It was January or February of 1995. I was living in an apartment in Westwood with my friend, Tripp Reed. I had just finished my first semester at USC Film School and had been in Los Angeles for about a year. Tripp and I got along great because we were both burning, I mean absolutely on fire, with the desire to make films. Neither one of us had a girlfriend or even went out on dates. We were both close to broke. All we did was go see films and talk about films and try to come up with ways to make our dreams come true. I can’t say enough how important my relationship with Tripp was and how lucky I was to have met him when I did. It felt kind of crazy and lonely to be so consumed with making films and having someone around going through it with me made it tolerable and, at times, even kind of great.
I don’t remember exactly how it all started but somewhere in the course of one of our talks we decided that we were going to make a film in the coming summer. The plan was that I would write it, Tripp would direct it and we’d produce it together. We didn’t have a script. We didn’t have any money. Neither one of us had ever made a film before. But we decided this was how it could happen. We’d commit mentally to the idea of it, start telling everyone it was going to happen and maybe somehow it would.
I wrote a script called The Confidence Man. It was the first feature length script I’d ever finished. It wasn’t very good but Tripp and I convinced ourselves that it was. Tripp somehow got his father to give us $100,000. Suddenly this was all very real and I experienced, for the first time, a feeling I’ve had every time I’ve made a film. The feeling is something bordering on terror with thoughts running through my head like: Who the hell am I to just go make a film? And where do I start? No one’s asking me to make this film. No one cares if I make it. It all depends on me. Can I really do this?
Luckily, Tripp had been working as a production executive for a company that made low budget, straight to video movies so he knew a lot more than me. Still, we were in way over our heads. The script I’d written had way too many characters and locations and stunts to be made for 100K. We went ahead anyway. Some time in June we officially started pre-production for (I still remember the exact date) an August 10th start.
We were so fucking green. We didn’t hire a casting director. We put a listing in Backstage West and with Breakdown Services. We had auditions at Tripp’s office and a few times in the living room of our apartment. Our home phone was the contact number and the thing rang off the hook day and night with actors and agents calling. I scheduled all the auditions myself.
Tripp got a vacation from his job. He worked on a Wednesday. We started production on a Thursday and shot for 18 straight days, finishing late at night on a Sunday. Tripp went back into his job the next morning. The filming was absolutely crazy. We regularly shot 15, 16 hour days. The entire crew of about 25 people worked for free. I’ve never been so tired in my life. We’d often shoot all night and then during the day I’d have to run around town doing errands for the film. I was the producer but it wasn’t glamorous. Lots of times I’d find myself at Smart and Final buying snacks for craft services or going on an ice run because there wasn’t anyone else to do it.
We quickly burned through the 100K and Tripp and I maxed out our credit cards covering the overages. For a while we convinced ourselves that we’d done something kind of brilliant with the film but once we cut it together and started showing it to people it became clear that it wasn’t anything special. The flaws were mostly in the writing and the script. It wasn’t quite an independent movie but it also wasn’t quite a genre movie. The film didn’t really know what it wanted to be and it was mostly because I didn’t really know how to write yet. The film didn’t get into any major film festivals as we’d hoped it would. Luckily, we found a foreign sales agent who made some deals and we got Tripp’s father his money back, just barely. Tripp and I had big dreams of this film changing our lives and making our careers and it was bitter to gradually realize that we’d made a fairly mediocre film and we were still the same poor assholes we’d been before we made it. We’d made a movie though and done it all ourselves from the ground up. We’d both learned a lot but that was about it.
You’d think having gone through this disappointing experience might have humbled me or given me some hesitation. It didn’t. The very next year I did exactly the same thing. I wrote a script called The Truth About Juliet. This time, I wanted to direct. Tripp and I were both ridiculously broke and in debt but it was like I just refused to accept this reality. The only lesson I did learn was that this time I had a script that was most definitely an independent film. It could be done for a very small amount of money on a much smaller scale. Once again, we just decided that we were going to make a film in August and hoped that saying it would make it come to be.
