Self-distribution key to getting 'David' in theaters
Empty"David" discussion: Thanks to digital cameras and editing software almost anyone can make a movie today.
What's harder to do is taking on the bigger challenges of self-distribution as Jay Jonroy is doing with his political romantic comedy "David & Layla." Written, produced and directed by Jonroy in his feature debut, it stars David Moscow (the young Tom Hanks in 1988's "Big"), Shiva Rose, Callie Thorne, Peter Van Wagner and Polly Adams. The R-rated film is being released through Jonroy's NEWROZ Films in Los Angeles and select markets today and will expand throughout August and thereafter.
Jonroy, who now holds dual American and British citizenship, was born in southern Kurdistan and became a stateless exile as a teenager. He went on to study and work in London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rio, Paris and New York, aspiring from an early age to become a filmmaker. Along the way in Paris he met Alwand Jaff -- they married in 1990 -- who had recently escaped from Saddam Hussein's Baghdad.
"David" is based on a story Alwand told him about having met a man a few years earlier on a flight to San Francisco to attend a Kurdish wedding in Northern California. They were smitten with one another and it all seemed too good to be true until they discovered before landing that she was Kurdish and Muslim and he was Jewish. The David and Layla characters in Jonroy's movie face a similar predicament. David, while taping an episode of his access cable show "Sex & Happiness," meets Layla, a Middle Eastern dancer and Kurdish Muslim refugee, and winds up falling madly in love with her.
The fact that he's already engaged to another woman is a big problem, but not the biggest problem for David, who's Jewish and has very traditional and devoted parents. Neither David's parents nor Layla's radical Muslim uncle -- her family was killed in Iraq by Saddam -- are happy with their relationship. Nonetheless, love manages to find a way.
With a back story as interesting as this one, I was happy to be able to focus with Jonroy on how he managed to get his film not only made but into theaters without having a distributor behind it. "It's already tough enough to make an independent film and get it into festivals and so on," he agreed. "What happened is this. My main co-producer is Gill Holland, who (was formerly a) lawyer and has produced or executive produced over 50 independent films. He's the one who suggested we show the film to Jeff Lipsky, the co-founder of October Films (in 1992 with Bingham Ray) and after that Lot 47 (launched in 1999 with his brothers Mark and Scott).
"Last year (there also was) a film distribution through Jeff Lipsky and that film was also refused or (offered) very little money by the main distributors. So they decided to do self-distribution and we sort of followed their example. Fortunately, Jeff Lipsky liked our film and he took it on. We decided to go with him and since he had a big track record we managed to raise money to go through him to do a self-distribution and stagger it over about a year, which is what we are doing. We're doing a few markets at a time. The actual funding is coming from a company called Films International Corp."
"The strategy for the theatrical roll-out of 'David & Layla,'" explained Lipsky, the film's marketing and distribution director, "will be to open in two to three markets each week beginning July 20 -- specifically, markets whose demographics include robust numbers of Jews, Iranians, Persians, Iraqis and Kurds. For example, the New York Times ran a major news story just this week about the Kurdish population in Nashville, one of our first three markets.
"We will also be selecting markets for early targeting where marketing costs are less expensive -- an oxymoron if there ever was one -- relative to the potential return in that locale for specialized and ethnic films, at least historically. By the end of a six month theatrical effort we expect 'David & Layla' will play in over 100 cinemas. A list of all bookings can be found at the film's website (www.davidandlayla.com). It is updated on a weekly basis."
When I asked Jonroy if before deciding to self-distribute his movie he had shown it to any of the established distributors, he replied, "No, I didn't because I just knew that a comedy with an unknown writer-director was not something that we would get the sort of funds that we needed (to release). So absolutely no distributors saw this film at all. I know that the other bigger film (that went looking) before us with bigger stars and a bigger budget was (offered) peanuts and they went through self-distribution and they grossed almost $2 million."
While it didn't cost too much to make the film, Jonroy pointed out, "It depends what you mean by too much. As you know, in independent films there's real cash and there is also a lot of people like myself (who) for five years were not paid at all -- except the minimum because I'm a Writers Guild member so the union forced me to be paid minimum pay, which I put right back into post-production. So a lot of people like myself have not been paid or (were paid) very little. If you add all those up it's (a budget that's) higher than $1 million." If the film's self-distribution goes well, of course, the deferred salaries will all be paid.
"What's also important is that this is an American independent film," he said, "and the Europeans and (others) overseas won't touch it unless it has much bigger stars. We have a great, great cast, but they are not huge names and Europe and the rest of the world say, 'Let's see what it does in America.' So it's important to have theatrical distribution in this country not only to be able to distribute it later in foreign markets, but also for (later release) in DVD and cable. Those people don't give you much unless you've had theatrical distribution. That's how we persuaded our investors that it was the right thing to do. Plus we went to 21 international film festivals, including two in Israel, and the film got five awards. As you know, the high brow film festivals and some critics don't appreciate comedy even though every writer, director or actor will tell you that comedy is harder to make, to direct and to act in because if a comedy doesn't work everybody knows."
