“Everyone Wants to Think Their Child could be President”: Morgan Krantz on Babysitter
Writer/director Morgan Krantz’s first feature Babysitter was accepted into SXSW as a work in progress, so Krantz was working on it until the very week it premiered. “It was hot off the presses, and suddenly it was on the big screen at the Ritz,” he says. Babysitter revolves around a teenage boy and his relationships with the women in his life: his Wiccan babysitter, his mom who’s using him as a pawn in her divorce from his father, and the druggie girl he has a crush on in school. As an indie drama that invites conversation about topics like feminism and race, it’s a very festival-oriented film, so it’s easy to see what attracted SXSW programmers to include it, even as a work in progress. But, as a personal, coming-of-age indie drama, Babysitter plays in a very crowded space, so I’m most curious about the business side of Krantz’s process, hoping that other burgeoning filmmakers might share in his lessons about how to stand out in this milieu.
Filmmaker: Why this story? When I realized you had an L.A. phone number, I thought, “Maybe this is a very personal story.”
Krantz: It’s a composite of elements of my adolescence, not so much in the events as in the characters. A lot of the characters are based on more than one person, but I was using real people or a hybrid of real people and fictional characters. I wanted to make a personal movie, because they say write what you know. I wanted to start out my first film knowing what it’s like to have an authoritative knowledge of the details of the film. I have larger stories I want to tell but I wanted to grow into them.
Filmmaker: Start with your own experiences, and then once you feel like you have ahold of that, you can expand it into a larger world.
Krantz: On a totally practical level, you have to have a deep knowledge of the details of the film. What’s in this character’s refrigerator? What kind of cigarettes does this guy smoke? You have to know all these things. I wanted to make a movie now. I’ve been trying to make a feature since I was 18, and I didn’t feel like I had two years to do research on something I didn’t already know.
Filmmaker: A lot of people I talk to spend five years on a script. In today’s world, it’s difficult to find that time.
Krantz: You have to make things! You have to get out there. There are liabilities with a personal story, but there are a lot of upsides.
Filmmaker: How long was the whole process from the time you decided what you wanted to do, to writing it and then getting it done?
Krantz: I had spent a year on another script before I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t like it. It was coming from the wrong place. It was intellectual and heady and not emotional. So, I dropped that and had one of those amazing moments that everybody’s looking for: I went on a depressed hike with my dog, and I just decided, I want to do something simpler and with heart. The idea for Babysitter downloaded on me right away. I wrote the first draft in two weeks of 15-hour days, and then I was constantly re-writing even while editing. The whole process was about two years.
Filmmaker: That’s not bad for a first film. How did you get funding?
Krantz: My producer Luke Baybak and I went the private route. I think it’s just as time-consuming and takes just as much effort as crowdfunding, but we found funding from businessmen that didn’t have involvement in the movie industry. The executive producer who financed our last short film came onboard first. He’s a very successful businessman in the field of green energy and has taken an interest in film. He really believed in Babysitter from the start and it wouldn’t have been possible without him. The first guy onboard is the most important and instills confidence in other investors. Mostly all of our investors are businessmen who are successful outside the entertainment industry.”
Filmmaker: Other people I know who’ve gotten private funding tell me it’s rare for people to invest in films twice. People get burned and then get out. These people are looking for a return on their investment.
Krantz: There were definitely some people we approached who had been burned and weren’t interested. They had broken hearts. The ideal investor for an independent film, their motives have to be something other than money. We were very transparent. I’m not trying to make it harder for the next guy. We were upfront about: this is what we hope for, but it’s a high risk investment.
Filmmaker: What was your plan? Or what is your plan now? Are you looking for traditional distribution? You seem to have a good team behind you.
Krantz: We’ve shown it to a bunch of distributors who like it. We’re hoping for a bite. This is my first time! I would love for the movie to be seen. I’m happy if it gets out there.
Filmmaker: Did you experience any particular challenges on this film?
Krantz: Everything was difficult. [laughs] It was my producer and DP’s first feature as well. We all had our own learning curves. The most interesting challenge for me was in the crafting of the edit as well as the script structure. I was trying to give enough real estate to every character. It’s not an ensemble piece, but the protagonist is a 14-year-old boy, and I think his perspective is too limited. We don’t want to be in his head the whole time because it’s not the most interesting place to be for the story. It was hard but rewarding to figure out how to craft the story in a way that we could keep him as the lead but weave other character arcs together in a way that didn’t lose the driving force and the pace of the story. Negotiating all that — a lot of it came in the editing — how to give what is owed to every character without losing steam was a challenge.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting you say that because one of the things I thought while watching it was that, it’s called Babysitter, but who’s the main character of this movie? The title suggests it’s the babysitter, but the film starts with the boy’s voiceover. The mom has a huge emotional role, too. I almost wanted a more overarching title that somehow encompassed the complexity. I think it’s cool that the film explores a broad perspective of characters.
Krantz: When we shot it it was the Untitled Babysitter Project. I had been talking about changing it, but at a certain point I felt that we had earned the title somehow. “Babysitter” as a word is kind of a used title in films, but I couldn’t find another word that felt like the movie to me. There’s something about the word “babysitter” that speaks to childhood and nostalgia. The movie is about women and a boy’s perspective on them. And in another sense, the babysitter in the film is taking care of everyone — or people are babysitting each other in a larger sense. I hope it was an all-encompassing title because there are a few different ways to take it.
Filmmaker: Even the difference between Babysitter and The Babysitter carries a different tone.
