In my film, The Great Buck Howard, a band appears in the end credits. The name of this band is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Why would an indie rock band appear at the end of a film about a aging mentalist and his young assistant? Well, it’s a story that I think reveals some interesting things about Hollywood and how movies are made.
I arrived in Los Angeles in the early 90’s with dreams of becoming a writer and a director. Many people have arrived in Los Angeles with the same dream but I doubt many were as clueless as me. Not long after arriving I received a piece of advice – I don’t remember who from – to just get a job, any job, in the entertainment industry and start learning whatever I could.
I answered an ad that was in the Hollywood Reporter for a job as a “Road Manager to a Celebrity Performer”. I didn’t know what a road manager was, but the ad said no experience was necessary.
I desperately needed a job at this moment in my life and was pretty much applying for anything that didn’t require experience because I had none. I was called to an interview where I met a man named The Amazing Kreskin. I’d never heard of this gentleman before but apparently he’d been somewhat famous in the 60’s and 70’s as a kind of magician who often performed on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I got the job, which basically just entailed arranging Mr. Kreskin’s travel schedule and acting as a kind of personal assistant to him. This didn’t go terribly well and it only lasted about 4 months.
After many years of struggling to write and pay the bills I managed to get something of a real career going and I wrote a script about my experience with Kreskin that would become the movie, The Great Buck Howard. Basically, the first 10 or 15 pages of the script were straight from what had happened in my life and the rest was a fictionalized account. A couple years after having written the script I managed to attach Colin Hanks to play a version of me. Later, once we’d obtained financing to make the film, John Malkovich signed on to play “Buck Howard”, the fictionalized version of The Amazing Kreskin.
The making of this film were among the best 6 weeks of my life. I worked with a cast of amazing actors – Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks (!), as well as some incredibly talented crew. It was just surreal, to be standing on a film set with these wonderful people watching things that had happened in my life be recreated. John Malkovich was incredibly generous and he turned the character of Buck Howard into something more hilarious and bizarre than I ever could have imagined. Colin Hanks was a more charming, funnier, thinner version of me. I can’t say enough how rewarding this experience was. I’d killed myself for more than 10 years trying to get films made, lived through so many setbacks and disappointments. Suddenly, I woke up one day and was directing a big movie. It was like I’d won the lottery.
After production I sat in a dark editing room for months putting together the film. Once we had a cut I screened the film for friends, then recruited friends of friends to come in, watch the cut and give their comments for how to improve it. We got to the point where we felt we had a pretty good movie.
On some films, this would be the end of the process. Directors like Steven Spielberg or Alexander Payne have earned final cut on their films. They work on the editing and the sound and all the other aspects of post-production and get to the point where they feel like the movie is finished and that is what you see in theaters. In most cases though there is a more complex process that takes place that determines when a movie is done and what is shown as the final product.
Up to that point I’d made a few very small independent films that no one had ever seen so I didn’t have final cut on The Great Buck Howard. I actually had no real power. I was at the mercy of some other, much bigger players. My film had been financed by a company called Walden Media. The president of this company was named Cary Granat. Beneath him were 2 creative executives who I dealt with on a more regular basis. Officially, Walden Media had final cut on the film, which meant that Cary Granat pretty much had final say.
The film was being produced by Playtone, the production company owned by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. Beneath Gary Goetzman was another creative executive who worked at Playtone and answered to Tom and Gary in a way that was similar to how the creative executives at Walden answered to Cary Granat. What this all basically meant was that while Walden was financing the film and had creative input, they had more or less entrusted the making of the film on a day to day basis to Playtone and the people who ran that company, who also had a lot of creative input.
I realize this is getting complicated, which is kind of the point I’m trying to make here. I had written and directed the film and it was, in a manner of speaking, my vision. However there were also many other people who had a lot invested in the film and who were responsible for it artistically and financially. In short, there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, which is not unusual. Most films are financed by a studio and overseen by creative executives who answer to a president of the studio. Most films are also produced by a production company with more creative executives who answer to whoever the head producer is.
