The story begins like thousands of others: some spare time, a chunk of disposable cash, and the purchase of a shiny new Panasonic DVX100B.
I had a 3500 sqft photo studio in Los Angeles and an advanced case of ADHD that was distracting me from my fashion photography work. If I knew what I was in store for, heading in this new direction, I never would have begun, and I’d still be happily shooting models to this day. As it is, I haven’t shot – other than promotional stills for my own work – in over four years. I no longer have that studio, but what I do have, is a greater passion.
“I’m going to shoot a film.” is what I said. That was quickly clarified as “Well, a fake trailer for a fake film, at least.” A blank stare and a befuddled “O…kay…” was what I got in return from my long time friend, and screenwriter, Jean Miller. It was Fall of 2005 and this was easily out of left field. I grew up in LA, in the business, spending my afternoons after school got out playing in the Amblin Entertainment game room and roaming around the Universal Backlot. Jean was a film school grad, and everyone we know is either a film grad or working in the industry. Actually most of our friends working in the industry were not film school grads – but that’s another article. Regardless of history, or current circle of influence, this was easily out of left field.
So I sat to write what would be in my fake trailer – this fake scene, a fake scene that has this and that, and a little bit of this would be good… and after a solid 30 minutes or so of brain-storming, I had about ten different scenes – or pieces of scenes – that I could shoot and cut together into a fake trailer. But it didn’t make sense to me; it was missing something.
Who are these people? Why are they there? Why are they doing what they are doing? What is their goal and what are the consequences? I had no goal for this project. It was merely something to do in my spare time and it was supposed to be quick and fun. In an effort to completely ignore the “quick” part, I created characters and scenes and situations. Very rough story points were written down and character relationships were developed. I returned to Jean and asked “You want to write a script?” He stared at me. “You know that fake trailer for a fake movie?”, “Yeah.”, “Well, it’s now a feature film.” Blank stare. “…O…kay…”
Obviously my first step was to put up casting notices a week later, with auditions to be held two weeks after that. I gave Jean my character list and character descriptions and a notebook of notes and essentially said “Hop to! Need a script!” and proceeded on my merry way. As casting day approached, Jean gave me some scenes for the actors to read. We held casting, and saw a number of great actors – as well as… others… but our one standout was the lovely and talented Kaila Gee – absolutely perfect for our lead role – Devon. Part of the casting breakdown for Devon was “A young Natalie Portman type.” (While nothing about “Riven” resembles “Leon: The Professional”, it’s impossible and stupid to try to hide the inspiration.) 16 year old Kaila Gee responded to the casting call mostly due to that character note.
She was cute and did a great job at the audition, and she was the main topic of the conversation as Jean and I sat in Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake, after the auditions, discussing the options we had seen that day. Kaila was easily the #1 and only choice. We got up to leave, and as we did, there was Kaila and her mom sitting in the entry, waiting for a seat. As if we needed a sign, there is was.
Fast forward 1.5 years, and Kaila has been fight training 2 days per week in preparation for the fight scenes and she was just weeks away from leaving for art school in Boston – she’d been on the film from 16 years old to 18 years old, yet she said she’d push college back for a year so we could finish the film. Unfortunately, due to cast and crew continually backing out or not showing up – at their leisure – there was no way I was holding Kaila back from her future. Saying “No, go to school.” to her that day was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, but also one of the easiest. She had been available every single moment I needed her for almost two years and busted her ass in fight training for so long and for no pay – it was time to free her from her commitment.
Dissection of a Failure
Why did Riven fail? At it’s very core, it failed due to money. Or, more specifically, no money. Like many first time directors, I set out with the very misguided notion that the film could be made for “no budget”. In the end, that was my downfall, and it cost myself significantly more than no money.
Without money, people lack incentive to show up. At its core, it is a problem with character and people’s personal interpretation of the concept of commitment. Over the year and a half, we went through about 8 makeup artists and 12 actors who would just not show up for shoot days. The kind ones, if you can call them that, would tell you the day before that they had booked a “paying gig”, so they couldn’t make it … “well… you understand. Right?” No. I don’t. This day had been planned for a month, I have 10+ other people that cleared their day for it and now it is canceled – at the last second. I’m sorry, I don’t understand. There was one actor – the main action villain in the film who went through 4 months of fight training, and then didn’t show up for the FINAL “polishing” training day before shooting the big action scene that week. When he finally answered the phone, he said “I’ll show up for training if you shoot headshots for me.” So I did, and then I never saw him again. That sums up the two years Kaila and I tried to make the feature film.
