Thursday, October 28, 2010


My first feature was a suspense-thriller called Ghostkeeper, which I wrote and directed way back in 1980 through my Badland Pictures company. At that time I lived in Calgary and a friend of mine, Doug MacLeod, knew the son of the owner of the Deer Lodge Hotel in the nearby Rocky Mountains.

The hotel is right beside the famous Chateau Lake Louise, known all over the world. The Deer Lodge was much smaller and not as well known. It was also closed during the winter.

Doug and I figured out a basic plot; young couple get trapped in the empty hotel by a mad woman and chaos ensues.

It did a bit of business, got some good reviews, primarily for the spooky ambience and some bad reviews like "worst movie ever made". I used local actor friends and a union crew and we shot it for around $650,000 which would be roughly equivilent to around $1.5 million today.

My Vancouver friend John Holbrook shot it and did a beautiful job considering it was often below zero temperatures and real snow falling. And I got a great editor, Stan Cole, who edited, among others, the classic A Christmas Story. Both of them helped make it better.

But what happened afterwards was truly amazing.

About 5 years ago, I noticed more reviews of Ghostkeeper, even though it had been out of circulation for almost 25 years. Horror fans in Germany and England were finding copies of it and watching it. Again reviews were mixed, "great movie" or "horrible movie".

Then I heard that the kids that get hired to work the Deerlodge Hotel, now open all year, actually found copies and would watch it together.

Then I got a call from a British critic who raved about it, followed by a British distributor who wants to release it as a DVD.

Just goes to show you that if you wait long enough, someone will say something nice about you.

Then, last month, I got an email from someone in Toronto who found a 16mm print of the movie and was going to show it to his cult film group and wanted me to attend.

Now the truth is, Ghostkeeper isn't a great movie, it was my first screenplay and had some flaws. We had financial problems during the last week and as a result I couldn't shoot the spectacular ending I had written. 

So I made up the last 20 minutes. Every day I would go to the hotel and find out who we had in terms of the small cast. Then I figured out what we could do for nothing, then we filmed it. And somehow, Stan put it together so that it had a sense of coherence.

What I learned was that, even now, it gets differing reviews. But it doesn't really matter because the good ones are good, the bad ones don't get it. It does have a creepy atmosphere, from the real steam that comes from the actor's breath to the real snowfalls that we filmed at around -25 F.

I am the first one to admit that some of my movies weren't very good. Some are not bad, a few are pretty good. But Ghostkeeper was a surprise to me, I had all but forgotten about it. And it's where I learned a great lesson, find the best cameraperson and editor that you can afford because in the end, they will save you.

So... I am taking time off to go to T.O. and introduce the movie to the horror/suspense crowd and then sit back and answer questions afterwards. I'm also going to visit family and put a bit more closure on my mom's passing.

Casualties of Love is on hold for 2 weeks, actually I'll be doing a rewrite on it, so it's not completely on hold. We hope to do the reading around the 2nd week of November and then after that I hunt for money to film it.

Here's one review that's relatively good and believe it or not, this is the mood I was going for:

Director JIM MAKICHUK thankfully resists gilding the lily and permits the frozen Canadian landscape to play its own chilly tune. There’s no spray-on frost on these windowpanes. Snow encrusted trees tower like glittering skyscrapers and we’re shown that walking a few feet through the accumulation is a feat in and of itself. Filmed on location in a preexisting lodge/hotel, the devil’s in the details everywhere you look.

(Mon: What the fans say)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Casting Actors Pt2

We had a good start on Friday casting two roles for Casualties of Love. The two roles were "Andrea", described as someone who "carries an on/off confidence"  and "Kenny" described as a person who "admits to an ordinary life".

There are five roles in the entire screenplay, my Irish/British friend Chris will play the "aging rock and roller", and we have another actor who will play another role.

So I used the role of Kenny to audition seven actors who would become either Kenny, Michael or Lou. This was a quicker way to do it for our low budget purposes; all we need are 2 really good actors for the other male roles and, with seven reading, we were sure we'd find them.

