Being a first-time filmmaker tends to be a gauntlet for which nothing can truly prepare you. Not film school. Not reading books by Sidney Lumet or Robert Rodriguez. Not until you actually get your hands dirty do you realize that reality is different from theory. That’s not to say that the theory is pointless; only that it is just that: theory.
I got a chance to talk with filmmaker Leah Sturgis – who co-wrote, directed, co-edited, executive produced, and produced her first feature, Hard Breakers, which hit selected theaters on May 20th – about her writing process, how wearing all those different filmmaking hats helped her on set, and what she found to be the most challenging aspect of the entire process.
Ryan Mason: Having written a number of screenplays on your own, what did you learn during that period and what made you decide to work with your co-writer Elaine Fogg on Hard Breakers?
Leah Sturgis: I started off writing an action screenplay, a TV pilot, and sort of a black comedy, and I was working with a really great comedic writer. She was coaching me and teaching me along the way. I learned a lot about structure and just, you know, there are some rules that come along with screenwriting that I hadn’t learned in my classes – I had taken some classes in school and whatnot – things like, in movies a lot of times especially in comedies you’ll see things magically happen. For example, the main character by chance runs into this guy she went to high school with, miraculously bumps into him at a restaurant or something and these kinda things happen like “What a coincidence!” And she taught me that that’s poor writing because it’s really important that what happens to a character is because that character has made a certain decision and so therefore there’s a repercussion or effect that happens instead of things happening because of magic, or accident, or coincidence. She taught me fun stuff like that and just helped me understand the craft a lot more. The reason I teamed up with Elaine was because I wanted to write this kind of outlandish fun comedy and we had gone to college together. I always told her that she should do stand up. She’s just great with these one-liners. She has a really funny sense of humor so I thought for the two girls [in Hard Breakers] to banter back and forth and create this relationship would be perfect because we already had that relationship so it would be more realistic. We’d have the voices of both her and I in there. It was more of a fun process. It helps to have that other voice there when there’s two main characters. So I was more of the structure and traditional-what-you-learn-in-screenwriting-classes, and she’s great with the clever one-liners, so I wanted to bring that together.
RM: So, it sounds like your collaboration involved you writing the skeleton and then both of you fleshing it out from there?
LS: Exactly. I would set up the scene – because I learned a lot about setups and reversals. For comedies that’s important: a character has an intention and then it gets reversed on them. That makes for comedy. So, I would say, “Now, she has to go here and something like this has to happen.” And Elaine would say, “What if the guy says this?” We were really collaborative that way.
RM: Did you know going into the writing process that you were going to direct? How many passes did you take before you were ready to shoot?
LS: Yes. I had my other scripts, which, I didn’t think I could actually produce with a low budget. Either I wanted a certain caliber of talent or cast that would drive up the budget, or it was an action script. So, I wanted to do something that we could make for pretty much on the cheap. We wrote it with that in mind. And we definitely went over the script a bunch of times, but when you’re doing comedy – and this is the thing: the film turned out quite a bit different from the script because really you have something on the page and then you get there in the scene with the actors and someone does a line and it’s just not funny. It’s not funny anymore in that context. So, we really did a lot of ad-lib. I really let the actors kind of have their way told them to feel free to just make stuff up, to find the comedy that’s happening in the moment between this guy that’s playing opposite of you. We actually didn’t stick to the script at all [laughs]. It was tough for me to cut together in the end. Chris Kattan is especially wild. There were a couple of lines that I actually needed him to say for the plot point and I was having so much fun on the set that this one line never made it in and I thought, “Oh my god, this isn’t gonna make sense.” At that point we were having fun so I told myself this is a comedy, it’s not particularly all about the plot [laughs] so we took some liberties there.
RM: Seems like once you’ve cast guys like Tom Arnold and Chris Kattan, you might as well let them loose to see what they come up with.
LS: Definitely. Tom has a very strong personality. He actually had ideas, you know, he said to me “Leah, I want this character to do this and I want this character to have more of an arc.” And I was like, “Okay, great!” I liked his ideas, I took them and ran with them. I really heard him out and worked with him. It was collaborative.
RM: Seems like it would have to be for it to work since so much of it was improv.
LS: Exactly. And then we shot the movie in 21 days, so, we were moving extremely fast. At one point the production manager [Robert Latham Brown] said that we were going to lose a day – so we couldn’t shoot 22 days – so I had to carve a bunch of stuff out of the script and, on the fly, I had to change this entire scene around. We were going to shoot a couple scenes but we didn’t have time. In particular there’s this scene where Bobby Lee is dancing around in this neglige and I came up with that 10 minutes before we shot it. I was just like, “You’re gonna dance around” and I started to choreograph a little dance and said, “Just try to copy my moves.” And him just trying to copy my moves turned out hilarious. Honestly that scene, I think, is my favorite scene in the entire movie. I think it’s the funniest scene in the movie. And that was just totally spontaneous. No scripting or anything [laughs]. It was wild.
