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Squeezed, Screwed and Hardballed

Squeezed, Screwed and Hardballed

Articles - Directing

L to R: Roy Frumkes, Joan Jett, Barbara Sicuranza
and Rocco Simonelli celebrate The Sweet Life.

Some stories just
need to be told, and no one knows this better than longtime writing
partners Roy Frumkes and Rocco Simonelli. The team that kicked
off The Substitute franchise (beginning with the 1996 Tom
Berenger flick, and ending—maybe—with 2000’s Failure
is Not an Option
) knows a thing or two about writing for Hollywood—and
its boundaries.


When they came up with the idea for The Sweet
Life,
a story
of two very different brothers in love with the same woman, they
knew that to tell the tale their way, they would have to make the
film independently. But as MovieMaker readers know, talking
about making a film and finding a way to do it are two different
things. In the case of The Sweet Life, salvation came in
the form of digital video.

Jennifer Wood (MM): What’s been the most
drastic change you’ve seen to the role of the screenwriter since
you began your careers?

Rocco Simonelli (RS): The chasm between
the A-list writers and the grunt writers in the trenches is wider
than it has ever
been. It mirrors what’s happening among actors, in that if you
give a Travolta or whomever $20 or $25 million, how much is left
for the supporting players? The answer is “not much.” So, as a
working writer, unless you’ve got some monster hit under your belt,
you’re going to constantly get squeezed and screwed and hardballed.
The suits are going to stall on your payments and try and extort
as many free rewrites out of you as they can, and God help you
if you dig your heels in and say no.

Roy and I are uniquely stubborn. In the past,
when we’ve thought
we smelled unethical behavior lurking just around the next corner,
we’ve resorted to holding our pages hostage until checks have been
placed in our agent’s hand.

MM: Congratulations for taking a
stand. Has the so-called “digital
revolution” changed what you do, or how you work?

Roy Frumkes (RF): More options are available.
I wouldn’t
have gone looking for money for The Sweet Life if my options
were 35mm or Super16. The difference between 35mm and digital was
a budgetary reduction of over 60 percent—and we had the same shooting
schedule, dealt with SAG and only reduced the crew by two.

RS: It’s changed me in that it made it possible for me
to become a director—to direct my own script without having to
take marching orders from anyone else. I don’t think that digital
alters the process of directing very much, other than to relieve
the pressure of getting what you need in a minimal amount of takes
because you can’t afford a lot of film stock and lab costs. Digital
tapes are cheap and there are no lab costs, so you go in knowing
you can do a few extra takes if you want or need to. I think, consequently,
because that particular concern is eliminated, you end up doing
fewer takes because you’re working with less fear and more confidence.

MM: What is the most welcome freedom the digital medium
offers screenwriters?

RS: The opportunity to get your own vision on screen at
a greatly reduced cost.

MM: Do you think there are any “impossible” movies
to make on DV, or do you think that any story, genre, etc.
is fair
game?

RS: I think most genres aside from the
epic are fair game, but it depends on what you mean by “digital video.” Is it the version
of DV George Lucas is utilizing for his Star Wars crap-o-rama?
Because then there are no limitations in regard to scope. You could
do Lawrence of Arabia if you so desired, with computer-generated
armies and sand dunes. However, if we’re talking about the kind
of digital video Roy and I used to shoot The Sweet Life,
then I would certainly shy away from stories that are epic and/or
primarily visual in nature, and stick with material that’s more
intimate—more story- and character-driven.

MM: Is there one film that—to you—illustrates
the perfect marriage between story and medium in the digital
arena? A story
that you think worked well with the look of digital?

RF: Rebecca Miller’s film Personal Velocity claimed
to use digital in all sorts of canny ways that justified the form.
I certainly liked what it did. But I spoke with Barbet Schroeder
about his choice of HD to shoot Our Lady of the Assassins partially
to keep himself from being killed on the streets of Colombia, and
that seems a more telling and vital reason for using the digital
format.

RS: Digital has been a boon and a curse. In other
words, the means to produce film stories have been made accessible
to a lot of folks
who, unfortunately don’t possess the talent to do it well. Just
because you can suddenly afford to shoot your own movie doesn’t
mean you should be allowed to do so. What’s happening now is that
festivals and film markets are being flooded with a ton of really
bad digital movies, and it tends to cast a negative light on the
medium itself.

MM: Is it fair that the term ‘digital’ still suggests ‘low-budget’?

RF: Yes, it is synonymous with low-budget filmmaking and
should be, because the primary importance of digital thus far has
been to liberate independent filmmakers from the terrible constraints
of budget and the debilitating dependence on Hollywood, in order
both to produce their projects and get them out to the public.

MM: When writing a script for what
you’ve already determined
will be a digital movie, are there certain aspects that would
be better emphasized (character, etc.)?

RF: I would move the script more toward
a pseudo-documentary feel in look and dialogue, and that occurs
in the script stage.
I’d also be nervous about writing anything that would require extreme
long shots.

RS: It’s more about writing to the budget than to the production
medium. My feeling about digital video is really an extension of
what I feel works best for low-budget moviemaking in general. An
audience will cut a film a lot of slack in regard to its technical
aspects—image quality, lighting, etc.—if the story works; if the
characters are believable and interesting, if the dialogue is sharp
and well written, if the performances are good. Look at a film
like Chuck and Buck. Transferred to 35mm film and projected
in a theater it looked like bad VHS—I’ve seen old porno loops that
looked better. But audiences didn’t mind because it was well written
and well acted, and those elements will always carry the day.

MM: What changes—if any—were made
to your script for
The
Sweet Life as a result of deciding to shoot on digital?

James Lorinz and Joan Jett in a scene from
Rocco Simonelli and Roy Frumkes’ digitally-shot romantic-comedy,
The Sweet Life.

RF: As I recall, the changes were mainly
in the art department: stay away from hot whites, etc. And looking
at the end result,
we could have done even better there: clothes or props with horizontal
lines don’t hold up well when projected.

MM: What tips would you offer those aspiring writers
with an idea in their head, and the means to finance a digital
movie?

RS: Without compromising your vision
in any way you can’t
live with, make every attempt possible to balance your own creative
needs and desires with those of the marketplace. There are any
number of genres that are commercially viable, that distributors
understand and feel comfortable in marketing. With The Sweet
Life
, Roy and I chose to do a contemporary romantic comedy
set in New York. Distributors know this genre, they understand
it; they’re not put off by it. Creatively, we never indulged any
of the clichés of the genre; rather, we subverted them.

Love does not conquer all in The Sweet Life;
the hero doesn’t
win the girl in the end; no one learns anything; and everyone makes
the wrong choice. However, we made the film as funny as we could.
We kept the tone light and brisk enough that test audiences have
never seemed to pick up on just how inherently dark the material
is, we kept the length under 90 minutes and we got a name (Joan
Jett) in a marquee supporting role to give the video shelf-life.
These were the compromises we were willing to make, and we made
them unreservedly. In brief, make the film you want to make, but
give yourself a chance in the marketplace.

RF: Read our book. It’s really the best guide out there
at the moment because it’s so fresh. I’m already working on an
update for the Website, which will deal with my experiences at
AFM. MM

You can track The Sweet Life’s progress through
the distribution and release phases online at www.TheSweetLifeMovie.com

For more information on Roy Frumkes & Rocco Simonelli’s
book, Shoot
Me: Independent Filmmaking from Creative Concept to Rousing Release
,
visit Allworth Press at www.allworth.com.

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