Independent Filmmaker's Guide
November 10, 2020
Costs That Will Kill Your Film: The Importance of the Line Producer
The most important answers to questions no filmmaker knows to even ask.
Many filmmakers have spent countless time studying camera, lighting, and story. But when it comes to actually making the project, many artists are completely lost. Estimating a budget, raising and allocating funds, and all the nitty gritty details surrounding business of filmmaking are often mysterious and hard to decipher. Today we’re joined by Ellyn Vander Wyden to discuss the extremely important but rarely talked about position on a film. The Line Producer.
Ellyn Vander Wyden has been working for the past 15 years overseeing the production of independent feature films, documentaries, music videos and commercials.
Steven Pierce: Ellyn, for people who may not know, what does a line producer actually do?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: You said it pretty well in I think your second or third or fourth sentence of the description there, the nitty gritty of all those small pictures to put together the big picture that nobody thinks of. On an independent film, which is pretty much what we’re speaking about here, right? Going independent.
Steven Pierce: That’s mostly independent.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Okay. The line producer wears even more hats than they would on a bigger film. And a line producer, I would say the first and foremost thing that they do is put together your budget. And that’s probably one of the script, I would say, script budget right after that. But along with the budget, they will help put together a schedule with the first assistant director and do a breakdown of a film, casting, hiring your crew, dealing with every single department head sort of in and out. Putting the whole picture together to make the picture. So give me a script and I’ll start carving out everything and putting the puzzle together to broaden and get your finished product.
Steven Pierce: So you’ve already answered one of my followup questions – when do you think you should enlist a line producer, if you’re going to be making a film?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I think a lot of people wait too long to get a line producer on board. And I think as soon as that script is ready to go, that’s the time to have the conversation. And even before a script is locked, if possible, because a line producer could bring a lot of important information, answers and questions to a script before it’s locked, to move on for budgetary location, casting, all of those things. The sooner the better.
Steven Pierce: I assume a lot of that conversation is the scale of what’s been written.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly.
Steven Pierce: And saying what’s feasible. How do you approach that? Because I’m sure that many times when you’re brought onto a film, there’s a budget already locked in.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Sometimes there is, and sometimes there is not. And I actually get that sort of two camps. Someone will come to me and ask for a budget and I’ll say, A, do you have financing already? And if so, how much? And then we back into a budget or some people will come to me and say, I have no idea, I want to end up somewhere between two and 3 million. Just do a budget, a realistic budget based with those parameters and see where we land. So I do it that way and then go up or down, but often on smaller independents, we’re going to try to do it for X amount of dollars and I will back into that number if reasonable.
Steven Pierce: How do you analyze a script for budgeting?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I will usually start with the length of the script and figure out first and foremost on the budget that we’re speaking of, how many days we can allot realistically to shoot it. So that’s usually one of the first things I’ll do. And then genre, stunts, day versus night, locations, the size of the cast, how many locations, the scope of the script and how big every department needs to be.
Steven Pierce: So really just every single element.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Every single element.
Steven Pierce: You’re lining the script for every department and every element.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly. Including, like I said, genre can play a huge part of it as long as period, present day versus historical and the cost of the wardrobe department.
Steven Pierce: Right. That’s something that I don’t think people really take into account, most times whenever they’re writing a script or starting to work on a script, the cost of production design overall. Because there’s a lot of things you need, if you’re setting out, if it’s set in, on the streets of New York in 2020, your wardrobe budget is significantly less than if it’s 1986.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Or Western. Are we going to have horses and covered wagons and yes. So all of those things, so usually I’ll read a script once through, or I try to, just to read it through, to get abroad, and then I go in with my highlighter and start marketing it up.
Steven Pierce: Have you ever encountered a script that had too much in it and you have to go say, hey, this is what you can?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Often. Yes.
Steven Pierce: How do you approach that? Because I’m sure you’re talking to people that are very passionate about their idea, that don’t want to kill your darlings.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: It’s sometimes just as black and white as if you want to get this made, this is what you’re going to have to do to get it made. And then it’s that conversation with a director, mostly a director, sometimes producers as well. What’s the most important? What drives the story and what’s the most important part of this that we need to keep and what can we let go? And I have to say, usually people are pretty good at being adaptable once you have the hard conversation.
