Bill Pullman, Dylan Baker and Curtiss Clayton
Bill Pullman, Dylan Baker and Curtiss Clayton
Photo: Vitagraph Films

You’d think that after 20 years in the business, making movies would only get easier. But as editor-turned-director Curtiss Clayton discovered with his directorial debut, the dark dramedy Rick, all the experience in the world cannot protect you from The Laws of Indie Moviemaking.

From a flu-ridden set to an elongated search for distribution, the story of the film’s production is almost as dramatic as the film itself. Here, Clayton discusses his new picture, his surprise at finding early financing for such dark material and why all independent artists need to stand up for their beliefs.

Jennifer Wood (MM): So how did you get involved with Rick? How did the script first come to you?

Curtiss Clayton (CC): Ruth Charney, the producer, is an old friend and she knew that I was trying to make the jump from editing to directing. I had shown her a couple of other scripts that I was interested in doing, but she knew Daniel Handler and had a copy of his script, Rick. But after reading it, I couldn’t believe that anyone would finance it, just given the type of material that it is. The lead character is such a difficult type of character—the type that you’re basically not allowed to portray in any kind of American movie, indie or not. It didn’t have a happy ending and the humor was so sardonic. Ruth had a hunch, which is what makes her such a great producer. And, in fact, ContentFilm was only the second place we took the project.

MM: Really?

CC: Yeah. They were just extraordinarily supportive right from the beginning. Which I still can’t believe, even now that it’s all over. (laughing) But I’m very grateful.

MM: When you went to them, did you already have the film packaged?

CC: No. That’s what’s even more extraordinary about it, because they just responded to the material. We had no package to speak of, other than me and the script. And I’m not even sure to what degree they were aware of Daniel’s reputation as writer of the Lemony Snicket books, because that certainly never came up as an issue or as something that we pushed in trying to promote the project. They just seemed to genuinely respond to the material… I remain extremely grateful to them to this day—and very admiring of their good taste.

MM: But distribution took you a bit longer…

CC: Well, that’s sort of the flip-side of the whole experience. As enjoyable and gratifying as the production and post-production part of it was, the distribution aspect was really agonizing.

MM: How long did it take you to find distribution after your Toronto premiere?

CC: The world premiere was at Toronto 2003 and it was almost exactly a year later that it opened theatrically. The time lag was not so unusual, but what we had to do to get it into theaters I think was somewhat unusual.

MM: What was that?

CC: What I did was one step removed from distributing it myself. No distributor was interested after Toronto and it seemed that, officially, it was just over at that point. We had a sales rep who was telling us that they would work to try and get a video sale, but that was the most we could expect. I was told there wasn’t really any point in screening the film anymore because the judgement had been made at Toronto and everybody that was significant had seen it and passed on it. Whereas I thought, perhaps naively, that the handful of people who had seen it at Toronto—even if they did represent the entire distribution universe—represented just a tiny fraction of the people I thought might be interested in seeing it.

I acknowledged that it was a somewhat offbeat film, but I thought that called for some special handling. I thought we should have some screenings; I thought we should try to promote it, especially in the New York film community. But no one seemed interested, particularly in spending the money that would take, so the film languished for several months after Toronto.

MM: So what happened?

CC: Our sales rep did make a sale in March of 2004 to the Sundance Channel for the video rights and it was a good deal… I was the only one thinking ‘Surely this can’t be all there is to it?’ I felt like it was over before it began, because there was one screening in Toronto and suddenly that was the end of the story. I just thought there were a lot of people who hadn’t seen the film and who were completely unaware of it and there has to be more that can be done with this. But that was my single opinion.

The deal with The Sundance Channel was a good deal, but it also meant that the film was going to go straight to video. Once that deal was done there was really no interest in making any further effort with the picture, so I was truly on my own at that point. But I was very proud of the film. I thought that we had achieved what we set out to do. I was a great fan of Daniel’s script and Daniel’s work in general. I thought that Bill Pullman and the entire cast had done a fantastic job and I thought it deserved to be seen; I thought it deserved a better fate than just going straight to video.

So I went on my own to David Shultz at Vitagraph Films. I knew that he had seen the film in Toronto, had liked it and had shown a great deal of resourcefulness in getting offbeat and difficult films into the theatrical marketplace, with almost no money to work with. So I asked for his help in getting some bookings on the art-house circuit and, with David’s help, we were able to get the bookings in some pretty prestigious cinemas.

The difficult part for me was that I had to handle the P&A costs. Vitagraph is not a large enough company that, in the absence of any other support, could take on those costs. So for me it was a case of putting my money where my mouth was. I think everyone else involved with it felt the picture hadn’t gotten a fair shake, but nobody else was willing to risk money.

To me it just became ‘Well, if I’m saying these things about the picture and I believe in it, then I have to be willing to back that up.’ So once I made that commitment and we started to get the bookings, of course, interest started to perk up. The Sundance Channel was actually very supportive in helping us with a couple of premieres in New York and LA, getting a lot more publicity than we otherwise would have.