We rented a small theater just off Sunset for $25/hr. It's a small complex of 3 theaters adapted from storefronts that were vacant. I rented the biggest one as it had a lobby attached and could serve as a waiting area for actors, large enough that they wouldn't be crowded.

Chris did the most work, he had posted a notice of our needs (October 7, 2010 blog) on and had about 35 actors respond. We could see their headshots and even some video clips on the website. It's quite helpful and saves having to deal with agents and managers who might make demands like money.

I know they have to make a living, but my budget simply doesn't have that much money. There were only two of us - Chris and me, to handle casting chores. I typed up a notice to put on the door and some "sides" (2-4 pages of dialog from the script) in the lobby and then set up my own digital video camera on a tripod.

I've written about casting and how it seems intimidating both for the actors and me, but I seemed to slip into it easily, since the actors are all friendly, whether this is real or not doesn't really matter, and Chris and I are relatively easy to deal with.

We had four younger girls who  would play a 17-year old tall girl, I wanted someone tall so that she could appear to handle herself in the company of four men, not only in the role but also off-camera. We decided to get a production assistant who would be a woman also to make our "Andrea" more comfortable.

As they began to read their parts, with Chris reading his part, I began to see holes in the screenplay as well as watching the performances. That's why a reading is so good for anything, series or movies. There is one piece of dialog for Andrea to say dealing with recording equipment and when the first girl read it, it sounded way too complicated for the audience to understand. I made a note of that; SIMPLIFY.

Each of the girls handled the role in a different way, some used a lot of physical expressions while others sat quietly with subtle looks. Subtle works best for my script. I also began to realize that the role was "too young", that it should be someone older, maybe 20.

I firmly believe that casting is subjective, I might think someone is good, Chris might think they're average and unless it's Meryl Streep I don't think any director is really sure if they've made the right choice.

Our group of actors were pretty much an eclectic group; some memorized the 2-4 pages of dialog, some didn't. Some needed to do 2 takes, others nailed it the first time. There's no real rules to this either, actors can be as different as possible from each other.

All of the actors we looked at were unrecognizable faces, they had roles in TV series, some movies I never heard of, and maybe a few supporting roles in features that were released. The girls were young, maybe 18 to 24, I'm guessing, and the men were close to 40 which was the age group I was looking for.

What was lacking was a diversity, they were all like me, except for a few Hispanics and one thick-accented Italian Swiss actor whom I couldn't really use as someone who grew up in Los Angeles. I never put specific ethnic groups in the casting list and don't know why I didn't get more ethnic groups.

This subject often comes up and hits a bit of a wall with writers; do we write characters based on ourselves or diversity. I grew up with little diversity, my home town's only diversity was my own ethnic group; Ukrainians, who often experienced subtle but mean-spirited discrimination up until the early 1960's.

A prime-minister of Canada once said that the country should return the vomit to the country that threw it up. Nice words for a leader of the country, eh? And Ukrainians were often forced to change their recognizable last names if they wanted work in the cities.

Later, growing up a teen in Windsor, Ontario, I knew only French-Canadians and Italians. The only other ethnic groups I ever saw were in movies. That would change when I began to work in TV in Detroit.

Thus the idea of casting with different ethnic groups can become a confllict between art and political correctedness. In Emperor of Mars, I originally had one character an African American which actually would be valid.

I based it on the fact that there were many African American communities on the prairies of the midwest. My character was also not a supporting one, but a lead opposite the other lead.

The irony was that there were no African Americans in my little town in western Canada, nor within a few hundred miles as far as I knew. So historically, my character of Nicodemus would not have existed in my community. Same went for Hispanics. But the character of Nicodemus was an enigma of sorts, an "everyman" and he would stand out in that community because, at the end of the movie, you understand why.

However, there were many Chinese who worked the railroads in Canada and a lot settled in small towns opening "Chinese-Canadian" cafes as well as the stereotypical laundries. I did include them in Emperor, as well as a Jewish family.

And there is a strong undercurrent of discrimination throughout Emperor of Mars, it was what I remembered and what  still is part of me after all these years. You never forget others making you feel less than them.

But discrimination isn't an issue in Casualties of Love, and as I watched each actor do their thing, I noticed that, while they looked similar, each had a different take to the material.

