Below the Beltway
Below the Beltway is a satirical look into the mythical world of D.C. politics. Very few films have ever captured D.C. this way; it's an indie film that takes full advantage of the great locations. In those settings, the filmmakers made the nation's capital a true character in their film.
But perfectly capturing the city that's "L.A. for ugly people" was no easy task. Below the Beltway is a through and through indie, one that required a quick shoot, actor's most likely working for scale, and catering that probably feature chips just picked up from the local grocery store.
In result, they've made the most of their limited time and means. Their satire about a man (played by Tate Donavon) trying to redeem himself by screwing over a sleazy Senator is a quick, fun, and mildly dark comedy that, as they describe it, is a blend of Office Space and All the President's Men. Some wit, charms, and finely-tuned storytelling makes a small film such as this work.
Here's what writers Jim Wareck, Brad Weir, director Dave Fraunces, producer/co-star Spencer Garrett, and producer Claudia Myers had to say about the making-of Below the Beltway.
And the film is currently available on ITunes, for purchase at www.ottercreekmp.com, and amazon.com, it also can be added to Netflix queue.
I know you started writing the film years ago, close to 10 years if I'm correct. How did the script develop over the years?
Wareck: I got the germ of the idea in the Summer of 2001, and mockingly pitched it to an agent friend in LA the next year. Much to my surprise, he suggested I write it but I decided to file it in a mental drawer for 4 years. In 05, I burned out on politics and government, and thought, hey why not give screenwriting and producing a shot. I had flirted with comedy writing after college, but back then thought it would be better to be funny in politics than political in comedy writing. As for producing, I reasoned that it was essentially the same skill set as managing a campaign, both endeavors consist of jobs that need to be done and people who don't want to do them. Looking back, I can't tell you which is the bigger cluster-F*&k but they both have their moments. So in 05, I started brain-storming with a friend and we hired someone to sketch out a rough draft based on a story I presented. After that Brad Weir got involved and he and I together started on what can be described as the industry merry-go-round. Several sets of producers got involved but for one reason or another it never advanced. Finally in early 09, after many iterations and several instances of "this is never going to happen" I was fortunate to meet Dave Fraunces, the director who had a lot of experience from a production stand point, and I said to him "I am making this with sock puppets" if you don't sign on. Luckily he agreed and Claudia Myers also hung in there to help produce. Dave passed the script to Spencer Garrett and within months we had a great cast.
The story itself never really changed too much, in the sense that the same characters, more or less, and their actions in broad terms are recognizable from the first draft to the final product. 98% of the dialog changed over the course of time. Brad and I had a few plot points that we had to have for it to be the movie we wanted to write, but there were some elements that didn't work and a few characters who never made it past one stage of development or another. However the 10-12 main characters remained from the first writing to the final movie.
How many drafts did you go through?
Wareck: Without being too analytical about the definition of a draft (sorry old DC habit) probably over 100. We have a plastic tub 26x15x13 with a copy of each one-if anyone wants them, let me know. Weir I would estimate there are 15 different versions with major changes and each of those incarnations has maybe 5 or so different versions.
What was Brad and yours writing process? Would you write together, or send pages back and forth?
Wareck: I would write the draft setting up each scene with the characters and how they got from point A to point B, then he would critique it, he would say something like "I know what you are trying to say with this line, but it is awkward or makes no sense". Brad also owned the continuity and logic gap. I was in DC he was in SF, so all of this was done with marathon phone calls lasting up to 8 to 10 hrs. I won't even mention the 45 minutes spent arguing the merit of "that" vs. "which". Luckily we have known each other for over 30 year and have had a lifelong friendship, which was needed at some points. Especially when his critiques consist of "okay we can do this, but the script will suck. Just want you to know that."
Weir: I vaguely recall that description. Yes there were some phone hang-ups on both ends. But going forward we have developed a better, more organized system. We will get together in the same room for a session. Jim will pitch me an idea for a movie, then we develop a premise to move the script forward, so an idea becomes a movie. Then we write 20 one-sentence beats which Jim will expand to paragraphs, then, after we reviewed that step, he will expand those paragraphs into scenes. And then we go back and drill down on the script as a whole for logic. I tend to do more of the dialog polishing and story editing.
The structure is really tight. How much outlining was involved?
Weir: At first none, which is why it took over 100 drafts.
Wareck: We started with the story we wanted to tell and really the tight structure can be attributed to working with Claudia Myers, an accomplished writer/director, one of Beltway's producers and a professor of Screenwriting at American University. She signed on to the project in 07 and stuck with us. She sat us down and said okay, class, day 1.. structure. After that Brad and I had this intensive week-long private seminar which instructed us in the basic principles of screenwriting, but that wasn't until 3 years into the process. So we in a sense shoehorned the story into the structure. When we moved to the shooting script, Dave was really great about tightening each scene further and trimming even the most modest of extraneous material, which I am sure he would add that we, typical of writers, pissed and moaned about.
Myers: When I first read the script, I thought it had a lot of potential -- I liked the tone, and the perverse determination of the main character to redeem himself by ruining a senator's reputation -- but the story needed more structure. The house was up but the design was somewhat inefficient.
Wareck: Yeah, in that analogy the bathroom was nowhere near the bedroom.
Weir: And the kitchen was across the street.
Myers: There are a number of basic story elements that screenwriters should be aware of, and that audiences intuitively expect. The original draft for example lacked a clear catalyst for the story and we had many "spirited" debates on the subject.
Wareck: That is putting it politely
Weir: Yeah, we couldn't understand why the audience wouldn't be able to figure out what we knew was happening in our heads.
Myers: To their credit, Brad and Jim worked tirelessly over a number of drafts to keep improving the story, clarifying the characters and their work paid off.
