What Goes Through the Mind of an Independent Producer –
by Paul Kyriazi, writer, director & financier of the award-winning movie.
“You should not make Forbidden Planet,” my mom says.
“My movie is Forbidden Power,” I tell her.
“Did you hear what your mother said? My father adds.
I wake up from the dream knowing that’s it’s a false dream, because my parents always supported my movies. I know it’s just my subconscious fears playing out while I sleep. A real fear, true. It’s no small thing to risk enough money to stay at Disney World for a year on a movie story. And that’s what I’ve learned directing my 7th feature film; Forbidden Power. Meaning, you don’t risk money on just making a movie, you really risk it by gambling on a story.
“Money is not the measure, man. It fetches me a great premium here.” Captain Ahab touches his heart.
Yes, there must be more than profit that motivates a producer enough to get him through many the challengers to see his movie on the big screen. We filmed Forbidden Power in 6K digital, but even so, I like the expression; “Lots of work is needed to end up with 95 minutes of sprocket holes.”
The six movies I made before were all action vehicles. All but one were martial arts action. The last one, Omega Cop was made many years ago. After that, I put all my energy into producing six full-cast audio-books, based on my novels and hiring 19 movie stars that I grew up watching at my small-town movie theater to record them. It was a great time of my creative life. Plus, I produced a 90-minute travel video in the USA for a Japanese actress that had a special appearance by Pat Morita (The Karate Kid).
What changed to get me back into feature films?
FIVE big things. FIRST; digital cameras now equal the quality of 35mm film. SECOND; Amazon started letting independent producers upload their movies and they send 50% of the proceeds directly to the producer’s banks monthly. Amazon also gives daily sales reports. So much better than giving your movie to a distributor that promises 50% of the profits and then, by contract, keeps the other 50%, calling it expenses. By the way, nothing has changed. Go on you-tube to hear new producers talk and they all say: “Do not give your movie to a distributor.”
I filmed the travel video in digital, but this would be my first feature film in digital. That meant; no purchasing film stock, no developing the negative, no work print, easier to light, cheaper special effects, fast editing and no conforming the negative to the work print. (A $2,000 expense.) All these are major cost cutting things when filming in digital.
The THIRD thing to get me back onto features was the passion I had for the story. That passion was originally to only write it as a novel and get it on amazon kindle. That was exciting as I wrote it in the first-person in the present tense. But once on Amazon, it didn’t feel like it was enough. I had to see it as a movie. I always loved movies where the hero is empowered; Limitless, LUCY, Wolf, the Star Trek episode staring Gary Lockwood: Where No Man Has Gone Before, and many others.
I’ve studied personal empowerment my whole life to continue as a freelance film-maker to the point of putting all I’ve learned in my book: How to Live the James Bond Lifestyle. But those movies I mention have heroes with great powers. I wanted to follow a young man who gets just a small boast of mental and physical power. And I was more concerned with how he received that power.
In Forbidden Power, the hero gets his power via a sexual encounter. (This can happen to a certain degree in real life.) And if the hero gets his power that way, what I wanted to explore was: Where did the woman get her power in the first place? And why did she choose this particular young man to give it to?
The FOURTH thing that got me to take a risk on making the movie was the fact that a long-time friend, Conrad Denke, has a movie production facility in Seattle, Washington: Victory Studios. His studio had advanced to a point where I could make the entire movie, from filming to end credits, ‘in-house‘.
The FIFTH thing was that fact that Conrad had just acquired a Red Epic 6K digital camera. The same camera that shot Jurassic World, Gone Girl and Dead Pool.
With those five things in place, I gave myself the mental ‘green light‘ and figured to film the movie a year later. But right away I knew: if good might
come from this project, then why wait a year for it to happen? And if bad comes from it, I’ll have to handle it no matter what year I spend the money. So, I got on the net, found the time of year in Seattle when there was the least rain and set the date for a 15 day shoot starting August 21, 2017.
Casting, Locations & Props –
On my last feature film there was no Internet. Now, even though I live in Japan, I could do most of my pre-production at home on the net. Casting agencies now show their actors photos and profiles on their web sites. Many have their demo-reel on them. Most of the agencies you can access directly. A few of them require you to sign in and get permission, which is easy to do.