Steven Pierce: If you had boiled it down to things that end up costing the most money? Whenever you see this, you’re like, okay, have you thought about this?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Well, if we take out just the number of days and the size of your crew, because those are your payroll-
Steven Pierce: Key exponential factors.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Right, exactly. Your payroll and the size of your cast. Art and locations probably, could be too big budget eaters.
Steven Pierce: For sure. I mean, we talk a lot about location being so key in independent filmmaking and as it is in most independent projects too, commercials as well. You get the right location, you just saved lighting art, and that’s really, really key. Are there ways to attack that whenever you’re analyzing the script that you help advise people on?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes, but right now I am prepping for a very small, independent, very small, sort of dipping our feet into this whole post, not even post, but during this pandemic. Right? And trying to find practical locations is somewhat a must, because of lots of reasons, not only budget but the size, we’re trying to keep our crew small. If I go back to just locations, trying to find practical locations. Now, if you’re going to create a world, if you’re doing sci-fi, you have to create that world anyways. Right. So, you need to know you’re going to have a budget for that
Steven Pierce: Right. And time and the crew to be able to do it.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Support it. Correct.
Steven Pierce: So how did you get into this? How did you get into the film industry in general and specifically becoming basically the parent on set?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I started in photography. I went to school to be a photographer. And so I started producing, I was in a dark room and worked as a photo assistant, worked as a photographer somewhat, and ended up more on the producing end of it. Worked for many years in fashion and editorial and advertising and stepped away for quite a few years and raised a family. And when I came back, I ended up in film. It’s not so different from still photography. Right. Your tool kit is a little bit different, but not much.
Steven Pierce: I would say probably the coordination is probably very similar, dealing with people and logistics of getting things in and out.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly. I think that I do have a little bit of a different approach, because a lot of line producers are very analytical, but I am also very creative and I try not to lose that in line producing, but I think if you can look at line producing creatively opposed to just spreadsheets and black and white and checking, crossing T’s and dotting I’s, I sometimes have a creative way out of things a little bit more so than I think some other people would.
Steven Pierce: You mentioned stunts a minute ago, too. Do you have a way of analyzing scenes involving stunts and action and how to break that down from a budgetary perspective and execution perspective?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: For sure. If it’s a car scene, breaking it down as to how many cars you’re going to need, including the hero car, the follow-car. If you need another car just to support pieces of that car and then of course the whatever equipment that you need to support that as well and personnel. If you’re going to have a car chase and at the end of the car chase, the car blows up, you’re almost including every single department into that, right? So you have arts, stunts, sound, then you have to bring on a pyro department as well. Grip, electric, everything gets brought into that. Really, nobody gets to sit out of that. So it just adds on to every single department.
Steven Pierce: So it just grows and grows and grows from one decision there.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly. And Time.
Steven Pierce: Of course. Have you ever ended up having something that whenever you read it in the first script, you’re like, there’s no way we’re going to be able to do it and they found a really creative way to be able to do it?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes. Yes, it’s often we can’t do it this way, but maybe we can do it this way. And sometimes there are those bittersweet things where it actually turns out better this way and you didn’t even know it was going to be.
Steven Pierce: Artists like rules, right?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly.
Steven Pierce: How involved or is a line producer in the funding of a project in the beginning?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: As strictly only the line producer, you’re really only involved once the money is there, and once the money’s in the bank or going into the bank, that’s when you would get involved. As a producer, that’s when you are more involved in the actual funding of the movie and getting the money into the bank. But as a line producer, once the money’s in the bank, then you’re dealing with contracts for the investors and working with your accountant to create cost reports for the investors and showing everybody where their money is going.
Steven Pierce: So can you talk about that a little bit? I think that’s a pretty deep dive there. How does that typically work in a good scenario? Cost reporting and developing, being accountable for the money that is currently-
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Indie, again, we’ll use an indie as an example, I would work closely with my accountant to be able to create cost reports in either the software that you’re using for your payroll company or QuickBooks if nothing else, to sort of have had costs that go out to, if they’re asked for, to go out to EP’s and financiers, probably on a weekly basis, pretty much just keeping them abreast of the ongoing costs and forecasting cash flow, which I will often put together early on before we even start shooting right in development. They’ll want to see a cash flow, when we need to start spending money, when so much needs to be in the bank.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Often, they won’t want to put all the money in the bank at once. And I think they feel safer that way. So how much do you need for development, through pre production? Okay. We’re gearing up, we’re starting shooting on the first that money needs to be now in the bank, two weeks prior, so you can get it to SAG and your payroll department, all for deposits. So building a cash flow as well, all the way through post.