Krantz: There’s no “The”!
Filmmaker: Right! I wasn’t sure!
Krantz: When you tell people it’s called Babysitter people ask if it’s scary. I like that because we mess with thriller tropes. There’s a throughline of horror films. I like the Halloween aesthetic, so I like that it acknowledges that aspect of the film.
Filmmaker: There’s also the exploration of the horror of the everyday — the horror of growing up and figuring out who you are in relation to other people.
Krantz: My recollections of growing up are beautiful but creepy and strange. There’s something eerie about that whole time in life. I think a lot of people think that way. When you get into your 20s and you realize that, oh that’s very creepy that my family member did that! That’s very strange!
Filmmaker: What would you say the most important lesson you’ve learned has been?
Krantz: There are so many things. I’ve been meaning to write them down so I don’t forget. One of the major things, I’ve probably heard this before from other directors, but it’s really important: trust. Trust was the most interesting thing that I learned, and I mean that on a few levels. First, I had to trust myself. You have to be able to acknowledge that maybe something you’ve already done or something you’re doing now just isn’t as good as you thought it was going to be. You have to be able to confront the situation and to say, “I know I’ve been fighting for this for six months, but I was wrong, and we need to do something better.” You don’t even have to know the answer, you just have to be the one to say, “You know what, this isn’t good enough.” It’s hard!
I’m an actor too, so I’ve worked with other directors, and I think a lot of directors think they always have to have the answer right away. I don’t think you do. I think you have to trust your own taste, and if you’re watching a scene being shot or you’re cutting and it isn’t working, be the person that says, “I don’t know why this isn’t working, but let’s talk about it.” It will usually lead to something cooler, but that’s the hardest step, especially in filmmaking, where everything is rigid and time is money and you’re supposed to be the guy with the answers.
You also have to trust other people. Realize that everyone’s there to do their best and make the movie good. Trusting the people you work with comes from experience working with them. I didn’t really learn this until editing, because when I’d watch the first take — before I started giving line readings — I realized that some of the actors’ first takes were their best. Or the DP who wants to do this one thing and at first you’re like, “I don’t know,” and then you realize later that he’s doing a great job even though you don’t know it yet.
Filmmaker: Any other lessons to share?
Krantz: I also learned a lot about how important wardrobe is. Continuity is difficult. You need so much wardrobe. With everything I’d ever shot before, there were never any outfit changes. This is stupid, but maybe there’s someone else out there who is unprepared in this way. I had never had any issues with wardrobe, so I didn’t realize we had to spend a lot of time on it. And the amount of clothing you need in a story in which time passes! It’s really worth blocking your time out for that. I wasn’t prepared. It seems so obvious! It’s a big project!
Filmmaker: There are probably a lot of jobs that are easy to take for granted, or you think, “We don’t need that. I think so-and-so’s girlfriend has a bunch of clothes in her closet.” It’s not that easy.
Krantz: Right! It’s not! The first thing I learned on day one of shooting is that if you’re working with talented professionals, they give you exactly what you want. It seems crazy. In production design, I’d email them a bunch of photos and think we’d go back and forth to figure things out. But before you know it, you arrive on set, and everything is exactly the reference you showed them. I didn’t necessarily realize I made this decision when I sent them this photo, but they’re professionals. So, realize that’s what you’re going to get! It’s not going to be “something between this and that.” Everyone’s very capable. It was funny because it’s not like that in real life [laughs]!
Filmmaker: What was your ballpark budget? It sounds like you were able to pay people properly.
Krantz: No, there’s a whole brigade of people who were robbed on this movie. Everybody worked so hard. But, I was told not to talk about the budget.
Filmmaker: It’s not essential to know. I’m a big proponent of transparency, but you’re in a tricky position with distributors, and I don’t want to rob you of a good deal.
Krantz: I can assure you it was very low. They specifically asked me not to disclose the budget.
Filmmaker: I think later on you can tell people.
Krantz: It’s a tricky thing because I feel like, it’s low — isn’t that impressive? But from a buyer’s or a sales agent’s point of view, they don’t look at things like that. They look at it like, however much you spent on it is what it’s worth.
Filmmaker: Well, you’re trying to put a value on a creative piece that is also a business. You can line produce something really well and do it for a half of what someone else could, but you don’t want anyone to know that because suddenly they think that’s what it’s worth. It becomes a negotiating point.
Krantz: Yeah! And there’s so much sweat equity that goes into an independent film, that it’s incalculable. So many people spent so many sleepless nights and put up with so much shit to make this movie. I don’t know how you would properly attribute those costs.
Filmmaker: Then there’s the point system which seems very broken.
Krantz: I’m just getting familiar with this, but it all seems very silly. It’s very alarming, really, because I didn’t have a lot of time to digest the finished film before it played at SXSW. Not to be precious about it, but it is very alarming when you make something that’s personal to you and close to you, and then people are just talking about it like it’s a commodity, like in a dry business way. I had to get off those email chains because it was too soon for me to think about it like that. I hate to use the metaphor of the film being your baby, but I mean, everyone wants to think their child could be President.
Filmmaker: Especially when you don’t have time to sit with it first. People are immediately like, “Your baby’s cool, but his arms are a little short.”
Krantz: Yeah! “He’ll do well here, but people might not like him in Belgium.” And you’re like, “But he’s so friendly and handsome and smart!” I was being offended. You don’t want to be the emotional business person, so I had to get out of those emails. I needed time.