The success of an independent film can often depend on getting a “name star” to sign on to the project. The “Big Names, Small Budgets” seminar, presented by SAG and SAGIndie at this past weekend’s “Produced By Conference” (PBC), focused on how to accomplish that.
The PBC, presented by the Producers Guild of America and the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), brought out some of the biggest names in Hollywood’s film, television and new media producing community. The conference, now in its third year, was held at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California.
The “Big Names, Small Budgets” seminar was moderated by Mark Friedlander, the head of SAG’s new media department. He was joined by Darrien Michele Gipson, National Director of SAGIndie, Ray Rodriguez, SAG’s Director of Contracts, actor William Mapother (Another Earth, In the Bedroom, Lost), writer/director Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, The Son of No One, Fighting), and actor/writer/director Clark Gregg (Choke, Thor, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Iron Man).
Gipson explained that it was important for indie producers to understand their options. She explained that the scale that actors need to get paid varies with the total budget of the project. “You really can get name actors to work for $100 a day on an ultra-low budget, under $200,000 project,” she said. “If you have a project that’s really great you can get almost anyone you can imagine. After all, at any one time 95 percent of actors aren’t working. Doing a worthwhile project that improves your craft for $100 per day is better than just sitting there,” Gipson explained.
Every time Gipson said actors would work for $100 per day, William Mapother looked at the attendees, smiled and waved his hand. “All SAG asks,” Gipson emphasized, “is that you pay the appropriate scale plus pension and health, don’t hurt our actors, give them a place to sit down – not a curb – and feed them.”
Lost star Mapother gave an example of and ultra-low budget project he had recently finished, Another Earth. “Filmmaker Mike Cahill had never directed a feature before, but I saw some footage they had already done,” he said. “It looked good so I met with him and co-star/co-writer Brit Marling. We got along like a house on fire. Then we spent a week, just the three of us, working on my scenes.” Mapother said that enthusiasm and talent can make up for a lack of a track record. “We got into Sundance,” he said, “and then Searchlight bought us. We come out in July.”
Another big star, low-budget success story was provided by Dito Montiel, formerly a rock musician with the bands Gutterboy and Major Conflict.
Montiel’s project, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, began modestly. “I wrote a bunch of things on napkins and such while I was working in a place where Robert Downey would come in all the time to hang out,” he explained. “One of my friends got a job with a publishing company and I talked him into putting all my stuff together and putting a bar code on it so we could call it a book. I showed it to Downey and he liked it, so, I started writing a script.” One night, according to Montiel, Robert Downey and Sting were both in the room and “the financing all just kind of came together.” He added, “When Trudy (Producer Trudy Styler) came on that made the difference. One day you’re trying to get money for a pizza and the next day your thinking two million dollars is not a lot of money to work with.”
Clark Gregg made his directorial debut in low-budget effort Choke. “It’s about a sex-addicted theme park worker,” he said, “who cons people who saved him from choking into supporting him and his mother.” Gregg had purchased the rights to the book from Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club) with the idea of making it his directing debut. “I had never directed a frame of film in my life,” he said. “My agent hooked me up with a financier and he liked the idea of Sam Rockwell in the role. We got him and one good actor leads to another and we got Angelica Huston.”
Choke was definitely low-budget, despite the stars. “We hired a line producer in New York who said we couldn’t make this for less than six and half million,” Gregg said. “So we got rid of him and got a line producer who had worked indie. We found an insane asylum in New Jersey that had just been abandoned and were able to shoot almost everything there. Instead of trailers, Sam and Angelica had padded cells. If we hadn’t found this county that was willing to let us shoot like that we couldn’t have done it.”
So you have your script, you have your star, but what about the paperwork? SAG attorney Ray Rodriguez explained that everything you need is now online. “There are online wizards that walk you through the signatory process,” he said, “and of course you can always e-mail or call us.”