In the thriller Americons, a former college football star is drawn into the high-stakes game of real-estate as the sub-prime mortgage market booms in Los Angeles in the mid-late 2000s. The trajectory closely mirrors that of screenwriter and star Beau Martin Williams, who transitioned from football player to mortgage broker to a moviemaker who watched the Option ARM undermine the United States’ economy.
My transition into filmmaking was the most trying 10 years of my life. It required more failing than it did succeeding and believing in myself when very few people did. While in college, I was encouraged by a creative writing teacher to take up screenwriting. Playing God was exhilarating and writing didn’t cost anything except my time. Making a film, however, required an insane amount of resources. I moved to Los Angeles in January 2004 with $2,500 in my checking account and only knew one person in the movie business.
When I arrived, I understood that I needed a steady income while I pursued my passion. My first job was working security for $12 an hour at Hollywood hotspot Forty Deuce, across the street from Paramount Studios. I took on moving gigs and did some commercial work as a football player to help substantiate my income. After 10 months at the nightclub, I was promoted as the new face at the door. While working the door, I was recruited by a New York-based mortgage bank looking to open an office in Beverly Hills.
Just like Jason in Americons, the temptation of making seven figures a year and being flown on private jets to New York City was enticing enough to pull me into a business that I knew nothing about. I was never excited about being a loan consultant in the mortgage industry. I had no desire to get my broker’s license, which I didn’t need as long as I was working for a bank. I thought the mortgage business was going to punch my ticket as a filmmaker. And it did – just not in the way that I thought it would.
Similar to my filmmaking experience with Americons, I was thrust into the mortgage business and had to learn fast and on the fly. My initial product training came from binders of guidelines that might as well have been written in a foreign language. After a full year in the business, I understood that there might be something bigger going on than just selling loans. The one product that the majority of people in Los Angeles were interested in was “The Option ARM” – a loan that my company didn’t have.
The reason was that my boss didn’t believe in them and he wasn’t selling them in New York. They were designed for real estate investors so they could leverage capital across multiple properties while they fixed and flipped houses. In combination with the stated income loan option and the help of a savvy mortgage broker, the Option ARM allowed the common borrower to get into a house that they normally wouldn’t be able to afford.
A close family friend gave me the best screenwriting advice I’ve ever received: “Write what you know.” So, I approached an actor, friend, and co-worker of mine at Forty Deuce, Matt Funke, about writing a Boiler Room-type film based on my experience in the mortgage industry.
Over the course of the next two years, the financial crisis unfolded in front of my eyes. I had an insider’s perspective and started organizing my thoughts through characters. Matt and I worked scenes, bouncing ideas off each other, and with each completed draft, we sought feedback from anyone who would give it to us. After two years of struggling to pay my bills while losing loans to Washington Mutual and Countrywide, I left my commission-only job. I accepted a job with a minimum monthly salary plus commission as a loan consultant at WaMu in Beverly Hills. During my nine months with the company, my office was a top three performer nationally. My co-workers were collectively pumping out $50-100 million in Option ARMs and home equity lines of credit a month. The Option ARM had the highest commission payout of any product in our portfolio.
The script continued to evolve into 2009, as people around the globe were feeling the effects of the financial fall out. We had three different productions companies attempting to option the script and none of them wanted us to have anything to do with the creative process. And we knew if we were going to do this our way, we were going to need to save the capital to do it ourselves. Matt had saved money from a series that he booked in Australia. I left the mortgage industry one month before WaMu laid off all of their loan consultants nationwide. A year later, I started an events company in the Los Angeles beach communities. This not only gave me the financial means to pay for my half of the project, but also helped us secure a majority of the locations for the film.
For the second time in my professional career I was learning on the fly. This time around, Matt and I were playing with live bullets as we were using our own money. Under the guidance of our producer, Michael Masini, we shaved our 108-page script down to an affordable 76-page shooting script. This was like killing puppies, but Mike came from a distribution background and understood that we didn’t have the money to shoot 108 pages. Director Theo Avgerinos, who was brought on by Masini, helped tailor the script to the locations that we made available to him. He was great at getting a lot out of a little.
Of course, we made several mistakes along the way and learned more than you could ever imagine – writing, financing, producing, acting, editing, scoring, and putting together a marketing campaign. We were involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process and could not have achieved what we did without the help of so many talented and passionate people. If making films someday affords me the ability to pay my bills, that will be the icing on the cake. Right now, as long as I’m paying my soul and pursuing my passion, I am truly living. MM