HOW I DISCOVERED A HOLLYWOOD STAR MAKING MY FIRST FILM
When a filmmaker dreams, he dreams big. Sundance, Venice Film Festival, Cannes. Aim high, shoot low. At least with your first budget.
The aspiration to become a moviemaker doesn’t speak to the sensible part of your brain. Making a living with movies not to the grey matter that can be objective. You tell stories with moving images because they come from the depth of your heart when it is allowed to dream.
The creative adult is the child who survived — Ursula K. Le Guin
I wasn’t interested in following my father’s footsteps into the corporate community. There was more life in creating and visualizing my own world, so I started to work in advertising. With a buddy from film school we shot high-end commercials. We did not sell products, we pitched compelling stories that triggered emotions: The minty sensation of a new toothpaste, the goose bumpy excitement of driving a car.
With the years came success and with the success came creative and financial freedom. Our new offices were spacious and assistants answered the phone.
I have become a filmmaker, but not the kind I wanted to be.
In 1989 Steven Soderberghs film “Sex, Lies and Videotape” made a big splash when it was first released. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and it blew me away. At 29 Soderbergh wrote the screenplay in eight days on a road trip to Los Angeles. Due to the big box office success of the movie, the original screenplay supplemented with the director’s comments were published and became the motivation to make my own film.
There’s a big difference between creating high budget commercials and writing spec-screenplays for low budget films. At the time I didn’t have a whole lot of prospects, so I had to use everything in my arsenal to make it work: Downgrade financial security to upgrade creativity. Cross-finance lucrative advertisement with no-paying art
1. Creative success is not about vanity, it’s about finding your own voice.
I sold my shares of the business, packed the life I knew and moved to New York. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. On the lower East Side I shared an apartment with a friend. It was the size of a one car garage, but that was part of the deal. In hindsight it all sounds romantic, but in reality it wasn’t. We ate crappy food and hung out in cafes. It was a time of resurgence for independent film. Everybody around us talked about making a movie. But nobody actually did.
The Arthouse Film Forum in Greenwich Village became my second home. A bookstore on the upper Westside sold pirated screenplays of movies I liked. “Taxi Driver”, “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Blood Simple”. They were cheap, looked very professional, printed on 3-hole, brass bound white paper. Some of them even had written production notes. Back then, doing research wasn’t just one klick away, but it felt more authentic, genuine and raw.
As the years unveiled, I wrote a dozen of mediocre screenplays. Educational books and workshops helped me to improve. I spent a small fortune sending out unsolicited material to producers, but never heard back. But I knew if I’ll stick around long enough, I will eventually succeed.
2. When you write stories, there’s more truth to things you personally know.
My first 5minute short was shown on TV. It was the point of view journey of a slice of pizza down into the belly of a cab-driver in New York. My small apartment served as a studio and I created the special effects for my film with a couple of bucks. “A Slice of Pizza” joined the short-film festival circuit and won some awards. I was 31, but still nowhere near where I wanted to be.
By the end of the eighties, my first son was born. Holding my little baby in my hands was a defining moment and it instantly changed my life. I was a dad, but still haven’t shot my first film. Odd freelance jobs kept our family afloat. I helped a friend remodel his house, worked as a wedding cinematographer and helped fundraising another friend’s movie that never got made.
3. Success is not something you just go out and find. It’s the result of a well-structured life.
I got up in the middle of the night I started to type. Ten days later I finished my first draft: “Three below Zero”, a 90minute psychological thriller of three people trapped in a basement. The TV Channel that aired my first short kicked in two thirds of the budget. An angel investor came up with the rest.
4. The subject and length of your project predicates your budget.
At the beginning of 1997 casting started in downtown New York. At that point a lot could still go wrong. But I was on my way of making my first film. Finding your actors is nothing but magic. Scenes, character and dialogue created in isolation, suddenly play out in real life. You instantly know, when your actors struggle with their lines, or when they flow effortlessly and smooth. But after five weeks of casting I still haven’t found the male lead of my cinematic drama.
One night on my way to the subway, I spotted a young man with spiky hydrogen peroxide blond hair. He auditioned for the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line”, but didn’t get the part. The next day, 19 year old Wes Bentley read the lines for Julian, the male protagonist of my audacious endeavor. Wes was enrolled in Juilliard School and needed the dean’s permission to star in my film.
Principal photography started on the hottest day of Summer. We shot on 35mm analog film. There was no such thing as digital cinematography, or fixing things inexpensively in postproduction. You had to get everything right. The soundstage had no AC, but we got a great deal. Two weeks of preproduction and 25 days to shoot.
On August 14. 1998 “Three below Zero” premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The 900 seat theatre was packed and my movie got a standing ovation. It took persistence, courage and luck to get there, but I savored every second of my short-lived Steven Soderbergh moment up on that stage.
“Thee below Zero” went on a festival tour around Europe and won the prestigious Max Ophüls Award for best picture. Kinowelt, a European distributor picked up the rights for a theatrical and DVD release.
Sam Peckinpah once said: “The end of a picture is always the end of a life”. You either pick up your pace, or call it quits, I might add.
I did not become famous and the movie was not an overnight success. But the moderate financial returns and critical acclaim laid the foundation for my future career.
Without knowing it, the kid with the spiky blond hair and I were at the beginning of a lifetime journey. West Bentley went on to star in Sam Mendes’ Oscar Winning “American Beauty”. Kate Walsh, Wes Bentley’s female costar in my film, became a regular on the ABC television dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.
5. Perseverance and talent equal luck.