It's Seattle International Film Festival time, again. The festival kicked off May 20th with a line-up of over 220 films. Last year, rather than cover a handful of the over 200 films that were screening then, I did a story on a small, independent film that didn't make it into the festival. Yes, people do like the underdog. I received several e-mails from readers saying they liked the article and they also liked seeing the underdog get a little bit of coverage.
Who am I to ignore a good thing? This year I bring you an encore article, but the subject is a film that I think has one of the best taglines I've ever read. The film is Burning Annie and its tagline is: "Meet Max… He's got a love/hate relationship with love, hate and relationships."
Burning Annie is about a college student's obsession with Woody Allen and the film Annie Hall. Those of you with an eye to legal problems are probably wondering, "How the heck did this get past Woody?" And the answer is simply, "With Woody's blessings." Pretty powerful stuff for a first movie, no?
This is a first movie in many respects. It is the first script by screenwriter Zack Ordynans, the first feature by producer Randy Mack (Armak Productions) and the directorial debut of cinematographer Van Flesher. So how did it all happen? I was lucky enough to get a couple of e-mail interviews with Zack and Randy between their festival efforts (where they're getting solid press clips) and here they are. First up: Randy, then Zack.
SCRIPT: Randy, tell us a little about your background?
Randy Mack: Come from New Haven, son of a printer and social worker. Went to college at Clark University, a small liberal arts university with no real arts programs. Creatively started writing scripts in middle school. Gave it up in high school for music. Spent much time, through college, trying to make it as a musician, then journalist. Came to L.A. to do the one art you couldn't do even a little at Clark: film.
SCRIPT: You met Zack at Clark University, but you were already in Los Angeles when you decided to work with Zack on his script. Why this story?
RM: I had read a lot about the film industry but I knew that book smarts are - every pun intended - academic. So I spent the first three years taking jobs in each core element of the industry: for a indie prodco, a studio, a prodco at a studio, a small agency, a large agency, a management company and an actor's prodco (with a studio deal, not a vanity shingle). It was working at an agency that I met Van Flesher, who was a cinematographer looking for a first feature break.
Combined with the reading, I quickly realized how insanely difficult it was to get a movie actually MADE. My taste in films runs in a difficult ghetto - on the commercial side of indie and the indie side of commercial. I knew about the indie success stories of the 1990s - Clerks, The Brothers McMullen, Sex Lies & Videotape, Swingers - which all (famously) were made for five or six figures in a couple choice locations. But another ingredient that they all had in common was they were a clever take on a milieu the filmmaker new intimately.
Van and I decided to try to make a low-budget film together. We needed a script that put the priorities on dialogue, performance, feeling and milieu. And still had a marketing hook. I knew that Zack's script had most of these qualities, but it was raw and served as a slice-of-life, a portrait more than a story. However, from my experiences reading scripts, which I was doing professionally by this point, I knew that if the concept could be extended into a "filmic" narrative while retaining its character, mood, sense of place and Zack's marvelous voice, we'd have something. So we decided, why wait to get lucky, when we've already gotten lucky with Zack's excellent script.
SCRIPT: Did you want to produce it from the beginning or were you thinking more alone the lines of collaboration?
RM: The goal was always to get into production as fast as possible. After I optioned the screenplay (for two Nintendo controllers and a video hockey game), I took over the primary writing responsibilities. Zack and Van contributed ideas, feedback and dialogue to every draft, while I evaluated it all and did implementing, restructuring and the necessary typing.
SCRIPT: As a writer yourself, you suddenly find yourself in the position of producer, but you're still working on the script with an author. How hard was it to change from one status to the other while discussing the script, i.e., "it would be nice to do that, but too expensive," etc.?
RM: I was blessed with a concept that naturally stayed grounded in everyday reality, so I was lucky not to have to make any compromises in that way. Part of the concept of the movie - the concept inside the Annie Hall concept - is to show college life the way it really is, the way it's actually experienced. (Now THAT's a new idea!) By all indicators, we knocked that particular agenda out of the park! Audiences, love it or hate it, all say the film is completely authentic.
SCRIPT: How did you get Woody Allen to sign a covenant-not-to-sue after he read the screenplay?
