Two women start the disspiriting process of making an indie film. 3,231 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
On a warm evening in July, Rachel Scanlon and Stacey Clark were sitting at a tiny table overlooking the Chateau Marmont hotel bar.
"Andy Dickson," Stacey said. "Tommy Bell. Marty Cohen. Mark DeSalvo. Peter Steinkamp. Susan Drexel."
Rachel looked up. "What made you think of all these people?"
"They’re on my list. Don’t you ever read those alumnae reports that Dalton sends out?"
"I never open my mail from Dalton or Hampshire. They always want money and I never have any."
"They also have a section with information on your classmates. Annie Sobel is a painter. She just bought a loft in Tribeca and had two one-woman shows at the Holly Solomon gallery. Mark DeSalvo inherited four million dollars from his grandfather. He supports the arts and collects Rookwood pottery. Peter Steinkamp has a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and is renovating an old firehouse in Brooklyn."
"Does he support the arts, too?”
"I bet he does. And I have two artists in mind. They’re planning to make a low budget movie."
"This is fantastic. How about Tom Bell? Anything about him?"
"Loan Officer, Citibank. And Susan Drexel took over her father’s chain of discount furniture stores after he had a stroke."
"Who else is on your list?"
"Oh, a few people. Remember that history teacher, Mr. Loeb? The one who always said he wanted to invest in you?"
"Sure. He always used to say, ‘I deal in commodities futures and my favorite commodity is talent.’ He never had a dime anyway."
"Now he does. Two years ago he won five million dollars in the New York State lottery."
"You’ve really been working on this."
"I figured I’d have a better chance to convince you if I had some facts and figures."
"I’m convinced. So how much do you think we really need?"
"Well, there’s the above the line budget, the talent, and the below the line budget which is just about everything else. Above the line is easy. Nobody gets paid until the movie is released. Of course we still have to pay for their plane tickets and hotels and food, but that’s below the line."
"Frequent flyer mileage, fleabag hotels, fast food."
"Right! Now you’re thinking like a producer."
"We’ll still have to buy the equipment, but Jim said he got his complete set-up for around thirty thousand dollars.”
“And doing it digitally means we don’t have to pay for film stock.”
“And we can move fast.”
“We’ll still have to hire a good cinematographer, but we can do all of that in France. Altogether I’d say we could pull it off for a quarter of a million dollars — ten each from twenty-five people. That shouldn’t be too hard. I know where we can find the first two suckers.”
"Are you sure?" Rachel sat back, assessing her friend.
"You really think we can do it?"
"Are you kidding? Look at us. We’re the filmmakers of the future."
The filmmakers of the future spent the next few weeks putting together a package of information for potential investors. Rachel’s favorite part was inventing the budget. She moved from sober estimates to hare-brained guesses to total fiction to a bad case of the giggles in the course of three hours. There was really no way to be certain what any of the items they needed would cost. She had never tried to make a film in Paris before so she based her figures on U.S. prices and hoped for the best. A friend donated Xerox copies of the paperwork from the film he was editing, which made Rachel’s life much easier since budgets, like scripts and continuity sheets, were formatted in a certain way and she found it comforting to have a template. Her final typed budget was just as full of errors and invention as the first handwritten one, but at least it looked authentic. Stacey read it over and made a few suggestions — less money for food, a lot more for the cinematographer who would be essential to the project.
For Rachel’s friends, the movie had become a cause and four of them put up ten thousand dollars. Escapade had thirty thousand dollars in the bank already.
"If you want to use my crew and equipment and set it in L.A.," Jim said at dinner one night, "you could make the movie right now." He was taking everyone out for chili at Barney’s Beanery. Under the table, Chase’s foot was moving up Rachel’s calf. The caress was startlingly erotic yet his face was impeccably bland. As Jim continued talking, Chase’s foot brushed under her skirt to touch the inside of her knee. He lowered himself in his seat for a better extension and smiled at her as the ball of his foot slid up her thigh. It was a narrow booth. Chase had long legs. Rachel had to take some action fast. She reached under the table and grabbed Chase’s foot and squeezed it hard enough to make him wince. The foot was gone.