Steven Pierce: Are you also dealing with the unions and the accountability on them onset?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes.
Steven Pierce: Can you speak a little bit about the different unions that you work with and how you coordinate with them, any things you’ve learned across the years?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: You don’t really get to coordinate with them. They tell you what to do, and you basically have to do what they say. So for instance, if I use SAG for an example, once you know you’re going into a project, you fill out the application, then they ask you for a plethora of paperwork that you get all into them, they check your budget, they check your schedule. They make sure you’re compliant to everything that you say you’re going to be. And then, you basically are given a deposit as well, based on what your payroll for the cast will be. You give them your deposit and you get a production ID and you’re ready to go. And then there’s reporting along the way, every single day that you’re shooting, you have to fill out the exhibit G, which is the time sheet. And at the end of the week, you send in all of your week’s time sheets to your representative. And then you have to fill in a couple of different reports. If you have actors, like a Taft-Hartley report, there’s a whole plethora of different reports that you have to send in, and then your payroll is all signed off and also sent to SAG. And at the very end of it, when you’re all said and done, you send them in your final budget and your cost reports, and they give you your deposit back. If they find that you have done everything, you said you were going to do, you finished in the right amount of time, all of your actors were paid, what they were due, paid, including their pension and health for SAG. And this is pretty much for all of the unions. And then they give you your deposit back, but any wrong little doing, they will try to fine you.
Steven Pierce: Got it. And that comes out of your deposit?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly.
Steven Pierce: So talk about pension and health for a second, because I think that burns some people on micro indies, if there’s a first time working with SAG, or first time working with unions in general.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: For them to know about it or the cost of it?
Steven Pierce: Yeah and how you calculate for it.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: It’s just a standard number, right now it’s up to 18.5, for SAG for instance. IATSE, it’s a little different, because every there’s different tiers within IATSE. I have to say, SAG is probably the easiest one.
Steven Pierce: Because it’s just a flat rate. If you work for a hundred dollars a day, you owe $18.5 on top of that $100 dollars. That’s the hidden fees of working with unions that people would not be aware of if they had not done it before.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Correct. And that number does go up occasionally. So you have to be aware of that, because they don’t tell you the number goes up. And if you calculate it for 17.5 and now it’s up to 18.5, you just have lost a percentage that you weren’t aware of. But besides pension and health, there’s also the state and local fridges, right. With your payroll that have to come out and then often the 10% for their agency. This is another one that not everybody always knows until they know it, is SAGs day rate is built on an eight hour day, but an eight hour day does not work anywhere near a film day. So technically before you’ve even started, you’re number one on the call sheet is most likely working a 12 hour day every day. So before you’ve even started, you’re at four hours overtime every day.
Steven Pierce: Right. And so-
Ellyn Vander Wyden: You have to build all those numbers into your budget.
Steven Pierce: Right, exactly. You have to know that, which is why it’s so crucial to either have a line producer or know these numbers yourselves, the slope is quite slippery.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes, especially with IATSE. They’re more difficult because the numbers are not quite as black and white. Every department has sort of different rules, there’s a death and dismemberment number fee, that’s for grip and electric and camera, but as a costume designer, you don’t have to pay that. The different tiers, the keys, the seconds, and the thirds all make a different hourly. And those numbers change between the different tiers starting with tier one. And now there’s even a tier zero, which is just above non-union. It’s just a lot more numbers to keep track of. It’s not easy to find that information anywhere.
Steven Pierce: Exactly. The information from my experience is very hard to find whenever you’re trying to budget it now. I mean, for instance, let’s talk about, we’re getting into the weeds now, but it is about line producing, so let’s do it. To me this is super interesting. So in what other fees, I mean, they have death and dismemberment, but they also have pension and health, right?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: They have pension and health. And they have, Oh gosh, I could totally take out my cheat sheet right now, but there’s three or four different fees. There’s their pension and health. I don’t even know how to look at life, there’s two other fees. And they’re all different between the different positions.
Steven Pierce: And the different departments.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Right. 600 has little bit different fees, camera then like I said, a costume designer would, or a wardrobe designer would.
Steven Pierce: It’s crazy.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: And don’t even go DGA. Once you get into that, those numbers too.
