SEAN MCGINLY

THE FILM FROM HELL

The first 8 or 9 years I spent in Los Angeles were very tough.  It was a constant hustle trying to keep the bills paid and the bills weren’t very much.  There were years when I got by on $12,000 or even less, which meant I had about $1000 a month at my disposal.  My rent was $500 a month. Groceries were around $200 a month.  I had a 1990 Honda Accord my parents had given me but there was still car insurance, health insurance, utilities and just the miscellaneous expenses that came up like haircuts and occasionally buying things like underwear and socks.  I did spend money on going to movies and renting movies.  I would have gone without hot water before I’d given up movies during these years. I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t have cable television. God help me if I needed a root canal or new brakes on my car.  The whole thing came apart.  I rarely did anything like going to a nice dinner. A vacation or a weekend in Vegas was unthinkable.  I didn’t date at all.  I didn’t want to start liking a girl and then have to explain to her that I simply couldn’t afford to take her anywhere nicer than Poquito Mas.


I know there are people who have had it worse, far worse.  And this was all my choice.  I’d quit law school against my parents’ wishes to become a writer and filmmaker. They’d warned me I would starve and they were close to right.  I was determined though.  I refused to get a real job, which was easy because I had no marketable skills and my education consisted of a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and an MFA in Film Production.  Still, there were people I knew from film school who’d had dreams of writing and directing films but settled into lives with more steady paychecks working as sound technicians or editing assistants.  I decided I would never go this way.  I remember telling myself that I was going to make a living as a writer, whatever it took.  I didn’t want to have a back up plan. No matter how bad the situation got, I was going to have to write my way out of it.


What this meant was that if an opportunity came up to make money writing I had to take it, no matter how crazy or weird it got.  If you’ve read some of my other essays than you know that at times, things got fairly strange.  The following story may be the craziest of them all.


I wrote a script for a small independent film that was optioned by a producing team.  One half of the team was a reputable producer who had done other films I’d heard of.  The other half was a nice, older man who I’ll call “Joe”.  It soon became clear that Joe was the financier in this operation while the other producer had the industry contacts.  Joe didn’t finance entire films but he’d option books, commission scripts and just generally keep the company in business.  Joe was very wealthy but self made and quite down to Earth.  He was actually so normal that I couldn’t quite figure out what he was doing in this business.  He just didn’t strike me as the sort of guy that would be taken in by glitz or glamour.  But, in a way, this was refreshing.  I liked Joe a lot.


While we were trying to attach actors and find the financing for the indie script I’d written, Joe called me one day and asked if I’d have lunch with him.  When we met he brought along his daughter who I will call “Tiffany”.  She was pretty, in her mid 20’s and an aspiring actress.  Suddenly, I understood what Joe was doing in the movie business.  You can probably guess where this is going.  Joe asked if I’d be interested in writing and directing a small, independent film that might provide a vehicle for Tiffany to act in.  The other script I’d written, which Joe had optioned, had a male lead and that couldn’t be changed.  He wanted an entirely new project, something small, because he wanted to finance the entire film himself.  He was prepared to put $100,000, maybe even more, into this.


This was at a time, in the late 90’s when a lot of films were being made on a micro budget level.  People were just starting to shoot on digital video, which made a project like this even more feasible.  Furthermore, I knew how to make it happen.  I’d made two other films that hadn't really gone anywhere for even less than 100K.  I had contacts to crew and was friends with actors who would be up for working on a project of this size.


Tiffany was a little uneasy right from the start.  The very last thing she wanted was to feel like I was only doing this because Joe was her father and he was financing the entire affair.  That was silly, of course.  Tiffany had no credits to her name. She didn’t even have an agent.  How else would I even have known about her if not for her father? She suggested I come watch her act in a play that was being put on by her theater company, to get an idea of her “energy”.


I went to the play at a small theater in West Hollywood.  While there I met “Steve”, Tiffany’s boyfriend, and the co-founder of their theater company.  Steve was very handsome, confident and also an actor, though he wasn’t in the play.  Steve informed me that he would also very much like to have a role in the film that was possibly being developed but made it clear that it was by no means a requirement, which I took to mean that it was.  As I sat down to watch the play I opened the program and saw that the production was being presented by Joe.  Apparently, he’d paid for this as well.


