THE MAKING OF A KILLER SURPRISE: PART 1
So again, I’ve neglected to post to my website… but to my defense it’s been a very busy year. I’ve produced a few projects and still working on bringing a few pilots to TV and films to the screen and I lost my J.O.B. (I’ll get to that on another post).
Last year was amazing in terms of producing. I got to work on some pretty terrific projects and I got to work with some great people.
The first project I want to tell you about is a Sci-Fi Thriller short called “A Killer Surprise”, written and directed by Kevin Killebrew. It’s my first sci-fi project and to say that it was a smooth sailing BLAST – would be a lie. Am I proud of what we did? Hell yes, but getting there was not a pleasant experience. Sure it was great working with some incredible up and coming actors, Brandon Winston and Crystal Cotton and an extraordinary crew and Director, and the project turned out to be AMAZE-BALLS, but the shakedowns and the rats were unsettling.
Kevin the Director, the eccentric guy that he is, wanted to make something different and to showcase his writing and directing skills. As a new and upcoming Writer/Director on the scene, I embraced this challenge as I was going to get yet another opportunity to ‘PRODUCE’. The SAG paperwork was handled and next up on my to do list was location, location, location.
Kevin is no stranger with looking for “different” in everything that he does and he wanted to film in downtown Los Angeles in an alley, using stunt people and harnesses and the whole lot – on a shoestring budget. If you’ve ever shot a film in Los Angeles, especially on the streets of LA, you know you need a film permit to legitimately shoot outside. Some – on a shoestring budget perhaps, may say f*ck it and go all guerrilla filmmaking, but we decided against that. We wanted to do everything by the Book! Or so we thought!
Acquiring a film permit, cast and crew, great budget and being able to shoot where you want is a dream. And to shoot your project, especially in Downtown LA, the newly touted “vibrant city center”, with its newly renovated loft/apt/condo housing, chic boutiques, great restaurants and dog parks is a Fantasy! It’s a great location to shoot. Plus there is that element that is not so ‘purrty’ and provides the dirty, dark, creepy, gloominess of the night that we needed for this film. We needed that seedy back alley to make this project “POP”. The hard part is securing a great location on a small “azz” budget, but still keeping the quality of the project in tact. A small budget can go a long way – just be mindful and considerate of people’s time and skill sets.
I must preface a few of my pet peeves: 1) Film and TV “makers” always asking for “Free Sh*t” all the damn time on all of your projects. I can see once or twice especially when you are starting out and you don’t have a lot of money to work with, and you want to get your project made. Okay, no big deal! And, if someone is volunteering some “Free Sh*t” – then take it, by all means. But to keep asking for “Free Sh*t” when trying to make films or TV projects – every project – is some bullsh*t. How about wait until you get some money and then do your damn project. How bout’ that! 2) Respect your crew and cast. Although you may not have a lot of money to pay folks, still show some kind of gratitude towards them. Buy them gas, treat them to a decent meal on set, show that their time and skill is appreciated.
So, we needed the still of the night, the moonlight rolling into the daylight and the creepiness only a back alley in the downtown area could offer. We headed downtown in search of the best creepiest colorful (gray, dark and sh*tty) alley that we could find. We needed a place where Doc and Agent Sims could live and breathe throughout the night. We settled on a nice (LOL) back alley near the banking district. While we were there scouting our location, we came upon the cast and crew of CASTLE and thought to ourselves, yep this may be it. It could definitely work! We stood idly by for a few minutes and decided to go to the next alley across the street to scout a little more but also because I’m in love with TV and the whole process – it offered a better view of the making of the show without being in the way. Making our way across the street we saw something more intriguing and sinister about the alley across the street. There it was! It was a great run down alley that we would use to shoot AKS. Kevin loved it! It had all the dirtiness and graffiti that we would need to bring the project to life. It was also secure and had a gate to keep unwanted attention. Ah the gate! That’s another matter. Keep reading!
Next step: Securing the location with the Film Commission office.
