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MovieMaker Breakthrough Award Winners Tell Their Stories

MovieMaker Breakthrough Award Winners Tell Their Stories

Articles - Directing

David John James

David John James finds
himself trapped in Sand Trap.

I got the idea to write Sand Trap in 1989 shortly
after shooting a short film in the California desert north of Mojave
for my film school buddy, Martin Schenk. I liked the idea of doing
something that used the barren expanse of the desert as a set piece,
and it was all out there for free. I wrote the script, a character-driven
noir thriller using locations we had used or that I had seen while
doing Martin’s movie: a small desert town, mine shafts and a dry
lake bed. I was only out of film school a year and figured I would
probably just shoot the movie on 16mm with my Eclair NPR with a
small crew of friends and with actors that I knew.

The script turned out pretty good. The first person
to read it was a producer-director friend who was looking for scripts.
She called me the next day to tell me she wanted to option it.
I told her I was dead set on directing it and she said it wouldn’t
be a problem because she had a three-film producing deal coming
together. This was back when home video was booming and there was
lots of money around. As you can imagine, I was pretty stoked to
have reached paydirt, fulfilling my dream to direct a feature film
so quickly. I began having glorious visions of the huge career
that would follow. Little did I realize this was just the beginning
of a long process of waiting around in futility for others to produce
my movie. During this I realized that movies really only get made
when one person with fanatical persistence commits themselves to
the task, refusing to ever be denied.

The eight years that passed were far from a complete
waste. I continued learning the craft of moviemaking while working
as an assistant cameraman, then camera operator on big studio features
and as director of photography on over a dozen low-budget movies.
I also met and worked with a lot of great people. I was able to
call on them to return favors by working on Sand Trap. I also did
more writing, and I re-wrote Sand Trap with Jerry Rapp, another
USC classmate. The script got tighter, funnier and more edgy. The
one thing I would advise to anyone wanting to make a movie is to
work on your script until it’s the best it can be. Then spend even
more time after that making it tighter. That time is free! You’d
be a fool not to use it. There is nothing more frustrating than
cutting out scenes from your film that you spent valuable portions
of your already rushed shooting schedule, meager film allotment
and expensive telecine time on.

After a while I decided that I should raise the money
myself. I got together with my brother Erik, a business school
graduate and Jerry Rapp, my writing partner, and together we worked
on a game plan. I called a couple of guys I knew from USC who went
to the business school there, knowing they had raised money for
real estate projects. I sold them on the idea that we could make
a movie with very little money. It would be a great investment
because of the ever-growing foreign markets. I used the usual examples
of successful independent features that everyone does. We were
going to try to raise half a million through a limited liability
corporation. I got my `business’ partners to pay for the legal
work while we created a great prospectus packet with a movie one
sheet on the cover and a slick demo tape. It was pretty impressive.
A lot of people told us so. Unfortunately, nobody with any money
was interested, not even dentists. The big problem seemed to be
that we had no track record, or that people heard bad stories about
losing money on movie investments. The only exception was an old
high school buddy who promised me 30 grand when he was drunk at
a wedding. Our momentum slowly ground to a halt and the movie seemed
dead again.

In late 1995 I finally reached critical mass when
I could no longer shoot other people’s films. I now had to make
my film or my head was going to explode. I had just shot a really
beautiful film, Ocean Tribe (see
HTDI MM #27 ed.)
, and was about to shoot second unit on The
Cable Guy, and I just proposed marriage to my girlfriend to boot.
This was it. I felt like it was now or never. It was time to fish
or cut bait.

I called my business partners and said, "Look,
we don’t have the half a million, but we have 30 thousand dollars
(my drunk friend was serious) and if we raise 30 thousand more
we can do it on 16mm with a crew of friends and some actors I know
(I made up a budget to show them we could do it). The start date
is going to be the first Monday of May." Well, sure enough,
once we set a start date, more money came together and the next
thing we knew we had 60 thousand, then 75.

I revised the budget a bit and said, "You know,
if we can come up with 90 thousand we can shoot this thing on 35mm
and have a real movie here." My financing partners said, "Wait
a sec, didn’t you just say if we only had 60 thousand we could
do this thing fine?" This required some more selling, telling
them about the look of 35mm and how it will increase the final
sale. But I was also thinkingHey, let’s make a real moviesomething
we can screen for an audience in a theater.

Sure enough we came up with the 90 thousand. After
languishing with only 30 thousand for more than a year, we tripled
it in a month thanks to a start date. We celebrated by drinking
champagne out of plastic cups. Sand Trap Part-ners, LLC was born.

