Two weeks ago, Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle never would have imagined that they’d be able to say — quite seriously — that a million dollars wasn’t a lot of money.
That was before the two thirty-year-old independent filmmakers won the 2003 Project Greenlight director’s contest at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on January 18. Their prize? A million dollar budget from Miramax to make a feature film of the contest’s winning screenplay, a guaranteed theatrical release for their movie, $25,000 each for keeps, a chance to work with producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and the opportunity of a lifetime to break into the film industry.
“Totally surreal,” Rankin said of the experience via cell phone as he drove from his home in Topanga, Calif., to his new office at the Miramax studios this Monday. “Everyone wants to know if we’re just beside ourselves with amazement. We are, but mostly we’re just incredibly appreciative.”
Two weeks ago, Rankin was a landscaper and Potelle made a living as a freelance media artist in the Los Angeles area. The two moved to California at the end of last summer from Portland, Maine, where they had spent a decade writing, producing, and directing films in their free time.
Now the duo is faced with the highly desirable but daunting task of producing a feature-length film — for only a million dollars. It’s an independent filmmaker’s dream; but a realist’s — and a Hollywood director’s — nightmare. (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” heralded as last year’s low-budget gem, cost $5 million to produce).
“When we were doing indie films, we could do things under the radar,” Rankin said. “People could volunteer to work with us and people could give us things for free. For Miramax, it’s a union picture. It’s all above the radar.”
That means time and money will go very quickly. He said the studio wants to start shooting on March 10 in Texas, and is hoping for an August 24th release — less than a year after Rankin and Potelle entered the contest.
In September, nearly 2,000 directors and thousands more screenwriters entered the Project Greenlight contest, designed to give an amateur filmmaker a shot to work in Hollywood.
By January 13, the pool was whittled down to four directors and ten screenplays of which “there was only one we wanted to do,” Rankin said, speaking of the eventual winning script, “The Battle of Shaker Heights,” by Erica Beeney of Columbus, Ohio. It’s a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old boy who reenacts battle scenes from World War II.
“Efram and I don’t get involved in something unless our hearts are in it. We decided that if we were offered another screenplay, we would have said, ‘no.'”
Now, they’re grateful that they don’t have to spend the next year traveling the independent and underground film festival circuit with their short films. It was a wonderful experience, Rankin said, but tiring and expensive.
“We were struggling financially,” he said.
Fund raising has always been cruel and unusual punishment for Rankin and Potelle, who met in the winner’s circle of the Maine Student Film and Video Festival while in high school. After graduating from the University of Maine, they teamed up to produce an original, low-budget 16mm psychological thriller, “Reindeer Games” — four years before John Frankenheimer directed a film with the same name starring Ben Affleck.
Fiscal anxieties became the core of their 1999 off-beat, comedic short “Pennyweight,” which, in retrospect, also seems strangely prophetic. Rankin plays an indie filmmaker who, in return for $200,000 from an insane millionaire, agrees to wear silly flower earrings for one full year so he can make his movie. Project Greenlight won’t make Rankin wear outrageous jewelry, but they will throw television cameras in his face. HBO is producing a behind-the-scenes television series of the film that will start airing in the spring.
After “Pennyweight,” Rankin and Potelle shot their next film — a seven-minute, campy, science-fiction comedy, “They Came to Attack Us” — on digital video for a whopping $50.
Both films won several awards at film festivals across the country, but Rankin and Potelle never got the recognition they desired. Now they’re working with some of Hollywood’s finest.
Rankin said he’s been impressed with how dedicated Damon, Affleck and Miramax are to the project. The team is trying to recruit Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, and Liv Tyler — who grew up in Portland, Maine — for the movie.
The first Project Greenlight film, “Stolen Summer,” wasn’t successful at the box office or with the critics, despite big names like Brian Dennehy and Aidan Quinn in the cast. “Matt said, not to add any extra pressure, but the fate of Project Greenlight kind of rests on the success of this movie,” Rankin said. “I’m trying not to think about that.”
He’s also trying not to change his style or his approach to filmmaking that got him to this point. “I don’t really feel the need to prove myself,” Rankin said. “We just want to be ourselves and make the best film possible.”
“It just feels good to finally be a paid filmmaker.”
Like a million bucks, no doubt.