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Just shoot me

Let’s say you want to be the producer, writer, and, as it turns out, star of your own movie. And that movie is about trying to reunite the legendary, elusive rock band the Kinks. All you have to do is abide by one simple rule: Forget you have a life.

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By Geoff Edgers
April 11, 2010

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We get outside the editing room before we start screaming. It’s a steamy and rainy Wednesday in June, and I want to kill my director as much as he wants to kill me. He’s livid because, in his opinion, I’m not working hard enough to secure permission to use music in our movie. And without music, we’re sunk, since our film is about the British rock band the Kinks.

He’s out of his mind.

As we bicker, I think of everything I’ve provided over the last year: the emotional support, the Marlboro Lights, the roast beef subs he likes (soft white bread, no tomatoes!). I think of the toilet seat I bought for the editing office after the old one broke and he couldn’t be bothered to replace it.

“I don’t remember even a simple thank you from you!” I yell. “For anything!”

“Sorry, massa!” Rob shouts back, dropping to his knees in mock deference. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I walk away and head toward my Buick and start unloading lights and lens cases onto the misted pavement. Our editor, Brad, the whiz kid we usually shielded from our dysfunction, stumbles upon this scene.

“I’m done!” I shout.

We’re supposed to interview R.E.M.’s guitarist, Peter Buck, in about an hour. I’m pretending I couldn’t care less.

Of course, I care more than anything. Within a few minutes, I change course, and Brad and I silently reload the gear. We hop in to drive to the Bank of America Pavilion. Backstage, I listen to Buck expound on his love for the Kinks, the icons behind the classic hits “You Really Got Me,” “Lola,” and “Come Dancing.” Singer Scott McCaughey’s sitting next to him, guitar in hand.

It’s been a tough week. I feel ragged from the argument and freaked out by an ugly labor dispute at work. Yet within 20 minutes, Rob’s behind the camera and I’m sitting in a room with two masterful musicians playing “Get Back in Line,” a brilliant Kinks song about – get this – the powerful hold of the union. And then, according to plan, I join in. As I put my finger over my ear to make sure I’m on key for the harmony vocal, my issues with Rob begin to fade. Suddenly, I feel as if I’m living another person’s life. Because I am. Here, right now, I’m not a newspaper reporter. I’m a moviemaker.

How does a person with absolutely no background in film actually make one? The honest answer is: by simply not knowing any better. Every day for two years, I worked on producing my documentary, Do It Again, which will screen in Somerville on April 24 as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston. Most of those days resembled that June afternoon last year: anxiety, exasperation, and, if I was lucky, a fleeting moment of surreal satisfaction. To create even a small, independent film – yes, light-years from The Hurt Locker – I had to surrender to an all-consuming life of begging, prodding, appeasing, nagging, schlepping, sacrificing, and, oh yes, check-writing.

The quest began over a roast beef sandwich.

Early in 2008, I had the bizarre idea to make a film about the Kinks, undeniable members of rock’s pantheon. Growing up, I was mesmerized by their riffs, and I loved that the band, which formed in 1963, sang about real life and real feelings, about crumbling tenements and gender-benders and a schoolboy’s envy. Other ’60s groups sang only about girls. Even though the Kinks were so clearly rooted in English culture, the music connected with me because of its sense of mischief and humor, its darkness and personality. But the band’s stars, Ray and Dave Davies, were warring brothers who had stopped performing together in 1996. My modest idea: Get them and the other members back together.

I knew my motivation. I was almost 40 and feeling stale in my job. Back in college, I had plans to write novels or reviews for Rolling Stone. But in my mid-20s, I let that slide. I chose a stable job and family, and if my career was underwhelming, I justified it to myself by claiming to have no time. In reality, I feared I simply didn’t have the talent to do anything special.

“You’re not a moviemaker,” my wife, Carlene, said. “You should write a book.” But for some reason, she didn’t stop me. I think she figured that, as I had with my other ideas, I’d stop myself. This time, I didn’t. I consulted several people knowledgeable about the industry. Everyone seemed hung up on distribution rights and business plans. Then I talked to Rob.

Robert Patton-Spruill and I first met 20 years ago, though mutual friends, but we barely knew each other. He was a senior at Brookline High School and a member of the undefeated wrestling team. I was a junior and spent most of my time playing music. We lost touch. Rob went to college and became a filmmaker. His first movie, 1997’s Squeeze, scored a deal with Miramax. His second, Body Count, went straight to cable. After that, he left Hollywood and retreated to Boston.