Forbidden Power had nine main characters to cast and 24 supporting actors. We would also end up using 150 extras for various scenes. Including the12 person crew, paychecks were given to a total of 184 people. This was an unusual amount for an independent movie where they usually have four leads and a couple of supporting actors. Also, for smaller budgeted movies, locations are kept to a minimum. I was advised by a few that:
“You should not be filming this movie with this many actors and locations. You’ll never finish on a15 day schedule. You should be filming in one location with just a few actors.”
However, since all my movies had ambitious casts, locations and large action scenes, I knew that I could get it all done on schedule with the large cast, providing no one got sick or a storm didn’t hit Seattle.
On the Internet, there are many articles that tell you how to film an independent movie. One producer wrote about; if you have so much money you are ‘allowed‘ this many locations and this many crew members. He wrote about how various budgets would allow you to have a certain number of locations and crew members.
Those articles are good to make you think, but every movie has a story that requires a certain number of characters and locations. The question is: Do you plan to film your story as you envision it? Or do you cut down your story ‘just to make a movie’.
And then there are the ‘profit talkers’. They’ll say:
“You must make a movie for under $20,000 so you can get your money back quickly and go to the next movie. There is a producer that raises $30,000, keeps $10,000 for himself, makes the movie for $20,000 and then goes on to the next one.”
That is all good and will certainly get a producer a body of work. However, there is always the idea of going for your personal ‘masterpiece’. Something that you can’t wait to show an audience. Something real, that is a part of you. Both ways are fine, but with the few movies that I get to do, or few audio-books, I want each one to engage the audience as much as possible.
My Plan for Engaging the Audience –
The novel of Forbidden Power had come first, but in doing the screenplay I had to expand it greatly. I needed to go beyond the novel’s ending. I also needed to add additional characters and locations. When I was given the script for Omega Cop, the story had the cop rescuing one woman and escaping the doomed city. I immediately added two more women for the cop to rescue. He would meet them one by one during the story, thus ‘refreshing‘ the audience’s interest. Also, three women would give me more people to cut away to in any given scene to make it more interesting. And they were three different types of women, so if you didn’t like one, there were two others to watch.
In Forbidden Power, the hero has a girlfriend, but becomes involved with the mysterious woman that empowers him. At the ‘deadly one-hour mark‘ in the movie, where many movies lose the audience’s interest, I had the hero meet another beautiful woman to get involved with. She would also have a surprising shock for the hero later in the story. I was advised to drop the sequence with this 3rd woman to ‘save money’ and ‘it’s not needed for the story’, but I knew she would add to the visuals as well as let the hero go on a ‘side adventure’ that would pay off well.
When we were filming with the 3rd girl, one crew member said, “Wow, it really got me when the girl revealed herself.” I was glad for his reaction, but it also told me he hadn’t read the script, which is fine as long as a crew member does his job.
Also, to give the movie a bigger look, not only did I keep the needed locations from the novel, I added a few more. So, even though most of the story takes place in Seattle, we had scenes in a Los Angeles convention center, Las Vegas, San Jose and Arizona to do. Those were shot quickly.
Back to Casting –
I knew the hardest character to cast would be the Native American woman in her late 20’s named Veronica. She’s the one that mysteriously empowers the hero, so the whole believability of the movie would depend on her. She’d have to look like a real Native American, have a seductive voice and be willing to do nude scenes and look outstanding in those scenes. This was necessary to the story because the hero becomes addicted to her and one of the reasons is the woman’s physicality.
All Internet casting searches in the Seattle area found no one. Nor did Washington. Nor did Los Angeles. This brings us to the subject of filming the movie as a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) union project or non-union. First of all, I planned to pay the actors SAG scale for a low-budget movie which is $125 per day, whether I filmed union or not. Why?
I know that whenever someone gets a job in a movie; whether it’s me, or an actor or actress or crew member; what’s the first thing their relatives, loved-ones or friends ask: ‘How did you get the part? ‘What part do you have?’ ‘What’s the story?’ ‘Where will they film it?’ No. The first thing relatives ask is: “How much are they going to pay you?”
This is especially true for actresses with boyfriends who sooner or later, usually sooner, get jealous of their girlfriend getting a part in a movie with a ‘glamorous and exciting‘ cast and crew working in close quarters in often emotional scenes.
