Couch Session: Award-Winning Writer Marc Rosenberg Talks ‘Elevator’ And More

Just the other day I got to talk with director Stig Svendsen on the indie thriller Elevator. Now, continuing with that coverage, I’ve had the opportunity to interview Marc Rosenberg. Marc is the writer and producer of Elevator. We got a chance to talk about the film and his relationship with Stig. As well, Marc talked about his influences, future projects and whether or not he ever plans to become that triple-threat guy by taking a seat in the director’s chair. You can read the full interview below.

JL: In a script like this, there appears to be a lot of subtext, both social and political commentary. What sort of message or point are you trying to convey through this?

MR: I wish there was something deep and meaningful I could say, but really my main concern was creating an entertaining movie with the budgetary and logistical challenges we had. I do read the news and I have life experience, so that inadvertently becomes my resource material.

JL: How was working with Stig Svendsen? How do you feel he did in contributing to convey your story and message on the screen as you intended in your writing?

MR: The only way a writer can hope to convey a message, if there is one, is to find a director that has similar reference points and is open minded. I could never make Stig tell my story without it being his story. While writers hate to hear this, film is a director’s medium. I always hope the director likes the script enough that he or she will want to know my reasoning and to meld this with their own understanding of the world. If a director changes something in the script, I want to be sure they know the ramifications of that change. They might make it better than I imagined, I always hope they can. Stig and I like similar movies and that became the basis of our working relationship and friendship – that, a sense of humor and a love of drink. Stig did an amazing job – we captured ‘lightning in a bottle’.

JL: You mention you and Stig share a similar taste in movies. What are some of your favorite movies? If you’re anything like me your Top 5 change on a regular basis and it’s too hard to narrow it down like that anyways. However, just off the top of your head what are some that you’ve really enjoyed?

MR: Both Stig and I love stylish films, films with a lot of panache. I think he’s more open-minded than me. We love “Psycho,” the way it’s edited, the boldness of it and Polanski’s “The Tenant,” the way he combines humor with horror. More recently, I was taken by “Two Lovers” as a beautiful and powerful character piece, I loved Mike Lee’s “Happy Go Lucky” as something totally refreshing and charming, and “The Visitor” appealed to me. I like intelligent movies. I don’t go to the cinema as much as I used to, and arrogantly, I pretty much feel I’ve seen “everything,” and there’s not much that will surprise me anymore. I walked out of “Transformers,” which surprised me until I found myself walking out of “Sherlock Holmes,” too. The “knee-jerk” films don’t entertain me; they’re soul-less.

JL: Well, with so many layers and seemingly underlying commentary and such interesting characters, ‘Elevator’ definitely doesn’t seem like it will be falling into the soul-less category. How do you feel the cast did in portraying all the layers of the film being as so much rides on the characters in a movie like this?

MR: I believe the actors we chose, or who chose us, did a spectacular job under fairly grueling conditions. They were asked to spend 12 hours a day in a confined space. They did it for the challenge and were amazing at carving out their individual stories. I was constantly reminded to never underestimate a professional.

JL: How do you approach a project? Do you like to take control? Or do you like to sit back and try to let the director command the project while you are behind him/her for support and the good of the film?

MR: I didn’t used to be a very good cheerleader, but over time I’ve come to see the value in it. I would prefer to be with a strong director, and once I’ve made the choice to work with them, I want to support them in every way I can. I used to nitpick, but it’s pointless and no fun at all. I think, for the most part, all the bitching and moaning that can go on comes from insecurity. I’d like to think I’m past that, I don’t choose to be a victim. If I want more control, as I did on “Elevator,” I produce, and in this case, invest. It doesn’t mean that I always get my way, but people pretend to listen.

JL: Stig Svendsen has said you’re very much one of these producers that are all about the good of the film. How much of this stems from you being a writer? On some level, is it hard for you to take criticism during filming on a project that you’ve vested so much time in as a writer?

