12/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Third Screen: Conrad Fink on Making Movies for Grown-Ups

How do movies get made? I spoke with first-time producer/director Conrad Fink about his recent purchase of the option on a play called Tabletop. I did a documentary about Tabletop and its playwright, Rob Ackerman, a few years ago, and have watched it evolve ever since. A few years from now, you'll see it, perhaps under a new name, as a full-length independent film in festivals and movie houses and on home video. This is about how that happens...


Third Screen: How did you hear about Tabletop and what was the process for getting it and making it into a film? What's that like?

Fink: I saw it off-Broadway. I just responded to it immediately because it mirrored my own work experience. I work in advertising. I've been in that world -- the world of that play. I called the playwright and asked if I could option it but it was not available. He worked a couple of years with another producer and it didn't go anywhere. I just kept thinking about it. A year and a half ago I asked him again and it was available.

Third Screen: So you called him up on the phone and then what?

Fink: I hired him to write the script. I wrote him a memo basically saying this is who I am. I'm not affiliated with a studio and this is what I want to do with the story.

Third Screen: What's the movie going to be like?

Fink: In the play, which takes place in one day in an advertising studio that specializes in shooting commercials of food, there were all kinds of sub-plots about half a dozen characters who work in the studio. Two characters want to start their own business. Another comes out of the closet. I didn't want to show all these people and all their personal lives. What I liked most was the story of the guy in charge, seeing agency people and the pressures on him and how he deals with it all. In the original, he's just an animal. I wanted to show why he's such an animal. So we worked really hard to create all of these opportunities to show the insane pressures put on him.

Third Screen: So he's the story?

Fink: Yes. It's the end of his career. He's facing it on this one day. And there's a lot about how to get along with those you obviously hate -- a lesson we're all going to need in the next four years.

Third Screen: That's a claustrophobic forum for a film.

Fink: The analogies I use are Glengarry, Glenn Ross and Das Boot. I want it to feel a little like being trapped in a sub or a boiler room real estate office or, for that matter, Thanksgiving with your in-laws. Not my in-laws, of course, your in-laws. It's life and death for these people, but for the audience it's funny.

Third Screen: It's a comedy?

Fink: I think it's funny. It's not The Three Stooges. It's not broad comedy. I tell people it's an adult film, but then I have to explain that it's not porn. It's about people who are on the block. It's a complex story about the battling of egos that takes place in this one closed arena.

Third Screen: So you are hoping to restore the definition of adult film as non-porn. How do we see the monster in charge?

Fink: I've worked in every aspect of his world. It's part of why I responded so well and wanted to make this film. When I first got out of school I was a production assistant and I worked for a lot of guys so I knew a lot of the characters. The monster in charge is a composite of these guys. They're all screamers.

Third Screen: So where do monsters come from? The Bronx? Queens?

Fink: They're just a bunch of gruff guys from the boroughs who just happened to have a great eye, a sense of beauty and design, but communicating with other people was not their strong suit so they overcame it through bluster.

Third Screen: Do they have personal lives?

Fink: One I knew in real life was rumored to always make the shoot late because he didn't want to go home to his family. Every job was 20 hours when it should have been two. But you can't argue with the results. I still remember the first time this guy put a couple of green peppers in front of a camera. He put a light on it and it was beautiful.

Third Screen: The untold story of the green pepper? The green pepper as eye candy? Green pepper porn?

Fink: It might be the perfect French Fry. No sauce. The ends cut just so. It has a tan. We hand the products over to pros called Home Economists. They cook it to make it beautiful, so that it looks good on camera. If they're doing a turkey, it might taste like hell or be raw inside, but the outside looks perfect.

Third Screen: So if it's a burger spot, you have burger auditions?

Fink: Exactly. You carve your path and leave yourself open to other opportunities. I make commercials for a living but I always said I'd love to make a film.

Third Screen: How does the filmmaking process begin now?

Fink: I hired Rob Ackerman, the playwright, to write the script. Next is budgets and business plans, raising the money. It's different now than even two months ago. I was going out to private investors to sell small shares. Doctor and dentist money. I've also read that there are hedge funds set up to invest in the independent film world. They invest in ten films and hope one is a big hit. I don't know what it's going to be like now.

Third Screen: How do you get it into theaters?

Fink: You make your film. You get it into the festivals. You hope to make a sale at Sundance or Toronto. You have to market it. You have to get people to find it. You probably spend more money on advertising than you do on the film.

Third Screen: Ironic for a film about advertising, where a green pepper costs tens of thousands. Do you start trying to interest actors now?

Fink: I've hooked up with two producers, Robin O'Hara and Scott Macaulay of Forensic Films. They've done something like 25 films and have gotten several filmmakers on to great critical acclaim. We had two readings of the script as Rob worked on it. They came to the first one, responded very well, and said they wanted to get involved. You read about these films and watch them for 90 minutes out of your life and, my God, it's five years, maybe more, to make one.

Third Screen: What will your five plus years teach us about gruff guys and beauty?

Fink: In the beginning, there was an A generation of gruff guys and beauty. Back in the 70s, when commercials really came into their own and we moved away from the live commercials of the 60s, they were hired because they were still photographers. They were followed by generation B -- guys who come from different backgrounds, guys like me. We evolved into students with general filmmaking backgrounds. Now, commercials themselves have become a medium of study. You can go to film school specifically to study commercials and advertising. Generation C.

Third Screen: In the new media generation, who's the next bully?

Fink: There's always a bully. There's always a playground.

Third Screen: Does the Web have a bully prototype yet?

Fink: Yes. Younger people. Children of the damned.