Noted screenwriter Dale Launer (Ruthless People, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, My Cousin Vinny) details his quest to make a high-quality film on the cheap.
I always loved movies. When I was a teenager, I would go to movies with my buddy, Bob. A woman asked me why Bob and I were always going to the movies. I said, “Because I like movies.” It seemed like an odd question, but not as odd as the next question: “Are you guys gay?” A very odd question because we both had slept with her. Many times. I just liked going to the movies. But I felt guilt like I had to justify my penchant for movie-watching.
Maybe if I was a “film major.” Well, then I could go to all the movies and it would be homework – it would be research. In fact, I could go to as many movies as possible. Back then, theatres had a double bill of classic films every night, seven days a week. I would get a calendar and see everything. So I did it. I changed my major and changed my life.
I took all the film classes: history and production classes, and read books on movies. I especially loved Kubrick and Hitchcock movies: Kubrick for the style and choice of unusual, provocative material, and Hitchcock for finding ways that used the camera to tell the story with what appeared to me to be a unique cinematic language… and to keep things entertaining. At least twice a week I would be at the Nuart or Fox Venice seeing the classics.
I quickly embraced the auteur theory. A handful of French film critics in the ’50s discovered that a handful of notable American films were directed by a handful of directors. They saw such consistency in these films that they argued that the directors should be considered the authors of those films. When I was a film student in college, I became a devotee in the church of the director. I remember reading books with titles like The Director as Superstar.
As a fan of Kubrick and Hitchcock, my first (student) film was to be a highly cinematic and stylish thriller. Having taken every screenwriting class at Cal State University at Northridge (two classes), I sat down and wrote a script that would become my first film.
Here’s the story:
A teenage girl is babysitting when she hears a weird sound coming from someplace in the house. She investigates. As she walks through the very large home, the sound grows louder – she’s getting closer. She eventually finds that it is coming from a closet in the back of the house. Tension builds as she reaches out to open the closet door, but she stops! She leaves the room, goes back into the kitchen, and gets herself a big carving knife. She returns to the room with the noise, goes up to the door, and with her trembling hand she grabs the doorknob, turns the handle, and the door flies open! And there’s nothing there – just black – as though she were looking into another dimension! And then… her hair blows up – there’s a huge sucking force coming from the closet, and it’s sucking her into the closet! She resists, falls, grabs the floor, but it’s useless – she can’t get a grip, and she is dragged in the closet. The door closes! And that’s it. That’s the end. I shot the film all by myself, in color – 16mm with a Bealieu R16.
I wanted my friend Brad to look at the film. We were film buddies. We’d gone to the movies many times together and had long discussions over the merits of this film over that one. I respected Brad’s taste as being as intractably snobby as my own. We went into the editing room, threaded up my opus, and turned on the Moviola… and Brad watched.
Well, Brad was commenting favorably on the look, the lighting, the composition, angles, the choices of lenses, the shadows, the camera movements… he was very impressed, and he was really involved in the film – and then asked, “What’s in the closet?” Whatever good impression I had built up in the first 10 minutes was completely lost in the last 20 seconds. I was not betrayed by my directing skills or my cinematography skills or editing or music. I was betrayed by my script – by my writing skills.
If you took the best cameramen, an infinite amount of time, film crew, and money, then got the world’s greatest directors in that room and asked them to direct a woman being sucked into a closet, it wouldn’t work. It can’t because it’s a stupid idea. And you can’t make a stupid idea smart. No matter how well you direct, shoot, stage, light, dress up, or score a woman being sucked into a closet, she’s still being sucked into a closet!
If a woman being sucked into a closet is a satisfying emotional payoff to the scenes that preceded it, and the audience aches for that woman to fulfill her lifelong dream of a good closet sucking, and then suddenly that dream comes true, you have an emotional payoff that works. But I didn’t have that. Hence, stupid. Can’t get around it.
I learned about the all-importance of the screenplay. You can’t make a good movie from a bad script… so I focused on the writing. If I could write a good script, I would sell it to the studios. If it was a hit, I would then be able to direct one of my movies. That was the plan.
So I worked at the writing. It wasn’t easy. It took almost ten years of trying to write, not being good enough and figuring out what was wrong, working at it, and slowly improving. I wrote a dozen screenplays before I felt good enough about showing one.
I showed it to a producer as a writing sample for another project. The producer liked the writing sample so much, they optioned it and paid me to finish it. I re-wrote it a few times, and eventually it got made as Ruthless People. A bonafide studio hit with good reviews. I was getting inquiries for work at the rate of one a day. And it didn’t stop there. My second screenplay ended up giving me a precedent-setting deal (without the benefit of an agent!). This movie too was made, giving me another hit. I was two for two when a Mr. Mick Jagger and Mr. David Bowie asked me to write a movie for them to star in. How cool is that? I suggested a remake of an older film, which I ended up making with Michael Caine and Steve Martin: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Another hit. Three for three and more favorable reviews. Sweet, huh? Next movie: My Cousin Vinny – once again, a critical and financial hit, and it even won an Oscar for a then-unknown actress named Marisa Tomei. Can it get any better?
I should have been happy.
A couple years later, I wrote a spec script with the plan of selling it to a studio that was just forming called DreamWorks. And I did end up selling it to them for a cool three million bucks. I know what you’re thinking: If that didn’t make you happy, you got problems, buddy. To be honest with you, the day a messenger comes to your house with a three-million-dollar check is a very, very good day indeed.
Ten years later, something was missing.
So what’s down the downside? Forget about the fact that the movie started out as your idea, populated with your characters, that you made every decision those characters make, put every thought in those characters heads, every word in their mouths, every setting, all your set-ups and pay-offs, your fleshed-out, detailed story from beginning, middle, to end. Just forget about that because it’s their movie. And who are they? They are the director. They will get the credit for everything you do. If you can accept that, then you’ll have no problem as a writer in Hollywood.
Oh, and that movie premiere? You’ll find people crowding around you, laughing at your jokes, wanting to be your friends, and getting you drinks. That is, IF you’re the director. There will be no crowds swarming around the writer… except maybe your Aunt Rose, that is, IF they let her on the guest list – which they won’t. And that dinner after the big premiere? The director will be sitting at the table with the stars and the studio heads. You, the writer, will not be at that table. Nor will you be invited on the press junket – even if you offer to pay your own way. You’re not considered an asset.
At least the money is good, right? Well, if you’re up-front deal is good, then yes, it can be good, as good as you can bargain. And all those movies – all hits, so you must be really rich, right? That would imply that the writer of the screenplay actually participates in the riches of their hit film. But you do get a contract, and the term “net profit” is in that contract, and you get 5% of it. But “Net profit” is actually misleading because it has the air of suggesting you might get a profit based on the net income of that film if it is a hit. Nice, huh? Except the studios have an addendum they tack onto your contract, which is another contract called a “net profit” definition. And this has little to do with the term “net profit” that anyone else in the business would use. So you see, net is not net, and profit is not profit, and because of that, “net profit” no longer has any meaning at all – they might as well call it Transcendental Carburetor because it makes about as much sense.
Let me explain: add up 5% of the “net profits” of the “hit” films Ruthless People, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and My Cousin Vinny and you arrive a total of… 0. Zero. Zed. Zip. Nada. Bupkis. Dick.
I could tell you more stories – infuriating, insulting stories. But take my word for it. I was fed up enough to do something drastic. The trick would be making a movie without a studio – making what I want the way I wanted it, and owning the movie. Getting the credit for it AND the profit. Real profit. Okay! Except there was one problem: the same problem every filmmaker has. Making movies is expensive.
But then I thought, If the screenplay is everything, then what if I made a movie with a video camera? If the story was sound, wouldn’t the movie work? It wouldn’t look great, but wouldn’t the quality of the writing carry it?
Oh sure, you need some basic levels of craft, but… did you see STAR WARS: ATTACK OF THE CLONES? All that money, all that effort, all that CG and FX, and if the story is boring, well, you’ve got a slick-looking boring movie. Good characters in a good story will overcome almost any problem you have in a movie (again, assuming basic levels of craft and competence). So why not an interesting, entertaining, provocative, but possibly crappy-looking movie? I’d rather see that.
But along the way, I learned another rule, because there is one other crucial element in a good film, and that is acting. Great writing won’t make it past a mediocre actor.
I love great cinematography, but I’ve never seen a bad script made into a great movie from great lighting. I see gorgeous, bad movies all the time. And I’ve seen some great movies with mediocre, uninspired lighting. To me, no lighting is better than bad lighting. A good example is a movie called The Celebration, an early Dogme 95 project which was shot with available light on a consumer-grade digital video camera (then blown up to film). I remember it looked f**king AWFUL! Noisy, grainy, and overall mushiness of the image, bland-looking color, and weird motion stuttering – it was painful. But when the story kicked into second gear, Holy S**t! The Two Point Rule stepped in and took over! The drama and performances just drove that film – and the grain, the mushiness, the color, everything – it suddenly “went away” and I was caught up with the film.
Could I make a movie like that? Okay, I know I said writing and acting are everything, but… despite my carping on this Two Point Rule, I wasn’t happy about making a movie that looked that awful. I’ve been getting American Cinematographer for nearly 30 years now. I got ZOOM magazine when it first came out. So I was in a bit of a conundrum. I was determined to make a movie and, damn the look, but something stuck in my craw: that bad-looking thing. Did it have to look bad? Why not take a slightly different philosophical tack and ask, Why not make it look as good as you can? There’s a trick to it. Stage your action where the light is pretty and shoot it there. If you do that, your shot will look pretty. Go to the pretty light!
I also added still another corollary to the rule: decent sound… which means I had to find something that looked better than the video on The Celebration. I started doing some research into video, and I quickly discovered there was a huge sea of information out there and a huge sea of different video formats too! DV, DVCAM, DVCPRO, DVCPRO-50, Digi-Beta, D9, DVCPRO-100, and HDCAM. HDCAM was the ultimate at the time from Sony, and it was called “high definition.” I checked it out – it looked pretty great, was fairly sensitive to light, and looked a lot more film than video. Shooting film costs about a dollar a second, but videotape costs about a dollar a minute. Big difference.
These damn things are real expensive. I paid more for batteries than videotape. Pro Video costs a lot of money, but then again, these things aren’t banged out like Fiats. They’re hand-built like racecars, one at a time. Next stop: learn how to use the camera and the editing gear.
I got the camera, but now I needed footage to put into the editing machine and learn the editing software. I tried shooting my girlfriend making stew, or friends hanging out and talking, but it’s hard to edit that into anything that resembles a film. And a film, a fictional film, has different requirements and demands. So, I thought of writing a short and cutting it together. And then I thought, If I’m going to shoot a short, let me make this short differently. Let me push the production paradigm as far as I can. This is an experiment. This isn’t for show, this is for learning. Let me see what I can get away with and what I can’t get away with.
So I wrote a ten-page, ten-minute short with the idea of shooting it differently. I would break all the rules and see what I had left from the rubble. I would be unprepared and just show up and shoot. I had to take chances. No lights, therefore no lighting set-ups, no lighting crew, no assistant directors, no production assistants, no wardrobe, no makeup. This was an experiment. When I was finished, whatever base I missed I would cover when I made the feature.
I wanted to shoot with a three-man crew. No professionals. Actually, that isn’t fair – Andrew Chiaramonte was a director on the digital bandwagon, and we had a focus-puller – the one who turns the focus ring on the lens when you’ve got something moving to and fro and keeps them in focus. But sometimes they miss, so I was going to shoot without to and fro, hence no need for a focus-puller. But we did need a soundman, so we put him on the sound – something he had never done before.
The average feature-length movie has at least 40 highly-paid professionals in the crew, and they shoot three-and-a-half pages a day (which roughly works out to three and a half minutes of screen time). We would shoot all ten pages in a day, and I wouldn’t have a shot list (a list you make of all the pieces you would later assemble in the editing room). Like:
.1. WIDE SHOT – LIVING ROOM – NATALIE
Camera will pan Nat to front door.
Track shot takes Nat from couch to front door.
