A film professor teaches his former student, now a studio exec, how to make a free movie. 2,979 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“I’d love to buy your pitch,” she said, “but all we’re making this year is shit.”
It’s a good thing the Vice President of Production of United General Pictures had carpeting in her office or she would have heard my jaw hit the floor as I realized that my project had been shot down by friendly fire even before it had taxied, let alone taken off.
“Orders from the top,” Megan Koplowitz continued, "and not just from the top of the studio, but from the top of the conglomerate that owns us. Make shit.”
She was being suicidally candid. But I expected nothing less from my prized former film student.
“This is hard to hear,” I said, “coming from the studio that last year won six Oscars out of 18 noms. There’s no way you could make shit even if you tried.”
“Well, we’re trying. Awards cost money. Shit doesn’t.”
I waited for her to crack a smile. Nothing. Megan sat poker-faced in her thousand-dollar swivel chair, pulling on her five dollar vapor cigarette, and leafing through the studio’s billion dollar list of fecal matter.
“Here’s a male bonding old cop-helping-young cop picture,” she said, showing me the logline for Badge Buddies. “Here’s Which Witch: ‘An older witch on retreat helps a novice small-town witch solve a demonic possession. If you liked those, Big Kids has a fourth grader going back to third grade to help the younger class monitor. Different films. Same plots.”
Megan knew I was not holding her responsible. She also knew that I was taking a year’s sabbatical to explore more closely the subject I was teaching at USC: commercial filmmaking.
“Does somebody have videos of the head of the studio fucking a goat?” I asked. “This isn’t just shit, it’s diarrhea.”
“And I’m the one who has to make sure it flushes on time and under budget,” she replied, smiling weakly. “You taught me the Hollywood maxim that nobody ever sets out to make a bad picture. But the Hollywood reality is that a studio has to keep one picture going through each stage of operation at any given time or else it eats into overhead instead of attaching the expenses to pictures.”
“I’ll let you know how many of my film majors switch to art history because it’s more commercially viable.”
Megan and I had an understanding, born in mutual cynicism and refined over the years as she had risen from PA to VP. She had called me for advice every step of the way. Now she didn’t need me any more but, admirably, the bond between us remained secure.
“What do you recommend?” I asked over lunch at the commissary as we pondered the studio’s predicament.
“Stick with the boneless chicken,” she said. “It’s named in honor of spineless executives.”
I chose the jambalaya, the stew of leftovers born in Louisiana and derived from the word meaning “jumble.” And that suddenly gave me an idea.
“The studio is always asked to do favors for other people. Do other people ever do favors for the studio?” I asked.
“You mean like work for free?”
“I mean people like writers whose scripts you’ve bought but decided not to produce. Or directors who had three-picture deals but you didn’t go after them for the third feature. Or crew members who were paid for a full week but the picture wrapped early. In other words,” I started fantasizing, “what about all these people who owe you their services and you’re not collecting the debts?”
“What are you getting at, Professor Steuben?”
“Remember how Peter Bogdanovich made Targets? Boris Karloff owed Roger Corman two days of shooting after a picture called The Terror wrapped early. So Corman said Peter could use those two days on any picture he could put together. That’s one example. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. The trick will be getting all those broken clocks in sync. I’ll bet you I can make a movie for free if you let me put it together with people who owe obligations that the studio never collected."
Megan looked skeptical, but I continued. “Surely studio stuff walks out the back door all the time: props, carpeting, paint, printer paper. You yourself told me about a director who budgets a new Range Rover into every picture he produced and then drove it home. Well, remember how in film school we always counted on people to volunteer their talent or services for a day? This will be that film. It’ll be an action movie that can be shot a day here and a day there on standing sets or on the streets. At worst, it won’t cost anything. At best, it will be a streaming novelty. And anyway, how could accidental shit be any worse than the shit you’re making on purpose?”
Our food arrived. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat, and Megan also chased her kale around her plate with a fork. At the end of an indigestably long silence, she said, “There’s an empty office down the hall from me. I’ll get you a phone but no secretary. You’ll have a walk-on so you’ll have to park in the tourist lot. Pretend you belong here. I’ll send a memo that you’re going to look at our contracts from the past year. Anything further back wouldn’t be fair." She paused. "You really think you can shoot a whole picture a day here and a day there?”
“Film students do it all the time.”
“That was before George Lucas. Prove me wrong.”
With that, she signed the tab and we parted, I to the panic room just opening up in my heart. What the hell had I done? Oh yes: I had promised I could make better shit than the professionals.
The first thing an academic learns when he leaves his ivory tower is that the real world isn’t anything like what he’s been teaching. Fortunately, since I had entered academia after years in the industry, I had no illusions left to shatter other than those that involved the ivory tower itself.
