Writer-producers' 'Fingerprints' easy to see March 25
Empty"Fingerprints" filmmakers: After complaining for years about their lack of power in Hollywood, screenwriters are now starting to emerge in nontraditional ways that let them control their projects.
A case in point is the independent filmmaking team of Brian & Jason Cleveland, who besides writing and producing through their Dallas-based Brothers Cleveland Prods., also play key roles in marketing and distributing their movies. Their first feature "Soul's Midnight," an award winner at the Salem Horror Film Festival, went into DVD release Feb. 12 through Image Entertainment. On its heels, they've now got the March 25 DVD release via Image of their second film "Fingerprints," which won the best feature award at the 2006 New York City Horror Film Festival.
Directed by Harry Basil ("Cloud 9," starring Burt Reynolds), "Fingerprints" is written and produced by the Clevelands. Starring are Leah Pipes, Kristin Cavallari, Josh Henderson, Andrew Lawrence, Sally Kirkland, Geoffrey Lewis and Lou Diamond Phillips.
"Fingerprints" is executive produced by Gray Frederickson, a mentor to the Clevelands, whose producing credits include such films as "Little Fauss and Big Halsy" with Robert Redford and "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" with Clint Eastwood. During his 20-year association with Francis Ford Coppola, Frederickson shared as a co-producer in the best picture Oscar win for "The Godfather: Part II" and in the best picture Oscar nomination for "Apocalypse Now."
"It's not easy to get any movie made," Brian replied when I asked about "Fingerprints'" road to the screen. "Just prior to 'Fingerprints' we had made a film called 'Soul's Midnight' starring Armand Assante. It's a little vampire movie. Basically, 'Fingerprints' came about because of 'Soul's Midnight.' We are born and raised in Texas and we live in Dallas. We had an opportunity to submit a script to Gray Frederickson, who's a native of Oklahoma and after many years in Los Angeles working in collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola came back to Oklahoma to teach film classes in Oklahoma City and to make some movies. We got an opportunity to meet with Gray and we said, 'We've got a little vampire script. Are you interested in doing a horror film?' And he said yes.
"So we submitted the script to him and he read it. He had worked for several years with a director named Harry Basil, who had directed several Rodney Dangerfield movies (including 'The 4th Tenor' and 'Back by Midnight'). He came on board and then Armand Assante at the last minute said, 'Hey, I'd love to play a vampire.' We shot this movie in 12 days for about half-a-million dollars and it came out pretty well. At the time we were in postproduction, Jason and I had been working on a script called 'Fingerprints.'"
"We had the idea for 'Fingerprints' because growing up in Texas Brian and I are huge fans of history and myths and urban legends and all sorts of stories," Jason explained. "And there's a very famous urban legend in Texas about these haunted railroad tracks. The story goes that (50 or so years ago) there was a school bus of children that was hit by a train and all the kids were killed. To this day, if you go to the train tracks and park your car next to them and put your car in neutral your car will be pushed to the other side of the tracks. The story goes that it's the ghosts of the little children that push your car across so you will not suffer the same fate that they did.
"And (it's claimed that) if you put baby powder on your bumper when you do this, after it happens and you get out you can see little fingerprints on the bumper of your car. I've actually done this myself. The tracks are about 10 minutes south of San Antonio. I was really amazed because when I showed up to do it there was a line of cars about a quarter of a mile long waiting to do this. I didn't know how everyone heard about it because it's not easy to find the directions. They've tried to keep it underground a little bit so you don't get more people showing up because the neighbors don't seem to like it too much."
"We took the urban legend," Brian said, "and added our own spin to it and came up with a script. We submitted the script to Harry Basil and he read it in about an hour and called me back and said, 'This is it. We're going to make it.' That was in February of '06. We were still doing some postproduction on 'Soul's Midnight.' He sent (the script) to Gray Frederickson, who read it, and they both loved it. It was just that combination of ghost story, urban legend and whodunit. The lead role is for a female who's 18 and (there are parts for) a few of her friends. So it really hit that teen ghost movie market. A couple of months later we were in preproduction.
