In It for Love
Daniel Warth, director of the Slamdance Jury Prize–winner Dim the Fluorescents, explains how making his first independent film put him at risk of financial ruin
One of the most ambitious and exciting debuts of 2017 was Toronto filmmaker Daniel Warth’s Dim the Fluorescents, a deliriously stylized mashup of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night with the dry wit (and obsessive production design) of Wes Anderson. After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival last January, the micro-budget film has gone on to screen at festivals worldwide and is currently playing at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema until December 21. It’s a captivatingly sweet but sad portrait of two aspiring thespians (played brilliantly by the local actors Claire Armstrong and Naomi Skwarna) who channel all their creative energies into a series of absurd and highly theatrical performances at corporate role-playing demonstrations. When they’re given opportunity to stage the biggest performance of their careers, both women go off the deep end with a cathartic eight-minute closing scene that outshines anything in mother!.
Made outside the system (not that the filmmakers didn’t try), Dim the Fluorescents is a truly independent film that’s become one of the year’s greatest Canadian success stories. But it also came at an extremely high price as the film was financed largely through numerous loans and several lines of credit. While the “credit card feature” is the stuff of indie-film lore (Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, and The Blair Witch Project were all financed on maxed-out plastic), it also illustrates the flaw in a system that privileges only the first-time filmmakers who are able to afford to put themselves in such a dangerous position. We asked Warth, who in addition to directing was also a co-writer and producer on the film, to take us through the saga of the making of his breakthrough film, so we can all learn from his mistakes and triumphs. (Full disclosure: I received a “Set Decorator” credit on Dim the Fluorescents for holding a digital projector on top of a ladder during the film’s party scene.)
Let’s start at the beginning. You studied film at Sheridan College and made a bunch of DIY comedy shorts. At what point did you decide: “I need to make a feature?”
I graduated in 2007 and started making weekly comedy shorts on a sketch-comedy website called The Wrong Box until 2009. Amongst making shorts, I had to take jobs shooting corporate seminars. There was one in particular on mediation. In the middle of the workshop, the woman leading the seminar brought out two actors — they were two guys, both aged 28 — and one played the other guy’s father with Alzheimer's. It was a really heavy scenario; one actor cried as the other screamed, “Dad! You have to go into a home!” It was all done at the foot of a boardroom table for six people taking notes. I was blown away; something about that performance really resonated with me.
We later shot another corporate demonstration in a big hotel and I remember thinking it would be really funny, but sad, but interesting, but maybe also hopeful, to do a story where someone who does corporate-training seminars gets the chance to perform in a big hotel. I loved John Cassavetes' Opening Night and Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, so I thought: "I wonder if I could do that but about corporate role-playing demonstrations?"
I had worked with with [Dim the Fluorescents star] Claire Armstrong on a short film [Petty Thieves], and Claire was the only actor I knew who I thought could do a Gena Rowlands–level performance with that same kind of intensity and vulnerability. When [Dim the Fluorescents co-writer] Miles Barstead and I originally started writing what was initially a short in 2012, we thought of it as a Opening Night–style character study about one actor. Miles thought of adding in another character who was the playwright [played by Naomi Skwarna], so they could have a complex, shared personal history that comes out in the biggest performance of their lives. It eventually became clear that we couldn’t achieve this in a short.
So you had a script. What came next?
We were happy with the script but needed a strong producer to come on board. Early on, we had trouble getting a producer attached and, like with most first features, we hadn’t established a “name” for ourselves, so it was difficult to get funding. My shorts [It Won’t Be Long, Petty Thieves] had played at some festivals, but not ones that would fast-track me to the head of the line. But I thought the movie was good and that I could make it well, and I assumed that would be enough to get it made.
In meetings with prospective producers we had approached, they would come in and say, "Okay, so we’ve got to get money." We’d go, “Totally!” Then, we'd have another meeting and they'd say, "We really need money for this." And we'd say, "We agree!" There was one producer who read the script and said, "We have to make this, but you can't do it for less than $800,000." Then I saw on Facebook that they were going to Sweden for a long time. Things like that happened for a while.
When we spoke to potential investors, we were given feedback that didn’t feel right to us. A common one was, "change the title — nobody can spell fluorescents.” We had people say we should get a star in one of the lead roles, but not in any way where they were like, "Here's a star." They'd just say, "I think it would be great if Lillian could be played by Jennifer Lawrence." But honestly, at any budget level, Claire and Naomi are the right people to play our leads.
