Most first failures stop careers in their tracks, and many early successes lead to nothing for lack of financing. But there are success stories of another kind we rarely hear about. Journeys through back alleys and down long treacherous roads that lead to a sustainable career.
I am a producer specializing in micro-budget production. I first met writer-director Henry Barrial in 2000 when I was an executive at Next Wave Films. We were giving finishing funds to exceptional low-budget features, which included Chris Nolan’s “Following.” We invested in Henry’s feature film debut, “Some Body,” a $3,000 drama shot on Canon XL-1’s with a two-man crew and no script. When it was accepted into Dramatic Competition at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, we repped its sale to Lot 47 Films, which ultimately released it theatrically in over 15 cities. A remarkable result for an improvised no-budgeter made out of necessity, several years before anyone had coined the term “Mumblecore.”
That story usually goes: director comes out of nowhere, beats the odds by getting into Sundance, and then becomes a household name. But it didn’t work out that way for Henry. Lot 47 went belly up before they released the film on home video and all the original deliverables vanished like the company’s principals. Then the producers of Henry’s follow-up film, “True Love,” a Sundance Screenwriters Lab project, walked away in pre-production when they couldn’t raise the $2 million dollars to shoot it. That’s when I jumped in, now an independent producer, and pulled Henry back into micro-budget filmmaking, a place he never really wanted to return to, and certainly didn’t want to stay.
We shot “True Love” for $50,000 and it just missed getting into Sundance. Our next film, a sci-fi thriller that Henry wrote called “Pig,” was also meant for a seven-figure budget, but I convinced (coerced?) Henry into making it the only way I knew how, on a micro-budget with money we put up ourselves and also raised on this new thing called Kickstarter.
“Pig” ultimately played over 35 festivals and won 10 awards before getting a domestic deal with Kino Lorber. Henry had been attached to a script for many years written by the deceased filmmaker Joe Vasquez, and with the success of “Pig,” those producers decided they too could make “The House That Jack Built” on a micro-budget. I was asked to join as a producer when they got into post with absolutely no money. We again raised funds on Kickstarter and the film went on to premiere at the LA Film Festival, win eight awards, and get a small theatrical distribution.
With four reasonably successful features under his belt, Henry again tried to get his next project, a clever horror film called “Final Girl,” made on a “real” budget. For the better part of 2014, we waited for financing to come through, but watched it collapse time and time again. Neither of us could take on other film work, and with two kids at home and a wife working during the day, Henry was forced to do what a lot of middle-aged men were doing at the time: He started driving for Uber at night.
When Henry had “Some Body” at Sundance, one of his champions was a woman named Lynn Auerbach, who was Associate Director of the Feature Film Program at the Sundance Institute. “Some Body” was based on the actual life experiences of lead actress Stephanie Bennett, who co-wrote and co-produced the film with Henry. What drew Lynn to “Some Body” was its striking naturalism and authenticity. This was not a film that seemed designed; it felt lived in. Henry was adamant that no moments could feel false. Actual people in Stephanie’s life were cast to play themselves. Not a single line of dialogue was written. Stephanie was persuaded to leave nothing hidden or unsaid — everything that happened in her real life was up for analysis and laid bare (often literally) in the film.
Lynn once told Henry that to follow up “Some Body,” he should quit his job and become a bus driver for six months, and then write a film about a bus driver. She believed that the majesty of everyday life was worth portraying on screen. Without realizing it, Henry did just that with his most recent feature, “DriverX.” He didn’t drive a bus; he drove a Prius. Lynn wouldn’t live to see Henry’s “bus-driving film,” (she died in 2004), but I’m sure she would have been pleased with the direction Henry took in early 2015, when we decided to turn his late-night Uber experiences into our next movie, and yes, make it on a micro-budget. Henry, once again, was pulled back into the mud of no-budget filmmaking.
We literally willed this new film into being, helped by 0% credit card offers, 400 Kickstarter backers, a few overly-supportive friends and family members, and a very talented and selfless lead actor named Patrick Fabian, (“Better Call Saul” supporting player Howard Hamlin), who played our driver.
More about unmet life expectations than Rideshare driving, “DriverX” deals with a 50-something man’s existential crisis, after he is forced into a new employment environment. His crisis comes into clearer focus when he drives around millennials, the generation superseding him, who now expect people like him to take a figurative back seat.
The heart of “DriverX” comes from the same inspiration as Henry’s first feature — real life — though the two films are very different. Henry has steadily developed his craft over the last two decades. With new cameras and equipment and no-budget tricks, we were able to make an ambitious film (night driving scenes, numerous locations, over 50 speaking parts), on a paltry budget. But at its core, “DriverX” is Henry returning to what moved him in the late ‘90s, going back to that advice from Lynn Auerbach, confronting the reality of your life and putting it on screen.
Festival audiences have connected with the film, seeing themselves in the main character’s struggle and will to persevere, despite the challenges of life confronting him at every overpass. IFC Films’ Sundance Selects is releasing the film in theaters and On Demand beginning November 30, almost exactly 18 years to the day Henry found out “Some Body” was accepted into Sundance.
Legendary UCLA professor Howard Suber says that the #1 quality his most successful students share is “Perseverance.” This certainly applies to Henry. The lesson in “DriverX” becomes the lesson of “DriverX”: never give up, learn to accept the road you’ve found yourself on, no matter how bumpy or twisty it may be, and if truth and authenticity are your guides, you’ll always find your way back home. These are lessons that many of us filmmakers can apply, when success proves to be more elusive than what we usually read about.