How did Michele Remsen write, direct, produce, and act in her first feature film Toss It?

Not a big enough question. How did she shoot the five location film in 12 days? Toss It follows Remsen and Phil Burke as Emily and Finn through a trope-tossing and genre-dismantling “anti romantic comedy.” The film is packed to capacity—from the writing, to the visuals, to the stable of complicated characters and their intertwining relationships. How did Remsen keep it all straight? The multi-hyphenate filmmaker breaks down the essentials to executing a packed but productive shooting.

The Fundamentals

I rounded up talented actors and a pro-crew who all worked for fumes because they loved the script, and me, who loved them back. We got on like one big (…okay, ‘lean,’ as in, few cast and crew) family. The actors were game because of the script, which started as a one-act and evolved into a full play. That script was road-tested in readings in front of live audiences, so the actors became excited to play roles that sparked with audiences. These readings also showed that the story worked, where the laughs were, and that with the right cast and careful editing, I could recreate that pacing on film. More on the marvelous crew, who became integral members of Team Toss It, in a bit. First, I had to pay everyone on this SAG-ULB (ultra low budget) feature, which leads to:

Malachy McCourt and last-minute lead Phil Burke in Toss It. Image courtesy of Twenty2 Films

The Money: Double-D Financing—Debt and Donations

I learned to be down with debt. At least until my film sells. Having a good credit rating helped—it meant I could use existing and new credit cards and get personal bank loans. I also played the 0%-introductory rate balance-transfer credit card shuffle. After I maximized that gambit, a friend gave me an invaluable tip—crowdfunding with a twist. Nonprofit arts organization Fractured Atlas saved the day. I submitted an application proposal to become one of their Fiscally Sponsored Projects, which, once Toss It was accepted, allowed me to create a crowdfunding campaign via their website under their aegis. Bonus points: their 501(c)(3) status allows a donor to not just gift a cash contribution like most crowdfunding platforms, but write off their donation as a tax deduction.

I shamelessly asked old and new friends, fellow artists and day job coworkers to “toss” in what they could. I also asked if a few top-tax-bracket types, who annually donate to charities rather than give it to the government, were game to contribute to a fun, charitable cause. They even recommended my campaign to friends in their financial-cohort, who all got a “thank you” in the film credits, though, no profit-participation. Donations are not-for-profit investments. Turns out, being part of an artistic endeavor (and lowering their tax burden) was a win-win for these folks. One may even harbor a plan-b post-retirement career as a producer—so I discovered that sometimes funding comes from unlikely sources when there’s a little more in it for the donor.

Cobbling together my debt and their donations, I secured enough to get it in the can and through post. Post-game gratitude goes to New York Women in Film & Television for awarding Toss It a Nancy Malone Marketing & Promotion Grant which I used to pay for a trailer and hire publicist Annie Jeeves of Cinematic Red PR to promote Toss It. Pure indies like Toss It are competing for eyeballs with star-driven “indies” (i.e., any non-studio movie). Guppies need help being seen in the big fish pond that is the current festival circuit climate. With studios focused on franchises, established directors make films independently that premiere at top festivals, leaving few slots for new voices with fresh casts. Having a publicist with connections helped get press, sales agents, and distributors looking at Toss It, which is a bit of a unicorn, because it’s a:

Allison Frasca holding the chaos together as Natalie in Toss It

12-Day-Feature Set in Five Cities

Location, location, location. Taking place in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Main Line, I shot it entirely in New York. Yes, I like working from home; plus, I didn’t need to budget for housing because actors slept at home and travel expenses were subway fare (#SAG-ULB). I location-scouted for fully dressed sets that passed for the various cities and planned minimal crew field trips at the end of the shoot to get exteriors. I then prepped meticulous shot lists and detailed schedules to shoot it in 12 days by bundling locations. With these pacing demands, I was thrilled that 20-year veteran DP George Barnes dug my script, owned piles of glorious Arri Alexa camera gear, and had his own company-crew to shoot it. Only trick was: to get his top-notch crew, George could only ask them to work for a fraction of their normal fees for two weeks, not three.

Being by necessity a multi-tasker since college, where I juggled maximum course loads, lead roles in Shakespeare productions, and working fridays on Wall Street to supplement the loans and grants which floated my educational costs in NYC, I thought: “I got this.” I’d shot Juke, my 25-minute short, in two days. That proved to me that, with proper planning, sharp actors, and a pro-crew, I could get it done. So I reworked Toss It’s script, relocated scenes, bought a few stock clips of skyline, and cut flashbacks which had opened up the play more. Financial and timing constraints made the screenplay more similar to my original play, but thankfully the gifted cast painted pictures with words, rather taking up my few precious days shooting second and third takes. We shot, on-average, eight-pages-per-day. This was possible due to George working quickly with me on camera-coverage and the amazing crew who had every set-up ready in lightning-quick time and never kept me waiting.

Enhancing the quick pace was George’s long-time editor, Lorna Chin, who pulled double-duty as DIT. A key member of Team Toss It, she worked inside George’s customized truck, which contains an editing-suite that traveled to every location, allowing us to ensure we had all our coverage before we wrapped locations that were available for limited time frames. Bonus: being on-set every day, Lorna was intimately familiar with the film when she sat down to edit it, so she knew the pacing of the masters and how to cut coverage to capture it. She was dubbed a wizard by cast and crew for her editing skills and the speed with which she executed her alchemy.

