I moved to Los Angeles from New York City about 6 years ago for many reasons. To be closer to family, to escape the New York Grind, for a fresh start, etc. But mostly I moved for career reasons. To transition from being a playwright to a screenwriter. New York is theatre (i.e. playwriting) whereas film was in LA. Duh. Now, I’m a smart girl with a realistic perspective on life. I knew this would be hard…but I had high hopes. I had a play that I had written that everyone said would make a fantastic movie. I had adult professionals (better known as my NYU professors) telling me I had talent. I had screen writing software for my computer! All I had to do was turn this riveting play that I’d written into a low budget, “indie” movie script, attach some well known actors, shoot the movie for a nominal sum of money, and go to Sundance. How hard could this be? I was young, talented and determined, and I’d just moved to Hollywood, where it is sunny all the time. Life was beautiful and so was I…
If this all sounds like the beginning of a Lifetime Murder Mystery movie or the pilot episode of a CW show where a plucky young heroine hopes to make it big in her new city, then I’m sorry. Six years later, I have not been murdered, and I’m not in any way “big”. However (spoiler alert) that fabulous play turned screenplay finally begins shooting in June with a great cast, a decent budget and an announcement in the Hollywood Reporter. It’s all happening, as they say, and it’s wonderful. But getting this far was hard, slow going, tedious work. I didn’t burst onto the scene as I had fantasized. It has been years of networking (yuck) and re-writes (ugh) and meetings with producers in frozen yogurt shops (red flags). It’s been a roller coaster ride of emotions, false starts, and un-kept promises, but I’m told that this is normal. Just par for the proverbial course. I am really happy things are finally going so well…and I’m exhausted.
Independent film is a mysterious beast. It can mean a lot of things, from a group of friends shooting a short film on their I-phones, to Lena Dunham’s inspired Tiny Furniture, shot with her own family/friends in her own home with her own funds (as I understand it) to films loaded with movie-stars, loaded with cash and pre-sale money, BUT no major studio attachment until after it has debuted at a big film festival. To say you are making an “independent film” is simply to say that a major studio did not, in fact, hire you to write the next movie in whatever Young Adult Fiction, or Super Hero franchise. But other than that, the term is vague. Very vague.
My film is as independent as it gets. A talented college friend who acts and produces loved the script and came on early as my producing partner. With some luck and some connections we hooked up with a reputable production company that made large promises that it couldn’t keep. That wasted the first two and half years, but we learned a lot. We eventually parted ways with that company. Over the next couple of years we met with other producers who made similar promises in terms of budget raising, talent securing, and location scouting that never materialized. We were frustrated, they were noncommittal. It was like one bad break up after another. Again, we learned and learned until we couldn’t learn anymore (and by learned, I mean cried.) During these break-ups, we met a talented and excited commercial director looking for her first feature who came on board. Finally the three of us struck out on our own, formed our own production company, raised the budget, hired a casting director, and went to work making a film. We carefully gathered a team of solid, reliable, professionals who were as passionate about our film as we were and we pushed ahead. It wasn’t how I planned it at all. I thought there would be loads of “Big Wig” professionals who would take over and make my movie for me. They would handle the finances, write the checks and file our taxes. I would write from a plush production office and have an assistant that brings me almond milk lattes (some day, Adrienne, some day.) Instead, I have written and rewritten at my kitchen table, I have written the checks for our script copies, legal fees and permits, from our LLC bank account that I set up, and I’m sometimes too lazy to make my own lattes so I simply go without. But it’s better this way, I think. We’ve managed to retain so much creative control. We got to cast who we wanted, and work with our friends. At the end of the day, I can truly say that I worked my ass off to move this script…this project that I love as far as it has come and I’m confident that I will be very proud of the outcome. And isn’t that what making art is all about?
Another group of friends ventured down the road of independent feature film making recently. Their film, Initiation, had a kick-starter campaign that garnered only a fraction of their small budget. They sold their belongings to pay for equipment and locations, got a cast and crew of talented, dedicated, friends and went to work. Actors doubled as producers and production assistants. When my friends weren’t acting in a scene they were cooking meals for the rest of the cast and crew. People showed up for over night shoots in deserted locations, stayed for 12 hour days, all without getting paid because they were passionate about the film. I’ve seen footage. It looks great, and I feel confident it will have a long, successful life. But what I love most about this film Initiation, and our film and all the great work that my friends are doing these days is that they did it because they loved it. Not for the money (all though, some money would be nice) but because they love film, and story telling, and working with their friends.
So even though I have my cynical moments where I lament having not sold out, and sold the script for a decent chunk of change, maybe never to see or hear of it again, I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad that my partners and I fought the good fight and will have produced, written and directed a movie that we fostered, nurtured and loved for so many years, and we did so independently (what ever that means.) That’s not to say that I’m not dying to be hired to write the third Hunger Games movie. I can taste that almond milk latte now. Yummmm.