The indie filmmaker begs and borrows to finish her shoot – and feed her dog. 2,006 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Indie filmmaker Annie Grayson wasn’t young. But she had more energy than any obnoxious 22-year-old snot-nosed kid out of film school. Both crew members Nigel and Ted admired her for that. So they were onboard as much as they could be without too much self-sacrifice for a very likely doomed project.
Nigel hated to think of it like that. But Annie would not listen to reason. Yes, collaboration could make it work. But not if she refused their help and knowledge.
“First-time filmmakers don’t jump into features or even thirty minute shorts. They do ten minute shorts, or five minute shorts,” Nigel said to Ted, the sound man.
“George Lucas will tell you he started out with a thirty second short and a lot of storywriting experience,” said Ted, lighting up a joint. “Want a toke?”
“Thanks.” Nigel, the cinematographer, said and inhaled. “Then she complains that Tricia is always late. No shit. Actors are always late. They’re prima donnas, even the unknowns.” He let out the breath.
“Especially the unknowns.”
“Tens of thousands of them arrive in Hollywood every year, ready for their close up, Mr. DeMille, thank you very much.”
“You got that right.”
Nigel took another toke, “I told Annie to just schedule them early. You always need contingencies, right? She didn’t seem to like that idea. I suppose she thinks people show up to work on time, or else. Or else what? You don’t pay them the wages they could make in two hours waiting tables.”
“Yeah, that’s Annie. But I just record the sound.”
“I should shut up. But actors spend a few hundred a month on acting classes to get feedback from an alleged industry authority. At least they’re having fun with fellow actors, networking, practicing and honing their skills, right? Being a human slate and dealing with a smelly dog on the set doesn’t quite cut it. And there’s no makeup or wardrobe person here to fawn over them and make them look perfect.”
Ted was stoned. “Ha. But I just…”
“Please, I know. You just record the sound,” interrupted Nigel.
Annie came over and asked Nigel, “Would you like to edit the film?”
Nigel thought about it for a few seconds. “Sure.” Then he thought some more. “But I have to be paid. I have a family.”
“So how much?” Annie asked.
She tells me she can’t afford to eat, and she asks how much I want, Nigel thought. “You don’t want to know. Five thousand?”
“But it’s just a thirty minute film.” Annie walked away.
Nigel whispered to Ted, “What? She thinks it takes thirty minutes to cut a thirty minute film?”
“She’d make a good studio executive,” said Ted, stoned but serious.
“I guess she’s never listened to those podcasts with editors who talk about the editing process. It takes six months to a year. I spent five years cutting my documentary,” said Nigel.
“Really?” asked Ted.
“Well, I had a cut in six months, but I kept revising it. And I only had a few hours a day to work on it..”
Annie returned, “You sure you can’t help me out with the editing?”
“It would take at least three months to edit your film.”
“But it’s only thirty minutes.” She walked away again.
Nigel remembered he saw an ad for an editor to cut a thirty minute film for $150 a week. Not per week, but in one week. It had been on the same job board where Annie found him. Even with a decent cut, what about the sound mix, effects, music, color correction, titles? There’s no way, thought Nigel. She would come back and want it fixed for free.
Nigel went back to talk to Ted. “She wants high end for no money. It’s like walking into the finest steakhouse in town and expecting to pay $3.95 for filet mignon. Then, when they give you a microwaved cheeseburger, you complain that it’s crap.”
“She doesn’t have a clue.”
“So I heard all about her crowdfunding campaign with the three million dollar target goal,” Nigel said to Ted the next day.
“Is that the start of a joke?”
“Yeah, a mangy dog and a crazy lady walk into a crowdfunding campaign. No, this is real. There are very few campaigns that ever hit that high a mark, and when they do, it’s only because the director or cast are big names with huge followings — tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of followers. You need a crowd to do crowdfunding. “
“You didn’t hear about this? When her campaign flopped, she was crucified by the indie film community. Why didn’t she do any research? Why didn’t she start with smaller amounts? Why didn’t she put together a social media campaign or a promo video to sell the project? She ended up with a few hundred dollars in pledges and her name blacklisted in the indie industry. Not that it matters. In fact, it probably endeared her to struggling filmmakers everywhere. She’s a goddamned martyr.”
“I love her, man,” Ted said appreciatively.
“I asked her about it,” said Nigel, “Told her she should give it another go. She was for it. I told her I could help her for a percentage of the take. Am I right, or am I right?”
“Hey, you’re right.”
“Damned right. Then I had to mention what a hard road it would be, with daily efforts to drive web traffic, sell it to the cast and crew and all their contacts. And all their contacts. And so on, and so on. Allocate 30% to bad credit cards, the website, fulfilling perks, and ending up with about a half of the goal.”
“Geez, half? Really? Let me guess. She blew it off.”
“Yeah. She says ‘I can’t do that.’ Boom! Just like that, without a second thought. I better shut up. Here she comes.”
