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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO

 


(July 2005) I’ve been involved in the non-profit arts world for more years than I care to admit (OK, about 25). It really gives you the opportunity to meet people who are unique with a different agenda than those you meet in the for-profit, commercial world. I think I can safely say that I’ve met some truly amazing human beings; many who have touched my life and inspired me to excel and expand what I am doing.


When the RI International Film Festival took off nine years ago, I never expected it to become what it has today. For me, being so close to it, I’ve seen it like a snowball rolling down a steep hill, getting bigger and bigger, gaining momentum, and taking on a life of its own. My expectations have been tempered by the reaction of others and the event has now grown to be something that not only reflects my vision, but all the wonderful people who work with me and have made RIIFF their own.


Filmmakers from around the globe have also adopted the festival, many applying yearly with their latest work. This year, we expect over 1,500 entries from about 60 countries, which is a bit scary and equally amazing: scary, because all entries are reviewed multiple times; amazing because the work tends to be so strong and polished and it lets you know what a global village we really live in.


One of the filmmakers I’ve gotten to know in the course of producing RIIFF is Stu Pollard whose most recent feature will have its World Premiere this August 9-14th at the Festival.


Stu is a highly engaging filmmaker who immerses himself in his work with unrivalled compassion, conscience, and tenacity. Plus he’s a USC alum, so we share that commonality.
I met him several years ago when he screened his feature debut “Nice Guys Sleep Alone,” with us. It took home a major prize and Stu made sure that fact was promoted on the subsequent DVD Release. I cannot tell you how cool it was to go to Hollywood Video, which distributed his work, and see our name surrounded by laurel leaves on the back cover.


In addition to writing and directing the film, Stu also raised the nearly one million dollars necessary to produce it.


A bittersweet romantic comedy about the increasingly shrinking role honesty plays in modern courtship, “Nice Guys” enjoyed a healthy run on the festival circuit—taking home several awards—prior to being acquired for worldwide distribution. The film has been incredibly successful in the marketplace. Domestically, it ran for eighteen months on HBO, is currently airing on the Lifetime Movie Network, and will enter a ten-year syndication deal in 2006. The “Nice Guys” DVD was the number one renting title in Hollywood Video’s First Rites film series, and went on to become one of the best renting indies on Netflix.com—garnering national press coverage more than two years after its initial release.


Worldwide, the film’s ancillary rights have sold in over a dozen territories, including Canada, Spain, China, France, Australia, Greece, England, the Philippines, and Japan.


Stu is now in post-production on his second feature, a psychological suspense drama entitled “Keep Your Distance.” Like “Nice Guys,” Stu set the film in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and he again shouldered writing, directing, and fund-raising duties.


A story about people searching for what makes them happy, “Keep Your Distance” features an outstanding ensemble cast, including Gil Bellows, Jennifer Westfeldt, Christian Kane, Kim Raver, Stacy Keach, and Elizabeth Peña.


I spoke with Stu recently on the phone about his work and thought he would be a unique role model for many aspiring New England filmmakers. Here’s what I learned.


GTM: What inspired you to become involved in the film industry?


STU POLLARD: I suppose the simple answer is audiences. My first ones were my high school and college (Georgetown) classmates. They listened to my student-radio shows and watched my short films, and in doing so encouraged and inspired to keep moving forward. To keep creating things. Being able to entertain people, captivate them, make them laugh, cause them to think—that’s very intoxicating, and it’s a large part of what drives me not only to make films, but also to make sure my work gets in front of as many people as possible.


GTM: Working in Kentucky is not exactly being in Los Angeles or New York. What limitations have you discovered and assets from being in the so-called “heartland” making movies?


STU POLLARD: Kentucky, specifically Louisville, is where I grew up, so many of the stories I want to tell are naturally set there. There are three tremendous assets that come with shooting in Louisville:


(1) Unparalleled production value. It’s a place that’s both beautiful and largely unexplored on the big screen. All the locations are real. It’s a kick to know that just about anyone who watches Keep Your Distance will be seeing parts of my hometown for the first time.


