I was in Los Angeles this weekend I hoped to meet up with Leo Grillo, star and producer of the most talked about movie of 2007, Zyzzyx Road, which stars Katherine Heigl and Tom Sizemore and made 30 dollars at the box office.

But did it really make thirty bucks? Leo and I couldn’t meet face to face, but we did talk on the phone, and he explained that the movie really made twenty dollars. He also told me the ins and outs of the release of Zyzzyx Road, and how maybe it isn’t all that unusual after all.

Thankfully Leo has a good sense of humor about all of this – after all, his story has hit Variety and the New York Times. But he understands that all publicity is good publicity, and he’s even gone on NPR to talk about Zyzzyx Road’s BO take. He’s also talked to Aint It Cool News, who ran their interview earlier today. It’s sort of a bummer that they wanted to beat me to the punch, especially after never running the original story or the follow-up when Variety ripped CHUD off – something that has happened to them as well – but I guess that’s the nature of the business. I probably should have run this interview faster, but I keep underestimating the strong interest other people have in poaching this story.

Tomorrow we’ll have something from the producer of the other Zzyzx movie, who is less than pleased with the way Leo talks about his movie in interviews like this one – plus a major announcement about that movie, plus I have a bunch of DVD copies to give away – and I think they’re about to become collector’s items.

Would you say that your greatest stroke of genius came when you produced a movie that would allow you to have a love scene with Katherine Heigl?

[laughs] My greatest stroke of genius was marrying my wife.

Then was it your second stroke of genius?

Let’s see – how did that happen? It was in the original script. But here’s the thing: Katie and I are both known as one take actors. I think you have to get it the first two or three times because otherwise it’s going to go in another direction or dissipate; you can’t reproduce this, it’s not stage, it’s screen. On her side, the fortunate side was that we got through the movie in 18 days… on the other side the unfortunate thing is that with her I only got one or two takes. That’s all I got!

She’s a trouper. What people have to understand is that she’s a die-hard. We were in the desert and it was 115 during the day, and in the mine it was sometimes in the 50s or the 40s. She’s the fantasy of this guy – it’s Willy Loman meets Lolita – so his fantasy of who she is is who the audience sees for half the movie. The second half of the movie is who she really is, as the world sees her. There’s a difference. He’s seeing this Lolita-esque little thing, and she’s running around the desert in this little negligee and nearly barefoot. There are cactus out there, and I always say to her credit that in the last scene of the movie she has to run across the street and fall in a berm on the side of the road. She did that probably 10 or 11 times for different angles, and each time the berm is full of little microscopic needles. When we got back to the trailer her arm was covered in these little microscopic cactus needles, and I got some gaffer’s tape and peeled it off her arm and millions of these little needles came out. Somebody else would have called for the stunt person to do it, but she knew she had to do it to make the shot look good.

You’re talking about a film with Katherine Heigl running around the desert in a negligee – how did this possibly make 30 dollars? I would go see this myself six or seven times.

You are really funny. That is the most hysterical thing. But I have to correct the record. The gross was reported too high – it actually only made 20 dollars. Two of the tickets were crew who thought it was a screening and drove out there to see it. They were also crew who were on Magic, the movie we made this summer, so when I found that out I gave them ten bucks to reimburse them. So here’s the thing – if they want to catch my record, they have to really stretch now.

What are the circumstances of the release? How did it end up in this one theater with that take?

People in Hollywood know exactly what I did. The public doesn’t know the inner workings, and I’ll just give you the framework here. There are three to four hundred pictures made each year for foreign markets. Foreign markets are shrinking, unfortunately – reality television is indigenous to each country, so they’re demanding less American product to fill their television slots with. That’s where these films go – they go to fill television slots, and that’s drying up a little.

Two years ago you could make 80% of your budget in foreign sales. That’s not pre-sales, that’s a whole different thing. So three to four hundred get made and sold at the American Film Market in Santa Monica every year, and they have names in the movies that allow foreign territories to distribute them, but the name actors are not the same actors that you know in America. There are some very big foreign names that you would hardly recognize – Theresa Russell. She’s a very, very big foreign name. You have to pay money to get her in a movie that goes foreign, but American audiences don’t know her that well. You always have to check the actor’s foreign value. Agents will pitch actors that are American known but not foreign known, and we have to pass. The foreign sales agents ask you two questions: Who’s in it and what’s it about? In that order.

So there are 300, 400 movies made for the foreign market and then you may get a domestic sale that will allow you to recoup your money. You may. But you make these movies to make a track record, that you have a
company that’s actually manufacturing product that sells. If you’re making a product that sells eventually you grow in scale so that you’re either selling more of the same-size product or you’re making bigger product and eventually making movies for an American audience. This is a farm team for Hollywood. Some people, like Andrew Stevens, for instance, have made a career of making and distributing films foreign, and they make 15-20 a year and they make a lot of money.

When it was time to make this movie we rejected a number of names based on the amount of money they wanted for the name value, and finally the last week before we shot, we didn’t have cast. I said, let me look at the list and I saw Katherine Heigl, and I said, she has some foreign value but she’s perfect for the role. Then I saw Tom Sizemore and I said, well, Tom’s in trouble but look, he is the perfect formidable opponent to Grant, my character. I’m kind of big, physically, and you have to not know who will win the battle – Godzilla or the other guy.

