Sundance Lab American-Chinese-European Co-Production Slated For Shooting. Or Is It?

MATT SZYMANOWSKI – Writer/Producer/Director of The Purple Onion


I’ll begin by telling you about the support I’ve garnered from Sundance,
Berlinale and the San Francisco Film Society, while still in development
with our tragicomic feature film, The Purple Onion. Then I’ll illustrate why this all sounds better than it actually is, and finally I’ll conclude with how crowdfunding may be the most logical way to fund truly independent films.

In January of 2011, San Francisco comedian Edwin Li and I began planning a film loosely based on his life as a comedian who lives with his mother.
Our plan was to make it on the cheap and shoot with a minimal crew. It
would be a raw portrait of a comedian who hustles every which way so he
can perform his comedy. With limited resources, it was exciting to
embark on a similar journey that many of my favorite filmmakers once did
in making their own first films. From John Cassavetes and Richard
Linklater to David Gordon Green and Andrew Bujalski – they all shared a
vision and belief in their skills to create their dream, limitations and

Still, we were eager to make this bigger. We began applying for filmmaker
support that would help us, give us credibility and most importantly,
give us money. Development on this project began to move forward rather
quickly when we were granted Fiscal Sponsorship and Development Support from the San Francisco Film Society. Shortly after that, we attached
cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek, my colleague and friend, whom I studied
with at the National Polish Film school in Lodz. Recently, he was on
Spielberg’s War Horse and Lincoln as cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s assistant. We attached acclaimed Chinese actress Kechun Li. She has twice each been nominated for the Chinese Academy Award and Chinese Golden Globes, for her acting. Then, we were invited to the Berlinale Talent Campus and  shortlisted for their Talent Project Market. I attended the MacDowell Artist’s Colony where I finished the script, which went on to become a finalist for the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. The idea growing, the project now warranted a quarter million dollar budget. All of this happened within a year.

We got great coverage and notes from script doctors. We connected with
friends of friends which led to Chinese investors interested in a co-production. We signed with lawyer George Rush to prepare for possible
sudden negotiations. We drafted a lengthy investment proposal. The
Chinese investors were not interested in a small film, so we increased
the budget again, this time to one million dollars. We met with producers in Los Angeles. Some were interested. Some said to stay in touch. We attached consulting Executive Producer Andrew Trapani, and although his support is more rhetorical, still, it’s good he’s on board. We were making progress. Things are happening now, so we thought.

Then, we didn’t get into the Sundance Lab. Grants we applied for went to
other projects. The Chinese connection didn’t happen. The potential European co-producer got wrapped up with other projects. We had to
adapt; we had to adjust. We scaled our budget back to a hundred thousand dollars. We approached family and friends, offering investment opportunities. There were a few lukewarm responses but nothing stuck.

Something that did stick was the advice courtesy of our lawyer and executive producer. They said, put a team together and make it happen however you can. Cassavetes, Linklater and Bujalski didn’t wait for something big to happen; they made their films however they could.

After nearly two years since the idea to make this film was born, having come full circle, back to our humble beginning, we’re now in the process of raising $30,000 for initial production costs via crowdfunding site Indiegogo. We have until January 6th to reach our goal and we recently passed the halfway mark.

We’re now our own producers, there are no gatekeepers and the production is on our terms. We’ve got a tight team of friends, supporters and producers. The truth was muddled for a moment but I’ve come to realize again that filmmaking is not about international co-productions or having big producers and budgets. We knew this all along, but it was reaffirmed in a roundabout way. All the advice and stories of filmmakers making their first films began to echo back – all that matters is the idea, the passion and making it happen.  Now we’re doing it.
Watch the trailer here on Vimeo!


I studied at the National Polish Film School. I live, make videos and teach filmmaking in San Francisco. I’m making a movie called The Purple Onion.