The thing you want, I think, is to believe the actor reading your dialog in front of you. It doesn't matter who they are, what color they are or anything else; you need to believe that they are that person for 2 minutes.

Some use body motion, others sit still, some lean forward and some walk around the stage but ultimately the question is do I believe them. And when I realize I'm not being critical of the actor in front of me, when I suddenly realize I'm listening to the character I created on paper come to life... I know something is there.

And if they take my words and make them even better in tone or attitude, that's what you look for in casting. With stars, it's mostly the look and the name and whether or not they are available. You're buying a franchise, not an actor.

But with these actors reading for me, I focus more on the acting and the ability they have to take me into a world that I created and that doesn't really become alive until the actors reach the emotional level that makes them real.

No matter who or what they are.

(Thurs: Picking Actors)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Casting Actors

"Casting is 90% of what happens with acting. If you cast wrong you're in a lot of trouble." 
                                                                                  - Paul Mazursky

"I think 80% of what you contribute to the film is the selection of actors."
                                                                                  - Stephen Spielberg

Tomorrow, Friday, I will be casting 4 actors for a reading of my screenplay, The Casualties of Love, about three middle-aged men who once had a rock band called by the title of the screenplay. 

While it's not casting for actually filming the screenplay, it does play an important part in the development of the film, which I hope to make before the end of the year. And it is likely that the actors I choose will play the characters in the film.

So why am I doing a full reading?

Normally a reading is usually done once the production is going ahead, sometimes a few weeks before production and sometimes the day of the production, depending on the financing. Many independent films are often rushed into production as their source of money comes or goes.

Since I have time and, at this point, no investors, what I want at this stage is to find actors to do a script reading which would allow me to "hear" the screenplay as performed by real, live actors.

Having them sit around in a comfortable atmosphere, I can listen to the words and make notes on what works and what doesn't. Naturally no screenplay is perfect and this way I can measure the pacing and look for oddities, lines of dialog that don't work. And there are plenty of those. I will use my notes to do another rewrite of the screenplay.

It's kind of like a rehearsal for the rehearsal and the movie.

Another reason is to video the entire reading and afterwards, cut some of the better scenes out for what could be called a "trailer" or demo for the movie itself. Then I can take it in the form of a DVD to investors along with a hard copy of a proposal for possible investment. I will also offer an email version of the above, with a pdf of the proposal and a Youtube address for the video. I'll also give all of you the Youtube URL to watch if you want to.

This isn't anything new, I learned about this while doing commercials years ago, we'd often do an animated version of the commercial before we got the job, showing our ideas. It worked half the time, but half is better than nothing.

There's only one outstanding issue that I will face.

I really don't like casting all that much.

I find it often uncomfortable to talk to a dozen or more actors over the period of a few hours, knowing that only one will get the job. Rejection is part of this business and one has to learn to be tough and deal with it. I think actors have the most rejection, followed by writers, and then maybe directors.

But the difference with actors is this; they are judged mostly on how they look. Sure talent and acting ability is always considered, but all you  have to do is watch an evening of the  CW network's shows to see that acting is not really a priority.

It's one thing to be judged by your screenplay, but it's another to be judged by the way you look. One type of look can make you a star, another type can make you a "character actor". The irony is, it's not always your choice.

And even as I talk to the actors tomorrow, I know that most of them are hoping to get the part. Some won't really care and others might not like the script. But any credit is a credit to actors and the ones we're getting obviously aren't big stars. They're mostly not even recognizable to the average person. They're who 90% of the actors in SAG are, the average occasionally-working actor whose yearly income from acting is somewhere between $5000 and $15,000.

Other income comes from various jobs; waiter/waitress of course, limo driver, phone soliciting, anything that offers part time work to allow actors to go to auditions or acting classes. It's a tough life.

A lot of people say that actors made that choice, so they have to live with it. I agree, but the same goes for me and most writers, and I don't complain. And most actors don't, at least the most passionate ones.

So this is what I'm going to face tomorrow; actors who right now, today, are excited they have an audition, some will tell their friends, some will be cynical and expect to not be chosen, and some will just be ready to expose their hearts to a complete stranger.

