A commercially successful screenwriter friend of mine recently attended a showing of my film, The Lie. Afterwards, as folks were milling about and drinking the booze that I was hoping wouldn’t run out, he approached me and began a wistful ramble that I often hear from well-paid acquaintances. Something like, “It’s so fantastic how you guys keep it real with your work, man.” Or worse yet, “You know what’s great about you guys? You manage to make cool things for no money.”
I’d like to take this opportunity to admit a shameful secret about myself: There’s a very fine line between the gratitude and the resentment that conversations like these stir inside me. On one hand, the fact that I’ve been involved with micro-budget movies like The Blair Witch Project, Beautiful Losers and Humpday—movies that could never have been made inside the system yet still managed to connect with audiences—is a source of great pride in my life. When I was a kid, I listened to a lot of punk rock. Technically speaking, the music was pretty bad… but the spirit of it spoke to me in a way that nothing else did. There will always be something about the DIY approach that I hold dear to my heart.
On the other hand, I’m in my mid-30s, and I have to admit that there are days when I deeply crave a sense of security in my life. Just last week, in fact, I found myself selling stuff on eBay in order to get the bills paid. I’ve watched folks around me become hugely successful, and, on my weakest days, it’s hard not to feel like I must be defective in some way. There are days when I’m convinced I would sell out any shred of my indie cred in exchange for financial freedom. But this story is not about one of those days.
The idea to make The Lie originally grew out of a deep state of frustration. My producing partner and I had another project that we’d been trying to make for years, and it was going nowhere. The script was too “indie” and the budget too large. Finally, we had to admit defeat. After that reckoning and a subsequent three-month nap, we began looking for a new project, one that could be made outside of the system for an affordable price.
When I read T.C. Boyle’s amazing short story The Lie in The New Yorker, I immediately became obsessed. Beneath the dark hilarity of the story, in which a man pretends his baby has died as a way to get out of work, was a landmine of truth that reflected the very struggle that I wrestle with the most: The inevitable compromises we face while fumbling our way toward adulthood.
I called my partner, who agreed that a film based on The Lie could be organized quickly, since we already had the right group of collaborators within our inner circle to pull it off. Four months later, we were in production.
“Beg, borrow or steal,” “By any means necessary…” Pick your favorite overused revolutionary maxim, and that’s how we rolled. We pulled in favors from cast and crew with whom we already had relationships. Between directing and acting, I knew I’d be burning the candle to the point of diminished objectivity, so it was essential for me to work with folks I already trusted.
Thankfully, we ended up with a talented ensemble of collaborators who were far above our pay grade. I was surrounded by the greatest of confidants. My producing partner, Mary Pat Bentel; our DP, Ben Kasulke; and my two wonderful co-leads, Jess Weixler and Mark Webber, were all as solid as they come—talented, hard-working and always there to watch my back.
Having spent many years as an actor, I felt that it was important to create an environment that was loose enough to allow for the unique talents of the actors to evolve organically. So we decided that we’d shoot using an extensive story treatment and heavily improvised dialogue.
This was great in theory, sure. But in reality, tackling a 15-day improvised shoot with 26 locations, vintage vehicles and a six-month-old infant as one of our leads was a wee bit ambitious. There’s another maxim about ignorance and bliss that, thankfully, nobody mentioned at the time.
The shoot produced many war stories, too numerous to mention in their entirety (and some too illegal to admit to in print). But here are some highlights:
Question: How do you get a shrieking infant to behave when you’re losing light and only have your location for three hours?
Answer: You don’t. You rewrite to accommodate the unhappy baby.
Question: How many crew members does it take to push a vintage Winnebago into position after it dies a quarter-mile from where you need to shoot it?
Answer: All of them. Plus one unsuspecting passerby.
Question: How many days in a row can you feed your crew burritos before they mutiny?
Question: How much will it cost you to convince an iconic transvestite to do a cameo as a waitress named Cherry?
Answer: $100 in food and $300 in booze. (Put that one in your back pocket. It’s a conundrum many indie moviemakers will eventually face.)
Question: What are the potential dangers of letting out-of-town crew members crash in your production office and drive your production vehicle?
Answer: You might have to clean up some condoms. Your neighbors might complain about the smell of pot smoke. And if you’re really unlucky, they might blow up the engine of the ’70s diesel Mercedes that you still need in order to shoot the climax of your movie.
Question: And yet, what is it worth to fight Murphy and all his laws and still come out the other side?
Answer: Fucking priceless.
After a three-week shoot and almost a year of post-production, we were finally done. There were many cold burritos and late nights in windowless basement studios along the way. There were also deep friendships formed and many laughs to be had. One thing is certain when it comes to low-budget moviemaking: If someone spends a portion of his or her life on a project that may never see the light of day for a meager salary that doesn’t even pay the rent… you’d better be damn grateful.
In many ways, the outcome of this flick was the best-case scenario. We premiered at Sundance, sold the film to a reputable distributor and it’ll be coming to a theater near you in November. All told, we got pretty damn lucky.
So what is the tiny moral lesson imbued in these ramblings?
Question: If I were asked to direct a studio comedy where Rob Schneider farts a lot then starts a buffalo farm in his backyard, would I say yes?
Answer: Odds are better than even.
But: Would I change one iota of the experience that I had on The Lie or any of the other independent ventures that I’ve had the tremendous good fortune to be involved in?
Answer: Not for all the goddamn money in the world…Well, maybe for all the money. MM
The Lie hits theaters on November 18, 2011. For more information, visit www.theliemovie.com.