Steven Pierce: Did a little look into that as well, and it’s really hard to figure out. Frequently, the ADs you’re working with are non-union?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes.
Steven Pierce: That makes it a little-
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Unless your director is DGA.
Steven Pierce: And then everybody has to be DGA, right?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes. So I’ve done both.
Steven Pierce: That’s the thing, whenever you start budgeting out a union job on an indie film, which is usually, for a really well, I’m going to say well-funded indie film. I think it was somewhere you have a million to $3 million.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I’d say two to five.
Steven Pierce: Right? Well, two and a half is the sweet spot from the merger research.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly.
Steven Pierce: Most people I know that I’ve encountered, first time filmmakers and stuff are somewhere around 750 to 1.2. And none of those are union usually.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Right. They could get you at a million. They could try to get you in at a million, that’s depending where you shoot, because that could be a tier zero.
Steven Pierce: That could technically be tier zero.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: It really is in tier zero.
Steven Pierce: So what are the tier breakdowns? Can we talk about that for a second? I’ve heard people say that phrase before many times, they’re going to flip you or make you flip.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes.
Steven Pierce: What does that mean? And how does that happen?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: How do they flip you?
Steven Pierce: Yeah.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: If you fall into- 1.2 could be a very gray area depending where you’re shooting and what time of year you’re shooting and all of those things. They could come in and try to rally to make you flip to a union show at 1.2. And if that does happen, then you would retroactively have to go back and pay all the negotiated rates. At tier zero it’s a little more negotiable, because there’s not as much money, but you’d have to go back and pay those fees, and those additional fees.
Steven Pierce: A tier one starts where?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Tier one, I think 1.2.
Steven Pierce: Somewhere in there.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: And what is even more confusing is, SAG has one rate of tiers in what they call their different contracts. And then IATSE has a different one, they don’t line up. It’s even more frustrating and-
Steven Pierce: Difficult to decipher for sure. SAG also has work incentives, I know for, diversity in casting that can give you an expansion to your budget.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: With the modified low.
Steven Pierce: Exactly. So, I think before, we’re talking about different contract types and each contract type requires more money paid per department, per person, per hour. So here’s the question. Do these fringe fees to pension and health and that, do they increase per tier or are those fixed?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I think they’re fixed all the way across the board. They’re fixed. Just like your fed state and federal would be fixed.
Steven Pierce: So back to hidden charges, and I’d love to know, get your thoughts on this as well. Because up until a few years ago, everyone was able to work on this 1099 structure, where everybody was an independent contractor. And I think most filmmakers when they budget for micro films and independent films, that’s what you’re thinking. I have an agreement with this person. They’re going to do my film. I’m going to pay them X amount of dollars a day, just because I’m bad at math. I’m going to say it’s a hundred dollars, even though it wouldn’t be a hundred dollars most likely. I want to pay this person a hundred dollars a day to work on this. I send him a check, send 1099 at the end of the year, we’re done. That doesn’t work anymore in the film industry. At least in my experience, because those are technically employees depending on what they’re doing.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: And I think it can still work a little bit, it’s getting harder and harder to do that. And you are putting yourself at jeopardy to getting caught.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: If it was a two day commercial, you could probably do it. Right. If you’re going to do a 20 day film, that’s more difficult, because then you have to have worker’s comp too, and you have to get the workers comp from somewhere.
Steven Pierce: So these are all the things that start adding up and why it’s good to have a line producer, because again, for instance, just to break down quickly, this spirals out of control. So you have a SAG after, you’re paying them a hundred dollars a day, that’s an eight hour day. Then you go to negotiate it with them, right. So assuming now they’re going to do 12 hours per day, now you have four hours of overtime, oh boy, here comes math.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Correct. Time and a half.
Steven Pierce: Time and a half for four hours. Right?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: The old SAG ultra low number was 125. Okay. It’s since in the last couple of months gone up to 200. At that 125, really all in, your day rate almost was 240.
Steven Pierce: Which makes sense, because you have federal income tax, you have state income tax, sometimes local tax as well, social security, Medicaid. And then you have to match that contribution for those as an employer.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yup. And then you have your 18.- it was 17.5 when that calculation was done for pension health. The 10% fee to their agency, and then plus a payroll company fee.
Steven Pierce: Right. So all in all-
Ellyn Vander Wyden: That’s about 40%.
Steven Pierce: All in all, exactly. So if you’d budgeted $125 per actor per day, you’re missing half your money. So that’s really important to understand and really why it’s dangerous not to have a line producer.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Absolutely.