That’s where I found him, on Fort Hill. He had just finished a documentary on rap pioneers Public Enemy. At lunch, Rob was alternately charming, inspiring, and forlorn. He spoke of “living the dream,” but every story of artistic success seemed to come with an accompanying tale of financial disappointment. And just a few months earlier, he had suffered a stroke. He had recovered and was now teaching directing at Emerson College.

What hooked me was Rob’s philosophy: Instead of talking about making a movie, just make it. And he had another idea that could create a more distinctive film: The movie wouldn’t be so much about the Kinks but about me and my quixotic pursuit of the band.

He owned a special digital camera capable of filming in very high resolution – and we could use a crew of his Emerson students to keep costs down. “All we’ll need for this film is a stack of hard drives like this,” Rob said, holding his hand up about waist-high. Overall, we had no concrete plan, no concept of cost, no clue how to reunite the band, no licensing deals to use any of its music or video clips, and no promise of profit for either of us. The only thing that was certain was that I would have to make the movie while somehow still working my full-time job as an arts writer for the Globe.

The camera and three student crew members arrived at my house on a Wednesday in May 2008 for our first shoot. Rob filmed me at the kitchen table as I called publicists of rock stars I wanted to interview. At one point, he saw my acoustic guitar leaning against a wall.

He asked if I knew any Kinks songs. I chose the haunting track “Strangers” and stumbled through it for the camera. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my screen test.

As the summer of 2008 began, I watched Rob direct our largely untrained crew masterfully. He taught with a perfect balance of fear and love. As for me, it felt strange and wonderful to be the center of everything, for somebody to believe I was interesting enough to devote so much time to.

At home, Carlene and our daughter, Lila, 6 at the time, weren’t quite as thrilled. They had never signed up to be a part of my own reality show, and the constant presence of cameras was jarring. Carlene would come home and find Rob and the crew in our bathroom, filming me shaving while I talked about the brilliance of 1967’s seminal record Something Else by the Kinks.

Then they would point the camera at Carlene, doing dishes, as Rob peppered her with questions. As director, he expected actors on set – whether it’s a Hollywood soundstage or my kitchen – to follow his orders. Carlene wasn’t interested in Rob’s credentials. She wanted some control. One day, she asked me to let her see some of the footage. I called Rob and was rebuffed. Wrong answer.

“Tell him if he wants to bring his camera back into my house, he can show me a little of what he’s shooting,” she said. I relayed the message. It wasn’t well received.

“I WILL NOT WORK UNDER THESE CONDITIONS,” he e-mailed me. “I WILL WALK OFF THIS PROJECT.”

I called Brad Allen Wilde, our editor. Get me a short clip, I told him. He worried about angering “boss.” Don’t worry, I told him. It would be our little secret.

Meanwhile, my interview requests weren’t going well. Sure, being a staff writer at a major newspaper opened the door with publicists. It shut as soon as I told them my unique interview strategy, which Rob and I had come up with: I’d ask the star to play a Kinks song with me.

“You are truly off your rocker (and I’m saying this with all due respect),” Bob Merlis, a veteran publicist representing John Mellencamp, responded to a request. “You’re expecting Mellencamp to sing a song, somebody else’s song, on request for a film while he’s prepping for Farm Aid?”

Mellencamp wasn’t the only no. I was rejected by more than 50 musicians, from Aimee Mann to ZZ Top. But in late summer, I began to break through and actually get interviews, mainly by no longer telling anybody about that one wrinkle. I would just surprise them during our on-camera chat.

British cult hero Robyn Hitchcock met me before a gig in Northampton. Modfather Paul Weller talked before a show at Berklee. Actress and singer Zooey Deschanel gave me time in Los Angeles after I had done another story there for the paper. My biggest coup came at the end of July: Sting. Backstage at the Comcast Center before a Police show, he spoke passionately about his admiration of Ray Davies and the Kinks. At the end of the interview, the magical moment arrived. Sting told me about his favorite Kinks songs and, after naming them, said: “I could play them all.” Pause. “I can still play them.”

That was my opening. Sting reached out and asked for Rob’s acoustic guitar.

We needed money. It was nearly November of 2008, and Ray Davies – who, as the band’s leader and principal songwriter, was the key to everything – still hadn’t agreed to an interview. I was frustrated and wondering how I would possibly make my film without him. But I wasn’t giving up. In fact, I decided it was time to go to London. I had some vacation coming. We would try to approach the Kinks there, at an annual fans’ convention.

A London shoot could cost as much as $30,000. I had about $400 left in my savings account. At this point, I could have turned back. I had spent about $2,000, and nobody would have blamed me for returning to my pre-movie life. But I didn’t even consider it, not with those interviews in the can. To avoid this reality, I simply put off thinking about money. I paid as I went, with no budget.