With a drama, he added, "there's a bigger margin of error. In addition, we added romance and to make romantic comedy work there's (got to be) sensual chemistry on screen. Everybody knows about sensuality. If in editing we didn't think it worked on screen we'd have had to throw the film away. So I think in a way we tackled a challenge mixing three genres -- drama, comedy and romance. We know from the festivals in Europe (and elsewhere) that the film works and that's what gave us the confidence to go through self-distribution."
The film, he told me, was a very personal one for him: "In a way, I was stateless like Layla. I was sent on a scholarship from Iraqi Kurdistan to study in London for five years. I was always in love with music and photography and there definitely was no music school nor photography let alone film school (in Iraq). I was strong in higher mathematics so my scholarship was to study higher mathematics, but as soon as I graduated (with) my first degree I got another scholarship to study (film) and the Iraqi Embassy refused to renew my passport. I came via Paris to New York, the capital of independent film. That's complicated because I also spent 10 years in California by being at UCLA Film School as well as (studying) advanced screenwriting at USC. But since the first 16 years of my life was in London, I felt more comfortable in Paris and now in New York.
"So when I moved to New York I felt this story, inspired by a real love story, (was one that) I could make in New York, make in English, use the veils of comedy and romance to talk about those personal tragedies. It's like a modern 'Romeo and Juliet' with the backgrounds of David and Layla being Jewish and Muslim, carrying the baggage of war and hate. I felt that we need comic relief and a love story because there are too many images of war and devastation daily on television."
Jonroy finished writing the film's screenplay in June 2001: "Then my mother passed away in my old home (town). So I went to visit my mother's grave. On the day I came back to London 9/11 happened. Unfortunately, the script had to be shelved for a few months. In January 2002 I took it out and rewrote it completely. Since then because of the unexpected Iraq war and all the political background shifting so radically, I had to rewrite the script. Normally, a great script has to be written 15 or 20 times. But with this one, after 30 I stopped counting!"
One of the challenges Jonroy faced in making the film was shooting in the mosques he needed for many scenes. "Every location in the film is real Manhattan and Brooklyn," he said, "including mosques and temples, which were not easy (to obtain permission to shoot in). Of all the mosques in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens -- there must be at least 20 -- only one of them gave us permission to go inside and shoot. So we had to have two different versions of the script -- one we called 'M' for Muslim and one 'J' for Jewish -- to find the temple at our price. And only one temple (agreed). Plenty of temples said yes, but they wanted thousands of dollars for a one day and one night shoot. I had two personal director's assistants -- one for the Muslim side and one for the Jewish side -- and they were extremely helpful to finally secure one mosque. But on the day we arrived, on Sunday, the scheduler forgot they had a school for kids so we had a two hour delay in getting to the mosque.
"Then when we arrived -- and this is another cultural difficulty -- they forgot the faithful come five times a day. In our case, four times because we didn't go at five in the morning, which is when the faithful come to pray. But for the rest of the four times during that day's shoot in that mosque every time they came in they would stay for an hour and a half praying by the time we did the lighting. Unfortunately, we didn't do (one key scene inside the mosque). That's a second mosque that was shot two weeks later. They would not let us in again. So we sent our Muslim assistant to go and find a Turkish mosque and we shot that scene (there) and made it look like the same mosque two weeks later."
Another key scene, he explained, "where Layla gives David the kiss of life (mouth to mouth resuscitation) at night when David falls off a sort of 'Romeo and Juliet' balcony -- he falls off a ladder (onto the lawn in front of Layla's house after trying to climb up to her window) -- that scene was (shot) three months later. We had to get five actors back three months later to shoot that important scene without which the film would really not work because that's the time Layla is forced to give David the kiss of life and we see the Star of David (on a chain around his neck, so she now knows that he's Jewish). She covers it (so no one else watching her save his life will see it). We shot like mad men in New York. The first cut of the film was 178 minutes. Four or five takes is all you can do in a film like this.
"For the wedding (scene) where we had 200 cast and crew we had two cameras. So for seven days we had two cameras. We had a lot of night shoots and in the summer nights are only eight hours. There's sunlight until 9 and by 4:30 or 5 (in the morning) the birds start singing! So we had to cut 70 minutes out of the film. But it was not that (scene of Layla and David) on the grass. We needed that so we had to spend $25,000 more (to reshoot it). We had to beg these actors not to change their haircuts and not to change any facial (hair) or there would be continuity problems."
There also was a major costume problem: "The beautiful red-green (sweater) that Layla is wearing when she comes down on the grass was a designer (piece) that our costume designer (Zulema Griffin) had borrowed because a star from Hollywood was wearing it. In September the last piece was sold so we couldn't get that piece. This is independent filmmaking and every day's a war. She had to go and buy white wool and duplicate the colors and sew one from our digital photographs and make it look like the real thing she was wearing. In the living room and downstairs when she runs in the shot from the balcony overhead she was wearing a very visible red and green and yellow sweater and that was a designer one costing about a thousand dollars.
