I've been in the business almost 17 years now. Right from the beginning, I always knew what I wanted to be. What I wanted to do. It was only a matter of how to do it. I worked with a ton of great people (and some not so great people as well). I learned a lot, and while it took me a lot of time and the assistance of some friends, I finally got to move up.
The process of working with my friend John Humber on DAKOTA SKYE was what opened up the possibilities for me. Like most of my friends, I was (and had been) hovering around the fringe of the industry for too long. The beauty of a film industry education is that you make a lot of friends who will come out to support you later - the only downside is that they are what we call "working crew." If you're in the trenches with them, you aren't really going to meet the people who control the money, which is to say that when you're ready to make your film, you need to search for those people or know the people who know them.
A few days ago, DAKOTA SKYE had it's one year anniversary of being available for rental and purchase. It's a big deal. We worked so hard on that little film and, even now, when I do a Twitter search for the movie and see how people are finding it and being moved by it, it's still a great lift to my day... to my confidence. Good review, bad review... Doesn't matter. What's important is that it's making people feel something. That's magical.
So anyway, that anniversary has me doing a bit of reflection on the process as I await the fate of my new production, GIRLFRIEND.
Dakota had an interesting development process in that, there wasn't really a process. John Humber and his family were going to invest in the film. We had a great script by Chad J. Shonk, another good friend of ours, and John and I simply set about lining up the elements to make the film. When you have a tiny budget and no access to further funding, it's simply a matter of backing the numbers into the total. Not unlike squeezing a car into a tight parking spot with cars on either side. You only have the space that exists, so you just make it work... and hope you have enough room to get out once you've parked.
Having limited funds means you don't have a lot of the toys that big movies do. This forces creativity. Ingenuity. How can we get this moment across with just a subtle camera move instead of a crane? (We did have a crane on Dakota, but not the kind films usually use). How can we get a school to let us shoot on their property when our story is loaded with language, sex and "drug" use? (Yeah, finding a school was a big problem).
All of these little hurdles we survived make that film what it is. And believe me, John, Chad and I would be the first to admit to you that it's faaaaaar from perfect... but the beauty of the film is that maybe to you, the audience member, it may be just what you needed on a Friday night. It just may be perfect.
John, Chad and I had years of experience under our belts by the time we shot Dakota. We knew what needed to happen on a set. We understood the elements. It was only a matter of getting it done. And we did. The shoot was, for all we had to deal with, relatively simple. There really weren't any major problems. Sure, we had arguments. Yes, there were tons of small fires to put out, but we had a great team of people - all of whom were (and are) friends. That made the shoot pleasant.
On GIRLFRIEND, it was a different team. I was brought in by Jerad and Kristina Anderson of Wayne/Lauren Film Company. They had already attached Justin Lerner to direct and had optioned his script. The nice thing, for me, was that the script was still being re-written and, as a producer, I got to submit notes. Justin and I ended up working very closely together throughout the process and, on GIRLFRIEND, there was a 6 month period of Pre-Production and development during which Wayne/Lauren, Justin and I set everything in motion.
Wayne/Lauren had the investor in place and we knew that the film was going. We had to cast the film, set the budget, work out the schedule (tough to do when one of our leads was currently locked in to shoot the third film in one of the largest franchises in modern film history at the same time!) and find the production team.
On this film, we had a stellar group from the word "go." Justin set the pace and Brad Gilmore was the first on. As our Casting Director, he was going to bring us some of the best young actresses out there. We searched New York, we searched L.A. We even saw a few Aussies. In the end, Shannon Woodward became the one to beat and she nabbed the role. Justin wrote a very difficult part. The character is one that people are, I think, going to have very strong opinions about. Shannon made her character real. She was scared and strong at the same time, it's a complicated role... and she's just phenomenal. I really can't wait for people to see her work in the film.
Jackson came on early through his relationship with Wayne/Lauren, so we knew that our 'Russ' would be volatile. Dangerous. I had only seen him in the Twilight films and so, for me, seeing him even in the casting period (when he did chemistry reads with various actresses), was an eye opener. Nobody quite knows what he's capable of yet and we get to put him out there. I think people will be surprised.
Ultimately, what the film would come down to though, is the performance of one person: Evan Sneider, an actor from the Boston area who has Downs Syndrome. If Evan's performance didn't work, we'd all be sunk. Well. Evan's performance in the film is extraordinary. He's stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. And the guy has a smile that will melt your heart.
After casting was completed, the rest of the Pre-Production period was great. We had plenty of time, we "crewed up" with a fantastic team of people and by the time we got out to Boston, we were ready for anything.
Now, like on Dakota, we wait to see how we do on the Festival circuit. We won a handful of awards with Dakota... a few Audience Awards and though we didn't play any of the big Festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, Telluride), it was still a great ride - though, as a producer, it can be a bittersweet ride as well: Nobody really knows what a producer does these days, and since there are usually quite a few producers (8 credited, in various capacities on GIRLFRIEND), it tends to water down the title a bit and confuse the uninformed. Compound this with the fact that most Festivals are only interested in Directors, Writers and Cast, and it can be an odd experience for a producer on the circuit.
The Phoenix International Film Festival was an eye-opener for me. DAKOTA SKYE was one of the big hits there. We were selling out every screening. For our final screening, the Fire Marshall allowed the theater venue to bring in folding chairs and place them in the Handicapped area and along the front row.
The movie played amazingly in every screening. And yet, to a certain extent, there was an element that made me feel out of place. Only the Director, Writer and talent got the coveted "Filmmaker" badges - and you might think, ok... so what? But that pass means that you get into the VIP areas (where the other filmmakers are) and you are always recognized as someone who made one of the films as opposed to anyone else at the Festival. So, yeah. It can be weird.
Going into the Fall Festival season with GIRLFRIEND, I'll be curious to see how it goes.
Regardless of all of that, the end goal is to get the film sold and out there in the world. SpyFilmz repped Dakota and we ended up selling to E1 Entertainment. E1 is the largest Home Video distributor in North America and produces the HBO series HUNG, so we're in good company. The release was small, but we're out there.
As we wait to see what trajectory GIRLFRIEND ends up taking, I'm so excited to be at this stage again, regardless of what happens, waiting to take the ride... and waiting for an audience to see the film.