The Insider: Justin Benson on Creating ‘Spring’
“Well, that didn’t suck.” –David Lawson, on producing RESOLUTION and SPRING.
I was jealous at first when Aaron beat me to snatching up our first movie RESOLUTION for these features about how we get our movies made. But the more I started thinking back, the more I realized that the romantic scrappiness is actually about the same for both films. I mean my dad wasn’t catering with food from CostCo, and we weren’t stealing late night mixing rooms the whole time, but SPRING is no doubt a homemade passion project just as much as RESOLUTION. Like most films, telling the whole story would require a book deal, but here are some things about the making of a pretty successful indie film in the 2010’s that will hopefully come as a surprise to some.
Taking you back to 2011 when SPRING was written, Aaron was still working as a cinematographer on low budget features, and I was a production assistant/bartender/director’s assistant/dude who if you dated telling your parents about his professional life would not inspire enthusiasm. I was also completely broke because we had just spent all the money I made working those shit jobs making RESOLUTION. I had always written a lot, but with the uncertainty that our Hail Mary with RESOLUTION would result in anything, I started writing compulsively to deal with the anxiety. That said, if the movie thing didn’t work out I’d be shipping off to medical school in the coming months, and Aaron had a growing career as a DP, so there was simultaneously a fuck it let’s recklessly try everything mode of thinking.
I wrote a few movies around that time, but SPRING was the first one, actually written between edits of RESOLUTION. Aaron and I edit our own movies along with our buddy Michael Felker, and we both turn into even weirder nerd hermits than we already are during this stage in the birth cycle of our films. So on an editing break I called up my dad like, “Dad I’m thinking about writing a story about a girl who metabolizes her own embryonic stem cells to live forever.” And he was like, “that sounds really cool.” So I wrote it and threw the first draft in the backseat of Aaron’s car when he was dropping me off at the airport one evening, and actually we never discussed it much. At the time we didn’t have one movie that we thought more than a dozen or so people would see, and everyone was telling us our top tier film festival dreams with RESOLUTION were unreasonable, because no one involved with RESOLUTION had any kind of pedigree. The nepotism they were suggesting turned out to be exaggerated, but they did have a point in that it’s a lot harder to get into the six or so film fests that have sales markets and big press machines if literally no one knows who you are.
When RESOLUTION did get into Tribeca Film Festival and we sobered up from the buzz of apparently doing something right, we immediately started plotting how we could use that success to get one of the scripts we had ready to go. SPRING seemed to get the most positive response, but when I state “most positive” that doesn’t mean that nearly every single party considering going into business with us didn’t have pretty substantial, widely varying notes. There was one note that re-occurred though: making the 3rd act more like a standard monster-chasing-our-protagonist type of thing, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. And thank Cthulu we didn’t — our unorthodox 3rd act was one of the largest contributing factors to both its critical success and the warm audience response. It’s also interesting that what you see in the final film is almost identical to that heavily-criticized script, which also oddly enough, now that screenplay is the thing that producers point to in response to our new material like, “just do that SPRING thing again!” Which leads me to my one screenwriting tip of this article: a bunch of people saying your screenplay is bad doesn’t confirm it’s universally bad (though it might be). It’s more like criticism and rejection are almost always coupled with the very existence of these blueprints for movies we all go a little nuts trying to get right. Send someone who hasn’t seen The Godfather its script for some notes, and I can guarantee you’ll get pages upon pages of development jargon if they’re in the biz, and lots of “I don’t like it when…” if they were smart enough to go into another industry. It’s all part of this insane game made of a whole bunch of personal opinions. Listen to all of it, find the patterns, then implement only what you truly believe in, and push forward with an impenetrable grin because you’ve wisely wrapped your feelings in Teflon.
“I’m a big believer that if there’s something you really want to do, don’t walk away because of the deal.” –Steven Soderbergh, on passion projects
But back to total uncertainty and failure, we were pretty much striking out everywhere. And suddenly because of RESOLUTION’s film fest success we were getting set-up on meetings all over Los Angeles where again, no one wants to make the script you have, but rather the extremely middle-of-the road, low risk script that they have. At the time it was possession movies, zombies and haunted houses, it’s mostly changed into other stuff now, but either way character driven, evolutionary Frankenstein girl is not an idea met with money bags. So we doubled down and spent thousands of dollars made working our shit jobs to go to Cannes to see if we could make some progress at the indie film epicenter of the universe. We couldn’t afford to stay in Cannes — and actually the only reason we could afford anything was due to the planning of our lovely, extremely talented associate producer Stephanie Trepanier — so we’d rode bikes in the rain from outside of town in cheap suits to meetings where we’d pitch our hearts out. A lot of those meetings resulted in some pretty hardcore rejection (RE: a lot of people hate my screenwriting), but a miracle did happen: drunk at a Finnish party one night Aaron met our Italian producer Luca Legnani. Luca has turned out to be not only the only guy who could have handled the Italian portion of SPRING, but is also one of the best men we’d have the pleasure of knowing. And though the dream team of Luca Legnani and David Lawson producing could get the movie made dirty, we still didn’t have the money.
There was one other respite from failure and walking around in old, wet shoes in the South of France. Nate Bolotin of XYZ Films showed a short film we had made to demonstrate what SPRING would look and feel like to Tim League from Drafthouse Films. Now Tim League is basically the Richard Branson of indie film who we had admired from afar to no end. Apparently he dug what he saw in this short and and he walked up to us at the only cheap bar in Cannes and was like “Come have dinner with me and my wife tomorrow night!”. The next night he picked us up in a car and drove us out for a lovely family meal. He probably doesn’t know how much that break from the hustle and getting to chill with one of our heroes meant to us, but Drafthouse would later become the company that beat out competing distributors for the US sale of SPRING. Maybe, just maybe, we regarded the Drafthouse/Film Buff deal with some preferential treatment despite slightly higher bids from other companies. If we did, it was because someone actually wanted to have a delicious home cooked meal with us and told us he believed in the project when very few people did.