"Nice dinner," Stacey said as they were driving back to the beach.
"Chase was playing footsie with me."
“Did you play footsie back?"
"But you enjoyed it."
"Could he tell you enjoyed it?"
Rachel nodded again.
"Then you’ve got a problem. Unless you’re looking for some heartless non-committal Los Angeles sex."
"If I ever get over Todd, I may just possibly consider something like that. But don’t hold your breath.”
Rachel wanted to talk about Todd, but she could never find the right way to start. She always sounded either flippant or melodramatic. The right words, the right tone, eluded her. It was like trying to find the edge on a roll of clear plastic tape. She already had broken too many nails scrabbling at the slick transparent surface of a suitable phrase, and the resulting pain had rendered her inarticulate. It was easier just to cry.
Still, the pain wasn’t constant anymore. Now it came in spasms that gripped her for an hour or a day and then passed. One day, she happened to recall the Cape Jasmine that Todd had bought ”for the house” and was engulfed by tears. Another day, she remembered the shy way he had taken her hand during some old Nicholas Ray movie. Details were her enemy. They turned her gelatinous when a man on the street had Todd’s walk. They wounded her with the glimpse of Todd’s swift angular signature on her ICM contract as she threw it in the trash can.
So she tried to see her life the way you see the earth in a satellite photograph. The world lumbered forward, tides went in and out, the sun yo-yoed through the strobe-light succession of days and nights. Somewhere inbetween, Rachel, in fact, was doing fine.
As August arrived with a record heat wave, she had written three columns for Cinema magazine and was working on her fourth. She was even starting to get fan mail: ten or twelve letters a week at first, twenty or thirty a week now. As for Escapade, the momentum had slowed a little bit. Potential backers all sounded pretty much the same: they didn’t know enough about screenplays to know if hers was any good, they didn’t think movies were a particularly sound investment, their brokers or lawyers or business managers advised against it, they worried her budget seemed unreasonably low for a quality product, they had never heard of any of the people involved, they’d be glad to invest in her second movie. And on and on.
"What a bunch of cheapskates!" Rachel lamented after hanging up with an old school pal who collected antique automobiles.
"Yeah," Stacey grumbled back at her, "they’re probably putting their money into some gutless lily-livered mutual fund or something. They’re just plain scared to lose money, that’s the problem. The chickens."
Stacey was right, of course. It would have been hard for anyone to find a more dubious investment than a cut-rate independent feature being made by a pair of unknown and inexperienced women. It would have been sensible for the duo to feel discouraged. But throughout the process of fundraising, Rachel’s spirits had begun to lighten. She appreciated that trying to raise a relatively small amount of money for a relatively modest film from regular people seemed infinitely easier than approaching a studio and asking them to employ hundreds of people and spend millions of dollars on months of exorbitant production. Rachel had been trying to storm a fortress; now she was just slipping past a snotty doorman.
She knew she could do it. Her optimism had returned like soldiers from overseas: miraculously unhurt, wearier perhaps, without illusion. She had no faith in anything but herself and her own relentlessness. She felt some great muscle tensing inside herself after a long slackness as if stretching after sleep.
Six or seven potential investors still hadn’t called her back. Rachel decided to stop waiting for them. The more she thought about it, the more clear it became that she and Stacey had left out some more obvious possibilities.
"For instance?" Stacey asked as they They were watched the sandpipers skittering away from the incoming foam. The sea was placid, sleeping in the sultry heat of midday.
"My parents," Rachel answered. "Your parents. My sister Mary and her husband."
"That’s why I didn’t think of it. I hate asking my family for money,” Stacey explained.
"This is capital investment, not child support."
"Your parents would really help?"
"My father would. When I was leaving New York, he told me to ask for money if I ever needed it."
"My dad told me that, if I ever needed money, I should contemplate the arrogant folly of the actor’s life. But that’s just how he is. He may have even been kidding. I never really know for sure."