"We got really lucky. We had a great casting director in Fern Champion. She's a veteran (casting director and) has done tons of movies (including 'The Mask' and the 'Police Academy' franchise). She did great character breakdowns. We got real high interest from agents. So we cast Josh Henderson from 'Desperate Housewives,' Kristin Cavallari from 'Laguna Beach' and Leah Pipes, who was on the CW Network's 'Life Is Wild' and is a very talented young actress. And then we had some veterans (like) Lou Diamond Phillips, Sally Kirkland, Geoffrey Lewis. And it really just all came together."
They shot, he added, on "a very tight schedule. Jason and I were producers on both these films so we went from zero to a hundred in terms of our working knowledge of how to make a film very quickly. Ever since then we've been heavily involved in the marketing decisions and distribution and creating poster art. So we are looking forward to our March 25 release of 'Fingerprints.' It should be a pretty wide DVD release. Our domestic distributor is Image Entertainment. They were actually a co-producer of this film, also, and having spoken many times to the CEO of Image they're really proud of this film for the budget and for the time that we shot it. It's really turned out great, so we're excited."
Focusing on their involvement in the project as producers as well as writers, Brian pointed out, "I think the most important thing and the best thing that really helps the film is that we're part of location scouting and we're working with the director so early on that we get to customize the script to the locations. I think that's particularly important when you don't have months of shooting days and when you're on a tighter budget. We shot 'Fingerprints' in Guthrie, Okla., which is a small town just north of Oklahoma City. By the way, Oklahoma has good (production tax) incentives and union stuff and with Gray's teaching it allowed us to create an environment that was very cost effective -- certainly more so than it would have been in California. But, also, the Texas incentives aren't that great. They passed an incentive package recently, but it still can't compete with even Louisiana or Oklahoma.
"Shooting in Oklahoma, we knew the locations (and) knew the environment. So we did a couple of rewrites of the script sitting down with the director and I think that really allowed us to explore new possibilities and to really craft a screenplay that was going to be not only using the locations to their best but also just being very efficient in moving locations. You know, moving locations is one of the most costly aspects of any production. But, finally, what was great is that we chose three or four locations that are actual haunted places, one of them being the famous Stone Lion Inn in Guthrie that's a spooky bed-and-breakfast that started out as a funeral home. We used that as a residence of one of the characters."
"One of the locations we used," Jason noted, "was just a regular house in suburbia. We didn't think it was haunted at all until we spoke to the former landlord while we were shooting. It turns out that the former owner of the house was a woman and she had died in the bathtub in the house. We found this out while Kristin was in that actual bathtub shooting a scene. So needless to say, we had to withhold that information from her till after we were finished shooting. Dallas and Oklahoma City are about three hours apart so we were really familiar with the area. That really helped us and helped the L.A. people acclimate to the area, as well."
How did they raise the money to make the film? "We had a co-financing between Graymark Prods., which is a partnership between Gray Frederickson and John Simonelli, who is an Oklahoma businessman, and Image Entertainment was also a co-financier," Jason said. "The idea was that Image would put up a certain amount of the budget and in return they would have the domestic distribution rights for DVD."
Going back to how they worked together while writing the film's screenplay, Brian explained, "I lived in New York City for several years and worked in documentary television there. So when Jason and I started off collaborating we had very little opportunity to see each other in person. What we would basically do is communicate through e-mail and to this day what we do most of the time is we just send drafts back and forth. One of us will write a scene. The other will tweak it. And back and forth and really build from there. But really it all begins with our outline. I've read so many interviews with screenwriters who claim to never do an outline. I believe they say that because it makes it seem like there's some magic or voodoo that causes their screenplay to be so good. But meticulous outlining, I think, is the key to any screenplay.
