Friday, September 4, 2015

Closing the Casket on Contracted: Phase II

If you know who I am, or anything about my films, I'm sure you're aware that I made a film called CONTRACTED that now has a sequel called CONTRACTED: PHASE II that I have nothing to do with. Upon the announcement and eventual release of this film, I've been flooded with notifications, e-mails, texts, etc about the film and/or my involvement. Up until now, I've kept it honest and real - mainly only in short form. But Twitter's 140 characters only allow for so much, so I've turned to my virtual diary to "spill my guts", so to speak, on the subject and answer any lingering questions there may be and to clear the air on some things I've said.

To start, I think it's important that everyone know I have no issue with the hard working individuals that made the film happen. The director, Josh Forbes, and I have shared a beer in person after bumping into each other. The writer, Craig Walendziak, and I have spoken on the phone after the completion of the film and I have numerous close friends who helped me make the first film that put their incredible stamp on this film. Making a film is hard... Even ones that people hate. I know because I've made movies that people don't love. But there are some extremely talented people involved with this film (Matt Mercer, Cinematographer Mike Testin, Make-Up/FX Artist Mayera Abeita, Anna Lore, Morgan Peter Brown, Peter Cilella, Laurel Vail and many more) and I have nothing but love for them. 

Also, I think it's noteworthy to mention that I, for the most part, like the producers Rafi and JD. I recently saw them in a meeting we had about their current film DISMISSED, which is a wonderful script they've developed. I've shared many great memories with them and consider them to be kind people outside the realm of filmmaking. I say that because... As we know, this is a BUSINESS. So rather than just discuss opinions or thoughts, I'd rather just lay down the facts so that everyone can understand where my head is at when I tweet, post or whatever if the subject of CONTRACTED 2 is brought up.

For CONTRACTED, Rafi/JD (BoulderLight Pictures) approached me and said "We'd like to make a movie for very little money, would you be willing?" and at the time -- I was. I needed the film. I was getting ready to put my career on hold due to some lackluster performances on my previous films, but I looked at CONTRACTED as a way to test the waters with my weirder, more original side of storytelling, as opposed to MADISON COUNTY and ROADSIDE which were me showing some influences and trying to recreate what worked for others. I told them about CONTRACTED and they loved the idea. The only thing that held us up was the nudity... So I removed the nudity from the script and away we went. I also told them I wanted Matt Mercer to come on board to play a role and be a co-producer on the film as he and I were chomping at the bit to work together again. They agreed. I wrote the script in roughly 3 weeks. We did 3 drafts, which JD and Matt Mercer (my co-producer/Riley) gave very good notes on how to make our characters more sympathetic/dynamic and we began shooting roughly 2-3 months after we agreed to make the film. Rafi helped supervise the budget and made sure we didn't overspend. I gave him estimates on how much we should spend in what areas and he took that and ran with it. The script wasn't even finished before the press release announcing the film went out. It was very much put together on the fly -- which at the time was exciting. We were reverse engineering our film to fit our budget. None of us were making much money and we were fine with it. We were all friends, kids really, and we just wanted to make a cool film. No egos necessary. No one was getting rich off this...

We shot the film in 15 days and off we went to post. The production was still to this day probably one of the best experiences I've had because there were very few things to take issue with. When you're as bare bones as we were -- you're kind of just making due with what you have. We couldn't bitch about not having a jib or a crane or a steadicam or something fancy like big lights or trailers because we knew we wouldn't have them from the beginning. I designed the aesthetic and the production of the film to fit the budget. The producers were hands on and supportive, but this was very much an educational experience for them. We all agreed that we wanted to make a film that was a beautiful decay... A horrific art film in the vein of DEADGIRL, MAY, GRACE, A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, BLACK SWAN, etc... Films with artsy aesthetics but gritty narratives. That was our goal and I think we succeeded. 

The very first teaser poster ever created for CONTRACTED
I made some lifelong friends on that film and still keep in touch with most everyone from the production. Some were friends from previous films and everyone knew we were in it together. I begged everyone to come on the journey with me. We were all underpaid and overworked, but I promised a film that would be worth it -- hoping I could deliver. Post production came and went and the film was finished. I had my management company, MOSAIC at the time, cut together a promo for future jobs. At this time in my life, I was penniless and couldn't get work for anything. I kid you not, I applied to direct porn and Asylum films (yes, the guys that make Sharknado) and was turned down without hesitation. I figured my future as a filmmaker was pretty bleak... I couldn't make a movie that people liked. Around the same time, Zachary Palmisano, an intern at MOSAIC at the time, delivered a cool promo trailer and a little teaser poster and the producer's eyes lit up. They knew this film could do something cool.