MR: I’ve been a writer for 30 years and I’ve worked with the kind of producers you’d never want to work with again. I didn’t want to be that producer, the one that treats creative people like irresponsible children. I’ve always thought the goal of a quality producer is to make the best film possible, and once you’ve chosen your key creative personnel, you have to trust them as professionals to do the job they’ve been hired for. One of the first things I told the production department was my distaste for the boundaries between production and creative. We’re all creative and we all have something to contribute to the final film. If a second AD can make an actor happier, doesn’t that help the film? I believe it worked, we built a trust.

As far as my relationship with Stig goes, he shook me out of my cynicism. In casting, he’d always go to the top. My first thought was, we haven’t got a snowball’s chance in Hell, but then I’d think, “Why not?” If I could see the benefit in anything the crew wanted and we could find a way to pay for it, I’d try to get it. We were all pulling on the same end of the rope.

JL: Being as how I’m sure you have such a vested interest with your screenplays, how does it differ for you being able to serve as producer on a project as well? Being able to have more control over the whole process as opposed to such films as ‘December Boys’ where you have to just sit back and let another director and producer flesh it out on screen.

MR: I was very involved with “December Boys,” because I was friends with the director and I promised not to be a nuisance. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way and it’s not much fun. On “Elevator” I wanted as much control as I could get. I wanted to sink or swim based on my own efforts. It’s exhilarating and frightening in equal measure. I was very, very lucky to be surrounded by people who were smart and generous. I may be different than most writers, but once I finish a script, I’m not that invested, it’s almost like someone else had written it. I still want the check sent to me.

JL: What’s it like for you watching your writing adapted on screen? I would think on some level, as much time as you put into it, a screenplay becomes something like your baby. How is it watching your baby essentially grow up right before your eyes?

MR: That whole concept of it “being my baby” is foreign to me. I was constantly being asked what it felt like, and to be perfectly honest, it just seems like this cousin that I’ve seen photos of. Perhaps early on in my career I would have been more possessive, but not any more. When I’m writing it, it’s fun and challenging, and I put my heart and soul into it, so perhaps when I’ve finished I’m just spent.

JL: You talk about wanting to have as much control as you could on “Elevator” and how that “sink or swim on your own efforts” is exhilarating for you. With that in mind, have you thought about ever making that final leap and take a seat in the director’s chair as well? Maybe at some point do your own project that you write, produce and direct?

MR: I’m in awe of directors. When I was watching Stig talk about camera angles, deciding on costumes, working out choreography with actors – the confidence you need, it all seems daunting. I did think about directing at one stage, soon after Film School, but I was too influenced by the people around me. I guess that’s why writing appeals to me so much – I can be a closet show-off. I haven’t totally given up the idea of directing but it’s not a burning desire.

JL: Speaking of your writing, I’ve heard that when you and Stig met you let him read several of your screenplays and ‘Elevator’ actually wasn’t his first choice. However, due to budgetary restraints y’all weren’t able to do the one he first chose. What was the original script that Stig was interested in?

MR: The original script was an espionage film set in L.A. and Venezuela. It’s still a possibility, so I don’t want to reveal too much.

JL: Do you have any plans to collaborate with Stig again? Maybe to come back to that script at a later time? How would you feel working with him again?

MR: I’d love to work with Stig again, and we have an idea for Harrison Ford. It’s another big film.

JL: A Harrison Ford movie huh? That’s interesting. Anymore you can tell me on that?

MR: The “Harrison Ford” project is still in the early stages, but deals with a character that makes an unnatural discovery that changes history.

JL: Going back to your and Stig’s decision to work together. As I mentioned, the first script Stig wanted wasn’t possible due to budgetary restraints. This results in having to go a much more low-budget route. It seems more and more like indie films and getting recognition these days. With recent hits like Paranormal Activity and Buried, how do you thinkthis bodes for those very low budget filmmakers? How might it affect the industry that’s so known for being all about money and being more focused on using big names and huge budgets to typically sell movies?

MR: I believe that there will always be spectacle films, big budget films, but if you’re an aspiring film-maker or you want to have more control, you can make high-concept films on a low budget. The market is receptive to indies.

