|JOHN HAWKES AND MIRANDA JULY IN ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW.|
The original lead for this story was going to go something like this: “Independent films cost less than studio pictures, but they can take as long to make it to the screen. Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow was a hit at Sundance, but its screenplay kicked around Hollywood for years until an exasperated producer opened up his checkbook to pay personally for the production. But for every 10 tales of development and financing hell, there's one like Miranda July's. Her debut feature, a strange and artistic ensemble comedy/drama, raced through the process in record-time, reaching the screen just 18 months after she wrote her script. Aided by several independent support organizations, a pair of engaged financiers and one savvy sales agent, July's film proves that strong projects by first-time directors can succeed in the indie marketplace.”
At least from the outside, that's kind of the way it appeared.
After I spoke to the key players involved in July's production, however, I learned it wasn't quite that easy. In fact, it became clear that, like every film, Me and You and Everyone We Know suffered through its share of fits and starts. If anything, July's story is a model of how a director and producer can stay focused on a project and transform a string of noes and maybes into the yeses that green-light a production.
Below is a timeline for the production's development and financing, with comments from the principal players at each juncture. Summer 2001: “I was writing on the L train in Chicago,” July begins. “I conceived of Richard trying to impress his kids and [the characters] of the curator and the artist. I got off the train and thought, Wow, my first movie. More than anything, I had the feeling of an entire world, and that feeling stayed with me.”
Fall 2001: Working off “that feeling,” July wrote the first draft of Me and You and Everyone We Know. It was 60 pages long, and she submitted it to the Sundance Writers Lab, where it was rejected.
Comments Sundance lab director Michelle Satter, “[The producer] Tommy Pallotta called me and recommended her. He knew her performance art, and he told me she had a script. I watched her shorts, Nest of Tens and The Amateurist. There was something in terms of the characters and situations I hadn't seen before, and I also loved the idea of the distribution company, Joanie 4 Jackie, that she had set up for women's films. She became someone we were clearly interested in, but for us it was about finding the right moment where we could help her get to the next stage. We stayed in touch.”
2002: July says the Sundance rejection motivated her to continue working on the project. “Even though I didn't get into Sundance,” she says, “I felt 'taken seriously.'” She began rewriting the script in preparation for submitting again in the spring for the summer Writer's Lab. Again, the Lab provided her with a deadline to work toward. “In the beginning I didn't even really know what Sundance was,” she says. “But I gradually became fixated on it. I thought it might be the only way I would have to connect to the world of independent film.”
|MILES THOMPSON AND BRANDON RATCLIFF IN ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW.|
July submitted her script for the June Labs and... again, did not get in.
“I was really angry,” July laughs. “I worked really hard on [the script], and I thought, Forget the lab — by the next round I'm going to have made the movie!”
But soon she cooled down and got back to work. “I got the impression that I was close [to getting in this time]. Michelle gave me notes, and [over the next months] it became more of a real script. I became embarrassed that Sundance had even seen it at that early stage. Also, I have a deathly fear of beginning things and not finishing them. I knew I was going to make this film; I just didn't know if it was going to be in Portland for $2,000.”
She submitted to the lab again in the fall, and this time she was accepted. Remembers Satter, “For about a year we had had conversations, and each time I read the script, it had gotten to a new stage. Characters began to jump off the page. It initially felt like short stories that weren't connected to each other, but it had begun to grow. There was an irony and also a kind of humanism, and the characters were funny and interesting.”
“Miranda is a fierce artist,” Satter adds. “Her work ethic is like no one I've ever seen.”
2003: The Sundance Screenwriters Lab kicked off a year of intense development. July attended the January lab, where her work was critiqued by industry advisers. Following the lab, Satter made calls to distributors and financiers on behalf of the project; one of them was to Holly Becker, VP of production and development at IFC Films. And while July was an unknown quantity to many in the film world, Becker was actually quite familiar with her work.
“I first saw Miranda do a performance piece called Love Diamond six years ago at The Kitchen [in New York], and I was very taken by her and the piece. At the time, I was working at the Sundance Institute, helping find filmmakers for the labs.” Having followed July's work for years, Becker listened to Satter's “big plug” for the project and agreed to read the script. “I loved it,” she said, “but there were no attachments, and it was a low priority here at IFC. But that's when I got to know Miranda, and I started championing the project here behind the scenes. That's the way a lot of projects come to fruition. We kind of 'soft pass' on a lot of stuff and come back to it.”
Next, July applied to and was accepted in the June Directors Lab, where, Satter says, “for three and half weeks she got real hands-on experience as a director.” At the lab, which takes place at the Sundance Resort, July shot scenes from her script on video and responded to feedback from the director mentors, one of whom was Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl).