As we got closer and closer to our August start date Tripp and I both started to get a little scared. We’d been telling people we were making the film. We’d once again started the process of casting. Tripp’s sister had just moved into a small apartment across the street from the Four Seasons and she let us use one of her empty bedrooms as the casting office. We didn’t have any money though. We barely had the money to cover our rent and bills. A few times Tripp and other friends suggested to me that I put the making of the film off. I refused. I simply had to make this film. I remember telling Tripp, “I’m going to make this film or die trying”.
I got lucky. I managed to get two credit cards. Tripp and I got a job writing a script for the company he worked for. My parents and some relatives gave me $3,000. All in all it came to about 20 grand and so that was the budget for the film. It only covered production. How we’d edit the film let alone do music, a sound mix and all the other post-production work was left unresolved.
The process of making this film was calmer and less stressful mostly because we had a manageable script. It was mostly just people sitting in their apartments or in bars talking. We had a very small crew, sometimes as few as 4 or 5 people and everyone, again, worked for free. There were days where I directed while holding the boom mike. We shot the whole thing in 12 days.
When we were done a friend of mine lent me $5,000 so I could rent a crappy editing system for a few months and cut together the film. Tripp was the editor and producer and even acted in the movie. By some miracle he convinced an Australian film distributor named Tony Ginnane to advance us finishing funds so we could do the negative cutting and strike an answer print and do a sound mix. I think the final budget of the film came to about $45,000.
Once again, Tripp and I convinced ourselves that just maybe this was the one. It wasn’t. The film was again mediocre. It played a few film festivals and the distributor managed to sell a few territories but we didn’t get our money back. It was yet another learning experience and again, I’d made a movie.
After this, things got kind of dark. I was in serious financial trouble, unable to keep up with the payments on the 7 or 8 credit cards I’d maxed out. I had to file for bankruptcy and accept that mere force of will couldn’t turn me into a big time filmmaker. I was in my mid 20’s and for the first time in my life started to see myself as kind of a failure. It was an exhausting grind every month coming up with the money to pay my bills. Tripp and I had now officially been humbled. We’d used up all our favors. We still plugged along and wrote a few scripts together but neither of us had the strength or wherewithal to put together another no budget independent movie. Tripp met a girl and fell in love with her. I remember one day he came to me and looked at me gravely and said, “The time has come.” He moved out of our apartment and got a new place with his girlfriend who later became his wife. We remained good friends but that was basically the end of our filmmaking partnership. I was on my own now.
A couple years went by in a kind of haze. I kept writing my own stuff and occasionally got a paid gig writing a straight to video movie. More can be read about those jobs in my other essay on this site called, “My Adventures in Pornography”. One day I was sitting in Starbucks at the Barnes and Noble in the Westside Pavilion. During these years I was always so broke that I’d often sit in bookstores for hours just reading books. I treated bookstores like libraries. Anyway, on this particular day I was having a cup of coffee and an idea came to me. The whole thing just hit me in a moment. I went home and wrote the whole script in 3 or 4 days. It just poured out of me. I felt like it was the best thing I’d ever written. I actually felt saved by writing this script, like I’d figured out something that I hadn’t been able to up to that point. I guess for the first time I felt like a real writer. The script was originally called Two Days Til Friday but I later shortened it to Two Days.
The script got me a lot of attention. A lot of people read it and they all seemed to like it. For the first time I even took a few meetings with agents who flirted with the idea of representing me though none ever did. It took a while but over time I managed to get a reputable producer to option the script and we attached Paul Rudd, before he was a big star, to play the lead.
Even with a producer and a star attached it still took years to find the money to make Two Days. During this time I struggled and eked out a living and actually made another film that I don’t really even consider part of my bio because it was such a disaster that I never actually finished it. More can be read about that debacle in my essay, “The Film From Hell.” Having Two Days in my back pocket made life more tolerable though. For years it seemed like it was always on the cusp of maybe getting made. A potential financier would emerge. Meetings would be taken. And then it would all fall apart. Still though, just having the hope that a better life was just around the corner kept me going.