RM: You wore a bunch of hats on this movie – co-writer, director, co-editor, producer. Did that help you in the whole process or did it make things more overwhelming?
LS: If I hadn’t been able to have these other abilities – like working on Final Cut – this movie would not be finished. I worked with the editor [Peter Devaney Flanagan] for a period of time and then, basically, I was running out of money, so I had to take it away. I gave him the credit because he did put the scenes together, but I re-cut the whole thing in the end. I spent a year re-cutting this film, tweaking it, moved scenes around. It’s unrecognizable to the original script. In this case, it was necessary: I had to have these other skills. At this point, for the last part of post-production, I’ve really felt like a one-man team. People need DVD screeners so I’m making the screeners, I’m designing the poster, I’m cutting the trailer. I feel like I’ve been living in a Celebrity Apprentice episode, 24/7 for the past couple years… Some of these things I don’t have experience with, so I’m just shooting from the hip.
RM: How long has it taken you to get this project finished?
LS: We came up with the concept in ’06. So, it’s been more than a couple years. I was joking with my partner about this: this movie never would’ve been finished if I hadn’t been obsessive-compulsive. [Laughs] You just have to be relentless. Most people would’ve given up by now. It’s been extremely difficult, especially because I’m not in the studio system. As an independent you always feel like the red-headed step-child. Getting into distribution is like a black hole; it was frightening [laughs]. I just had to figure things out. Even the technology today that I’m working with, like the digital print, it’s just mindboggling. I’m learning as I’m going, and having to make stuff happen and make stuff work. It’s challenging, but, you know, I love it. I love a good challenge.
RM: What’s the distribution process been like?
LS: Oh my god. Distribution is the most intimidating aspect of the whole thing. It made the 21 day shoot – we were shooting 9 pages a day, which is a lot – feel like a walk in the park… The post-production is the most difficult, absolutely. There are so many crooks and crazy people in the business, and when you’re starting to shop your film around, you find that out. It’s actually very discouraging, it’s disheartening. I’m really hoping this whole digital thing and the Internet really opens up a new way for other filmmakers so they don’t have to get into these scenarios where you’re basically giving your movie away. That’s basically what it is. You give them your money and they say they’ll pay you some percentage and you never get that money. I have a friend who made a really great film that went into theaters and he hasn’t seen a dime from it. And he’s working with a reputable company.
RM: So what’s the incentive for you after all of this?
LS: My incentive was just to make this movie. When I set out, I never thought I’d get this cast of these comedians. I said this movie might never get finished, this movie might never get distributed, but I’m gonna make this movie. The foolishness of the first-timer. I look back on it and it was naive and sweet and, you know, I had the passion and that was admirable, but on the other hand it was foolish. [Laughs] I lucked out. I got a distribution deal and I’m not going to be totally screwed. But it’s very hard to recoup these days. The whole film model is changing and the whole landscape is changing. In the future, I think it’s going to be great for people going into independent film. For those who just want to go and shoot their own movie, it’ll be a lot more possible. But right now we’re still in the old model with this new model coming in. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the studios.
RM: Right now we’re in sort of a limbo period.
LS: Yeah. Basically, it’s just hard to make money. iTunes and other stuff isn’t up to speed yet so you have to shoot things very cheap so you’re not digging yourself a huge hole. Hopefully things will change so we can have something that’s good quality but yet not this huge comic book movie that’s coming out of the studios. We can have some other kind of content that’s independent-style.
RM: What’s next for you? A breather?
LS: Yeah, I’ll take a breather. I’ve already got a fun script called “Sex Shop” that I’m writing. And another one that’s more serious – it’s got comedy elements but it’s more dramatic. I really want to take time to craft those and get them both in a good place. And then produce another film, or my dream is for someone to come and hire me as a director, where I can just come and have the luxury of directing and going through a bit of the editing and then leaving. It’s much more difficult to produce and take the film through all the processes. I’d love to just be hired as a director. But if not, I’ll keep working on my scripts and eventually get those produced.
RM: As a producer, were you actually involved heavily in going out there to raise money for the film?
LS: Yes, actually, I was the executive producer. It’s kind of annoying when you see someone’s credit, like – executive producer, producer, writer, director, editor – so I didn’t put executive producer on there because it was just getting a bit much. But, yeah, I actually raised the capital and put it together. Luckily I knew some people in the stock market world who were brave enough to take a risk on me. Especially in today’s world, it’s very difficult to raise any kind of money.