Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
How A Hollywood Casino Dice Dealer Wrote A Movie That Ended Up In Every Blockbuster Store in the United States–In The Age Of Such Things As Video Stores!
Good Reader, here’s a thrilling confessional tale of how to make every mistake in the book as a writer/director, and still wind up with a movie that makes a couple million bucks. While it’s a personal story, there will be life lessons you can apply, to learn and grow by avoiding these mistakes. Let’s get going…
I am a sucker for long titles. How about this one: A Fire Was Burning Over The Dumpling House One Chinese New Year. That’s a tough one for a movie marquee, but it works fine for a play title. The genesis of Jane Doe starts here. Dumpling House was a play I wrote about Claire G, a heroin-addict and my girlfriend, back in New York circa 1983. It won’t spoil a 30-year-old play and 15-year-old movie to tell you things didn’t turn out well for her. I wrote the play two days after we buried her. I wrote it in four days. Three months later it was being performed in Chicago at igLoo, the Theatrical Group. This was a company formed by my brother Chris and his then-wife Maria. They took on the lead roles and the play, appropriately for our micro-budget purposes, was put up for the price of a couple pizzas. Costumes were made from scratch, sets were built with wood found in dumpsters, a mattress on the floor, a beat-down table and chairs. Dumpster Theater, and how. It was my first play, and the company’s second.
It made a noise.
The way to break through into the consciousness of people is to take a personal story and turn it into something that resonates universally, with an objective audience. That process of transmutation is called writing. When what resonates for you personally resonates for someone in the dark of the theater, you’re on the right path. The play was about addiction. Addiction has been done and done, in both theater and film. But what about the POV of the person living with the addict? I didn’t even know the term enabler then, but what about showing the cost of addiction, the hell and insanity of it, the not knowing what to do. Lots of folks with substance abuse problems in lots of families. So this one hit close to home. For every 10 folks who saw it, more than a few were in tears when lights came up.
It ran months in Chicago, then followed my brother and his wife to Los Angeles for a production there. Then back to Chicago for a return run, ending sometime in 1988.
And then it sat for seven years.
Unpublished, no other theatrical performance was done of it. It wasn’t until I started writing screenplays in 1995 that I adapted it into a screenplay. My brother had shifted to thoughts of movies and championed Dumpling House (retitled Pictures Of Baby Jane Doe). I was working on the casino boat and wrote it gloriously ignorant of all things screenwriting. I didn’t concern myself one iota about mundane aspects like budget. Dedicated to Claire G, it would be shot in New York and Atlantic City.
I continued dealing dice in Aurora, Illinois, leaving the trivial details of fundraising to my producer brother who swore a blood oath to make it happen. But…how do you make it happen? Well, start by hitting up the folks. Dad, being a doc filmmaker himself, started the ball rolling, pumping in first money. Hey Dad, you ruuuule! Mom happened to run one of the top vintage stores in New York City and offered to fully costume the movie plus use her store for a location, and some cash too. Hey Mom, you’re a giver! With that $90,000, Chris schemed to make the movie under a SAG Limited X contract. Ultra-low budget. I was just the craps dealer-writer back then and didn’t question his figures when he announced we could do it, with the script AS IS, for the 90K. And so we set out with the full intention to shoot it for that, until Unapix entered the picture.
Unapix Entertainment was a video distributor whose credits included—I shit you not—Judy Tenuta: Un-Butt Plugged in Tex-Ass!, Jack Frost 2-Revenge of the Killer Mutant Snowmen, and the underrated My Brother The Pig. With a track record like that, little wonder they went under in 2001. Of course in 1995 we didn’t know we were getting into bed with hacks.
Life Lesson 662A: Know who you’re getting into bed with!
My brother and I were summoned to the offices of Unapix Entertainment. This was mid-town Manhattan, a Park Avenue address. Escorted into the Managing Director’s office and sat down in a pair of 500 buck black mesh-back chairs, the Managing Director of Unapix came in, shook our hands and sat behind his oaken Gorman desk. My brother and I also sat, like a pair of M & M’s, plain and peanut. He proceeded to tell us how tremendously impressed he was with the script. Very moving story. Did it move me when I wrote it, he wanted to know. “Well, my girlfriend died, so…you know….” Yes indeed, powerful stuff, thus the reason for this meeting. He wanted in. He knew we had full prepped for a 90K ultra-low budget shoot but how about if Unapix came in. Then he slide a check across the table made out for $150,000 dollars.
It’s quite something, to stare at a $150,000 check that someone wants to hand you. Good Reader, would you have the intestinal fortitude to push it away?
If only we had….
Next day the contract came in. About the size of a Yellow Pages, we hired a young lawyer, friend of my brother, to help us interpret the document.
Life Lesson 923: Hire The Best Entertainment Lawyer You Can Possibly Afford. It will save you one hundred-fold on the back end.
Our guy was good in pointing out the obvious: Boiler plate language lead to two major points:
1-Unapix owned all domestic distribution. 2-Unapix would control final cut. This meant that while I, as director, would edit to the Rough Cut, Unapix would have final say on the Fine Cut. They controlled the movie in its final form. They also would receive first monies to pay back their investment plus profit percentages, yada yada…
What did I know? I was a freakin’ craps dealer living in a sub-basement apartment in Aurora, Illinois. The business end bored me to tears. I just wanted to shoot a movie that honored my dead girlfriend.
Life Lesson 924: Sometimes it pays to take off the arty-farty, adolescent, paper Pirate hat and put on the hat of a Business Man, because the Man sitting across the desk will gut you if you don’t.
I recall some discussion of the boiler plate language. Could we trust them? Well, the meeting with the Pres couldn’t have gone better. They respected our artistic instincts. We wouldn’t have a problem on the back end.
No, not us. (to be continued…)
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