If you're like me, you watched some terrible films and wondered, “How did a movie like that get made?” You left the theater angry with the filmmakers, feeling they not only stole your money but wasted two hours of your life. Though the only thing you know about movie-making is what you learned on the Universal Studios tour, you can't resist thinking, “I could do something better than that junk.” It was this type of thinking that got me into the movie-making business.
Initially, I hoped to succeed as a screenwriter. But after five years of trying, all I had to show was a growing stack of “Thank you, but no thank you” rejection letters.
I knuckled down one last time and wrote a romantic thriller set in Africa. In letters to agents and producers I told them my script was like “The Killing Fields... but with a better love story.”
Through the friend of a friend, the script was put in the hands of Danny Glover. After months of waiting, his secretary called on a Friday afternoon. “Robert,” she said, “are you going to be home this weekend? Danny likes your script. He wants to talk.”
In an instant, I was on the phone with my mother telling her about the celebrity who wanted to discuss my script. I spent all weekend waiting by the phone. I'm still waiting.
A junior executive at a small studio said he would read my script. A month later I heard from his assistant. In a pseudo-English accent (no doubt cultivated at a third rate junior college) she told me, “We're passing.”
“Why?” I asked.
“To be honest,” she said, “I thought it was...” and here there came a long pause and, I imagine, some nail filing, “...mundane and banal.”
Two weeks later, her boss was fired. He went on to executive produce Dumb and Dumber.
Perhaps I should have accepted his assistant's reading as the final blow to my cinematic aspirations. Yet a year later I found myself flogging the same script at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. As I waited to register, a woman joined me in line. It took a few seconds to place her. Justine Bateman. Mallory. Michael J. Fox's dim-witted sister from the television sit-com Family Ties.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said as I rummaged through my briefcase, “but I have a script that's perfect for you.”
“Uh-huhn,” she said, avoiding eye contact.
“I have it right here. It's an adventure romance, takes place in Africa,” I continued as she began edging away. “It's got everything. Political intrigue. Violence. Inter-racial sex.”
She scrawled a phone number on a scrap of paper. “Call my manager,” she said. She couldn't get away fast enough.
I stood there, frozen, script in hand, as Justine Bateman, Mallory for heaven's sake, raced away from me. A small crowd had watched this scene. “Pathetic,” I thought I heard people say.
I had reached bottom.
“I've got to do my own movie,” I told my screenwriters circle. “I just can't keep making a fool of myself.”
“Good idea,” they said.
So I bought “how-to” books. I took courses. I volunteered on low-budget films as a PA, or production assistant, ground floor on the filmmaking totem pole.
As a PA, my responsibilities included driving to the camera supply house, holding back curious pedestrians and traffic during shooting, and getting coffee, cigarettes and pizza for people fifteen years my junior.
Doing these truly banal and mundane tasks made me realize that filmmaking was vastly more complicated than I ever imagined. The Universal Studios tour had given me no idea the attention to detail that was necessary simply to get an image on film. On top of that, it was all supposed to make sense, look good, and be entertaining.
Many television shows cost million dollars per episode. The average Hollywood film runs into tens of millions. At the time a year in film school cost $30,000. As a struggling writer, I had $5,000 to spend on my project. I hoped the resulting film would open the doors that my scripts had not.
I was told that the key to minimizing expense was to limit the number of locations and actors. With that advice in mind, I wrote a script. A man and a woman on a first date. Dark suspicions surface when they read the unusual fortunes in their cookies at the end of a Chinese meal. I called the script Fortune Tell.
It had three speaking parts; the man, the woman, and the restaurant owner. It required only one location; a Chinese restaurant. It was just five pages long. Written in standard Hollywood format, those five pages would roughly translate to five minutes of screen time. Five pages, five minutes, five thousand dollars.
In my living room, I videotaped a reading of the script. I showed it to my “Introductory Filmmaking” class at San Francisco State Extension. My classmates laughed aloud. I thought I had written a chilling, dark, film noir thriller.
“What are you talking about?” they said. “This is a comedy.”
“Okay, fine,” I said, determined to go ahead. “It's a comedy.”