By now I had stopped shooting fashion and had given up the studio in order to put all my effort into completing the project. Riven was officially called off exactly four years ago this week, and I had gone broke trying to save it at the last second – something that never would have happened if I was realistic and didn’t try to make it for “no money”.
SEVERED – The Comeback
Two years ago, next week, was the Los Angeles premiere of my short film “SEVERED”, based on the characters in Riven. Shot for just under $200, SEVERED ends with (spoiler alert) our main character dead on the floor – my way of killing off not just the character, but this whole chapter of my life.
Again, I had shot for “no budget”, except this time it was only a 12 page short instead of a feature, but also because I was literally completely broke. It cost $198 – I know this cost exactly – because that was the entire total that I could scrape together in the month we were in production. Most of it saved from me not eating. But it was done, (spoiler alert) and Devon was dead, but I could finally finish this chapter and return to my life.
The Internet and Twitter
The night of the L.A. screening, I also uploaded SEVERED to Vimeo. I would have put it on YouTube instead, but at the time, YouTube didn’t allow videos longer than 10 minutes. So I put it on Vimeo and shared the link with my 300 or so Twitter followers and that was it. I was done. While I didn’t make the feature, a 12 minute original short was a greater accomplishment than just a fake trailer for a fake movie – and it only cost me everything I had. But at least I completed what I had set out to do.
Ready to return to a pursuit that I get paid for instead of merely just paying for, my exit strategy came to a screeching halt in just the next three days. I don’t know what is to blame- if anything really needs “blame”. I guess it’s Twitter, or the internet in general, but within three days I was being contacted by very successful Hollywood producers. I specify “Hollywood” producers, not to sound douchey, but to merely stress that these are producers that have achieved great levels of success in Hollywood with theatrical releases, one of which has won at least one Academy Award.
Just When I Thought I Was Out… They Pull Me Back In.
Within the next couple weeks, I found myself in Hollywood and Beverly Hills offices talking about myself, talking about my film, but mostly talking about my future. They all loved SEVERED and were amazed at it’s low cost. But they live in a world where this just isn’t possible and a short of the scope and quality of SEVERED should run about $150,000. Minimum. I live in a world the clearly understand that it would cost me a minimum of $15,000 to make another short if it’s quality, and that it was miraculous that we got SEVERED made. (We had exactly the same “no budget” problems encountered on RIVEN, but we got lucky and made it through.)
As we talked about other projects that I had lined up – I have 3 other complete scripts ready to go – I always brought the discussion back to the RIVEN feature film.
“What is the budget for RIVEN?” They’d ask.
“I can make RIVEN – theatrical release quality – for $500,000.” And all I would get are blank stares. It didn’t register. It couldn’t register. Aside from the fact that you “cant” make a theatrical release film for $500,000, how were they supposed to make any money? Huh? I don’t know about this money stuff, I just want to make a film. As cheaply as possible. Isn’t that the goal? Low cost equals greater profit margin?
And this is where I learned of “10-20 Million dollars”.
Apparently for real productions, there isn’t a level below “10-20 Million Dollars”. Even if your film is just a $500,000 budget film, when asked the question, your answer is ALWAYS “10-20 Million” – and then the conversation continues from there. I hope you are writing this down, because for me, the conversation always ended when I said the realistic budget amount. Sure, you can follow up with “oh… sure! 10-20 million sounds great!” but at that point, it’s over.
Lucky for me, we always discussed a lot before we got to that point. In almost every case, in meetings that spanned almost a year and a half, the producer tried to lean me towards adapting “SEVERED”, as that is what brought me into their office, into a premium cable TV series. And again, when I should have been saying “Okay”, I was saying, “Actually, I have this feature I want to make…”
See, for the past 5 years or so, video distribution has both been in decline and flux. While there used to be an enormous market for DVDs through brick and mortar video stores, those had all been closing and the whole industry was moving towards an online streaming model. This meant that all the “easy”, up front distribution money – that you could make the whole film for, was not only no longer easy, it was almost impossible to get. Producers, that in the past had done very well from video distribution were not seeing a profit on their investment, but they also struggled to even get that initial investment back. The video distribution model for film financing was dying out. Fast. But a new model was emerging. It wasn’t easy or guaranteed, but it was new and growing.