Steven Pierce: So what are some big pitfalls other than that, that young, independent filmmakers fall into that you see?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Well, that would definitely be budgeting and knowing how to budget. Here’s a perfect example- someone told me this little example one time and it worked so perfectly. So I’m going to use this. The director comes to you and he says, Oh my God, I have to have a pig in this film. I just love pigs. There’s this scene. It’ll be great. I want to pig. Okay. So, you have to pay for the pig, you have to pay for the pig Wrangler, you have to pay to transport the pig there. Then once the pig is on set, where are you going to keep the pigs? So you have to build a corral or something, a pig house, right. Then you have to feed the pig. You have to clean up after the pig. And then you have to set the pig off on it when he’s done. So there’s your pig for the day has turned into all of these other costs that you’re not aware of. So that can go down the line. Do you want to blow up a car? You don’t just blow up that car. It’s all down the line of what it is. First you have to not only feed the pig, you have to feed the pig wrangler. So you’ve added additional craft service and another meal to your day.
Steven Pierce: Something that just occurred to me, you said a minute ago, was SAGs based on an eight hour day. So my understanding is, now, everywhere in the US is still legal as long as you’re above minimum wage to work, what’s called a straight 10. So 10 hours at straight-fee before you hit overtime, before you hit time and a path, right?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Correct.
Steven Pierce: California, that’s no longer legal. So if you’re filming in California, I believe you’re only legally allowed to go to a straight eight. Is that your understanding as well?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I’m not sure about California, but when I do a day, if I offer somebody, $200 a day, right? Here’s $200 a day, but a film day is 12 hours. So it’s $200 for a day up to 12 hours. That $200, when you break that down –
Steven Pierce: – hourly.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: -correct. With the four hours of overtime, because we still do base it on eight and four.
Steven Pierce: But it’s important because you have to be clear when you book somebody and make that deal, that that is the agreement. That you’re booking X amount of dollars for X amount of time, because if you do not make that specific, the assumption could be, eight hours, 10 hours, 14 hours. And in my experience, that makes for a really bad way to set up with a crew.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes. And I don’t think anybody that was going to work in film or TV would assume it was eight hours, but people could assume it was 10 hours or 12 hours. A commercial is often 10 hours, but a feature film is always 12 hours. Although they’re trying to get features back down to 10 now, it’s a big push to make the day 10 hours.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: And then when you fill out their deal memo, you should have on their deal memo, actually what their hourly is, because we work on day rates in the industry mostly or weekly, it’s still important that they see what that hourly is for payroll, because that’s how the payroll company will pay them.
Steven Pierce: I completely agree. That’s something we started doing about two years ago, we now work with entertainment partners. Beforehand we were trying to do all of this by ourselves and trying to do it the right way. Sometimes you make mistakes and you learn, and what we ultimately learned is, that you have to boil it down to an hourly rate, because even if you have a day agreement or weekly agreement, because what happens when you have one 16 hour day? Because now everybody’s clear, if there’s been a deal memo with an hourly rate on it, everybody knows what the deal is and what the agreement is.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: So those four hours between 12 and 16 are now based on this hourly rate.
Steven Pierce: Exactly. Precisely. So all that being said, this sounds stupid, but I love getting into the weeds about this kind of stuff, because from personal experience, I’ve been burned on these things and just had to cough up the money and that hurts. When you’re trying to make something artistic and you lose your money to try extra that you weren’t expected to do, that’s really painful.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: And I would also say, get a good accountant. Someone you trust and you can work with, because I’m a line producer, I’m not an accountant. I can move money around really well, but I’m not the one that’s going to figure out your hourly, the accountant is, or the payroll person’s going to do that.
Steven Pierce: The way we always think about it is, is the producer or line producer is the preventative measure. We do that to predict it and get it correct or as correct as possible. The accountant is the one that fixes it when it’s wrong.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly. So I have to work. You want a good accountant that you work with, that you just, if you’re going for a tax credit, you have to work with that accountant really closely to make sure that you’ve done everything you can to be compliant with getting your tax credit. And don’t go down that rabbit hole. Let’s not put down the tax credit.
Steven Pierce: I think the tax credits would be an hour long talk in itself.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly.