JL: Have you found a distributor for ‘Elevator’ yet?

MR: We don’t have a distributor, and this was by design. When I first pitched the concept to my lawyer, he said he could sell it immediately, but I’d lose control, and that seemed to defeat the whole point of me doing it in the first place.

JL: When might we be seeing Elevator? Any tentative release date? Any ideas to shop it around at any festivals?

MR: I’m trying to formulate a strategy for getting it seen in the most positive way. My first thought is to take it to Cannes. I want to talk to wiser heads and see what they suggest.

JL: Do you have any other scripts in the works or ideas for what you might be doing next?

MR: I have a big budget film in the works called “The Mennyms,” based on a series of books by English author, Sylvia Waugh. The story centers around a family of living dolls fighting to keep their house. Besides that, I’ve always been drawn to the Patricia Highsmith books and would love to adapt one of those. I wasn’t at all happy with the film, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.

JL: Speaking on the admiration of others’ works, the concept of ‘Elevator’ feels real Hitchcockian and you mention your love for ‘Psycho’, so I’d figure in some ways his films have had an influence on you. What have been some of your biggest influences as a writer?

MR: I read a lot of novels. Patricia Highsmith has been a big influence on me – “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Glass Cell,” “A Dog’s Ransom,” etc. There’s not one of her books I haven’t read. I’m still struggling with the classics that most people read in college – “Anna Karinina,” etc. I am a huge fan of Chekov, and I think his “A Boring Story” is a masterpiece. I like reading novels set in L.A. and get a kick out of recognizing the locations. I really think the secret to being a good writer (or filmmaker) is knowing the terrain, not parodying someone else’s work, but writing from a personal knowledge. Emotional terrain counts, too. If I weren’t a screenwriter, I’d love to write a novel. Most screenwriters turned novelists are pretty average.

JL: “The Mennyms.”. Anymore you can tell me on that? You say that’s in the works, how far in the works are we talking here?

MR: I’ve written about 10 drafts of “The Mennyms”, trying to please producers and directors, and now there’s someone trying to raise the money. If they can’t, I may produce it myself.

JL: Well, I thank you for your time, Marc. It’s been very interesting and a pleasure. I look forward to hearing more about ‘Elevator’ and your future projects.

Writing a Novel, Screenwriting, and Bar Scenes From a Movie

Writing a novel, screenwriting, and bar scenes from a movie are entertaining. Writing a novel based on an existing movie screenplay is not the most common approach writers choose to take. It goes against the grain of how it usually works. Many entertaining novels have been adapted for the movies by screenwriters. Sometimes it works and other times people that have read the novel are disappointed with the movie.

I have caught myself saying, “I thought the novel was way better” and other times I think the movie was good or even better than the book it was adapted from. I love screenwriting, producing, and directing movies. It does provide a creative rush to see an idea you had for a movie really happen and not stay the person always talking about making a movie, but never taking action to move forward.

Almost everybody in the entertainment business knows someone that talks about a hot movie idea, but never writes the screenplay. They might write a detailed movie treatment and it goes no further than that. End of story. Nobody likes to see themselves as that person that never goes all in with their idea. The roles were reversed on me lately.

I was out with friends not wanting to think about anything on a deep level or business. Just wanted to relax and enjoy the moment of what was happening as it came. Like a script page out of a bar scene from a movie I get cornered by that one person that always somehow shows up you know is going to talk your ear off about something. In this case it was their hot movie concept they had been pitching for years. There never is a finished script or treatment, only ideas coming at you like machine gun fire. What if this? What if that?

Politeness beats rudeness. I shot straight with her that I could not afford the time and energy to write a spec screenplay and bet on the come she would find the money to produce it in order to pay me later. We have known each other for years, but in a very casual sense. The reversal happened when she reminded me that over the years I have talked about always wanting to write a novel and have not done it. If I told her about my aspiring novelist dreams, I can only imagine how many times I must have said it to family and close friends over the years.

