For a stand-up comedian, being asked to perform on one of the major networks’ late night talk shows is like striking a career jackpot. The performance guarantees a TV audience of millions who, if they like what they see, could give the comedian a powerful career boost. Every stand-up dreams of being invited to give such a performance.
Steve Mazan was one such comic. Despite making a name for himself in the comedy world, he had yet to fulfill his childhood dream of performing on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” When Mazan was diagnosed with incurable liver cancer and told that he had as little as five years to live, he was determined that the diagnosis would encourage, not hinder, him in achieving his life goals.
Rather than spending what time he had left making his peace and saying goodbyes, he decided to launch a campaign to chase down his dream of performing on Letterman. Two of his friends, the husband-and-wife moviemaking team Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina, documented Mazan’s struggle in their documentary Dying to Do Letterman. The film—which was self-financed by the moviemakers, with supplemental financing obtained through the crowdfunding Website Kickstarter—has received multiple awards on the film festival circuit and recently qualified for Academy Award consideration, becoming the first Kickstarter project to boast such an honor.
MovieMaker caught up with Joke and Biagio to talk about their controversial documentary.
Hugh Cunningham (MM): What originally made you decide to make Steve’s struggle to appear on Letterman into a documentary?
Joke Fincioen (JF): The story came out of left field and hit us in the face. Steve Mazan was a friend [whom Biagio and I] had met long before his diagnosis. At the time, we were making a living editing actors’ demo reels—and just about anything else—out of our one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood for $10 an hour, and Steve needed his first “comedy reel.” We gladly took the job and struck up a friendship, too.
A few years later we received an e-mail saying that he’d launched a campaign called “Dying to Do Letterman.” When we went to the site, we discovered he had been diagnosed with cancer and might only have five years to live. Our initial reaction was total shock—our friend, about 33 years old at the time, had been handed a death sentence. Despite that, he was using the time he had left to chase his dream: Performing stand-up comedy on David Letterman’s show. So we called him and asked if there was anything we could do to help. That’s when Steve said he’d been “shooting a little video” here and there and would love to document his journey. It wasn’t an easy decision, especially considering the high emotions involved in filming a sick friend. We took a day to think about it, but we agreed–with some caveats. The two of us told Steve that we’d have to place a little distance between us; we couldn’t put down the camera and give him a hug when he was having a hard time. His response: “Oh, you just made my tumors hurt.” We laughed (and cried) hysterically, and the journey began.
MM: What was the overall response you heard from the industry as you were making this documentary?
Biagio Messina (BM): “Documentary? Cancer? Impossible dream? No, thanks.” Everyone wanted to know if Steve would actually make it on Letterman and if his health would hold out–there were a lot of questions that we had no way to answer. No one wanted to fund a documentary that could stretch on for years, might end with Steve’s death and most likely would never involve an appearance by Steve on David Letterman’s show. It was a bad bet. But a great story was already happening, and we believed we could do something special: Make a movie about a guy chasing a dream, not a depressing dirge about a man dying of cancer. So we went for it. That’s what indie film is, right? No one wants to make the movie you believe in, so you do it yourself. Seemed fair enough to us.
MM: The two of you did quite a bit of the shooting for this documentary yourself. Did you find that task at all daunting?
JF: Extremely. It’s hard to distance yourself from a friend and make sure you do the doc justice. For five years there was a bit of a wall there. We were still friends, but there was so much that was “off limits.” We didn’t want to influence his journey, so we had to put a lot of our emotions in a box when we were around him. Plus, it’s not like we’re the greatest shooters in the world, but when the money is tight and the story is emerging at warp speed, you do what you have to so you can get it on tape.
MM: Was there a sense of foreboding at all during the filming of the documentary, knowing that Steve might not be around to see it?
BM: There was a huge sense of foreboding, amplified 10,000 times by a request Steve made before we started filming. It was his only creative input before or during the shoot: “Even if I die, you have to finish the documentary and still make it funny. I don’t want to make a depressing cancer movie.”
MM: Your film has won multiple awards at film festivals, and now it’s qualified for an Academy Award nomination. At the outset of the project, did you think you would ever get this far?
JF: The last thing we wanted to do was think about the future, honestly. It all seemed bleak and ugly. Every agent, manager, producer and advisor we talked to told us not to make the movie. Steve’s health was a big question mark. A Letterman appearance seemed completely impossible. We were still living in a one-bedroom apartment with practically no money. All we could do was live in the present and capture as much of the story as possible, however we managed to do it. When the film was finally finished and a few of the bigger fests sent rejection letters we thought, “That’s it. They were all right. No one wants to see this movie.” But when Michael Rabehl of Cinequest took a chance on us and the film received standing ovations and sell-out crowds–all of which Steve was there to see–we began to hope the movie might touch people as much as we’d dreamed it would. It’s been a great roller-coaster ride since Cinequest. Audiences everywhere are embracing the film, and we’ve had entire theaters stay behind for Q&A sessions. It’s been amazing. We’re a little film that’s being discovered by everyday people. . . and they are telling their friends. It’s a wonderful thing.
MM: In order to fund your Oscar campaign, you started a Kickstarter fund to help reach out to your audience. Can you talk about that decision? What have been the pros and cons?
BM: Having raised over $40,000 in less than one week is clearly one for the plus column! We had no way to know who would come out and embrace the Kickstarter campaign, or how long it would take to raise the money, especially since many of our audience members aren’t necessarily Web or tech savvy. Plus, on Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing. You set out to make your goal by the deadline, but if you miss, even by $1, you get nothing. And no, you can’t throw in money yourself, as that’s considered money laundering, so you have to count on the kindness of others. In putting together the campaign, we took every big piece of advice out there (Ask for the bare minimum you need, make a great campaign video, explain how Kickstarter works, offer a $1 reward, etc.) except for one. We broke a biggie. Everyone says the sweet spot for campaign length is 30 days. We went for the current max (60 days) because we wanted the campaign to last through whatever screenings or press we might receive up until DocuWeeks. It was a gamble, because it meant maxing out every credit card we had to float us until the money would get here, if the campaign was successful, which we believed it would be. And people have been amazing. Hundreds have come out with their hard-earned cash in support of Dying to Do Letterman, proving that there truly is an audience for this movie. We broke $37,000 in 5 days and 5 hours. We’re still stunned.
MM: Is the experience you’ve had with Kickstarter one that you would recommend to other moviemakers?
JF: Yes. . . as long as they put in the work ahead of time. We’ve supported about a dozen campaigns over the past year or so, not only to help great projects we love, but also to learn how it all works. We then read everything we could find on the Web about how to run a successful campaign and tried to follow those tips as closely as we could. And we’re still learning. Every day we scour the Web, searching for ideas that might help Dying to Do Letterman be one of the lucky six-figure successes on Kickstarter. Choosing Kickstarter over IndieGoGo was not an easy decision (you keep whatever you make on IndieGoGo, and we love how helpful their blog is), but in the end we went for Kickstarter because they did have more “big money” successes. Now we’re just hoping Kickstarter notices us at some point and features us on their front page. As we say in the video, every dollar we raise above our goal goes toward following the plan in Jon Reiss’ book Think Outside the Box Office by putting Steve’s story in theaters nation-wide. If we can get noticed by Kickstarter, we believe that will happen.
To help Steve, Joke and Biagio with their campaign, and to learn more about Dying to Do Letterman, visit www.dyingtodoletterman.com.