Like an old time picture show"
Who wouldn't love a 35mm film in Black and White that hearkened back to the early days of talking pictures, when screwball comedies had wise-cracking but charming leading men with a soft-spot for just the right dame and cool dance numbers?
After the success of The Artist, one would think that love for old movies would make a nostalgic nod to those film a natural.
In the late 90s, when two young men approached me about an independent film they wanted to shoot called Johnny Twennies, it didn't seem that obvious.
Personally, I loved the script on first read. Most scripts that were a throwback to classic films were noirs, modern attempts to be Raymond Chandler.
This script was an homage more to the movies of Ben Hecht like His Girl Friday and the original The Front Page (1931) ( not one of the many remakes, such as the popular Billy Wilder version with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau). It also had an interesting and unique twist; it was not set in the 1920s, but rather in contemporary New York (late 90s) with a lead character, Johnny Twennies, who lived and dressed as if it were the 1920s. A reporter, he still used an old typewriter, rode around on a bicycle, treated women with respect, and saw the world as one with clear good and evil - black and white.
Of course, there was a girl; in keeping with these screwball comedies, actually two: one that you knew he should wind up with, and one that seemed all wrong but might wind up getting him in the end.
When I met producers Adam Abraham (co-writer/Director) and Gibson Frazier (co-writer/Lead Actor), it all sounded too good to be true. This was exactly the type of script I longed to be a part of, but would it actually look like the script, or just another of those bad send-ups that we still see so many of today, especially from film students?
Film students was exactly the extent of their experience, as well. They had collaborated on a very clever short that Adam had written and directed as his USC thesis project called Song of the Sea, a cruise ship musical comedy. Johnny Twennies would have music as well, some original, all reminiscent of the music of the 1920s. Could a first time feature director, with an actor who had never been a lead in a feature, actually pull this off, all while wearing the multiple hats of producers/writers/director and lead actor? .
While respect for the proprietary nature of budgets precludes me from discussing the actual budget, suffice to say that we were going to be doing a musical with period costumes and set dressing and more than 50 speaking roles on 35mm film for less than films I budget on digital today.
What reassured me was their smarts, their level of preparedness, how thoroughly they had researched and planned, and the fact that they were fully aware of how difficult this would be. They had a good deal of confidence, but it wasn't based on naivety or bluster, as I have often encountered.
If I had to go up against the long odds of pulling this off, these were certainly elements I would want on my side. Something about them told me that if I did my job right as line producer, they had what it took to get this job done.
They had done a great job of financing the film from friends, family and associates. This was no pie-in-the-sky dream. They had worked hard at making it a reality, and in the very early stages of prep, we had to wait for money to be released from escrow at the point where all the money was raised.
It was at this point, while the guys were paying bills out of their pockets, that a group of investors offered them an influx of cash and a bigger budget, with the caveat that the film be shot in color, and not Black&White. It was an offer that would have been too good to refuse for a lot of first-time feature filmmakers. I can't honestly say whether I would have stuck to my guns the way they did, but they made a clear-sighted decision to eschew the offer and make the film they set out to make.
These are the type of bold choices that indie filmmakers always discuss, mostly because the offer is never really out there. When the check is staring you in the face, the decision becomes more difficult.
While working on the smaller budget certainly presented a challenge for me, my respect for the two of them, which was high at the start, now went through the roof.
They had done their job; now I owed them the best team I could put together. In Part 2, I will talk about assembling that team, their casting choices, and the pre-production period.