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Tales from the Trenches: Just Say No

Tales from the Trenches: Just Say No

Articles - Producing

Tales from the Trenches is MovieMaker’s latest weekly feature where we hear how independent moviemakers of all stripes overcame seemingly insurmountable circumstances to get their movies made. Think you’ve got a war story that can top this one? Send it (less than 1,000 words) to {encode=”Tales@moviemaker.com” title=”Tales@moviemaker.com”}.

“What can we do to get over this and move forward?” It was my producing partner, exhausted from negotiating with the head of the Local 16, San Francisco’s branch of IATSE.

“You can hire a union crew and pay them union wages,” he said. He had been saying this, in different ways, all day.

What happened was this: About two years before, when we first began fundraising for our feature, Harrison Montgomery, we had budgeted the project at $3 million. As we began trying to raise this sum we realized how hard it was going to be, as first-time moviemakers, to raise that kind of cash. So we went into the budget, slashing and burning. We called in favors, bargained, begged and borrowed. What we ended up with was a very ambitious project (including special effects, stunts, animals, children and basically everything you’re supposed to avoid in an indie film) with a budget that would just barely cover what needed to be done—and we weren’t even sure of that. What had once been a multi-million dollar project was now a six-figure project, because that’s what we could afford.

Unfortunately, word of the project got to the leaders of Local 16, with the multi-million dollar price tag still attached. In the meantime, we had hired a wonderful crew of ambitious first-time moviemakers, willing to work for less-than-union rates, because they loved the project and believed it would help them make a name for themselves. A good portion of them were still students. It was a scrappy team, but we were proud of them and ready to head into battle.

We were three days from the first day of shooting, all systems go, a third of our budget spent, when we got the call.

On the Friday before the Monday we were to start shooting, the unions wanted us to fire all the hard-working people who had got us that far and hire union workers at a price that would shut the film down before it even started. We simply couldn’t afford it. They said that if we didn’t do as they said, they would picket, and the SAG actors we had (and we were very fortunate to have some great actors, including Academy Award-winner Martin Landau in the title role) wouldn’t be able to cross the picket line. We were at an impasse.

So here we sat, in the IATSE office, at three in the afternoon, with just two hours left to come to some sort of agreement that would keep the unions happy and allow us to start shooting the following Monday. They had us over a barrel and they knew it.

We argued that we were employing students, at wages no experienced moviemaker would accept. If their guys would work for those rates, we could consider hiring them. No go. They insisted that we had forged the budget we gave them, that no movie of this sort could be shot on the budget we had and that we were trying to slide it past them to get away with not hiring their union workers. We told them, in all earnestness, that we would hire their guys if we could afford to and begged that they please, please not shut us down. To do so would deprive close to 100 young moviemakers the chance to see this project through. They just didn’t care.

I threw my hands up. I finally understood how someone might confess to a murder they didn’t commit. I just couldn’t do this anymore. As far as I was concerned they had won. I hoped they were happy with crushing our dreams. I began packing my bag, and then looked over at my partner. She was looking down at the papers in front of her, her head hanging low, her hair hiding her face.

I stood there, waiting to get the hell out of that office, when I saw her fist ball up tight around her pen. She lifted her head, and with a fierce determination, the likes of which I’ve not seen before or since, she pounded her tiny hand on the big mahogany desk and simply said “no.”

I sat down.

“There must be a way,” she said, and suddenly I agreed. What was I thinking, about to walk out on hundreds of thousands of dollars, to go back to the production office (an over-crowded room full of all the department heads working on top of each other in a frantic final push to get ready to start shooting) and tell them to go home?

harrison montgomery

That was the day I finally came to understand that when you want something that badly, you hang in there—no matter how impossible it seems, no matter how out of your league you feel. You make them throw you screaming from the building if that’s what it comes to.

Thankfully, they didn’t have to throw us screaming from the building. It took the rest of the day, but we were able to come up with a compromise that made everyone kind of happy.

If I had walked out when I wanted to, I’d have never known the joy of seeing a project like that through to the end. It was hard work, and there were many more trials in the four weeks that followed, but we did it, despite all the things that everyone told us were going to be too hard. Two months ago we sold the international rights for the project and we are currently in negotiations for the domestic rights. With any luck, it will be coming to a theater near you some day soon, and I owe it all to my partner, who knew better than to quit. Ever.

For more information on Harrison Montgomery, visit www.harrisonmontgomery.com.

April Dávila is a writer-producer currently living in Los Angeles. In addition to her work as a moviemaker, she is also working on her first novel. More information about April can be found at www.aprildavila.com.

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