I first met Slamdance co-founder Dan Mirvish during the 2001 Seattle International Film Festival. He was in town to direct a short film for the festival’s Fly Filmmaking competition, and I was a videographer for the festival, with a side gig as miscellaneous crew for various indie films. It turned out that Mirvish’s short needed a script supervisor, and I joined his team, beginning a friendship that continues to do this day.
It was my time with the Slamdance Film Festival, and my friendship with Mirvish, that instilled a great respect for independent film as more than an industry, but also a family of filmmakers. The indie film world can be a small one, and while a few faces may be replaced year in or year out, the same people do tend to stick around for a long, long time. I learned that you can take and take from this film ecology, but you’ll have a better time if you give too. Dan has also gained my continued respect for his particular way of looking at things, most often referred to as “out of the box” thinking. I mean, how else does someone come to found a festival like Slamdance, create a campaign for an Academy Award nomination from a little-known, inactive Original Musical category and create a fake political pundit, Martin Eisenstadt, who winds up contributing one of the biggest jokes at the expense of Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential election? As if just having the unique mode of thinking wasn’t enough, the man has been graced with the single-minded drive to then actually follow through and achieve whatever random goals or ideas he has.
When he mentioned that he was going to try crowdfunding his latest feature film, Between Us, I knew I was going to wind up featuring the project on Film Threat. Not just because he is my friend, and I’m biased, but because I know, come Hell or high water, that he will film and finish his idea. I’ve seen him hit setbacks, but I’ve never seen him stopped. I was there, working on his feature film Open House, when any number of ridiculous mishaps occurred (including losing an actor to a rare condition known as “enlarged testicles”), and I’ve never seen him slow down. Please enjoy this week’s Certified Film Threat in Progress, Dan Mirvish’s Between Us…
What is “Between Us” about?
It’s a dark comedy exploring the bittersweet friendships between two couples who meet as old friends and discover their lives are tarnished by money, success, sex and children. It brings to mind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but with more the tone and scope of Sideways.
How did you get involved?
After I made Open House (the real estate musical starring Anthony Rapp and Sally Kellerman) there was talk at the Weinstein Company about turning it into a stage show, so I made a couple trips to New York to meet with Broadway producers and agents. While I was there, I said, “by the way, do you guys have any plays – not musicals – that would make good film adaptations?” and they gave me stacks of Broadway and Off-Broadway plays. I read a bunch of them and found that Between Us struck me the most personally and was incredibly well written. I also thought it could adapt nicely to a film. Interestingly, one of the plays I considered, but turned down in those stacks, was Farragut North that George Clooney is now going to direct as a movie. I’m sure he’ll do just fine with it, but for me, Between Us was the right choice.
You’ve made an indie film set in Nebraska, founded a film festival, shot two musicals (which also involved an attempt at an Academy Award nomination), created a fake political pundit… why make this movie, and why now? It seems too… normal.
When you put it that way, I suppose it does. We actually tried to make the movie 2 years ago. We had a great cast lined up and were aiming for a $2million budget, but then the economic collapse of 2008 made it impossible to get made at that time, and at that budget. Luckily for me, the recession also coincided with the presidential election, so I had this completely unrelated project about the fake pundit, Martin Eisenstadt, that I was doing with Eitan Gorlin – literally as our little side project in the garage while I was trying to get Between Us made. That became a big media circus, ultimately leading to a book deal. So I thought, “hmm, keep not getting paid to not direct a movie, or get paid to write a book?” – so I put Between Us on hold, and wrote the book. Now we’re trying to turn the Eisenstadt project into a TV show – and there’s lots of interest there. But it still could take months or years before that actually happens, so it seemed like I had a limited window of opportunity to go back and make Between Us.
More broadly speaking, though, the other reason for me to make Between Us is that the material hit a very personal chord with me. The characters and their circumstances are very much like my own: dealing with marriage and young children; the struggle between having an authentic artistic career and a job that pays the bills; and even the roles of religion and spirituality in a modern life.
In adapting the play, when I felt that the character Joel needed a visually cathartic moment to dramatize his emotional change, I needed to look no further than my own life: I’d recently fallen off a ladder and found myself in a wheelchair for 6 months with a severely broken leg and shoulder. I knew first-hand how that experience has the potential to change not only one’s own life, but also how it affects a marriage.