MM: When did you decide that you wanted to direct?

Oh, I always wanted to. I think that most people who are working in other areas of film production really have that desire or came into it through that desire. For me it was something that I never wanted to let go of.  Getting into editing was something that was part of a practical decision when I graduated film school, as I had to make a living… But once I had done Drugstore Cowboy and began to get steady work, my desire to do my own thing reasserted itself.

MM: Was there a particular piece of material that you were waiting for?

CC: No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s been more a case of the type of picture in general that I’m interested in doing just being out of favor, commercially. I’ve had a number of projects that I’ve tried to do over the last 10 years, but Rick is the first one I’ve actually gotten support for. Which is a perplexing and amusing thing to me because it’s probably the most abrasive piece of material that I’ve tried to do. (laughs)

MM: The film is really a career-defining role for Bill Pullman, who usually plays the quintessential nice guy. How long before production began did the two of you start working on this role? And what were some of the things that you talked about in helping him bring this truly unique character to the screen?

CC: We had a week’s worth of pretty intensive work together before we went to New York to begin pre-production. So that happened pretty much as soon as Bill agreed to take the part. We went through the script page by page and discussed what was going on in every moment and a lot of great stuff came out of those sessions, including a lot of modifications.

It was a good process because it wasn’t like the usual thing you see, where an actor or somebody else with clout will come in and announce that they’re making changes. Bill had a lot of questions and ideas about the character, naturally. And in our discussions certain things came out that we felt needed to work their way into the script. But everything we did we transcribed and sent to Daniel and Daniel would rewrite based on what we’d done, because we both felt that all the dialogue should remain in Daniel’s voice. He’s got such a unique style and is so wonderful. We both were very concerned that no matter what we did, it didn’t take us away from what Daniel had created.

MM: You’ve talked about the differences between Bill Pullman and Agnes Bruckner as actors. How did you balance their different needs? Their relationship is so crucial to film and, ultimately, the audience’s sympathy toward Rick. In the first few scenes you think “This guy’s an asshole,” but then you start to understand who he is through her, which is so important.

CC: I think what you just said is sort of a crucial point for me because of this whole question about Rick’s essential character: Is he a prick? And, if he is a prick, then why are we interested in watching him? I think that whatever else he may be, he’s still a human being. So as unsavory as a lot of his behavior is, it’s coming from some core of humanity, even if that’s a corrupt core. So to me, at least, that makes it worth taking note of and understanding….

I already knew what I was in for with Bill, as far the working relationship, but I had no idea with Agnes, because I was only able to have one conversation with her before we started… I was really impressed with her in our first meeting because she came very well-prepared and had a lot of insight into the character and clearly wanted to do the part. But then it seemed like we could never get ahold of her and we weren’t even sure if she was going to show up because she didn’t appear until two days before we started shooting. But then, once she was on the set, the same thing happened: She was ready to go, she knew her lines, she knew what she was going to do, she was all set. You really didn’t have to work very hard with her because she was prepared.

My feeling was if this is what works for her, then great. I love what she’s doing. There was quite a contrast there between Bill, who is very meticulous and likes to do a lot of takes, and Anges. Whatever preparation she does, she’s ready to go and she gives you that and once she’s given it to you she’s really not interested in working it to death. So with each individual involved you have to respect their methods and be aware of exactly what it is that’s giving you results.

MM: From what I’ve read about the film’s production, it seems that just about anything that could go wrong during filming did—from everyone getting the flu (starting with you on the first day of shooting) to the production designer leaving midway through. Were there ever times where you felt the production was really just cursed—and that you might not ever see it through to the end?

CC: Oh, sure. But I don’t think any of that is unusual for an indie film, when you’re having to work with such limited resources. I think all those problems were balanced against a really strong spirit amongst the crew—the fact that our production designer bailed on us not withstanding… (laughing) I think in retrospect, and especially considering the struggles of getting the film seen, the production period was really enjoyable.

MM: Do you think that, having worked with so many great directors over the years, you had an advantage over other first-timers?

CC: Yes, certainly I had a great advantage in having observed so many other productions from a really unique vantage point from the editing room. Because you see what’s happening during production and then you see how those things carry through to the completion of the film. I was aware of many of the pitfalls and what to watch for. And I also think my experience as an editor helped me get through each shooting day, when I had to make decisions on the spot about what to cut or how to condense my plans for shooting just in order to make the day.

MM: Do you think it was a blessing or curse to start out your directorial career under such extreme circumstances? How would you do it differently next time?

CC: Well, it’s a good question. I would really have to think hard about wanting to do a film under those conditions again, because I feel like so much of it was just unnecessarily difficult—only because we didn’t have money. On the other hand, especially considering how the film fared commercially, it’s difficult to ask anybody to risk even $1 million on something where they’re not going to get their money back. So despite all that, the film exists. From that standpoint, it was definitely worth it.