You can’t blame the guys. It’s only natural. But the first thing they attack with is, of course; “How much are they paying you.” So, I want the actress, or actor to say, “I’ll be getting paid SAG scale.” That sounds professional and keeps most guys from saying “You’re getting gypped.” But, some say it anyway.
Thus, I recommend all independent producers to consider paying SAG scale even if you’re filming non-union. Actually, the most important aspect of that is so the actors will respect the project as a ‘professional’ event to be taken seriously. The same goes for the crew if you’re hiring professionals in the business as I did on this project.
I knew our need for efficient filming would not give me the manpower to comply with all the demands and paperwork that a SAG shoot would entail, so I decided to film non-union. After making the movie, some would tell me ‘You should have had a name actor in the movie.’ I agree, but who would pay for that name actor and the additional days of filming that we’d end up needing?
It was costing around $15,000 per day with cast, crew, extras, accommodations, food etc. Adding three more days to follow SAG rules, would add an extra $45,000 to the budget, plus the cost of the name actor. So, indeed, who would pay? Besides we had a Las Vegas train crash to film and money was needed for that. It all comes down to the choice of the guy who’s watching his checkbook being drained daily.
Back to the Lead Actress –
After I exhausted actor casting sites, I went to modeling sites. I saw a few photos of a Latin-American model, living in Los Angeles, who would be good for the part. She even had a video of her walking and some bikini shots. Before contacting the agency, I searched her on Facebook. The first five photos that she had posted were her surrounded by friends at a various bars. In one photo she was making a scrunched-up face while giving the camera the finger. Was I going to risk all my ‘Disney World money’ on an actress that I would most likely lose to the first bar she finds in Seattle? Let me tell you about ‘bars and movies‘.
On my first movie, The Tournament, I had a close college friend in a major part. The first morning of filming I went to his house to pick him up. His father answered the door and said, “Bill is in the bedroom.” I walked in to see Bill lying in bed with his head completely bandaged. “I was in a bar last night,” he told me in a depressed tone, “And I got into a fight with a guy and he pulled out a knife and cut my ear.” I offered my sincere condolences, but had to get to the location where people were waiting.
I had to re-cast him with another friend, Joshua Johnson, who went on from co-starring in The Tournament to also co-star in Death Machines and Weapons of Death. Would Bill have been in those movies instead of Joshua? Who knows? Because I had to go back to the Air Force after filming on leave, I didn’t visit Bill again. He disappeared from our college group and was never heard from again. So, I never contacted the agency about that Latin-American model. I also figured that she might give our project the finger at some point, so I couldn’t risk everything on her.
If you’re the producer, the money man, you always start a project alone. You make the decision about when, where, and most important; how much? Once that decision is made you start bringing in people to help with the production. The first one was John Wright who had helped edit the novel of Forbidden Power. I told him my problem with finding an actress to play Veronica. John is a magazine cameraman and knows about casting models, so he said, “Let me see what I can do.” And that’s all he said.
The second person I got help from was David J. Moore, who has written two giant books on action and science fiction movies that had three of my movies in it. He promoted the novel version of the movie to many magazine companies and because he had seen thousands of movies, I asked him to read the screenplay. Because my novel was written with many flash-backs, I had the script in that form, too. After reading it, David gave me some good insight, the most important being: “Don’t use the flash-back form. Have the narrative in a straight time-line.” Thank God for that advice which I instantly knew was right. So I put the script into a straight time line and it read much clearer and more exciting.
The next two people I informed about the project were Jan Van Tassell and Bruce Dowling. They’d been with me for most of my movies and audio-books, both on production and post-production. They are what Jerry Lewis called ‘total film-makers’. They will do whatever needs to be done at the moment to get any project done. The two also distinguished themselves by investing money in my past projects. On a movie, some will wish you well, many will ask for jobs, but very few will invest money on a project. Jan and Bruce said they were both ready to go to Seattle in August and work in any capacity. The last job they did for me was producing and directing my audio-book Wicked Players. Because of their hard work on this movie, they ended up with the top producing credits. They greatly impressed Victory Studios with getting scenes ready to film with just two weeks of actual pre-production.