We obviously didn’t have money to pay real salaries,
so we made deferred deals. I had learned from working on other
no-budget movies that if you ask people to work for free/deferred
on anything longer than a week or so it’s hard to expect them to
go the distance. So we paid everyone 200 dollars a week `per diem’
for the three weeks we shot so that they could at least pay for
gas and food while working. It was the best money we spent.

We got our few locations in town donated. I knew
the desert by then like the back of my hand so in three weeks we
were ready to go. The thing you have to remember about making movies
is that it’s all damage control. You will lose locations at the
last possible moment. The truck with all the art department stuff
won’t show up on the day it absolutely has to be there. The P.A.
with the film doesn’t get it to the lab on time, causing you to
miss your telecine, which costs you three percent of your budget.
There are some things you just can’t keep from happening, whether
you have 90 thousand dollars or 90 million. So at least knowing
those things are coming won’t freak you too bad when they do. Try
to adjust and make do with what you have. Not problems. Challenges.
If you want a less challenging job, go work in a bank.

Harris Done

Director Harris Done on the set of Sand Trap.

When we finally wrapped after 19 intense days, I
couldn’t fall asleep without waking in a panic thinking we had
to move to the next set-up. But that passed after a week or two.

The lessons we learned about post-production could
fill a book. But a real basic one is to know how you’re going to
post the movie before you get there. Whether you’re going to cut
on film or tape? End up with a film print or a video on-line? If
so can you cut on an older Avid? Mix on a Pro Tools or a mixing
stage? Do the research. Ask around. But I have to tell you, some
ignorance isn’t totally a bad thing. If you knew some of the ugly
realities ahead you might never make the film in the first place.

We were able to get an older Avid Media Composer
for eight weeks from a video rental and post house that I had done
lots of business with in the past. The owner agreed to it by becoming
an investor in the film equal to the value of the rental.

Having been lucky with the Avid, I thought we could
also get post sound people to work for deferred pay, which wasn’t
a problem for production. It didn’t happen. So to get our sound
finished we ended up having to go to our investors for more money.
Fortunately we had the locked picture from the Avid to show them,
so they could see we had something. But the additional money we
raised was only enough to scrape by. We still had to do a lot of
work ourselves wherever we could.

You can’t believe how important good sound is. When
you begin to post your movie you realize it’s an entire layer of
emotional information and production value as important as what
we see on the print. You take the tens of thousands of man hours
and millions of dollars invested in sound on Hollywood features
for granted until you have to do it yourself. Plan ahead!

Our music was done by an amazing composer named Bennett
Salvay. His music editor happened to live next door to one of our
actors who got him a tape of the movie. To this day I can’t believe
he agreed to do it. It was one of the most exciting days on the
project finally watching Bennett conducting musicians while the
movie played on a monitor behind them.

When the movie was finally done, of course we applied
to Sundance. I had attended the festival the previous five years
(I really like to ski). I thought we had a shot. My dream was to
premiere there, have a great screening and the distributors would
be fighting for it in the tiny men’s room at the Egyptian theater.
Instead I got the form letter that 870 other filmmakers received
indicating that their dreams wouldn’t be coming true this year.
Oh well, so much for that marketing plan.

Several more festivals turned us down when I read
something about the Newport Beach In-ternational Film Festival.
My brother and I grew up in Orange County and he lives there now.
We figured if they don’t take us, who will. Sure enough, they welcomed
us with open arms like hometown heroes. We made a huge assault
on the local press prior to the festival and before you knew it,
our faces were everywhere. Sand Trap even won the Audience Award.
I think taking advantage of any local festival is a great idea.
It’s easy to send out press packets to the local papers. They love
the local filmmaker angle.

We played a few more festivals and not all are well
organized or as well attended as others. It’s worth asking around.
But nothing beats a free screening of your film in front of a live
audience. One thing I would highly recommend is the IFFM in New
York. It’s a good place to screen your film for both buyers and
festival programmers, and it doesn’t count as a world premiere
since it’s an industry screening. Plus there are lots of great
seminars and panel discussions which are included if you screen

Some final thoughts and words of advice. Know that
you will be working for at least a year, maybe three, for no money
at all. In the end your determination and love for the project
will be the only things to get you through. If you don’t have a
script ready to go now, go out and work on other people’s movies.
If you don’t learn valuable lessons about how to make a movie,
you’ll certainly learn what not to do, which is often more valuable.

Everyone believes that their film will be amazing,
that it will get accepted to Sundance, everyone will love it and
they’ll become an important director who earns lots of money. It
could happen. It’s just good to play the odds and have a back-up
plan. Pace yourself and, who knows, maybe even make a second film.

