat tires."

And the Mexican Police? "They were great. They
would come and hang out with us, party with us at night, and watch
our equipment for us. One time when we had to block a road for
a shot, this obnoxious fisherman from San Diego ran our roadblock
and started screaming at us. The cops fined him $150."

"I would love to shoot in Mexico again. They
basically gave us the key to the town. We had people sleeping in
the Catholic church that appears in the film. I want to go back
to that town again soon, because I’ll be like the mayor or something."

Will Geiger and friend on the Ocean Tribe set.

Ocean Tribe was shot with six-figure financing from
private investors, in 24 days, including a week in the water. 35
mm surf photography is a daunting challenge under any circumstances,
and the prospect of attempting it on a low budget was what turned
so many producers away. Geiger felt confident that he could manage
with a borrowed waterproof Bell & Howell Eyemo in the hands
of Jeff Neu, a well-known surf photographer. But the Eyemo’s maximum
load is 100 feet of film stock, which lasts only 30 seconds at
48 frames per second, the necessary speed for good surfing footage.

"Jeff would get a shot, then he would have to
paddle the camera back to the boat, dry it off, and re-load. There
were 28 screws that had to be opened and closed individually, by
hand." It was obvious that another camera was needed to reduce
the down time, but no underwater housing was available, so "a
mad-scientist type guy I know in Latona Beach made one for us in
his oven."

Although Geiger made a point of finding actors who
could surf, he used doubles on the big action shots. "They
would point their boards at Jeff and run him over. He was the highest
paid person on the crew. No one wanted to trade places with him."

Geiger is ambivalent about serving as his own producer. "I
had no idea how much time the business aspect would demand. I have
learned the whole filmmaking process, but there has been a price
to pay. I now have a finished film and people from big companies
and studios are offering to help with the next one. And I say ‘Well,
I"m working on a script." As opposed to "Here’s
my script, I’m ready to shoot it."

And the trained dolphins? "We shot those at
the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida. It’s a place
where they do great things like get autistic kids into the water
with dolphins. The dolphins were great-just like big, intelligent
human eggplants." MM

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