Steven Pierce: Have you ever had an experience with different types of funding, alternative funding that you’ve had to account for within budgeting and within the process of funding of a film, specifically like late equity finishing funds or gap funding or something, have you ever had to be involved with something like that?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I am, but I’m sort of peripherally involved with it. I have several producing partners that I work with, even though I’m a full producer on the project, I sort of take on the role of this line producer. And one producer that I work with, that’s his role, is he deals with all the financing. So I hear it all and I’m in tune with it, but I’m not the one making the deals. It’s sort of how I feel about post-production too. I know enough about post production to get me there and to get me through it, but I rely on a post producer to supervise that phase of the film.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: If you ever want to talk about gap financing and tax credit financing and all that things, I have the guy you can talk to.
Steven Pierce: I’d love to talk to him honestly, because I love, I think gap financing is one of the most terrifying decisions and probably worse decisions an independent filmmaker can make. When you need it, it can be extremely beneficial but only in certain circumstances, especially whenever you’re dealing with these scope movies that I think we’re really targeting. So how is working on independent feature narrative stuff different than other projects? Commercial, documentary…
Ellyn Vander Wyden: There’s probably just a lot more layers to it, usually have a bigger cast. You’re in for a longer time, there’s more locations, just more layers and more abundance of those key elements that are in the other ones. So if you do a commercial, often commercial is what? One, two or three days maybe. Right. And your team is lean. You have a lot more money usually to achieve what you’re trying to achieve in those three days. And your days are a little bit shorter. Use of video, same thing, they’re usually one day probably, maybe two days. More money usually, more money, but leaner crews, most likely sometimes your art department is a lot bigger. Your costume can be a lot bigger. I think with a narrative feature indie, if you’re trying to shoot anywhere between 18 and 25, maybe 30 days, and get a lot packed into those days. Six, seven, eight pages a day sometimes, trying to get five, six, seven, eight pages a day of a script.
Steven Pierce: That’s something that actually, I want to talk in a second about two things, and I’m just saying it out loud, so I don’t forget. I want to talk about budgeting a documentary and how you budget for that for a long process, different scope production. And also talk about talent, specifically, any schedule F’s or large talent that might be attached to a small project. So I say all that to say, one of the things that just reminded me of, that can be a big, big, got you, for an indie producer is, say you schedule a 20 day production. You also have a 40 hour week. So you’re planning on basically, your 12 hour days or whatever, you can’t work. What I’m trying to say, six or seven days in a row impacts you in a different way.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Six. You don’t ever want to be a six-day if you’re on payroll, unless, sometimes you can get around it by straddling two weeks.
Steven Pierce: Exactly. You’re really playing with fire. If you’re working three or four weeks in a row, you can really get caught out.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly. Yes.
Steven Pierce: So basically if you’re budgeting these things out, you should be structuring five day weeks, or four day weeks, depending on who you have on.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes. I’m actually, like I said, right now, gearing up for this very small ultra low budget, right. That we’re going up to the Berkshire’s to shoot. We’re going to do five days on, one day off, four days on, one day off. We’re totally, to align ourselves with the proper amount of days plus when we can use the locations. We’re only doing one day off, that’s how we’re trying to keep it lean. We’re going one day off in between. And we’re only shooting 15 days.
Steven Pierce: The 15 day feature is a real thing, everyone loves it and hates it in equal measure, I think.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: You get in and you get out and just shooting, one day off in between. I feel it’s the threshold to how far you can get without needing two days off.
Steven Pierce: So here’s a question for you. Just hypothetical, you’re shooting in upstate New York with a crew, mostly based, the keys at least based out of New York city. You travel everybody up there, they’re putting it up in a hotel, you get to your off day. Are off days non-pay days?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Correct. On this budget, yes they are.
Steven Pierce: Is that not always the case then?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Sometimes on a bigger, much bigger, I’d say, especially if you’re on a weekly, sometimes on a bigger budget, I would just hire people weekly, especially if you’re taking them out of state. Right. And then they’d be on a weekly.
Steven Pierce: Why would you, especially if you’re taking them out of state?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Because then I think you’re almost getting more bang for your buck, if you’re getting them on a weekly. If you were to go upstate and shoot, you give them the day off, even if they’re working four days within that week, you’re still getting your weekly, it just gives you a little bit of-
Steven Pierce: Just a small amount of wiggle on it.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes, exactly. And a little bit of currency with them, so to speak. Hey, I’m getting paid, I’m only working four days this week, but you’re giving me the full week. I don’t mind going this extra 25 minutes here.
