After working as a researcher in Manhattan at ABC News 20/20 in the mid nineties for Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Sam Donaldson, I inevitably realized my dream of becoming a screenwriter was fading out.
My passion for writing had originally been stimulated by watching Neil Simon’s play, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” on Broadway starring Matthew Broderick when I was eleven years old and afterward polishing off a corned beef sandwich at the iconic Stage Deli. A decade later I was living in New York across from Central Park, in a room smaller than most walk-in closets with 100,000 roaches as my roommates and communal washrooms. It was time to leave the Big Apple and return to Canada to produce a movie.
Upon returning to Toronto I met up with a former classmate of mine from Algonquin College’s screenwriting program in Ottawa, Erin Whalen. Both of us were wanna-be screenwriters with zero credits to our name. We decided the days of having our scripts flushed down the toilet by every producer from Toronto to LA was over. Whalen and I were determined to produce, write and direct our own little movie, an opportunity to showcase our talent. For a couple of years we talked about the story while I worked a day job teaching kids with sharp blades how to power skate in the most dangerous area of the greater Toronto area.
I wrote the first draft of Bet They Wouldn’t Put This On The Six O’Clock News on a Via train headed to New York City. Interestingly enough I based the female lead on my then girlfriend’s Nanna, a know it all, glass half empty, crotchety old woman who never had a good thing to say about anyone, family and friends included.
As we sat on the train for a day and a half, we began playing a game to pass the time. My girlfriend would name a dead person then I would name a dead person until we weren’t sure if the person was alive or dead. If you named a live person, you lost. The game eventually became the title of our movie, Famous Dead People. My story was a tragic comedy about Andrew and Ruth. I wrote Andrew as a thirty something sardonic whiny self involved chatterbox who was stuck in an elevator with Nanna Ruth, the know it all from hell.
Whalen reinvented my script. He kept the broad strokes of the characters but his screenplay delved into much darker places. In his draft both characters were on their way to see a lawyer and got trapped in an office elevator over the Thanksgiving long weekend only to be spied upon by an unrelenting unedited surveillance camera. Whalen’s characters are an old woman who’s survived Auschwitz and a young man dying of cancer. After a night of nothing to eat and drink the characters slowly start to show signs of physically and mentally deteriorating. Ruth’s PTSD is triggered by intense claustrophobia, which manifests itself a psychotic break, believing she’s back in the death camp. While she eventually falls asleep the male protagonist practices auditioning for a milk commercial in front of the surveillance camera which he intuitively knows will never come to fruition. Eventually Whalen takes the audience away from the familiarity of the static surveillance camera and our camera moves closer and closer to the actors until the audience begins to feel the same claustrophobic atmosphere as the characters. It’s enough to give the average person a panic attack.
The film starred Jason Carter and Caryl McKay (who has sadly passed on). Carter also came in as a writer to help solidify his character. Many of his lines on set were improvised. While Whalen was rehearsing with the actors my job was to find the money. Thanks to my parents and extended family we were able to raise a significant amount of funds but we were still short quite a few loonies. At that time, one of my best friends, Eric McClure, became our angel investor and wrote us a cheque for the remainder of the budget. He insisted he would ride my coattails to Hollywood and beyond.
Finally production was ready to start. Mom was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the cast and crew. Our team was in place, DP (Director of Photography) Todd Langille flew in from Calgary (a good friend of Whalen’s), Marc Lafontaine from Winnipeg recorded sound and a few of Whalen’s former Niagara College classmates rounded out the crew. My father, a psychiatrist, talked to the cast and crew, encouraging them to believe in themselves. I don’t know what I was thinking, scheduling to shoot over 120 pages in three and a half days? On the first day we shot maybe 10 pages. Luckily we had decided to shoot the project on Beta SP, meaning we could shoot forever without our costs rising significantly. With three days left the team planned a shooting schedule that prompted us to shoot mostly hand held with very few master shots as there simply wasn’t enough time. After four days of not sleeping, we somehow pulled off the impossible.
The problem was the finished film was being rejected by every festival on the internet and the majority of distributors and broadcasters. We had laid a gigantic egg. Then the worst thing that could happen, happened. My parents were in town and my dad delivered the nightmarish news. Eric had committed suicide. Suddenly the film seemed insignificant. I knew Eric had been dealing with some mental health issues over the last little while but this was absolutely unexpected. Eric was in the midst of a legal trial at the time involving in a class action suit against a doctor that the defense believed experimented on many patients. A few days after Eric saw the doctor in court, he ended his life. After some self wallowing my resolve became even greater to sell the film and launch our careers. We would do it for Eric, to make him proud.
At this point we were desperate which led us to Canada’s greatest believer in indie film and perhaps the godfather of Canadian independent cinema. I’m referring to Andre Bennett,who only a couple of decades earlier discovered Adam Egoyan, Guy Maddin and Bruce McDonald. Bennett believed in our little picture, Famous Dead People and had a vision on how to sell the movie.
He thought the film needed to be re-edited with him as sort of a Post Production Producer. As for the script he felt it was necessary to better flush out the characters by shooting a few scenes outside of the elevator. Whalen and the crew headed to a forest near Hamilton to shoot a few holocaust scenes. Andrew’s scenes were all captured on Super 8, depicting moments from his life with his girlfriend.
Once these scenes were added to the recut film, courtesy of Whalen’s good friend Rob Roy (who also shot the scenes in the forest), we had a film Bennett felt was sellable.
As a first time filmmaker Bennett let me become heavily involved in the distribution process. I created a press kit, posters, called cinemas, festivals and media. After a few months of knocking on doors we had Cineplex on board in Toronto and a bunch of indie cinemas across Canada. Whalen and I travelled with the film doing a Q & A after many screenings but before any of that occurred we were flying back to New York. Since the picture was finished on Beta SP we needed to transfer it to film. There were only a few films at this time which were experimenting with video to film transfers, Hoop Dreams, and Lars Von Trier early projects. The transfer went well providing the film a sort of staccato visual style, which added to the onscreen sense of hopelessness and despair.
In the end Bennett would sell the film around the world to various broadcasters and managed to pull of some video deals. Remember video? It was a tremendous learning experience that I promised I’d never engage in again. Two years later I was producing my wife’s first feature Jack’s House, the entire film was shot over one day, totally improvised. This was before Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The film played on all the movie channels across Canada and even won The New York Indie Film festival.
Essentially my advice to any first time filmmaker is screw making your 5 or 20 minute short, find the funds and produce a feature. One way or the other it’ll open some doors or you could always find a job teaching power skating.