Sweat Equity, the Movie
Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones are the couple behind “Breaking Upwards.” More Photos >
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By LARRY ROHTER
Published: March 26, 2010
THERE are low-budget films, there are micro-budget films, and then there is “Breaking Upwards.” It may be hard to imagine how someone could make a feature-length romantic comedy in New York City for just under $15,000, but Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones managed to do it.
The making of “Breaking Upwards,” which opens Friday both at the IFC Center and on cable through video on demand, is almost a tutorial in how a do-it-yourself ethos can overcome the tough economics of the movie business. And that is not simply because the couple collaborated on the script, played the lead roles and produced the film together, with him also directing and her in charge of tasks ranging from writing the lyrics for the songs to cooking meals for cast and crew.
Most members of that small, young crew was recruited from Craigslist and worked free. PVC tubes were adapted to make a track for their camera dolly, and when Ms. Lister-Jones was given a red carpet as a joke birthday gift, that was also used to help steady the camera. Their director of photography, Alex Bergman, used an inheritance from his grandmother, meant to enable him to go to film school, to buy top-of-the-line equipment instead.
Insurance was obtained by piggybacking on the policy of another production, thereby saving thousands of dollars, and because the movie was shot digitally, Mr. Wein was able to edit it in his living room, using a flat-screen television. The couple was also able to get the veteran Broadway actors Julie White, Peter Friedman and Andrea Martin to join the cast, along with their friend Olivia Thirlby from HBO’s “Bored to Death.”
“You can’t put a value on sweat equity,” said Jonathan Sehring, the president of IFC Entertainment, which is distributing the film. “If this were just friends and family, that would be one thing. But they’ve got some very distinguished actors, and it looks great. So it’s incredible that they spent so little out of pocket.”
Mr. Wein said the couple began shopping their script, meant to be “funny and intelligent in a way going back to the early Woody Allen films,” in 2007, naïvely hoping to make the film “through a production company for anywhere between $1 and $2 million.” But the process was slower than they anticipated and coincided with a retrenchment at studios and production companies, which were closing or downsizing specialty divisions that had been financing quirky low-budget films.
That shakeout has “complicated the process for indie filmmakers in the sense that there are fewer distributors, which means there are fewer potential buyers for films, and so the deals are not as attractive because there is less leverage and less money involved,” said Richard Abramowitz, founder of Abramorama, a consulting company that specializes in production, marketing and distribution services for independent films. “On the other hand, it’s created a bit of a new industry that allows D.I.Y. filmmakers to control the process and the rights themselves.”
“Breaking Upwards” is about a pair of Jewish Manhattan 20-somethings who find their relationship foundering; but rather than split up, they choose to alternate days alone and together. Emotions get complicated and feelings get hurt, of course, as they meet potential romantic partners and have to explain their arrangement to their uncomprehending parents, played by Ms. White, Mr. Friedman and Ms. Martin.
The story in large part echoes the experience of Mr. Wein, 26, and Ms. Lister-Jones, 27. A couple for six years, they “started having issues,” as they put it, about two years after they met and decided to try what their parents’ generation might term an open relationship but which they (and anthropologists) call polyamory.
“I remember that we were sitting in a coffee shop much like a scene in the film, writing on a paper tablecloth, both of us being so hyper-articulate about the goals and bounds of this experiment we were going to do,” Ms. Lister-Jones recalled. “It was definitely a sad moment, but we were also laughing at ourselves. I remember that at that moment Daryl said, ‘This would make a really funny movie.’ ”
While the couple was apart, Mr. Wein wrote a script with a friend, Peter Duchan. When he and Ms. Lister-Jones got back together, she was invited to add her perspective to a screenplay that, in her estimation, “needed the feminine touch” to tone down a tendency to “heroize the male protagonist and villainize the female.”
Many micro-budget films are made by young filmmakers, who often rely on friends and give short shrift to the older generation. But Ms. Lister-Jones has worked in New York theater, including in “The Little Dog Laughed” with Ms. White, which helped to recruit actors who have won or been nominated for Tony Awards to play the fleshed-out roles of the couple’s parents — paid at the Screen Actors Guild ultra-minimum of just over $100 a day.