So maybe now you can see why I don't always like casting, I guess because I know their pain, so to speak, yeah, it's a simple and corny comparison, but it's real.

nd even though we're dealing with "less-famous" actors, rejection doesn't affect only them. Stars get rejected all the time as well, big ones too. The difference is that they just retreat and feel a failure in their $5 million home off Mulholland while some of our actors go back to their waitress gig and wait for the next break, that they know will be theirs.

So tomorrow, I will arrive early to the little theater we rented just off Sunset Boulevard and Chris and I will prepare to meet them. We will say pleasant hellos, thank them for coming and then let them read off Chris (who will play the opposite parts).

They have already read the "sides", which are 2-4 page segments of the screenplay in which the actor's dialog is long enough to give us an idea of the actor's abilities.  They were emailed the sides and have had a few days to read and memorize the lines. Then I might ask them to change it a bit and see how they handle direction.

And I know I will see some mediocre performances, some good ones and hopefully some performances that will totally make me think they are the characters. All of this in 15 minutes for each of them.

Sometimes I know from the start that they are wrong for the part, yet I will thank them again for coming and wish them luck, knowing that I can only choose four. But sometimes they will be great and I can't quite explain why; I think it's because their acting is honest, maybe, and that shines. And what works for me might not work for you.

There probably is nowhere where directors differ than in casting; each has their own method, some cold and uncaring, others jaded, some insecure and some warm and comforting.

And most of them are also unsure.

You'll never know if your choices of actors work until you begin the movie, and then, you realize you'll never really know until it's been edited, scored and ready to show an audience who will ultimately decide if you were right or wrong.

(Mon: Casting Results)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Has Hollywood Really Changed?

Back a few months ago I had an ongoing dispute on the blog with someone who used the name/pseudonym "Jerry" who, after I described some actions I did on a series I worked on, said that I never got work after that because of my behavior and also, that "the industry has changed".

Now I don't know who Jerry was and he/she wouldn't tell me, so I just stopped posting his/her comments and he/she gradually faded away (I think). But I did get work after that, preferring TV Movies to series and accumulating credits on 17 of them over the course of 14 years, not a bad record at all. And the most recent one will be shown in a month or so. 

Which brings me to The Pat Hobby Stories.

I had heard about the book but never read it. Simply, it's a collection of short stories about a down and out screenwriter in Hollywood who survives by hustling any writing jobs he can get. It's a great collection of stories about writing and what you have to do to survive in a business that rips your heart out some of the time and then praises you for a little bit to give you encouragement, only to be ripped up again.

In other words, it's Hollywood as it's always been.

But the twist here is this; it was written between 1939 and 1940. And it's author was none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, by this time in his life, was Pat Hobby, living from rewrite jobs to whatever he could muster. His successes were behind him, The Great Gatsby would be re-discovered in the 1960's and Fitzgerald died at 44 in the same year.

And while I read the book, a collection of 17 stories, I wasn't surprised to find out something else. 

It's the same today.

Nothing has really changed. We have computers, and Netflix and iPhones, but the business remains exactly the same. Exactly.  I can only assume that Jerry doesn't know Hollywood history, maybe because he/she is young and full of their self. And that's perfectly normal. I'm not knocking younger writers, hell, I was one once. 

There are a lot of movies about screenwriters, Bogart did one, William Holden did one, there are dozens of them out there, many you can still watch. And they all came before "The Player", the film most film students know of. And it was directed by Robert Altman who was 67 at the time.

There's also Day of the Locust, a brilliant film with Donald Sutherland and based on a novel by Nathanael West in 1939  . I read the book and again was surprised by the similarities in the business. Sure, the cars were different but the stories and the lives of the people in it are still here today.

And another great movie from the Coen Brothers Barton Fink, again a period piece about a screenwriter. And even Jeff Bridges was a screenwriter in Hearts of the West.

And there's one thing in common for all of them. The writer is always screwed. There's even a self-help book out called  "The Writer Got Screwed (but didn't have to). Honest, there is. I have a copy of it, written by Brook Wharton.