When you see the picture, it’s a puzzle movie, and if you understand that it’s a tragedy, and that it really is Death of a Salesman, you’ll get the ending. Otherwise people walk out saying, what the hell was that?

So what about the box office take?

When you make a low budget picture in Hollywood you get a different rate from the Screen Actors Guild based on the size of your budget. Anything under 2 million is low budget, and depending on the size of your budget they have a requirement that you have a SAG screening that the actors in the movies have a chance to see that their movie was taken to the screen and not actually taken to video or, in this case, television. They want it to screen because the actors sign on based on the fact that it will get to theatrical – they can tell their parents it went theatrical.

That’s a requirement that three or four hundred of us every year have to fulfill, and so usually the Laemmle chain gets them. You pay three or four grand and you get a screening – once in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, it shows up on a list that satisfies the advertising requirement. We’d make a few hundred bucks if we did that, but we satisfy the SAG requirement.

In this case the foreign sales people told us that if we do not sell this domestic, just sell it foreign, we can sell it as a world premiere. I said that sounds good, but what do we do about SAG? They said to have the SAG screening but keep it as low profile as possible so that nobody thinks you four-walled it. It will hurt it if you think people tried to distribute it and it did 700 bucks. I’m kind of an extremist, and I said, give me a theater on the farthest side of the world, and they said they owned a theater in Dallas. It was the middle of winter, nobody would go. I said, we’ll take it for a week, and what’s the one time nobody goes to the movies? They said 11 o’clock. I said, good, give me the 11 o’clock showing every day of the week. And I think – this is tongue in cheek – but someone said to me that the guy who lived outside the theater on the sidewalk bought a ticket to keep warm.

But the film does not yet have a domestic distributor.

Has this whole brouhaha brought you attention from distributors? Is there more interest as a result?

It’s too early to tell, but here’s what we had planned: during our shoot ABC had asked to borrow Katie because there was a new series she was in and they wanted to shoot her commercials for it. We rearranged our day and that show was called Grey’s Anatomy. We said, we should be finished when Katie’s show is on, and if it’s a hit, it’ll help us domestically. It became a hit and we said, OK, next year we still have Tom who has cleaned up and now he has this reality show. We got a sales agent, sort of, and we have a producer who will take it to friends in studios who may be interested in releasing it, but he said to wait because he’s finishing a movie and his partner, Robert Davi, is finshing another movie and I’m finishing Magic. So we decided to wait until we finished posting our movies, because posting is so intense. Starting in January we were going to go to studios, and then we decided to wait a few weeks to see if Tom’s show is a hit. If Tom’s a hit and Katie’s a hit we’re going to be in a better position when we walk into a studio.

Now you come along and do this and we have all this wonderful buzz going around. What I think might happen out of this is that you may have goosed everybody into looking at the movie sooner than we thought. Which is great. Spell my name right. My wife heard what’s going on and said, ‘Oh my God, they’re making you out to be a nut,’ and I said, don’t worry about it – it’s a character arc. You start out here as one thing and then you’re vindicated.

There’s some controversy over how to pronounced and how to spell the name of the real road.

It’s pronounced Zy-Zix. And it’s spelled differently. Here’s the thing: I don’t know, because I haven’t asked him, whether the writer, when he registered it, registered it with an incorrect spelling and meant to change it, or whether he misspelled it on purpose. We do know this: coincidentally, of all the weirdest things in the world, somebody was shooting a picture called Zzyzx Road at that road. Right after we went into production they started shooting with these cheapo cameras, shooting this little movie. They got in touch with us and said, you took our name, and we said, no, no, no, we’ve been in pre-production for six months here, we’ve been in the trades, we registered with the MPAA. So at any rate, somebody made almost the same exact title, and at one point IMDB reported both our casts and crews as one big cast and crew. Who would come up with the word Zzyzx anyway, and then to have two of them at the same time?

The producer of that one has been in touch with me.

We had to get a lawyer on him. They claimed some stuff, that they trademarked it, and we found out that was false. They signed an agreement to go away and leave us alone, otherwise we’ll pound him for fraud.

Before I go, I want to talk about your animal rescue operation. I love that there’s this side to the story.

27 years ago I found 35 dogs in the woods, and nobody would do anything about them, so I started feeding them. Ultimately it led to rescuing them and putting them in a kennel and finding homes. Now we’ve been the largest animal shelter in the world, with about 1500 dogs and cats. We have our own hospital, it’s care for life, we don’t adopt.

About 8 years ago I started making a documentary about it, and we’ve been making documentaries about the animals all this time. Recently we made Pets on Your Plate, with Curt Johnson. I’ve uncovered something – you and everyone in America and in a lot of foreign countries, are eating poison. All of the animals in California, all the pound animals and the veterinary animals, people’s pets, animals killed on the street, all go to one company – and this is like Soylent Green – and they get turned into protein meal which is then fed to animals that we eat. It enters the food chain. Curt Johnson, who is well known for his documentaries, is shooting that now. So the animal sanctuary is huge, rescuing only animals that are abandoned animals. Now we have to reach out to make people know that while they have not been paying attention to the animal side of things, you’ve been poisoning your children.