Tiffany was surprisingly OK in the play.  She wasn’t great but she wasn’t awful either.  She was, and I think I’m being honest here, a slightly above average actress.  Still, I had no real sense of her energy or if she even had an energy.  I just saw that she could act a little.  I got together with Tiffany and Joe to present some ideas.  They both liked the first one I mentioned and Joe agreed to pay me $3000 a month to write the script.  Joe made it clear that he’d like for Steve to play a part in the film, not necessarily the lead but preferably the lead.  Tiffany just wanted my assurance that I was only agreeing to this because I’d seen her in the play and felt like she was right for it.  I provided this assurance.


Of course, I was mostly doing it for the money.  I’m sure, on some level, everyone knew it but we all pretended we didn’t.  It was a somewhat cynical arrangement that a moderately talented actress was having an opportunity like this created and financed by her wealthy father.  Still, this sort of thing goes on.  I figured there was no reason this couldn’t be fun at the very least and maybe even rewarding.  And, at the end, it didn't matter.  I was being offered a writing job making good money, at least for me.  I took it and considered myself fortunate.


I could have maxed out this situation.  Joe had plenty of money and I was being paid by the month.  If I’d taken 4 or 5 months to write the script I doubt he would have blinked.  I really liked Joe though.  He was a sweet, humble guy.  I’ve never met a rich man quite like him.  He was placid and simple, not the least bit arrogant and willing to admit what he didn’t know.  He just wanted to help his daughter and I was moved by this.  I didn’t want to take advantage of him.  I wrote the script in about 6 weeks.  Tiffany loved it.  Joe loved it.  He told me to go ahead and make it.  He’d put some money in an account and write me checks as I needed them.  In addition, he’d continue to pay me $3,000 a month.


In the 6 weeks it had taken to write the script some things had changed.  Tiffany had broken up with Steve.  It had been her first, big adult relationship and she was bruised by its demise. She and Steve had been living together in a condo, paid for by Joe, which she could no longer bear to stay in.  Joe bought her a house, a rather nice one.  For further consolation Tiffany had gotten a purebred Great Dane puppy that had cost $3000 and which she was in no condition to train properly.  Behind Tiffany’s new house was a guesthouse that a use hadn’t yet been determined for.  Joe decided this would be the production office for our film.


The first day, I set up shop in the guesthouse and began making calls, hiring crew, sending out casting notices.  Tiffany had absolutely nothing to do so she spent the better part of the day interrupting my work to fill me in on the specifics of her break up with Steve.  There was talk of her lifelong struggle with the suspicion that she simply wasn’t loveable, something that the break up with Steve had reinforced.  Before long, there were tears.  As I sat there, listening to her and watching her cry I began to get worried.  The possibility started to occur to me that Tiffany was more than just upset about a break up.  There seemed to be something unhinged about her. 


It got worse.  After the tears Tiffany decided she was in love with me.  The script I had written was a kind of love story where one of the characters talked about the “lightning bolt” of love at first sight.  I’d stolen this from The Godfather (the book, not the movie).  Tiffany felt this lightning bolt for me.  I wasn’t the least bit attracted to her and fumbled for excuses why this couldn’t be – my relationship with her father, our need to preserve a professional atmosphere, so on and so forth.  These complications made her attraction to me all the stronger.  I told her I was going to go home for the day.  She blocked the door, refusing to let me leave until at least I’d given her a kiss to see if the magic was there between us.  She was a small girl and I could have simply picked her up and removed her from my path but instead I just, unwisely, kissed her.  She felt the magic.  I didn’t and managed to squeeze out of there and run to my car as she exploded in tears behind me.  This really happened.  I literally ran. I’m not exaggerating.