A week after we talked, John Wright called to say that he had put an ad in a New York casting magazine searching for an actress to fit the Native American Veronica character. He was surprised to get a lot of photos from blond actresses in the mail, but there was one, Nasanin Nuri, that looked promising. John Emailed me her photo and she looked perfect.
I figured that to get an actress that was visually right and that would have a seductive sounding voice as well would be too much to hope for. So, I thought I could always have another actress dub in her voice like they did with many of the James Bond girls, especially the ones in the first two Bond movies and the Japanese girls in You Only Live Twice. However, when I talked with Nasanin via Skype, her voice was beyond perfect. We had our Veronica.
Because the entire movie hinged on her character and some of the ‘special requirements‘, I offered to pay her seven times what the SAG scale pay was. I couldn’t lose her. She accepted, and arrangements were made for her flight and accommodations. I didn’t know it at the time, but Nasanin had taken some serious acting classes, so she was a natural in front of the camera and needed no direction from me, except for staging.
With the lead actress set, I could give the green light to Conrad at Victory Studios. “Jan, Bruce and I will arrive two weeks before August 21 and film for 15 days, so get the crew ready and please interview the cast members in person that I choose by Internet photos.” Conrad told me about the Red Epic camera that he had just purchased, and it had functioned great on a just completed project, so I knew I didn’t have to worry about the technical part of the production.
Casting Harry Mok –
My plan for the movie was to keep the audience engaged by the new characters introduced and the new and hopefully intriguing situations. Being often referred to as a ‘martial arts movie director‘, and I loved staging fight scenes, I decided to add a karate teacher named Chang to the story. I wrote a fight scene with him at night in the fog to give variety to the story. After reading the script, Conrad told me, the character of Chang really fit naturally into the story.
For the character of Chang, I enlisted the aid of actor/producer Harry Mok, fresh off of his producing chores on the animated feature Animal Crackers that has the voices of Sylvester Stallone, Danny De Vito, Emily Blunt and Gilbert Gottfried.
I met Harry when he brought his stunt team to work on Ninja Busters many years ago. Since then, he worked with Sylvester Stallone on Rambo 2 and directed many top music videos. Harry was excited to play the part and had ideas for some special casting in the movie, so he became an Executive Producer of Forbidden Power along with Conrad.
Harry supplied familiar names in the martial arts and health world, including Gina Su a recent ‘Miss Global Asia‘ & Jannie Avanti, who holds the speed record for water-skiing round trip to Catalina Island and back. Every time Harry recommended an actor to me, I would expand their parts and give them some special bits to do which made their scenes better and thus the movie better.
For Gina Su, who played Harry’s wife, I added a completely new scene where she says good-bye to him. I filmed and edited it in a special way and is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. All because I wanted Harry’s people to have a little more to do in their scenes.
Harry arranged to get martial arts fight champion, Todd Dunphy, the part of the Winslow Arizona bartender. As written, he was merely to deliver some dialogue concerning the back story about Veronica. But since he was Harry’s contact I came up with a gag where he throws a club at the hero who catches it because of his new powers. A great gag without our actor getting hurt during the six takes it took for him to catch it.
Harry continued his involvement with the movie once it was finished by suggesting we compete with 600 movies at the 2018 International Action on Film MegaFest held in Las Vegas. “It’s just a thought,” Harry said to me. Harry’s ‘thought‘ got us six nominations, including Best Science Fiction Feature Film and two wins: Best Special Effects and Best Young Performer for 8-year-old Kaiya Gray who played young Veronica. Harry and Nasain were both nominated for Male and Female Rising Action Stars, with Harry the Runner Up in his category.
That happened ten months after filming. Before that, the risky filming awaited. Would we finish on budget and schedule? Would anyone get hurt during the production? Would Nasanin arrive from New York on time? Would the fog machines work? And on and on. When you’re risking a lot of money, the mind can see all the ways you can lose it. I had confidence in the story and technical, but unexpected challenges always come up on a movie. And if those challenges were not overcome, would I ever see Disney World again?
Producing on a Short Schedule –
When I arrived in Seattle, Conrad had interviewed all the actors that I had chosen, and he said they’d work out fine, but we still didn’t have the male lead to our story. That part was just as important as Nasanin’s part, but I figured since the lead could be any nationality and there were lots of young men looking to be in the movie, it would be easier to cast him.