By the time we did get the money to make Two Days it was a lot less than I’d hoped it would be. I think the budget was around $500,000 originally but that kept changing. The whole situation from a financial perspective was kind of shaky. The financiers were new to the business and though they’d agreed to finance the film things were up in the air the whole time. I remember I met with Paul Rudd in Los Angeles about 2 or 3 weeks before we were scheduled to start. He then went off for a vacation in Hawaii with plans to return a week or so before the start date. While Paul was in Hawaii the financiers suddenly said they didn’t have the money. The movie was off. Then the next day it was back on. Paul called me from Hawaii and asked me if the movie was going to happen because if it wasn’t he wanted to just stay there for a while longer. I lied and told him I was 100% positive the movie was happening. Then his reps called and said unless they saw a bank statement with the full budget of the film in it that Paul was backing out. Somehow, the money was found and deposited in the bank. Paul agreed to come back to Los Angeles to do the movie. Just a few days before the start of production Paul called me. I assumed he was back in L.A. but he sounded very serious on the phone and said to me, “Sean, I’ve decided to stay in Hawaii.” I was shocked and terrified but tried to remain calm and basically started stuttering out an appeal to him to please return. Paul cracked up laughing and said, “I’m just fucking with you. I’m at the Chateau Marmont.” I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard.
We shot Two Days in 18 days and it was a blast. I worked with a great bunch of actors who were talented and such nice people. There were no trailers or dressing rooms. No one made any money. I had Paul Rudd wandering around downtown Los Angeles in a hospital gown and, God Bless him, he did it without complaint. When we were done the film played at the Rotterdam Film Festival, which was a great honor. It also played at a bunch of other film festivals. I like the film a lot but it’s not perfect and we were never able to find a big audience with it. It didn’t get a theatrical release, which was a disappointment. I’d grown up a little bit by this time though and was able to accept that I’d done my best on the film and was proud of it, no matter how it was received. Tripp Reed and I reunited and he edited the film for me and it was great to get to work with him again.
I remember putting the finishing touches on Two Days with Tripp and then the next day flying to New York to make another film. My brother had been killed on September 11th and my mother suggested to me that I make a documentary about men who’d lost their brothers. I’d never made a doc before and didn’t know how to start. I mentioned it to my friend, Stephanie Zessos, who lived in New York though and she asked me if she could produce it. Next thing I knew she had interviews scheduled and the whole thing set up. My parents wanted to see this film made very badly so they gave me $30,000 to finance it. A friend from film school named Ray Chim agreed to be my camera man. I bought a camera, rented an apartment in New York and we were off.
I’d gone into this project with a lot of enthusiasm and I was still on a kind of high from having made Two Days. I wasn’t really prepared for what awaited me in New York though. Every day, Stephanie, Ray and myself would drive out to Brooklyn or Long Island or New Jersey and conduct an interview with a man who, like me, had lost his brother on 9/11. This was not even a year after September 11th. People were still very raw with the grief of having lost their brothers and I soon began to realize that I was a lot more raw myself than I’d admitted. Making Two Days had been a great distraction from my own sadness. In New York, making this film, there was no choice but to face it. Day after day for nearly 4 months I sat with grown men who were haunted by the death of their brothers. There were men who sobbed nearly the whole interview. Others told stories of searching for their brothers in the rubble, of identifying their brothers in the morgue. This took a toll and by the end of the interviews I felt like I’d been beaten to a pulp.
And from a filmmaking perspective, I was completely at sea. As I said, I’d never made a documentary before. I had no idea what I was doing. Over time the tapes of the interviews began to pile up. Soon we had nearly 100 hours of footage and it began to occur to me that I was going to have to put it all together into something that made sense.