The final key component that made the whole shoot flow was the ensemble cast: late addition Phil Burke, myself, Blair Ross, Stephen Bogardus, Allison Frasca, Jenny Zerke, Eric Goss and Malachy McCourt. The entire cast arrived with letter-perfect lines, diving immediately into scenes and owning their roles with a creative ferocity that made my heart swell. Everyone was all-in for 12 days, starting with scenes filmed around my Upper West Side apartment, then 42nd Street, followed by the entire wedding sequence at the Hotel Wales, a quick one-day road-trip to New Jersey, and the miracle that was:

Creative framing: Allison Frasca and Eric Goss in the Rye House in Toss It

The House That Almost Wasn’t

My dear cousin Dan graciously allowed me to film half my movie in his home. But when original funding fell through, filming was pushed back a year while I fundraised. Meanwhile, Dan and his wife Tamara had finally decided to sell their house and travel more. Suddenly, a gun was to my head: film that summer or it would never happen. I could never replace a free and beautiful location that perfectly suited the story. Not to mention the house was conveniently located 25 miles from NYC in Rye, meaning cast and crew could travel daily by Metro-North without lodging expenses (#producingsavvy). I also shot-listed every scene and did coverage-angles in advance for the location, so I really needed the house. Secretly hoping it would sit on the market for a while, their house was of course snapped up immediately. Dan and Tamara however pushed the sale back one week so I could film in the house for five days. The debt I owe Dan and Tamara is enormous. Though they happily did this for me, I repaid them by preserving on film forever their gracious, warm, and memory-filled home.

Ironically, the stager hired to prep their home for the marketplace removed a lot of Dan and Tamara’s personal touches, but the resulting aesthetic, spare and well-appointed, perfectly matched the aesthetic of the couple who own it in the film. Adele and Jim are a sophisticated pair who got everything they thought they wanted. But as much as that house spoke pointedly to the American dream chased by many characters in Toss It, another spot was perhaps even more exceptional because it was:

Phil Burke and Jenny Zerke reach an emotional climax in Toss It

The Magic Location

Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and even an assisted living facility in one day—all without leaving Manhattan. A true New Yorker won’t leave the city but finds other cities within. The Hotel Wales on the Upper East Side, for example, serving as Philadelphia hotel interiors. Thanks to Events Manager Daphne Moore,  who negotiated standard room-rates instead of film-shoot fees. We shot inside the event room and hotel suites, so no public spaces were compromised while the hotel continued business as usual. But what we shot for the hotel entrance was actually across town—the front door of a private home, known as, at the end of my street. Tipped off by a local doorman that it was often used for film shoots, the owner’s lovely mother gave me a tour, noting Law & Order shot in their living room and 50 Cent descended their grand staircase for a music video. After a fair and quick negotiation with the owner, Russell Miller, I bought sidewalk-rights and use of their ground-floor bathroom for our first day of filming. Miller’s Manhattan mansion exterior ended up passing for an old-school hotel near Philly’s Fairmont Park. Russell, a graphic designer, even volunteered to create a stencil-graphic for his glass double-front-doors. Look for “The Fairmont Hotel” in gold lettering (#productiondesigngravy).

However delightful and polished as that fake front was, the truly magical location may be The Out Hotel. Sold just days before I had scheduled a one-day-shoot for nine short scenes, I fortunately got the manager in my corner. He let us have the run of the place for 12-hours. My heart-attack in the end turned into a magical day of filming. Mid-century modern architectural lines, interior courtyards, and blazing sun brought the West Coast to West 42nd Street. Even a last minute room shuffle was miraculously resolved by our crew that worked like elves converting a conference room into a marriage registry office. And for my final trick: turning a storage closet into Uncle Claude’s apartment in an assisted living facility (thanks to strategic camera angles and a little VFX).

…and who said making movies isn’t fun?

Phil Burke and Michele Remsen meet in The Out Hotel in Toss It

The Takeaway

To sum up “how they did it” I emphasize they, because filmmaking is a team sport.

Shout-outs to every “wedding guest” who made the reception a party. To every friend who made every small-part so big. To Phil Burke for stepping in so late to fit so seamlessly into the family as flirty foil Finn. To AD Diane McGuire for wearing so many hats. To Andrew Hendrick for being such a utility-player. To Owen Ross for so skillfully (first-time) scoring. To Tom Fleischman for truly mastering the mix. To P.J. Palmer for being my crucial compadre-in-film. And to every single end-credit. I used to wonder at all those names in the credit rolls of films. The truth is you need every one of them. So to all who contributed financially, creatively, and logistically, I am eternally indebted, grateful, and happy that our joint effort is a film that “tosses” expectations, dismantles genres, and digs deep while still hewing to the entertainment-line. Putting a little joy back into the world was the goal. Launching Toss It into a world morphing out of old traditions and into a new order may make my “timeless” film timely, but I didn’t set out with an agenda other than to make a film with a lot of heart, and everyone involved did too. If that reflects real life, then that’s how we did it. MM

Toss It premiered at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival in February 2018. For more information, and to watch its trailer, visit the film’s official website. All images courtesy of Twenty2 Films.