(2) An incredibly supportive community. Lots of studio projects are shooting internationally these days because of financial and tax incentives. But I’d put Louisville up against any place in the world in terms of film friendliness. The amount cooperation, access, media coverage, and overall goodwill that Louisville has generously shared is incredibly valuable in innumerable ways, from stretching our budgets to keeping crew morale at unprecedented high levels. It starts with Todd Cassidy (at the Kentucky Film Office) and (Louisville Mayor) Jerry Abramson, and continues all the way down the line.


(3) A loyal, built-in audience. Louisville came out in a big way to support my first film, Nice Guys Sleep Alone, both when it was in theaters and when it was released on DVD. I’m a firm believer that there’s no point in making films if you don’t have people to watch them. The reception of Nice Guys in Louisville was overwhelming, touching, and inspiring. And it made me fiercely committed to making more films in my hometown.


GTM: How did this current film "Keep Your Distance" come about and how long did it take to develop?


STU POLLARD: This story was originally entitled “Space” and evolved from my experience in several long distance relationships. We changed the title due to the unavoidable science fiction connotation, and the script went through many permutations as it developed over the course of about a year-and-a-half. But one theme that remained throughout was trust. The key relationship in the story morphed into one that was more about emotional distance than geographic distance—a bond that’s forged between two strangers. A big conceit of the story is that sometimes it’s easier to trust someone you barely know than your best friend.


So the script took about a year-and-a-half. Raising the money—from the business plan all the way through to closing escrow, took about a year-and-a-half. And making the film took about, well, a year-and-a-half. Throw in a little overlap of those phases, along with a divorce, and it all adds up to about four years from conception to completion.


GTM: What was casting like for you with this project and working with a "name" talent? How did you cast Stacy Keach and what was it like working with him?


STU POLLARD: We started with the good fortune of hiring Monika Mikkelsen, the hardest working casting director in Hollywood. She made the whole process unbelievably fun and productive. We met so many incredibly talented people who wanted to do this project—that’s why casting is arguably my least favorite part of the process: You have to turn down literally scores of wonderfully talented actors, just because they’re not quite right for the part.


With the likes of Gil, Jennifer, Kim and Christian headlining the film, we were incredibly blessed, doubly so with our supporting cast filled out by Jamie, Elizabeth, and Stacy. I considered them “name actors” before I got to know them, but now that their names are recognizable because they’re gifted, hardworking, and professional actors. The most amazing thing about the cast was how much they cared about the project. They’ve all enjoyed tremendous success in their careers, and they’re all incredibly talented, but they also proved to be complete team players. An indie experience is much different (e.g. less luxurious) than a studio film or a network show, but no one was phased. They were all down to earth and focused on doing the best job they could.


We cast Stacy by contacting his representation and making an offer. He was always high on our list because he was born in the south (Savannah, GA), and I was a big fan of “Mike Hammer” in the 80’s.


Everybody on the cast and crew was thrilled to hear that Stacy Keach would be playing the role of Brooks Voight (Sean’s father), a power player in the Kentucky thoroughbred world. Keach, a Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee. I grew up watching Stacy and must admit I had a hard time at first separating the man from the myth.


After I got over the initial thrill of knowing that I was going to work with Stacy, I started getting a little nervous. His resume is, well, extensive…and impressive …and, it’s like, ‘Well, hey, I’ve done one movie before. How seriously is he going to take me?’”


My anxieties were put aside when we met in the makeup room before the first day of shooting. Stacy smiled, shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you so much for this opportunity,’” and was about as gracious and kind a gentleman as you could ever hope to meet. He gave Brooks exactly the powerful presence I was looking for.


GTM: Tell me what it's like working in Louisville, the support you receive and what you need to do for outdoor shoots, etc. Do you have support from the local film office?


STU POLLARD: Louisvillians aren’t used to film crews coming to town, but instead of being wary of the “Keep Your Distance’s” lights, cameras, and production trucks, they were thrilled.
It helps that I had already made a name for myself in Louisville, largely due to the tremendously positive local response “Nice Guys Sleep Alone” has received since its theatrical release in 1999.


