It’s been over twenty-six years since a young ambitious director/producer named Robert Townsend would not take no for an answer, and broke the first rule of independent filmmaking: don’t use your own money. Even before Mr. Rodriguez was crowned a rebel without a crew, it was Mr. Townsend who blazed brave new avenues in getting his movie made by any means necessary. And it is in that spirit, the indomitable spirit of the artistic vision that the credo of “filmmaking by any means necessary” persists even today, in projects like the Better Half film project.
The Internet Movie Database offers this piece of trivia for Hollywood Shuffle:
Producer/director/star Robert Townsend put US$40,000 of the film's US$100,000 budget on ten personal credit cards, and obtained free film stock by splicing together leftovers from the production of Odd Jobs and Ratboy, in which he had appeared. The 17 days of shooting were spread over two years, since he had to tour as a stand-up comedian whenever he could not afford to continue production.
“Actually the similarities are kind of startling,” answered filmmaker Michelle Clay when we pointed that IMDB blurb out to her. “We are shooting on the Canon 7D, so we are not spending our weekends rounding up short ends. The challenge for us is always trying to round up a decent array of lenses. My credit was already maxed out when I started this project, so it’s now a question of how many gigs and how many hours I can hustle up week to week. My goal is a 21-day shoot, filming 3 days a month for the rest of the year. So far, we’re on schedule, but it gets tougher with each new set of shooting days.”
Much like Mr. Townsend, in the mid 80s, and for that matter, many indie filmmakers today, writer/director Michelle Clay is not exactly connected in the film industry. Despite her two decades as a professional editor, folks who have the ear of legit producers and studio execs is still a very small group. She is part of a growing wave of content creators of web series and internet programming who are taking creative matters in their own hands.
“I wish I had forty grand all at once,” Clay opines, laughing loudly. “We could knock this puppy out in two weeks easy! As it is, we have to nibble at it, bit by bit and shoot when I raise the cash.”
Unlike the 20th century filmmaking, digital technology has give filmmakers and digital media artists lighter, faster, cheaper tools to tell their stories, eliminating the need for giant crews, 3 ton trucks filled with lights or even the post production cost of film developing. Better Half films with a skeleton crew of three – camera, make-up and sound. “On a good day we have a volunteer PA or someone to pull focus. But it’s never a good idea to depend too heavily on the kindness of strangers, nor the indulgence of friends and family.”
Mr. Townsend may not have known it at the time, but the project that he put on credit cards would be the springboard for a whole generation of young Black talent. Hollywood Shuffle was conceived as a satire illuminating stereotypes of African Americans in film and television. How could he have know he was helping to launch the career of Keenan Ivory Wayans and the entire Wayans clan. Michelle Clay is well aware of what an indie film that does well on the festival circuit can do for an actor’s career. It’s one of the reasons she’s making this film, to make every one of these talented actors – a Star!
Better Half stars Jaimie Fauth (I Do, Rubdown) and Grant Landry (The Cavanaughs, Real Heroes) as Leo & Tony, a couple who adopt a baby, even though only one of them is sure he wants kids. This indie drama is the first leading role for both Fauth and Landry; an opportunity for each that Clay thinks is seriously overdue.
“The film is not even out yet and based on a few clips we’ve posted, I’ve already been accused of casting based on good looks. Can I just say right now; I’m tough. Dozens of really great actors auditioned for me. Dozens. I cast the leads in this film based on one thing: Chemistry. These guys are good.”
Both Fauth and Landry signed on to do the film, knowing it would take a year to complete. Both actors cited the strength of the material as their reason for making the lengthy and unorthodox commitment.
“The scenes that I love the most just feel so honest and real and I think would resonate with anyone,” Fauth answered. “The message of the movie is not like ‘oh, it’s so hard being gay.’ It’s more like ‘oh, it’s so hard being alive!’ and the two characters just happen to be gay. The film is not about that.”
Landry commented with, “I just formed a connection with the piece and with the amazing writer and director, Michelle Clay, who really made me believe in this story and this project and I’ve been working with it ever since.”
The closest thing Hollywood saw to crowdfunding in the mid 1980s, was that dude who stood outside the Paramount Pictures lot on Melrose, with a sign asking for funding, one employee at a time (remember that?). But in the 21st century, thanks to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, artists now have the unprecedented ability to connect with their audience, the people who feel a connection with their work, even if they have never met before. Michelle Clay is hoping you are looking for a project like Better Half. “In lots of ways, filmmaking has gotten easier. But the fundraising, that will always be hard.”
Visit their campaign listing and consider helping out.