"Unfortunately, my costume designer thought that we could always get it back. But they had sold the last one. We tried from American Express to find out the owner, but it was impossible. Eventually, she had to sew it from wool that she colored the same colors, but we couldn't go too close with the camera because the stitching was (different). But she was great. She actually sewed a designer-looking sweater with the same colors that exactly matches on screen the real one that had been shot three months ago."
All told, it was a very fast shoot. "In Europe they said this will take a minimum of two months to shoot and maybe 5 million Euros, which is like 6, 7 or 8 million dollars," Jonroy said. "But the actual shooting schedule was exactly 19 days and four nights -- a total of 23."
Included were some tricky scenes done on a sailboat that look as though they were shot from a second boat, but were not: "Hitchcock's famous saying was that he hated (to work with) dogs, babies and boats. Why boats? He said it takes a long time to turn around sailboats. We obviously had one boat. People think we hired two boats. We only shot on one boat. And on that day, the captain said the Coast Guard (license) is for private (events) like honeymoon couples and there can only be seven people maximum (on board) with himself as the captain. So David and Layla are on the boat. That's two. Himself. That's three. The soundman. That's four. The cameraman and (assistant). That's six. And I was number seven. I was that day director, first assistant director, continuity, make-up (and so on). And we shot it handheld with my great DP (Harlan Bosmajian) and it looks wonderful."
Summing up his film's message of hope, Jonroy said, "Let's try to live together. We proved we can do it in L.A., in Brooklyn and in New York and in Europe. Hopefully, in the Middle East like Europe we'll learn to live together. There were two world wars in Europe, let's not forget. They had the Holocaust, the Inquisition and pogroms. They eventually worked it out somehow. And you had the Civil War here (in America). At the time, there was bloodshed. People say (peace in the Middle East) will never happen and that it's a fantasy. Well, of course, it's a fantasy right now. But we can always dream."
Viral video: If you saw my June 29 column about Allan Murray and Sean Haines' viral video blockbuster "Paris in Jail: The Music Video" you already know that these are two very funny young filmmakers with a great future. Their second video, which premiered Thursday at midnight on omovies.com and YouTube, is "Harry Potter in the Hood," which besides spoofing Harry Potter mania also takes some jabs at celebs like Kevin Federline, Paula Abdul and David Hasselhoff. I'm writing this before being able to see "Hood," but based on the terrific job Murray and Haines did with "Paris," which enjoyed over eight million YouTube hits, I'm definitely expecting their new video to deliver some great laughs.
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 6, 1989's column: "One of next year's most highly anticipated films is Paramount's thriller 'The Hunt for Red October,' produced by Mace Neufeld, directed by John McTiernan, based on the best seller by Tom Clancy and starring Sean Connery (and) Alec Baldwin...Plans call for 'October' to surface in early March.
"Neufeld, whose credits include producing such hits as 'The Omen' and its two sequels and the thriller 'No Way Out,' was my guest recently on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly series on the Movietime cable network. He recalled how one of his development executives had brought him a copy of the 'October' manuscript to read early in the spring of 1984 before its publication by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Md., a house that was known for publishing non-fiction maritime books rather than highly commercial novels.
"'It sat on my night table for five weeks and he kept urging me to read it,' Neufeld told me. 'One day I did pick it up and I couldn't put it down.' Fortunately, he says, he'd already negotiated an option on the book before 'an article appeared in Time magazine calling it President Reagan's favorite yarn' and it became a best seller in Washington, D.C.'
"Was it difficult to put together a deal to turn 'October' into a film? 'Here I walked around with a hit best seller that was turned down by every studio in town not once, not twice, but three or four times, until eventually I came to Paramount and Ned Tanen (then president of its Motion Picture Group), who was on his way to England. I said, 'Ned, I have this great book.' And he said, 'Well, we've turned it down.'
"'I said, 'Have you read it?' He said, 'No.' I sad, 'What are you doing for the next 13 hours? He said, 'Well, I have no scripts to read on the plane.' I said, 'Take the book. Read it on the plane. And when you get off the plane, if you don't think this is a major motion picture, your incentive for reading the book is that you'll never have to return another call of mine.' Sure enough, he got off the plane and called me and said, 'How do we make this movie?'
"That was about 18 months after Neufeld had optioned 'October.' Indeed, his option had already run out and had to be extended for another six months as work on the screenplay (by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart) got under way..."
Update: "The Hunt for Red October" was a blockbuster success for Paramount and sparked a major franchise for the studio. It opened Mar. 2, 1990 to $17.2 million at 1,225 theaters (averaging $14,009 per theater) and went on to gross $122 million domestically, making it 1990's sixth biggest movie. The franchise's four episodes grossed $446.5 million domestically. The role of CIA analyst Jack Ryan played by Alec Baldwin in "October" was taken over by Harrison Ford for 1992's "Patriot Games" when Baldwin opted to do a stage play rather than make the sequel. Ford returned as Ryan in 1994's "Clear and Present Danger." Ben Affleck played Ryan in 2002's "The Sum of All Fears."
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com