One of the more difficult things about making films is that, before you know anybody, you basically have to be up for chasing down any opportunity that gives you even the slimmest chance of getting your film made. There’s a kind of desperation in this. To make films you need money and name actors. Name actors usually want money before they’ll agree to be in your film. People with money want name actors attached before they’ll agree to write a check. It’s a maddening Catch 22.
Because of this I’ve found myself taking meetings with anyone, and I mean ANYONE, who might have access to money. This was the case for me for many years and still is to a degree. I’ve taken hundreds of meetings with strange people who someone or other told me perhaps might be interested in financing a film. Often, you’ll go to a meeting with such a person and be surprised to realize they are actually looking for money from you. Other times, it’s immediately apparent that the person either doesn’t have any money or has some but is kind of a dilettante. They want to talk about financing films but not actually do it.
The first time I ever managed to break through the Catch 22 was in the late 90’s. Through a long chain of events I managed to get Paul Rudd to agree to be in a film I’d written. I didn’t have the money to make the film but Paul Rudd agreed to attach himself to the project and even wrote a letter formalizing this, which he allowed me to show to potential investors. Paul Rudd wasn’t a huge movie star who guaranteed the financing of a film at this point. And the script I’d written was a dark, independent film so I still had my work cut out for me.
Still, the fact that I had a fairly well known actor attached to my project got attention. I took, probably, 20 or 30 meetings with people who seemed interested in writing a check. I think I was looking for between half a million and a million dollars to make this film. That’s not much money, relative to what films usually cost, but I was a completely unknown director and, again, the subject of the potential film wasn’t an action blockbuster. It was a small, art film, the only kind of film you can really make with such a small amount of money.
All of the meetings I took with potential investors went badly. At this level, you are truly meeting with the bottom of the barrel, people who are on the fringes the film industry. Some of them just wanted to meet Paul Rudd, which I refused to arrange. Others had their own scripts that they thought Paul Rudd would be perfect for and they wanted me to show these scripts to Paul, which I also refused to do. I’d go to each of these meetings with the hope that, just maybe, this would be the one. Again and again, I’d leave disappointed.
I remember telling a friend at the time that I felt like I was walking down a long road, turning left or right into any alley that looked to have even the slightest chance of getting me onto a different, better road – the road of actually making the film. It was dead end after dead end though. But then I met a guy who I will call “Brian”. My time with him became one of the strangest episodes of my professional career.
I met Brian on the internet, on the message board of a website that, purportedly, connected aspiring writers with producers and film financiers. If you know anything about the business you’re probably laughing already. The internet is not the place to meet reputable film investors but I was desperate and trying anything at this point and still relatively green.
There was something different about Brian right from the beginning. He lived in Canada and claimed to have made a fortune in the computer industry before retiring in his early 40’s and deciding to fulfill what had been a lifelong dream – to make films. I told him about my project. He quickly said it sounded great and that he was a big fan of Paul Rudd’s. At first, we spoke on instant message, but as time went on we talked on the phone, nearly every day. He was intelligent, serious and polite. There was nothing slimy or off-putting about him. He didn’t talk a big game and didn’t seem in any big rush. He didn’t ask to meet Paul Rudd. He was matter of fact and measured about everything we discussed. He was married with small children. Since his retirement he’d been doing a lot more father duty and when we talked on the phone I could often hear his children in the background. After several weeks of discussions he said he’d like to finance the film.
Still, I had misgivings. This seemed a little too easy, too good to be true, which of course it was. This was before I had an agent or a lawyer or anyone who could vet a person like this. I was on my own, trying to get a career started. I wasn’t in any position to turn away a potential financing source. Furthermore, one of the realities of the movie business is that, even at the highest levels, rich guys do appear from other lucrative industries from time to time to finance films. This sort of thing does happen.