With the above mentioned films as inspiration, we hoped to premiere at a top tier festival (IE: SUNDANCE, SXSW, TRIBECA or TIFF)... They all passed. We came close on SXSW and TRIBECA, but ultimately we were left behind. The foreign sales company at the time (before BoulderLight Films decided to get into foreign sales as well) took the film to the Cannes Film Market and held a buyers screening. From there, we got domestic bids on the film and I got a frantic phone call after the offers came in... They were low. Unexpectedly low. I remember the words "We'll be lucky if we ever BREAK EVEN on this film!" being said to me.

I was a failure in both the creative and financial sense. I made a film that no festivals wanted and that wasn't going to make any money. Fuck. I started scrambling to find my next movie. I began writing any script I could cobble together a shitty idea for. I was willing to work for anyone doing anything at that moment. The film ultimately sold to IFC and the producers called me to say "We're having the World Premiere of CONTRACTED in Switzerland at the Neuch√Ętel International Fantastic Film Festival (otherwise known as NIFFF) because we were told it's the greatest and most beautiful film festival in the world by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (the directors of SPRING)". I thought, GREAT! A cool festival in Switzerland. I've never even left the country. I'm dying to go! Then came the next sentence... "Rafi and I will be accepting the plane ticket that the festival will provide on your behalf since we didn't pay ourselves to make CONTRACTED and we probably will never see any compensation from the film" <--- because at this point in the process, we had heard nothing but horror stories about distribution on how you would never see any money -- thankfully this was wrong and IFC has been nothing but the best! But the feeling was that BoulderLight was simply saying... "You tried your best, but we'll go ahead and take it from here..."
JD (left) and Raphael (right) at NIFFF in 2013 premiering CONTRACTED

My heart was broken. I was devastated. I said "Sure... I get it", but my stomach still felt sour. I wasn't going to attend the World Premiere of CONTRACTED... and I didn't. And I regret it to this day. 

But something strange happened after that summer and the film premiered at NIFFF... Reviews came out that were glowing. People started talking. Posters were being released. IFC's acquisition was announced... More festivals started inviting the film to screen... Suddenly, an avalanche of positive word of mouth started happening and life began to change. People were EXCITED about this film... Even though we didn't sell for much up front, the film seemed to be getting a great response! It was literally like an overnight change.

The film released to amazing success and money started coming in immediately after the release of the film in theaters/VOD. BoulderLight took over the foreign sales of the film and did an amazing job getting it out all over the world. It was an incredible epidemic. The film was a SUCCESS (a pretty sizable one at that) all across the boards... creative and financially. 

I signed with my agent at GERSH and began the dance of deciding what film to do next and meeting with companies that wanted to know what magic powder I had sprinkled on CONTRACTED. To be honest, I still wasn't sure at the time...

After I took time to asses projects (many of which I recount in my previous blog about GET THE GIRL), and after being passed or let go from other films, I decided to get proactive and work on my next film myself. I was asked to do a sequel by BoulderLight Pictures around the same time I was developing GET THE GIRL. I told them that I would if I could think of an idea that could spin the story in a unique way so that I wasn't doing a disservice to the audience. I came up with an idea, typed up a treatment and called it CONTRACTED: PHASE II. 

I won't go into specifics on what my story was about, but I can guarantee you, it was very different from the film that now exists. At some point in my life I would like to release it in some capacity. I feel it's a cool spin on the story.
This is the title page from my initial C:P2 script

BoulderLight sent it to IFC with a budget estimate and they loved it. They sent back their proposal and the budget estimate was a little lower than initially anticipated and that's when the executive decision was made... The budget would be lowered. That's when things get weird. My sequel was essentially ALIENS to ALIEN. I wanted to take what worked in the first film, spin the narrative in a different way and treat the zombie/infection in a way that we've never seen before. This was not a disease film or a body horror film like the first... It was a ticking clock movie. A race against time and body with elements of social commentary and very unique characters. But if I couldn't pull it off, I didn't want to attempt it.

Screenshot of my e-mails for my directing deal

So I bowed out as director. I told them that I couldn't do it the way I felt it needed to be done... BUT, I would continue to write the film and produce it if they allowed me to choose the director that replaced me. Happens all the time.  

They agreed and I continued writing while hiring none other than MATT MERCER to be the director of CONTRACTED: PHASE II. I did this because Mercer is not only an incredible actor, but he's an extremely talented filmmaker and he was right by my side through the process of making CONTRACTED... It felt "right" to keep it in the family.

Screenshot from e-mails of the negotiation of my co-writing deal
Before I would continue writing, I wanted my contract to be finished so I could feel comfortable handing over my ideas and materials... 

The negotiations went on, we passed about 3-4 drafts of the contracts back and forth between lawyers but eventually they came to a screeching halt. The producers didn't feel I was valuable as a writer and producer if I wasn't directing, so they didn't want to pay me the amount we were asking for... Which was a difference of $2,500 from what they were offering.

