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We Had A Script, A Director, And $200,000 In The Bank. What Could Go Wrong?

In Act Three of our series on making a movie: the long road to “action.”

We Had A Script, A Director, And $200,000 In The Bank. What Could Go Wrong?
[Photos: courtesy of Adam L. Penenberg]

Now that we had our script, a director, and $200,000 in investors’ money in the bank, we were ready to start filming. What our team lacked, however, was someone who actually knew how to make a movie. In other words, the equivalent to a chief operating officer: The right person to help us cinematic newbies scout locations, apply for the necessary permits and insurance coverage, organize equipment rental, rustle up a crew, hire a payroll company, find a casting director who was local and inexpensive, and attend to the thousands of other details that accompany any production.

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In the first installment of this series, I explained why making a movie is like launching a startup. In the second, I showed how a good script is like a good idea for a startup, but you need a lot more to attract investors. In this third column, I’ll cover the line producer, who plays a vital role in any movie, our hiring of a beatbox consultant to tutor our actors and bring on board a bevy of vocal percussion talent, and casting.

The term “line producer” originally derived from the designation “below the line producer,” which referred to the person in charge of physical production, but didn’t cast actors or choose a director. On a movie’s budget form, “above the line” refers to all the money paid to the actors, writers, producers, and director. Below that, or “below the line,” are all the various other expenses, everything from paying for locations to catering, music licensing, the crew, and much more.

Enter Chip Hourihan. A Brooklynite, Chip has produced and line produced more than a dozen indie movies, including the Academy-Award-nominated Frozen River (released by Sony Classics in the U.S. and Rezo Films worldwide) and Mind the Gap, which won the Special Jury Prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival and was acquired by Showtime. He started out working on TV commercials, and still does so to pay the bills. In fact, he passed up a potential high-paying commercial gig to work on Beatbox.

We—meaning my producing partner, Jon Furay, director/screenwriter Andrew Dresher, and I—met Chip at a rundown Brooklyn diner. He had read the script and had good and bad news.

The good news: “So many independent feature films are four characters talking in a café about their personal struggles,” he said, “but this is not that. It’s something that could attract an audience.”

The bad news?

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“It’ll cost $1.5 million to film this script.”

I wasn’t the only one to choke on my eggs and toast.

But, Chip added, with a rewrite, it could be brought in on time and within our budget, which had grown by about $60,000 with Jon’s discovery of a New York State tax credit for any expenses involving New York-based business (to spur economic development).

It turned out one of Chip’s myriad areas of expertise was dealing with script changes to get what’s most important in a story out to the world. Most important in ours were the personal relationships and the music. Andrew’s original script had disparate elements: numerous cast members, locations, and vehicles, all of which, when added together, would be prohibitively expensive. Chip would help Andrew streamline the story elements so we could shoot on a short production schedule while leaving a limited footprint.

That last point was key, because the formula is derived from the size of the cast and crew and cost of equipment rentals multiplied by the number of shoot days. To cut costs meant we had to restrict the number of shoot days while also, whenever possible, get by with a smaller crew. For instance, a day shoot at a limited number of locations within walking distance of one another would require a smaller lighting crew and less equipment than one performed at night at multiple, far-flung locations.

Specifically, in Andrew’s script were scenes where two characters were talking in a diner. “Why,” Chip asked, “do they have to be in a diner, when they can be walking down the sidewalk?” Scenes that were plotted to take place at two or more different locations could be condensed into one. Relying on fewer characters could also lead to a better cast, since each actor would have more screen time and be able to create more complex roles.

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Chip ticked off several other ways to shave production costs. We wouldn’t use a caterer, but would take the crew to nearby restaurants near that day or evening’s shooting location that were inexpensive but provided tasty, filling food. We would dispense with a casting agent for extras. Instead, that would fall on us producers to tap our friends and family networks to ensure club and party scenes looked realistic. We would have to be careful how we scheduled extras. If they were on the set fewer than four hours, we wouldn’t have to feed them.

