Thursday, December 01, 2011

THE SCREENWRITER STRIKES BACK: Dead in the Room

by Jim Cirile

Quick: name five things you dread. Paying taxes? Impacted wisdom tooth removal? Accidentally stumbling into a month-long Uwe Boll film festival and realizing you’re locked in? Sure, those are all pretty mortifying, but if you’re a screenwriter, you may well have included pitch fests on that list.

You pay a heap of money to meet with industry reps -- five measly minutes to convince someone you’ve never met that your story, and by extension you, has merit. That’s pretty daunting in and of itself. But when the execs seem bored, aloof or jaded, the experience can become downright humiliating. 

Andrew Borba and Patrick J. Adams are "Dead in the Room."
Like many of us, screenwriter Marjory Kaptanoglu has experienced this particular type of hell. And she decided to do something about it. Welcome to Dead in the Room, the Slamdance-winning short film script, which was later made into a film by director Adam Pertofsky. It is a sharp piece of storytelling and a tense, taut little thriller with a twist. But mostly, it’s one hell of a piece of writer empowerment. In it, a fed-up writer turns the tables on a contentious executive by demanding he pitch him a compelling story in five minutes – at gunpoint.

“I’ve been to several pitch events. For the most part, it’s a civil undertaking,” says Kaptanoglu, a former Apple software engineer who has been writing screenplays for about eight years. “Most studio execs are professional. But every now and then you get that bad seed, and he’s (texting) under the table or is maybe disrespectful.” Kaptanoglu used that within that "bad seed" exec was story potential. "And same thing with writers," she continues. "Most of them are professional and normal and all that. But now and then, you see some who just look like looney tunes. I just thought it was a situation that was right for some kind of drama. I also like to do the ticking clock, and it seems like (the 5-minute time limit) was perfect for the tension in a short film. My first thought was to turn it around -- instead of the writer pitching, he makes the other guy do it."

Marjory Kaptanoglu
Kaptanoglu has optioned a few features over the years and was lucky enough to have had three shorts independently produced. But her script for Dead in the Room grabbed the attention of Slamdance cofounder Peter Baxter, who called Kaptanoglu to tell her she'd won.  The prize: they were going to produce her script.

Enter director/editor Pertofsky. "I've been working in the biz for about 20 years," he says. "I’m one of the partners at a company called Rock Paper Scissors. Last year my partner cut The Social Network. He won an Academy Award (for that.) Over the last ten years I’ve directed here and there, PSAs and commercials. In 2006 I wrote Black Crescent Moon with a buddy of mine (Dexton Deboree), and we raised about 300 grand and made it. I knew Peter Baxter from when he started Slamdance, because I edited a movie that he was producing. He was one of the producers on it. We got some distribution for it and it was a great learning experience." Pertofsky also made a documentary which screens several times a day at the National Civil Rights Museum called The Witness of the Balcony from Room 306, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

"(Baxter) called me and asked me if I’d be interested in making Dead in the Room," he continues. "I’m usually very hesitant to get involved in anything that’s about the industry.  But the script’s so well-written, and it’s got such a great twist at the end. So I was like, Alright, how much money do you have to make this for? And he goes, ‘You’ve got 99 bucks.’"

Adam Pertofsky
Undaunted, Pertofsky says he "raced down to (a pitch festival) in LA and scouted. It blew my mind, actually, to see that. It was crazy. It really got to me. I remember there was this heavy-set guy wearing a yellow shirt and a beret. So I guess that’s what he thinks a writer looks like, and he’s standing next to two bodybuilders. That really got me going. I was like, This is gonna be fun."

Pertofsky says making the film on a non-existent budget was a big challenge (why the extremely successful Slamdance couldn't pony up a budget to make the film, we'll leave up to speculation.) "You’re trying to get everything for favors," says Pertofsky. "Finding the location was one of the biggest challenges. We shot that in a temple. It was in an extra room they use off the Synagogue, and they let us use it for a day, on a Sunday when it’s never used."

A tight script and solid direction contribute to the film's punch, but what really ices the cake are the performances. "It definitely doesn’t hurt to have an Academy Award nomination to get actors involved,"  says Pertofsky. "(Our) casting director sent me a link of different people, and when I saw Patrick J. Adams, who played the exec, there was an edge to him that I thought would work really well for this. As far as (the Writer) Andrew Borba goes, he’s been on so many TV shows as a character actor, I just knew immediately he’d be great. Patrick’s on a USA Network show called Suits now."

Despite the non-budget, they were able to authentically create the look of a real pitch festival. "We got a bunch of extras to show up for free, which was incredible," says Pertofsky. "You could definitely see our numbers were dwindling as the day went on." Watch for Kaptanoglu herself in the film -- she's pitching at the table right behind the two leads throughout. 

Dead in the Room is a compelling piece of screenwriters' wish fulfillment, but will it appeal to anyone else? "I was a little concerned that it might be too insider," says Kaptanoglu. "But interestingly, I’ve been going around to some of the film festivals where it’s been showing, and sometimes it’s an industry crowd and they really get excited about it. But I’ve also been with some groups that are not industry crowds at all, and you’d be surprised how well they relate to it. Everyone gets the idea of rejection and being frustrated and people acting crazy. I was just up at the Port Townsend Film Festival near Seattle, and that was mostly not industry people, and the audience was just gripped. I’ve been amazed. It plays really well to all types of audiences."  And in fact, the film has gathered quite a film laurels, including winning Best Short at Big Bear Lake Film Festival and best Short Drama at Breckenridge.

"It’s been wonderful for me to see my script being made into such a fantastic film," says Kaptanoglu. "Adam and everybody involved did an amazing job. I couldn’t be happier with the results. Also Adam added some stuff in the beginning. I didn’t have so much of an introduction, and I thought the way Adam handled that was just perfect." She notes that while she loves writing short scripts, "there’s no money in it.  My goal is to get a feature produced. That’s what I hope comes next."

Pertofsky says that Dead in the Room was a great experience, and he's optimistic that everyone will be able to see it soon when the festival run is over. "It’s playing Red Rock Film Festival in Utah, and it just played in the San Diego Film Festival a couple of weeks ago," he says, noting that they got a standing "O" in San Diego. "We’re still waiting to hear from a couple, and then our run’s coming to an end. We started the run at Slamdance in 2011 at the end of January." After that, they're hoping that Baxter will release the film one way or another. "Making films is the most important thing for me, he says. "That’s the only way you get better at it. You have to practice a craft to get better. I’m a strong believer in there are no bad mistakes, because you can learn from everything you do. Anyone out there who wants to write or make a film, with today’s technology, you can just go out there and start doing it. That’s where you’ll start learning skills and find your way."

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1 comment:

The Write Ones said...

Thanks for some the well written article about the movie and the process behind it. You captured needed the details without spoilage.

I am looking forward to seeing the movie when/if it gets released as I missed out on the festivals.