Brian scheduled a trip to come to Los Angeles, meet me in person and discuss the specifics further. I assumed a rich guy like Brian would want to stay at an expensive luxury hotel but he said he didn’t care about any of that. He just wanted to stay somewhere that was close to me, where it’d be convenient for us to get together. So he stayed in a rather cheap hotel very close to my apartment.
When he arrived he looked exactly like I’d expected. He was just a normal, affable, middle class sort of guy. I introduced him to a number of friends, trying to get some perspective. Everyone agreed that there didn’t seem to be anything off about him. Wherever we went he paid for lunches, dinners, drinks. Everything about him seemed humble and authentic. He wanted to make films. He didn’t know anybody. This was a chance to get a film made with a known actor for a relatively small amount of money. He said again and again that it felt like a no brainer and that he was surprised no one else had emerged to finance the film before him.
While Brian was in town we looked at office space and apartments where he could stay in Los Angeles while producing the film. We met with potential crew members and even a few actors I knew who we thought would be good for some of the smaller roles. Even my more jaded contacts agreed after meeting him that this all felt very real. He stayed for about 3 days and I kept waiting for him to do something inappropriate or to reveal himself to be some sort of huckster. He didn’t seem to want anything from me though. If he was fraudulent I failed to see what his angle could possibly be.
When Brian got back to Canada he called me and said that his wife was suddenly very resistant to him using their money to finance a film. However, this was no big deal because his old boss at the computer firm where he’d worked, whose name was George, was filthy rich and also interested in making films. Brian had a plan: rather than just make my one film he’d approach George about financing a whole slate of films. He said that he and George were dear friends and that this would be very easy to arrange.
This was tantalizing. I’d been slogging away for years, writing scripts that I couldn’t get read, let alone made. Suddenly, the possibility existed that I’d hit the lotto and come across a guy with connections to big money who would make all my dreams come true. I showed Brian another script I had. He immediately agreed to make that one next. I had a friend who had written a very good script that had won awards. Brian read this script, loved it and put it in the queue. Yes, this process would take a little time but Brian assured me that it would be a much better situation all around. And he promised me that if the money from George didn’t come through that he’d overrule his wife and still use his own money to finance my film. All of this would be figured out in a matter of weeks, a month at most.
I spoke with Brian every day and he kept me up to date about the process of working this deal out. George trusted Brian implicitly and was willing to give him the money. However, there was paperwork that needed to be signed, lawyers that needed to be consulted. George was also a little eccentric and you had to be patient with him. The whole thing dragged on longer than a month, then approaching two months. Brian assured me and then reassured me that this was nothing to worry about. And he again made it clear that it didn’t matter. If George didn’t come through he was writing the check himself anyway.
During this time, things first began to get a little weird. Brian set up a website that introduced the company he had formed and presented it as something much, much bigger than I knew it was. My scripts as well as my friend’s script were listed as “in production” even though I knew we hadn’t yet taken the first step on any of them.
A package came in the mail from Brian. It was a large jacket, very much like a letter jacket one would wear in high school. In fact, it was exactly like a letter jacket one would wear in high school. My name was on the front. On the back was the name of the film company Brian had formed. Brian informed me he had gotten one made for himself as well. I thought this was really strange, just that Brian thought it was advisable for grown men looking to be taken seriously in the film industry to go about wearing these jackets. How would we appear, the two of us walking into meetings looking like the linebacker and tight end for a high school football team? I called Brian to thank him for the jacket. He was very proud of the gesture and had done it without the slightest trace of irony. I figured Brian was just a little naïve. Maybe he was just a provincial guy from Canada who didn’t think or worry too much about seeming cool. In that light, it was kind of touching. Brian wasn’t a Hollywood guy. He just didn’t know any better. He was enthusiastic and had wanted to do something nice. Still, I put the jacket in the back of my closet with no intention of ever wearing it.