Within a week I had read 50 scripts that the studio owned but had shelved. Some had been written by famous writers on the way up, some by once-famous writers on the way down, and others by flavors of the wrong month. The aggregate amount spent optioning, developing, rewriting, and buying them exceeded thirty million dollars – and not a single page had been shot. This waste was typical of every film company, and stockholders never realized the sad extent of it.
The amazing thing is that every script had something great in it, but not everywhere. Most had terrific opening scenes that had sold the property in a pitch meeting but blew the second act complications. A few actually had terrific second acts with well developed characters but the endings didn’t pay off. And a very few had endings to die for but the script had long since petered out before it got there.
In other words, there were solid reasons why each project had been abandoned. So how do bad scripts get made anyway? “This is the worst script I’ve ever read — unless Robert Downey Jr. wants to do it.”
It struck me that there had to be a way of piecing together all the good parts. So what if it didn’t make sense? I created a Frankenfilm out of pieces of some 20 scripts. I called it Jambalaya: The Movie.
One weekend and a lot of typing later, I had assembled 97 pages that made absolutely no sense but was a great read. The remarkable thing is that — thanks to screenplay gurus like Syd Field, Linda Seger, Blake Snyde and Robert McKee — every script of the last 20 years was pretty much the same anyway, right down to the page number where reveals happen and plots turn. Combining them was a snap. I did a find/replace to make all the character names consistent, and I ensured all the setpieces worked on the studio lot or locations.
As week two started and the gate guard was now recognizing me, I began phoning various directors, cinematographers, actors, grips, prop people, costumers, make-up artists, and other craftspeople to remind them of the debt they owed the studio. Most stayed on the call until I finished; a few hung up with a brusque “call my agent.” Nobody said yes. Until I began employing reverse psychology. “How would you like to screw United General Pictures?” I started asking. “How long is the waiting line?” came the most common reply.
I explained that everyone on it was being asked to work on a favored-nation basis. “How favored?” Michael Mann asked. “For free,” I said. “That’s not favored-nation,” he said, “that’s Third World.” Then he added, “Or maybe Writers Guild.”
I had my greatest resistance from actors. “The script makes absolutely no sense,” Uma Thurman insisted. “Not only is there no character arc, there’s no character.” “I couldn’t agree with you more,” I said. “Will you do it? We can wrap you in one day, two at the most.” “Do I get a limo, a trailer, and my own chef?” she asked. “No,” I said, “but I can pick you up in my Toyota, set up a chair in the shade, and bring you Starbucks.”
“Why should I do this?” Uma asked.
“Two words: Kill Bill. You owe a threequel of your character. I’ve got Quentin directing.”
“Really?” she enthused. “It’d be great to work with Quentin again.”
We set the details and then I called Tarantino.
I began, “I have a commitment from Uma to recreate her Kill Bill role for a few days of shooting but only if you’re directing.”
“What do I get out of it?” he asked.
“It’s just a matter of working a day here and a day there. But it will count as the third Kill Bill picture you owe at your old rate."
Quentin laughed and said, “What the hell. As long as you have a firm yes from Uma. It makes as much sense as anything else around Hollywood. You sure this lets me off the hook?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
William Goldman has said that the most exciting day of your life is your first day on a movie set and the most boring day of your life is your second day on a movie set. Goldman never visited Jambalaya: The Movie. As we began scrambling to shoot, something unexpected happened. Both above and below the line people who had become jaded by the process of professional filmmaking rediscovered the elation they’d enjoyed at the beginning of their careers. “I haven’t had this much fun since acting class” was the constant confession from stars as renown as Brad, Tom, Denzel, Reese, Anne, Arnold and Sly.
Stealing shots while staying ahead of the cops was the least of it. Mostly there were improvisations. For example, rather than marshal a team of gaffers to light a major scene in a boardroom, our one-day cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki devised a way to shoot it with castmembers holding glowing iPhones up to their faces. When Priscilla Of Boston closed its doors before making good on their debt of a wedding gown for a marriage ceremony set in the paved bed of the Los Angeles River, the bride wore white yoga pants to her nuptials.
Since no one was getting anything anyway, nobody pulled rank or made demands. Most people worked extra days just to hang around. Because every week was a kind of party with a constantly changing guest list. You never knew who would show up or when. Which is not to say that anyone in the movie business wanted to work for free. It’s just that the people who made Jambalaya: The Movie had reached that level of success where they could afford to give back. The fact that they were indentured servants who owed it anyway didn’t create bitterness. If anything, it provided relief that their debt was finally paid.