“The money was never an issue,” Ms. Martin wrote in an e-mail message. “When you sign on to do indie films, minimal salary to no salary is a given. You say yes for many other reasons.” She added: “There was something very appealing about the collaboration that reminded me of my early days of Second City. Everyone on the same page, no hierarchy.”
Ms. Thirlby, who has been a friend of Mr. Wein’s since she was in high school and received critical praise for her performances in “Juno” and “The Wackness,” played his alternate romantic interest. She also remarked on “the very casual, very low-key” approach on the set.
“They called me up one day, a Sunday morning, and asked if I could come over because they needed to shoot an additional scene,” she recalled. “So I went over in my own clothes and brought a selection of my shirts and earrings for Daryl to pick from.” And of course, like mostly everybody else, she did her own makeup and hair.
But once the shoot was finished, in 2008, just as the economy was nosediving, Mr. Wein and Ms. Lister-Jones realized that they had, in their words, “an even bigger mountain to climb.” Not only were they first-time feature filmmakers, but they were working in a genre that is an especially hard sell to distributors.
“A romantic comedy that doesn’t have one of very few leading women or men is complicated,” said Mr. Abramowitz, who also teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “With a horror film the genre is its own star. But with a romantic comedy there are certain conventions that are expected and a level of anticipation in seeing a familiar actor or actress going through those paces. Daryl and Zoe are talented actors and filmmakers with a fine script, but they are starting off with a disadvantage because they are not recognizable.”
Hoping to overcome that handicap, the couple have been promoting “Breaking Upwards” over the last year with every tool available, from the latest in Internet social networking to the most basic: writing the title of their movie in chalk on sidewalks and walls around Manhattan. In advance of taking “Breaking Upwards” on the festival circuit — from South by Southwest, where it was seen by IFC, to places like Little Rock, Ark., and, this month, the Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival — they managed to generate buzz with a series of videos for funnyordie.com that included plot summaries sung as rap and reggae and a sketch in which Ms. Martin plays a vindictive Judge Judy type.
With a $40,000 advance from IFC in hand, Mr. Wein and Ms. Lister-Jones decided that having their movie shown in a theater was also a necessary part of establishing its identity. They plowed that money into promotion and marketing, and “Breaking Upwards” is scheduled to open in theaters in Los Angeles and San Francisco later next month, even though it will already be available through video on demand. But some colleagues in the micro-budget world disagree and no longer bother to seek a traditional theatrical release.
“My feeling is that every movie has a moment when awareness is at a peak, when it is new and exciting and people want to see it, and usually that moment is a festival premiere,” said the prolific director Joe Swanberg, whose films include “Alexander the Last” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” “If you have that and then a distributor buys your movie, it becomes all about trying to re-create that moment six or nine months later, spending money to get what you already got for free.
“To me, it’s better to capitalize on that attention and make it possible for you to watch it right away if it sounds interesting to you,” he continued. “There is a kind of national film community that lives outside major cities, is reading blogs and reviews and is part of the cinephile discussion, but doesn’t have access to a film until it’s on DVD. Video on demand opens up that discussion to everybody right away.”
But, perhaps spurred by the runaway success of “Paranormal Activity,” which was made for about the same cost as “Breaking Upwards” and has grossed more than $100 million, major studios seem interested in edging into the D.I.Y. game. Paramount, for example, has created a new micro-budget division to be called Insurge Pictures, though the studio would neither confirm nor deny reports that the new unit’s initial slate will consist of 10 films to be made for $100,000 each.
For their part Mr. Wein and Ms. Lister-Jones have three other scripts they’d like to film and, thinking big, suggested a $3 million budget to a studio executive interested in one of the screenplays. “Unfortunately we don’t know how to market a film that is made for just $3 million,” they recalled being told, which raises the odd prospect that their proven ability to work on a shoestring may keep them confined to the micro-budget niche.
“In this market I think the battle continues,” Ms. Lister-Jones said. “It feels like a huge success that we’ve made this movie and sold it and that it will have a theatrical release and will be on V.O.D. and all these things. But I think we’ve encountered how hard it is still, even with a calling card like this, to get any money, to see any money. We’re still a risk, sadly.”