There came a crucial moment where Brian called, very upset, to tell me George was having last minute hesitations. A big meeting was scheduled, a kind of boardroom stand off where Brian was scheduled to meet with George and some lawyers and request, no, demand that they finalize the deal so we could proceed. Brian called me later that evening after the meeting. He sounded thrilled and said, “Pop the champagne! We’ve got a deal! George is wiring a million dollars into my account tomorrow. Once he does I’ll send you some money to get started. Call Paul Rudd. Find an office. Tell your crew to clear their schedules. We’re making a movie!”
This whole thing seemed so genuine. Brian was overjoyed. His wife was there with him, yelling congratulations to me from the background. I asked Brian if he was absolutely sure that the money was coming. If I called Paul Rudd it would be very embarrassing and difficult to call him back and say the project was now off. Brian was incredulous, “Sean, I sat right there with George while he signed a contract. I’m holding a copy of it right here in my hands. Stop worrying. This is real.”
I believed him. I called my parents who were thrilled for me. I called some friends who were also very happy. There must have been some doubt in my mind though. I emailed Paul Rudd and told him things looked good but stopped short of telling him that it was a done deal. Paul emailed me back to say I should keep him posted.
The next day, the million dollars did not arrive. It didn’t arrive the day after that either. At first Brian said that the money had been sent but was taking time to clear his account. Then there were further stories about banking delays, currency problems, exchange rates. After a week or so I was pretty certain the money from George was never arriving. Still, I wanted to make this film very badly. And I just couldn’t see what would have motivated Brian to make this whole thing up. Also, I didn’t have any other prospects so I continued to be patient and hope.
Eventually, Brian had to admit that George had screwed us both. Brian told a story of a vicious phone call to George where he ended their relationship forever, as friends and business associates. I told Brian that we should just go ahead with his back up plan of him financing the film himself. Brian agreed but didn’t sound quite so certain any longer.
I knew it was probably over but decided to proceed anyway, by now mostly just to see what would happen. I told Brian that I was broke, that I had turned down other work based on his promise. This wasn’t completely true. I was close to broke but I hadn’t turned down any work. Brian said he’d wire me a few thousand dollars to tide me over which we’d apply against my salary when the film officially started production. I could tell that he knew he was on very thin ice.
I sent him my bank’s routing number. If by some chance Brian knew how to extract the money using this and that was what was behind everything he’d be disappointed. I never had more than a few hundred dollars in my bank account at this time. In any case, no money arrived. He said he’d put a check in the mail. It didn’t come. I finally told Brian what I’d been thinking myself for some time; that I was starting to doubt the veracity of his entire story. He claimed that he was having marital difficulties and couldn’t get his hands on a large sum of money but that he’d wire me $1000 which I could pick up at Western Union. To my shock, the money was there when he said it’d be but because of the Canadian exchange rate it came to about $650. That was the only money I’d ever see from him.
Things got stranger still. At one point I received an instant message from a username I didn’t recognize. It was someone claiming to be Brian’s wife. She said they’d reconciled and that she was sure we’d be making a movie soon. I later received an instant message from Brian’s username. The person writing though claimed that he was not Brian but a friend who was house sitting for Brian and just using his account. This person went on to tell me what a genius Brian was and that I’d be foolish to doubt anything Brian said. I knew that both of these instant messages were almost certainly sent by Brian. I now also knew that Brian was more than likely a crazy person.
Brian made one more visit to Los Angeles. Friends urged me not to meet with him and were concerned he was a serial killer or something. I met with him anyway at a very cheap motel where he was staying. When I saw him there was something dark and depressed, but not dangerous, about his presence. He seemed like a different person. He told me that his marriage had officially fallen apart and that he’d decided to relocate to Los Angeles permanently. He claimed that thanks to his divorce he no longer had the money to finance my film but still felt he might be able to put together a couple hundred grand. He suggested that I approach other investors and that we raise the money together.