July took part in a second Screenwriters Lab that took place right after the Directors Lab, and then she returned to Sundance later in the summer for the Composers Lab, where she worked with soundtrack artists on an original score. Finally, July made it a Sundance clean sweep by attending the Producers Conference and learning more about the business side of film production.
In the fall July traveled to New York and, at Arteta's invitation, visited the set of Michael Kang's film The Motel, which he was producing with his regular producer Matthew Greenfield and two younger producers, Karin Chien and Gina Kwon. He introduced July, who was looking for a producer, to Kwon and they hit it off.
In August Kwon signed on to produce the film. Previously July had submitted the project to the IFP's No Borders workshop, a financing conference modeled on the Rotterdam Film Festival's CineMart, which runs alongside the IFP Market each fall. Her film was one of two that Sundance sponsors at No Borders.
Explains IFP executive director Michelle Byrd, “For 10 years we've had the good fortune of collaborating with Michelle Satter and the Sundance Institute on lab projects traveling to IFP's No Borders International Co-Production market. Each year Michelle provides a short list of projects for us to read from the recently completed Writers Lab, usually by writer-directors looking to make their first feature. Sometimes they have a producer, sometimes not, although No Borders is really a forum for producers, so we usually prefer projects with producers in place. Final selection is with us, although we consult with Michelle about which projects she thinks might work best. Two projects are selected annually, and Miranda and Gina arrived at No Borders with the imprimatur of being a Sundance Lab project.”
Kwon worked up a budget: “I knew that we had to do the film for under $1 million. It had no stars, lots of kids, and Miranda would [play one of the leads]. Miranda always expressed a preference for video, which she has shot with before. I did a low version of the budget that was $200,000 — but could we do it [for that low an amount]? From my point of view the movie was complicated. There were a lot of locations. I didn't want the fish sequence to look cheesy, and to do that would require closing down a road.”
At No Borders in September, July and Kwon met numerous distributors and financiers in a series of private meetings in which July would pitch her project and then Kwon would follow up by sending the screenplay. “Through the process of pitching it to people, Miranda became aware of the difficulty of the 'ensemble character' piece,” Kwon says. “It was what people called 'execution dependent,' and she realized the importance of tightening her storylines and eliminating material that was redundant in tenor. She would have these flashes and dramatically change the script in a day or two.”
One of the many meetings the two had at No Borders was with Peter Carlton of Film Four, the feature film production arm of British broadcaster Channel Four. Technically, Film Four looks for British projects… but there are always exceptions.
Says Carlton, “I'd only been in the job here for several days when I flew to New York to attend No Borders. I knew of Miranda — she had worked over here [in London], performing at the Institute of Contemporary Art. I read the script and thought, This is the kind of script I want to be doing at Film Four. It's contemporary, smart, risky and resonant but not crassly confrontational… Too bad it's an American project.”
Carlton liked the project enough to tell July and Kwon that he'd find a way to consider it… as long as — and here are the words that are said so many times to independent producers — they could secure U.S. distribution. “It only made sense if it had a strong American partner and guaranteed U.S. distribution,” he explains. “It needed to establish itself in the States first. “Peter loved the script,” Kwon remembers. “But there was no immediate 'I'm going to invest.' He was still getting up and running at Film Four.”
Kwon conveyed Carlton's interest to Becker, but, perhaps because it was already late in the fiscal year, neither party seemed close to moving towards a deal. “It wasn't like we had them at 'hello,'” Kwon quips.
July and Kwon continued to hustle. “We followed up with everyone,” Kwon says. “We kept sending out all the subsequent drafts, and we shopped the film to people we were optimistic about, like HBO and Werner Films [the L.A./Swiss-based equity financiers.]” Realizing that many companies didn't want to be the sole financier, they tried to think of ways of bring something to the table when they met new companies. “Friends of Miranda's parents offered to invest $30,000, and so we told people we had some equity and tried to figure out how we could get more,” she adds.
The hardest part during this period was assessing the project's realistic potential at all the various companies. “It was hard to read how serious they were,” Kwon says, noting that a lot of companies seemed interested but “just didn't move on it.” Kwon adds that Satter remained tremendously committed to the project, calling, checking in, and helping make connections with financiers.