Steven Pierce: Right. That makes sense, totally.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: On the union thing, you could never do that. Right. But on a small one, you just need to have that little bit of currency and give and take with your crew members.
Steven Pierce: How do you do documentary films? Because I believe the structure on those, you can shoot for years.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I’m just finishing one that has been going on for three years and it literally airs in a month. And it’s been going on for three years and we’ve been through three additions of the budget. It just kept changing.
Steven Pierce: Is it because the concept and the material kept changing, which required more production? Or is it because the scope just kept expanding?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: It’s because the money kept changing. How much money we were supposed to get that didn’t come in and then this little bit would come in. So we’d get a little bit further down the road, but then we’d be out of money. So we’d have to stop until some more money came in. It was never all the money in place at one time.
Steven Pierce: Again, I have an idea. I want to make a documentary about light bulbs, I have this fascinating idea and it’s going to be about the course of a new product launch of a light bulb or whatever. How do you even start breaking that down for a budget?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I would start where you think it should be, and how much based on the length of the film. Right? If you want to do a two hour feature on light bulbs, and how many interviews you’d like to get, and then on a doc, doc is such a slippery slope because you might think you only want four interviews, but you end up, the inventor of the light bulb, you find out that he actually had a partner that you never knew about. So now you want to interview that person. It’s difficult. I’d say more than anything, a doc budget is evolving. It’s never a locked budget.
Steven Pierce: Do you start then with things you can identify and can control in the beginning?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yeah. Like how many interviews you want? Are they all in New York or do you have to travel to four different cities? Is your shooter also going to be your gaffer and it’s just going to be a shooter and a sound man, or do you need a field producer, based on where you’re going and what you’re interviewing? Are you going to be on a stage or are you going to go visit this artist in his artist’s loft? It’s breaking down the treatment, because you’re not necessarily going to have a script, but you’re going to need the treatment for a doc or some sort of synopsis or some sort of pitch and breaking that down. And probably working really as a producer, very closely with the director, if you’re not the producer and the director yourself on a doc.
Steven Pierce: So let’s talk about another aspect that happens a lot in independent films- is the one star coming in for a day or two stars, maybe you get somebody for the whole time, that’s a little younger, but has a little bit of a name. What are some surprises and things that filmmakers may not think about whenever you pay that money to get that person attached in the first place?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: As it pertains to the budget?
Steven Pierce: I think as it pertains to the production as a whole.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: What they need to support that, who are they? Do they need to bring their assistant with them? Do they need to have a certain level of a hotel room? Will they ride in a minivan with somebody else or will they only be in their own minivan? Down to their food.
Steven Pierce: I’ve heard a lot of times that talent will request or require a teamster to drive them specifically, because if they’ve had a long day, they don’t want the PA driving them back to the hotel.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Agreed. Yes. Absolutely. And depending where the hotel is, absolutely. And down to their food and all those silly stories you hear about. I literally had an actor that would only drink spring water, so you couldn’t hand them a bottle of bottled water that was anything but spring water, it couldn’t be purified water, it couldn’t be alkaline water, it had to be spring water. So those things are all true.
Steven Pierce: That’s very interesting. In the commercial world we have those people they’re just called clients.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: And how many clients? There’s way too many clients on a commercial too.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely. Have you encountered anything that swayed a budget because of the talent unexpectedly – like the writers or the requests that came in that was like, Oh man, well, this was unexpected?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Swayed the budget, no, because I usually put a slush fund in there. Literally I put a line in my budget, based on my overall budget. I do put, I call it a star cost line in there. Everyone’s like, what’s this line? I’m like, I’m keeping it there, just because.
Steven Pierce: That’s for Starbucks coffee and a surprise trailer.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I have a slush fund based on the overall. But I’m not going to put a $15,000 line in there, for a $500,000 film. It has to stay in line with the budget. But I do put that in.
Steven Pierce: So whenever you get to the ending stages of a production, it’s an 18 day production, you’re in day 14, and things are running short or something’s happened, it’s snowing and you’re going to lose a day. How do you start allocating and dissecting and triaging to really execute what you have left? Or do you ever sometimes have to say, hey, if you want that, we need this much more money?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Both of those things. And I don’t even do it 14 days in, I do it at lunchtime every day. I get with the AD first and then with the director if need be, and say, okay, we’re halfway through our day and we’ve only gotten half of our schedule done. How are we going to finish this day? What’s most important? So I even do it every day. I check it in and if we’re going to move something to the next day, all right, we’re going to move it to the next day, but then it’s going to affect the next day.
