Heathens & Thieves: How An Independent Film Happens

- by Vonna Harper

 From movie director Megan Peterson:

FADE IN:

 INT. HOLLYWOOD BILLIARDS – NIGHT – ALMOST THREE YEARS AGO

 Three friends sip whisky sodas and play cutthroat.  GIRL #1 hits the cue ball with startling intensity.

 GIRL 1:  I’m so sick of answering to networks.  We have the resources. We should make a movie ourselves.

BOY: What would the story be?

 GIRL 2: I guess it could be anything really– but it has to be a western because I have access  to horses – and maybe noir because we love noir lighting.

 And another chase of dreams in American independent cinema ensues…

When first asked to write about my experience, like all good stories I struggled with where to start.  There are so many moving parts to a film and so many stages. All physics considered, a film should never happen in reality; there’s too much risk, too much money and too much of at least one person’s reputation on the line.  It’s only when some vague god-like authority determines that the remote stars of financing, cast, crew and script will cross trajectories for a single fortuitous moment and then — with equal apathy — leave them to shine furiously for a moment to grant a wish or crash towards earth in a fiery death. And that’s just a studio pic.  On a small movie like ours, it’s more like trying to resurrect a 200-ton elephant from the dead. There’s strategizing, cajoling, needling, pleading, kicking, bargaining, commanding, antagonizing, bribing, placating and ultimately just plain dragging. Then, once you’ve gotten the weighty pachyderm on its legs, you realize you haven’t just waked the beast, you’re now responsible for a giant hungry creature that needs love and a home — and it doesn’t fit in your garage or quite possibly anyone else’s you know. 

 

Such has been the last 2.5 years of my professional life: culling all the resources I have to make a labor of love western called HEATHENS & THIEVES. We started with nothing but the idea that we wanted to make a movie with the most production value we could get on the screen and the least amount of money.  I spoke to my family in Scott Valley and found they would be open to us coming up and “using a few of their things.”  We found a location and talked to some good friends about using their horses.  Everyone was excited to help out even though it was just going to be a “little” project.  At first, we truly believed that we would all invest our own money and do the film for $10,000 dollars.  But we kept knocking on doors and asking for whatever we could get and the film blossomed into something more we could have ever imagined.  Within six months we had two major investors, a few little ones, a 200K + camera package for a pittance and were auditioning people that actually had some known credits. 

Nothing breeds confidence like growing confidence and we parlayed these little gifts into bigger requests.  We worked longstanding industry relationships and ended up with an A-list crew including a special effects team and Executive Producers that do FX on all of Clint Eastwood’s movies; a specialty props guy who worked on Narnia Chronicles and I AM LEGEND, a costume designer who not only did CHUCK & BUCK but is now working on the next feature with the director of TWILIGHT.  What worked to our advantage was that we were going to do the film one way or the other (after all we had been prepared to do it at $10K, let alone a couple hundred or more) so people could either be a part of the train or not.  

 Casting took us almost 8 months (in part because we all had day jobs) but mostly because we were adamant that we wanted a variety of faces and talent.  Because the film takes place almost exclusively in one location, we wanted our cast to be varied. We tested chemistry of actors against each other; made sure that no two faces could ever be mistaken as “the same guy.” Casting the role of the Chinese husband, Zhen was one of the toughest because he is such a nuanced balance between pathos and tragedy

Building the set was an equally slow trudge.  Through my aunt we found the perfect location: an old granary with an owner who wanted to convert it to a house.  We had the manpower but no money so we worked out an exchange of labor for use.  Our production designer dedicated months of his life with a piecemeal crew to transform the landscape into the world of HEATHENS & THIEVES.  The results are formidable, and whereas most indies keep the scope of their content and scenery contained, there are moments of ours that recall the wide vistas of John Ford.

Everyone always asks: why a western?  Simply put: we had those resources and could distinguish our film from other low budget indies.   We knew that in Northern California we could find locations far better and cheaper than what existed in and around LA, not to mention we’d have a support network.  On top of that, once we started pursuing the film with a much greater budget than we had ever initially planned, we decided we didn’t want the film to “look” indie.  Westerns have sweeping, dramatic landscapes and we could get all of that production value with minimal cash.  And, to top it off, it was the kind of tempestuous mountain forests of my own western experience, rather than the typical dusty saguaro cactus fantasies of Hollywood.