I got home, convinced that after such a scene the film was probably over.  Lord knows how Tiffany would describe what had happened to Joe.  Tiffany called me, now calm, apologized and said she was certain we could get past this and work together as professionals.  Then she asked if she could come over to my apartment and discuss this in person.  I, stupidly, agreed.  She came over and the exact same scene that had played out at her house played out at mine.  She tried to seduce me.  I again went through the reasons why we shouldn’t and couldn’t become romantic. There were more tears and now I was the one reinforcing her suspicion that she wasn’t loveable.  Finally, I all but shoved her out the door of my apartment.  This, all in the very first day!


If I weren’t writing this but just reading it, I would think that the story probably ends somewhere around here. Surely a film couldn’t be made after a first day like the one I’ve just described.  Wrong.  Everything was just beginning.  This is where the situation shifted from being somewhat cynical to completely and utterly cynical.  I’m not proud of this but it’s the truth.


I knew Tiffany was unstable and maybe even totally bonkers. I knew I should call Joe and quit.  I didn’t though. As I mentioned, I’d been struggling for some years, getting by on $1000 a month, sometimes even less.  Suddenly, I had 3 times that amount coming to me on a regular basis and found I quite liked it.  I could go to the occasional nice dinner, perhaps have a date, even pay down some debt. That’s the thing about a steady paycheck.  It’s amazing how quickly you get used to it and begin to regard it as your proper station in life.  Luxuries are enjoyed.  Plans are made, plans that require $3,000 a month and that would be destroyed by a return to your previous, impoverished station, which now feels intolerable.  So, even though you now have a little money, you find yourself putting up with situations that you wouldn’t have when you were poor.  Life is strange in this way.


Somehow, after that first day, Tiffany and I managed to settle into something resembling a professional relationship.  Several times she asked me if I was gay and seemed frustrated by my insistence that I wasn’t. Over time though, she resigned herself to the fact that we weren’t going to become lovers and decided that instead we were meant to become friends.  She didn’t really have many friends and the ones she did have were as narcissistic as her.  Within a few weeks, it began to occur to me that I might be the closest thing she had to a friend.  This made me feel a little bad because I knew that the second the film was over I was going to do everything in my power to never see her again. 


She was still basically a mess.  Her house was a shambles, with clothes and possessions strewn all over the place.  Her beautiful and quickly growing dog was left in the back yard to take enormous dumps everywhere that she refused to clean up. This dog produced more shit than an elephant.  I asked Tiffany again and again to please clean up after the dog, telling her that we were going to be having casting sessions and crew meetings at the guesthouse and we couldn’t have people stepping in crap. She ignored me. The truth was she wanted me to do it.  I knew this and was determined not to.  It became a kind of stand off, which she, of course, won. Before the first casting session I finally gave in and went around for 15 minutes with a shovel, scooping poop, just like I’d always imagined when I dreamed about getting into the movie business.  After that, every time I asked her to clean up after the dog she’d say, “That’s your job” and then laugh her ass off like it was all a big joke.  She meant it though and it did become my job because she certainly wasn’t doing it.


Tiffany helped me with casting and read with all the actors who auditioned for parts.  Little by little I put together a small crew who agreed to work for the meager wages we were offering on our small budget.  Before I knew it we were a couple weeks away from the beginning of production without incident. 


I should have anticipated it, but I hadn’t - I began to sense a kind of resent among the crew.  They all needed the work and most were near the start of their careers but in a way that just made things worse.  These weren’t hardened veterans just making a paycheck.  They still had a little idealism that hadn’t yet been beaten out of them.  I could hear the whispers and the sarcasm.  They were disdainful that this project existed to provide a vehicle for a rich girl, and one that either ignored them or treated them like the hired help, there to do her bidding as well as the film’s.


Tiffany had the art director paint her living room, claiming it was going to be a location for the film, even though it wasn’t.  She just wanted the free paint job. When I found out about this I made Tiffany let us use it but the art director was mad anyway and felt taken advantage of.  Tiffany ordered production assistants to clean up after her dog.  P.A.’s are on the bottom rung and are used to performing menial tasks but not ones that have nothing to do with the film and which involve dog excrement. I told them they didn’t have to do it – it was my job after all - and then did it myself.  This display of humility didn’t build camaraderie or even generate sympathy.  If fact, I began to sense that the crew was losing respect for me and I couldn’t blame them.  People, especially people being paid slave wages on an indie film want to work with a director who’s a strong presence with an inspiring vision he believes in, not a guy who’s subjected to the whims of a spoiled brat.


