There's no milestone in Claustrophobia's history being celebrated today, no anniversary. But I'd been meaning to write a more personal List of 9 for some time, and also wanted to share my regrets with other independent filmmakers who might learn from my mistakes. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and some things were beyond my control (such as my distributors changing the title to Serial Slayer), but if I could go back to May 2002 and make some different decisions, this is what I'd do:
- Sign a different agreement with SAG. The Screen Actors Guild keeps altering their filmmaker agreements, but the one I signed – the "Limited Exhibition" agreement – wound up biting me on the ass. Under this agreement, I paid my cast a small amount of money up front, understanding that if I sold the film, I'd have to pay them more. Of course I was hoping to sell the film, and I did sell the film, but if I signed the "Modified Low Budget" agreement instead, I would have paid a little more up front, but would not have had to worry about deferred salaries. In the end, I would have saved a few thousand bucks.
- Nix official rehearsal time. Some actors love rehearsals. Others don't. You never can tell how your cast will feel about it. Although rehearsal time did help me realize that I had cast Melanie Lynskey and Sheeri Rappaport in the wrong roles and thus I switched their parts, it was overall a waste of money. (SAG considers rehearsal days to be work days, so even if you rehearse for just a couple of hours, you have to pay your cast the same as if you had been filming them all day!) Next time, if I have actors who want to rehearse, we'll do it unofficially, voluntarily, off the clock.
- Cast somebody else in Melanie Lynskey's role. Without going into great detail, Mel had some issues that she had to deal with back home in New Zealand, but because I was freaking out about my leading lady vanishing just days before shooting my film, I talked her into staying. She did, and was most unhappy about it. (My switching her part with Sheeri's didn't help.) If I'd let her go and cast another actress in her place, we might still be friends today, and I would have had an actress who felt better about working on the picture. I will always regret not doing this.
- Hire a different stills photographer. The guy I used was very nice, but he showed up on the wrong days, didn't know how to work his digital camera (almost all of his interior shots were too blurry to use), and wasted several rolls of film taking useless portraits of my cast and behind-the-scenes shots of me and my crew. I wound up with an embarrassingly small amount of usable stills for the picture's publicity. If I could go back in time, I would have scheduled the stills shoot for the right days, explained to the photographer exactly what I wanted documented, and hired someone who understood interior digital photography.
- Get a haircut! Allow me to be vain for a second. My hairstyle in May 2002 was unflattering. (Think Andy Warhol meets Adolf Hitler.) A month later, a friend of mine gave me my current nice 'do. I wish I'd had it while we were filming, and while my stills guy was photographing me.
- Be more diligent about the insurance. I won't mince words: I believe the couple at whose house we shot the film were fleecing me and my production insurance company for as much money as possible. I was trying to be nice, so I backed off from being present when the claims adjuster came to the house to check out the veracity of their claims. Big mistake! If I'd been there, I would have been able to point out that most of their "damages" were questionable at best. I might still have had to pay my $1,500 deductible (or at least some of it), but I could have prevented them from scamming several thousand more from the insurance company.
- Insist upon a "film look" for the video master. We shot the film on PAL DV. My editor and I used some NTSC conversion software that gave it a nice film look. My domestic sales representatives felt that would not pass my stateside distributor's quality assurance standards. So I took the PAL master to an expensive lab to convert it to NTSC "correctly." The results: It looks like home video! I was just about to leave town for two months at the time, so I did nothing about this. Major error on my part. I should have insisted that the picture look the way I wanted it to look before it was mass-marketed to all of North America. Consumer response to its shot-on-video rawness has been violently negative.
- Hire different sales agents. I'm referring not to Integration Entertainment, who are good people, but to MonteCristo Entertainment (aka MonteCristo International). They made some sales that some other reps would have been unable to do, but getting the money they owe me – a five-figure amount – has been like pulling teeth. Litigation is forthcoming.
- Avoid producing! I honestly did look for a "real" producer, somebody who could own and nurture my film, but got no bites. So I produced it myself, only to discover that in the film world, most of the cast and crew consider the producer to be the bad guy and the director the good guy. Wearing both hats made me unpopular at times. I might not have ever made this film if I kept waiting for a producer, but forging ahead on my own wasn't so swell either.