July 19, 2015

Low Budget


These days, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, most writers (especially those who write fiction) aren’t in the business for the simple joy of writing or out of any great and deep love of literature. They don’t dream of being the next Dickens or Joyce. They aren’t aching to win a Nobel or the National Book Award. That shit’s small potatoes. No, most are secretly pining to crack a big multimillion dollar Hollywood deal. That’s the only thing writing’s good for, really. Of course it’s pretty much always been that way. Writing little stories is no viable way to make a living, but you tap into that heavy studio green, you’ve got it made. That explains why the likes of Steinbeck, Faulkner, and David Goodis inexplicably found themselves in Hollywood, even if only temporarily.

            Beyond the money there’s the whole glamour of the thing, right? Being flown out there on a private jet, put up in swanky hotels, driven around in limos, and getting the chance to meet all those celebrities I’ve never heard of. I have a few friends and colleagues who made the leap and actually hit it out there, and as soon as they did they stopped responding to my emails. I even knew one guy who made the leap and hit it, and a few years later made the leap off a rooftop and hit the pavement. I mean, how Hollywood can you get, right?

            The one common factor among the writers who made it into the movie and TV business (at least before they stopped responding to me) was that they all bitched endlessly about it. They were raking in millions, they had big houses, they ate well, but all they could do was complain about all that went with that hefty paycheck. The singular recurring gripe concerned the interminable script meetings, in which a dozen dullards in suits suggested rather insistently that the script in question would be vastly improved with the addition of more boobs and explosions. That the story was set in the middle ages (in one instance anyway) didn’t matter—a movie without boobs and explosions was no movie at all to their dry and tiny minds, and the writer was obligated to make them happy if he wanted to keep working.

            Add to those meetings the inescapable phone calls and the “emergencies” that required the screenwriter to drop everything, get on a plane right away and fly back to LA for yet another meeting, It all sounded like the most horrific of nightmares to me. Once when Morgan and I were talking about a friend who’d been sucked into the movie business I said, “I would never want to live that way,” and I meant it. It would be nice to be able to afford something other than cold cuts for dinner again, maybe, but not at that price.

            On three or four occasions in the past I’ve been approached by slick dealers with assorted major studio affiliations. They were all uniformly loud and pushy, and they all insisted they wanted to do something with one of my books more than anything else in the world. And on those three or four occasions I told them hell no.

            Given what I understood of my own outlook and personality, the kinds of stories that attracted me, and the sort of films I most admired, —it was clear to me from the beginning that any film version of any of my books could only be properly made by an independent crew shooting a hit and run guerilla feature with absolutely no discernible budget.

            I do love my movies (maybe a little too much), but to the studios movies are nothing more than committee-designed commodities, ninety-minute commercials calculated to sell Pepsi and automobiles and certain kinds of shirts to an extremely broad but still very carefully delineated middlebrow corporate demographic. When you’re talking about a low budget indie production, you’re dealing with insane people, hungry obsessives driven by whatever dark forces inhabit them to use whatever means are available to get the story they want to tell up on the screen. This is why I save my deepest cinematic admiration for the likes of Orson Welles, Sam Fuller, Roger Corman, Werner Herzog, W. Lee Wilder, Craig Baldwin, and Ed Wood. As a rule, no-budget filmmakers tend to be more creative, more inventive, more concerned with story and style than demographics and ledgers, and in general more interesting to be around. They have better and far more harrowing tales to tell, and best of all they don’t need to listen to the aforementioned dullards in suits.

            Which is why, after saying no to a handful of major successful Hollywood producers, I finally said yes to a kid in his twenties who had no money and had never made a feature before. It had nothing to do with charity on my part, it wasn’t out of any desire to help a kid get started on his dream of becoming a filmmaker, there was no generosity or goodness of spirit behind the decision. It wasn’t at all like that Stephen King, who in recent years has been selling the rights to his stories to eager young filmmakers for a dollar. No, I had every intention of being paid, even if it wasn’t quite on a level with what a major studio might have offered. Simple truth of it was, for all the professional Hollywood types I’d dealt with who claimed they loved what I’d written, this kid here was the first one who straight off the bat made it clear he got the jokes and the obscure movie references. I think he was the first one I’d dealt with who actually read any of my books, and not just a two paragraph summary written by some flunky. He was the first one I’d dealt with in this context who had the properly anarchic attitude. And what’s more, when you’re dealing with a wild-eyed and penniless independent filmmaker, the chances are much greater the fucking movie will actually get made in the end, and not just molder in development for a decade before being dropped. The real issues at play are psychological and aesthetic, not financial.

            It may have taken a few years, but the Kid, whose real name is Erik but it’s more fun to call him The Kid even though he’s now married and in his thirties, is finally about to start shooting. I never had any doubt it would happen, and for all our conversations I’ve never regretted my decision to go with him for a second. I mean, who else but a completely insane obsessive would insist a blind reclusive crank climb in a van with four youngsters for a week-long cross country trip to steal some shots? And who else could get me to agree?

            Now in the final stages of pre-production, he and his small ragtag production team are slamming into some of the hard realities of low-budget filmmaking. They weren’t able to snag some of the actors they dreamed of hiring, the investors they were counting on didn’t exactly come through, the Kid unexpectedly lost his day job two days before he was set to take some vacation time to shoot the movie. On top of that his wife is expecting their first baby in August, the wife of his co-director is expecting their first baby in September, and as it stands the budget is roughly what director Edgar Ulmer was working with when he made his Poverty Row noir classic Detour in 1945. In short, the conditions are absolutely perfect. This is precisely how it should be.

            As the great Sterling Hayden once wrote: “To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea . . . ‘cruising’ it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.”


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