Last week I was quoted in an article in the LA Film Festival launch issue of Daily Variety.
The issue was about all of the great talent filmmakers could find in Los Angeles, and I was there to talk about how the low budget contracts allow you to work with SAG talent no matter what your budget. But I was surprised to find that the focus of the piece became how many filmmakers “…opt for a non-union production for creative as well as budgetary reasons.” (You can read the article here: Download daily_variety.doc).
Now, I’ve been misrepresented in the media before (“Former Porn Star Convicted in Charity Extortion Scheme, Triple Murder”- for the record, I have never appeared in a porn film!), but what truly bothered me were the quotes attributed to the filmmakers of Quinceanera.
This may seem shocking, but I really don’t have a problem with non-union films. Two of my favorite indie films last year, Four Eyed Monsters and The Puffy Chair, were non-union films (although both sets of filmmakers promised me their next movies would be SAG). There are many legitimate reasons why someone might make a non-union film and some of them are really good films (and from what I’ve heard, Quinceanera is one of them). But the main reason I don’t have problem with non-union films is that, frankly, if there weren’t any non-union filmmakers, I’d be out of a job.
The first thing the director said that pissed me off was his quote about wanting "someone who had a similar background to this character, rather than an actress from Beverly Hills faking it."
What an insult.
Los Angeles is full of actors from every background. In fact, at the LAFF Filmmakers Reception I met a SAG actor who described how he came to the U.S illegally by swimming across the Rio Grande. You can’t get much more real than that (Oh, and before any of you Minutemen out there start forming a lynch mob, he’s legal now…).
But the real problem I had with this filmmaker’s comments was the attitude that his film just couldn’t have been made under a union contract.
There is nothing in any SAG contract that prevents a filmmaker from using unknown actors in their film. It happens all the time. The actor I mentioned above got his SAG card because Ken Loach hired him and many other “real” people for his film Bread and Roses (Maria Full of Grace was another SAG film, where the lead actress, Catalina Sandino Moreno, wasn’t a member at the time).
In fact, on SAG’s lowest budget agreements, a filmmaker can use both non-professional and professional actors and the terms of the contract only apply to the professionals. In other words, very low budget producers can use as many or as few professional actors as they want and don’t even have to pay the non-professionals.
If the Quinceanera filmmakers were novices, I might attribute this to ignorance. But they aren’t. These are industry pros with numerous credits in film and television.
So I decided to look a little further into this production.
During a panel at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the directors was quoted as saying he is supportive of SAG but “there just needs to be a little bit more flexibility for low-budget films. We never would’ve been able to make this movie (if we had to hire all SAG actors).”
Once again, nothing prevents a filmmaker from hiring non-union actors on a SAG film. However, for budgets over $200,000, they do have to pay all the actors union rates. So, I have to assume that the budget for this film was more than that amount. In the same panel, it was revealed that the budget for Quinceanera was less than $1 million.
Lots of films with budgets much lower than that are able to use SAG contracts and pay all of the actors. Tadpole, The Station Agent, Pieces of April, Personal Velocity, Hustle & Flow, and Me and You and Everyone We Know quickly come to mind, and several of these films had budgets less than $200,000.
So these filmmakers are trying to say that Quinceanera, a film with a budget between $200,000 and $999,999 that was shot on HD couldn’t be done under a SAG contract?
Look, if you want to make a non-union film because you have problem with unions, or because you don’t want to meet the minimum working conditions, or because you don’t want to pay union rates, fine. That’s your right. But say that. Don’t try to make it about “freedom” or the “spirit” of the film.