Tuesday 28 January 2014

An oral history of SWINGERS

The magazine Grantland currently features a compilation of interviews with the key players in the making of Swingers (1996). It's called So Money, An oral history of Swingers, by Alex French and Howie Kahn. If you have any interest in guerilla filmmaking, or stories about how a bunch of unknowns broke into the business, this is a great read. Here are a few extracts.

Doug Liman (director): My whole plan for making Swingers was extremely unrealistic, as was my idea that I was gonna make Bourne Identity. And somehow I found myself moving to France to make Bourne Identity. On my first night there — it was 1999 or 2000 — I was incredibly homesick. I was going to be living there for a year and I don’t know anybody. I’m feeling like I’m in over my head. I’m staying in a hotel. And I turn the TV on to Canal Plus, which is the movie channel there, and there’s a movie ending and I’m like, Huh, I wonder what’s gonna be on next? And suddenly the Miramax logo comes up and then our music comes on. It grounded me in a way that ultimately gave me the courage to make Bourne Identity the way I wanted to make it. My whole career is sort of predicated on Swingers. So, what are the odds that that would happen? It’s on TV that night, at that moment? Pretty slim. Anywhere in the world, pretty slim. But those were the odds we faced every day on Swingers. So that was its last gift to me.

I knew Jon had a script he’d written that he was trying to raise money for. I had made it my policy at the time to never read a friend’s screenplay in the interest of preserving that friendship, you know, because inevitably your friend’s screenplays were not good.
    My roommate, Nicole, had signed on to become Jon’s producer. It was literally all around me when Jon and I traveled to Sundance together. He was trying to raise money and I had my own thing. Neither one of us had read the other one’s project.
    Jon started asking me a bunch of questions, because I had been to film school and I had made a bunch of short films and this straight-to-home-video movie. I still didn’t have any real experience, but compared to somebody with none, I had answers. Finally, I was like “You know what? I should just read your screenplay. I can’t answer these questions without reading it, so how about I just read it?” So I read the script and loved it.
    I actually had 20 days of shooting budgeted. Four five-day weeks. But I scheduled the movie to shoot in 18 days with the thinking that I was going to be taking so many chances to get this movie done, I couldn’t really be sure any one thing we did would actually come off. I had a mind that we were going to shoot 12 pages a day. A studio film might shoot two pages in a day and an independent film might shoot four or five pages in a day and some TV show might get up to eight pages a day, but we were going to shoot 12-page days. It was an insane proposal.
   Saving on shooting time and movie lights is a big factor, but you still need locations. And Nicole used to cry in front of people, literally. No technique was beneath us to get people to give us things for free or cheap.
    We shot most of the movie with these 100-foot short ends. It’s a minute of film. Which also meant the actors could get through 60 seconds of a scene and I’d have to call reload.
    The problem with shooting on short ends, though, is that it takes four minutes to reload a conventional camera. I thought to myself: We’ll never get through the movie if we shoot a minute, spend four minutes reloading, shoot a minute, spend four minutes reloading. You’ll never get any kind of rhythm going. So I decided I would shoot the movie with this documentary 35-millimeter film camera that was not designed to shoot dialogue because it sounds like a sewing machine.
   To absorb the sound, I would take my down jacket and put it over the camera and then take the two arms and tie them together underneath the lens. And then my comforter would just get wrapped around the whole thing once. Jon would describe it like he was acting in front of a big, fluffy snowball. But I really think that as insane as that setup was, it created a really safe environment for the actors.
    A few hours into shooting in the apartment, the sound guy, Al, said, “Uh, we need to stop for a second, I have to go to the bathroom. You’ve been shooting for three hours straight and you haven’t stopped for more than five seconds.” Those were our only breaks from shooting — to let people go to the bathroom.
    Part of my thing was “Why pay to shut down a bar, which is incredibly expensive because they lose all that business, and then hire a bunch of extras to then repopulate the bar? Why not just shoot in a bar when it’s actually open to the public and therefore it comes with all the extras?” It’s a win-win for everybody.
    The downside is that the actors had to act under some pretty grueling conditions. The band comes on at 10, and we’re not done by 10, so suddenly we’re having to shoot the scene and we can’t even hear each other.
   We were shooting in a trendy bar and suddenly I ran into some classmates from film school and I could just see the way they were looking at me — with this big poufy thing on my shoulder and some actors and a scene lit with lamps from a discount home store — that they were thinking Doug’s lost it. Just that, like, this poor guy, maybe he showed some promise in film school, but he has clearly gone off the reservation. This is not how you make a movie on any level. There is no aspect of this that looks professional.
    We shot all the Vegas footage in one night. That’s 15 minutes of a 90-minute movie.
    After selling the film to Miramax for $5 million, we had this great premiere at the Vista Theater. It was one of the highlights of my life.
    But then the film opened a week later and nobody went to go see it. I went on opening night in New York up on Broadway and 84th Street on a Friday, and the film broke halfway through and they gave everybody their money back. And it was like that was it. I think it did $4 million in box office. It was done.

