In 2008, I won a Fellowship in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts. As I left the party in my strapless black dress and uncomfortable shoes I had one thought: “Please dear gods let this be the beginning of my professional career, and NOT just the highlight of years of effort.” I have had the same goal for twenty years: to make thought-provoking independent films that explore the complexities, frailties, and dichotomies of the human species. Winning a NYFA Fellowship was both the validation and kick in the ass that I needed, and I set myself a singular goal: to direct “The Machine Who Loved” as my first professional feature. I have been in the “channel” ever since.
Some interesting people have jumped into the “channel” during these last three years… A local journalist who loved the script so much she declared me the “Next Hollywood Hopeful” in the Rochester City Newspaper’s “Best of” issue; the judge of a screenwriting contest who was already talking about his interest in producing “The Machine Who Loved” as he told me I’d won the contest; a young producer who saw in the script a chance to take his own career to the next level.
A lot of support and wishful thinking, but it takes certain skills – and a certain kind of person – to successfully produce a film. How do you find the producer who can pull it all together? I have no fucking idea, but somehow it seems to have happened – thanks to the internet and eight months of serendipitous steps in the right direction.
While people were approaching me saying “I want to make your film”, I was actively sending the script around to people whose work I respect. Though I got positive feedback and interest from a DP, an editor, two production designers and several name actors, producers were much more elusive. And I get it: when I approach an editor or an actor I sound like a person with a job to offer; when I approach a producer I sound like a wanna-be with an agenda that involves them subscribing to my dream and, ultimately, finding a way to pay for it.
One day last summer, distraught over the impending collapse of the relationship with my young producer, I found myself online emailing colleagues, asking for advice. Then, on Facebook, I got an Instant Message from an Estranged Relative (“E.R.”) and instead of the routine answer to “How’s it going?” I mentioned the struggles regarding my would-be, now apparently wouldn’t-be-right-now film. E.R. came back immediately with “Oh, you should talk to Susan!” (Susan being an indie producer/friend of hers).
To make a long story short, I did talk to producer Susan R. Rodgers and she – as with the other colleagues I consulted – agreed that I must part ways with my young producer. She also asked to read the script. A short time later, one of her staff contacted me to say that everyone had really liked “The Machine Who Loved” – and then Susan went off to work on a film, and I went back to querying potential producers.
Eight months later, Susan sent me an email asking what was up with my project. I told her I had the script out to an accomplished indie producer, and that I had potentially interested a brilliant, smoking hot name actor. (Which, to the uninitiated, means: I successfully jumped through the hoops with the actor’s manager and both the rep & actor had read the script and IF/WHEN I got the film financed “let us know”.) To which Susan replied: “If the other producer passes, I’m interested.”
The other producer never actually passed, but he did tell me that he wouldn’t have time for another project until 2012, and he gave his blessing to see what I could get going with Susan. So… I recently optioned “The Machine Who Loved” to producer Susan R. Rodgers and her company Indiana Girl Productions. I won’t lie, I was a little nervous after having multiple people tell me in recent years “I want to make your film” – only to see hopes rise and fall. But this time it’s different. For one thing, Susan already has a proven track record as an award-winning independent producer. So, I signed a nine-month option attaching me as director and Susan as producer as she seeks financing.
So now what? Susan has a lot of good contacts and industry relationships, having made a dozen financially successful independent feature films. She is seeking various distribution deals, as well as private financing. We’re looking to get a Letter Of Intent from our brilliant, smoking hot name actor (this would informally attach him to the project as Susan seeks to finalize financing). I recently sent the script – and a variation of my trademark passionate email – to a potential leading lady: a fearless, shape shifting actress who has been astonishing in films large and small. I am keeping my fingers crossed – this is a very character-driven script and I need great actors! I have also been continuing to delve into the script as part of my directing preparation.
I have done several rewrites over the last few years the team all agrees the script is good to go. Last year I made a storyboard, but my drawing skills aren’t quite able to capture the angles I envision, so I’ve been going through the script and writing out my shot ideas and making notes about music cues. I have also created a comprehensive “Artistic Elements” document that discusses everything from palette and pacing, to sound and style. I had the opportunity to direct a staged reading of the script for the 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival (in Rochester, NY – where I live), so I’ve explored this story with both actors and audience. I’m trying to be prepared… I’ve made – on my own and with zero resources – two feature length and a dozen short films. But technically, I am a “first-time director”.
I think I have accomplished Step One: finding the right producer.
Zoje Stage is the moving force behind Master Builder, an independent film company that has produced two feature-length and more than a half dozen short films.