So then what happened next?
I presented the script to Josh Clavir, who had produced my shorts It Won’t Be Long and Petty Thieves. Although I didn't have money for him or any guarantee it would get made, he agreed to produce it. That's really when the movie started to seem possible. He brought the whole thing together. We filmed a stupidly expensive proof-of-concept video that cost $12,000, hoping that would generate interest. Eventually, we realized we would have to make the movie on our own. Josh quit his full-time job and worked for free for years to help get it made. We got an Ontario Arts Council grant for $10,000, and we raised $15,000 through an Indiegogo campaign. So, all in all, we raised about $25,000 and the rest was money that Miles, Josh, and I — or our family members — invested in the film.
How much of your own money did you spend on the movie?
I’ve put in a lot of my own money over the years, but we also had a ton of support from my family and friends — people who had better credit than me — and we were able to get multiple loans and lines of credit. I went to TD, who I bank with, and asked: "What do I qualify for as a loan? Do I qualify for any higher credit card maximums? Whatever it is, I'll take it."
Did your producer say: "We need to get distribution before we go to camera?"
We did try to do all the things that we heard bigger Canadian movies do, like getting pre-licensing from broadcasters or distributors, but we learned that it doesn’t really work that way for first-time features. We went to several Canadian distributors with the script and said, "Do you want to pre-license in this?" We thought, “First, we'll get a broadcaster or a distributor on board to give us $60,000, then we’ll go to Telefilm. If we can raise a million dollars, we can access the OMDC.” Josh and I plotted it out, only to realize: "Oh, this isn't how it works for a smaller film with no celebrities."
Why doesn't it work like that?
According to the funders we spoke to, we hadn’t “proven” ourselves. While we didn't formally apply to Telefilm, we were told we shouldn't. It’s weird, because our film industry doesn't seem to be purely motivated by money. A lot of Canadian films lose money and that seems to be okay, so why aren't the funding bodies taking more risks? I’m very lucky because I eventually got to make my movie, but the way we were able to do it was horrible. (Laughter) The film was made over five years. After the shoot, Josh and I were simultaneously working full-time jobs, and it still wracked up a lot of debt for us. Our film industry depends on new filmmakers. You should not max out your credit at every available opportunity and hope that you can make your money back someday. It's a scary thing to do but, even worse, it's a thing that most people can't do.
Yeah, only people in privileged positions have even the option of maxing out a credit card to make a film.
The idea of a “credit card movie” is only for people of certain socioeconomic backgrounds and up. This idea that you should finance your first feature yourself says that the only people who should be allowed to make movies are people with access to lines of credit. That way of thinking has tremendous ramifications on the diversity and quality of our cinema.
And this movie took a few years and a lot of debt to get right. It was a stupidly ambitious script with a lot of locations, a lot of speaking parts, a lot of extras, but we were very confident we would find a way to do it. I was lucky to have incredible people on my team, that remained committed to the project over the years that it took to get made. We also got incredible deals from equipment houses and locations that allowed us to make our small budget go that much further. And I think the ambition of the project was infectious — people who hadn’t made a feature before were excited to prove what they could do.
The shoot was definitely hard, predominantly because we were trying to do so much in so little time for so little money and a lot of us hadn't made a feature before. It was just the most exhausting thing any of us had ever done. If any unexpected cost came up, it was very hard to accommodate it because we had basically maxed out all the available money to be able to even go to camera. We had a bit of a contingency in the budget, but because it's all debt, it's all contingency. If I could go back in time and tell myself, "In the end, you get all the footage, and the film works,” I’m sure I would’ve been a lot less stressed out during the shoot. But there were so many points throughout the three-year, on-and-off shoot where we kept thinking: "Are we even going to finish this movie?"
Filmmaking is terrifying.
As soon as we watched the assembly, we knew we had something we were proud of. Everyone was so excited that the movie really worked. So, I thought that we could get “finishing funds" — the holy grail for a first-time feature but that didn’t happen. Luckily, we got really generous deals from [the post-production companies] Alter Ego and Tattersall, but post was still quite expensive with ADR, visual effects, and everything. We had to take more jobs so we could save up money to put it into finishing post-production. We needed it to be the best film it could possibly be.