"So when we start a project we have a concept and some characters, but Jason and I -- when we actually do see each other -- have a big marker board in our office. We go and we spend a few days and we outline, basically, every step of the three-act structure. We'll make character notes. And we'll have that as sort of a permanent visual tool to look at as we put the screenplay together."
It's also helpful, Jason observes, that they're siblings: "It doesn't hurt that we're brothers. So any time we get in some sort of altercation it can never be that bad because at the end of the day we are family."
"'Fingerprints' was our third screenplay that we had finished together," Brian added, "and we really used the same process with the outlining and the writing on our first screenplay and on 'Soul's Midnight.' I think we really hit our stride with our process with 'Fingerprints,' which is one reason it seemed to turn out a little bit tighter and (was) a little bit more well received by everybody."
"Also, Brian and I agreed years ago," Jason said, "that if either of us aren't really sold on an idea and we're not really passionate about it, then maybe there's a (new point) C to our A and B that we haven't thought of and that we need to just go back and rework it and that maybe neither of us are right and we just need to think of something else."
As producers, of course, their film's bottom line is in their hands. Does that make them write any differently than they would if they were turning their screenplay over to someone else to produce? "That's an excellent question," Brian replied. "What I'm going to tell you just brings up more questions and doesn't really answer it because it's something that we're going to be endlessly debating. The 'Fingerprints' script got us some representation in Los Angeles to write projects to be submitted to studios. In fact, we're finishing a script that will be submitted through our representation. We have a manager named Jonathan Hung and he specializes in representing writers and directors (through Hung Entertainment).
"Our sort of conundrum is (that) as writers but also as producers we love the studio system and getting involved in that and we've done several pitches with big producers in Hollywood. So you almost do have to divorce yourself a little bit from those producer (type) ideas of budget because you never know where the script is going to end up. What I think we've tried to do, especially after 'Fingerprints,' is to say, 'Let's just write the best story and let's just make this screenplay as good as we can get it as writers. Down the road, if we go the indie route and we produce our own film we'll customize it to that.' But a lot of Hollywood producers are looking for bigger films and so you don't want to limit yourself because you will find producers that say, 'You know what? This script is too small for us.' And so there is sort of that balance that you naturally have to find, but we try to keep both avenues in mind as we write. But it's tough. There's no easy way (to resolve it)."
"I definitely think we have ideas that we know would be better for an indie production and certain ideas that would be better for a studio film," Jason told me. "The idea we're working on now is about a group of strangers stuck in one of the most haunted house in the French Quarter of New Orleans during a hurricane. Obviously, as an independent production crew it's going to be hard for us to recreate any sort of hurricane scenarios, so it's probably going to have to be something that requires a bigger budget."
"A hurricane is bearing down on New Orleans," Brian explained, "and these people need to get to shelter as soon as they can. They didn't evacuate. But the house they barricade themselves in becomes flooded and there's so much going on. It's sort of in the vein of like '1408' (the 2007 horror film based on a Stephen King story). We're really excited to submit it to studios and if it went that route we'd be very pleased and very excited. But we have two other scripts actually that are also on the market right now that are more indie-type films and that's what we're working to produce ourselves. So we're kind of spread out all over the place. But I think you can have the best of both worlds. You can work with the studios and write big commercial films, but you can also do your own thing and get your own movies made as we did with 'Fingerprints.' It's exciting to do both."
The Clevelands shot "Fingerprints" digitally. "We shot on HD," Brian said. "We had done the same with 'Soul's Midnight.' Weighing the pros and cons, I think that's another element that is changing in the industry. There is less of a stigma about shooting on digital. And with the money that we save, we can apply that to special effects. Horror really is a genre we know a lot about. We just came (recently) from a big horror convention called Texas Frightmare Weekend. We actually screened both of our films (there and) got a huge reception. There were hundreds people who attended. ('Fingerprints') got a big applause when the killer gets killed. We did a Q&A afterwards.
