INTERVIEW: Scott Ziehl's "Broken Vessels": Struggling to Distribute in Today's Market
by Anthony Kaufman
When 1998 came to a close and Scott Ziehl’s assured feature film debut “Broken Vessels” remained in the great void of distribution-less movies, many were surprised. Here was a tightly scripted, good-looking, powerfully acted thriller about a young ambulance driver (“Dazed and Confused“‘s Jason London) who gets sucked into a whirlpool of drug addiction by his veteran partner (Todd Field, “Walking and Talking“). A hit at the 1998 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival where it nabbed top honors, critically lauded in indieWIRE and Entertainment Weekly, and well-positioned at a festival screening in Toronto in the Fall, the $600,000 first film seemed a sure-fire indie success. But instead of a big sale to one of the specialty divisions, it became the feather in the cap of UNAPIX, a company with very little distribution experience. They will release the film theatrically with the help of Zeitgeist Films this Friday in New York, Chicago and other markets throughout the summer. How did this happen and why?
“[Entertainment attorney] John Sloss told me this movie is the poster-child for how bad American distribution has gotten,” said the director recently from his home in Los Angeles. Though Ziehl is ready to chart the “un-navigated waters” of studio production — his pitch “Airtime” about California joyriders was bought by Miramax — it took a long time to get there for Ziehl, a former producer of straight-to-video titles like “Money to Burn,” “The Mosaic Project” and “Redline.” Ziehl spoke to indieWIRE yesterday about high-concept, distribution woes, and being a first time director/veteran low-budget producer.
indieWIRE: When the film broke at the LAIFF, everyone was excited. It won the Best Film Award, we all thought it was going to get picked up immediately.
Scott Ziehl: I thought that it would sell right away to a bigger company. John Sloss and everyone involved did think that. We were surprised when it didn’t get snatched up. Sure, it’s got dark elements, it’s edgy, but at the same time, it does let you up for air, there’s a lot of humor throughout the film. That was my argument. It was also really unique; ambulance drivers hadn’t really been portrayed before. The fact that that was a unique backdrop to a drug addiction movie would give it that extra edge, to be a high-concept, “I haven’t seen this yet.” So that was what made it more frustrating. But it really costs a lot of money to put out and market a movie and I can understand their concerns for wanting to be really safe. I’m glad that there are companies like UNAPIX and Zeitgeist that are filling the shoes of what Miramax and Fine Line used to be. Companies that’ll take chances on small movies.
iW: Though you now, in fact, have deals with those larger companies, right?
Ziehl: I have a two-picture deal at Miramax. I’m doing a film with Lawrence Bender and Richard Gladstein and “Broken Vessels” producer Roxana Zal. And it was strange, because we did, in fact, try to tie it into the deal. They bought a pitch called “Airtime.” There was bidding between New Line and Miramax and we ended up going with Miramax. And for some reason, they just didn’t respond to [“Broken Vessels”]. They thought it was great filmmaking, obviously, they wanted to be in business with me, but they weren’t sure about marketing it. We’ve heard a couple theories about “Bringing Out the Dead,” Martin Scorsese’s movie [that stars Nicholas Cage as a stressed-out ambulance driver] and that had something to do with us not getting distribution. But I don’t know if I believe that conspiracy theory.
iW: Just because there was another ambulance driver movie before it?
Ziehl: And that [Scorsese’s] has a big studio behind it and it maybe would have damaged his film if ours got wider distribution. I don’t know if there’s any validity to that. I don’t think there is. Because everyone did look at it. Fox Searchlight was still on the fence when we went to Toronto. So after LAIFF, there were still major companies interested. It had a fair shake in the marketplace; it got in all the festivals. It was great to premiere at the LAIFF and win best picture, but I sometimes wonder if my fate would have been different if it premiered at Sundance. Not to knock the LAIFF, but at Sundance, you do have everyone there in the festival setting. At LAIFF, it’s getting like that now, so I really can’t use that as an excuse and I really did have every major company at my screening. All you can ask as a filmmaker is to get a shot to sell it.
iW: Being a producer on this film, in addition to your past producing efforts, how much are you caught up in the financial dealings of the film?
Ziehl: I financed the film myself from those straight to video titles, along with about 18 credit cards, and borrowed money from my parents, and my partner on those old films also invested in “Broken Vessels.” So it was a major undertaking financially and creatively, as well.
iW: As far as the future of the film, did you feel your livelihood was at stake.