And before you think I'm starting to whine, I'm not, I rarely got shafted but that's mostly because I did have the protection of the Guilds.

And as far as not being hired again I offer this story; I wrote a script called Maiden Voyage, about the takeover of a cruise ship. It was made by by the British Company Granada. They paid me for the script but not the story. I had written the script as a spec, and they should have also paid for the story, as well as the screenplay itself.

They refused to pay.

WGA said they had 5 days to pay.

An exec told my agent this; "this might sour us for using Jim in the future". My agent said he'd pass that information along to me.

They paid up, very upset at me and my agent.

One year later, I met the same exec at a party and he shook my hand and said the movie turned out great and that it was because of my terrific script.

And we would work together again.

Was this the same guy who threatened to make sure I'd never work in this town again?

My agent said the saying is really "you'll never work in this town again... or at least until we need you."

Know this; Hollywood never really changes, it's about the dreammakers and those who finance the dreammakers. It's about breaking in, surviving, falling out and maybe, if you're really persistent and lucky, breaking in again.

Just ask Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese film director who continues working at the tender age of 102.

(Thurs: We cast Casualties of Love)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Audrey and me part deux

Well, I finally saw Breakfast at Tiffany's which in 1961 was nominated for 5 Academy Awards including one for Audrey, in spite of her fear of not being up to the challenge, as I wrote in the previous blog.

It's actually a pretty good movie with one odd and offensive objection, but I'll get to that later. The movie, based on a rather dark novel from Truman Capote was drastically changed for the screen in order for it to pass the censors. The world was changing as it fell into the 1960's and this movie was part of the change.

The story, if you don't know it, is about a girl who's a high class hooker and a guy who's also a high class hooker. Audrey as a hooker? Well, the screenplay danced around that with innuendo and subtle references, yet it changed America and the world in many aspects, especially one.

The black dress.

In the opening scene, Audrey appears on 5th Avenue very early, no people on the streets and she walks to the window of Tiffany's and looks in, having a danish and coffee. And she's wearing a classic black dress. She's obviously been at a party or with a "date".

What's so special about the black dress? Well, until this movie, the classic black dress that most if not all women now own, was not that popular. It signaled a change in America, black was always for funerals, and even went back to the 1920's when young women would wear black just to be different.

There's several abstract references to her "work" including getting $50 to go to the "powder room". Remember this was the time when bad girlsl in movies paid the price at the end, and censors made sure you couldn't say or do certain things.

You had to have two beds for husband and wife in movies and TV shows, I grew up wondering why my parents slept in one bed.

But Audrey's brief scene with a Givinchey black dress changed women's clothes forever. It stated a whole new attitude of independence and change that continues to this day. There's even an expression "you can't go wrong with basic black".

And there was another thing I noticed in the movie.

In spite of Audrey's reluctance to take this role and her insecurities about whether or not she could carry it off, she did a great job, it was all Audrey and no wonder she was nominated for an Oscar.

In the end, she delivered.

So how does that come around to me?

Because I realized that in spite of my fears and insecurities about how producers would realize I really wasn't that good,  I still delivered also.

That doesn't mean that producers necessarily liked the screenplay but the writing was always good, because once you become a pro, you can't really do a bad job unless you're lazy or just not interested.

And I've done my share of those jobs; mostly fixing someone else's script and trying to make it better, at least in my opinion. There are times when I knew damn well that the script would still be bad even if I rewrote it, but then the producer would usually like what I did because that's what he wanted to do.

And most of the time producers like that are generally lacking any ability to sense good versus bad. And there are a lot of them around.

Writing good comes from several things, the first and most important one to me is curiousity, I want to know everything,  secondly is discipline and the third is to be able to step outside of yourself, sort of like an out of body experience, to be able to look at your work from the point of view of an average person.

Like the studio exec told me; talent is great if you have it, but craft and discipline are better.

But try to watch Breakfast At Tiffany's, and consider that it was a landmark film for it's time, the character of a young woman who was as liberal as was possible then, saying what she wanted to say, doing what she wanted and living off money made by prostitution, not that it's all spelled out at all.

And what was that offensive thing I mentioned earlier?