I told Brian that I no longer wanted to be in business with him, that I didn’t trust him and that I suspected he’d made up the entire story about having money and George and everything else. He shook his head, like this was one more thing on a long list of problems that he was tired of dealing with and said, “Well, you think I’m a fraud, my wife thinks I’m a fraud. I’m sick of all of it. Fine!” I shrugged and started to leave. He called after me. He stood in the doorway of this crappy motel looking pretty lost and pathetic and said, in a very different tone, “Listen, please don’t trash me to people in Hollywood. I want to try and make it here and I don’t need my reputation ruined before I’ve even started.” I agreed not to say anything bad about him. The truth was I was far from a big player and didn’t really know anyone of consequence I could have bad-mouthed him to. I walked away and never saw him again. Years later, an actor acquaintance of mine said he’d acted in a micro budget film that Brian had written and directed. It involved a few washed up stars and it had turned out terribly. The acquaintance said that Brian was still in Los Angeles, living the life of a very poor, struggling filmmaker.
I never figured out what the whole truth to Brian was. A few times, before it all fell apart, I’d asked Brian, point blank, to just level with me. He’d never been willing to back off his original story one iota. George had screwed him over and then his wife had left him, destroying everything. I think this was a lie though. I doubt a George existed at all. It’s possible that his wife wasn’t even a real person.
My best guess is that Brian was a pathological liar and perhaps mentally ill. I don’t think he ever had any money. He just wanted to feel like he was in the film business and I was as close as he could get. I think he also wanted to feel important and like a big shot and for a while I treated him like one. I do believe he had hopes of raising the money for me. I don’t know how realistic these hopes were but I think he was sincere in his desire and was hoping he’d be able to do it before I figured out that he wasn’t what he said he was. The “Pop the champagne!” phone call hadn’t been a good move. He probably could have strung me along even longer without that. But once he’d told me he had the money and then didn’t, things unraveled very quickly.
I’ve dealt with a few other people in my life who are on the spectrum of insanity, though none as bizarre as Brian. One of the things I’ve found about such people is that their actions are oddly disconnected from the consequences of their actions. It may just be that Brian had been looking forward, for months, to calling me and telling me he’d raised the money and getting to have that joyous, celebratory conversation. Maybe he knew the whole thing was falling apart and didn’t want to let it go before he’d had that moment, even if it wasn’t real.
There’s something dark about this story that reveals a stark reality about Hollywood and the film business. I’d been brought up in a conservative environment with people who were simple, middle class, usually college educated and almost always what they said they were. It’s different here. This business attracts all types and to work here you kind of have to be willing to deal with all types. This place is filled with hustlers and many of them are a lot better at it than Brian. I’ve taken meetings with very successful men who I truly thought would be much more at home on a used car lot. Somehow though, through guile or luck or persistence or some reptilian form of intelligence they were sitting in front of me discussing things like character motivations and casting choices.
There are 5 or 6 studios and if you manage to work there and nowhere else your entire career, by and large you’re in a professional environment. But few people are that lucky. Being a writer is tough and you have to pay the bills and chase down any opportunity that presents itself. Making films, especially interesting or unusual films requires the willingness to mix and mingle and make friends with people who might be somewhat unsavory. Little by little, you can find yourself becoming unsavory too. Posturing, posing and yes, stretching or even disregarding the truth are often rewarded in this business. When you start to figure this out a kind of desperation can creep into your persona and at times you may even feel yourself nudging up against a line that you’d previously thought you’d never get close to. There was no line for Brian. That was the other thing about him and part of his undoing. If you have a moral compass there’s a hesitation in you somewhere that stops you short of acting like a sociopath if for no other reason than you’re afraid you’ll get caught. Brian didn’t have this. I’ve never met a person who lied so convincingly but also so carelessly. He lied as if he was telling the truth and to this day, I’m not sure if he knew the difference. I was more cautious after Brian but as Richard Ford once wrote, “To learn a lesson of caution at a young age is not the worst thing.”