Quickly I became overwhelmed with the details of pre-production. There was crew selection, casting, locations, permits, releases, insurance, equipment rental, film purchases, set decoration, catering, contracts, and script revisions. It was more than I could handle. I needed help.
I hired one of my instructors, Debbie, as production manager and assistant director.
Before I knew it, she had hired a DP (cinematographer), gaffer (lighting), key grip (heavy lifting), and sound man. They, in turn, hired their assistants, a wild bunch of punk rockers who would make the crowd at a Dead concert look like a convention of IBM salesmen by comparison.
They were all part of the Bay Area independent filmmaking scene in which hundreds of young, wannabe moviemakers are willing to work for next to nothing to get into “the business.”
Paying the absolute minimum possible, I was now on the line for a crew of twenty people and over $2,000 in salaries.
Meanwhile Dave, my hyperactive, chain smoking DP, was arranging for equipment.
Motion picture cameras are astonishingly expensive. A good 16mm camera, such as the one we planned to use, can cost $200,000. For a 35mm camera, the more sophisticated workhorses of Hollywood, double that.
Because cameras are so expensive, low budget productions often join together to rent equipment. Dave, my DP, arranged to shoot four short films back-to-back for 11 straight, 18-hour days. My share would be $800. I was now in for $3000 and not a frame of film had been exposed.
Meanwhile, Debbie, the assistant director, and I figured out the order in which the scenes would be filmed. Even though our “shot list” had no excess, even though I had confidence in my crew, I was still nervous. If Fortune Tell didn't get done in one day I would have to pay everyone for another day. My budget would double. I called Alex, a storyboard artist.
Storyboards are cartoon-like illustrations that give an idea of what the film will look like – before the camera starts rolling. Some directors have one done for each scene. Others don't bother with them.
For my five-minute movie, I had Alex do 153 drawings.
At last, nearly everything was ready. The shoot was set for one month away. Two problems remained. One, I didn't have a location. Two, I didn’t have any actors.
I called casting agents and asked if they represented any actors who would be interested in my low-budget short. Head shots, the 8 x 10 glossy photographs that are the calling cards of acting talent, flooded in. Actors, I realized, are even more desperate for work than writers. I asked 30 people to audition.
In a frigid room in San Francisco's Fort Mason Center, I watched young, talented, ambitious actors read my words. One woman was so good looking, I hardly noticed her performance. I found myself transfixed by this smashing starlet. Then I felt the stare of my fiancée who had made a special point of attending the auditions. I escorted the redhead to the door.
“Thank you very much,” I told her coldly. “I'll get back to you. Next!”
In fact, she had been perfect, just what I was looking for. Her agent told me not to hire her. “Why?” I asked, “You sent her to me.”
“She's too good-looking,” the agent said. “You've got a short film. You want people watching your movie, not the actors.”
Eventually I hired two talented actors, both attractive but not so unusually good-looking as to stun an audience into mindless gawking.
Meanwhile, I discovered I had a very big problem; finding a location. Most Chinese restaurants stay open seven days a week, many 14 or more hours a day. I drove to every Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Nepalese and Bhutanese restaurant in the Bay Area. “Not interested,” they all said. The allure of having the name of their restaurant in the credits of my film changed no minds.
With just days to go, I was frantic, unable to sleep. My $3000 was gone and I was about to be ruined. If my shoot fell through, so would the other three in the equipment rental. One of those was a music video for Rancid. At the time, Rancid had not yet made it big. What I knew was that I didn't want anyone or anything called Rancid angry with me. I put out an APB for a Chinese restaurant.
A friend introduced me to Chun and Mei, the owners of Yan's Kitchen, a small Hunan restaurant near the Transamerica Pyramid. Hungry for publicity, they agreed to let me use their place.
They had no idea what they were getting into.
On the day of the shoot, I arrived at Yan's Kitchen at 7 AM. At 8 the phone rang. It was Debbie. The crew had worked until 3 AM the night before. They couldn't get to the restaurant until 10:30. “Don't worry,” she said, anticipating my imminent mental collapse, “We'll get it done.”
Three hours later the crew began ripping Chun and Mei's restaurant apart.
The grips carried the furnishings outside to make room for equipment. They turned daytime into night by hanging black tarps over the windows.