Annie walked over to them, “Now Nigel, you know I want you to download all the footage to my laptop. I can’t take a chance like last time when the DP held my footage hostage.”
“No problem,” said Nigel, and she walked away. He turned to Ted, “Someone held her footage hostage?”
“You’re the third cinematographer she’s had. The others quit," recalled Ted. "She finally got the footage by having someone embarrass that DP, or maybe she paid him. I don’t remember which."
Nigel tried to download his footage to her laptop. But his batteries were just about dead. Ted laughed, “It’s really too bad you didn’t have another battery. Not for the download, but to record what happened behind the scenes today.”
Nigel noticed Annie’s laptop was dead, too. They were on an upscale street in Santa Monica. So she, Nigel and the dog walked to a Starbucks. On the way the dog decided to stop in the street crossing to take a dump. “Oh my,” said Annie. Nigel was mortified. He smiled politely while guarding the shit pile as people walked by. Annie went into a nearby store and got a plastic bag, napkins, and returned to clean it up.
By the time they got to Starbucks, it was closing. So Nigel told her he would upload the scenes to a cloud drive later. There was no other choice.
“It’s 8:30. I got to get home,” he told her.
“Can we get some B-roll now?” she asked.
Nigel gave in with exhaustion. “Sure. Why not?” He showed Annie and the dog to his car.
Annie laid it on thick, “You know, I have no money. Only $40. And I can’t eat if I can’t feed Louie, too.”
Nigel responded like a sap. “OK. You want me to lend you a $20?” And he gave one to her.
“Oh, thank you,” she said, “You’re a kind and wonderful man.”
Sure, thought Nigel. She pays me $60 for the day. Then I have 150 miles of travel from my place to locations, plus parking. Now minus $20. After expenses, I end up with $2. A typical day on a no-budget indie disaster.
Nigel agreed to drive Annie and the dog to scout B-Roll locations. The wild eyed mutt got in and crawled aimlessly from the front to back seats of the car, barking angrily.
That night, Nigel had the day’s rushes up on his screen and his wife saw the dog whine and cry over Tricia’s dialog. “I can’t believe she took him out in the heat all day,” Nigel explained.
“When are you going to grow up and get a real job?” his wife asked.
Nothing new there, thought Nigel. Every time I do a film project she goes off on me. And I hate real jobs.
But his wife kept going, “If PETA or the Humane Society ever get wind of this, they’ll shut down crazy lady and crucify you too! What the hell were you thinking?”
I wasn’t, Nigel admitted to himself. But that’s the thing about heat-of-the-moment’ guerrilla filming. Nobody knows what you’re up to until it’s over. Not even you.
But Annie’s requests didn’t end there. Days later, Annie relentlessly sent texts to Nigel with loaded questions. He showed them to Ted, “Get this. Annie asks whether I used high end lenses, or the one that came with the camera? Obviously, she can’t tell the difference anyway. So why does it matter?”
“So I sent Annie a link to a clip of close shots she can use," Nigel continued. "She wants to chide me into a dialog that ends with me cutting her film for free. My wife says if I do, she swears we’ll get a divorce. And if Annie texts or calls again, not to answer.”
“What did you say to that?” asked Ted.
“I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
A week later Nigel saw a new editor gig on the job board: $400 for a month’s work to cut a thirty minute film. This looks familiar, he thought. Sounds like Annie. The ad read: “The director has experience lecturing on indie film production and needs someone to work on a passion project in the vein of That Girl.”
Nigel had come away from Annie’s project with a few clips for his reel. He had tried to emulate Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman and Gravity), who made history using lengthy Steadicam shots with very few cuts, and no coverage. It was something.
Five months later, Nigel showed his wife a news write-up on Annie. “Annie Grayson, former film lecturer, was signed to direct her first TV movie project, a retro comedy in the vein of That Girl, which if you’re younger than fifty, you’ve probably never heard of. The $2.4 million budget will star unknown actresses Tricia Thompson and Jennifer Stevens. Cinematographer Nigel Saunders used the project to experiment with a Birdman floating camera style, without cuts or close ups.”
His wife asked, “Who’s Saunders? You’re not Saunders.”
“She must have mixed me up with one of the other camera guys she’d hired.”
Nigel read on. “Because of the heat around the players, the project has been pre-sold in fifty countries around the world and is already projected to make $250 million global, though the script has yet to be finalized. Annie Grayson was to play the role of the aunt until the studio refused her requirement to keep her dog on the set with her at all times.”
His wife was furious. “That fucking bitch didn’t even get you a job on the new crew!”
“You told me never to answer her calls.”
“In fact she did call one day and I told her you had a job. That shut her up. You don’t want to work for her. She’s nuts!”
“Right, well, thanks. I guess. I have the day job and all,” Nigel chuckled to himself. “I was just thinking it was refreshing to work for someone who has absolutely no respect for authority nor gives two shits about permits.”
“Aren’t you glad you didn’t waste your time?”
“I wonder if she ever gave that poor dog a bath.”