Playtone is a great production company. Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman are very talented and powerful producers. They’ve overseen the production of huge projects like Band of Brothers and Wars of the Pacific and many, many other films. At the time that we were making The Great Buck Howard, Playtone was overseeing 5 or 6 other films including, Charlie Wilson’s War, Mamma Mia and the miniseries, John Adams. Tom Hanks is an involved and thoughtful producer but he’s also a very busy actor. So, by and large, Gary Goetzman is the point person at Playtone. In a way, he has the kind of power at Playtone that Cary Granat had at Walden.
Another reality at play here was that Walden had agreed to finance Buck Howard for several reasons. They liked the script very much and really liked the project and the cast. However, a very big part of the reason they became involved was that they wanted to be in business with Playtone. It’s an honor to work with Tom Hanks. He’s a legend in this business. Also, he’d created a company, along with Gary Goetzman, that was known to only get involved with quality projects. If you’re a company like Walden Media, which was only a few years old at the time, it’s a big deal to have a relationship with a company like Playtone.
So, it was interesting and tricky to see how disputes were adjudicated. Walden had financed the film. They had final cut. At the same time, they wanted to maintain a good relationship with Playtone so they had to be respectful and, at times, even deferential. Playtone had a lot of power here but could, at least officially, be overruled by Walden at any time. Playtone wanted to maintain a good relationship with Walden because they might want to approach them for the financing of future projects. This presented a difficult, political situation for me. I wanted the film the way I wanted it. Who should I align myself with? Who should I approach when there was a difference of opinion that mattered to me? I wasn’t sure.
Gary Goetzman is probably the most interesting person I’ve ever met in this business. He’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. He’s dangerously charming. He just has this way about him that makes you feel like he’s the host of the best party that’s ever been thrown and, if you play your cards right, he just might let you in the back door. At the same time, he’s very intelligent, not just about films but about life. He’s almost impossibly busy. He’s always on the phone. He is constantly being asked for something from someone. However, unlike pretty much anyone else I’ve ever met at his level, he’s a good listener. If you get Gary alone he can be very open and personal with you. He’ll offer advice, ask you questions, show a real interest. This may just sound like normal, civilized behavior but it’s really not. As I’ve made my way through this business and through life there have been many times when I’ve had the opportunity to meet people who are wildly successful and often found them to be shockingly boorish, uninteresting or just plain stupid. People become successful for a lot of different reasons and sometimes, they’re just lucky. With Gary, minutes after meeting him, you understand why he is where he is. He has one of the most powerful and formidable personalities I’ve ever come across.
This is not to say that Gary is my personal hero or that he’s even the nicest guy in the world all the time. He’s a human being and while I always found him interesting, at times I liked him and at other times he wasn’t my favorite. That’s life. For my purposes, I mostly respected Gary for one very simple reason. When it came to my film, he’d offer an opinion and if I disagreed with him I’d be given a chance to change his mind. Sometimes, he’d continue to disagree with me but other times he’d just listen, sit quiet for a moment, really considering it and then say, “OK, you’re right”. I cannot stress this enough – no quality is more rare among powerful people in this business or probably any business. Powerful men and women are usually there because they have strong personalities. They don’t ever like to admit they’re wrong. EVER. And, of course, this is stupid and a flaw of character because everyone is wrong some of the time.
There were a handful of disputes that came up in post-production of the film but for our purposes here I will limit things to the most heated conflict, the appearance of the band, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, in the film. Before I do that though I want to try to be objective and not let myself off the hook. I’d made a film that was by no means a work of genius. When it came out it got mostly good reviews but it wasn’t the kind of thing where the second everyone saw it they knew they were in the presence of something monumental. My point is that by not making a brilliant film I contributed to putting myself in a position where it could be fucked with.
The problems started when we screened the film for a preview audience. Much has been written about preview screenings. They’re often criticized but it’s a reality of the film business. The way it works is a group of people are recruited to see a film for free in a movie theater and then they are given the chance to fill out score cards where they write down their thoughts about a film. I begged, for weeks, to do this preview screening at an art house cinema. In my opinion, that was where the film was going to wind up playing, at least at first and thus, our main audience was people who went to smaller films. At this point though Walden believed, or wanted to believe, that the film had mass appeal, that it wasn’t an art film but instead a comedy with a potentially very broad audience. So we screened the film at a multiplex in Orange County. As soon as I saw the audience file into the theater I knew we were in trouble.