I went back to Los Angeles and my friend, Heath Ryan, let me use his AVID for free. I spent 6 months putting together the film. My big inspiration was James Toback’s great documentary film, The Big Bang. I also thought a lot about Spike Lee’s brilliant documentary 4 Little Girls. I’m not saying that my film came anywhere close to achieving what those had but those were the films that carried me. By the end I thought I had something pretty good.
In the time it had taken me to edit this documentary a crazy thing happened. A script that I had written years before had sold to a studio and suddenly I had a big time agent and a real career as a working screenwriter. My agency said they wanted to handle the sale of the documentary, which at this point I was calling Brothers. DVD’s were sent to every television outlet that bought documentaries. My big dream from the beginning had been that it would be bought by HBO but they rejected it and so did everyone else. I resigned myself to the reality that this was just going to be a personal film, for me, my family and the men who had participated in it.
A couple years later I went to what was then the Laemmle Sunset 5 on Sunset to see the great documentary film, Born Into Brothels. After the film I got in an elevator and randomly bumped into Tony Ginnane, the film distributor who had given us that advance for The Truth About Juliet. I hadn’t seen him in years and he asked what I was up to. I told him about the documentary. He asked to take a look at it and said that he might be able to sell it in a few foreign territories. A month or so later he called and told me he’d sold it to HBO. I don’t know why my big and powerful agency hadn’t been able to get it in the right hands and Tony Ginnane, who really didn’t even do domestic sales, was but that’s how crazy this business can be. The film was retitled Brothers Lost: Stories of 9/11 and screened as part of the Cinemax Reel Life series on the 5 year anniversary of 9/11. This was the one time in my life where I’d made a film that had wound up exactly where I’d hoped it would when I started. It’s also probably the film I’m most proud of having made.
Around this time, things started to get kind of surreal in my life. All my dreams and even dreams I’d never dared to dream started to come true. I’d written a script called The Great Buck Howard and this time my big agency was instrumental in helping me get it made. Tom Hanks’ company agreed to produce the film. Colin Hanks agreed to star in it. Even with all this star power the film still took years to get going. First we were going to be financed by Sidney Kimmel’s company with Kevin Kline attached to star. Then Sidney Kimmel and Kevin Kline both dropped out and a year passed. Then Walden Media agreed to finance the film and John Malkovich agreed to star. The budget was $10 million. I could go on and on about the wonderful people I worked with and how great it was getting to make this film but I’d just like to hit on a couple of key moments.
One was the first day of production. We started very early in the morning at a restaurant called The Buggy Whip which is near the airport. I drove up and was just blown away. There were rows and rows of trucks and trailers. We had a crew of 60 or 70 people who were all milling around. I got out of my car and walked to set thinking, what the hell am I doing here? How did I get this lucky? I’m in over my head.
Then I got to set and we started working and almost instantly it occurred to me that this wasn’t so different from all the other films I’d made. This was a much bigger affair but at the end we were still just a bunch of people in a room making a movie. We turned the camera on, pointed it in the right direction, got a handful of takes and then pointed the camera in a different direction. It was just filmmaking. I did fine and was completely comfortable and at ease as soon as we started. All those little films I’d made that had gone nowhere had been good preparation.
The other moment was this one. When we finished the film we were accepted to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. I’d applied to Sundance with every single one of my other films and had never gotten in. Sundance was like mecca to me. It had been my dream to have a film there since before I even knew the first thing about filmmaking. Now here I was. It was overwhelming. I was picked up at the airport and taken to a condo that the production company had rented out for me. The tension was almost unbearable and I started to freak out. I don’t believe in God, really, but as I sat in the car being driven from the airport I said a prayer that went like this: “God, just get me a mostly good reception, mostly good reviews. And fix it so that the film doesn’t go straight to video. I want it to play in at least one theater where a person who doesn’t know me has to pay to see it. If you can make that happen I’ll be happy”. Well, that’s exactly what happened and I wasn’t happy. The film got mostly good reviews and played in about 75 or 100 theaters but it was considered a financial disappointment and didn’t make its money back. Still, I love the film and consider myself lucky to have gotten to live a life where I had the experience of making it.
