“We did everything wrong—everything out of order.”
Writer/director Cindy Gustafson
For the past 100 years of film history every filmmaker knows what it’s like to go down many dead-end streets. The frustrating part is those streets never have a warning sign reading “Dead End Street.” The best way to deal with that is to know that that is part of the journey. Conflict is part of what makes drama work, and it’s as real off the screen as on the screen.
With that here is part two of the interview that I did with writer/director Cindy Gustafson about her own unique journey to getting her first feature film produced. Note that if this filmmaker from Kalamazoo had of followed a more traditional route, I bet that her script would still be unproduced. Keep in mind that as I write this, A Chance of Rain, has not only been shot and currently is in post-production, but just a year ago her script—her very first one— was just sitting in a drawer.
Scott W. Smith: You wrote the script A Chance of Rain and stuck it in a drawer, but at some point you had to take it out of the drawer. What prompted you to do that?
Cindy Gustafson: Because a friend of mine bugged me for a year to let him read it. That was probably 2010. He’s a working actor in Hollywood. But he’s also the most brutally honest person in the world. Why would I let someone brutally honest read my work? (Laughs) But I finally gave in and let him. But worse than reading it, he forced me to listen on the phone while he read the entire thing to me. So he’s reading it to me and I think it was on page 47 and he stopped after a scene and he was like, “Hmmm. Wow, that was a really amazing scene.” I first was happy he liked something. But then I immediately thought, “but it took him to page 47 to like anything???” Then we got to the end and he was really quiet, and then I realized he was crying. And he said, “I’m very moved by this. You should do something with this. “ And he gave me two pages of affirming words and positive notes. So I put it back in a drawer for another year.
SWS: But we wouldn’t be doing this interview if your script didn’t find its way out of that drawer again. What happened?
Cindy: One day I was on an airplane flying out to LA for 24 hours to see that same actor friend in a show. I serendipitously got bumped to first class and I was seated next to a person who was connected to the movie industry and we had a lovely conversation about art and film. When we landed he gave me the name of a woman who had done some script consultation and had worked in the biz for many years. I thought it would be good to get another professional opinion and she was glad to do it. She read my script and seemed to like it a lot but also pointed out how difficult “small idea” movies like mine are to sell, no matter how good they are, unless you’re connected first. Since my motivation to share it with her was so I could improve as a writer and not to sell or make it, it wasn’t a big disappointment. I was well aware that my script was not a “big idea” script and I already understood what that meant and had no plans for it.
SWS: More “Winter’s Bone” than “Star Wars”?
Cindy: Definitely. But I was writing a movie I would want to see. And if I was going to stay up late at night writing with what little spare time I had, it had to interest me first. Anyway, I appreciated her words, felt encouraged she liked it, and put the script away AGAIN.
SWS: Yet, something must have happened.
Cindy: At the start of 2011 a woman in Kalamazoo who had production managed a couple of my plays read my script and said, “Oh Cindy, you really should do something with this.” But even though I kept hearing that, I didn’t really know what that meant. But after some conversations, and getting some money from private investors, she and I decided we’d “wing it” and make the movie on a shoestring budget, “just for fun.” We didn’t know what to do first and we weren’t even sure it could even be done on such a low budget. From there we did everything wrong—everything out of order.
SWS: Yet you got the film made.
Cindy: I know. It’s crazy and we still laugh about it. We knew we’d have to cast the film ourselves since our budget was so small. We didn’t know how to do it, but instead of finding local talent like we should have, I combed IMDB and made a wish list of actors I would love to have. And then we just cold called agents just to see what would happen. It was ridiculous. The encouraging part was, anytime we were able to share about the project, there was interest, so we kept going. Anyway, we cold called one of the reps for Matt Lanter, whom my gut told me would be great as our lead. After hearing our budget, we were basically told “thanks, but no thanks.” We didn’t even get far enough to share about the project. We weren’t surprised though as we knew we looked really bad on paper—we had very little money, no name power, no producer, and we were calling from Kalamafrickin’zoo. But then through a series of connections we were given the name of a casting intern we were told might give us some advice on how to navigate the process. We tried to call her but seasoned Casting Director Scott David ultimately returned our call to tell us she didn’t work there anymore. He was curious what we were working on and asked for a synopsis. He said he was intrigued and then asked if he could read the script. He read it and said, he loved it and wanted to cast it for us. Scott was very dynamic and passionate about the project and brought in many amazing actors to audition. I asked Scott, just for kicks, to go back to Matt Lanter’s reps. Scott called his manager and got the script to him, and the manager emailed three hours later to say he had opened the script and read the entire thing in one sitting and he enthusiastically wanted Matt to be considered for the role, despite our budget. A week later I met Matt and offered him the role. That was August 2011 and we cast the other roles and were filming by the beginning of October.
SWS: How did you end up shooting on the Alexa?
Cindy: Everybody had said if you go digital you want the RED camera. I’m not technical at all but I remembered the word RED. Our DP, Lon Stratton, read the script and when we got together he said he really wanted to shoot it on the Alexa (which I had never heard of before). And I was like, well, an Alexa sounds fine, but I really had my heart set on a RED. And his jaw just dropped open like I had just blasphemed the entire cinematic world. And since he owned an Alexa, we were able to get it easily!
SWS: Did you have any time for table readings or rehearsals?
Cindy: On our budget, real rehearsal time was not going to happen. I did meet with several of the actors and had many phone conversations with them too. We would just really talk through the scenes and discuss what was going on and what was REALLY going on. It was always important to me to spend a lot of time on the truth behind the scene. So they knew the characters inside and out, backwards and forwards before they got off the plane which made our quick on- set rehearsals run relatively smoothly.
Note: I hope you’re encouraged by Cindy’s journey. Think about what can happen with that script of yours that’s sitting in a drawer today. Perhaps it’s your first script that you wrote just as an exercise. I’ve told Cindy’s story to a couple people in L.A. and their cynical response has been in line with —”Well, let’s see if her little movie’s any good.” That misses the point. Heck, Hollywood’s top tier talent takes 2-5 years to develop movies all the time that suck.
It’s easy to overlook where Cindy talks about doing a couple plays in Kalamazoo, but that tells me that even though A Chance of Rain was her first script she had some measure of talent and experience going into this thing. And another quirky fact is that Matt Lanter was born in Massillon, Ohio and lived there until he was eight. (Massillon and Kalamazoo are about a 5 hour drive apart.) Hollywood is full of people who came from somewhere else and never underestimate the power of a connection you may have with someone from your same general area. (Just last week actor Michael Mosley—Scrubs, Pan Am, and a Cedar Falls, Iowa native— requested a script of mine. You never know where those connections will lead.)
What Cindy has already pulled off—with the help of some cheerleaders—is amazing. (Do you know what percentage of film school grads ever make a feature film. A very small percentage.) What may amaze you even more, as you’ll learn in part 3 of this interview, is not that Cindy lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan—but she did all of this as a mother of five young children.
Related post: Kalamazoo Filmmaker (Part 1)