Before arriving in Seattle, I had found a perfect leading man, only 23, but we could have him act older. I contacted him via email and Skype and he was excited to do the part. It was his dream. He also wanted to get into production. He had already bought movie equipment to pursue his dream. Not only would he be the star of the movie, but he’d meet producers like Conrad, Harry and more. He was excited to do it.
I emailed him the script which I figured he’d devourer in an hour. But no word came back from him. After two days, I emailed him about it and he answered that he had only read half. HALF? What’s going on? Finally, the next day he wrote; “How do you plan on handling the kissing scenes?” I replied, “ Just like it says in the script.”
Allow me to digress a minute about kissing or nude scenes. There would be no nude scenes for the hero, but there would be kissing. After all, this is a story about sexually transmitted power. At one time or another during the story, the hero would be kissing each girl, a couple of times each. And one time, during a delusion scene, he would kiss all three girls, one after another. The camera would move in certain places with each actress lined up to kiss the hero when the camera was at a certain place. So, yes there would be kissing.
The young guy said he was newly married, and his conservative wife might have trouble with him kissing other actresses. Now before you laugh or judge his throwing away an opportunity because of this, think back to age 22 and new love. I understood it completely, but, I was incredulous over his missed opportunity. So, I thanked him for his honestly (Thank goodness he didn’t take the part and then cause problems on the set or even leave the movie.) and told him that maybe there will be another chance in the future to work together. Now that I think on it, I never called him for a small part. I think he was too striking to be in a supporting part or maybe I just got busy searching for our lead and forgot about him.
On the subject of intimate scenes or nudity, I wrote it out very clearly in the script exactly how many seconds a kiss would be, what the person would be wearing and more. This is important so that every actor, and especially actresses, know what will happen in each scene, so they can make a decision whether to take the part or not.
Getting back to casting the male lead, I had a couple of actors on my list that I had seen on various casting web-sites in Seattle. One of them, Lincoln Bevers, looked great, but the only acting scene he had for his demo reel, didn’t show his true image, so I just had him on the ‘maybe list’. When Conrad and I Skyped him, Conrad said, “He’s the best one so far.” So, we met Lincoln and indeed he was leading man material, serious about his career and ready to do the job. On the karate training scenes Lincoln did with Harry Mok, and three other scenes that day, Lincoln had a fever, but never told me about it until the premiere. So now the actors were set.
The Director of Photography, Lionel Flynn, had been in touch with me from the start via the internet. He scouted locations that I had found via the net and took photos of each place. I gave him my plans for the shots at each location, so he and his crew were well prepared. And what a great crew. I instantly become friendly with them. They were all professionals, excited to work on a feature film. At our first and only meeting, I promised them that every day of filming would have at least one, but usually two ‘wild and exciting’ scenes to enjoy working on such as a biker in a bar grabbing a beer tap, ripping it off with beer shooting up five feet in the air.
An exciting part for me was working with guys I had gone to film school with, who had worked on my other movies and became professionals on their own. William C. Martell, a script-writer with 19 of his scripts turned into completed movies arrived as a producer to add action and character bits to all the scenes. Mark Krigbaum, who edited my first two movies, arrived on the first day of filming to start editing the scenes as they came in daily. In total there were six of us from film school meeting up in Seattle to work on the project. A real fun miracle for me.
The great thing about the entire crew is that they all came up with some great bits for the movie; dialogue, action, camera moves and editing tricks that were beyond my imagination. The daily filming was sometimes tough, often not fun for me because of trying to get the best out of scenes on a limited schedule, but I always went to sleep satisfied and grateful because of the crew’s input on all the scenes making the movie bigger than I had hoped.
With 63 scenes (not shots, but full scenes) to complete in 15 days, that was an average of four scenes to complete a day. I had completed Omega Cop in 21 days straight, Ninja Busters in 12 days, so I was pretty confident getting this done in 15 days. The trick is keeping your eye on your watch and getting your scenes in a good designed master shot and getting what close-up shots you can during the time allotted for that scene. And when it comes time to move on to the next scene, you have to have the discipline to let the last scene go and move onto the next.
The second day of filming I called ‘hell day‘ because we had to complete six scenes in one day in order to get full use of Harry Mok flying up to Seattle. He would come back at the end of the shoot for a few more days, but I had to have him with the shots of Nasanin finished and then do his karate fight in the fog.