RM: Right after I optioned the script, I contacted Woody's lawyer. I knew we'd probably have to get all kinds of rights - rights to use the poster, rights to use footage, maybe even rights to use the name Annie Hall so much - and I guessed (correctly) that getting Woody's permission was the "key log" in getting everything. I also had a hunch that we'd fare better if our request over-reached. So we started by sending him an offer to perform a role in the movie - one day's work, one line in one scene, for $10,000, pay or play. This got their attention, and gave us a reason to send the script. While we waited for Woody to turn us down, I then asked the lawyer about a "blessing," something to help us with financing. He suggested a covenant, and we were off… sort of. The process took another year and a half of waiting, and paperwork, etc. Once we got that, MGM and United Artists got right in line for the clearances we needed.
SCRIPT: What was the overall budget?
RM: We got the whole film in the can for under a half million, and finished post-production and completion, plus marketing and promotions, for under a million.
SCRIPT: You're making the festival rounds right now, how's that going?
RM: It is going as well as can be expected… better than we expected actually. The festival circuit is overrun with "Indiewood" films now, in which giant corporate-owned companies get movie stars to make films for single-digit millions instead of double-digit millions, and then congratulate themselves for being thrifty. It's made a joke out of independent film. So, in this climate, we didn't know what to expect. But fortunately, the film's buzz built over the last year or so to the point that we're now receiving invitation to play, as opposed to last year, when we were unknown and begging. We're playing West Virginia soon, and Boston shortly after. The IFP is hosting
a screening of Burning Annie in September in L.A. And we're still waiting to hear from quite a few festivals, so more will be coming.
SCRIPT: Do you think festivals are good for other newer producers?
RM: Unless you've got a distributor onboard, festivals are simply necessary for indie producers at all levels. They allow you to shop the movie while simultaneously making sure it is seen by at least a few paying audiences in the theater.
SCRIPT: What are some of their drawbacks?
RM: The problem with the festival circuit is limited space for a high number of films. And it's really an artificially high number, because of those Indiewood films that use festivals as a "platform" for a premiere or theatrical release. These corporate cheapies are crowding out the next generation of Jim Jarmusches and Richard Linklaters. The silver lining is that most states and cities host film festivals of their own now, so a safety net of minor festivals has developed to catch all the true independents pushed aside by Focus Features and Lions Gate (for instance). Alas, these festivals are useless for selling the film and have zero prestige value, but they give a film like ours a chance to collect reviews, fans and buzz. That's our tack, and it's worked out great, especially with the critics.
SCRIPT: What types of expenses should festival participants expect?
RM: It's horrible to face, but it's reality - if your film doesn't have distribution (e.g. it is has no "faces") then when you finally raise the money to complete your film, you STILL have to raise another large amount to cover expenses incurred from festivals. Entrance fees add up so fast it will make your head spin. If you apply to 25 fests at random, expect to spend over $1,000 on just applying… and that doesn't include postage or the cost of making press kits and screeners! If you can get your packages down to a pound or less, each costs $3.75 priority mail. That's $93.75 for your 25 festivals. Screeners are around $7 each, assuming jacket, label and case; that's $175. Then there's press kits, which can be done on the cheap for maybe $3 each; add $75. Your total for simply applying is around $1,300.
Then consider that if you don't have stars and you're not famous, your "cold" submission (as opposed to a film submitted through back-door channels directly to individuals at the film festivals) has a one-in-20 chance (to be generous) of getting in… which means if you want to play 10 fests you need to apply to 200 festivals… you can see what happens to the expense. That doesn't even factor in the biggest cost, which is travel and lodging, which you hope to worry about someday because it means you got in somewhere!
The best way around this is to get a producer's rep, which is a sales agent who specializes in domestic distribution. For a percentage of the sale price, a producer's rep works the festival back channels and liaisons with distributors, ideally to combine the two into a perfect storm of opportunity. I got lucky and snagged a good one on a cold call to him, and he's been invaluable.
SCRIPT: So how much Rogaine™ should a newer producer stock on his shelves before he heads down the festival trail?
RM: Worry about cash and your next project, not your hair! But seriously, playing festivals isn't that grueling, if you do your homework and are patient. Getting rejected can be disappointing but that gets washed away fast every time you get accepted.
SCRIPT: Would you do this again?
RM: The screenplays I write are larger budget than BA and use a bigger canvas, so right now I'm at work writing and getting them out into the Indiewood channels, to see what kind of reception they get. The experience on Burning Annie has been invaluable and I'm putting all that knowledge to work. I aspire to make movies at the level of the Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson, and I think I've finally got some momentum down that road. There's really no substitute for experience.