Two grips held ropes wrapped around the gaffer's waist as he tapped the building's main power lines, by-passing any circuits we might overload. In case he did something wrong, the grips would yank him away before untransformed current turned him to toast.
Watching this I stopped regretting the $470 I had spent on workers compensation insurance for my one-day shoot.
As the crew readied the set there was little for me to do. The sound man set up his tape machine behind a drape like the Wizard of Oz. The camera was mounted on a rolling stand known as a dolly. The DP and the gaffer adjusted the lights, and then adjusted them some more, and then adjusted them again.
When all was finally ready, a friend of the DP showed up with a second camera. Now, instead of shooting only one actor at a time, we could film both the man and the woman simultaneously. This, Dave said, would save lots of time. Except that the lights had to be re-adjusted. Another hour crawled by.
At one o'clock, six hours after I had arrived, we were ready.
“Places everyone,” Debbie said to the 30 people I had hired for the day. As the director, I assumed that I would call most of the shots. But on the set Debbie was the field marshall. My role was to decide whether or not I liked the performances.
“Quiet on the set,” Debbie yelled, beginning the motion picture countdown I had heard a thousand times before. “QUIET!!!”
“Sound!” she hollered.
From behind his curtain, the sound man yelled back, “Sound speed.” His equipment was recording.
“Camera,” Debbie yelled.
“Rolling,” Dave hollered from behind the camera.
Allen, the bandanna-headed, multiple ear-ringed second assistant cameraman stepped in front of the camera. “And marker,” he said as he snapped the black and white slate.
“Annnnnnnnnd ACTION!” Debbie yelled.
Before I could absorb that my movie was finally underway, Dave, the DP, was yelling “Cut, cut, cut.” Something had gone wrong. And so it went for the next 13 hours as we captured as many goofs as good shots.
Sometimes the camera would “dolly” too far and reveal a production assistant smoking in the background. Buses went by and drowned out the actors’ lines. We forgot to turn the telephone off. Someone called for Chinese take-out, ruining another shot.
Throughout the day it was a race against time. Around midnight, we were running out of film and energy. We did a few scenes outside the restaurant and then aimed our puny lights on the Transamerica Pyramid. I hoped it would make a beautiful opening or “establishing” shot for the film. It was the last thing we filmed.
“That's a wrap,” I said. Within an hour the crew had put the restaurant back together and left to start on Rancid's music video.
I have climbed some very high mountains and bicycled across the continent. I’ve completed open water ocean swims and run a marathon. Nothing compares to the exhaustion I felt after 20 hours on the set. That night I hallucinated for several hours wondering how and if my film would come out.
The camera could have malfunctioned. The film might have been no good. There was no telling until it came back from the lab.
Two days later, I gathered with the crew to watch the “dailies,” the low cost, first print of Fortune Tell. The image looked good, great in fact. The tension I'd been feeling for weeks began to drain away.
“Hey look!” someone said. “There's a boom shadow.” The shadow of the microphone was visible in every shot. My heart fell. A boom shadow is one of the most basic filmmaking errors.
“Don't worry,” Debbie told me. “No one will see it.”
Maybe. But it wasn't her money and reputation on the line.
To get Fortune Tell in the can, I had spent months writing, planning, fretting, rehearsing, fretting, reviewing, casting, fretting, and finally filming. I had spent $5600, more than my original budget for the entire project. I had taken on the tasks of writing, editing, producing and directing for three reasons; one, I wanted to learn as much as I could, two; I wanted to show all the jerks in Hollywood what a huge talent they had overlooked, and, three; I was cheap.
As I began to edit the film into a “rough cut,” I discovered to my astonishment that we had failed altogether to film a scene on the day of the shoot. Without it, I didn't know if the film would make any sense. Going back to “pick up” the shot would have cost thousands. I became so despondent I would have dropped the whole thing except for the money already spent.
To better understand the film-making process my instructors suggested I edit Fortune Tell myself. A professional could have finished the job in a week. It took me months. And months.
Often, to get the pacing right, I would take out small pieces of film, sometimes just two or three frames. Keeping track of all these “outs” took as much or more time than editing the film itself.
