How I Made My First Feature Film
CHAPTER TEN - The Truth about SAG
As I mentioned in the very beginning, my previous success in documentary films gave me the counterfeit sense of confidence I needed to attempt making a feature film. A big difference between the formats is the prerequisite to do business with labor unions. In the U.S., the Screen Actors Guild is the most notorious of all.
With less than a week before filming started, I was summoned to Los Angeles by the union. While I had already signed their numerous agreements and they had given me their consent to audition actors, I had not been given permission to actually employ the actors. My miniscule budget had qualified me to operate under a special contract called the "Low Budget Agreement". In addition to slightly lower salary levels, the agreement granted exceptions to several exasperating work rules.
Although their basic agreement mentioned that the union administrators might request a cash bond, I incorrectly assumed this only applied to the “big guys” with a big budget to match. I wasn’t prepared to provide a $20,000.00 cash bond, payable in advance. The 20K actually exceeded my total actor’s payroll! Since I wouldn’t get the money back until well after filming was finished, I would run out of money before the film was completed. I wouldn’t even have the money to buy all the raw stock I needed. I begged and pleaded with the union without success. Although SAG is supposed to get work for their members, the union did everything within it’s power (legal and illegal), to make sure I didn’t make MY film. Instead of supporting a budding filmmaker, they guaranteed disaster. At this point I should have stopped everything and cancelled the next weeks start date.
Big and small, SAG assigns a Contract Administrator to every production. Mainly frustrated, jealous, ultra-liberal middle-aged women, they have the power to make things easy or terrible. My rep told me something I’ll never forget: “I don’t care about your problems, Mr. Thomas. I’d be happy if you never made your movie.” Over the years I discovered that SAG only exists for the benefit of itself, the major studios and name stars. If you’re a little guy they’ll try everything to stop you. For them - you’re unwelcome competition.
I gave them a check with the absolute certainty that my film would go belly-up a week or two later. Reluctantly, SAG notified my actors that it was okay to work on Tin Man. The passion to make my film overwhelmed my lack of common sense, but the last roadblock was removed and I was ready to start.
Only a few persons had intimate knowledge of the unpleasant financial truth we were facing. If the word got out, everyone in the cast and crew would be disillusioned. No matter how I felt, I had to keep acting confident and positive. Depending on your point-of-view, I was either foolish, courageous or untruthful. Most probably a combination of all three.
During the last days before shooting, actors, crew and equipment began to show up - moving into motel rooms and parking places around town. It was all coming together piece-by-piece. While monitoring this I experienced an unnerving combination of the thrill that I was going to make a feature film, and fear of the unknown. Despite my good intentions to storyboard every scene in the film, I had been totally consumed by the details of preparation. In fact, the only scene which was storyboarded is the opening title sequence. Don’t let this happen to you!
Three days before we started shooting I came down with the flu and a 103 temperature - what else would go wrong?
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