"Until you ask."
Stacey had to laugh. "You first."
"But — "
"You’re the writer-director. The auteur. The responsible party. The name above the title."
"Okay, I get it. But you’re next."
They shook on it, turned around and headed back to the apartment.
Rachel hadn’t called home in more than a month. She was holding the phone in her hand tentatively. She knew precisely how her mother would take such a request. Rachel had failed. She was living in a fantasy world. Face reality and give up. Come home and stop trying to be something that she’s not. It was as predictable and as debilitating as menstrual cramps, and Rachel doubted that her mother’s carping would end even at menopause.
Her father answered after the first ring. "Rachel, how are you? Where are you?"
"Still in Los Angeles."
"Mom isn’t home, is she?"
"No, why?" Her dad’s voice always sounded different when Kay was gone: more relaxed, more loving. In fact, Rachel had two quite separate relationships with her father, and the one that materialized when they were alone was the only one that counted.
"Dad, when I left New York, you told me to call you if I ever needed money."
"Outside of Sardi’s, the day before you left."
"Well, I could really use the help now. I’m going to make Escapade independently. I sent you the script, didn’t I?"
"Two young women traveling in Europe?"
"Right. Almost everybody rejected it, and the ones who were interested wanted to make it into a porn or a Bergman movie. It was getting nowhere. Then Stacey had the idea of just doing it ourselves.”
"How much money are you trying to raise?"
"A quarter of a million."
"How much do you have in the kitty so far?"
There was a short silence. She could hear the slow escape of her father’s breath. "This is not the way I envisioned your career — hustling for money trying to get projects off the ground."
"Don’t worry, Dad. This one will get off the ground. It’s almost off the ground already."
"You sound like me, thirty years ago."
"You did all right thirty years ago. I hope To do that well."
There was another silence.
"Would five thousand dollars help?"
"It would be great."
"Okay. You’ve got it. But let’s keep this between the two of us. No need to tell your mother about it."
"Sure. And if she finds out, tell her it’s an early Christmas present.”
"Oh, speaking of Christmas…"
"Dad, we haven’t even gotten to Labor Day!”
"I know how busy you are but your Mom would really like to see you. She’s already bought a few presents."
“She buys these presents and hides them and then she can’t remember where she put them and years later she finds a bottle of perfume next to the spare tire, or a book in the freezer. Listen, Dad, seriously – she’s going to have to figure out that we’re not going to gather around the table like a Norman Rockwell painting anymore. Mary has her own family, Katie hates all of us, and I live three thousand miles away. The next time she starts getting misty about Christmas, remind her about the time I wanted to sit on the lap of the Santa at Macy’s and she said, ‘He’s just a fat bum in a fake beard. He can’t give you anything but germs.’ That was just what I most wanted to hear at age six."
Bill laughed softly. "Your Mom’s always been blunt. It’s one of the things I love most about her."
"Me, too. Thanks, Dad. I love you."
"Make your movie, honey. Show ’em all."
Rachel extended the receiver towards her friend and said, "Your turn."
Much to Stacey’s surprise, her parents were intrigued by the idea and offered to contribute two thousand dollars.
Then Rachel called her sister in Vermont.
"Is this a desperate measure?" asked Mary, her tone slightly chiding.
"I’d classify it more as a last resort."
"Can you really do it?"
"Making movies is easy. Getting the money is the hard part."
"Would three thousand dollars make any difference?"
"It would be fantastic."
"It’s all we can really afford right now, and–"
"No, I mean it, that’s great. Thanks, Mare. It will really make a difference."
"Can I have my name in the credits? Everyone here will be so impressed."
"How about Associate Producer?"
"Could I really have a title like that just for three thousand dollars?"
"It usually costs more. But I can get it for you wholesale."
"How wonderful. I feel as though I’m shimmering with glamour. Do I get any power?"
"No power, sorry."