Mickey Rooney was also in the movie and somehow he convinced the producers and Blake Edwards to let him play the Japanese caretaker of the apartment building. Rooney does it in an insulting over-the-top portrayal that insults and offends any Asian person in the world. It almost seems like another movie.

In the extras of the video, Edwards says he wish he would have recast the part.

Apart from those odd scenes, the rest of the movie is quite watchable, slightly dated but the story, slightly similar to Sex In the City, but a lot tougher with Hepburn's  portrayal of a fun-loving hooker.

Monday, October 11, 2010

It' doesn't get easier with age

I've been reading a book called Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m. about the making of Breakfast At Tiffany's with Audrey Hepburn. The movie was nominated for 7 Oscars and won 2 for the music, including the song Moon River. George Axelrod was nominated for the screenplay from Truman Capote's book and Audrey Hepburn was nominated for best actress.

In the book Hepburn makes an interesting remark about acting, "it gets harder and harder, I really die a million deaths every time, my stomach turns over, my hands get clammy, I wasn't cut out to do t his kind of thing".

I thought about this for awhile and realized that I not only agree with her, but that I feel that way as well. The best time for me is when I get hired to write a screenplay.

The worst time is the day after.

Why? Because I realize that I have to write the screenplay because the commitment is there, there's a deadline and people are expecting it to be done. And to be good.

When I'm doing a spec script, one that isn't commissioned, just an idea that I got that I hoped would sell, it's a lot easier. There's no pressure to perform.

But when I'm hired, it's a different story. I gotta work at it. And I just know that they won't like it and drop me and hire someone else. Sure, there's moments when I write something that I think is brilliant.

But that doesn't mean the world will think it's brilliant. Or more importantly, the producer won't.

And I would have thought that with age and experience, that it gets easier. But it doesn't.

When you're starting out as a writer, there is some pressure, but you have very little experience in the way of the business.  As a result you don't bother to worry about things like "notes from the producer", hell, it's just fun. You got a job writing and most of the time you're high on life.

But after about 5 years of writing your doubts begin to grow, at least mine did. And this continues as you write for producers or actors or whomever and for the most part, get rejected.

A screenwriter friend of mine who is quite a writer once taught a class in screenwriting. At the beginning, he asked his students to write a 20-30 page screenplay. After a week or two they brought their screenplay in. Dennis Clark, the screenwriter accepted the screenplays and piled them on his desk.

Then he dumped them into the waste basket.

Then he told them that was their first lesson in screenwriting. Rejection.

A little harsh? Yes. But Dennis was right.

Only actors get rejected more than writers. I have 34 specs, but they've all been rejected. And that doesn't mean they're bad, it just means they haven't found someone who connects with them.

Today I got an email from someone who actually is considering a screenplay I sent him. The problem isn't the script, he loves it, but it's whether or not he can finance it. And that is another conundrum, someone may love your script, but if they can't find the money it's not going to get made.


Ironically more experience doesn't necessarily make it easier, as you can see. I've gone through dozens of development executives and producers and directors, some of whom like my work, some who don't, some who can't find the money and some who aren't sure.

Another element of my writing, is that it's not usually what is getting made, I was never really a good commercial writer, I couldn't write a comedy if my life depended on it. My best work is what's considered "soft material",  Emperor of Mars,  which always comes up, is like Stand By Me,  the Christmas script, out later this year as a movie, is about a family in turmoil.

But ultimately, it's about finding that one person who reads your story and connects to it somehow, like the woman who liked the Christmas script because, one character in the screenplay, in her words, "reminded me of my two daughters".

The script had been on a pile of scripts at Hallmark for nearly three years until she picked it up and read it.

Once a screenplay that I may have been hired to write is finished, I usually ask for a few more days past the deadline, so that I can just "make it a little better." I really don't do anything but I want them to think I really, really care about the story.

And I really do, but I'm almost terrified to hand it in and when I finally do, they almost always ask this dreaded question;

"So Jim, what do you think of it?"

They want me to say it's great, it's brilliant, it's the best thing I've ever written. But my stock answer is usually; "It's a hundred pages."

Because every time I thought it was great, they didn't like it. Well, at least it seems like every time. And when I thought it wasn't good, they thought it was.