She was right. I had not done it and only talked about it. Writing short fiction was my transition to screenwriting, but I skipped something I have always wanted to do – write a novel. I have finally committed to completing a novel that is based on a screenplay I wrote titled Crazy Love Story that fell out of production. Writing a novel is a different process that has taken getting used to.

The biggest difference for me as a filmmaker is the level of lucid description that is needed to draw in readers and paint a picture in their mind. With movies people see the story being played out visually. Viewers can see what a character and location looks like. In novels the writer needs to be able to describe in only words the world they have created. Writing a novel based on an existing movie screenplay is not the most common approach writers choose to take. At least there is going to be that climax when it is done that I finally stopped talking and finished the job of writing a novel. This is filmmaker and aspiring novelist Sid Kali typing FADE OUT

Indie Film Financing and Movie Distribution – Dancing Nude

Indie film financing and movie distribution reminds of what it would feel like dancing nude on stage (much respect for exotic dancers at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club!). You show up to pitch your movie project and need to be able to dance to a film investor’s music. It’s their stage and not yours as an indie filmmaker seeking film funding. They want you to make a sellable movie which appeals to movie distributors so the production can make money.

Most investors I’ve met with are not interested in putting hard money into indie art house films because those are tough sells to movie distributors and overseas film buyers aren’t usually interested in seeing them. The dialogue and scenes of certain art house type films don’t translate well to foreign buyers and movie viewers. Action, horror and skin does not need subtitles for people to follow the story is what I’ve been told by distributors. Talking head movies can make no sense to viewers that don’t understand subtle lines spoken in a foreign language.

Independent film financing continues to change as indie movie distribution gets more financially shaky. The place it’s hitting indie movie producers hardest is right at the source – film financing. Film investors right now aren’t feeling excited about putting money into movies that do not have bankable name actors. This is not like so-called indie movies that have A-list actors or are produced for millions of dollars. Those type of indie film passion projects you can make once you’ve made it in the entertainment business at the studio level.

Indie film investors and movie distributors won’t expect you to have an A-list actor, but they do want producers to have actors (B-list or C-list or D-list) with some name recognition or celebrity. The first question film investors and movie distributors ask is who the cast is. This is where most indie movie producers are blown out of the water because they have an unknown cast of actors. Plus there is a glut of indie movies being made because technology has made it more affordable to make movies.

The bright side is that entertaining indie movies are being made that might not otherwise ever have seen light of day before. The downside is meaningful movie distribution (getting paid) for indie produced films continues to shrink as indie films being made rises (supply and demand 101). I talked to one movie distributor that caters to releasing independent films and they told me they receive new film submissions daily.

They were honest saying they get very sellable movies and ones that are less than appealing, but with so many movies out there they no longer offer a majority of producers advance money against film royalties or pay a lump cash “buy-out” to secure distribution rights. Their business viewpoint is most indie filmmakers are just happy seeing their movie released. The term they used was “glorified showreel” for an indie filmmaker to display they can make a feature film. So, they acquire many of their movie releases without paying an advance or offering a “buy-out” agreement.

Not making a profit from a movie does not make financial sense for film investors that expect to see money made. When people put up money to produce a movie they want a return on their investment. Otherwise it’s no longer a movie investment. It becomes a film donation of money they’re giving away with no expectations. I’ve been on the “dog and pony show” circuit meeting with potential film investors and learning invaluable lessons.

I’m in the habit now of talking to indie movie distributors before writing a screenplay to see what types of films are selling and what actors or celebrity names attached to a potential project appeal to them. This is not like chasing trends, but it gives producers a sharper picture of the sales climate for indie films. Sometimes distributors will give me a short list of actors or celebrities to consider that fit an independent movie budget. Movie sales outside of the U.S. are where a bulk of the money is made for indie filmmakers.

Movie distributors and film sales agents can tell you what actors and celebrity talent is translating to movie sales overseas at the indie level. These won’t be A-list names, but having someone with some kind of name is a great selling point to help your movie standout from others. Brief cameos of known actors or celebrities used to be a good way to keep talent cost down and add a bankable name to your cast.