Ziehl: I did. It was weird, because I took a real turn from thinking it was going to sell like “Star Maps” did for $2.5 million to wondering if I was going to have to go back to waiting tables. I was really shocked by it, to be honest. We’ve done a deal with HBO, we’re going to certainly do deals with Showtime, the Sundance Channel, hopefully STARZ, so we should be able to recoup half the budget domestically. We didn’t get a very big advance from UNAPIX, but we’re glad they’re taking it out in theaters.
iW: Are you out of debt?
Ziehl: No, I’m not out of debt at all. I’m really in debt. I would have gone bankrupt, if I didn’t get money from my pitch to Miramax. I’m going to be out of debt, soon, though. We’re getting a theatrical release in France, Spain and Britain. They’re really small money — it’s a hard marketplace. People don’t want to pay. These people think, “We’re putting your movie out in theaters. You should give it to us.” That’s the reality of the situation. Unless you have huge, box-office proven stars, it’s so hard to get a release. Look, how fast these films are gone, in a week. It’s brutal. It’s very scary times for the film business. If you make a film at too big of a budget without a big name, you’re done in — especially if it’s not high-concept.
I’ve done a lot of panels since making this film and people always ask me, “I have an idea for a film, but it’s dark and edgy, but it’s close to me.” And I say, “Make the film you believe in, but make it at a great price.” Sure, I don’t have Miramax or Fox Searchlight distributing “Broken Vessels,” but I did get a two-picture deal at Miramax. So as far as getting your career going, I don’t think you want to play it safe. I think people and studios really respond to someone who’s done something unique. But at the same time, it can be a little hectic trying to sell these movies. I feel that it’s wrong to tell people to play it safe. They should do what they believe and what’s in their heart.
iW: As a producer, you had this background in making low-budget movies, what kind of short cuts were you using to make this film cheaply, in a short amount of time.
Ziehl: The main shortcut and the main philosophy was to try to be really practical and strategic in setting up locations. We did both of the multi-victim accidents on the same street by turning the camera and filming it in different directions. Tricks like that. I learned really quickly making those low-budget movies that the more you move, the less you get done. We had two company moves in 18 days. That was sort of my philosophy in organizing the film. I did a lot of the location scouting myself, so I was able to organize my days near each other. And the crew was really small. Being spontaneous. I had permits, but we did go steal a few shots. And you can’t do that with a big crew. You got to have the size of a documentary-size crew. We would just drive in the ambulance with our cameraman, our grip and our actors and use the ambulance itself as an equipment van. Just throw the gear in the back and get some shots. That was actually a really nice thing about having a van as your main starring vehicle.
iW: I read that it was important for you to have this vehicle almost as its own character.
Ziehl: I just thought that the vehicle could really open it up. The fact that the movie takes place about two guys in a car automatically gives you that movement that you sometimes feel is lacking in low-budget movies. We have a lot of driving shots. It was also important to keep it different, use different perspectives. We filmed almost every possible angle for the audience, behind them, movie car, side mounts, trying to keep from it being stale or claustrophobic.
iW: It’s really a strong debut film. It didn’t feel like a first film. It’s slick, looks really good, and had all the elements in place. How did you get to that point without having directed before or going to film school?
Ziehl: What producing gave me definitely ties into it. If you saw the first film that I produced, and the picture quality and it was on 16 mm, it still got distributed by New Line on home video. There was camera noise, the director’s brother who was in high school operated the Nagra, it was guerilla filmmaking. The next film I had a great sound guy named Vince Garcia, who did “Blade Runner” and I used him on “Broken Vessels.”
iW: So you were a very hands-on producer?
Ziehl: Yes, I wasn’t directing the films, but I was really involved in everything, so it was really a learning ground for me. You see the evolution of the films that I produced, the technical quality improving with each one. “Broken Vessels” was just that next step. It was a really big step. The other ones were like one step each and with “Broken Vessels,” it was like I jumped up the whole staircase, because of the people that got involved. The D.P. Antonio Calvache, went to AFI, a highly trained cinematographer, the editor David Moritz, did “Rushmore” and is doing the new Warren Beatty movie — this is the caliber of technical people I was working with. My desire as a producer to improve definitely came across. I really wanted to make something slick and smooth, that was a little raw, but felt polished.
People think “first-time director” like I hopped out of my room and went and made a movie. And it’s really not the case. I’ve worked on movies for the past 9 years. The other thing is, production values. That was just grilled into my head from the foreign distributors. The Germans want to see cars, Porsches, make it look expensive. So I really had mind-set of staging those accidents where they have production values and cars flipped upside down. That was important to me. That was another thing I learned working on those low-budget movies; those movies are all about trying to make things look as big and as expensive as possible, so that you’re able to tell people it’s a $2 million movie when you did it for 300 grand.