So you’re probably wondering if our investors ever
got their money back. The answer is YES! We made a deal with P.M.
Entertainment to handle our foreign rights and they’ve done very
well with it. We’ve received several large payments already and
the deferred salaries should be getting paid by the time this is
printed. We’re currently shopping for a domestic deal.

A final note: After eight years I finally finished
the movie and all people say is, "That was great. What are
you doing next?" So my last advice: Have another great script
ready to go.

Morgan Higby

Writer-Director-Star Morgan Higby in Matters
of Consequence

Matters of Consequence
by Morgan Higby

As I stood by the craft service table waiting for my D.P. to come and tell
me how he was quitting because he was tired of the last-minute schedule changes,
the image popped into my head like an out-of-control freight train. It wasn’t
the first time, or the last:

I’m saying goodbye to the last P.A. late one night
(that went three hours over and accomplished about 50 percent of
the day’s shot list). I walk back to my house, go to my office
and blow my brains out.

It was perfect. A way out of this horrible mess that
I had disguised as some pathetic attempt at a low-budget film.
There were only two problems with my grand new plan.

1. I didn’t own a gun.
2. I knew the footage we had in the can was great. Not that I could afford
dailies. I just knew.

Welcome to the glamorous world of no-budget filmmaking.
I would love to tell you about the wonders of working with your
friends and the life-changing experience of making your own film
but, I can’t. It was the worst three weeks of my life. Scratch
that. It’s been the worst two years of my life.

Mistake #1

Not paying the actors. I had written the script around
all my friends whom I thought needed a break. The problem is that
just about every one of my actors booked a paying job during the
shoot. The most notice I ever got was one week but generally it
was the day before they were leaving the country or state. One
actress called me from another state to tell me she wouldn’t be
coming in that morning because she’s working on a commercial for
the next couple days or so. That was on the first day of shooting.

If you buy the actors time then they are committed
to you monetarily because, truth be told, most every "artist" in
our industry will take money over art any day of the week no matter
how much they tell you they love the script.

Mistake #2

Producing the film myself. I actually anticipated
this problem and got a producer ahead of time but she took a job
that started in New York two weeks before filming and couldn’t
be there for the shoot. She still has a producer credit on the
film though, basically because she has been the only person since
I moved to Hollywood that actually believed I had talent. Just
her telling me how great I was all the time was enough to get me
through the shoot.

Having to produce the film myself though was a full-time
job and took up about 60 percent of my energy during the working
day. Rearranging the schedule to accommodate the the actors took
a good 25. I did have a wonderful line producer who is a genius
at getting stuff for free or cheap and that helped immensely.

Mistake #3

Acting in my own film. Getting an acting job with
no credits is hard. Getting an acting job with no credits and being
extremely choosy about the material and director you will work
with is impossible. I wrote this script because I wanted to work
on good material with a director I trusted.

That said, I should have never had such little respect
for the craft of directing to not give it my full 100-percent attention.
As it turned out I gave about 25 percent of my attention to my
acting (basically just trying to be able to at least be close on
my lines to the script supervisor wouldn’t kill me). That left
a whopping 15 percent of my energy left over for directing. I’m
not saying I didn’t get away with it. I did. That’s the scary part.

Mistake #4

Not taking enough time with the script. I wrote this
one last because it is actually a lesson I learned in post production.
Yes, you’ve written a script and you’re excited to start shooting. Let me give
you some advice… DON’T! Be patient!
I wrote my first draft in two weeks and showed it to my friend at CAA. She
got coverage on it that said it was great and would do great things for me
and everyone involved.

Guess what? CAA doesn’t know what the hell they are
talking about. They read so much crap all day that if they get
a script that actually has a touch of honesty they flip out. It
doesn’t mean it’s a good script. It just means one person that
works at a "studio film" agency 10 hours a day, listening
to people lie to each other, related to something you said in your

Find people that you respect as artists. Have them
read your work. Be ready for some harsh, honest critique. Take
your time with it because if it’s a good script, it doesn’t matter
if you make it on Super-8 for three thousand dollars or at a studio
for 200 million, you will be way ahead of the game. Having a tight
script will save you a lot of time and money in editing and re-shoots.

The attitude that helped me with it was "If
this is the only film I ever make in my lifetime…what do I want
it to say?" Period. It’s that important because it just might

So, will I make another film? Probably. As much as
I’d like to say no, the truth is that I’m beginning to realize
that I might want to say something else than what I was thinking
and feeling two years ago. Until then, you can find me at the end
of the bar replacing my soul with Irish Whiskey. MM

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