The ADG Conference session 'The Entrepreneurial Director' should have been titled 'The Desperate Director,' according to Ben Lewin, who rounded out the first day of Directing in the Digital Age yesterday.
Speaking candidly to a room full of peers, Lewin spoke of how it was hitting (almost) rock-bottom in his field that opened the doors which would lead to his successful and critically acclaimed film The Sessions.
Speaking of how ABC TV in Australia wouldn't return his calls, Lewin said "It was, at the time,the hardest pill to swallow… In retrospect, I am grateful for the rejection. It gave me the desperation I needed to move forward. Thus, the theme of this talk. Except for 'entrepreneurial', read 'desperate.' And for the other part of the formula – add in sheer, dumb, luck."
Lewin is being modest here. Sheer dumb luck didn't grant the film a Golden Globe or Oscar nod, nor did it scrape together the money to finance the project. But for a film made under $1 million and in five years, Lewis certainly did strike a bit of good fortune along the way.
Getting the rights to Mark O'Brien's story (on which the film is based) led Lewin to meet Susan Fernbach, O'Brien's girlfriend before his death and to whom he had left his literary estate. Fernbach then contacted Cheryl Cohen Greene, the real life sex surrogate in Mark’s story (played in the film by Academy Award winning actress Helen Hunt), which Lewin describes as "one of those crucial 'how lucky can you be' moments."
Financing came from private investors (Lewin notes how difficult – yet at times successful – cold calling can be) and spoke of his interaction with Screen Australia, who knocked back his request for $250K.
He humorously described their response as, "UH-UH! Were we out of our cotton pickin’ minds, or what?" before going on to say: "However, I really don’t wish to criticise. Ultimately it was for the best, it really was. But I think there is room to reflect that the guidelines which seem to define Screen Australia's investments might be out of touch with the modern realities of low budget independent filmmaking. We could have transposed the story into an Australian setting, with Australian characters and spent every production dollar in Australia. But we chose not to. Why? Because it would have cost at least two, maybe three times as much -or more. And at the same time we would be reducing the commercial value of the film because we could no longer say it was a true story, about actual, real people, which ultimately turned out to be of great promotional value."
Screen Australia funding aside, Lewin and his producer partner and wife Judi Levine raised enough money to get the film done and dusted (though Lewin notes Levine was still raising money during shooting and post) for the grand total of $935,000 "and some change."
But the money-raising process wasn't over yet. Lewin and Levine then raised a further $50,000 to take the film to Sundance.
"Seems like a lot, doesn't it," Lewin mused. "I asked our attorney, Craig Emmanuel… 'Couldn't I just go to Sundance with a backpack and a DVD?' 'Yes,' he said. 'But you'll end up leaving money on the table.'
"So, we paid a top publicist $10 grand, when we could have had a lesser one for free," Lewin continued. "We paid for the three principal cast to come to the festival in grand style, with hairdressers, groomers, limos and chauffeurs up the wazoo, plus our own costs."
The end result? The Sessions was sold to Fox Searchlight for $6 million.
"I cannot begin to tell you what it felt like," he said.
Now, after some professional hiccups (Lewin laments he turned down a Disney movie about baseball which ended up being made without him, and regrets failing to have another project in the pipeline after The Sessions was done and dusted) Lewin is writing another script, "a low budget one which we're going to do all by ourselves, the way we did The Sessions," he said. "In many ways, we could be back where we started, and I don't mind at all."
The ADG Conference: Directing in the Digital Age continues today.