** Now, from the pen of writer Zack Ordynans and his thoughts about the script, the film and the final result.
SCRIPT: First of all, am I right in assuming you were a film student in college—the press package doesn't say.
Zack Ordynans: No, I was actually a government student, of all things. Not exactly something I'm putting to good use today. (I graduated from Clark University in Worchester, Mass. In '98.) I did take a bunch of artsy classes, though, including a handful of film classes, and at one point I thought about getting a second major in communications. It's ironic, but probably the main reason I didn't follow through with that was because the advisor I was working with was less than enthusiastic about Burning Annie as a capstone project. We had this absurd meeting where I presented the project and she suggested I tell my story in a "more unorthodox format, like an opera or hypertextual CD-ROM." So that was the end of that. I realized right there that one borderline-useless major was probably enough.
SCRIPT: You first started the script in college. The press package says it was semi-autobiographical and that you had planned to shoot it yourself as a senior thesis project. Why something "semi-autobiographical" for a senior project?
ZO: A lot of it was practical. I wasn't ever thinking of doing it on the level that it became, I just wanted to write a good script, and then throw a movie together. Part of it was just being really naïve about the whole process. I thought I would write the script in a couple of months then shoot it during the rest of the senior year. Considering that I had no budget and didn’t know a whole lot of actors, I thought the easiest thing to do was to base all the characters on people I knew, ask my friends to play themselves and set the whole thing on campus, because that was the location I had to work with.
I'd love to have seen how that would have turned out. I think at that point I didn't realize how dark the script would get, because it's hard to imagine the real life people acting and in some cases reenacting embarrassing moments they've been through. I mean, some of the movie is tough for me to watch, I can't imagine what it would have been like to try and act it out. Not to mention asking my friends to do the same. Like I said, it was a naïve idea.
SCRIPT: This is a two-parter: What's the fascination with Woody Allen and why Annie Hall?
ZO: I don't know … I just really identify with his movies, I guess, and I did even more so at the time I started writing this. It's just part of my culture, the whole New York Jewish thing. There's also an aspect of it that's almost about documenting certain experiences… in other words, my college friends and I really did watch Annie Hall every semester for a while, and one of my friends really did come up with the theory that it was cursing our love lives. So as much as Annie Hall might be my favorite movie, this could have just as easily been Burning Pulp Fiction or Burning Clerks. Maybe with a catchier title, but you get the idea.
SCRIPT: How did you meet Randy at Clark University and how did he become involved with Burning Annie?
ZO: Randy was just starting up a new campus magazine called WheatBread, and we met when he wanted to interview me and my roommate, because we were running the campus radio station. I ended up getting more and more involved with the magazine, and when Randy graduated I took over as editor. So we've actually been working closely on one project or another practically since we met, in '96. A couple of years later, we were friends so he knew I was working on a script, even after I decided against trying to do it as a thesis. At that point I was just writing it for myself and a few friends (and I think because of that I was able to be really honest about certain things, include things I never would have been able to write if I ever pictured myself sitting in a theater with certain people.) So anyway, Randy moved to L.A. in the summer of '98, right after I finished the first draft, and a year and a half later he called and told me he wanted to produce the script. I looked around my room, shrewdly demanded a video game AND guitar strings for the option, and the rest is history.
SCRIPT: Was Burning Annie the title from the get-go, or did it change? If so, what were some of the others?
ZO: That was the title all along. There's been plenty of talk of changing it (none of us love it), but we never came up with anything better. Anhedonia might have worked (that was the original working title of Annie Hall) but it's not exactly the most marketable name for a movie. Most of the other ideas were silly, things like Maxed Out, Not Another Woody Allen Movie, Mediocre Resonations, stuff like that.
SCRIPT: The press package says that Randy worked with you extensively "over several years." Exactly how many is "several" and how great is the change from the first script?
ZO: Well, the script was optioned in early 2000, and shot in early 2002, so about two years. In the first year Randy was more guiding me as I worked on new drafts. Then in 2001 he took charge a little more and did some rewriting, which I gave him feedback on and polished, then he would polish my polishes. There was a lot of back and forth, but at the end of the day he's the producer so he had final say. It's tough to answer the question how great the changes were, or where you put the "before" and "after." What I mean is, there had already
been a few drafts before Randy got involved; and the transcript of the film is different than even the shooting script. So it's changed in a lot of different stages along the way.