For example, I don’t pay for locations.


It’s such a blessing, most of the time we find a great place to stage a scene and before we can even ask permission people are like ‘Would you like to shoot something here?’ Some of that has to do with “Nice Guys” not having any horror stories about rude crews trashing locations. If there’s one thing I pride myself on the production management side, it’s that our crews obey the golden rule of locations: “Leave ‘em in better shape than you found ‘em.”


We rarely encountered stumbling blocks, but when we did, we could always find someone to make a phone call on our behalf. That’s another great thing about Louisville—you never have to look too hard to find friends in common.


While shooting one day on the side of the road with a small skeleton crew, a few curious neighbors came out of their houses and approached, but they weren’t the usual gawking locals.

“They said, ‘Are you guys OK? Did your car break down or something?” They wanted to make sure we were okay. And if we weren’t, they wanted to help us. That’s Louisville.


GTM: Funding is a major concern for independent filmmakers: how do you raise your money?


STU POLLARD: Like many indie filmmakers, I took sole responsibility for creating the private equity deals that raised the money for both of my films, 1999’s “Nice Guys Sleep Alone” and the forthcoming “Keep Your Distance.” I’m a big believer in first figuring out how much your movie is going to cost, and then raising all of that money before you start pre-production, let alone shooting.


I’m not shy about offering up pearls of wisdom when it comes to private equity film investments.

 

Here’s just one: If you’re considering an indie film investment and see that the deal includes a “minimum cap” (a threshold that allows the filmmaker/film company to start spending money even though it is substantially less than the film’s overall projected budget) you should throw it in the garbage. You’re talking about a venture that’s incredibly risky to begin with and a minimum cap ramps up the risk exponentially. The reason most indie films don’t make money is that they’re lousy deals to begin with. Most minimum capitalization deals are suicidal recipes for movies that are destined to die slow deaths in post; Movies that will never be seen because they’ll never get finished.


Most indie film investors are uninitiated; they haven’t done it before. And while you want to sell them on the sizzle of a movie investment—it’s sexy, you’ll meet actors, you can hang out on the set, get tickets to the premiere—you also have a legal and ethical responsibility to disclose the harsh realities. Thousands of these movies get made every year, a few hundred get distributed, and of those, a tiny percentage make their money back.


The odds of making a profitable indie film are incredibly steep. I don’t subscribe to this theory that it’s always about the next one. Other filmmakers may feel differently about their work, but I have a very parental relationship with my films. In their early stages, their livelihood is completely dependent on me.


A flaw that plagues many indie filmmakers is that they give up on their films too quickly, especially if they don’t make a big splash right away. The reality is that we live in a time where there’s never been greater opportunities for our work to be seen. Everywhere there’s a zip code, it seems, there’s a film festival. There’s been a huge proliferation of cable channels, the popularity of DVD has exploded beyond belief, there’s video on demand, the Internet, the list goes on and on and will continue to grow. Bottom line, there’s an audience for virtually every film ever made, it’s just a question of seeking it out.


GTM: Expectations: the film will have its World Premiere this August RIIFF. Why select RIIFF and following your screening, how will you market the film and what is your ultimate goal for its future?


STU POLLARD: I have a soft spot in my heart for the RIIFF because my first film, “Nice Guys Sleep Alone” premiered there in 1999. It’s a great festival that has thrived over the years because it exists for all the right reasons: It’s run by and produced for people who love the art form. So many festivals these days have spiraled out of control so that it’s become a nasty as opposed to nurturing environment for the filmmakers. I know as long as George Marshall is at the wheel of RIIFF, that it’s always going to epitomize what a genuine film festival should be.


