By James Latham
We screened George Pappy’s feature Few Options to a full house in November, and the film is now available on DVD at Amazon and will appear on Showtime in April. I wanted to get back to George to talk about the film—which he directed, wrote, and co-produced. We covered a lot, so this posting will just address production, and the next one will involve distribution.
For those who haven’t yet seen Few Options, it’s a crime drama starring Kenny Johnson as Frank Connor, a good man who made a big mistake and is finished paying his debts to society, or so he thinks. After more than twenty years in prison, Frank returns to Van Nuys to restart his life, but gets stuck. He can’t get a decent job or place to live. Desperate, he gets work as a security guard at a seedy strip club run by his old crime partners, and they once again take advantage of him, knowing he has few options.
James Latham: First, could you tell us what you do in your professional work?
George Pappy: I’m an electrical engineer in the satellite communications industry. I build, design, test and troubleshoot satellite flight systems and the ground systems that support them.
JL: That’s not exactly a typical profile for a filmmaker. What generally motivated you to enter filmmaking, and how did you develop or adapt your skills to do so?
GP: I have always loved screen stories on both film and TV. Some movies that spoke to me as a child include Chinatown, Dr. Strangelove, American Graffiti, and Double Indemnity. But the way I was raised, being a filmmaker was never an “acceptable” option. It was expected that I would become a white collar professional. So, I wound up in engineering. But I continued to be a film buff, and the indie film movement of the ‘90s (early Tarantino, Kevin Smith, et al.) inspired me to try writing my own screenplays. The leveling of the technical playing field with DV and DYI home editing software around the turn of the century led me to finally try shooting one of my own scripts in 2003. For that undertaking (which I shot in Australia while on a work assignment, somehow managing to do the preproduction alone on top of my normal work week), I definitely relied a lot on the system engineering skills I’d learned on my job. These were particularly helpful in figuring out my shooting schedule, finding a way to literally be a one-man crew, and in the editing phase.
JL: I also trained early on as an engineer and worked in database software development; and understand the desire to do something more creative and personally rewarding, and the challenges of transitioning. In making your early short film and feature, what were some key lessons you learned that helped you with Few Options?
GP: One of the key lessons I learned on those films was “Don’t try to do everything yourself.” Inevitably, when you try to do that, something always gets missed during production—and often, on budget-limited projects like that, there’s no going back to get it right later. Another lesson I learned was “Don’t rush into production until you honestly believe the script is great, not just good or okay.” This was particularly true of the first feature I shot (Australia, 2003). I banged that script out in nine days and it just wasn’t all that great, although it did have moments here and there. I kind of knew this going in and felt that this was more of a learning experience in DYI movie making; but, in hindsight, I still wish I’d taken a lot more time in writing and rewriting the script.
JL: That’s good advice, to really develop the script before touching a camera. The better the design the better the potential product. So, on all these projects, how have you balanced your professional and film work?
GP: Honestly, it’s not so much of a balance as it is a sacrifice. I have taken long hiatuses from work (over a year at a time), worked half time, and made it known that I would quit if my employers were not willing to allow me this flexibility. As a result, I have not had a raise in years, and my peers in the engineering field have largely advanced beyond my level in terms of seniority. (Clearly, this was all before the economic crisis! I’m talking more about 2004-2010. Miraculously, I somehow managed to get back into my old line of work in 2011 for a new company, and, at the moment, I’m willing to work as much as they want me to! Right now, that means full time.)
JL: I did a similar thing when I was transitioning out of engineering and into film school. It’s empowering and tough, and you need a backup system in case things fall apart. Anyway, with that crazy schedule, how long did it take you for pre-production, shooting, and post on Few Options?
GP: As far as pre-production, that was essentially March-May of 2010. We had a pretty experienced ultra-low budget production crew, so it didn’t take that long to get everything lined up. Plus, showing up with financing at that point in time kind of pushed us to the front of the line, I think, in terms of being able to get the people and equipment, all of which was fairly available.
Principal photography was eighteen days, from early May through the first week of June 2010 (five-day weeks). We had a two-day pickup shoot to get transitional shots and a few new scenes the last weekend of August 2010.
Post production roughly spanned early June to early November of 2010, when the film was completely finished, including final sound mix and color correction.
JL: How did financing work, at a time of general economic turmoil?
