Thursday, July 23, 2009
TAKING YOUR LIFE, Eric Beetner
A few weeks ago, Eric Beetner and I had a discussion via blogland about the sorry state of most movies today and he surprised me with the information that he had actually written and directed a 50-minute movie--TAKING YOUR LIFE.
He has been employed as a film editor and is also a writer so I was not totally surprised he could do such a thing and do it well. When he offered to send it to me, I was delighted. But what I was surprised at was the subject matter. My assumption that a crime writer would make a movie about such things was quickly cast aside as I watched a movie about life and death issues. Literally.
I asked him a few questions and he kindly agreed to answer them.
How did you come to make TAKING YOUR LIFE?
I am a movie guy. I went to film school. I am an editor by trade (mostly TV) so it's not like I just woke up and wanted to make a movie. The trouble is money. (ain't it always) I have been screenwriting for a number of years and I even got paid for it a few times. Nothing made it to the screen though. My career is painfully typical in that regard. So I set out to make something that showed I could write and even direct. I knew I had to do it on the cheap so I wrote something short but something that had a full feature-length structure of beginning, middle and end. It ended up being not that short, almost an hour long. I also wrote a story that would seem appropriate on video because I knew I couldn't afford to shoot film. There is nothing worse than seeing a film and thinking "Gee it was great but if only they'd had a few more bucks." With that in mind I wrote around locations I knew I could get for free and situations that are cheap i.e. it is a dialogue driven film, not one about car chases. After that I just sat down to write and this is what came out. I have 16 feature length screenplays and several shorts and now with my fiction I have over a dozen published short stories, a novel coming out in the fall (co-written with JB Kohl) and a solo novel already done and another in progress. In short, new ideas are not a problem.
So once I had a script I thought would be good it was time to call in all my favors from casting to locations to a place to do the editing. I cut it myself obviously. I'm not going to pay anyone to do what I can do quickly and easily even though the common belief is that it is wrongheaded to edit anything you have directed. So after that it was just having one other person to keep on top of the little logistics and my good friend Peter agreed to help me out. (for no money I might add) So we produced together and I found a good DP that came cheap but worked out really well and other than that it was a skeleton crew and we shot it fast and cheap. The offices I used are from the TV show I was working on at the time, I used my own edit bay, the actors provided their own wardrobe, their own houses and apartments, we used no makeup, my wife catered the film. We shot over 9 days and it all went incredibly smoothly. While touring the festival circuit I was always hearing horror stories of shoots gone bad, over budget and long and I think other indie film makers were getting annoyed with me because I had such a great easy time of it.
This seems like an unusual first movie for a younger person, especially since the protagonist is an old woman. Where did the keen insight into her particular situation come from?
I wish I was as young as you think I am. I was 37 when I made the film and yes, the main character is an elderly woman but I reject the whole "write what you know" thing. I'm a crime writer who has never committed a crime. I don't even drink. This film is not a crime story, but still. It is far from the first script I have written.
Most people who see it assume that the character of Nate is based on me. He works in TV on crappy reality shows, wants to be a documentary film maker, etc. But that is not the case. When my wife read it she knew immediately, "You're Helen." I put a lot of my own philosophy into this character of an 80 year-old woman. I wanted to know her inside and out and also to have all the answers when people asked questions about her motivations. I guess I'm kind of contradicting myself. How much more can I write what I know than to do a version of myself but you get the picture.
It has been extremely gratifying to hear from older people that the character rings true. Kathy Joosten, who stars, said when she accepted the role, "I feel like you wrote this just for me." That was a great phone call.
I've also always been fascinated by suicide. Don't know why. No need to worry about me. I got that all out of my system in high school.
Did you write it initially as a screenplay?
Yes. It started as a movie and was always going to be one. It has been floated that it might make a good stage play but I just haven't gotten around to that. I do too much already. I had to give up being a musician, I don't paint much any more, I parted with my screenwriting agent at ICM (anyone know someone who's looking for a new client?). I have spent my whole adult life being very spread thin by all my interests. No regrets though. I've been a touring punk rocker, sold my art, gotten paid to write scripts, now have sold a novel. Now, if I could just get rich on any of it!
How did you persuade Kathryn Joosten to star in the film? She is such an important part of its success. We never doubt her existence for a minute.
Favors. A dear friend of mine is a casting agent (helps to live in Hollywood) She did Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Without A Trace and many indie films and other stuff. She cast the film for me and Kathy was the first name she threw out for Helen. I thought, "Great! Will she do it?" Kathy said no solely based on the fact that it was an indie with an unproven director. Her manager urged her to read it and when she did she told me she just had to do it. She even refused any payment. It was an insulting amount anyway but it was so great of her to tell us, "Spend it on crew lunch." That's even her house in the film. We had a location set up but she said, "Aw hell, just shoot here. I don't have to wake up as early!" She is a great, great pleasure to have in the film. At our premiere screening her son told her, "Mom, that's the best you've even been." I loved hearing that. She gets very easily typecast as a grumpy neighbor or crotchety old maid so this was just fun for her to flex her acting muscles for a little bit.
There is a moment during one of her long monologues that I let run for a 3 1/2 min uninterrupted take. She was so in character that it still blows me away. As an editor I see too many performances too cut up. She loved that as an actress that we did a lot of long takes of things. It's hard to get fully into a moment when you shoot it in 10 sec pieces. All the actors commented on that on set. They liked the way I just kind of backed off and let them go for most of it.
A little trivia - during shooting is when she auditioned for Desperate Housewives which she went on to win the Emmy for. The rest of the cast was brilliant too. I got so very lucky.
I agree. All of them played their parts brilliantly. How can people buy it?
I'm not above pimping my wares. It is available at Indieflix. This is a DVD equivalent of a POD publisher. You order one, they burn one. The link is: http://www.indieflix.com/Films/TakingYourLife
You can view a trailer there as well. You can always contact me directly through my directing website ericbeetner.com not to be confused with my writing site ericbeetner.blogspot.com Told you I do too much.
Do you have plans for another film?
Oh lots of plans. No money. All our discretionary income of the last few years has gone toward adopting our two daughters. Money well spent, I say. I am working on one project that I think I can do on the ultra cheap. It would be a web-based series of short films but I am still working out details. This is the first I've even written about it at all so maybe this will inspire me to go ahead and do it. Time to call in more favors!
Like I said I split with my screenwriting agent so I am on the hunt for a new one but I am so piss-poor and selling myself that I have been terrible at it. I am hoping that with more of my fiction getting out there it may make me seem more legit and with this film as an example that I can write for the screen and I can direct actors then maybe I can get some interest. I just keep plugging away hoping that the cream will rise. Mostly in this town it is the over-confident loudmouths who climb the ladder but that's not me. If I stay a fairly obscure nice guy who never sells out his integrity then it is a life well spent. Aw, hell, talk to me on my deathbed and I'll be screaming to sell out.
I'm proud of the film and so far everyone who has seen it has liked it for what it is. It does tend to spark discussion. It is heavy and will make you think. Even if someone hated it I'd rather elicit a reaction than be met with indifference.
Festival crowds have really enjoyed it. We won the audience award at the California Independent Film Festival. I even got invited to The University of Pennsylvania to screen the film. That was fun. But if you've got an hour to spare, give it a try.
I highly recommend you do if you like movies with substance. And I hope Eric continues to make movies.