By now I hope you’ve had a chance to the see the short film I co-directed with graphic novelist Paul Pope. If you haven’t, you can see it by clicking here.
In the coming posts I’ll take you through the journey of the film, which is quite unorthodox but it’ll demonstrate one way to get a film made. The “x” factor in all of this, of course, is that Paul Pope is someone who film companies actively want to work with. He’s worked for almost three decades creating groundbreaking original stories (or “content” or better yet “Intellectual Property / IP” as the suits like to say), and he’s built a loyal and diverse following of readers over those three decades. That hard work and visibility invites opportunities, and it is well earned, no fluke, and beyond simple luck. Paul is a hot commodity in film for good reason, and he did it without nepotism or industry connections, so he can afford to be choosy about who adapts his material.
Most of us are not in that position to have people approach us to adapt our work, in large part because we don’t have a body of work that’s been through the gauntlet of distribution. Our goal therefore is to create that body of work, either on our own or through collaboration with the creative friends and people we do have access to. Just as Paul put brush to paper many years ago to create his first graphic novel, so too must we put pencil to paper, write ‘fade in’ and create a body of work that makes people want to work with us. It must be inventive, beautifully crafted and with something unique to say. It must be your voice, your talent, your worldview.
I’ve been fortunate to be friends with Paul for the past six years. Our relationship started professionally as I approached him, as a complete stranger, to option his book The One Trick Rip-Off as a feature film. Paul is very guarded with his work, as he should be, and it’s not his first time at the rodeo in terms of people / studios wanting to adapt his graphic novels. He’s been through development hell (he was a co-director for the proposed Kavalier and Clay adaptation before it went into turnaround), had promises made to him that were not kept, and he’s got the healthy dose of skepticism which is absolutely required when navigating the media business world.
Paul really liked my take on The One Trick Rip-Off, and more importantly, we both liked each other as men and respected each other as artists. I’d written some time ago that when I go into business meetings I’m not looking for money or a product, I’m looking to determine if this will be a good relationship. Paul’s the same way. We clicked, and over the years our conversations about the progress on The One Trick Rip-Off are always couched in great food, life hurdles, Battling Boy and Lilith, and whatever it is we’re feeling at the time. There’s a tremendous amount of fraternity and trust there.
Paul entrusted me with his baby, and we’re making it the right way. Four years of development and counting…
This sets up Paul being approached by Tribeca Films to make a short film. Tribeca is an extremely progressive company dedicated to independent cinema and pushing the envelope, and they saw the same qualities in Paul’s work. Paul had an idea of a space western, which is natural to Paul as they’re his two favorite genres. It was a great idea - a man surrounded by seven monsters has a gun with six bullets to deal with them - and it was prefect for the short film format because its core mechanic was simple, but its psychological depth was beautifully textured and vast.
Paul had been through pre-production before on Kavalier and Clay, so he had a good idea of what it took to make a film, but probably one of the greatest qualities of Paul Pope is that despite his overwhelming and otherworldly artistic talent, he’s humble enough to step back and say he doesn’t know something and wants to learn. He felt he needed to co-direct 7x6x2, to go through the baptism of fire with a trusted collaborator. He’d been enjoying our collaboration on The One Trick Rip-Off, and phoned me up. I flew out to NYC and we sat with producers Gary Krieg and Matt Spangler and talked cowboys on Mars.
Instant chemistry. Tribeca, Paul and myself were all on the same page from the outset, and we wanted to make this happen. It was an ambitious project, as it required the trappings of the sci-fi and western genres - alien planet, seven creatures, firearms, and a high level of production design to bring Paul’s universe to life. The budgets available to Tribeca simply wouldn’t allow that. I did many drafts of Paul’s original script to not only make it more cinematic, but also make it more affordable. After many rounds we came upon a script that was feasible, but we were at an impasse with money, and had to bench the film until we came up with an idea of how to fund it properly.
In the meantime, I’d done an interview with Blackmagic Media about Lilith and the interview, which was done over three days between Chicago and Australia, was amazing. I’d hit it off with the Blackmagic folks and we talked for hours. One of our conversations was about their development of small 4k cameras, and at that time Blackmagic was still in their R&D phase. In passing conversation I told Gary Krieg at Tribeca about the cameras and he being the genius he is, came up with a plan to get 7x6x2 financed.
This leads to a conversation about getting short films financed, and one way to do this is through sponsorships and product placement. A ton of short films are being funded this way, and it requires a deft business and artistic hand to balance the needs of art and commerce. It’s vital to learn this balance because it is the story of film finance, and you will face this battle every step of the way with all of your projects. You must find a way to get money for your films, and equally find a way to preserve your original vision. This is the core of the movie business.
Through Tribeca, Gary and Tribeca co-founder / super producer Jane Rosenthal got the ear of Sony, who were gearing up to launch their new flagship digital cinema camera, the F55. They’d already commissioned multiple shorts that were already in production all over the world, but there was a little bit of funds left over in their budget. Gary asked Paul and I to put together a mood document that would show not only what we envisioned, but also how we could showcase the technical capabilities of the new camera. Our story was perfect for testing a camera - hostile remote location, extreme low light, slow-motion, intense blasts of light, and day and night photography. We included in our mood document references to not only Paul’s work but also the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and screencaps of a variety of movies from Attack the Block to Once Upon a Time in the West to Achipatpong Weerasethakul’s brilliant Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. We submitted the document along with the revised screenplay and we waited. This was on October 24th and we knew that Sony was launching their camera with their array of short films on their lot on December 6th. It was a very, very, VERY small window.
On October 26th, we got the green light from Sony. They would provide us with the camera, technical support and a small budget. Key word was small, as it was the remains of their overall short film budget in their department. But it was more money than we originally had, and so we decided to go for it. On October 27th we flew out of New York to Los Angeles - just missing Hurricane Sandy by a few hours - with the shoot scheduled for November 3rd and 4th. Our producer Matt Spangler was grounded by Sandy, so Gary, Paul and I were down a man, which was frightening considering what we had to face.
We had seven days to prepare. Seven days to plan our shots, storyboard the film, find our crew, our actors, our locations, test a camera that was still in R&D, choreograph our alien tribe, build seven prosthetic alien suits, a crashed mech robot, and oh yeah do it all on a VERY small budget. After photography we’d have two weeks to edit, find vendors to execute our CGI elements, do an original score, color correct, sound design and mix, and deliver by Thanksgiving.
At that point all we could do was trust one another, trust the story, and let the film guide us. We’d partnered with Native Fims in LA, and their line producer, Elisa Morse, became a great ally in our battle against time. She met us at our hotel on the first night, and we got to brass tacks right away. In the middle of our meeting, a fortune teller came to our table and offered to tell our futures. I was dog tired, having flown from Chicago to New York to LA, and the time zone was not helping my fatigue as I’d been storyboarding during the entire flight. But at that point I was hallucinatory and got my fortune read. The lady made me put a rabbit puppet on my hand and she looked in my eyes and said “you will make magic in this next few weeks.” Elisa took a pic of that moment.
I took it as a good sign. We were going to need all the help we could get.