The film received mediocre scores. Maybe it was because we screened the film for an audience who never would have gone to see it even if it was brilliant. Perhaps it was just a mediocre film that got the scores it deserved. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that getting these mediocre scores left the film in a vulnerable position. Weeks later, in the worst of it, I’d ask Gary Goetzman what I could have done differently here. His answer: “The only thing you could have done was to get higher scores.” Then he laughed and, of course, he was right.
After the screening, all manner of notes were relayed to my editor and I from every direction. Some of these notes were good and improved the film. Some weren’t. The point is that the mediocre scores at the preview screening created an atmosphere where it was thought that the film was in trouble and needed something, some out of the box idea, to fix it and turn the whole thing around.
Several ideas were suggested but one stuck out because it had come straight from the top. Cary Granat, the president of Walden, got the idea that the film would benefit by introducing a band – not a song, an actual band, singing a song - that could appear at different moments in the film and, in some sort of ironic way, comment on the goings on. The thinking was that this would make the film more humorous and perhaps also more appealing to a hip, youth audience.
I’d like to be objective but I don’t think I really have to be. This was the worst idea ever. It made no sense. Anyone I’ve ever told about it has agreed. Even if the film was in trouble this was surely not the answer. The bad thing about Cary Granat was that, unlike Gary Goetzman, once he latched onto an idea it was very difficult to get him to let go of it. Also, he often came up with ideas that suggested inserting devices that had worked well in other films, even if they were nothing like ours.
Months earlier, the movie Stranger Than Fiction had come out. It had a visual motif where numerical charts and graphs were laid over the picture. It worked in that film. The main character was an IRS auditor obsessed with numbers and charts. Suddenly, Cary wanted us to use this device in our film and it took weeks and weeks to get him to stop bringing it up. Later, the film Little Children came out. That film used a very odd 3rd person omniscient narrator, the voice of Will Lyman, famous for his narration of the PBS documentary series, Frontline. Again, Cary wanted us to introduce this element into our film, and we went through the same process, again and again trying to politely explain why this bizarre idea didn’t work for our film until he finally just accepted it, reluctantly.
The idea for the band was an obvious reference to There’s Something About Mary, which I have to assume Cary must have caught on cable the weekend before he suggested it. If you don’t remember, in There’s Something About Mary, the singer, Jonathan Richman would occasionally appear and sing a song that commented on the movie. It worked well there and was congruous with the broad tone that the filmmakers had created. In The Great Buck Howard, the idea could not have been any more wrongheaded or out of place. It was such a ridiculous, inane idea that I couldn’t believe it would be considered for more than a second. The big problem here was that Cary felt he’d been patient when we’d rejected his previous ideas. He wasn’t caving on this one. Worse, we could now forget about doing reshoots or working on anything that might actually improve the film. The entire focus became the band. For Cary Granat, this was the solution to everything. For me, all I cared about was keeping the band out. Nothing else mattered.
This presented a terrible situation. The reality is that I was fortunate to be directing a film of this profile at all. Walden Media and Cary Granat could have chosen to finance any of hundreds of movies. They had put their money on the line and had the right to do whatever they wanted with the movie. That said, this idea was just so out there. It far surpassed my wildest, most paranoid fears. It was borderline insane, at least in my opinion. If this ‘band’ idea was followed through on it had the potential to destroy this project. I had a responsibility to stop it and to protect the film, which I cared about deeply.
The problem was that at this point things grew eerily quiet. No one said anything to me but it was like everyone had decided to take a breath and just let the situation breathe for a bit. A week went by, then a month, then more than a month. This is one of the most difficult things about working in Hollywood and the reason why a lot of people lose their minds here. At trying times, like the one I’m describing, people kind of just disappear on you. Cary Granat wouldn’t take my calls. Gary Goetzman went to Ireland to deal with another project and was difficult to reach. When I did manage to get ahold of him he’d quickly tell me everything was going to be fine and then jump on a call with Mike Nichols or the Benny Andersson.