Steven Pierce: Right. We have a call at this location at 10:00 AM, now it’s going to be 2:00 PM, but they have a five o’clock out.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Exactly. I think it’s working with the AD really, a lot, and then going to the director and saying, this is what’s happening. You can have this or this, what’s most important? We can give you a little bit of this and a lot of that, or none of this and all of that, making deals, so to speak.
Steven Pierce: So you also produce as well. Right?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Correct.
Steven Pierce: Talk about the trajectory of how you’ve moved into producing and how that line production background affects you as a producer?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I think, like I said before, what makes me a better line producer and a better producer is I have a more creative. I can look at things both logistically and creatively. I never really thought I was going to be a line producer. I just sort of fell into it. And I think it’s because I can look at things in those two ways. So line producing, I sort of fell into.
Steven Pierce: So it’s something you were good at.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes. Exactly. I’ll do locations as well. I’ll location manage and location scout, which I really like. I started in art. I did a lot of art department when I was younger. So I think that’s important too, knowing more about every single department, what it takes to go into something. I think as a line producer and as a producer, and I have friends that are producers, that were never a PA or never worked in wardrobe at all, or really knows nothing about it, or doesn’t know what goes into camera. I think knowing a little bit about all of the departments is really important and what it takes for those departments to do their jobs successfully.
Steven Pierce: Is there any advice you can have for independent filmmakers, on how to structure, what’s the best collaborative nature to try and make something as difficult as this? Is there any tips or times you’ve seen it and be like, this is really the best way to set it up? It’s an ambiguous question, sorry.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: There’s so many ways of that. One thing I think is backing into a number. If you know you have $10 to do something, don’t try to budget it for 15, expectations, expectations, and that’s one of my mantras, and my other one is, rates have to stay in line with a budget. So I may have a sound mixer that I love to work with, and he may do a $500,000 movie with me and not make such a great rate over 25 days. But on the next Coke commercial, I’m going to pay him really well for three days of his time or on the next 2.5, he’s going to make a better rate. So just because someone comes and says, Oh, my rate is $1,500 a day. That’s great if the budget will support your rate, but then if you want to work on this project, your rate is not $1,500 a day, your rate is $500 a day.
Steven Pierce: Right. And that’s just the negotiation constantly.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I really want to do your project, but my rate is $1,500 a day. Well, I’d really love to have you, but I can’t afford to pay you that for this project. So I’d rather have someone say, thanks, but no, thanks, catch me on the next one, than agree to do the project for $500 a day and complain the whole time.
Steven Pierce: Right. Exactly. Because that gets toxic in a creative environment.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes.
Steven Pierce: So Ellyn, where can people find any of your work coming up?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: I have a documentary airing on HBO on July the 29th.
Steven Pierce: Oh, great. Can you tell us the name of it?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yeah, it’s called, the Weight of Gold. It actually was just announced today on deadline. So good timing. It’s called the Weight of Gold. It’s a documentary about Olympians and mental health. It’s executive produced by Michael Phelps. We have Michael Phelps, Shaun White, Apolo Ohno, Bode Miller, lots of great Olympians burying their soul. It’s going to be pretty good. We had to totally pivot with the pandemic and things changed drastically than the way they were supposed to. We were supposed to have more shooting going on and we couldn’t, so we had to get creative, and the Olympics were canceled. It was supposed to air with the Olympics. So that’s another part about being a producer, is pivoting with challenges, work, making things happen that, well, we’re supposed to do it this way, but we can’t do it this way anymore, so how are we going to do it? Right? So that’s coming up on HBO. I have a lot of things out there on Amazon and streamers and all that good stuff.
Steven Pierce: And people go to your website to keep up with what you’re up to?
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Yes. Which is just my name, ellynvanderwyden.com. Very long spelling.
Steven Pierce: Well, Ellyn, it was great talking to you. Thanks for getting into the weeds on some budget stuff with me. I think it was super fun though.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Absolutely. The least fun of the whole thing.
Steven Pierce: I don’t know about that. Maybe it’s the least fun, but probably the most important.
Ellyn Vander Wyden: Agreed. Well, thank you.
Steven Pierce: Thank you. It was great talking.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.