"We said to ourselves, 'We put our money in the right places.' We know plenty of other independent producers who tend to overspend on their above-the-line costs with talent or have too many shooting days. They seem -- in our opinion, at least -- to sort of misallocate budget to what people are looking for in this type of film. Like a lot of genre films, more than half of ('Fingerprints') takes place at night. When you take the night, especially the exteriors, on digital on a big screen I think most people thought it was shot on film."
They opted to put extra money into effects, bringing Vincent Guastini on board as the film's special makeup effects designer and creator. "He did effects for 'Last of the Mohicans' and 'Requiem for a Dream' and 'Dogma,'" Brian said. "He's done some really big movies. We hired him. That's where we put some of our money."
What did they wind up spending to make "Fingerprints?" "I would say it cost $700,000 or maybe a little more than that," Jason replied. "We had 16 days (of shooting)."
With the Clevelands being producers as well as screenwriters, I asked how things went for them during production working with the film's director, Harry Basil? "We developed a very quick friendship with Harry," Brian said. "He is a wonderful guy and so easy to work with and I think that we're easy to work with, too. Like Jason was saying earlier, if we all disagree on something than none of us probably have the right answer. I think if you bring that collaborative approach to the set it's really going to help you try new things and be open minded. You know, we sit with Harry basically on each take and we make suggestions and I think that there is an understanding on the set that Harry makes clear to the crew and that we make clear to the crew very early on that this is going to be a collaborative project. We're not going to overrule Harry.
"I think we're all on the same page creatively because we're very well prepared. We start rewriting with Harry going over the script early on. We usually meet (well before shooting starts). For 'Soul's Midnight' we met in Vegas three months out and we went over the script and we did the same with 'Fingerprints.' What was great about 'Fingerprints' is it was shot word for word based on the draft we submitted -- and how rare is that? But everything clicked. Harry just loved it. He got it right away. He's also a big fan of the genre. I know a lot of people say that working together was great on set and they're big fat liars, you know, and it was really a nightmare. But I can honestly say (it was great). I think Jason said it best the other day (when he told someone), 'You know, if we spent the rest of our lives making movies with Harry Basil and Gray Frederickson, it wouldn't be bad.'"
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 6, 1990's column: "Smart independents, given the realities of competing with the majors in the domestic theatrical marketplace, need to make the most of ancillary markets. Understandably, that's exactly what Moviestore Entertainment is doing through a new multipicture prebuy deal with Home Box Office for home video and pay TV rights.
"'The deal is for a minimum of three pictures to be delivered in 1991,' Moviestore president and CEO Ken Badish told me Tuesday. The first of the films whose theatrical distribution by Moviestore will be followed by a release to home video and pay TV by HBO is 'Ski School,' an action comedy about students on a ski holiday that was shot in Vancouver.
"'The '90s will be a very good time for those of us who are still in business as independents,' Badish observed. 'If you look at the few independents that are left -- whether it's New Line or Miramax or Goldwyn or ourselves -- most of the successful companies have picked a certain kind of programming and distribution niche. We are going to produce and acquire what I would call commercial-oriented features as compared to the art market or specialized market that Miramax has been particularly fond of and that Goldwyn has (also pursued).'
"As a result, said Badish, Moviestore is sticking 'to commercial (films with) quality actors, recognizable names, track-record directors who have directed features in the past and producers who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard.' The company wants 'to try to really integrate the creative community and the business community in making quality commercial features that have worldwide appeal and make them at a price -- not spend money where we don't have to, but be willing to spend money where it makes sense.
"'We will align ourselves with really good quality distributors in foreign territories. Domestically we felt video was crucial and making a deal with an organization of the quality in marketing and management that HBO Video represents was crucial to us. We worked for years with (HBO) on the pay TV side. They're smart, they're tough and they're hard workers. And they're very good marketers and sensitive programrs. So from a distribution perspective, we've put in place a sensible domestic video situation...'"
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.