Necessity is the mother of invention. Filmmakers truly are alchemists when it comes to turning zero funds into a hero’s run. Writer-actor-producer Hus Miller spun gold out of non-existent budgets to create a handful of short films prior to making his first feature. And that ingenuity served him well.
You Can’t Say No had a budget of $800,000 and canny creative Miller managed to save about 10 percent of that after pitching to and being picked by the MovieMaker Production Services (MMPS) program. The unique initiative is a budget booster whereby a selected project receives production services that double the value of a filmmaker’s investment to the tune of at least $25,000.
Miller credits the MMPS program with netting him around $75,000 for post-production.
You Can’t Say No, which also stars Marguerite Moreau, Hamish Linklater and Peter Fonda, is the comedic yarn of a listless couple on the brink of divorce. Through happenstance they spend a weekend in NorCal’s bucolic wine country engaging in a game of doing things they’d never dared to during their marriage.
Directed by Miller’s longtime collaborator Paul Kramer, it premiered at Cinequest in 2018 and is now available on media platforms in the United States. Later this month it begins a two-year residency on Showtime and will open worldwide in 2020. It’s already out in the UK under the alternative title Make or Break.
As MovieMaker launches a new MMPS summer submission drive, Miller muses with us about his personal experience with the program and how it made the most of the movie’s money. He also explains how making shorts was his own film school, how he went from page to screen, and what it was like working with cult cynosure Peter Fonda.
“Anybody who’s made a film before knows it’s ridiculously hard to get money to make a movie,” Miller says.
So “you can’t say no”to a windfall of $75,000 when it comes to making your feature debut then, can you?
“MovieMaker Production Services is the best way to make your money go much further,” he says.
“With a low budget film, once you go into production, money is flying out the window. It’s amazing how quickly money gets spent. Making a low budget film you have to be extremely careful with how you’re spending your money because once that’s gone ‘the studio’ isn’t giving you any more money. We had a limited amount of funds.
“With MMPS you can pick and choose the services that you want whether it’s lighting equipment or cameras or post-production or color correction or saving on hotels or anything that MovieMaker can possibly provide. It basically makes your money go much, much further than it normally would.”
MMPS has been running for a number of years and besides Miller’s film has helped fund a wide range of projects including Indiscretion, starring Mira Sorvino, and the documentary A Chemical Reaction by Paul Tukey.
Miller says: “We were a little unsure how the process worked. We’d never done anything like it. Tim [Rhys, MovieMaker’s Editor-in-Chief] told us about other productions he’d worked with, and I talked to another producer that had worked with MMPS.
“We had the funds available through MMPS. Ultimately we decided that the best thing for us was to use it for post-production. Tim ended up getting us a fantastic deal with Tunnel Post services.
“Working with Tim on it was great, he fulfilled everything he said he was going to do and it ended up saving us quite a bit of money which is fantastic for a low budget feature film.”
Miller shot the film where he was raised, in Sonoma County north of San Francisco. The skills for making his first feature were honed on a string of shorts which formed his education in the craft of filmmaking.
“I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t go to school to become a writer. For me personally, short films were instrumental in being able to figure out how to write a story,” he says.
“Paul and I went and made nine short films together and we were making these short films with no budgets. Literally zero budgets. We worked with a group of people who were either putting in money or buying food or somebody had a camera.
“This was true for me, it might not be true for everybody, but making short films was my film school. I never had the money to go to film school. What people have at their disposal now to be able to go and make short films, even 10 or 15 years ago we didn’t have that. Now you can shoot a film on your phone.”
He added: “It’s having a good story. I wrote hundreds of short scripts. Some of them worked and some of them didn’t. Then we made short films and some of them worked, some of them didn’t. That’s the process.”
Admitting he was lucky to “be in the right place at the right time,” Miller says: “It’s easily a script that could have gone nowhere and just be sitting on my computer. But we got very lucky.”
Notoriously the filmmaking process is usually a lengthy one. But for Miller, there was interest from investors after six months of writing and refining the script with Kramer. And just a year after starting writing they went into pre-production.