I’d go to the editing room every day and just sit there. I’d compose long emails explaining my position only have them ignored. I’d write scenes for potential reshoots that could actually improve the film provided we could do away with the crazy band idea. No one was around to send them to. Clearly, I’d lost control of the project. I started to go a little nuts.
I knew decisions were being made or would be made eventually but it appeared they were being made without me and I didn’t know what the decisions were or how I could possibly affect them. I was no longer being listened to. So I spent all my time going through the situation with people who had to listen to me - my friends. And I didn’t stop at them. After a few beers I might engage a stranger at a bar and run the situation by him or her, perhaps even ask for their advice. I probably wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around during this time. This happens when you’re directing a movie though. Your world becomes very small and everything revolves around the film. Nothing else even exists.
I couldn’t figure out what to do though or how to have an influence. To do nothing and just let whatever was going to happen transpire was intolerable. It made me feel powerless which, of course, I was. I read how Martin Scorsese threatened to burn the negative to Taxi Driver and then kill himself when the producers tried to wrest control of it from him. Unfortunately, I didn’t even know where the negative to The Great Buck Howard was and even if I had I wasn’t Martin Scorsese. I’d become a little insane but I didn’t want to kill myself or even threaten to.
After about 6 weeks Gary Goetzman was suddenly back and called me to his office. He told me he’d been discussing the matter for weeks and it had all been negotiated to the following: The band would appear twice, once in the middle of the film and then again towards the end. I nearly blew a gasket. I wasn’t even being given a chance to change anyone’s mind. It had all been decided. To me, even one appearance by the band was enough to do irreparable harm. Gary’s position was that he couldn’t stop it and that if it was indeed as bad as we thought, this would be apparent to everyone. His parting words to me were, “Good taste will prevail”.
I contacted the WGA and DGA to see what my options were. I didn’t have final cut on the film. There was nothing I could do except take my name off the film once it was done. I considered quitting. My agent told me that if I quit Walden wouldn’t hesitate to hire someone else to direct the reshoots. He went on to say that quitting would be the best way to ensure that the band wound up in the film. I should stick around and try to have whatever influence I could.
So, I stayed on and basically spent all my time complaining and bitching and begging everyone to listen to me. Pretty much no one did. I have no idea where the band, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was found but they were hired and wrote two songs. Reshoots were scheduled. At what I have to imagine was great expense, actors were brought back to film additional scenes. The band was flown to Los Angeles. Next thing I knew I was on a set directing these scenes that were designed to cut away from the actors at just the right moment and then settle on the band as they crooned for 2 or 3 minutes, right in the middle of the film! At one point an actor was even forced to say, “Hey, check out that band” and then the two actors in the scene would watch them play for a time. It made me nauseous but even as we were filming the scenes, I felt certain that it was just so silly that it would be immediately apparent to everyone how misguided this whole thing was.
The scenes were cut together. They were awful. The new cut of the film was sent to Cary Granat who pronounced them brilliant and perfect. So much for good taste prevailing. I decided right then that if the band remained in the film I would take my name off the movie. This would be incredibly painful in more ways than one. First, I would essentially have not written and directed a film that I’d spent years and years praying for the chance to write and direct. Second, I’d look like an ungrateful idiot who didn’t appreciate that he was getting a golden and very lucky opportunity to direct a big movie with big stars in it. Furthermore, I would forgo my right to all residuals in the film. I am not a wealthy man and had made WGA and DGA minimum for writing and directing the movie. I needed that residual money. That said, I couldn’t have the words, “Written and Directed by Sean McGinly” on a film with the band in it.
Many, many arguments were had over the course of more months, most of which I was not privy to. Again, there would be times where everything would mysteriously die down and become quiet, for weeks. I don’t know for sure if he was doing it consciously but my feeling later became was that this was one of Gary Goetzman’s tactics. When things weren’t going his way he’d just disappear, do nothing for a while and wait things out. When he resurfaced, often everyone else would be so tired that they’d just let him have his way. This was far cooler and more effective than my tactics, which were to make panicked phone calls and write 2,000 word emails. Regardless, by now I’d become so exhausted by all this that it was getting unhealthy. I rarely get sick but during this time it seemed like I could barely walk out the door without catching a cold. Also, I was driving my friends nuts. I'd start on a rant that they’d heard a hundred times before and their eyes would immediately start rolling. They'd had enough. So had I.
