Some might say that shooting an ultra low budget independent film ("ultra low budget" is a SAG term for their indie-friendly contract -- but it's also accurate) with minimal forces in limited time on Hollywood Boulevard is something that should only be attempted by the brave and the passionate. Others, however, might suggest it is something only for the naïve and the foolish. As with most things in life, the truth lies somewhere deliriously in between.
I have been a professional screenwriter on and off since 1990 and full time since 2000. My intention was always to be the full filmmaking storyteller: The Writer/Director. Since graduating NYU's Film School, I had labored to get that directorial debut off the ground. Five different scripts to be exact, with five different sets of producers. All five had one or two exciting "Yay! It looks like it's gonna happen!" moments. All of which fell by the wayside. Stars who said yes, only to say no, or to mean nothing to investors. Money that said yes, only to say, "I'm sorry, do I know you?"
Fed up and challenged by my then girlfriend, now fiancée, I set out to make not a two-to-six million dollar, star-reliant first feature, but something much less expensive, the goal being to conceive and write a project that could be produced for an amount of money I felt I could raise from private equity. So for the first time, I wrote backwards from production.
The trap that I wanted to avoid is that when many writers direct a first low-budget indie, they often find a nice big house (often a lake house) and then proceed to shoot a lot of dialogue at that house: a Big Chill type ensemble dramedy, a horror film, or a dysfunctional family melodrama. I had no such house, nor did I want to utilize one. I did have a boulevard I lived close to -- Hollywood Boulevard.
A young woman wakes up at dawn, face down on the footprints of Grauman's Chinese Theater's historic forecourt. She has no idea who she is or how she got there. This is the singular image that inexplicably popped into my mind at Pane E Vino on Beverly Boulevard immediately following the aforementioned challenge. And it was from this central image that the story of Footprints grew.
There had been many films set in Hollywood, but none to my knowledge shot nearly entirely on only that very specific half-mile stretch of Hollywood Boulevard known round the world (and featured prominently in the stage design of this year's Oscar ceremony), which encompasses Grauman's Chinese Theatre, The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Egyptian Theater, the Kodak Theater, Hollywood & Highland, and countless souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, and memorabilia stores.
With an eye towards making this film for a price, the story would take place nearly entirely outdoors and in one day, from sunrise to sunset. This would cut down on lighting equipment and of course costume changes. Rest assured that, although our schedule was short, it was not shot in one day. Our "one day" took place over several days... but not many. Though unintentional, it would seem I took my plan from Genesis (the chapter not the band).
So, armed with an early model Blackberry notepad and a digital camera, I wandered the boulevard for several days, jotting down notes and snapping photos, conceiving of the journey of discovery that would become Footprints. I made note of locations and who owned them, taking photos of exactly where scenes could be shot. Once I finished the script, I made sure it was working before embarking on raising the money and shooting the film. After a few rounds of notes, the script was really working for people, many of whom told me they had tears in their eyes at the end. Now came the time to raise the money and secure the locations.
I have been very friendly with the great folks at the American Cinematheque over the years. They own and operate the historic and beautifully restored Egyptian Theater on the boulevard. I had organized a financially successful benefit screening there of an earlier film I wrote, The Cat's Meow (starring Kirsten Dunst, directed by Peter Bogdanovich). If they would agree to let me shoot a sequence at the Egyptian, I could mosey over to other establishments and get them to let me shoot at their venues as well.
After much haggling, begging, and pleading, the rest of the desired locations all came through, although one had to be rethought when the owner was adamant that no one could film at his shop -- at any price! The resultant locale change actually made it a more interesting scene. As Peter Bogdanovich told me (as told to him by Howard Hawks), "The really good things in pictures happen by accident."
My crew was barebones: line producer doubling as AD, script continuity, cinematographer, his assistant, hair/makeup, costume/wardrobe, sound mixer, and one utility PA (usually on boom). Me and eight crewmembers. Back at the office was my producing partner brother, John (a pro Orlando casting director and one helluva breakfast cook for our crew) masterfully performing production manager duties and his tireless Production Office Coordinator. And here's where the gloriously naïve part comes in: Day One was shooting at Grauman's Chinese Theatre... with eight crew members.
Now it's not so tough to shoot at the Chinese with only eight crewmembers at the desolate hour of 6:30 a.m. when the very first scene of our movie takes place... but when 6:30 a.m. turns into 9:00 a.m. and the tourists start to show up by the bus-full, Day One becomes baptism by fire so hot that I find it truly miraculous my crew stuck with me for the rest of the shoot.
Although it was never discussed openly, it seemed to me that each day we accomplished, each location ticked off, rather than growing fatigued, my Magnificent Ten were growing more and more fueled by the sense of accomplishment that they were achieving the impossible, a war story they could retell: They had "the stuff" to complete a legitimate feature film... in seven principal shooting days.
As hard as this may seem, it was conceived that way -- again, backwards from production. Entire scenes/sequences shot at one location, in areas we could control, the mystery and plot driven by character and dialogue rather than complex action sequences. I brought my actors and lifesaving cinematographer, Adam Teichman, to the locations to rehearse and block for four days prior to the shoot. I told the actors that their scenes had to be learned as one would memorize a stage play because there was no time to waste. Each and every actor and crewmember rose to the challenge with no one buckling under pressure. Come to think of it, I think I'm the only one who snapped, but it was only once, and Adam forgave me.
I remember one day in particular when my absolutely top drawer AD Darius Siwek declared, "Fifteen pages tomorrow?! There's no way!" And then at the end of that day, with fifteen pages achieved -- the victorious smile on his face was a sight to behold.
So we did it. Like Dorothy and her trio in the Wizard of Oz, I had the power all along to make my first feature and didn't know it. But I couldn't have done it without my Magnificent Ten and my flawless cast who redefined professionalism in my eyes. Not to mention raw talent.
And I couldn't have done it if I had known how impossible it was. After all, impossible is only a state of mind.
Footprints will open theatrically on April 15 in New York and Los Angeles with a national release to follow. For further information please go here.