Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Coming Out

I've just emerged from my writing retreat and Barbara says I look like a "deer in the headlights".   

There's most definitely a deep exfoliation process that happens when you're isolated and "meditating" on one thing for ten days straight. Ask any monk. So, I guess it's no surprise that I had a touch of startle syndrome when I emerged from seclusion and went straight into a packed house of filmmakers gathered to hear Christine Vachon give a "master class" on independent film production.

In fact the whole thing scared the "Nell" out of me.

Going to hear one of the recognized gurus of ball-busting filmmaking pronounce on the ins and outs of getting first-time directors' stories to the screen seemed a fitting way to cap off my own little creative crusade. For those of you who aren't familiar with her work, Vachon is the producer who brought us such trailblazers as: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I Shot Andy Warhol and Happiness. Back in the day, Vachon was at the forefront of the independent film movement in the U.S.. But as with any fringe movement that gathers steam, "independent" cinema has gradually been absorbed into the mainstream. So these days Vachon is looking out at the very same production landscape as everybody else - from studio heads in Hollywood to hosers like me.  

And as she said right off the top, financing a film is really hard. It always has been. But now, in the midst of the "global economic crisis", it's just a new kind of hard. The really freaking hard kind of hard.

And in an attempt to make a "sure thing" out of an unquantifiable risk, the people who have the power to finance films have become increasingly insistent on cast. Because, whether you're trying to get your film made in the purely capitalist climate of the States, or in the subsidized landscape here in Canada - the guarantee of foreign sales has become an essential key to completing the financial structure. And without a "bankable name" (or preferably four), there's no way to anticipate any foreign sales, thus no way to complete your financing. Now that reality creates a very touchy Catch-22, especially for the first-time director. In Canada.

That's partly because a "bankable" name is industry-speak for "American movie star". And even grimmer yet - a "Male American movie star". Because apparently, the prevailing wisdom still is: Women don't open films. (unless their names are all Angelina Jolie)

As my two principal protagonists are women AND Canadian, what's a first-time-director-girl to do? If my script weren't a period piece (mid-70's), then it would be relatively easy to get the budget down to a number where an investment from Telelfilm, SODEC, a modest guarantee from our Canadian distributor and tax credits could cover the financing. Foreign sales, if they ever happened, would be a welcome bonus - but not a deal-breaker. 

Alas, that is not the script we have. The story is inextricably tied to the time and place in which it's set. Which, without going into detail, means it costs much more to produce than a comparable story were it set in contemporary time and place.

So here I am, just coming out of seclusion - my script that much stronger - but the means to make it looking flimsier than ever.

The one uplifting thing that Ms. Vachon did manage to impress upon the hope-hungry filmmakers gathered around her combat boots was: with nothing short of heroic persistence and luck, a great script will always, somehow, eventually prevail. 

And a little Angelina wouldn't hurt either.