Then came the day Megan Koplowitz asked to see footage. I was stunned. For some reason this possibility had never occurred to me.
“I’ve been hearing rumors and I want to see what you’ve been up to," she explained.
I asked her, “What rumors have you been hearing?”
She was blunt. “That you’ve got a hit on your hands.”
“Hit, or something that rhymes with hit?”
Megan said, “Everyone I’ve talked to for the last couple of weeks has been asking me why Jambalaya: The Movie isn’t on our production charts. They say they’ve spoken to people who have worked on it and everybody — and I mean everybody – says they have no idea what the movie is about. But that they had a great time making it. Even the head of the studio wants to know.”
“The one with the goat?” I asked.
“You don’t understand what’s happening here," Megan continued. "It’s not about commerce anymore, it’s about morale. Huge talents keep checking their text messages to see if they’ve been invited to ‘come make Jumbalaya.’ e have six other pictures in production right now and nobody gives a fuck about any of them. All anybody wants to do is be in your movie and nobody even knows what it’s about!”
Luckily, I had arranged for film editor Sandra Adair to make the incoherent coherent. "This script is so disjointed, even the page numbers don’t help,” she’d complained. She was just coming off Boyhood and had been looking for a quick feature. I had an editing set-up in the guest house for students and she suggested. “Why don’t the kids train on it and I’ll supervise their work?” So when Megan came over to my bungalow for a work-in-progress screening, we had about 45 minutes of footage assembled, or roughly a third of the script.
Afterwards, Megan stepped outside the guest house, sucked on a vapor and pronounced, “Your shit is better than our shit.”
“Wait until we finish,” I said. “Maybe it will get worse.”
“If success has a thousand fathers but failure is a bastard, people at the studio will be lining up to take credit for your movie.” Then she said, softly but audibly, "Unless I kill it here and now.”
“You mean you’d actually pull the plug on my picture because it makes the studio’s other movies look worse than they already are?”
“I’m sorry, Norman. I know you wanted to do this as an experiment, and it succeeded. Too well. Just keep shooting and we’ll see what happens.”
I was frantic now to finish the film. Somehow it had managed to make professional filmmaking fun again, and that scared the hell out of the executives whose jobs depended on making toil. When Samuel Goldwyn said, “Pleasant shoots mean pleasant pictures,” he meant that, if you had no conflicts while making it, there would be no sparks on the screen. We had proven him wrong: when people enjoy what they’re doing, it shows in their work.
So I set a course to counter the great buzz. Remember when that audio file of Christian Bale throwing a tantrum went viral? I invited him to come to the set just so he could do it again. I recorded the new rant on my iPhone and posted it on Twitter to show how unpleasant shooting Jambalaya was. In point of fact, we had to shoot the tantrum four or five times because everybody kept laughing. Christian is one funny guy.
I also planted stories in the trades of discord among the performers, never mind that we all sat around a swimming pool coordinating what nastiness each would leak about the other. Before long, Jambalaya was being touted as “the most hate-filled set in Hollywood.” Score.
Naturally, this attracted TMZ. So we put them in the movie by turning our cameras around whenever they showed up with theirs. A whole subplot developed involving video crews appearing in the middle of completely unrelated scenes. They strangely seemed to make sense.
The last few days of shooting went too smoothly for comfort. What had started out being ill-prepared, improvised, and ill-advised finally settled into some semblance of professionalism. When we finished Jambalaya: The Movie, we held the cast and crew screening. Only then did the General Pictures executives realize that we had packed a once-in-a-lifetime assembly of stars and award-winning craftspeople into our film for free. The only question was whether the movie stunk.
It became a hit in Europe and Asia before it was released in North America. Because nobody there cared that it didn’t make sense. Just that it looked great. Under Megan’s management, the studio’s international division came up with the cockeyed concept of dubbing it from English into Chinese and then subtitling it back into English for distribution by General Pictures Classics, the art film unit. Apparently American critics don’t think a Chinese film has to make sense. Neither do Chinese critics. The film did record business in Beijing.
The three projects Megan shepherded through the studio – Badge Buddies, Which Witch and Big Kids – did exactly as much business as Megan had predicted. Around town GPC became known as the number one studio for making number two except for Megan’s profit bonanza Jumbalaya. She was made the studio head’s heir apparent.
As for the lessons learned by producing my movie, I teach it in my classes as a case study now that I have returned to USC. As one student wrote in her midterm, "Jambalaya may not have had a story. But it had a backstory. An older film teacher travels to Hollywood to help a former student and together they save the studio." A little hyperbolic but highly perceptive. I gave her an “A” and Megan’s cell number.