I also just really enjoyed the dialogue in the play, and I got along very well with Joe Hortua, the playwright. He was also interested in turning it into a feature, and we collaborated really well on the adaptation. It’s been a really enjoyable process to work with such strong source material.
Do you have a cast attached already?
The short answer is no. But the good news is that since we tried to make the movie at a bigger budget two years ago, there are a lot of really amazing actors who’ve already read the script, met with me and told me they want to be in the movie. Likewise, there’s a lot of agents and managers out there who are also familiar with the material. Of course, last time around, we were offering SAG “Schedule F” ($65,000) for each role, which was certainly enough to get the major agencies to pay attention. Now, we’re offering SAG ultra-low budget scale, but for a lot of actors, it’s more about the material and not about the money. And these are four really amazing chew-the-scenery, who-are-you wearing kind of roles. A lot of great film and TV actors started in theatre and this is a way to reconnect to that kind of experience.
In the great chicken-and-egg paradigm of how to make a movie, in the last incarnation of Between Us we tried to get the actors first, and then the money. This time, we’re using the reverse approach to get the budget first and then the actors. At a micro-budget, you can still get great actors – but it becomes much more about schedule and availability. If an actor is on TV hiatus, or between big-budget roles, then they’ll squeeze in an indie if the part is good. And agents hate having actors sitting around with nothing to do but call them every day, so they’re also inclined to help cast a movie like this if it keeps their client busy and out of their hair for a few weeks. But with that strategy, you have to be patient and wait until you’re about three months away from shooting.
So right now, we’ve just started the process in the last week or two of getting back to some of the actors who were interested the first time around. No one’s committed yet, but so far the response from the actors and their agents has been great.
What is the timeline for making the movie?
Since I go to Park City every year for Slamdance, we decided to start active preproduction on February 1st, which puts principal photography starting on March 15. That said, we do have one scene with one of the actors in the snow, which we’ll likely shoot in Omaha sometime in February.
Why did you choose to crowdfund the film?
The nice thing about crowdfunding is that it allows people to get involved with the film at whatever level they can – and still feel they have an emotional stake in the project. I was an early supporter of Nirvan Mullick’s One Second Film years ago, which was a great model for crowdfunding, and I always liked that approach of asking people to pay what they can afford just to be a part of something great.
Why Kickstarter instead of other options?
I seriously considered IndieGoGo, and I really like that they have a mechanism for doing fiscal sponsorship with an established 501c3 which gives donors the option to do a tax-deductible donation. Unfortunately, their fiscal sponsor that makes the most sense for a film is the San Francisco Film Society. Very nice people there, but the process for getting sponsored by them is frankly a little cumbersome and time consuming. For me, it was easier to do fiscal sponsorship through Filmmakers Alliance in LA, and still leave that as an option, even if those donations wouldn’t go through Kickstarter. In my case, I’m also hoping to attract funding from people outside the realm of other filmmakers (from both my Washington, DC, contacts, to old friends in Nebraska), and I think that Kickstarter just has a slightly higher awareness level among non-film people.
Where is the money going?
On the bare-bones minimum budget that we’re aiming for (about $60,000 – two-thirds of which for production), that’s enough money to pay the actors SAG Ultra-Low Budget scale, but unfortunately not the crew. It’s not an ideal situation, but it is enough to get the movie made with great performances and still have very nice production values. But you still need to feed people. And as much as you can get some food donated, it’s not easy, and there’s only so many days in a row when you can eat vegetarian burritos and off-brand energy drinks. As long as the actors don’t have any peanut allergies, we’re still going to have to make a few peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches on our own. The nature of this film in particular also will require a few airline tickets to shoot the snow scene in Nebraska and one scene in New York. The rest will be in Los Angeles, and unfortunately you just can’t fake snow in LA. Of course, if people have airline miles they want to contribute instead of cash, that would be just as appreciated!
Do you have other investors or financing in place outside of crowdfunding? Are these options available for those looking to get involved, just not via the crowdfunding route?
We’ve already raised $25,000 from private investors, and we’re close to locking down a little more through product placement deals. But we need to get at least $40,000 to start production, and we’re hoping the Kickstarter campaign will push us over the top. That said, there are three other ways people can contribute, and we have a handy-dandy PDF that people can download that explains it all. So in short, here are the other options for people:
1) Investment: We’re set up as a California Limited Partnership, so people can invest in the film for $5,000 a share. They can also buddy up with a friend and each put in $2,500.