That has changed lately from my conversations with distribution companies. Movie distributors now expect any name talent attached to have a meaningful part in the movie instead of a few minutes in a cameo role. Cameo scenes can still work if there is a visual hook that grabs the attention of viewers in some way. But having name talent say a couple of lines with no special hook won’t fly anymore.

Another way to make an indie film in need of funding more attractive to investors is to attach talent that has been in a movie or TV show of note. Their name as an actor might not be that well-known yet, but rising stars that have appeared in a popular movie or TV show can give your movie broader appeal. If you cast them in a supporting role keep working days on the set down to a minimum to save your budget. Try to write their scenes so they can be shot in one or two days.

When you’re pitching to serious film investors they will want to be given a detailed movie budget and distribution plan on how you plan on making money from the film’s release. The Catch-22 that happens a lot is that most movie distributors that cater to releasing indie films won’t commit to any deal until they’ve screened the movie.

There is not built-in distribution like with studio budget films. Film investors that are not traditionally part of the entertainment business can get turned off when a producer does not have a distribution deal already in place. They don’t understand the Catch-22 of indie filmmaking and distribution. This is where a movie producer really needs to have a solid pitch that explains the financial dynamics of indie film distribution.

Most film investors will pass on an indie movie producer’s financing pitch that mentions self-distribution in it. From a movie investor’s business perspective it takes entirely too long for an indie movie to generate money going the self-distribution route. It’s like the old school way of selling your movie out of the trunk of your car at places, but now it’s done online using digital distribution and direct sales via a blog. That’s a long grind that most investors will not be interested in waiting around for. Moving one unit of a movie at a time is too slow of trickle for investors.

A possible way around the Catch-22 is to reach out to movie distributors while you are pitching to film investors. With a firm budget number and possible cast attached you can gauge to see if there is any meaningful distribution interest in the movie. It’s always possible a distributor will tell you that they would offer an advance or “buy-out” deal. They usually won’t give you a hard number, but even a ballpark figure of what they might offer can let you know if your budget makes financial sense to approach movie investors with.

I know one savvy indie movie producer that makes 4-6 movies a year on very reasonable budgets and knows they’re already making a profit from the advance money alone. The film royalty payments are a bonus. The producer keeps budgets extremely affordable and streamlined at every phase of production. Once you have a track record with a distribution company you know what you can expect to be paid. Then you can offer film investors a percent on their money invested into the production that makes sense.

Social networking with other indie filmmakers lets you hear what’s happening with movie distribution from other people’s real life experiences. A cool thing I’ve been hearing about is that there are film investors that won’t put up money to make movie that is going to be self-distributed, but they will roll the dice on a feature that is going to specific film festivals. Not the art house film festivals. The ones that are very genre specific like for horror or action films. Like Screamfest Horror Film Festival or Action on Film (AOF). Film buyers attend these events and meaningful distribution deals are made.

Independent film financing and movie distribution are areas of the entertainment business all filmmakers will have to deal with and learn from each experience. I was in the hot seat today pitching to a film investor. I’ve streamlined the budget as much as I can without making the plot lose steam.

The jam I’m in as a producer is there are hard costs that cannot be avoided that include lots of gun play including two rigging shots where baddies get shot and are blown backwards off their feet. Badass action films need experienced and seasoned film crews to pull-off hardcore action shots off clean and safe. The cast I want to hire has the perfect appeal and name recognition for this indie action movie to rock viewers. There is nothing that can get lost in the translation in this film for foreign film buyers and movie viewers.

What I think got lost in the translation with the potential film investor today is if I keep taking out below-the-line crew to save money I’m going to have to do rewrites to the screenplay to take out action scenes. These are selling points that will hurt sales if they are written out. But it’s my job as an indie filmmaker to balance a budget that appeals to film investors. We’ll see how this goes. This is indie filmmaker Sid Kali typing fade out.