September 29, 2010

In My Own Defense: How Documentary Filmmaking Drove Me Insane, Part One


One-sheet of The Girl Next Door. Courtesy of Christine Fugate

I am sitting in the auditorium at the Sundance Institute in Provo, Utah, listening to a panel discussion on the art and commerce of documentary filmmaking. The panelists are discussing how wonderful the distribution market has been to documentaries. I find this piece of news interesting since one of the panelists--whom I'll call Mr. Distributor--has shelved my documentary for over a year and refused to distribute it unless we agree to accept half of the advance originally agreed upon.

In a quick flash, I see that unlike in my previous dreams, I will not be remembered for my Oscar speech I would someday give or that powerful, life-changing film I would someday make. No, I am going to be remembered for storming the stage at the Sundance Institute and attacking Mr. Distributor for his seemingly benign remarks about film distribution.

The audience will gasp as I lurch towards him and the authorities call security. There will be a few filmmakers who have been screwed like me who will secretly applaud my actions, but they will ultimately remain silent. Since the law probably doesn't look kindly on women throwing left hooks, I assume I will end up in jail. Since I don't have any relatives who are lawyers and I know there's no lawyer in Hollywood who will take this case, I see the final consequence of my actions: I will have to defend myself.

So before I make my move, I would like to prepare my defense. In case I cop the insanity plea, these notes could actually be helpful to the assigned district attorney. He or she will need to understand that I am not a violent person. Quite the opposite; I am always looking for harmony and understanding.

That desire to understand others is what started me down this path in the first place. After spending eight years making socially relevant yet hardly seen films for PBS, I felt frustrated that my work was not reaching audiences on a larger scale. To earn a living, I had been working at an Internet company that had an adult division. I began meeting female porn stars and was fascinated by their lives. I interviewed a few and realized that following a woman on her journey from normality to porn star would make a great documentary. And so began my search for the girl next door.

Creating The Girl Next Door

I ended up choosing Stacy Baker, a housewife from Tulsa, Oklahoma, as my subject. Her husband had encouraged her to pose nude for Gallery magazine. She not only won the contest, but Hustler magazine offered her a contract to do a photo shoot in Mexico. The Hustler shoot led to movie offers and within a matter of months, she left her husband and moved to the San Fernando Valley to make adult movies. The minute I met her, I knew she was the one. I read the manual on the Sony VX1000 digital camera and began filming her for research, not realizing I would end up shooting most of the film.

My Café Sisters Production partner, Eren, and I put together a treatment and a budget for $500,000. I was obviously high on that one. People kept telling me, "Sex sells," which I interpreted to mean we might actually get salaries and a proper post-production schedule. We partnered up with my old friend, Adam, who came well credentialed with a JD and MBA. He wrote the business plan for our film and I cut a trailer. We took our dog-and-pony show to various production companies and studios. Over and over we heard, "We love it!" and "What a great story!" But every meeting, whether it was with Fine Line or Paramount, ended in exactly the same way: "We would love to see it when it's finished." There was not going to be any money up front except from our own savings accounts.

I threw myself into filming Stacy and her life. In my own life, I met a doctor who was doing a fellowship at UCLA. We started dating and would spend hours drinking martinis, eating garlic and talking about porn, medicine and film. I continued to work my day job as a website consultant and somehow managed to make it all work. The Adult Video Awards show was to be in January and would serve as the climax of the film. Stacy was up for five awards and was guaranteed to win at least two. The buzz was big and I felt hyped that filming would soon end.

Stacy did not win one award. We were completely devastated, and while I knew this was an emotional moment that needed to be filmed, it was hard to keep the camera rolling. I also didn't know how we were going to pay for the rest of the production costs. My savings were gone. As it was, the Vegas bills were going on the credit card. Adam would have to put in some more cash. I would have to match it at some point, which meant one thing: credit card checks.

Post-Production Purgatory

Back in Los Angeles, we started editing the film, even though we didn't have an ending or even a third act. The Sundance deadline was in eight months. We organized a bunch of college kids to transcribe the footage, and I took a course on how to operate the Avid. In May, we traveled to Cannes, where Stacy was nominated for Best American New Starlet at the Hot d'Or Awards, the adult version of the Cannes Film Festival. We all crammed into one hotel room and ate meals of French bread and cheese. When Stacy won the award, I almost lost the shot, my hands were shaking so much. Finally, we had our ending; now we just needed to organize it into a cohesive story.

That summer, we rented an Avid system and put it in my dining room. I quit my job and devoted myself entirely to editing the film in my apartment, which had no air conditioning or crosswind breeze. I was hot, broke and extremely exhausted. I would edit all night, fall into bed and sleep until noon. Then I would crawl to my kitchen and awaken myself on chocolate and beer.

Needless to say, my love life with the doctor went down the tubes. How could it not? I was watching and editing footage of people having sex. I went to a dark place. The thought of ever having sex again seemed impossible. I didn't want anyone to touch me or even talk to me. All I wanted was to get a rough cut so I could hand it over to my good friend Kate to bring it to a fine cut.