 Translating from script to screen, we also learned some things that they never really tell you about when you’re thinking of a story in broad, narrative terms. Suddenly everything in the script has to be thought of in specific, produce-able terms. These easy-to-write, difficult-to-produce details are what we joked as “careless flicks of the pen,” that is a character’s “muddy” boots, or rainstorm here, baby there, beard here and clean-shaven there.  All of these little details have ripple effects through production that affect budget, schedule and shoot order. Depending on your budget level, these details can make or break the bank.  It was a constant balance between what made the best story and what allowed us to actually complete the story (re: time and budget).

The most interesting translation of script to screen however happens in the white spaces in the pages – the unwritten part.  Sure, a scene is written with dialogue, but how you block it can change the meaning or interaction entirely.  Putting an actor in a doorway, for instance can create a lot more tension that an open room because that person has nowhere to go.  A subject heading might say “hallway” but how that gets interpreted is crucial to tension, character…a screenplay is the only unfinished part of movie because it isn’t realized until it becomes something else. 

 The hardest part was and will always be financing.  Most people don’t have money to throw at what can amount to a crazy or unfinished investment – and believe me there are plenty.  But when a person comes through and believes in you, handing you a check, there is the greatest weight of responsibility placed upon you.  Suddenly it’s not just doing what you want to do, but it’s trying to do what you want to do and make it sale-able. It’s a careful, tedious balance, and we have yet to see if our choices will pay off.  That day is coming soon; our first strategy meeting with an outside sales person is next week.  Hopefully in this case the vague god-like deity will again smile upon us — and grant our star-crossed wish for success.

BIO:  Megan Peterson has worked in narrative features and documentary television for over a decade.  Her credits include three feature films, multiple music videos and several series for channels ranging from National Geographic and Discovery to Travel Channel, TLC and Spike Television. She has produced and field produced numerous shows from the ground-up, including the breakout hit AUCTION KINGS currently on Discovery. Under an interim stint as Director of Development for Authentic Entertainment, Megan also helped package and sell the reality hits ACE OF CAKES on Food Network and FLIPPING OUT for Bravo. Her most recent projects include Supervising Producing the new Sundance Channel series with famed chef Ludo Lefebvre, and co-directing her passion project HEATHENS & THIEVES, an indie western filmed in rural northern California. Megan was mentored under Robert Zemeckis and holds an MFA in film production from University of Southern California. She happily lives in Etna, California with her husband and her dog when she’s not out galavanting across the globe.

12 comments

  1. Great write up!!! Spells out the process very nicely — what an undertaking!

  2. Great post! I’d love to know when this is going to release so I can help spread the word. :)

  3. I love the idea of a noir
    Western and look forward to seeing it soon.

  4. Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for the close-up view of a very complicated process so different from what we experience, tucked away in our little writerly caves!

  5. Fascinating account, Megan. I really enjoyed reading it.

    Have a small interest in the topic because one of my books is in the process of being seriously optioned. Wow, it’s an even more complex process than I’d thought. Thank you so much for sharing. If I see the film around in Australia or the UK, I’ll certainly go to see it.

  6. Ahhh, Megan. How much we all take for granted in the making of a movie or other theatrical production! Fascinating, I had no idea.

    Meanwhile, thank you THANK YOU for a western. There aren’t enough of them. And there aren’t enough entertaining nondocumentary indies!

    I can’t wait to see Heathens & Thieves. We may need you to start sipping more whiskey sodas…..

  7. Love the post. Alot of work and it will be exciting to watch it make it to the big screen!

  8. Love you Megan. Can’t wait to see it on the big screen. I’m glad you did all that detail work that allowed everyone else to focus on their roles.

  9. Megan, you have come a long way since we met when you were in high school. You said you wanted a career making movies and now look at you. Congratulations!

  10. Enjoyed reading the blog. I know this movie was a true labor of love with lots of support from family and friends. We can wait to see it on the big screen! It’s going to be great!!

  11. It’s been quite a while since I saw the rough cut of Heathens and Thieves, and the visuals and story have stayed with me. Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies ever, and it’s a western if there ever was one. Looking forward to seeing Heathens and Thieves again!

  12. Just watched the DVD Saturday night (11/24/2012) – beautiful scenery, enough twists to keep you awake, lots of Bang! Bang! without too much blood & gore, no truly offensive language. Not sure why it’s R rated. Coming out momentarily at Redbox, Amazon, not sure of all the outlets!

    Great Christmas present for families – 10 year old boys to 65 year old women will enjoy a return to true Western movie adventure and mystery.