Casting also became a problem, especially as it related to the actor who would play opposite Tiffany, her romantic counterpart. We read a lot of actors and the problem was that none of them had any chemistry with her, which was very important.  We wound up casting an extremely handsome guy who I’ll call “Peter”.  He was so sexy that he had some chemistry with just about every woman on Earth.  Peter was actually a very nice, kind man who was good natured about the situation and happy to be working. 


Tiffany almost instantly fell madly in love with Peter. He was better at handling this than I’d been, probably because he was used to women coming on to him 3 or 4 times a day.  He flirted with her, was charming and kind of made it seem like he just might throw her a bone (so to speak) if she played her cards right. Peter told me privately that he had no real interest in her but felt like this tension was good for the characters and their relationship.  It might have been with a less insane girl.


The script took place mostly in Los Angeles, with a brief series of scenes set in San Francisco, which we decided to shoot on location.  A week before we started I took a quick, two day trip up to San Francisco with my cinematographer and line producer to scout locations. By this point quite a bit of money had been spent.  We had about 12 people on the crew being paid. The film was off and running.


On our first night in San Francisco I received a dramatic call from Tiffany.  She was sobbing, I mean absolutely wailing. I’ve never heard a person cry quite like this.  It just went on and on for four of five minutes.  She was inconsolable.  Finally, she calmed down enough to tell me what the problem was.  Peter was an asshole.  She couldn’t do the movie with him.  She hated him. 


I managed to get off the phone with Tiffany and call Peter.  He was no longer the cool charmer he’d been.  He was rattled with a bearing more along the lines of mine after my first day with Tiffany.  He told me they’d gotten together to rehearse and apparently Tiffany had grown tired of his flirting and made a move.  He got to the same point I had, making excuses about preserving a professional relationship and so forth.  Tiffany felt massively betrayed and rejected and now Peter was reinforcing her lifelong fear of not being loveable.  For the life of me I’ll never understand why she had this issue.  Her parents adored her and treated her like a princess.  If anything, she was loved too much.


Peter, nice guy that he was, agreed to continue on with the movie if I could calm down Tiffany.  I called her back and she insisted she could never speak to the man again.  I explained to her that we were a week away.  There wasn’t time to cast a new actor. Her father had spent a lot of money.  I was in San Francisco for Christsakes, scouting locations and spending even more money.  She didn’t care.  While I was on the phone with her Peter rang in on her other line.  I beseeched her to talk to him.  She finally did.  He apologized to her and somehow they worked it out enough to continue.


There was one last issue before filming commenced and by this point I had just about had it with Tiffany.  She went and got a new haircut that looked awful.  When she presented this to me I began to realize that there was some sort of semi-conscious self-sabotage going on here.  Tiffany was a pretty girl, if nothing else, and here she was doing everything in her power to destroy even this. I no longer had the patience to be diplomatic.  I just came out and told her the haircut made her look like Tom Petty.  I expected tears but instead she laughed, like she was impressed – with me, for finally taking her in hand and with herself, for driving me to this point.  She went back and had the haircut redone and arrived on the first day of shooting looking good.


When we started filming, the first few days went well. Tiffany was actually a pretty good actress and mostly did well.  There were small problems though at the most unexpected of times. There was a scene where her character had a quiet moment that required her to look in the mirror.  That’s it.  All she had to do was stand there and look in the mirror.  She found this intolerable, which I guess betrayed a deep self-hatred that was at the root of all her problems. I didn’t have time to get into this.  The shoot was tightly scheduled.  We had 15 or 20 minutes to get this shot.  Tiffany couldn’t do it and soon she was crying.  Two hours were lost calming her down and reapplying make-up before we finally got through it.  This meant the day went long and the crew had to work overtime, which further bolstered the growing mood of dissent.