In a couple of weeks, Kate did her magic and we were on our way to making the Sundance deadline. We decided to do an Avid online, but a quick digitizing job took hours. The dub house that gave me such a great rate had reversed the audio channels on the bumped-up-to-Beta masters. The clock was ticking and it started to look like we wouldn't make it. Around noon on the day before the deadline, the whole system crashed, and so did I. I took a walk to a park nearby. Children were playing, and I thought to myself, there has to be more to life than this. I sat on a solid cold concrete picnic bench, laid down my head and cried.

The Festival Follies

We finished the output and submitted to Sundance. Everyone told me it would be a shoo-in, and I have to say, I was feeling rather confident myself. But then the days began to pass with no phone call. Maybe the film was too raw, too raunchy, too whatever.

When I got the rejection letter from Sundance, I was already prepared. Soon after that came a call from Peter Baxter, the head of Slamdance, inviting the film to premiere there. Thanks to that great news, we were able to raise just enough money to pay for the 16mm blow-up to screen at the festival. When we saw the print, we were jazzed. We hired a publicity firm that was hot in the indie film world, and they began pitching the film to media outlets. Stacy worked with a costume designer friend and came up with the most outrageous snow bunny outfits--bright furry boots with matching coats in three different colors.

Tickets for the film's premiere went on sale early in the morning--and sold out in seven minutes, according to my spies. Perhaps this would be the turning point in my career, when I would glibly pronounce, "It was all worth it." I was completely broke, jobless and separated from my beau. The only friends I had left were those who had worked on the film, and those friendships were walking a thin line between love and hate. The good news was, I fit into a size 6, a result I'm sure from filming and editing footage about a woman who posed nude for cameras on a daily basis.

Battle of the Porn Stars

The Sundance Film Festival had chosen the other porn chic film, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story. People kept coming up to me with rumors about how and why the Annabel film got into Sundance and we didn't. I didn't want to hear it anymore and told everyone to stop talking about it. I had just been interviewed by Hard Copy and Entertainment Tonight and wanted to enjoy it for what it was: pure fun. Our film quickly grew hot as Stacy walked around town in her snow bunny outfits signing autographs and posing for pictures. People were buzzing and the press was scrambling to talk to us. I hoped that the film would build momentum so we could get a distribution deal that would make it all worth it.

When I walked into the crowded screening room, I couldn't believe it. There were people waiting outside begging for tickets. So imagine my surprise when I saw Annabel Chong sitting in the front row with her director, Gough Lewis; they had tickets that could have gone to a distributor or agent. We introduced ourselves, and I attempted to be cordial as the audience watched us interact.

The projector started rolling and all I cared about at that point was whether people would like the film--which they did. Laughter came at the right places and complete quiet at others. Stacy did not want to be in the room while the movie screened, so my friend Leigh sat with her in a nearby cafe. We were all nervous.

As the credits rolled, I prepared to answer questions and comments. My lawyer stood in the back, prepared for that rush of distribution offers we had prayed for night and day. Would there be a bidding war like we had heard happen on Chris Smith's American Movie? Would our deal be featured on the front page of next day's Variety? Our film had great buzz. Supposedly Ben Affleck had been seen tearing down a one-sheet and taking it home with him. Perhaps he had talked to his people, who had talked to their people about buying our film.

After the Q&A, our lawyer talked to a few distributors, but there was no mad scramble to write us a million dollar check. My heart began to sink. He said that some key distributors had not been able to make it and wanted screeners. We agreed to reconvene that evening in his hotel suite and go over the list.

The Beginnings of Illness

Companies were starting to pass for various reasons. One studio said that if Stacy had died of AIDS at the end they would be interested. Another liked the film, but didn't know how they would market it. There were smaller companies interested in putting it into theaters, but there would be no up-front advance or immediate compensation.

I walked out of the suite and into the cold air. I wanted to throw up all over the snow. This was not the way it was supposed to be.

The next day, I woke up with a hacking cough and a high fever. I called my ex, the doctor, for a prescription of antibiotics and ended up crying on his shoulder. I wasn't sure what to do next but after talking to him, I knew I would figure it out. I spent the rest of the festival lying on the couch in front of the fire. Stacy and my producing partners hit the parties and the slopes, coming back with stories of how much people loved the movie. I would pop another Tylenol with codeine and hope that the pain and disappointment would go away.

Filmmaker Arthur Dong once said, "The real work in filmmaking begins with the distribution of your film." I hoped that he was wrong, very wrong. Little did I know that up to that point, we had been lucky. We had gotten financing, played at a big festival and received a ton of press. Our luck was about to run out as we entered into distribution deals with companies that would go bankrupt, commit felonious fraud and borrow money from the Mafia.

It was at this point where my temporary insanity truly began.

Tune in next issue for Part Two: Surviving Distribution Bankruptcies, Birthing Babies and My Debut on Celebrity Justice.

 

Christine Fugate is a writer and director of award-winning films including The Girl Next Door and Tobacco Blues and has worked for VH1, Discovery and A&E. She has appeared on MSNBC, Extra, Celebrity Justice and her personal favorite, Hard Copy. She writes Mothering Heights, a column on her relentless pursuit for sanity as a wife, mother and sex object for motheringheights.net and several weekly papers. motheringheights.net

Tags: