My Personal Demons

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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I'm an old hand at budgeting. The only new wrinkles were (1) digital video, which was a big one, and for that I relied more on my cine-matographer and editor than I would have on Brian, and (2) SAG. All my professional life I've avoided dealing with the unions. They just scared the shit out of me. I felt that with them breathing down my neck, I would have no room to maneuver when things went awry during production. I even sacrificed a project here and there over the years rather than get embroiled with the unions. The understanding I had was that they hovered around the production every minute of the day looking for trouble, demanding copious reports that ate up valuable time, scrutinizing your books, supervising meals, overtime penalties, safety standards, contracts, et cetera.

I felt equal dread about completion-bond companies. A completion bond is an insurance policy that guarantees your film will be finished no matter what goes wrong. It initially costs about 6 percent of your budget, but a knowledgeable producer can wrest half of that money back at the end of production, provided nothing has gone amiss. It requires e-mailing or faxing bookkeeping notes to the bond company every evening, and if you begin to fall behind, they go on high alert, and if you fall more than a few days behind, they have been known to show up on the set threatening to take over the production. If a film is really in trouble, they may also impound the producer's salary to make up for the losses before venturing any of their own capital toward rescuing the production.

It happens a lot. It happened on The Substitute, a film Roc and I wrote, down in Florida. It nearly happened to Wes Craven on The Swamp Thing. The acidic waters of the swamps were eating the latex makeup off the stuntman playing the eponymous creature, so that every time he'd surface, the body suit would be dripping off him in pieces. The production began to fall behind schedule. One morning, Wes came out on the location, and there was someone he hadn't seen before lurking around the set, looking official. For a while, Wes tried to ignore the apparition, but finally he inquired who the man was, and was told it was a representative from the completion-bond company, waiting for Wes to fall any further behind schedule. Pretty creepy. Fortunately, Wes didn't lose any more time. But those are things I personally wouldn't be able to sanction. It's not just that I'm a control freak—which I am—but on independent films it's all about the director's vision. I don't like the notion of spending good money to buy a possible means of destroying that vision. A completion-bond company's delegated director will finish the film as quickly and cheaply as possible: no adherence to the style the director might have been trying to create; just get it in the can and get it over with.

So, a completion bond was not a consideration for The Sweet Life. I don't even know if a completion-bond company would get involved with a film whose budget was lower than $2 million. But perhaps they would. After all, SAG is now pursuing that kind of production so intently that they've created new contracts to make it feasible for producers like myself to give it a try. The writing is on the wall about the indie production tidal wave, and the unions don't want to lose all that business.

On Street Trash (1985), we put our casting ad in Backstage, honestly noting that the film was nonunion, but still SAG members sent their photos and résumés. Work is rarely plentiful in New York City, and the unions don't campaign aggressively on their members' behalf. So, with the tech unions, there is much moonlighting using fake monikers, and with SAG, there are more dangerous chances taken, since the actors' names and certainly their images will, most likely, eventually be visible on their union's radar. If the film turns out to be good, it may enhance an actor's career, and if it's a first-time offense, the actor may get docked five hundred dollars or more. In an actor's mind, I'm sure, it's a chance worth weighing, based on the size of the role and the caliber of the script. Second-time offenders are in much more serious trouble, and for third-timers, as I understand it, game's over.

We hired three SAG actors for Street Trash, and when the film was announced in the trade papers, they were nailed. I had put two paragraphs in their agreements: one stipulated that they knew our film was non-SAG, the other allowed that we would pay their fines if they were brought up before their union for a misdemeanor. The film did come out, and their names were in the ads and reviews, and all three had to go before a court of their peers and suffer the indignity of being berated, having to plead their case, and then being fined. I went in with one of them, and although the jury listened, the verdict clearly had been reached before the court was convened. The only surprises were: (a) that one of the actors, R. L. Ryan, was fined twice what the other two were fined, and, seeing as he was six-foot-two and four hundred pounds, I couldn't help but wonder if the fines were based on weight; and (b) that when another of the actors, who played a psychotic Vietnam vet in the film and was a bit on the edge in real life as well, leaped up and berated them back, the shocked and cowed SAG members were left speechless. He got fined anyway . . . by mail.

The experience left a bad taste in my mouth for what I perceived to be a kind of fascist mentality toward people who were barely surviving financially . . . after all, I never seriously believed these SAG actors were risking their union membership purely out of love for the artistic promise of Street Trash.