Tonally, the film is a bit of a satire. What was the line between satire and parody for you guys?
Wareck: We went for straight dry satire on the page. The success in the tone and really in the movie on the screen can be attributed to Dave Fraunces the director, and Spencer Garrett, who plays the Senator on screen, but off screen was a producer and the chief talent wrangler. His outstanding acting really set the pace for the rest of the cast. He also knew which actors to try to cast that would result in the movie we all wanted to make.
Garrett: For an actor, playing a politician can seem like a fairly boring task sometimes. Unless you have tart, juicy writing to back it up, which I certainly did in Jim and Brad's great, timely script. Washington seems like one giant clown car these days, so the line between satire and reality has pretty well vanished. Oddly enough, I was working on "Casino Jack" at the same time, playing Tom DeLay, a guy who DROVE that clown car for many years. "Larry Gryder" (my character in Beltway) seemed tame by comparison, and more grounded in so-called "reality" than much of what was going on in the other film. Many reviewers commented that we really got the tone of D.C. just right in Beltway and I couldn't agree more. As far as attracting such a great cast, as a producer I couldn't be more jazzed. We got the best group of actors because of two things. Solid story and Dave Fraunces' passion.
Being a procedural as well, did you look at any other films as templates?
Wareck: We always imagined this as Office Space meets All The President's Men, so those two movies figured prominently.
Considering this is an indie film through and through, did you write the film with that in mind? Did you limit yourself in terms of locations, etc.?
Wareck: Not initially, not even for the first 99 drafts at least. But when we started pre-production in earnest, Dave and our Line Producer Daniela Roth have such a great sense of what is possible that some aspects of the script got tweaked accordingly, without losing any of the story. Considering we had 35+ unique locations and 20 days to shoot, what the whole crew was able to do defies belief.
Fraunces: That is kind of Jim to say. Daniela and I benefited from working on low budget productions in Los Angeles. We worked with a short hand in terms of the time required as well as always focusing on "scale". By that I mean, "how can we get this outside or move a conversation somewhere more dynamic". Our previous work experience allowed us to capitalize on the grandeur of Washington DC without compromising the story.
Weir: I remember seeing the first cut of the movie and asking "why is that scene in a car?" and was told, "we couldn't get a location, deal with it."
At times there was some shoot-from-the-hip type of film-making going on, like shooting at locations you probably didn't have permission to. Did you find that think-on-your-feet style exhilarating, or exhaustive?
Fraunces: If we can't see Tate Donovan get out of the DC Metro or Sarah Clarke walk by Treasury, what's the point of shooting in Washington at all? Any time you expend the energy and time to shoot on location, you want to find the best opportunities to exploit that location to add to the overall experience of the film. The idea of shooting in a run and gun style always appealed to us. Our entire production sought out those opportunities because Washington DC itself was a character in our film. The competing law enforcement entities made it a little onerous for an understaffed production like ours to be ahead in our planning. But we made the most of our tremendous support from the DC Film Office. The verdict? Exhilarating.
Wareck: From a producer's stand point it is nerve-wracking to the point of almost wanting plausible deniability, which wouldn't hold up in court (laughing). Luckily Kathy Hollinger, the then director of the DC Film Office helped enormously and we did have permits for almost all of the shooting (well most) and we were insured for all. Another key ingredient was the actors, who came in, hit their mark and brought it in each of the limited takes we had. But the success of this run and shoot is really owed to Dave and his deep understanding of the film-making process and Claudia, who was supervising producer and has a vast amount of shooting experience. Both of them are as unflappable as I am flappable. Keeping me in a padded room during the shoot was a great idea.
What are some lessons that you learned from your first experience as a producer and published screenwriter?
Wareck: As a writer, Brad and I had a really steep initial curve for our first script. Moving forward we are much better versed in how to approach a blank Page 1. And that the better scripts contain an interesting story, a good premise, multi-dimensional characters who exist in a dynamic world. As for producing, too many aspects to both count and/or enumerate. Most of what I learned about the nuts and bolts of how to get a movie made were from Dave, Claudia and Spencer, who all knew the industry much better than I ever will. The campaign management skills definitely are transferable. You don't have to persuade voters, the media or donors, but you do have to persuade agents, actors and investors -so the trade-off is pretty even-up. But you can really distill everything down to "money talks and bullshit walks" (most effective if you imagine it said by Fran Drescher as Bobbi Fleckman in Spinal Tap). Meaning, that without funding, nothing happens, and without hard work, good material and obsessive preparations, nothing gets funded.
What are you working on next?
Garrett: I just completed "Game Change" for HBO and director Jay Roach, opposite Julianne Moore and Ed Harris. Currently starring in a little indie thriller called "Sunken City" - another no-budget labor of love with wonderful actors and a great script. In the fall will be headed back to my new "day job" on HBO's "Luck" for Michael Mann and David Milch.
Fraunces: I'm producing the play Women are Crazy because Men are A**holes, currently running in Chicago. Also have written and am scheduled to direct the feature comedy "Nooners."
Myers: I'm currently in development on "Fort Bliss," a feature I wrote and plan to direct. The script grew out of my experiences working with soldiers and veterans over the past several years. Also my script "Wild Oats" co-written with Gary Kanew, will be directed by Howard Deutch starring Shirley MacLaine.
Wareck: Brad and I have a second script Genuine Fake, a caper film centered in the world of Contemporary Art, that we are in negotiations for production. We also have three other scripts at various stages of the outline process and have a book that we would like to adapt. I am also pursuing other producing opportunities. But if there was an opportunity to get this gang together again, I think we would all leap at it. So let the studios know we are available to do a sequel to Beltway.
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