Sundance sponsored a screenplay reading in L.A. at the end of the year, a reading which, as the accompanying interview makes clear, helped improve the script and created continued good buzz on the project. “It read well, and the reading gave us a boost of confidence,” says Kwon. 2004: “In January we hit the ground running,” says Kwon. “Miranda was on a mission. We had been doing something Michelle [Satter] had suggested to us — pick a start date and say that you're going into production that day. Well, we had already done that a few times, and the last [date we told people] was June. Now, the pace of development was like preproduction. We knew Peter Carlton was a fan, but we didn't know if he was going to be in or not. We were on a desperate search for the right partners. For me, this was the one project I had, and for Miranda too.”
As a new producer, Kwon received Sundance's Mark Silverman Producing Fellowship, which provided another boost to the project. “Once I got the fellowship and had Sundance's support for a year,” she says, “I felt the timing and urgency. We had to make the film this year. Also, I'm having a baby in June, and I knew then that I wanted to start a family. And our financial situations created momentum. If I couldn't do this film, I had to figure out how to live and get a job. Miranda made money performing and touring, and she had cleared her plate to get the film done. It was all or nothing.”
Kwon and July attended the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where it was announced that Me and You and Everyone We Know was a winner of the prestigious NHK Award, a prize sponsored by the Japanese broadcaster which awards $10,000 to the director of a Sundance Lab project and then provides a Japanese television prebuy of the film to the tune of between $125,000 to $150,000. The winners are also invited to the festival where Sundance sets up meetings with financiers. It was at one of these meetings that Kwon and July met Roman Paul, the Berlin-based acquisitions adviser of the French sales agent Celluloid Dreams.
“The [NHK] meetings take place on the last [Thursday] of Sundance, so there are not so many people there,” Paul explains. “I had never heard of Miranda,” he says, “but we had a quite funny conversation. I felt a connection — I really liked the two of them. So the beginning was based on something simple — personal liking. I thought they were quite funny.”
“At that point we'd meet people and follow up immediately,” says Kwon. So they sent Paul a DVD and a script that he reviewed back in Germany. “I received the DVD first,” he says, “and there was a humor I connected with right away. Then the script came, and I thought it was brilliant. It was unique, funny and touching, and I thought it had a universal appeal. I sent it to [Celluloid Dreams president] Hengameh Panahi with a high recommendation, and she loved it as well.”
Back at No Borders in the fall, Kwon and July had met the representatives of the Rotterdam Film Festival's CineMart, the oldest and best established of the various international film financing conferences. Their project was selected for the 2004 edition, which takes place immediately after the Sundance Film Festival, beginning on the Sunday after the Sundance Awards ceremony. Kwon and July flew to the Netherlands.
“When we got into CineMart, we weren't sure it was the right place to go,” says Kwon. “We were maybe naïve because we didn't know much about the potential of foreign investment.” In Rotterdam the two met with a number of other possible partners, including the British sales agent Renaissance, the Dutch/Hong Kong sales agent Fortissimo and the Paris/London–based sales agent Wild Bunch. All three companies had a history of joining American projects, and the Wild Bunch had recently been involved with such films as Raising Victor Vargas, Love, Liza and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Of all the companies, the Wild Bunch seemed the most enthusiastic.
Kwon and July used CineMart also as a way to get to Europe, where they'd hook up with Carlton again, trying to turn his continued interest into a deal. Following the four-day conference, they flew to London for a meeting at Film Four. But there had been a death of an employee of the company, and the one day they were there turned out to be the day of the funeral. There was no meeting with Film Four.
“We stayed with a friend of Miranda's and went to a lot of art openings,” says Kwon. July did, however, meet for a second time with the Wild Bunch. By this time they had read the script and indicated interest. “But the way their deal was structured,” says Kwon, “it was more difficult to bring on a domestic distributor. If we made it with them, it would have been for a lower budget and with a private equity partner.”
When they returned to the States, they got a call from Film Four. “[Peter] talked to us right after [our visit to] London in February,” recalls Kwon. “He said he had kept thinking about the script, and if [Film Four's involvement] was what it took to get the film made, then they were in.”
Carlton said he hoped Film Four's commitment would galvanize a deal at IFC. “Gina had mentioned that they had been talking to Holly,” Carlton says. “I knew the IFC guys — IFC and Film Four had collaborated on Touching the Void, and there was a good vibe between the two organizations. We were both backing director-driven, niche product against the Hollywood machine, and we were both TV channels with theatrical divisions. By March we felt that [the script] had moved on, and we said, 'We can do this if you are only looking for [the high six-figure budget]. Let's just split this between [Film Four and IFC] and keep the thing uncomplicated.”
Becker set up a meeting in New York between July and IFC president Jonathan Sehring. Also attending the meeting in support of the project was Arteta and producer Ed Saxon, known for his long run producing director Jonathan Demme's films. Kwon had met Saxon when he was chosen as one of her advisers for the Mark Silverman Fellowship. “I was a first-time [solo] producer, and Miranda was a first-time director, and it seemed like one angle would be to bring on a seasoned producer,” she says. (Ultimately, Saxon offered to “godfather” the project and watched some cuts of the film but did not take a credit.)
