This article is dedicated to my brother Chris, and his 17+ year Don Quixote’s journey to make Black Wings Has My Angel. I’ve kept it in a metal box buried in the backyard for seven years because my brother refused to allow its publication, but the time is finally right. Radioactive half-life, attained.
Even with the recent 22-page Industry-Wide-Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force, Hollywood is just now creeping back to production. In this Year of the Plague 2020 (which we’d all like to bury in a metal box) we look to struggle and survival tales to uplift us. Here’s one about a filmmaker who refused to give up.
I will tell the story in chronological order. It is too unbelievable to tell any other way.
How Time Flies in Pre-Production
You (my brother Chris) read a couple hundred classic crime novels, and come across an underground classic by Elliot Chaze, Black Wings Has My Angel. You are impressed. Impressed enough to track down the estate and query them about movie rights. You reach Chaze’s widow and discover that the rights have been optioned to a French filmmaker. He holds these rights until 2005.
You try to make a deal with the French filmmaker, which leads nowhere. You wait for the option to expire.
You secure the rights with Chaze’s estate, and you write the script. Interestingly, you hear that Barry Gifford, the writer of Wild At Heart and Lost Highway, is a fan of this book. You contact him and ask him to read your script. He agrees, and sends back encouraging notes, but mentions he would “change a thing or two.” You inquire on his rates, which his CAA agent tells you. You make a mental note and move on down the line.
During the years you were waiting on rights to become available for ‘Black Wings,’ you make a small Indie film, Light And The Sufferer. You manage to snag Paul Dano before he gets big. The movie gets into a couple fests and amazingly (given the state of film distribution) secures a domestic and international distribution deal (but no theatrical). As you do a final edit, you tell your editor about your crime novel adaptation ‘Black Wings’. He asks to read it, and likes it. He offers to pass it on to the producer of a movie he just worked on. That film, a million-dollar Indy, just made the Tribeca film fest. You say, pass it along.
The producer reads it, likes it, and a deal is struck. He’s now on board, bringing his people into the picture, including actor Elijah Wood. Wood reads the script and likes it, not as an acting vehicle, but comes on board as co-producer. Very cool!
With Elijah Wood and other investors on board, money is now found to go back to Barry Gifford for a rewrite. You pay him his per-week rate (which is enough to put a lump in any producer’s throat – no small dollar commitment).
He finishes his draft. Now, with a Barry Gifford rewrite and Elijah Wood on board as producer, you bring on William Morris and go out with the script.
Through WM the script is sent out to A and B-list names. Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire, The Notorious Betty Page) and Gabriel Macht (The Spirit) attach to the two leads. The movie’s first budget is 10 mil. You attempt to find financing with these names and discover something: There are stars and there are stars. Star recognition doesn’t always = bankability.
You can’t find the 10 mil. Hell, you can’t even find five.
Not being a name director, or even an up-and-comer, you recognize that investors aren’t jumping to stake ten mil behind an unknown. So, you make the smart play and pull out as director.
Through WME (Endeavor merged in 2009), an up-and-coming Mexican director, Alphonso Pineda-Ulloa (Love, Pain, and Vice Versa) reads the script, and loves it. His enthusiasm adds a jolt to the project. He provides an excellent rewrite and attaches to the movie. The script goes back out to new name actors.
You catch a major break when WME client Anna Paquin sparks to the script. You meet her, it goes well, and she’s in. She’s freaking IN! You then nab a then up-and-comer, Tom Hiddleston, to play the male lead. Hiddleston won’t be unknown for long: In a period of months he’s playing Loki, the antagonist in Thor, and has a major role in War Horse.
Two major actors are now committed.
Based on their involvement you sign with foreign sales agent, Cargo Entertainment, and begin making deals at major film markets, based on your attachments.
Your budget has also been lowered to a (you believe) more attainable five mil.
After going to the Berlin and Cannes film markets, Cargo informs you that, even with your two stars attached, they can’t raise enough in pre-sales to help you reach your five mil goal. This is the trickiest, most fluid math of all. How much is this name worth in the Spring of 2011? How much are they worth six month later? A measure constantly in flux.
There’s no arguing with it. The two names won’t get you to five million. Cargo suggests you try to attach Elijah Wood to a supporting role, and he agrees. His coming on board gives you three major names.
With your cast attached, the project is announced by Cargo at Cannes in April. The story is picked up by Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and Indiewire, et al. Interest in the project is sparked, and 30+ Google pages dedicated to ‘Black Wings’ bodes well.
Cannes passes, and Cargo reports back that, despite having three major stars attached, foreign pre-sales are not adding up. You are still nowhere near your five mil goal.
You wonder what Act Of God it will take to raise this money. I mean you’ve got Frodo! You’ve got Sookie Stackhouse! You’ve got Loki!
Facts are facts, and you need to deal with them. You make the unenviable but necessary choice of lowering the budget again from five to two mil.
And how exactly does one knock three million dollars off a budget?
Start with shortening the shoot time from eight weeks to three weeks. Everyone’s salary is dramatically reduced; cast and crew will all be working for scale (or less). Not a pretty picture, but what’s the alternative?
Anna Paquin gets pregnant! Oh…really? This is a complication, and now, of course, your production dates have to be moved. The question is: Do you replace Paquin and shoot for 2012, or push the production date back yet again (summer 2013?) And how does this impact the financing that isn’t even in the bank yet?
The project is put on hold. A blurb from the no longer up-and-coming, but Comic-Con famous Tom Hiddleston appears:
“Tom said: “Black Wings Has My Angel is a great script. I signed onto it a long, long time ago… but (with Anna being pregnant) it’s way, way off in the future.”
Wow. Just wow…
New Year, new optimism! Not long after Christmas you get good news. Some of the financing has come through! $500,000. Not chump change! This, with the pre-sales money, plus state tax incentives, gives you approx. 1.5 million dollars. And that is enough to make this movie! Yeeees!
You make pay-or-play offers and shoot them off to the actors’ agents.
Incredibly, in a three-day period, you hear back from the agents. The emails are short and to the point: they tell you that their clients’ schedules are not going to permit them to be in the film.
You read the words in shock. They loved your script, and probably still do. But your 1.5 mil, scale-paying Indy isn’t going to fit in their busy schedules.
The stars you thought you had, you don’t have. You’re not sure what you’ve got. Yeah, there’s banked money, but that was based on the attachment of three stars. And with their going, so does that money.
Without them, you’ve got ... what?
17+ years in on this project, and you are back to Square 1.
Take a breath. Consider the options…
Back at Square 1, you adopt a new strategy: You and your producing team will focus this time on generating enough money to put in the bank up front. You realize that when it comes time to consider offers, stars are presented with essentially two piles of scripts: Those which are funded, and those which are not. Your limitation (mistake) the first time around was being in the wrong pile.
This time, with energized finance people already aboard, the process will be different. Your aim will be to make pay-or-play offers up front. The enthusiasm for a project pre-financed will get the next wave of Hiddleston’s on board quicker.
Summer, 2013. What happens from here? My brother puts Black Wings aside–temporarily!–to make a micro-budget film.
Postscript: Summer, 2020. Life imitates art imitates life. Chris Peditto, creative producer at HBO for 15 years, went to Sarajevo for a short vacation and ended up living there. He founded the Balkan American Theater (BAT) company. He has gone on to make his micro-budget film, Fearing In Sarajevo, which has screened at multiple European film festivals.
The quest isn’t over. Ask him today and he’ll swear Black Wings will still get made.
Don’t bet against him.