And so, wasn't I astonished to find that when we decided to try working with the actors' union on The Sweet Life, SAG proved remarkably easy to deal with. In fact, the union did me a favor by setting the bar for us, otherwise the budget easily could have drifted higher and higher, as budgets so often do. To qualify for their Limited-Exhibition Agreement, I had to bring the film in for under $200,000. (That did not include expenses involved with seeking distribution: screenings, festivals, hiring a publicist, preparing a distribution publicity packet, et cetera.) Their exact wording on the subject was thus: "The budget figures include any payment required during production but exclude deferrals and participation. Producer shall submit a fully detailed production budget, shooting schedule and shooting script to the Guild at least one (1) month prior to commencement of principal photography in order to permit verification. NOTE: In no event shall the budget including deferrals exceed $500,000. All deferrals must be reported to the Guild with the budget figures." So deferrals were excluded, as was, I found out by asking, costs incurred in seeking distribution. Fitting into that range, with those exclusions, was do-able.

When I submitted a budget of $198,000, however, SAG rejected it, saying that, in their experience, if a budget is that high, unforeseen contingencies will drive it over the $200,000 mark, so that by the time the film is in the can, the producer will find himself in a new contract range and have to renegotiate, and pay the actors a whole lot more money.

I went back to the drawing board and honed the budget down to $183,000, and the new figure still included a little cushion in each category. Creating hidden mini-contingencies is kind of like setting your watch five minutes ahead. You know it's fast, but it's still somehow reassuring to check the time when you're running close and to know that you've got five extra minutes. Same way with your ever-mutating budget. The categories may seem like they're firmly set in laser-jet ink, but they're really pulsating with hive life. If one department comes in on target, or low, another invariably swells and eats up the reserve. Your task becomes a balancing act. I try to pad each category by 10 percent, and to all the categories combined I add another 10 percent of actual "contingency" at the budget's tail end. Twenty percent total. This way you come out looking like a hero, as if you anticipated every unexpected dilemma. When the inevitable happens—if Murphy's Law delivers unto you a lacerating snafu that couldn't have been humanly anticipated—if you have that cushion, that hidden reserve to dip into, you'll emerge unscathed.

But perhaps you think it was laziness on my part to add on these mini-contingencies? That it was slacking off, not to have sat a little longer at my desk figuring every possible detail to the penny? Well, let me throw a few at you:

• One of the production cars breaks down and gets ticketed. It was my car, and I loaned it to the production, but after that, it was no longer trustworthy, so I opted for public transportation and taxis for Brian's assistant Doria, rather than rent a car to replace mine. (Most of her work, after all, is in the city.) Should I have budgeted one breakdown and all the concomitant costs, just to play the odds, or should I have "contingencied" it?

• Another: Roc wanted to use a Steadicam a few times. Our DP wanted it even more. I okayed three uses of it. But when the day of shooting arrived, our DP informed us that we had to rent an alternator to switch from NTSC to PAL on the Steadicam device. Not a big charge: $35 X 3. But he had neglected to mention it when he gave me his camera-package budget, and Brian and I, not being cinematographers, and not versed in digital video, weren't supposed to catch that oversight.

• Despite air conditioners in the house we used for the first week's shooting, the deadly hot summer, combined with our lights, pushed temperatures inside to over a hundred degrees. The need for water rose dramatically. More than we'd budgeted for.

• The generator truck used diesel fuel instead of gasoline. Filling it was upwards of $200, which we had not anticipated.

• Robert Mobley approached me on the set and asked if he could have his hair stylist give him a trim, at a cost of a hundred and eighty-three bucks. As I mulled this over, he added that he knew we were working on an austerity budget, and if I thought it was too steep, he would go to a regular barber shop. On the one hand it was too much; on the other hand, he hadn't asked for any indulgences yet, and it's good policy to grant each key person at least one or two. Good for their morale, good for the generous image of the company. And it jockeys me into the position of not having to grant a possibly more painful expense later on. He got his designer sculpt.

• The extra PAs we hired, even though I'd contrived a way not to pay their salaries out of the budget (which I will explain shortly), still had to use public transportation each day, and be fed. One day we shot in Long Island and they had to use the railroad to get there and back, which was $50 more than we'd allowed in our "Transportation" budget category.

• In addition, Brian insisted on having $200 a day in his pocket, calling it "Petty Cash." After the production was over, he had to provide receipts to account for every petty expense (approximately $5,000), reorganizing it by category, and these hundreds of petty expenses were absorbed into their respective categories. Be aware: when your QuickBooks accounting record is prepared for tax purposes, the government is apt to become suspicious if you have a substantial "Petty Cash" category, and may decide to audit your books, which is something you'd like to avoid. So, these costs must be redistributed after the shoot back into the categories where they belong, hence eating into those "mini-contingencies."

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