Jon Favreau (writer/actor): It felt miraculous every day that we actually did what we set out to do. But we knew it was our moment. Everything ultimately just worked out the right way. It was like this little, big bang that made all of our careers.

When I set out to write Swingers, I didn’t know I was even writing a movie. My dad had given me a screenwriting program and I started the script just as an exercise to see if I could write a screenplay. Swingers is what came out.
    I started writing, just drawing from the environment I was living in. I had characters loosely based on people I knew. None of the events were real; it was all a story that came out of my head without an outline.
    I had been broken up with by my old girlfriend from Chicago who I’d lived with, and I was taking it pretty hard and I was feeling pretty lonely. And then I was realizing that even though I had been in movies already, the work was not going to come easy — that frustration brought on the writing. I was taking things into my own hands.
    I wrote the screenplay in about a week and a half. The writing process wasn’t filled with any sort of turmoil. If you really do the math, it’s 10 days, 10 pages a day. It’s not like you’re chained to the computer. I was just entertaining myself and really enjoying it, sort of giggling at it as I was writing it.
    I sent the script to my agent. She sent it out and there were some nibbles. People were interested in optioning it, but they had a lot of notes. They wanted to change Vince’s character to a girl and have them not go to Vegas and said the dialogue was too repetitive, and it had to be darker and more violent. I was really trying to embrace the notes. I tried to change the script, but I just couldn’t.
    From that point on, we set out to try and really make the thing on our own with me attached as director.
    It was a fly-by-night operation. It didn’t look or seem real.

I taught Heather Graham to dance. I brought her out and I think we did it in her house, also. She lived in Beachwood Canyon. She had wooden floors. And I went over there and we practiced some moves. But I had learned how to dance at the Derby; they used to give lessons. And then I just would lead. You know, it’s easier if the guy knows what he’s doing.
    Everything was geared around being done in time to get into Sundance, and we raced and raced and raced to get a cut.
    We didn’t have any distribution. So we were just sitting on a $200,000 piece of film. There was no guarantee of getting the money back. There was no guarantee of it ever being seen.
    With the last little bit of money I rented a theater, the Fairfax $2 theater. I don’t know if it’s even still around anymore. We hadn’t shown the movie to any of our friends so that at the screening at a theater that held 500 people, we actually filled it with 490 friends. Nobody laughs at a movie harder than friends of the people who made it or the people in it. We set that whole thing up with 490 friends so that the ten people who actually matter would have a great experience.
    It wasn’t a hit by any stretch of the imagination. On both sides of us, we had Good Will Hunting and Sling Blade two other releases from Miramax that made a lot of money and we just didn’t, we didn’t hit the mark. It felt like a disappointment. And it wasn’t until years later that it built momentum on video, and became part of the culture and the language, that it became what it is now.

Vince Vaughn (actor): When I was in high school, I performed at some classes at the Improv Olympic. Jon and I had that in common, so we hit it off on the set of Rudy, just joking around with each other.
    It was a typical actor’s life: auditioning and hoping to get parts. I didn’t have an agent. I had gotten parts on and off after high school. I would work, but not steadily.
    I remember saying to Jon after auditioning for a lot of stuff that we weren’t seeing the best material. Even the movies that were getting made, I thought, were not dialed into the time period, not really capturing real life. I said to him, “Ya know, it would be great if you didn’t have to audition for this stuff,” and then Jon went and wrote Swingers.

    Jon was always very close with his grandmother, and she’s in the movie. She’s a schoolteacher from the Bronx, so kind and sweet, and she plays the woman at the casino table who gets some free breakfast. My father has always played blackjack, he plays a lot of cards. And so we both thought it would be fun to put them in a film.
    We thought, Oh gosh, we’ll go to Sundance. They love independent films. They’re supportive of people who are getting their stories made and Jesus, this thing is really that. But it wasn’t in their wheelhouse of what they deemed to be important or artistic. We didn’t get in.