More pervasive problems began to fill days when Tiffany started doing scenes with other actors besides Peter.  Tiffany was comfortable with Peter by now, for whatever reason, but felt terribly insecure around the other actors, who were working professionals with agents and careers.  Again and again she complained, and occasionally cried, that she was ashamed that all the other actors had auditioned for their roles and won them fairly while she’d just been given hers.  Of course, this was just the situation before us. I could understand why it might make her feel insecure but she had allowed it, had even participated in arranging it.  And in any case, there was nothing that could be done now.  We were in the middle of making the movie.


She asked me if I would have cast her in the part if she’d just walked in off the street.  I told her I would have and she accused me of lying, which of course, I was. She asked me to give her more compliments.  I did.  She asked me to compliment the other actors less.  I did. She interrupted filming several times a day so we could have private, reassuring conversations while the crew waited, growing more and more annoyed at the thought of another day of overtime. 


I learned a good lesson on this film.  It’s very important that a director give the impression that he’s in control.  Otherwise, the crew can start to become disengaged and even destructive to the process.  There was no hiding the fact that I had little, if any, control over Tiffany.  I was just a glorified pooper-scooper after all.  This combined with the fact that the crew knew the film was bullshit and probably destined for a shelf somewhere created a terrible environment.  Soon, the inmates were running the asylum.


People on the crew goofed around and did their work slowly if they did it at all.  They slept.  They disappeared for hours at lunch.  They were rude, lazy and generally dismissive of the film. I could understand why but still, they were being paid and we had a job to do, however ridiculous it might be. It wasn’t easy to find replacements who were willing to work for the low wages we were offering but even when we did, the new hires seemed to take in the toxic atmosphere after a day or so and were soon behaving as badly as their predecessors or even worse. I quickly realized that it was pointless to bring on new people and we were just going to have to get through it with the crew we had.


The one person I definitely should have fired I didn’t.  I couldn’t because she was the girlfriend of the cinematographer.  Her name was “Suzanne”. She was working as a kind of “floater”, doing some work as an assistant cameraperson but also helping out with make up because she had a background as a beautician.  The day before we were set to leave for San Francisco there was a huge eruption between Tiffany and Suzanne.  They’d been alone, doing make up, when it happened so I never found out exactly what transpired.  Tiffany, again in tears, claimed that Suzanne had told her that the entire crew agreed that Tiffany was terrible in the movie and it was because I wasn’t directing her properly.  Suzanne, bizarrely, claimed that she’d said nothing at all, not a single word and that she had no idea what Tiffany was even talking about. Tiffany was crazy but I don’t think she was the kind of person to imagine and create an entire conversation.  Still, my cinematographer, one of the few people on the crew who was positive and supportive of me, said he’d quit if I fired his girlfriend.  I needed him so I had to, once again, calm down Tiffany and continue.


In San Francisco – and it was a terrible mistake to set part of the film out of town – everything came apart.  A day or so before we were set to leave Tiffany informed me that she was about to get her period. I looked at her like this was information I didn’t need to know and that seemed irrelevant in any case.  Surely, every actress has at some point had to work in this condition. She informed me that her periods were very difficult and asked if we could reschedule the trip to San Francisco.  Of course, we couldn’t. Hotels had been booked.  Permits had been obtained.  Locations had been locked down and paid for.


Well, I saw just how difficult a period could be for a woman like Tiffany.  She was a complete mess for the entire 3 days in San Francisco.  Whole scenes were lost to crying.  I’d call action and she’d start crying.  She had no reason to cry and couldn’t explain why she was crying.  We’d stop.  I’d calm her down.  Make up would be reapplied.  I’d call action and again the tears would flow.  Before I knew it 6 hours had passed and Tiffany looked like a wreck anyway so we’d just pack up and leave, having not gotten so much as a useable take.


I’d been doing my best to not let Joe in on all of this.  It was an impossible situation.  How do you explain to a man that his daughter is a hysterical mess?  In San Francisco though, I had no choice.  I called him and hesitantly said, “Listen, Joe, Tiffany’s having some problems.  She’s crying a lot. I don’t know why.  I’m afraid that we’re not going to have a movie here when we’re done.  There are several important scenes that we weren’t able to film”.  Joe just sighed and said, “Well, get through it as best as you can.”  That was it.


