Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
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Let’s continue, Good Reader, one last time with the sad tale of Jane Doe. Cautionary life lessons will follow--namely, how not to make your first movie. Beware or pay the price on your own projects!
So, the head of Unapix Entertainment slides a check for $150,000 across the table. We were in business! Seeing their appreciation for our artistic intent and feeling a nurturing vibe, we signed a contract giving away Final Cut and Domestic distribution rights to people we hadn't vetted, who we had known for a single two-hour meeting.
This led to a meeting with…let’s call her Niki Nikita. She would be the project’s producer, point-woman for the Unapix interests. First impressions were mutually impressive. My brother and I sat before her on our black Aeron Side chairs and listened as she gushed on about our abilities. Our futures were bright, bright, bright! Into her office walked a Hollywood finonchio, a gel-hair slicko. Niki hugged him as he showed her a poster design for his first movie. The guy’s name was Doug Liman and his movie was called Swingers. Can’t remember if I was impressed at the time but if that was the image of director success my Salvation-Army polo shirt-wearing chunkiness left a lot to be desired. As Niki saw him out I noticed something on her desk. Was that…? Yep… a Tony Award. Niki produced Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway. From our dumpster diving non-Equity Chicago theater days, we had definitely taken a step up in class.
With the Unapix money behind us we moved up in class to SAG low budget status. We were able to make better offers to the agencies and some amazing actors rolled into our auditions. For the small role of BANDSTAND HAT GUY, we had Richard Bright come in. Richard is one of the greatest 3rd-guy-on- the-right actors in the movies. Richard killed Fredo in the rowboat in Godfather 2! Richard held down Dustin Hoffman in the classic Lawrence Olivier dentist scene in Marathon Man. Richard was the guy who stole the suitcase of money in the original The Getaway and had the shit kicked out of him by Steve McQueen. A legend!
We had to cast our pals Arthur Nascarella and Vinny Pastore. This was years before they became famous in The Sopranos. I was asked who I thought would be the ideal choice for Jane’s druggy friend and I said Wish List #1 was Elina Lowensohn. Elina was in Schindler’s List. She was also a favorite of Hal Hartley, and had been the oh-so-sexy vampire of Michael Almereyda’s Nadja. Funny, how money makes all things possible. Look up and who’s auditioning for us but Elina Lowensohn. I tried—and failed—not to be the star-struck fool. Had my picture taken with her but stopped short of asking for an autograph. I mean, I was the director, I had to maintain a modicum of professionalism, riiiiiight?
I’ve still got the headshots for Frank Vincent, Dan Hedaya, and Paul Sorvino, all of whom were discussed for the role of Jane’s father. In the end we went with Joey Ragno, who was one of the convicts in Shawshank Redemption. His passion for the script was obvious from the first audition. The bigger name guys weren’t going to audition for us, they wanted offers presented to them. Joey wanted it.
Life Lesson 925. Trust your gut with casting. While a name actor will open back end doors in terms of festivals and distribution, the lesser-named actor with passion might give a far better performance. If neither actor helps with box office, remember that you’ll be spending up to 12 hours a day on set with them. Who would you rather spend three weeks of 12-hour days with? Gather opinions from your inner circle, but trust your gut.
While finding the supporting players was challenging, nothing compared to casting the role of Jane. Never had that level of actress competed to read my words. Surreal, looking at it now. Robin Tunney had just done The Craft, and wanted us to make her an offer. Beautiful and talented Adrienne Shelly came in, star of Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, writer-director of Waitress, murdered so senselessly in an apartment robbery in 2007. A pre-Sopranos, pre three-time Emmy winning Edie Falco came in too. None of these even made it to the Final two.
Lara Phillips, a Chicago actress who just won a Jefferson Citation for an adaptation of mine, Never Come Morning, was my choice. She had range, from innocence to devastating depth. She’d be totally believable as a junky. I flew her in for audition thinking, well, I’m the writer and director, I get to decide who plays the role.
Another actress entered the discussion. She had done a small speaking part in Quiz Show but nothing much in film. Her bigger accomplishments were in theater. In ’94 she debuted on Broadway as Laura in The Glass Menagerie. Famed actress Julie Harris gave her glowing reviews, star-in-the-making stuff. When Gersh Agency sent her over she was not famous in any way. But in walked Calista Flockhart…
Whatever it is that makes a star a star, Calista had it.
Which lead to a tough call. My brother Chris, the producer and lead actor, wanted Calista. I was sticking with Lara P. from Chicago. I had a working relationship with her, knew what she was capable of, and damn it, I was the director! Chris wasn’t backing off, we were deadlocked. I remember three days of pure warfare, the two of us going back and forth. Chris pulled the chemistry card, if he was to act this thing he had to have chemistry with the actress playing Jane. He had it with Calista and didn’t with Lara. I called BS, we argued, loudly, in our Southern Italian manner, in and out of bars. This was going nowhere.
The solution was to take it out of our hands. Give it to an inner circle of producers who knew our project. Audition tapes were distributed to five people. 48 hours later, the results were in: Calista would be Jane. The vote: 5 to 0. Shit…
If we look at any single reason why Jane Doe ended up being four boxes across at every Blockbuster and Hollywood Video store in the country, it’s found right here:
Life Lesson 1A: Cast well. When given a choice, always choose the actress who will become nationally famous within 10 months.
Had we known that inside a year Calista would become Ally McBeal, or that on June 28, 1998, just three years later, she’d be on the cover of Time magazine, we might have done things a bit differently. Maybe we tell Unapix, makers of Jack Frost 2: Revenge Of The Mutant Killer Snowman, that we were passing on their offer, and slide that $150,000 check back at them. Maybe we keep domestic distribution, find the money for pick up photography, re-shoot some of the 20+ scenes that we didn’t have time to shoot the first time around, reshape the Fine Cut with all new design elements and a fully re-edited version according to our vision. Maybe maybe maybe…
Life Lesson 1111A: Ain’t no do-overs. Just…ain’t.
I used to open up all my Columbia College classes showing the video of my brother appearing on Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. When Jane Doe came out we were besieged on a national level. "Ally McBeal as a junky! Calista as you’ve never seen her before!"
I remember walking into video stores. In New York for Christmas, there’s Jane Doe at a Blockbuster on 14th Street & Union Square. Shopping in Times Square? There’s Jane Doe at a Hollywood Video store on 44th Street. Friends called me from Seattle and Portland, seeing the movie for sale there. It was all over Chicago, in Wisconsin…even had reports of an appearance in Atlantic City. All this attention was for a movie without a theatrical release, with next to no reviews, which appeared at exactly ONE film festival (which it won).
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Unapix Entertainment went bankrupt in 2001. We never did get a full reporting on dollar figures. The public figure they disclosed for sales of Jane Doe was just over a million dollars. The deal we signed was so bad I never saw even half the initial $5,000 seed money I put in. It can still be found on Netflix it can be pirated on Pirate Bay, a single Swedish sub-titled torrent. Jane Doe lives!
The beauty about taking a beatdown from life is that you can make a conscious decision to never let that happen again. Won’t guarantee that it doesn’t, but take it from a craps dealer, the mathematical possibilities diminish. It’s better to have lived it, learned from it, and moved on.
Life Lesson 332: “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.”—William Faulkner
- More articles by Paul Peditto
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- Alt-Script: Five Good Reasons to Write a No-Lo Budget Script