…and so on – a list of all the shots you need for the day. From a cinematic point of view, this is where the director (often collaborating with the cameraman) gets to be creative. You want a shot that starts out the window and comes in through the window, to a close shot of the gun, a tiny hand picks up the gun, and the camera pulls back to reveal a terrified six-year-old boy. This is when you write down exactly what you need for the cameraman, who figures out how to structure the day to get all the work done. I wanted to see what would happen if I were to wing it. Would it be a disaster? Would I have a nervous breakdown?
Also, when I directed Love Potion #9, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the camera a year before we went into production. The cameraman had never worked with anyone who had a complete shot list worked out. Well, Kubrick and Hitchcock knew exactly what they were going to do with their camera. Shouldn’t I? Apparently not. It became an odd source of friction between the cameraman and myself. He was used to being part of the process.
This time, if I was going to err, it would be on the side of relinquishing control. This would force me to wing it and plan it on the fly, rather than force the production into a series of preconceived shots. This was the hardest step for me. But if the film turned out, then I wouldn’t feel that sense of panic when I was caught shooting or changing something; because a schedule change, or weather, or whatever weird kink Murphy’s Law might serve up that particular day, the worst that could happen was a total disaster. You can learn from disaster. I’ve lost YEARS of my life to development executives. This loss would be cheap and short.
I used a couple friends to play the leads: Natalie, married, 40, gets a visit from a hottie who drops by to tell her she’s been having an affair with Natalie’s husband. Hijinks ensue, ending with a confrontation at the hubby’s office. The actresses would do their own make-up and wardrobe. Normal call to shoot a movie can be anywhere from 4:30 to 9:00 in the morning, unless you’re shooting a split, half day, half night… which we would do – because I don’t like to get up in the morning. Nor do I like shooting long days. So instead of the de rigeur 10-12 hour day, we’d work less. I was hoping to be done by 11:00 that night, which figures out to an eight-hour day including a break for dinner. So call was 3:00 in the afternoon, but we didn’t get our first shot off until 5:00. I’ll spare you the gory details.
It turned out to be a very valuable learning experience. It was surprisingly grueling work. Putting that camera on your shoulder for a few minutes at a time is effortless. Five minutes and my shoulder starts to ache, ten minutes and it’s going numb… and shooting and keeping actors in a properly composed frame and trying to evaluate their performance – it’s pretty demanding. I couldn’t focus on it. I like to sit with a pen and the script and write notes. You can’t do that with a camera on your shoulder. Multi-tasking makes the workload jump up exponentially. It was a nice day, maybe mid-70s, and I was sweating like a pig.
Also, when you’re not setting up lights, you don’t have ANY time to think about that next shot. Or the next one. When you’re shooting that fast, there is simply NO time to think. No, that’s not right. You have the time, but since the shot is done, you have the crew looking at you waiting for the next shot. When you’re working with available light, there is a tremendous momentum that you don’t want to stop. When you’re sitting in a director’s chair watching a monitor 20 feet away, it is easier to concentrate on performance. I would have to have a cameraman for the feature – let him worry about the shot, operate the camera and obsess with the look. Having a pro focusing on that could only give me a better-looking movie and free me up to concentrate on actors.
The sound was screwed up in a few places. Lesson #2: use a pro on sound. No problem there. When shooting under pressure and on the fly, it was hard for me to make choices which, without pressure, would have been obvious to me. I’m used to letting my imagination flow, sitting on a couch by myself, notebook computer on my lap. So, I would have a shot list, but I know that if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be a disaster. And hey, I could always collaborate with the cameraman. Nothing wrong with that. If I wanted a better-looking movie than my short, I would simply hire a pro on the camera.
Lesson # 3: Shooting ten pages in an eight-hour day was too much. We could shoot a “leisurely” seven pages a day. Give us time to hang out, take it slower, get more takes, and let the actors breathe a little bit. I cut it together and showed it to friends. The response was very positive. For one, people were surprised and impressed by the look – this wasn’t a conventional “digital” video, this was a state-of-the-art electronic motion picture camera that just didn’t look like garden-variety video. It was received like a good film. I’m a tougher critic than they are – I could see room for improvement, but overall it was very encouraging.
From all this, I would derive an appropriate production paradigm to make a movie on the cheap that didn’t look cheap. We would shoot three weeks.
TO BE CONTINUED