We started that day at 8pm and I planned for the fog fight to start at 10pm and finish at midnight. The alley was right next to Victory Studios, so I had the crew roll out the big 20-foot camera-boom to get some production value shots and then, once finished, it would be easy to roll back into the studio with the rest of the equipment.
The other scenes that day took a little longer each to finish. A little longer on each of five scenes added up to where we didn’t get to the fog fight till midnight. This was not good as we had to film the next day and the crew needed to get their sleep and come in later for that day’s work. I had Harry and 12 stunt men for that scene, and little time to film it. I didn’t want to take a chance on the fog machine breaking, so I ordered three of them which Jan and Bruce kept cranking out fog for the full two hours of that fight.
I had bought knee and elbow pads for the stunt men that Harry would be knocking down onto the cement. I also bought a foam cushion for falls that would be off camera. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but if they did I wanted to say that we had all the safety requirements.
However, the macho stunt men didn’t want the elbow pads and the foam mat was useless because the entire fight would be two continuos designed shots which would show the ground. When I was working with the cameraman to set up the shot, I saw Harry rehearsing the men who were falling to the hard pavement. I ran over and said, “Don’t fall on the rehearsal. I don’t want any of you hurt.” But some of them still did. I loved the commitment, but still worried.
We got the needed four shots, two with the boom, two with the Ronin ‘steady-cam‘, and we were thankfully done at 2pm. While everyone was happy watching the video playback. I walked over to Harry, shook his hand, pointed to the ground and said, “On this rock we will build our church,” as a way of saying, ‘let’s make more movies together’. Driving Harry back to his hotel, he said, “You’re really in your element out there on location.”
‘Hell Day’ finished. The rest of the filming went smoothly. I planned to film all of Nasanin’s scenes in the first week. Once I got that done, I knew I had a movie. Except for Harry and his five actors, the rest were from Seattle and I knew I could easily get them back if needed. On the next to last day, I had all the lead actors, including Harry together on a boat at sea. Any director will tell you that boats at sea are the most difficult to do, but I had that scene planned as well as a gunfight to film on the pier once we returned with the boat.
At the pier, Conrad had actors, cars, more crew and four policemen for crowd-control waiting for our return. We were an hour late getting back, so I had to be sure to get this next scene finished before we lost the sun. When we headed for the boat ramp we were to use, the boatman said, “That’s too shallow today. We can’t dock here.” Conrad and I looked at each other. I start looking around for another pier that the actors could run on that might be deep enough for the boat, because one way or another those actors are going to get on that boat, even if they have to swim out to it.
Conrad made a call to a boat owner he knew who had some pull with the pier manager and found a pier next to our original pier that was deep enough to dock the boat. So, we got started on the scene.
A car pulls up with three heroes, followed by another car with four villains, gunfire, bodies down, a mad dash to the boat and more is filmed with various camera set-ups. It’s over, except for four easy scenes the next day at a hotel, park, men’s store and train station. Easy I had hoped. But we had to work fast to get it done. And then it was done.
Post Production –
Once everything was filmed and the actors back home (and off salary), I could enjoy the editing process with Mark as we had done on my first two features. I had two special effects men working on the over 100 shots that needed special work. They were the two men who got the awards for special effects.
As mentioned, all the services I needed were all at Victory Studios, just like the old days of Hollywood studios. That made it fun and convenient for me to go from room to room checking the progress and seeing the results of the special effects. For the Las Vegas train crash, I figured I’d have to ‘hide’ the cash with many quick cuts, but it came out so well, that the crash is mostly one shot that we could hold on for a long time. That’s what won us the special effects award at MegaFest.
We had premieres in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. And then Forbidden Power was uploaded on Amazon for USA and UK views. After that, it was uploaded to the Vimeo movie site where it can be rented and viewed world-wide. And where I would get daily reports and 90% of the sales directly to my bank. No more calling a lying distributor asking, “Where is our money?” with the answer coming back, “Oh, the guy that sold the video rights was robbed in the airport, so we can’t send you anything.” That’s an actual, exact quote from our Weapons of Death distributor.
This new technology for movies is great. And one more thing, in the old days, my movie would play in a theater for two weeks only and then move on. Now movies play, and make money, forever. It’s a great time for independent producers.