When the dust finally settled, a compromise had been reached which must have required Gary Goetzman’s considerable powers of charm and persuasion. First, the band would be shown once, very briefly, in the body of the film. They would be cut to for a few seconds and appear to just happen to be playing in a bar. For those that knew Clap Your Hands Say Yeah it would look like a kind of inside joke. If you didn’t know the band you might wonder for a moment what the point was but it would pass very quickly. Second, and this was tougher to take, at the end of the film we’d fade to black and then fade up while the band, inexplicably, played an entire song as the credits rolled. I really didn’t want to take my name off the film and by this point was just glad that the film wasn’t completely ruined. No one asked me if this compromise was acceptable to me. The film was going to appear like this whether I liked it or not. But anyway, I decided to leave my name on the film in this form.
I didn’t give up completely though and I almost got rid of the band entirely. We were accepted to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival as the opening night film. About a month before the premiere date we were at Warner Brothers, mixing the film. I continued my campaign by haranguing Gary Goetzman constantly about the band. Finally, probably because he was sick of hearing me complain, he just gave in and told our editor to take the band out. Cary Granat got word of this and blew his top. We’d agreed to the compromise and now we were going back on it. The band was put back in.
A few days before the festival Cary Granat and all his executives were fired from Walden. After all this, they were no longer even responsible for the film and had no reason to care if the band was in the film or not. It was too late to go back though. The film was finished. Prints had been struck. I was told it would cost $50,000 to go back in and remove all trace of the band. It’s my guess that this number was just thrown out to shut me up. No one realized how crazy I’d become though. Fifty grand was about all the money I had to my name but I offered to pay for it anyway and I would have. Gary Goetzman had to step in and basically just tell me to stop being an asshole, which I guess I’d become by that point. And it was probably for the best. I had no business throwing around 50K and I needed that money for things like food and my electric bill. The film played at Sundance and later in theaters and on video with the band at the end. To this day, I can’t stand to watch it and think it’s probably the dumbest thing ever to appear in an otherwise decent film.
Gary’s point with the compromise was that no one would ever notice the band at the end of the film. I was sure he was wrong but, as with most things, Gary was right. There were maybe four or five reviews that even mentioned the band and one or two even referenced it positively. I did numerous Q&A sessions for the movie and was rarely asked about the band. In the grand scheme of things I’d come out of the whole experience fortunately.
When the whole process was over I met with my cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto. Tak has been in the business for many years and done the cinematography for films like Badlands, Silence of the Lambs and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, among many others. I told Tak the whole story and complained to a him for a bit. He laughed and said, “At this point I’d say that if you get 50% of what you want in your movie you’re doing pretty good.” He told a story of how on the movie Swing Shift, both he and Jonathan Demme had been fired and the movie was reshot and recut without their participation. Apparently, this had been a difficult experience for Jonathan Demme, who I consider a great director. So, it happens to the best.
I'm very proud of it but The Great Buck Howard was not a big success financially. It played at art house theaters across the country. Most of the people who saw it though seemed to have caught it on video or on a plane. I realize that movies are a simple diversion much of the time or something that’s on in the background as you go about your life. It may seem like I’m making too much of all this or overstating its impact. As I said though, something strange happens when you’re directing a film, especially a film of this size and importance for the very first time. It’s consuming. You truly begin to feel like your whole life depends on it turning out well. And everyone has something that matters to them deeply. I haven’t gotten the chance to make many films and the ones I have made have fallen short of genius but they are how I’ve spent my life and they mean the world to me.
The experience of dealing with this band and the politics and everything else that went on with making a film on a larger scale taught me some good lessons. This is the way movies are made and this is the way life is. Things don’t always go your way. It’s not always fair. But at the end you just have to swallow it and try to regard the whole thing philosophically and then move on. Still, if I had the money I’d buy the negative to The Great Buck Howard and take the band out. Then I’d stomp on these excised moments, piss on them, burn them and then mail the urine soaked ashes to Cary Granat with my kind regards.