Premium Cable Original Programming
HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and now Starz was getting into it. Even Hulu and Netflix were outbidding the big established networks to get their hands on original shows. Networks were buying shows and this was a new way to get noticed.
I met seriously, over a period of time, with one producer that worked closely with one of those networks. He was very interested in developing RIVEN into a series for one of those networks. He knew the show would work, was confident the network would bite, so we put together a typical show proposal – the so called “right” way.
We discussed the possible future and from almost the instant we started talking, I grew less interested. See, the way it would work is the network would buy my idea, scripts and outlines. For a meager price. Certainly more than I’d earned in the last four years trying to get RIVEN made, but far less than those four years were worth to me. And it got worse.
I would get a “Created by” credit in the opening card. I’d get a paycheck to go along with that. But I would also lose everything. I’d have no creative control. I’d have no say in what they’d do with my characters, stories or dialogue. And this is what did it for me: “If you kiss the showrunner’s ass enough, he might let you direct episode 7 or 8, but definitely not the pilot or the finale. You’ll be lucky to direct at all.”
No thank you. Discussion ended right there – there was no reason to continue.
Retaining The Creator’s Vision
I left that day, not defeated, but invigorated. I know I can do this “myself”. And by that, I don’t mean alone, but I can do it – and do it better – from outside of the system. I think most shows suffer from tight network and studio control and shows can be far greater when guided by the creator’s vision. They can also be worse, depending on that individual, but I know that I would do much better with RIVEN than a committee of executives would.
I also learned early on that it would cost money. Not the $3,000,000+ that these networks spend per episode on shows like Breaking Bad, or even the $15,000,000+ that they spend on the pilot episodes alone, but instead would cost a reasonable amount that insures a committed and talented team would show up and get the job done.
That number is $45,000. 1/100, or less, of the cost of the network shows.
I have most of the first, 13 episode season written – key episodes, at least – as well as the the first episode of the second season. The season two opening episode will blow your mind. It is like season one on ‘roid rage. But before we get to season two, we need to get through season one; and to get through season one, we need to get the pilot made. And we need YOU.
In A Nutshell
RIVEN is a 55 minute premium cable focused TV pilot about a 13 year old girl sucked into a life of contract killing. Written 3 years before the “Kick Ass” comic book, this is what director Savage Steve Holland (Better Off Dead) describes as “Hit Girl meets Reservoir Dogs”. It’s not a cutesy comic book story, it is a gritty, real look at what would happen to a young girl put in this situation.
The show is honored to have Philip Bloom as the cinematographer. Philip was recently called in by Rick McCallum of LucasFilm to first consult and then act as 2nd Unit DP on their upcoming release “Red Tails”.
RIVEN is to be shot on three Red EPIC 5k digital cinema cameras – the same cameras used on current blockbusters, including the new Spiderman, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Hobbit films.
Where You Come In:
We need help to make this happen. If this show looks interesting to you, then go to http://kck.st/riven to learn more. It will tell you more about the project as it stands now and what you can do to help. Let your friends know about the project as well. We have great rewards for the people that believe in the project and want to be a part of making it happen. We ask that you act now – the fundraising campaign ends on Friday, Sept. 2, and we not only need the help, but would love to have your support.
I hope you enjoyed my story and I hope to be able to tell you and show you more in the years to come.
Brian Ramage is a writer/director from Los Angeles, CA. A platinum selling recording artist, Brian grew up performing on both stage and screen. Brian transitioned to various positions behind the camera, including special makeup effects and camera crew, before moving away from film becoming an accomplished stills photographer. Always telling stories with his stills, Brian left photography behind to return to a career in film.
Cinematographer Philip Bloom is from London, England. Philip has been working in broadcast for almost 20 years and his clients include BBC, SkyNews, FOX, Microsoft, Apple, and CBS. As maybe the most knowledgeable cinematographer when it comes to DSLR filmmaking, Philip was brought in by George Lucas and Rick McCallum of Lucasfilm to teach them up at SkyWalker Ranch how to use these new cameras for their upcoming feature film Red Tails.