I wish we had a story about some glorious pitch in some fancy board room or Hollywood office that finally got SPRING financed. The truth is, after pitching the movie about 300 hundred times, and having cast and distributors dropping out at the last minute, a family member ended up stepping in to finance the movie at a very low budget for what we were trying to achieve. This person ended up mortgaging their home to do this. Now one way to describe this humiliatingly trust fund kid-esque situation despite being a broke-ass dude most of my life up to this very day, is it really focuses you, making you an extra responsible filmmaker. A more precise way to describe it though, is being absolutely fucking terrified the entire time you’re shooting that you’re going to lose someone you love a lot of money. It was actually infinitely more stressful than when we liquidated my checking account to make RESOLUTION when the consequence of failure was homelessness. But of course I am grateful to no end for the rest of my life for this blood relation angel investor, I’m happy they’re making that money back, and I hope we never, ever do that again.
Anyhow like I was saying, the scale of the movie was ambitious given the budget. But, we did have about 25 years collectively of DIY filmmaking experience at this point, had already made one movie successfully with almost nothing, and had luckily been in constant preparation in a way that kept prices down quite a bit. Again, Mr. David Lawson must be mentioned whose production genius is something we owe infinite gratitude toward. Finding a producer who is there to execute for you with the experience, brilliance, and humility that David Lawson has is like left-handed unicorn hunting. He really makes our slightly foolish ambition work in practice, and having one angel investor meant that we could shoot the exact script that we believed in, as well as hold onto control over everything much like we did with RESOLUTION. It was a blessed situation that despite all the failed hustle that preceded it, was a harmonious process that may have spoiled us moving forward.
And there’s actually a pretty fun story about casting since we couldn’t afford a casting director but it’s way too damn long, so I’ll just say this: we cast Lou the grown-up way through agents and all that, but Nadia… We literally COULD NOT get reps to send us women who weren’t the archetype of Paris Hilton (if they got back to us at all). So what we did was we shot an email to every European filmmaker we met on the film fest circuit with RESOLUTION, asking if they knew any actresses who are ethnically ambiguous since this woman would be revealed as ‘fricking Roman. Nadia came back on three lists. She hadn’t even really been in much, almost nothing actually, but look how magical she is and we even made a lifelong homie out of it. Again friends came to the rescue, not some big Hollywood power player that we cornered at a Hollywood mixer after 17 vodkas at the open bar (we tried that too).
After a somehow heavenly shoot in Italy and an equally ultra-smooth post production process, when we found out it was accepted to TIFF we once again cheers-ed with our scotch like when RESOLUTION was accepted to Tribeca. When the movie sold to our favorite distributors Drafthouse and FilmBuff during a bidding war, me, Aaron, Dave and Nadia literally all did a leaping hug in the streets of Toronto. With these smaller companies acquiring SPRING we were in a position to remain heavily involved in how SPRING would be released to the world. It’s probably more work than releases with bigger companies with bigger marketing budgets (which we had the option to do), but we had kept custody of our weird baby. In retrospect, that extra work making sure people saw it and connected with it at the release stage was actually a reward in itself.
By the time the movie was #1 on iTunes Romance and Horror categories at the same time, as well as certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, we had gotten to make our second feature film with not just full creative control over the movie itself, but nearly every aspect of the sale, distribution, publicity, marketing and so forth. In doing entirely what we thought was right for the movie, even Richard Linklater, Max Landis, and Guillermo Del Toro publicly said a bunch of nice stuff about it. Not bad for some guys who just went out and did it even though all the people who invest money in such things told us to fuck off. And if you go on the SPRING IMDB message board and someone is complaining about “they did that thing stupid thing AGAIN!” (the presumption of “they” being some mysterious Hollywood governing body), that commenter actually means us. So no matter how brutal the trolling is, we take the beating with pride. But most importantly, we had not one but two movies showing the very specific thing we do, exhibiting an authorship and a voice beyond what any of the movies that were easier to get made would have allowed us to put out into the world.
“You can bang on anything.” –Tom Waits, on creating
SPRING and RESOLUTION have collectively opened a lot of doors for us, and we’ve put the same amount of hustle into growing and doing something bigger with the voice we’ve established. That does of course come with a longer business timeline and new ways of stalling out (casting is the snag for us and most filmmakers to be honest — everyone is trying to get the same 6 or so actors in the world who can attract financing). The greatest comfort we have with the dozen or so TV shows and movies we have at various slowly moving stages, is that we know if the business doesn’t line up on these projects, nothing is stopping us from just going out and making a movie that we love every frame of. And to be honest, that’s exactly what we’re doing in the coming months. And as I write this, again there is no financier on this next movie beyond our bank accounts.
But Mark Duplass already very accurately told the indie filmmaking world “The calvery’s not coming”, so I’ll end the stories of RESOLUTION and SPRING with this: There are so many great lessons in learning how to scale these filmmaking walls that seem impossible, but the most important one for us has been just never stop making stuff. It’s as easy on the 3rd movie as on the 1st to get caught up in this idea that you need to wait on someone else to give you the greenlight and the resources to go do it. The truth is that with the right collaborators there’s always a way to just go make a movie, and that scrappiness allows for bold, uncompromising voice and storytelling. Possibly the biggest mistake one can make as a filmmaker is forgetting that.