2) Tax-Deductible Donation: If people want to donate money and get an immediate tax-deduction, we’re set up with Filmmakers Alliance (a 501c3) as our fiscal sponsor, which is a nice, simple way to contribute.
3) Product Integration: I’ve always had product placement in my films, and on Open House we raised 20% of our budget that way. For Between Us in particular, this option makes a lot of sense both creatively and financially. One of the main characters is an advertising photographer, and we have a large plasma screen TV in many scenes that will show a rotating slide show of his advertising work. So it’s literally a matter of selling ad space in the movie. We’re close on securing a few of these deals – including some with Fortune 500 companies who really like the idea.
Who is the ideal donator or investor in a project like this? Why should someone give your film money?
I’m the first to tell prospective investors that the odds of getting their money back are very slim. They should know this, and not be afraid to lose their money. But that said, financially speaking, there are not a lot of other great options right now: The stock market is extremely volatile and far from a safe bet for investors. Real estate’s bubble popped and is still slumping. And interest rates are at all-time lows, so interest-bearing investments are not too exciting, either. But at the end of the day, people shouldn’t invest in or donate to Between Us – or really any other film – because they think they will make money. Instead, they should invest because making movies is fun.
They should contribute money because they get to go on set or go to premieres or to festival parties. They should contribute because film is an essential artform like theatre or the symphony or the opera – except that it’s one in which the performance will actually last forever. Or they should contribute because it’s a great way to impress your friends, your children, even your accountant who will get pretty excited figuring out a way to make your loss look like a “business expense.”
The nice thing about either the Kickstarter campaign or making a tax-deductible donation is there’s no minimum on how much to contribute. You don’t have to be in a Bush-era tax bracket to be a part of the process. Any amount – from $1000 to $100 to even a dollar – will help the film get made, and help make you a part of the film.
What happens if you do not meet your crowdfunding goal?
As I mentioned, we’re close to securing some product integration money. Close, but not there yet. So if we don’t meet the Kickstarter goal (of $10,000), we’re going to have to go full bore on making whatever kind of corporate deals we can. As it is, I spent last week calling every one of the 50 top agricultural-related ad agencies in the country. It’s a tough road to go, and inevitably there are some creative compromises you have to make. But if I have to put corporate logos on my hat as I’m introducing Slamdance films for the next three years, then that’s what I’ll have to do. Remember, I’m the guy who once stood in front of the Sunset 5 for 11 weeks in a sandwich board promoting my first film, Omaha (the movie). So if I have to emblazon myself with NASCAR-like stickers and face tattoos, I will.
In a perfect world, where is your film a year from now?
By shooting in March, that puts us on a good track to edit the film in time to premiere in Park City. But I’m also the first to say that filmmakers shouldn’t schedule their production, or rush their post-production just to satisfy a film festival deadline. We’re going to be shooting with multiple cameras, and mic each actor individually to allow for overlapping dialogue. I know from doing Open House that this makes editing a little more time-consuming. There’s also going to be a little effects work in post, too. So I don’t want to rush it. And of course, there’s always the inevitable raising a little extra money in post!
If you’d like to know more about Between Us, or we didn’t ask all the questions you’ve got, go ahead and comment below or head over to the Between Us Kickstarter page and comment there. Next week we’ll be back with a new project for you to check out but, until then, we hope you enjoyed this closer look at Dan Mirvish’s Between Us.
DISCLAIMER: Donating or investing in a film or film-related project is always a risky endeavor, so it is important to keep that in mind before deciding to get financially involved with any film project. Film Threat, FilmThreat.com and our parent company, Hamster Stampede, LLC hold no liability or responsibility regarding any of the projects showcased on our site, their content or performance or the content or performance of any of the sites linked to in this article. Our involvement with the featured project is strictly what you see here: we find a work-in-progress project that sounds interesting to us, we ask all the questions we’d like to know the answers to and then we share that information with you, the audience. This should not be considered as personalized investment advice. What happens after you read this is your decision, and, again, before parting with any money for any film, think it through and BE CAREFUL.