Nicole LaLoggia (producer): I started taking meetings with Jon and Victor. Crazy meetings. They would come to the table and say, “We love it, we wanna make it, we wanna give you $8 million, but you’ve gotta cast Johnny Depp as Trent and we need Chris O’Donnell to be so and so. Jon and I would look at them cross-eyed and say, “No. Thank you very much, here’s your suitcase full of money back, we’re leaving.”
    I started running numbers to figure out how little could we do it for — what does it look like if his friends are in it? All those crazy scenarios.
     Doug came to the table and said, “Look, I love the script, I get what you wanna do, Jon. We can make it ourselves and sell it, and you’re gonna have to trust me, and we can do this together.” And they looked at me and said, “How low can you do this for?” And I went back to the drawing board for 12 hours and I came up with a budget of $279,000.
     At that time, Brothers McMullen had just happened, Sundance was all the rage. All these young actors were kind of clambering to get a part in all these independent films.
    We couldn’t afford office space, so the production headquarters was in our house.
    Instead of getting a traditional caterer, we made deals with restaurants in the neighborhood for next to nothing.
   The entire post-production — all the development, all the processing, all the coloring — was free. That would have been our budget alone. So if it weren’t for that, we couldn’t have done it. 

    The Reservoir Dogs rip-off shot — I actually went and shot that, just me and Doug — in the alley out of a flatbed truck behind a 7-Eleven. We did it in the middle of the night and just ran and hauled the boys out of bed at two in the morning and shot it three times and packed it up, and said, “Let’s go.” It was the only way to do it.
    Victor [Simpkins] and I flew to Las Vegas, met with some high roller there, begged him to let us shoot the Flamingo exterior, and then he also let us shoot the Glitter Gulch, downtown on Fremont Street. We took the entire crew — that was their treat. We handed out twenty-dollar bills to everybody and said, “Here’s what we’ve got, go gamble, go knock yourself out.”
   Jon wanted me to do the voice of Michelle. We sat in the room and recorded it on a digital audio-tape machine that we bought at Radio Shack and then returned the next day.
    There’s the first moment about six minutes in, the backpack line. I knew if anybody laughed, if you hear the audience laugh, you’re sailing from there out. People went nuts in the theater. I ran out of the theater because it was so overwhelming.
    I remember thinking, I have to sell this to somebody and then they’re gonna do what to it? I don’t wanna do it. I remember saying no to Miramax. Harvey Weinstein called me and said, “Do you understand what I’m offering you?” And I said, “I don’t really care. Blood, sweat, and tears are all over this film.” Harvey was like, “I don’t know what this is all about for you, but I’m not interested in digging into it again and opening it up and changing it.” And I remember him saying, “You are one lucky little girl,” and I remember saying, “And you’re one lucky old man.” We were just so attached to it and we had worked so hard on it that relinquishing it was scary. We got final cut because of that.

Ron Livingston (actor): Vince and I, and a couple of other people started doing staged readings for potential buyers of this script. They came in all shapes and sizes. Every three months or so, we’d get together in somebody’s living room and rehearse for a while and then go to some empty theater space and do it for some guy who had Saudi parking lot money.
    This was really right before the whole independent film wave in the late ’90s took off. So it was really only crazy people, oddballs, and weirdos that would even sit down and entertain the idea of buying this movie. Nobody really wanted it.
    Vince was the last person that got the OK to be in the movie. Even though so much of the heart and the soul of that movie is the back-and-forth between Jon and Vince, they were still holding out that they could get somebody that they could stick on a poster.

    (Favreau) grabbed “You’re so money” from the Spike Lee–Michael Jordan commercials, where Spike Lee called Michael Jordan “Money.” You know, “Like the shoes, Money.” Nobody was really doing that, I think, other than just Spike Lee and Michael Jordan. So when the movie came out, that was still kind of a new thing.

Avram Ludwig (associate producer): We spent more money on music in that movie than on the movie. We paid the most for the Dean Martin stuff. I think we paid half a million dollars in music licensing and the movie cost a quarter of a million dollars to make.

Read the entire article here.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wonderful story. Trust you to pick the swing music scene, Henry!