Since it was a short film, we figured it would be a piece of cake securing the location without spending a lot of money. It’s not like we were a Hollywood crew putting on a massive budgeted show or film. I contacted the film commission office and was told in order to secure this location, we needed to pay the fee, which includes the certificate fee, fire and police fees, film monitor fees, blah, blah, blah and to secure signatures from the building managers on the survey sheets. Ah, the survey sheets. Sounds easy right! Not so much! Survey sheets are forms that need to be signed by the building managers of the buildings that surround the area in which you want to shoot – especially outside shoots. That shouldn’t be so difficult. Hollywood shoots down there all the time so what’s so different about this project – except our budget is minuscule – right? The fees should be the same as our budget – LOW!!! And we were warned that the signatures may be difficult to get and some have asked for a fee that the Film Commission office was aware about. It’s not a mandatory fee but a practice that Hollywood big wigs have been doing to make sure that there projects go off without any problems with the building managers. We know that Hollywood can make just about anything happen to bring a project to fruition. The Film Office didn’t outright tell us that we could be shook down and it was eluded that some managers were possibly “paid off” to allow filming in some of the alleys.
With all that in mind, we diligently sought out the managers of the buildings that were directly adjacent to the location or in the crosshairs of the alley. The thing is, this location is in a fairly newer area that was being renovated – there was only one building that actually had tenants which was directly behind the alley. Good so far! Great alley! Check! Cast and crew almost ready! Check. Now the optimist in me contacted the building manager.
I started the conversation with the regular pleasantries of hello, how are you and introducing myself and what I was trying to do. She (the building manager) asked, “So how much is it worth to you? I’ll sign anything if the price is right.” To say she caught me off-guard is an understatement.
ME: So what do you mean? I wasn’t aware that there was a fee.
HER: You guys are always shooting in MY alley and it disturbs my tenants.
ME: This is our first time shooting in the alley and I was not told that we would have to pay to use a public alley.
HER: Well, if you want to use the alley, you have to make it worth my while to sign the form.
Keep in mind that this is a PUBLIC alley. Doesn’t belong to the building but to the City. Crazy! Right???
ME: How much would it cost to have you sign the form?
ME: We are a small crew and basically, we are making a student type, film festival type film. We are not a “Hollywood” type film.
HER: Well how much can you pay? What about $700?
ME: I don’t know. I have to ask the film’s director.
HER: When you get the money, let me know and then I will sign whatever you have.
Needless to say, I was a little confused as to what just went down and I was pissed. I felt like I was being blackmailed and I told this to Kevin. He wanted to just pay her and let’s move on with the project. But I would not let anyone get away with this type of extortion. So I called the OWNER of the building. To my surprise he answered. Yes, the owner of not one, but several buildings in the downtown area picked up the phone and conversed with me. I asked him if he was aware that one of his building managers was basically extorting money from me by asking for a fee to shoot in a public alley. Waiting for his outrage, it never came. He defended her actions and proceeded to tell me that because of the annoyance of Hollywood shooting in the downtown area and scaring away tenants, or the result of them withholding rent because of the loud noises at all hours of the night, she was in line with his policies regarding filming in that area. It was a minor fee for what she had to deal with on a daily basis regarding filming and the tenants and all of their complaints. I was flabbergasted that he was defending this kind of behavior. He continued on to say that she had his permission and every right to ask for a payment. What am I supposed to do now? I contacted Kevin who thought that the whole thing was absurd. I went back to the female building manager and tried to work out a fee that was reasonable for our pockets but would ensure that she would sign the form. We haggled a bit more and came up with the sum of $300… Yeah, from $1500 to $300 – a significant drop in price but no doubt a happy number for my wallet and our shoestring budget. Wrote the check, met with her and the form was signed. We had one more building to consider. We knew there weren’t any tenants occupying the building yet, but we decided to still go and talk to the manager. The first question from his mouth, “So how much did you pay everyone else?” Both Kevin and I looked at each other and couldn’t believe we were being shaken down yet again. By this time, I’m really pissed off, but I remained calm and told him nothing was paid to anyone and because he didn’t have any tenants in his building – it wasn’t an issue. That f*cker thought he was being slick and he too wanted to pocket some money. In my best Kevin Hart voice, “NOT TODAY!” He laughed it off but still in extortionist mode, told us that Hollywood pays off the building managers to ensure a smooth production. Of course we told him that we understood and that they (Hollywood) had the money to do so – we did not!
He understood and then asked if we were interested in seeing all of the new renovations to the building and where the tenants would be residing. I must say, those old bank buildings are beautiful. The original architecture and landmark décor was amazing. Most of those old buildings were being renovated and converted into residential properties but they could not change the structure of the ground floors. The original structure had to remain. The shakedown turned into a tour that consisted of a history lesson of the great landmark buildings in the downtown area. After the tour, there were no more buildings with tenants – we were set to make our short film hopefully with no further problems.
To be continued –