Our last night in San Francisco, we were informed by the management at the hotel where we were staying that an entire mini bar had been emptied, which would cost $800.  We specifically hadn’t given mini bar keys to the crew for this exact reason.  Someone had broken in, which added to the cost.  Everyone on the crew denied any involvement but there was no one else it could have been.  It felt like a kick in the balls when I was already laying on the ground with a serious head wound.


We went back to Los Angeles to film one final scene.  It was a large party where all of the actors in the movie were gathered.  Tiffany was in surprisingly good spirits.  I was beaten and bruised.  The script supervisor, a bitter, unpleasant woman, but one who at least did her work and did it well, spoke to me quietly and we had the following exchange:


SS: You know, directors have had to deal with difficult, half crazed actresses since the dawn of cinema.  Do you know how they handle them?
ME: I don’t know.  How?
SS: They fuck them.  I can tell you didn’t.


Then she smiled, rather pleased with herself for having surprised me with the punch line and challenged my manhood all in one felt swoop.  At the time, it occurred to me that perhaps refusing Tiffany’s advance that first day had been my big mistake here.  Maybe the script supervisor was right.  But she wasn’t.  She was just a bitch.


Tiffany insisted that I drive her home after wrap.  I pulled up in front of her house, disgusted with her and myself and wanting nothing more than to just be rid of her forever.  She wouldn’t get out of the car.  She looked at me and said, “You hate me, don’t you?”  I didn’t have it in me to be nice or lie any longer.  I knew it would just mean more tears but I told her the truth anyway, “Yeah, I do.”  She didn’t cry. In fact she smiled.  Maybe she was just uncomfortable or surprised with how frank I was being.  She knew by this point that I hated confrontation and seemed to enjoy driving me to the point where I said things I didn’t want to, even mean things.  She apologized the way every narcissist apologizes, by saying sorry and then immediately following it up with a hundred excuses.  I stopped her and said, “Tiffany, please just get out of my car.”  Now there were tears.  I’ve never met a person who produced tears in such quantities.  She finally got out of the car and thank God she did because if she hadn’t I might have choked her and gone to jail, ruining myself entirely.


I tried to cut together the film.  It made no sense and was terrible.  Joe and Tiffany came to the editing room to see it and commented that they thought it had come out OK.  I don't know if they really thought so or were just trying to be positive.  Either way, I couldn’t bear to see any more money wasted, even though it wasn’t mine.   I handed Joe all the elements and lied that I’d been offered another project I simply couldn’t turn down.  They never did anything with the film.  I don’t even have a copy of it, which is fine with me.  When it was over Joe had spent around $80,000, which he never betrayed even the slightest disappointment over.  It may have been that he didn’t mind at all. If Tiffany was a trial for me I can only imagine what it was like being her father. While the film was being made Tiffany had been busy and out of Joe’s hair.  Of course, she’d been in mine so in essence I’d been a kind of babysitter.  If you’re rich enough maybe 80K’s a small price to pay for a few month’s peace.


I’ll give Tiffany some credit.  She called me a year or so later and offered a real apology, with no excuses, which I accepted.  I could tell she wanted us to be friends and for me to tell her that it all hadn’t been so bad after all.  I couldn’t give her this though.  It had been, and will always be, the film from hell.  I just thanked her for being big enough to make the call and then hung up.  That was the last I ever saw or heard of her. 


Maybe I’d gotten what I deserved. I’d tried my hardest and done the best job I could but, almost right from the start, I’d known this situation was a farce with all the earmarks of a disaster, yet I’d done it anyway because I needed the money.  I’d allowed myself to be cynical and I’ve found in life that when you do this, things rarely go well.


At the end it had taken 6 months of my time and I had nothing to show for it except $18,000, which I’d earned every cent of.  It seemed like a lot at the time but before I knew it the money was gone and I was back, struggling to pay the bills every month.
When you’re broke, year after year, trying to achieve something that you don't feel like you're getting any closer to you can become desperate.  No matter what though - and it's very difficult - you have to remember that some things aren’t worth any amount of money.  Before working with Tiffany I hadn't yet learned that.  After, I'd never forget it. 

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