"Oh, well, I wouldn’t know what to do with power anyway. I guess, just boss people around. And I’m sure that gets exhausting after a while. Anyway, good luck and keep me posted. I’ll put the check in the mail tomorrow."
When the new batch of checks arrived, the duo added up the total. "Forty thousand dollars. That doesn’t sound like much, does it?" Stacey cautioned.
"We’ve only been trying for six weeks," Rachel replied. "I know it sounds lame but we’re just getting started."
“Who else can we call?"
"Lots of people."
"Oh, right. I forgot. What’s their number again?"
"Half the people we called still haven’t called us back."
"That’s the point. They’re not interested. They’d rather buy Rookwood pottery or renovate their firehouse.”
"Why are you so negative today? That’s supposed to be my job."
"I guess I thought this would be easy, for some reason," Stacey concluded.
"Well, I never did. But don’t worry. We’ll have a yard sale. And I’ll sell my car. Ida Lupino would approve."
"But it won’t make that much difference."
"Sure it will. It’ll keep us in digital tape for weeks. In the meantime, somebody might call, we might get another idea, anything might happen. Who knows?"
"Who knows?" Stacey tried on the words, rehearsing an optimism she didn’t feel.
Rachel leaned across the couch and hugged her. "That’s it — ¬trust the unknown for a change."
"I’ll live with it. But I won’t trust it for a second."
Over the next few weeks, money continued to trickle in. Rachel called her old history teacher, Mr. Loeb, who turned out to be as good as his word. It pleased him to share his money. "It’s all pennies from heaven, anyway," he told Rachel. A week later his check for ten thousand dollars arrived in the mail.
Summer plodded into fall. In late September, Chase called. "I’d do anything for a part in your movie, Ms. Scanlon," he said seductively. "Anything."
"Well, you’re in luck. I’m shooting during your show’s hiatus and I’ve got the perfect part for you. And you don’t even have to degrade yourself sexually."
"No sleazy casting couch where you use my virile body ruthlessly for your own pleasure?"
"Damn! I was really looking forward to that."
"There is one thing you could do, though…"
"Let me guess: you need money. I’ve been hounding all my rich friends and one of them is going to put up twenty thousand bucks."
"You’re wonderful! We’re rich!"
"We’re up to about seventy thousand dollars now.”
"Don’t say ‘Oh’ like that. We’ll get more. I’m selling my car. And I’m having a big yard sale on Saturday."
"Well, I hope you have a lot of stuff."
"You’re as bad as Stacey!”
Rachel was divesting herself of all her possessions, and she was pleasantly shocked by how few of them she cared about. She went through her home gleefully slapping price tags on her convection oven and her Manolo Blahnik shoes, her Montblanc fountain pen and even a bottle of Dom Perignon she’d been saving for a special occasion. It was exhilarating and purifying. She needed nothing but her work. She would be ascetic as a nun if they would just let her make her movie.
At the end of the sale, there were several thousand dollars in the cash box. A week later she sold her car for four thousand dollars to an insurance agent from Pasadena. Before he drove away, he tried to sell Rachel a policy on the contents of her apartment. Rachel just laughed.
They now had just slightly over eighty thousand dollars, but they were running out of ideas about how to raise more. They couldn’t go to a bank with their proposal, and they wanted to avoid loan sharks. All they could do was sell scripts and get acting jobs and use the money they earned for Escapade. But work had dried up for Stacey and a new screenplay Rachel was writing had bogged down in its second act. She started to get cabin fever stuck in Playa Del Rey without a car. Sleeping on the floor gave her a stiff neck; sleeping on Stacey’s couch gave her a stiff back. She was starting to believe that she had been arrogant and naive to think she could walk away from Hollywood and make a movie on her own.
So she rented a car and a bed. Basically, she gave up. In the column she wrote dyspeptically: "The mistake people often make is thinking that this is a business. In fact it’s more like a period of history. Say, South Carolina after the Civil War: a few criminals getting rich, a few decent people getting lucky and everybody else dead or dying."
Part Two tomorrow