After Buck Howard my career changed for a while. Even though the film hadn’t been a big success financially it had its fans. When I went to meetings I could sense that I was being received with more respect and admiration. I got a couple of jobs writing for television where I was paid well. I also developed a few scripts with well known producers that, if they’d gotten made, would have been higher profile projects with big stars and respectable budgets. None of these projects quite panned out though for all sorts of reasons. I think I did some good work in this time but so much of getting movies made is luck and just getting all the elements to come together at the right time.
Something I’ve seen is that when you have a success in this business you can kind of coast on it for a while. But pretty soon you need to sell a script, get a movie made or in some way distinguish yourself or the momentum seems to fade. A couple years passed and it hit me that high paying money jobs weren't coming my way and that the bigger projects I'd been developing weren't coming together. I needed to make a movie, even if it meant going back to my roots and doing something small.
I wrote a little script called Brooklyn. My friend Heath Ryan managed to raise a small amount of money to finance it. We came very close to making this film with two very good actors but couldn’t seem to find a time period when both actors were available. I still hope that some day this project comes together but when one of our actors took a job that was going to keep him busy for a year or more we had to accept that it wasn’t coming together any time soon.
So instead, we decided to take the money and put it into another project. I’d come across a script called San Patricios. It was a simple little story about two brothers in Texas that for whatever reason really touched my soul. We made it for about 600K this past summer. This was the first film I’d ever made that I hadn’t written myself and I was worried that I wouldn’t feel connected to the material in the same way but that wasn’t the case. Once you dive into the process of making a movie, or at least when I do, you become consumed. The film is yours. It’s inside you. I don’t know what the end of the story is with San Patricios yet. We’ve just finished it and are trying to get into festivals and come up with a plan to get it seen and sold.
Making San Patricios was a step back from Buck Howard. The trailers and the big crew were gone. I was back where I'd started. It didn’t affect me in the slightest though. There’s something magical and amazing about making a movie of any size. A group of people come together and work really hard, usually for not much money. And while you’re making the movie, at least in my experience, everyone kind of buys into it and gets excited about it and starts thinking that just maybe this will be the one, that special film that turns out great and that you’re proud to have worked on for the rest of your life. And even if it doesn’t quite turn out like that there’s still something wonderful about the experience where for those few weeks or months everyone buys into the dream.
So, those are the films I’ve made. Each had its difficulties and disappointments. I’ve been at this for nearly 20 years and in total not even a year of that has been spent in production. The rest of the time has been spent writing or hustling to raise money or just sitting around feeling sorry for myself, wondering if I'll ever get to make another movie. Making films has never been easy. At times it's been heartbreaking and soul crushing. But, it's the agony and the ecstasy and I wouldn't have it any other way. The times when the money and the actors and the crew came together and I got to go make a film have been the best times of my life. I don’t have children. I’m not married. The films I’ve made are what my life has been about. It’s what I’ve done with my time here on Earth and I hope I get to make a bunch more before it’s over.
When I was making The Great Buck Howard I remember being so intimidated by what a big deal it all was. I was working with all these people who were so much more experienced than me. I was terrified that I was going to arrive on set and everyone was going to realize that I didn’t know what I was doing and that I had no business there. I decided that I was going to be ultra-prepared. That I was going to work harder than I’ve ever worked. I barely slept and just spent all my time going over the script, coming up with shot lists and basically just trying to anticipate any question I could possibly be asked by anyone. It was a 6 week shoot and about 2 weeks into it I kind of hit a wall. I was exhausted and couldn’t believe that this was going to go on for 4 more weeks. I remember talking to my cinematographer, the legendary Tak Fujimoto and asking him, “How do you guys do this film after film? How do you keep your energy up for 6, 10, 12 weeks of such long hours that require such focus and that are so intense?” Tak was a man of few words but he just looked at me and said, “You’re thankful every day that you’re here and that you’re being given this opportunity. It’s a privilege.” Some of the wisest words I’ve ever had spoken to me.