Having sold “Nice Guys Sleep Alone” to HBO, Lifetime, WE, Hollywood Video, Netflix and others, there’s obviously an expectation that we’ll do as well, if not better, with “Keep Your Distance.” We already have a great deal of interest in the film from distributors both large and small, and we’re hoping that our screenings at the RIIFF will only build on that momentum. That being said, the goals are pretty simple: Try and get the best deals possible so that I can (a) pay back my investors, and (b) give as many people as possible an opportunity to see the film. If we can accomplish those two goals, then we’ll be in a great position to get the next project off the ground.


GTM: Tell us about your past experiences in film marketing with earlier work. What did you learn from the process?


STU POLLARD: Think like a distributor from the outset: Even when your prepping, you should be thinking how can you help a would-be distributor sell your film to the public? It starts with having a still photographer on set every day. And in addition to shooting production stills, they should shoot portrait (poster) stills of your actors. These days, with the advent of DVD, it’s essential to have a videographer on set capturing behind the scenes footage. You may never get all your cast and crew together in one place again, so production is the ideal time to get interviews with your key cast and crew as well.


Be organized. There’s a much-unheralded aspect to getting an indie film distributed known as delivery. This means that in order for any distributor to release your film—in any form—you have to deliver them not just the finished film, but all the paperwork and physical elements that went into creating it. You’ll need to hand over everything from your script copyright form PA to your outtakes, so it pays to be an obsessive-compulsive pack rat.


Never give up. The first time we took “Nice Guys” to HBO, they passed. We went back a second time and they bought it. When Hollywood Video took “Nice Guys” out on a rev-share basis, I visited more than 400 stores and talked to the staff, customers, and anyone else who listen. I took the film on a college tour to more than a dozen campuses. To this day I always look for opportunities to get the film seen.


GTM: What project is next on your plate?


STU POLLARD: Several projects, all of which have special appeal. There’s a bio-pic about a troubled young jockey who won two Kentucky Derbys in the 90’s before dying tragically at 34. A buddy-comedy called “The Last Camaro” that I’m working on with New York-based producer, John Finley. I’m helping produce a documentary entitled “Dirty Country,” about a rather unique country music singer-songwriter named Larry Pierce. And a few things I’m writing as well. I’m not sure which one will go next, but it’s nice to be associated with so many great projects.


GTM: What would you tell an independent filmmaker just starting in the business they should expect and prepare themselves for in making their first feature? Can you give examples?


STU POLLARD: A million things: Relax. But work hard. Don’t cast yourself unless you absolutely have to. Never skimp on food for your crew. Don’t yell at anyone in public. Always fight for rehearsal time. Tell the truth. Get at least five hours sleep a night. Story always wins. Wear comfortable shoes. Have fun, but be serious. Take a five-minute break each day just to tell your significant other that you love him/her.


GTM: Amen!


STU POLLARD: Keep your cool—everyone’s following your lead whether you realize it or not. And remember at the end of the day, it’s only a movie.


But most of all I’d tell them to contact me. They can email me directly from www.distanceflick.com. I truly enjoy sharing my experience with others who are starting out in the business. If I can steer someone clear of a few of the holes I’ve stepped in along the way then it makes my journey all the more worthwhile.


GTM: Would you consider shooting in New England in future?


STU POLLARD: Absolutely. In fact, my former agent Boyd Hancock is now a producer residing outside of Boston and she just wrapped her first feature, “The House of Usher.” It shot in Danvers, Rowley and Newburyport, MA. Boyd mandated from the outset that this particular project be made exclusively by women, so I wasn’t eligible to direct it (Usher is directed by Hayley Cloake), but I imagine we’ll be working together on something in the very near future.


GTM: Anything you would like to add?


STU POLLARD: We’re really looking forward to releasing the soundtrack album for “Keep Your Distance,” which celebrates the local music scene in Louisville. It features 16 previously tracks from a wide variety of incredibly talented artists, including Peter Searcy, Digby, Tim Krekel, The Muckrakers, and Carter Wood.


For more information about Stu Pollard and his latest film
, please visit www.distanceflick.com.



About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College and speech communications and documentary film at Roger Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer of commercials and industrials for numerous business clients in the region and is currently completing the multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached at <flicksart@aol.com>