After the financing fell through on Box Of Moonlight for the third time I got an e-mail from one Fred Knimble. Fred had a production company based in South Africa that was looking for low-budget independent films. I sent him the script. He loved it. My producer Marcus Viscidi and I quickly worked out an option agreement that gave Fred and Uberlight Productions sole rights to the script for eight months. During that time Fred and his partner in Los Angeles, Daryl Pelts, would attempt to raise $6 million. Marcus and I were ecstatic. We’d never had that much money to make a film.
Over the next few months I spoke to Fred and Daryl many times on the phone, discussing casting, schedule and locations. Marcus actually met Daryl at a Dairy Queen in Malibu and was sufficiently impressed to get over having to drive all the way out there from West Hollywood.
Raising the cash was more difficult than Uberlight expected. But as soon as one French film fund faded away they called us with news that some Swiss money was pending. After four months they’d only raised $300,000; all from the sale of Fred’s grandmother’s jewelry. I wasn’t sure if she died before or after the sale, but weeks later we were informed this money had been spent on “capital investitures.”
The warning bells were waking the neighbors at this point. At seven months we got a surprise offer from Savior Films, another production company that had $5 million already in the bank. Marcus and I informed Uberlight of the new offer but assured them that if they raised the $6 million in this last month of their option we would stay with them.
Fred and Daryl were upset. They were “inches away” from securing all the money from Brazil and wanted a two-month extension on the option. Marcus and I courteously declined. Three days after Uberlight’s option expired we signed a deal with Savior. I never felt happier. The next day Uberlight sued us.
Savior immediately canceled our deal, saying, “We’re not investing money in a film stuck in litigation. Clear it up and come back to us.”
Neither Marcus nor I could afford a lawsuit. So we had to go to Uberlight and ask what their terms were. Though they hadn’t raised a dime they insisted on full producing credits with Savior, and $2 million to cover their expenses. Savior instantly rejected this and retreated even further with their $5 million.
Despite numerous personal appeals Uberlight would not budge. I was entering my fifth year of trying to raise the money for this film. To see it actually sitting there in the bank and not be able to touch it was driving me insane. As the days went by my mood plummeted. At any moment my hands would clench, sometimes as if gripping a machete, other times as if firing a machine gun.
Then, one night around midnight my phone rang.
A woman spoke in a soft, hesitant voice. She said she was Daryl’s sister-in-law and had some information for me about “the lawsuit.” She was about to tell me when she stopped. “I can’t, I can’t,” she murmured. “It’s my sister’s husband.”
I wanted to reach through the phone and grab her by the neck. Instead I just played the guy who is really depressed and troubled but nonetheless is deeply understanding of family bonds.
“I understand completely,” I said.
She stayed on the phone. Apparently Daryl had said something very nasty to her sister, “making her feel like nothing; you know? Just nothing.”
I said I knew the feeling. She agreed to meet me in the morning.
The rendezvous point was a Dunkin’ Donuts on 23rd Street. I walked in and there she was, sitting alone by the window. She was about 30 but she looked 50. I couldn’t tell what it was but there was something slightly damaged about her, like a pie someone had poked their finger into. Her name was Reena. She spoke for an hour.
She started with Fred Knimble. The reason he was in South Africa was because he was wanted in Maryland on drug-trafficking charges and if he set foot in the U.S. he’d be arrested immediately. She even knew about the grandmother’s jewelry money but cleared up where it had been spent: On some very good coke.
When she got to Daryl her voice tightened. She hated him for what he was doing to her sister. The two had split up a year ago and now Daryl was living in a shack on the beach just south of Malibu. This explained the location for the meeting with Marcus. She said it really was a shack; plywood walls and plastic sheeting for the ceiling. He got electricity by tapping into a street light and spent almost all of his time surfing porn on the Internet. I almost asked her how she knew this.
Then she told me on her own. One of the reasons her sister had left Daryl was that, ”He was a chronic…” She paused and gazed at me with eyes murky with mascara and anxiety. They seemed to be encouraging me to finish for her.
“Gambler?” I offered.
“No.” Another blinking silence. “Masturbator,” she finally stated.
“Chronic?” I repeated like an idiot.
“Yes. All day. Every day. You’d never see him without a box of kleenex.” Marcus hadn’t mentioned this.
As disturbing as it was, Reena’s information gave me everything I needed to simply ignore the lawsuit from Uberlight. As I thanked her profusely she lay a damp hand on my wrist. Then she squeezed, very softly. Another long look, but this time I could almost swear I saw something different in the raccoon eyes. And it confused the hell out of me. She’d just saved me, I admit that. But did she expect me now to somehow “thank” her? Right there in Dunkin’ Donuts?
I eased my hand free and gave her what I felt was a very grateful smile. I told her I was deeply indebted to her and if there was anything I could do to help her she should just let me know. She placed a box of CDs onto the table. “For you,” she said. “It’s all me, singing and playing the harmonica. I think my songs would go really well in your movies.”
“Wow, Reena, thanks,” I said. “I’m always looking for new music.” I slipped out the door just as she was about to take my hand again.
Uberlight’s lawsuit quickly evaporated. A week later we signed the deal with Savior. Two weeks later Savior went out of business.
File Under: Raising The Money. Subcategory: The Family Jewels.
Moral: When you’re looking under every rock for the money, be prepared to meet a few slugs. I should have been more vigilant in checking Uberlight’s credentials. I was so desperate to get the money I never noticed they hadn’t produced a single film. But, I was smart enough to get something in writing. Always insist on it. If a financier gets pissy about a deal memo or a contract, walk away. I know that sounds terrifying, especially if they claim to have the cash. But trust me, they will respect you more. A written agreement is standard operating procedure and only chronic chicken chokers will balk at it. I did listen to Reena’s music. It was awful. But I felt so grateful (and guilty) I kept the CDs for almost five years before re-gifting them. Every now and then some errand takes me by that Dunkin’ Donuts on 23rd Street. It will forever be accompanied by the sensation of a heavy, moist hand laying upon my wrist.
Tom DiCillo made his debut as a writer-director with 1991’s Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious followed. When You’re Strange, his documentary on The Doors, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. For more information on DiCillo and his work, visit www.tomdicillo.com.