You never win.

I know there are writers that are more secure than me, but with the experience of years, I've learned to protect myself by expecting rejection rather than acceptance. And most of the writers I know are the same. And the ones who aren't are lying. Or delusional.

Bottom line is that me and Audrey have the same problem but I couldn't imagine doing anything else. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Moving ahead with Casualties

I've actually started moving forward on my Casualties of Love project after several months of other things. With the help of Chris Sullivan, a remarkable actor and writer, we've taken the first step to what might become a movie before the end of the year.

Just to refresh, Casualties of Love was a play I had written years ago and set aside. About a year ago I dug it out and realized, that if I added 20 pages more I would have a full screenplay. There was also another aspect to start working on it as a real project.

It mostly takes place in a single location.

And there's only 5 actors.

And that is about as low budget as anyone can dream of. Unless you have only one actor. A friend of mine once said that all it really takes to make a movie is a story, an actor and a camera. 

But I have five.

And I think I can make it with my friend Randy's formula of low-budget movies; use either 7 people as crew, or 17. Of course it's his rule, but it did work for him when he made 2 feature-length movies, back-to-back for $10,000. I've mentioned this in the past and for a more detailed explanation you can go to his website (

So besides 5 actors I will use a crew of 7 including me, for a total of 12 people. And by Randy's standard I should be able to do it for $5000.

But I want to use SAG actors because they are usually better. SAG (Screen Actors Guild) is a very powerful guild and tough on producers, but as I mentioned previously, they'd rather have actors working even if it's a meager budget then not working at all. And I do respect actors and their guild as much as I respect my guild.

So for the past week or so, Chris and I have been looking at actors on a website called It lists projects that are looking for actors and actors can check in and see what's going on. The listings usually stay on for a week or so.

I wrote out mini character descriptions for all 5 actors as the listing can't be too long. For those who are interested, these are the individual character descriptions:

Lou (38-40) is a take-charge guy, impulsive but approaching 40 and he's beginning to have doubts about his life.

Michael (38-40), never expected much of life, stumbled his way through jobs, always seemed to settle for less.

Kenny(38-40) admits to an ordinary life, always wished their teen band would have taken that big step they were offered 20 years ago.

Morgan (64) a famous fading rock star beginning to pay for that lifestyle and  haunted by the death of a bandmember, also needs money.

Andrea (17-18), tall, athletic, her age offers a fresh perspective, carries an on/off confidence and is into vintage rock.

The Casualties of Love is a feature-length character drama. Will be videotaped for private use only. Lunch, coffee/snacks and gas money and DVD if requested. Reading will be done twice, cannot guarantee role if film goes ahead.

That's the ad, we've had about 30 people so far, as well as a Reader who will read the description parts of the screenplay. I will sit back and listen and take notes as this reading is mainly for me to see how the words work, where I can tighten it and where I can improve it.

Chris will play the aging rock star and there will also be someone to operate a video camera.

This type of reading occurs often, the other type of reading is when the film is cast and the actors selected read their parts. But since we're not really casting, I have to be brutally honest in that I can't guarantee those parts to the actors we use here.

Yes, the life of an actor isn't an easy road. 

But I'm open to a good performance and they might shine.

(Mon: Casting the roles)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Movies and the future of us

There was an interesting story in the LA Times last week. One of the big agencies, CAA has sold a 35% stake to an investment firm to help find funding for movies. Some of the old guys like Cohen and Fox and Zanuck are probably turning in their graves as the movie industry becomes even more corporate.

And we all know what corporations do; keep the bottom line and make sure the stockholders are happy.

In the "old days" a producer went to see the head of the studio, who was probably the one who created the company, to ask for money to make a movie.  Many times it was as simple as three questions; what's the story, who's in it and how much will it cost.

That was it.

The producer would say they have Bogart and Hepburn, it's a story about a boat in Africa and it's gonna cost $1 million. One man decided on it, not a committee, no surveys, just one man.

Now not only is the decision made by committees and boards, but also by people who don't have any experience or passion about the movies. The old guys were cost conscious and were tough, but they also knew movies.