Hopefully another film of mine won't take this long and be this much of a personal investment. But it really has taken over my life, and I wasn’t willing to put it out into the world until I was totally satisfied with every aspect of it.
What were your expectations going into Slamdance?
We finally finished the film in November and delivered it to Slamdance. The day we found out we were accepted happened to be the one-year anniversary of our first day of production. My mind was blown when we got in; I was so happy. To get into a festival that makes a difference to people is a big deal. You can make something good and be happy with it, but if it doesn't play a big festival, it's still really hard to get people in our industry to care. So many incredible directors first features have screened at Slamdance. Being selected changed everything for us, but we couldn’t actually afford to go there.
We talked to Matt Miller (producer of The Dirties, Operation Avalanche, and Nirvanna the Band the Show) who told us, "You've got to hire a publicist, you've got to print posters." But all the costs of applying to festivals and travelling are all out-of-pocket. Fortunately, we were able to get Telefilm marketing money to go, which helped a lot because Park City is so expensive.
All of a sudden, we started hearing from companies we would’ve tripped over ourselves to get into contact with: big indie distributors in the States, sales agents. That was very exciting. Slamdance is great because it has that feeling of a smaller festival that’s very warm, inclusive, and community-orientated, but it’s in Sundance’s backyard, so there’s also an enormous industry presence that you can hijack. They’re reading about your film in Variety, trying to scope out exciting, new filmmakers. Slamdance is also known for programming more adventurous and subversive work than Sundance, so it can be a breath of fresh air.
So how did it feel when you won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance?
When we first learned we got in, I remember asking Brian Robertson for advice, because he’d been to Slamdance [in 2015] with Diamond Tongues. He said: "Yeah. Win."
Our first screening was the first Saturday night of the festival, and it happened to be the day of the Women's March and the day after Trump’s inauguration. There was quiet pall over the crowd. People were mourning America and I don’t think our movie could help them. People liked the film, but they were obviously preoccupied by what was happening in that country, and, to be honest, so were we.
But people were really engaged during the second screening, and it was perfect. All the laughs were where I wanted them, and people seemed really moved and excited by the film. But I really didn't expect that the film I directed would win the grand jury prize of the festival!
Has winning the Grand Jury Prize put you on a path towards actually seeing a profit?
It’s too soon to tell. When you finish your movie, you have to get E&O insurance and hire a lawyer to look over your contracts. We're also doing tax credits, which requires a huge amount of accounting. I kept thinking, "This is the point where it stops costing money!" But the film hadn't stopped costing money until very recently.
Luckily, we got distribution, so levelFILM agreed to put it into theatres and advance us money. The film was only just released at the Carlton Cinema on December 8th, but it’s been extended and the reviews and press have been really positive so far, which bodes well for expanding into more and more theatres and onto digital platforms. All of this will help chip away at the debt, but our goal was always to make the best film possible and then to give it the best life it could have, which means having it be as widely seen as possible. A theatrical release is not the cheapest way, but I want it to be eligible for things like the Canadian Screen Awards and to be able to get press. This is my baby. I just can't let it go yet.
What financial advice would you give to first-time filmmakers?
Absolutely do not do ACTRA. It's just so much more expensive and it doesn't make any sense. The only exception is if you're getting a star, but you're probably better off getting someone who’s a famous musician, or a comedian. ACTRA is exorbitantly expensive. I had all these comedian and actor friends who were willing to come out for a day of shooting, just to say one thing. It might work really well for the scene, but on an ACTRA shoot, you’d have to keep asking yourself: “How much does that line cost?”
What’s the most important thing you could tell a filmmaker?
Just make the movie that you want to make. That sounds basic, but I think a lot of people lose their way trying to get their movie made. If you're trying to make a movie to make money, or to ingratiate yourself with people, maybe it’s easier to know that going in and follow through on that every step of the way. But if you're really trying to make a movie because you love it, I think you have to protect it at all costs. Even when there's no money, people will try to interfere with your vision. You need to have the tenacity to fight for it everyday.
A film is one of those things that doesn't occur in nature; it's not organic. Every day, your film doesn't want to be made and the cast and crew has to force it to exist. But if you're in it for love… well, it doesn’t stop it from being hard, but it does make it easier.