EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
In Steven Schachter‘s Sundance ’08 Premiere, “The Deal,” the story revolves around Hollywood producer Charlie Berns, which the festival describes as “a guy whose suicidal tendencies give him the chutzpah to con a major studio into a $100 million deal on a script he hasn’t even read.” His idealistic screenwriter nephew then shows up on his door with a solemn arthouse period script about Benjamin Disraeli. Meanwhile, the trade papers have announced that a recently converted black action star is actively seeking jewish material, so the seredipity is too absurd to resist. Charlie masterminds a plan making it impossible for the studio not to greenlight the project… Sundance’s Caroline Libresco says in the festival catalog that “Schachter’s tongue-in-cheek romp revels in sending up Hollywood stereotypes–zealous star, histrionic director, slippery suits…”
Director: Steven Schachter
Screenwriters: William H. Macy, Steven Schachter
Producers: Irene Litinsky, Michael Prupas, Keri Nakamoto
Cinematographer: Paul Sarossy
Editor: Matt Friedman
Principal Cast: William H. Macy, Meg Ryan, LL Cool J
Canada, 2007, 98 minutes, color, 35mm
Please introduce yourself…
[I am] Steven Schachter — early 50’s director/writer — live in Los Angeles with my partner, Rick Murphy and daughter, Sydney. I grew up in New Jersey, went to Goddard College where I met Bill Macy and David Mamet and fell into the world of the theater. I have been working in the theater as a director and television ever since. [And] I am an avid horseman.
What were the circumstances that attracted you to filmmaking?
I worked in the theatre for many years and ultimately tired of the restriction of the four walls. I wanted to break out. I also was having trouble “supporting myself,” so I wrote a 30 minute short with a friend and got it produced. And then I had directed “The Water Engine” on Broadway and my pal, Dave Mamet asked me to direct a film version TNT was doing (which was incredibly gracious of him, in that he was a film director at the time) and that was the beginning of my T.V. career doing many television movies in the T.V. movie hey day (which is sadly over)…
How did you learn the craft of filmmaking?
I’ve made a number of television movies, which are very similar to films, only more difficult in terms of time allowed. It served me well, in that it was boot camp training. How to do things efficiently and get the most bang for your buck on the screen. I went to New York University for a summer and took an intensive filmmakers workshop where we had to make a film each week….I was horrible at the technical elements (couldn’t figure out the F stops, lost the film pieces in the edit room), but the instructor kindly said, if I ever got to direct a film, someone would be doing these things for me (mercifully I’ve found this to be true).
What prompted the idea for “The Deal” and how did it evolve?
Our manager Ken Gross represents Peter Lefcourt and he wrote “The Deal,” so Ken introduced us to his work and we fell in love with his writing and sense of humor. We had written an adaptation of the book for Showtime, but then they too got out of the movie of the week business just in time to not do our script… So we said, ‘why don’t we just bite the bullet and make it as a feature?’
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences or early inspiration with regard to the casting, technique and approach to the project.
The most unique aspect of this film is the film within the film parts, so it was very tricky trying to figure out how much equipment we could steal from ourselves and how much crew — and then dividing the crew into the Prague crew and the South African crew — it was pretty hairy, and sometimes we’d just grab someone and say, “OK, you’re the Czech First A.D.” — only because he was the Czech dialect coach, and the only one who actually spoke Czech. Ultimately, it was great fun to watch our crew work in front of the camera and the authenticity they brought to their jobs was priceless and they had a great time as well.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
Bill [Macy] and I decided to work outside the studio system and that was a huge challenge for us. So, we went stumping out on the cocktail party circuit, starting with a gang we met through the Sarasota Film Festival and it snowballed…and then the snow melted ($ fell out) after we had been prepping in Romania for 6 weeks. We came home, tail between our legs, and then were resurrected through a deal with Peace Arch….and lost our leading lady. Then we had to figure out where to shoot this romantic comedy in the dead of winter, so we looked in the southern hempisphere and settled on South Africa, and then Meg Ryan read the script and we were pretty much off and running.
It was an interesting experience to prep a film twice!
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
To sell our film for domestic distribution so hopefully our investors who stuck with us through it all can finally see some return on their money….or at least get it back.
What are some of your recent favorite or all-time favorite films?
I love character pieces that have some social relevance. Some of my faves off the top have been, “Billy Elliot,” “American Beauty,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “The Feast of July.” They are usually about “the outsider” in some way…
Do you have any other upcoming projects?
Bill and I have been working on a pilot for TNT called “Family Man” about the perfect dad with an “intriguing” profession.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.