“Miranda did a great job in the meeting,” Becker says. “She was very prepared, very much herself — you can tell when people are trying to put on a personality that's not really them, and she wasn't that way at all. She was direct, she knew our movies, and she was funny. She seemed confident, and she talked about the way she was going to shoot things.”
One question Sehring asked was about a scene in the film involving a blow job and underage actors. “Jonathan liked the script,” Becker elaborates, “but he was very concerned about the blow job scene. Miranda was prepared to answer that question, and she answered it eloquently and honestly. She didn't want it to be cheap, and she also said she didn't know how to make the film without that scene, and she underlined her reasons why. Miranda did a great job, and Jonathan said, 'Let's do it.'”
Film Four did, however, want to attach a sales agent. Here, Celluloid Dreams's interest kicked in. Says Charlotte Mickie, Alliance Atlantis's former sales head who joined Celluloid in spring 2004, “We like the IFC and had worked with them on Nobody Knows and The Edukators. Roman had a strong conviction about [Miranda's film], and the script was both funny and artistic, and that's a good combination.”
With her Mark Silverman fellowship money, Kwon had hired a casting director, and a production office was set up in July's house. “There's always a lag between when people say, 'We're doing it' and the time the agreements are worked out. You lose a month and a half, but offices require a deposit, a phone system. So we worked out of Miranda's house, and I bought a phone system and put it on my credit card.”
Despite the wired nature of our global village, face-to-face meetings still seem required to finalize deals. “The deal was done in Cannes,” says Carlton, “Our investment was roughly a 50/50 split between equity and British TV rights.”
Explains Kwon, “IFC put in the majority [of the financing], and Film Four put in the first money. The structure was that we formed a company to produce the film that the two companies invested in. IFC and Film Four jointly own the copyright. This was all figured out between them at Cannes.” The production went into formal preproduction immediately after, in late May, 2004.
What this story necessarily omits are the dozens of producing partners, financiers and distributors that passed on the project. “There were a lot of companies that passed,” confirms Kwon. “What can you do? Just be gracious and thank them for reading it. Depending on the reason, you can try to counter, but often it's just not the right fit.”
What is clear is that all the organizations listed above gave the project a kind of validation that helped it ultimately secure financing. “There were always little events we could hang our hat on,” says Kwon. “Sundance, Rotterdam, No Borders, the NHK Award. Producing a movie you have to be such a salesman, and sometimes you just need an excuse to call people again. We had all these pieces of news, and they created a sense of momentum.”
The film's final happy surprise is its healthy foreign sales. Celluloid Dreams sold several territories at Sundance and then, building on the good buzz created there, closed a slew more at the European Film Market in Berlin. “Lots of foreign buyers [attend Sundance now],” says Mickie. “There are the Italian art house buyers, the British, and a pretty good number of the French and Japanese.
“Two weeks before Sundance I realized that people were going to laugh during that famous scene [involving children and a scatological Internet exchange],” she continues. “And laughter is a good key to success. We made postcards and buttons with the poo-poo symbol [used in the movie], and we knew people would find it pleasurable to see the movie and then catch on to the joke.”
Explaining the film's foreign appeal, Mickie says, “For many American independent filmmakers, when they call their work 'European,' they mean that it's slow. But this film is European in a good way. It's a well-thought-out, beautiful look at the world. It's not glib, but it critiques America in a gentle way.”
As of spring 2005, the film has sold to the following territories: Benelux (ABC), France (MK2), Scandinavia (Non-Stop), Italy (Fandango), Greece (Audiovisual), the U.K. (Optimum), Yugoslavia (Discovery), the Baltics (Artdo), Mexico (Alameda), Australia (Icon) and Japan (Happinet). “The Japanese and U.K. sales were very nice because TV was more or less gone for both territories because of Film Four and the NHK Award,” adds Mickie. Concludes Paul, “While the film is set in the American West, and it's specific to that place, the questions it asks about why we are here can be asked by people from Mongolia to Brazil. The film is local and transcendent at the same time.”
Concludes Satter, “Miranda captures the sense that we all yearn for some magic, something that will transform our lives, in the most original and startling way.”
In the end, says Becker, getting Me and You and Everyone We Know made “was a clear example of people working all fronts.” Advising filmmakers, she adds, “Do your homework about who [companies and financiers] have worked with. And also, when putting a film together you just have to believe you are making forward progress.”