Of course it was a different time, once TV came onto the scene, it began to change and with it the way movies are made. There was a brief spark in the early 1970's when scores of movies were made by new, young filmmakers on real issues.

That all changed with Jaws which made so much money, it spawned what is now called the blockbuster era. Movies now had to make tons of money in the first week-end. Yet, to some extent, movies were okayed by people who knew the film business.

Today, they're made by trends and what worked in the past. The movies now are either sequels, comic books, horror or romantic comedies. There still are lots of low budget indie movies but the costs of advertising can be more than the movie cost to make.

So why are the agencies going outside their own for money?

Because they're not making as much from their clients. That precious 10% (dictated by state law nontheless) is getting less and less. The percentage stays the same, but the rates don't. Remember Paramount dropping Tom Cruise a few years ago? He was asking for too much money.

Big stars like Cruise had a deal where they get money from first revenues, they could get millions of dollars even before the studio.

But now big stars don't guarantee big box office. Remember Tom's WWII movie? Or that one with Cameron Diaz?

What's happening is beginning to shape the film business in a whole new way, and a lot of it isn't good news. Fewer movies are being made by the big guys, and let's face it, most of the population on this planet sees movies from the big studios.

And this means less work for writers, actors and directors. And further behind but already hurting, are the crews. Yet film schools churn out more fodder. I've already told you that around 85% of WGA writers are out of work now.

My Christmas script was originally set at $2.5 million, which would have been a nice payday for me. But I discovered it was being made for less than $1 million. That meant less for me. However I am curious how they could make a Christmas movie, with snow, in late August in Hamilton, Ontario, for that little money.

First of all, the crew had to be working for less money and the shooting schedule, usually around an already impossible 18 days, was probably cut down to 15 days, maybe even less. They had one star, Lauren Holly, who was married to Jim Carrey, and in Picket Fences and a few other shows, probably made a modest amount. And I mean modest.

Since I have worked as a producer and know budgets well, I have been seeing less and less money being shelled out for movies and series. I believe that the end of the big money on shows like Seinfeld or Friends is over. I doubt studios and networks will give away those levels of money to talent anymore.

But the question is; how low can we go?

Well, Hallmark, who has US rights to the Christmas story has paid probably anywhere from $350,000 to $400,000 for the movie. That is less than a  half  hour sitcom on Comedy Channel.

Take it or leave it.

The producer has to find the additional funding for their movie from other sources, in this case, a Canadian broadcaster and hopefully foreign sales. The only good thing here is that a Christmas movie is guaranteed to show every year at Christmas, so the potential for royalties is possible.

SAG already has several options for low budgets; including one where everyone works for free. They have realized that it's better to  have an actor working on a no-budget movie for free than not at all. Their deals aren't always easy to do; but at least they try.

WGA and DGA have similar deals, not quite as generous but helpful. A writer can defer his salary but once the movie is sold, they have to be paid the full amount.  It's a big more complicated but that's the basic formula.

Then you throw in one more item; the fact that a hell of a lot of people are downloading movies for free. My horror film is being downloaded in England and Germany and I don't see a Euro. And on top of that, it's a bad print.

We have a generation who feels entitled to seeing movies for free and they do. One filmmaker played his movie on the internet and charged a modest fee to watch it. He made some money but it wasn't long before people were seeing it for free.

How do you handle that? It's not theft, it's a cultural.

And the future, well, I don't know where those film students will go; usually the attrition rate is around 75%, those leaving the film business after a year or two of no work. I don't see the business going back to the old days, Blockbuster Video is in bankruptcy, dvds are on the way out to be replaced by streaming video.

It is estimated that there are around 12 million unemployed people in America, the government likes to say 9 million but they usually don't count the ones who gave up looking for work. 

It seems that there will be very expensive blockbuster movies and smaller budgets on TV shows and series. And since Charlie Sheen gets around $2 million per episode, maybe he can take a cut in  his salary.

Either way, I am glad I was in the last good era of TV movies, having done them since 1989 when budgets were decent and work was everywhere and when agents actually took on new writers with no credits and worked with them.

(Thurs: Preparing a reading with real actors)