We could use Chip’s Brooklyn apartment as a production office that would double as wardrobe and makeup, and he himself would double as a location scout, further trimming our expenses. Meanwhile, the Gowanus section of Brooklyn provided us the flexibility to film entirely different worlds—from factories, warehouses, and dilapidated housing, to nouvelle bistros and even an artisanal pickle joint—all within the span of a few city blocks. Because we had a first-time director, Chip rounded up an experienced crew, all of whom had worked on several indie movies and knew how to stretch a dollar while ensuring a high-quality film.

By examining every line item, Chip was confident he could bring the project in under budget. Yet the beauty of it, Chip told us, is that trimming production costs doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of the finished film. In many ways it can improve it.

Chip Hourihan (left) on the set of Frozen River with Vadim Epstein, who would work as assistant director on Beatbox.

Here’s how Chip explains that idea:

So much of what large films deal with are the costs associated with their own footprint, so that when a studio feature film shows up, they’ll have 30 or 40 vehicles, and there are whole staffs of people having to deal with parking, and logistics, and just the flow of information about where catering is, where bathrooms are, where 50 extras are being fed and wardrobed, and run through makeup, and it’s all about logistics–which may or may not translate to the screen.

While Chip helped Andrew redraft the script, I searched for another integral member of our team: a beatbox consultant. The person in this role would need to rustle up a platoon of vocal percussionists to appear on camera and ensure that our production accurately reflected the world of beatboxing.

After a quick Google search, I found the ideal one: Andrew Gutterson, aka Grey Matter. He had appeared with Justin Bieber on MTV and beatboxed in a 7Up commercial with Cee Lo Green. Equally important, he was a gifted teacher; his series of beatbox tutorials has garnered more than 5 million views.

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We told Grey Matter we didn’t have money to fly anyone in, no matter how talented. We couldn’t even scrounge up bus fare. But we needn’t have worried. New York City is home to a thriving underground beatbox scene, and Grey seemed to know everyone. In less than a week he had lined up more than a dozen beatboxers to take part in on-camera beatbox battles, as judges, and as the ever-critical emcee. They were a diverse, multiethnic lot, representing the mélange of races, religions, and cultures that comprise today’s Brooklyn.

Finally, we had to tackle casting. The big question was whether to cast beatboxers in the lead roles or hire actors who could be taught to beatbox. Then Jon recalled an interview with Joel and Ethan Coen about their film, Inside Llewyn Davis, where they grappled with the same question. Inside Llewyn Davis is about an early-1960s folk singer who must confront changing times. So it seemed logical they should audition musicians for the lead role.

“That was not so great,” Joel Coen told the New York Times. “It’s often possible—sometimes it’s even easy—to get somebody like that through a scene or two scenes or three scenes or whatever, and it’s great, it’s fine. But this character’s literally in every scene in the movie, so we realized we were going the wrong direction, and we just started seeing actors who could play, as opposed to musicians who could act. And there are more of those . . . ”

That settled it. What was good enough for the Coen Brothers was good enough for us. Through Chip we lined up casting agent Matthew Wulf and booked two days of auditions in midtown Manhattan.

Curtiss Cook, Jr., named after his father, who is also a successful actor, stars in Beatbox.

The only ironclad rule was the actors had to live in the New York area, since we couldn’t spring for travel and accommodation. After sitting through a stream of young actors–all Screen Actors Guild (SAG) members–we hadn’t settled on anyone. Then Wulf suggested we bring in Curtiss Cook, Jr., who Wulff and Chip had worked with on a short film and believed had the makings of a star. From the minute Curtiss began reading from a scene in the Beatbox script, we knew we had our lead. He was charismatic, smart, conveyed warmth, and the camera loved him.

For his girlfriend we cast Samantha Massell (now on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof) and Ana Kayne as Rye, a beatboxer/singer who ends up as his greatest rival. We tapped veteran actor Joe Lisi to play Curtiss’s boss while McCaleb Burnett, who appeared in 2009’s Fast & Furious, would portray Stone, a mysterious music producer. Our leads were young and talented, while our supporting actors had proven themselves in the industry for years. We were finally fully staffed up.

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Now all we had to do was shoot the damn movie.

Related: Can Two Amazing Beatboxers Make Corporate Jargon Sound Cool?

About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books.

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