Miller breaks down the lightning-fast process.
“The film’s not autobiographical by any means. My wife and I have been married for 17 years but there are ups and downs. A lot of this did not happen to my wife and I but I wanted to get her on board with kind of telling our story a little bit.
“Then I started writing. I was writing about 10 pages at a time and sending those pages to him [Kramer] so we were working on this thing together. And then it was obviously showing it to my wife and saying, ‘What do you think?’ She was a huge part of the process too.”
He added: “With the script from start to finish was a year. That was probably, I’m maybe exaggerating slightly, about 250 drafts. It was writing every day.”
Half-way through, Miller recruited executive producer Douglas Jackson.
“I asked our executive producer, ‘Hey do you know anybody who might be interested in funding a film?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, me.’ I completely get how extremely lucky I was in being able to get somebody interested right away who wanted to be involved to a certain extent and had ideas, but really let us do our own thing.”
He added: “I’d say I was about six months into writing the script when we knew, ‘OK, we’ve possibly got a chance to make a movie here.’”
The project really took off when casting director Julia Kim was hired.
“The first person we ended up casting in the movie was Peter Fonda. Julia came to us and said, ‘What do you think about Peter Fonda?’ And we said, ‘Of course we’d want Peter Fonda!’ It was around three days later, we had a yes from Peter Fonda and then it was a week, maybe two weeks, until Paul and I were actually having lunch with Peter.”
He continued: “You go into making a film and hope you can get some names but when I was writing I didn’t have anyone specific in mind for the roles. The fact that Julia found Peter for us and he was interested right away, our minds were blown. Not only that but having him be the first person on board was amazing.”
Paul Kramer, Peter Fonda, Hus Miller, Hamish Linklater and Moreau. Photograph by Scott Krueger
Just what was it like securing the acting chops of counterculture champion Fonda to play your on-screen dad?
“Peter Fonda is an American icon, so it really helped us,” Miller says.
“Being the first person on board our film gave our film cachet moving into casting the rest of the roles. For Paul and I, making our first feature film as unknowns within the industry is extremely hard. Having gone through this process of writing the film in a year to getting Peter Fonda on board, it was surreal.”
The first day of shooting was a scene between Miller and Fonda and the first week saw crucial scenes involving Marguerite Moreau and Hamish Linklater too.
“One of the biggest things that we learned from him [Fonda] is to slow down,” he says.
“You’re making an independent movie, you’re trying to make the most of your day, people are rushing around. As a production we were getting up and running. So it was a lot of chaos. Everyone was figuring each other out and figuring out how our shooting days were going to go. But the big thing for Peter was, ‘Slow down. Take your time.’”
He continued: “I don’t mean slow down the production because you’ve got to move, but what I took from that was to slow down and enjoy the process. I think that’s the biggest thing in terms of making a film because once a film comes out, it’s no longer yours. People get to decide what they think about the film.
“Now it’s out and we’ve got distribution, it’s really a success on one level. But really it’s the process of making the movie that’s important. That’s what I learned from him.”
Miller says Fonda helped bring a lighthearted touch to proceedings off-camera.
“During production Peter was so much fun. He was having a blast. And for us that helped our production so much because he helped us have fun. Being week one that really set things into motion. It’s not to say it was easy—it never is—but the big thing for me, looking back, is to enjoy the process of it.”
Like Miller’s tripartite turn on his first feature, Fonda wrote, starred in and produced the 1969 classic Easy Rider. In You Can’t Say No, Miller—a fully-fledged bike buff off-screen—rides a motorcycle as he heads to his dad’s home.
He admits the pair’s similarities are happily, yet unintentionally, synchronous.
“I like to ride motorcycles in my free time and that was part of the character—it kind of represented freedom. And obviously that was a big thing in Easy Rider but that was never something I thought about while I was writing and again, the whole connection to Peter Fonda came much later.”
He added, “Like I said, we were extremely lucky.” MM