My Filmmaking 'Detour,' and How It Cost Me 4 Critical Years
I graduated from the American Film Institute's Directing Program in 2006 with a handful of scripts and a short film. It was not the best time to be breaking into the business. Despite AFI's stellar reputation, I was entering the work force at the beginning of the writer's strike -- I couldn't sell a script, I could barely get a meeting, and I certainly couldn't get a job directing.
After a year and a half of flirting with Hollywood development deals and screenplay options, my writing partner, Dwight Moody, came up with a simple idea that we could produce outside of the Hollywood system: a man trapped in a basement after his house gets besieged by a landslide.
That idea was the beginning. I ended up introducing a smaller location into this situation; a smaller location meant higher stakes, not to mention, a smaller budget. We fixed our sights on the idea of a man trapped in his car during a mudslide. One character, one location. This was 2008. Before "Buried," before "127 Hours," before "Frozen," before "Brake," before "Wrecked," before the apparent trend for this type of minimalist action film.
If I had made "Detour" then (it opens for limited on Friday, as well as on video-on-demand), it might have been the start of the trend. But like so many others in the business, I heard the siren call of Hollywood and got diverted. Instead of making the film for nothing with some friends in a garage with a junker and a couple wheelbarrows of dirt, the script got around and as luck would have it, people really liked it.
With this initial buzz came the promise of money -- a real budget for a movie that was meant to have no budget at all. What started out as an experiment in the simplicity of filmmaking, something I could make myself, was turning out to be much bigger than I could have imagined. All of a sudden we had over a million dollars and name actors attached to the project.
And so the slippery slope began, and the Sisyphean trek lasted two and a half years.
Over the course of these years, we "had" funding, or more accurately, the promise of funding, three times. The project always fell apart and did so for a variety of different reasons: I had never directed a feature; a product-placement company would pay us to put tools in the movie but only tools that would make our main character's ordeal a whole lot easier, and a whole lot less dramatic; a name actor would do the movie, if we funded his other movie; another name actor loved the project, but only if I fired myself and hired his friend to direct it; another name actor loved the project, and attracted a whole new level of funding, but died just as we were about to get the project off the ground.
There was also the company that promised funding … if I wrote a role for the wife of the head of the company. I'm sorry, did you read the script? It's one man trapped inside a car; I'm not sure where I'd fit her in (the irony is that this incident inspired us to write a scene for a woman of similar type, and that scene, a dream sequence, ended up in the movie).
Almost three years were spent enduring cliché after Hollywood cliché, and experiencing stuff that I've only heard joked about in Hollywood, only to realize that, yes, this stuff does happen and, furthermore, it has become my reality.
I stepped back for a moment and took comfort in the fact that I had written this film to make for nothing and, you know what, I realized it was time I did just that. I offered the role to Neil Hopkins, an actor with enormous talent who I had worked with in the past and who I considered a friend. In other words, he was someone who would not only knock this role out of the park, but also trust me as a director.
I decided to set a date and start shooting, with or without funding. As fortune would have it, a good friend and colleague decided to invest a small chunk of change into the film and we went ahead and started, without having any idea how to pull off some of the trickier material down the line.
My directing professor at AFI used to tell me, "If you have 10 grand, set a date and move forward. If Tom Hanks calls you on Sunday and tells you he wants to be in the film, he better be there Monday morning, or you're shooting without him."
It's all about momentum. Everything around you, people and circumstances alike, will tell you to wait, to push, to hold off just a little longer, so that the timing is perfect. The fact of the matter is: The timing will never be perfect. It's the director's job to get the train moving, because once it starts moving, people are more likely to get on board with you.