Comparing the movie to the first draft… there are a lot of differences, sure, but also a lot of similarities. The characters, style and story are basically the same, but Randy made an effort to draw out the story more, and exaggerate the characters slightly. He did a lot of good work, for example, he rewrote the final restaurant scene, which I was struggling with, and took it to another level.
SCRIPT: Was it nerve-wracking to have someone else work with you on your script?
ZO: Yeah, definitely. It's a tough deal, to work on something so long and have such an attachment to it - with this script maybe even more than others I've written because the material is so personal—and then have someone else go in and make changes. Randy and I are both stubborn so we had many arguments about the script's direction. Luckily we're good enough friends that we're able to argue without hating each other. In the end, most of the changes I didn't like fell by the wayside, and most of his ideas grew on me, so this process
clearly made the script stronger.
It got a little bit easier to accept as it went along, because I realized it's part of the process. Films are collaborative, that's the way it is. And even though it was tough, I now realize that could be a very good thing. Different people bring different perspectives to the project and that helps make it feel more well-rounded and adds depth. Again, I think part of what made collaborating on this script tough for me is that it's so personal.
Did the collaboration feel like it strengthened (and/or diminished) your own voice in the story?
ZO: The obvious thing to say here is that it diminished my voice, because by the nature of the process it took a little bit of a different direction. But at the same time, one of the challenges of writing yourself is being true to how you would really act and how you appear to others, and because Randy knows me so well, I think the changes may have helped make it a little more authentic in that area.
Funny example here: One of the things Randy amplified in the script that I originally disagreed with was the idea that Max hates it when other people listen to his show. It was mentioned once in the first draft, and mostly a joke. Randy liked the idea so much it got mentioned in a few other places. Anyway, my father showed a rough cut of the film to a handful of friends. I found out and got mad, mostly because it was rough and at that point I was more shy about people seeing it, and my father said, "Why did you make a movie if you don't want anyone to see it?" That was when I realized that Randy was right on about Max's attitude toward the radio show, because I was acting the same way about the movie. The moral of the story: Sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves.
SCRIPT: How active were you in the filming process?
ZO: Not at all, really. I visited the set twice, I think I was on the set a total of four days. It was tough because I'm in New York and the movie was shot in West Virginia. But it's probably for the best that I wasn't there the whole time, because I was basically a tourist on the set. I didn't want to get in the way of what Van or Randy were doing. I mostly just observed and tried to help out in little ways. I was a PA (maybe an assistant PA? An APA?) for about four hours.
SCRIPT: Considering the collaborative process between you and Randy to bring the script to fruition, how did bringing in Van Flesher and the cast further that process?
ZO: Randy, Van and I spent a few days in L.A. in December 2001, doing nothing but talking about the script, but Van mostly deferred to Randy and I, at least at the time. Randy would have a better idea of Van and cast's notes on the script, but I should add that there were obviously changes and improvisations by Van and the actors on the set. Some of my favorite lines in the movie were actually ad-libbed, like "If I had happy I'd run with it like the wind."
SCRIPT: What do you see yourself doing in five years? Just kidding. I hate that question and I'm sure others do too, but what do you see yourself doing for your next project?
ZO: Well, that's a tough one. I've written three scripts since this one. One of them was just optioned and the producer is seeking funding. I just finished another script that I'm pretty excited about. I've been writing and not worrying about what happens with the scripts, but now I'm taking a little bit more of an active interest in advancing my career. So, um, if any agents or producers are reading this and want to get in touch, I'm all ears…
SCRIPT: I have a favorite question I like to ask writers. If you could have written any film from the beginning of the film industry, what would it be?
ZO: Um, Annie Hall? Too obvious? Can I say Snow Dogs?
It's too bad that Burning Annie didn't make it into the Seattle Film Festival. The viewers here in Seattle tend to like films like this. But, that's okay. When Burning Annie revs up to her top speed I wouldn't doubt that she'll be playing in a theater near me.
Sable Jak is a former actress and dancer and has, like so many others writers, been writing ever since she can remember. She's a columnist with Absolute Write and has radio mysteries running on Virtually American. She is also a charter member of The Screenplayers: http://www.screenplayers.net
- More articles by Sable Jak
- Indievelopment: Writing Indie Friendly
- Indievelopment: Film Budgets – Limitations and Creativity
Writing the Low Budget Independent Movie