What exactly is Stephen King’s “Dollar Deal”? Let's allow the author to explain it himself:
“Around 1977 or so, when I started having some popular success, I saw a way to give back a little of the joy the movies had given me. 1977 was the year young film makers - college students, for the most part - started writing me about the stories I'd published (first in Night Shift, later in Skeleton Crew), wanting to make short films out of them. Over the objections of my accountant, who saw all sorts of possible legal problems, I established a policy which still holds today. I will grant any student filmmaker the right to make a movie out of any short story I have written, so long as the film rights are still mine to assign. I ask them to sign a paper promising that no resulting film will be exhibited commercially without approval, and that they send me a videotape of the finished work. For this one-time right I ask a dollar. I have made the dollar-deal, as I call it, over my accountant's moans and head-clutching protests sixteen or seventeen times as of this writing (1996).”
Well that number has grown substantially since 1996 and the Reel East Film Festival has screened a selection of “Dollar Babies”, as they are called, every year since its inception. The films vary wildly in budget and skill but all of them are unique works rarely seen because of the understandable restrictions King places on them. They can only be screened in film festivals or in some other non commercial venue.
This year, Reel East is screening three “Dollar Babies”. Dave Brock’s The Road Virus Heads North, Dean Werner’s The Reaper’s Image and Pablo Macho Maysonet IV’s adaptation of The Things They Left Behind.
The Things They Left Behind is a particularly tricky story to adapt. Its subject is the tragedy of 9/11 and although it contains suspense and the supernatural it is not a traditional horror story, focusing much more intensely on human drama and emotional catharsis.
I wanted to speak to Maysonet about the challenges of making a film out of the King story and about indie filmmaking in general.
When did you start making films and what are your influences and inspirations?
I started producing my own films back in 2003 which lead to my first feature going into 2004. My influences vary for very different reasons depending on what I am trying to accomplish at that moment in time. I try to keep the inspiration at a distance and never try to emulate. There's a thin line there that's easy to cross, which I believe is the mistake most filmmakers make early in their careers. Hitchcock and Kubrick are by far my most inspirational filmmakers because they redefined filmmaking in their own ways. They were truly masters of storytelling. However, Clive Barker, Guillermo del Toro, and of course, Stephen King are some of the most vivid storytellers out there. Cronenberg is in my top 5 because that's a man that truly has no filter in what he wants to produce. Dario Argento can be seen as the most influential in what I would assume is my visual style of filmmaking.
Why did you choose THE THINGS THEY LEFT BEHIND to develop into a movie?
The challenge. Out of all the properties available at the time, this was the one I felt many filmmakers would be intimidated to touch. The story was close to me considering I had a personal connection to the tragedy on 9/11. I felt that this can be told in a way that can connect with an audience, but didn't believe another filmmaker would approach it the way I would. I feared others may go too dramatic or too horrific. It needed a balance that I knew I could deliver.
Did the sensitivity of the subject matter make you at all uncomfortable? Was the use of 9/11 imagery in the movie a controversial choice?
At first it was uncomfortable, but only because I saw how uncomfortable it made my team once I presented it to them. I had faith in my vision, I had an intense respect for Stephen's vision, now it was just my job to allow my team to see that vision. Once they did, there was no going back. We felt a duty to follow through with it.
Using the actual footage was a decision I made from day one. Before I even began adapting the story into a screenplay, I knew I was going to use the footage. Film is about making your audience have a reaction to what you create. To have a connection to what they see and hear. Adding in that footage helped cement that connection and also reminded them there was a real stake in what was being presented. There was a realism that shouldn't be ignored.
What are the benefits and drawbacks involved with the “Dollar Deal”?
The obvious benefit is that you're making something approved by the master himself. There's instant recognition there that gives a filmmaker a level of credibility they may not have had before then. A person is more likely to spend their time watching your film when they know King is behind it. However, a major drawback is that you have to deliver. King's work isn't easy, no matter how simple the story is. He writes deep stories and if you are not a knowledgeable filmmaker, you run the risk of screwing up a masterpiece. Having a camera and knowing how to edit doesn't mean you know how to tell a compelling story.
Do you think that adapting a King story has helped call attention to your other work ? Did it help move your filmmaking career forward?
Yes it did, in a positive and negative way. Moving forward, it has given my current work attention but people also look up my past work. Although I don't regret my work, I am realistic enough to know a lot of it was sh*t lol. However, I grow and my work grows with me. As my films evolve, this film does give them additional attention.
Would you recommend making a Dollar baby to other filmmakers ?
I think if you're serious about your craft and you have a general knowledge of the trade, yes. I guarantee, regardless of the name above the title, it won't make your film better if it's made terribly. A hard part is done, the story exists, but you still have to make it translate to film. It's a great challenge for anyone who needs to push themselves to the next level. But it can be a humbling experience if you're not mentally where you need to be.
Do you believe that it’s more advantageous to make a short film these days over an indie feature?
That's a loaded question lol. It's something that's still in debate and before I moved to LA I'd say it's a waste of time. However, working with digital companies like Crypt TV, I’ve seen that there is a market there. It's just not the one most filmmakers think it is. I can get into a really deep analysis on what works but that'll be a bit too long lol. I can say that the 3-10 min short is pretty much dead, but only when you intend on getting a big studio deal out of it. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. But if you look at David Sandberg's short "Light's Out" (who went on to make a feature of his short and Annabelle: Creation) or Fede Alvarez's "Panic Attack" (Evil Dead remake, Don't Breathe) these guys were already well on their way. Those shorts were polished and well made. The stories were attention grabbing. They put in their time and had fine tuned their craft. If you believe you're there, then go for it. But I'd aim at a really short film. People don't have the attention span these days thanks to social media. Just know if it's long, it truly is about timing and getting it seen by the right people. Personally, I'd say cut your teeth on a feature. Sure, it may go no where, but you have something over everyone that's making shorts...you've made a feature. You've captained a long journey and have an experience that will translate quickly to your goal. Remember, the goal is always a professional feature, not a professional short. My first film was sh*t (lol) but it got picked up for worldwide distribution and was in stores everywhere. Regardless how bad it was, there was still a market for it. Do you think a sh*tty short would do the same?
What projects are you working on? Are you still working with Eli Roth’s Crypt TV?
I have several features in active development. That's what all filmmakers are supposed to say lol. However, in my case, it is true. I've been lucky enough to make some really good relationships in the past 2 years that are opening the doors for promising features and 2 TV series for two major studios. Can't go into details because the obvious lol but there's opportunities to have something coming soon.
I understand you are now living and working in LA-do you think that filmmakers working in places like NJ as you once did would benefit from moving closer to the film industry?
Absolutely...IF...they come prepared. I had a lot of things already in place when I made my move. I came prepared and had a game plan so by my 1st month in LA in was already working on major projects. Within 4 months I'd worked on studio films by Universal, Paramount, CBS, A24 and FOX. And consider, I came to LA with one phone number and no formal education in the industry. The opportunities are here if you have the passion, the drive and the talent. I would have NEVER been able to do the things I've done, and make the relationships I've made, if I weren't in LA. This doesn't mean you can't make awesome movies anywhere, because by all means you can. But there's nothing like working in the center of the industry. The experiences alone are worth the trip. You just have to have a clear path and stay focused regardless of the lumps you'll take. If a studio like Netflix calls today asking for you to come in and pitch this afternoon (which happens with A LOT of studios), you can't make that meeting from Jersey lol. Right place, right time!
The Things They Left Behind screens on Saturday June 17th at the Third Annual Reel East Film Festival.