Later, when I wanted to change a scene again, I had to go back into the reels of “outs,” find the sections of film and sound I wanted, cut them out and tape them in place. I spent hours and hours and hours working over tiny fractions of a second of film. I pleaded with Nina, my fiancée who had since become my wife, to help out. She did. Once. She had no patience for the pre-digitized world of film editing.
As I continued to edit and mutilate the working copy of my film, there were countless other details still to be taken care of. Peter Whitehead, an avant-garde musician, agreed to write and perform the score for Fortune Tell. When I heard his music, performed on a toy piano, cello, spinning bicycle spokes, and a few hand-made instruments, I thought it was all wrong. Distraught, I looked at Nina for commiseration.
“It's great!” she said. “So much better than that corny saxophone you wanted.”
Even as the film neared completion, the list of things to be done seemed to grow ever longer. I needed titles. To have the words Fortune and Tell appear over the Transamerica Pyramid cost me $600.
To get the sound right, so that all the voices, background sounds, and music blended together ran another $1000. All for a movie that would eventually be just six minutes and eighteen seconds long.
All along, it was difficult for me to know what was good enough. When the budget broke the $10,000 barrier and with my VISA bills mounting, I knew Fortune Tell was as close to good enough as it ever would get.
I took everything to the lab. There, technicians balanced the film's color so that the actors' skin always had the same hue. They wed the sound to the film. They told me to come back in a week to view the “first answer print,” the print that would answer whether or not my film worked.
A week later, I pushed a button in the lab's small screening room and told the projectionist to roll it. The lights went down. Peter's music filled the room. The Transamerica Pyramid faded in on the screen. I watched Fortune Tell, in its completed form, for the first time. I had been working on it, in spurts and starts, for more than 22 months.
It wasn't perfect, but it was good. How good I wasn't sure. Whether it would catch Hollywood's attention I couldn't know. I sent videotape copies to festivals. My wife and I left for an extensive overseas trip.
Nina told me to prepare for total rejection. The top film festivals get thousands of submissions for a few dozen slots. And getting into a festival, any festival, was no assurance that Hollywood would stand up and notice.
After two months on the road, I called to see if there was any news.
“Oh, there is,” my mother-in-law said from halfway around the world. “Aspen, Denver and San Francisco all want your film. It's so exciting.”
Two weeks later, on opening night at the Aspen Film Festival in Colorado, I took my seat in the sold-out orchestra of a beautiful, gold rush era theater. Fortune Tell had been paired with another dark comedy, To Die For, the hit by director Gus Van Sant.
Before the lights went down, I must have gotten out of my seat a dozen times. I went to the bathroom. I went to the drinking fountain. I went back to the bathroom. Before returning to my seat I paused at the back of the packed hall. I turned to the person next to me, perhaps planning to make a little nerve-soothing chit-chat, only to see that, like quite a few others, Martina Navratilova would be standing when my film began.
“Feel my heart,” I said to my wife as I finally took my seat. No audience had ever seen my film. All I could hear was the pounding in my chest.
Before I knew it, the audience was applauding, applauding wildly. My six-minute eighteen-second baby was over and they had loved it. Nicole Kidman was on-screen. To Die For had begun.
It was only later that night that I realized Fortune Tell had succeeded. My film noir thriller had people laughing so loudly that half the jokes had been drowned out. The expense, the agonizing, the self-doubt all faded away.
Making Fortune Tell was the hardest thing I have ever done. I spent two physically and mentally exhausting years working on something that lasts just six minutes. The short has since played all over the United States, in Europe, in airplanes, on television, in theaters and now on the Internet. And in Hollywood they still don’t return my calls.
So, would I do it again? Sure. You bet. Though it’s now been years since I last sat in a theater and waited for my film to begin, I can still hear the audience.
A version of this story first appeared in the January 28, 1996, edition of West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News.
In addition to debuting at the Aspen Film Festival, Fortune Tell played at festivals around the world including New Directors/New Films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (paired with Stanley Tucci's debut feature, Big Night), Manheim/Heidelberg, The British Short Film Festival, Palm Springs, Taos, and many others. It has also been shown on multiple PBS stations, the BBC, Canal+, and as part of in-flight programming.
Click here to view Fortune Tell on YouTube.