GP: Same answer: sacrifice. The film was entirely financed by me – or, more specifically, the money I made selling my house in 2004. Call me crazy, but I thought it was fairly obvious we were in a real estate bubble, and I figured I’d rather have the cash than have a house. Once I got rid of the house, I was a lot more willing to threaten to quit my job (as I mentioned above) – it was kind of a tradeoff: I figured with all that money, and with a willingness to live very modestly, I could spend a number of years improving my writing and trying to get a film made – all the while living off that money. As it turned out, I managed to work just enough to pay my bills and get a film education at UCLA Extension and an MS in Screenwriting at Cal State Northridge as I continued writing. So by the time of Few Options, I still had a lot of the money from selling my house.
By the way, I didn’t intend to put up all the money for Few Options. Let’s just say that promises were made and not kept, so I found myself in a situation where I had an unfinished movie – which is kind of useless. Luckily, the money was there to finish it, which basically finished off the money!
JL: But at least you were lucky enough to sell the house in time, and you stretched those dollars, and will make back some of it from Few Options. How did you get Kenny Johnson and Rainn Wilson for the film?
GP: Rainn Wilson is a good friend who I’ve known since before he was famous (pure coincidence). He heard that I was writing a script that I planned to shoot myself and he said I could have him for one day. So, I wrote a part for him and kept it all in one location so we could maximize his shooting time. We got 9-1/2 pages out of him (a very long day!).
JL: And a very productive day. His character really contributes to the film, and that one location contributes a lot to the film’s sense of isolation, and even adds a little humor.
GP: I didn’t know Kenny Johnson, but he struck me as the perfect actor to play the lead based on his amazing work on The Shield. I found him on Facebook and tried friending him, and to my amazement, he accepted the request (apparently, he’ll pretty much do that with anyone!). I waited about a week, wrote him an email, explaining my script and how I thought he’d be the perfect guy to play the role (and I meant it). Again to my amazement, he said to send him the script. He loved it and within five days, we were meeting for coffee to talk it over.
JL: OK, so here’s some evidence that Facebook is good for more than just playing games. And what about Laura San Giacomo and Michael Sheen, who both have cameo roles?
GP: Laura came courtesy of Kenny Johnson, who worked with her on Saving Grace. Her scene was one we never quite got to in the initial eighteen days of shooting, so we shot it a few months later during the pickup weekend. Originally, the part was going to be played by an unknown day player, but somewhere in those two months I think I got the idea of asking Kenny if he thought Laura would be willing to play the role. It turns out Laura really cares a lot about Kenny and was more than happy to help him out. She was great.
Michael Sheen is another friend of mine. I figured if I could even get him to play a part in the movie, it would have to be a very small one (even then, I wasn’t sure he’d say yes). Great guy that he is, he did agree to play the part, and he did an amazing job. People ask me if he played it the way I wrote it. The answer is he played it word for word as I wrote it, and yet he completely made it his own – they didn’t even sound like my words anymore. For that matter, I can say the same thing about Kenny Johnson’s performance!
JL: You sure got a lot of good leverage from those relationships. Looking back on making the film, what important production advice would you offer other independent filmmakers, or what would you have done differently?
GP: First, I’d say be careful. If you’re putting any of your own money in, NEVER do so without having written agreements already in place clearly stating how you’ll get reimbursed and when. If someone tries to tell you there’s no time to draw up contracts, STOP! Do not proceed, even if it means postponing your production.
Second, and on a related note, you may think you’re saving money by doing the cast and crew contracts without using an entertainment attorney, but you’ll be sorry! And, you’ll need that attorney later to fix all kinds of problems, so you won’t really have saved any money at all – you may even end up spending a lot more just to clean up the mess.
Third, a word about the working environment on the set: one or two key crew members with bad attitudes can really drag down the whole working environment—and, more importantly, the creative environment. A few pieces of advice on this front:
a) Try to thoroughly vet your crew members (i.e., check into what others who’ve worked with them have to say).
b) If you can possibly do it, try to establish backup contacts for key crew positions – in other words, firing a disruptive crew member should be one of your options. The worst situation you can possibly be in is not being able to do that simply because you don’t have anyone to take their place.
c) Especially if you’re a first-time director working with a crew you don’t really know, it is a really good idea to bring some production-savvy friends onto the set to “watch your back.” Seriously, they will be in a much better position to spot problems brewing long before you do, since you’ll be so distracted with preparing for the next shot / scene.
JL: Yes, lots of good advice, and not just for low-budget indie projects. I know a producer who recently spent months overseas doing that very kind of oversight for a studio feature directed by a relative novice. Anyway, thanks for all those good ideas and lessons learned. Next time I want to talk about how you promoted your film and got distribution.