Disclaimer: I OWN PART OF CONTRACTED 2, EVEN THOUGH I DIDN'T MAKE THE FILM... So by not endorsing it, I'm theoretically taking money out of my own pocket.

I respect myself and my ideas way too much to just give them away for free, or nearly free, so I stood firm. They countered back with "we're passing on Eric's involvement"... which was odd because contractually I had to pass first before they could move on without me, which I'm sure I had at that point... So I decided to let it go. I later heard from several people and even from the producers themselves in person that they decided they wanted to go in a different direction anyway, so they felt it pointless to have me on board... Pointless to have the creator of your property on board... 

They began cobbling together ideas for CONTRACTED 2 and even asked what ideas I came up with versus what ideas Mercer came up with while we developed the sequel together... In blunt terms, which ideas can we try and use without paying for?

It was like being in a break up where your ex was constantly coming over to your house and asking if you still wanted the toaster after you're sitting in an empty apartment already. They owned the property CONTRACTED and now that I had passed on being involved, they were doing what they wanted with it... The company that "would be lucky to break even", that took the plane ticket to the World Premiere as payment for their work on the film... Those guys now freely owned that thing they thought wouldn't make them any money and make more of them without me because it did, in fact, make them money... SHOW BUSINESS.

Hollywood kids! Ain't it glamorous?

I was contacted by several friends and filmmakers that I greatly respect asking me why the guys from BoulderLight were asking them to pitch for CONTRACTED 2... I explained to them that I wasn't involved and they all agreed they wouldn't be either. Some of the initial crew members asked the same and pledged loyalty. Some took the job. I'd be lying if it didn't hurt at first, but ultimately I understood... People need to eat and pay bills... And a job is a job. 

On day 3 of production on GET THE GIRL, I got a phone call from one of the biggest agencies in town saying they just got the script to CONTRACTED 2 and they would be sending me materials to review for actors... Even one of my lead actors was asked to be in the film while they were on the set of GET THE GIRL... It was like I had my identity stolen. People internally were calling it "the sequel to Eric England's Contracted", thus muddying the waters to as if I was involved or not and leading people to believe that I was... It was awful.

I would see photo updates on Instagram and Facebook of people shooting the film, which was beyond weird. I saw things that made my skin crawl, that didn't match the tone/aesthetic... But that wasn't for me to decide... Not anymore.

After the dust settled, I was sent a private link to the film. Upon watching the film I was met with a mashup of conflicting emotions... Happiness to see my characters on the screen, confusion by the new characters, new choices that were being made, things that were being said, laughter at some of the effective gags and humor... But the one that hit home the worst was just knowing someone took what I created and changed it without me. It was like watching someone color over your childhood drawings or in more extreme terms... raise your child without you. 

I later saw Josh Forbes, the director at a bar and we had a beer and chatted. Super nice guy and he explained how he was brought on to the project very last minute (after a few other directors dropped out). Mercer had decided not to direct, so the seat became open. More than anything, I was upset to learn Forbes initially had a different idea for the film, as did the writer and essentially what made it to the screen was a mash-up of ideas the producers came up with (tip-toeing around ideas I gave them), mixed with parts of the script Craig wrote and ideas Josh had... Which is why in an interview I stated that the film felt disjointed and not cohesive. 

Forbes, from my understanding, didn't love the first film so he wanted to make something very different. Craig, the writer, actually did enjoy the film and wanted to stay a little more faithful to it while the producers wanted to "make a midnight movie".

I wish at least they would have been able to make the ideas they initially had. As a filmmaker that strives to have an original voice in my films, I wish my property was being used as a spring board for emerging talent to use to their advantage, rather than become a money-driven sequel machine. Even Darren Bousman was given the opportunity to make SAW II his own, with the blessing of James Wan and CONTRACTED is nothing near the success the SAW franchise is.

At the end of the day, the sequel is what it is... They made their film and I made mine. But it would be easier to digest if I was a director for hire and not the originator of the idea.

As a young filmmaker back in Arkansas with dreams of making a movie that would be in theaters or creating a "franchise", I would have loved to know that there was a sequel in theaters to a film I created... But now that there actually is, it's not the feeling, or the scenario surrounding it that I hoped it would be. In fact, the premiere of the film happened last night and I didn't even get an invite, not that I even wanted one... But how unceremoniously CONTRACTED was taken from me and how swiftly I was excluded from its continuation is enough to knock some of the sparkle off the idea of being a "working filmmaker". 

So let this be a lesson to you filmmakers out there that are excited to make your films and work with your friends... Always protect your integrity and stand up for what you believe is fair. At the end of the day it may be all you have.

Best Wishes To You All,
-Eric England


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