While still working my day job, writing scripted segments for the film, sending out scores of requests for interviews, consulting with lawyers, researching archival footage, and addressing other countless matters from equipment rental to insurance, I searched for investors. Eventually, I got lucky. An old friend’s husband put in $30,000, and I gave him a 12 percent stake. Now we could go to London.

The convention took place in a small, packed, beer-soaked club just before Thanksgiving. Every year, former Kinks members showed up to play music and meet fans. I hooked up interviews with original drummer Mick Avory and his replacement, Bob Henrit. (Bassist Peter Quaife, battling health problems in Denmark, had declined my invitation to attend.) And my detective work tracking down the brothers Davies paid off, though not exactly the way I expected.

When the trip ended, we were stuck again. We had rich material, but to edit it – and pay for licensing fees and other production costs – we needed more cash, about $60,000. I went back to our investor. He sounded positive. “But I’m not giving you another cent until I see more of the picture,” he said.

He wanted a rough cut by January 2009. Rob groaned when I told him. He’ll be expecting a finished movie, he said. After processing our footage, we would have only about 16 days for an edit. And you can’t make a movie in 16 days. But we had no choice. That December, Rob and Brad piled on 15-hour days to make the deadline, working through Christmas and New Year’s. When our investor arrived to watch the rough, I bought coffee and pastries. I should have picked up a barrel of Tums. Within minutes, he stopped looking at the screen and reached for a notepad. He scribbled furiously.

Rob was right. We had made a mistake. “I have come to the conclusion that I have very little faith in Rob,” the investor wrote later. “I hate to say it, but I’m disappointed by the way he has constructed the story.”

I didn’t read Rob that message. I knew the investor was wrong. Rob just hadn’t been given the time or resources he needed. But when I tried to soft-pedal the reality by mentioning we weren’t going to get the additional funding right away, Rob had a meltdown. He sat on the couch in his home, sweat-shirt hood pulled over his head like a little kid. He wouldn’t let it go. I finally left, his wife telling me he would be fine.

By now, life had become a blur. I woke at 5:30 most days to try to exercise, make Lila’s lunch, and wind my way through e-mails, phone calls, assorted chores. I grew addicted to my computer, obsessively checking for replies.

After I came home from work and had dinner, I would head out to Kinko’s to copy DVD labels, Staples to pick up blank discs, or Rob’s to bring supplies and review edits. At times, the stress was unbearable. At any moment – when a hard drive would freeze, when a licensing or interview request would be ignored – I felt as if everything might collapse. At Rob’s, I found myself starting to bum Marlboro Lights from the boys, even though, curiously, I didn’t smoke. It felt like a high school and jail and clubhouse all in one. I wondered whether we would get out alive.

Rob and Brad had worked miracles in 16 days. Now I wanted to see what they could do in 16 weeks. Nobody else seemed willing to part with the cash we needed. So I decided to stop begging rich people. Instead, I wrote to everybody I knew. Some PayPal’d me $15. A friend from North Carolina gave $4,000. The husband of my childhood next-door neighbor sent me $2,000. I heard about Kickstarter.com, a site started by a group in Brooklyn to get projects funded. Through it, we brought in more than $6,500. By the time I was done, I had probably raised close to $20,000. Still not enough, but it would do for now.

I also sought advice. We held a series of screenings with friends, colleagues, and virtual strangers who I knew were smart. I called Morgan Spurlock, whose Super Size Me is the gold standard for indie doc success (cost: $65,000; gross: $28 million). He invited me to New York and we watched a rough cut in his office. “You’re onto something great here,” he said, then ticked off a list of problems and suggestions.

Rob and I geared up for another two weeks of shooting, our rough cut now a road map to creating a strong, cohesive narrative. We landed the Peter Buck interview in June 2009. By July, despite all the frazzled nerves, we had our new cut. It felt like a different movie. All we needed to do was sell it.

Today’s indie movie market is a tough place to operate. The rise of digital has made it easier than ever to create a film, flooding the market with product. But there’s hardly any money from studios or distributors.

I didn’t need Do It Again to be shown in 2,500 theaters. At this point, late last year, we would have been happy with a modest broadcast deal on cable or a small theatrical run. We started by trying to crack into the film festival circuit, where many industry buyers scout films. It wouldn’t be easy. Sundance, for example, gets more than 9,800 entries every year and accepts only 200.

We weren’t invited to Park City, Utah. But in November, we were accepted by the International Film Festival Rotterdam – one of the five big festivals in Europe. We were asked to make our world premiere at the end of January. Getting into Rotterdam opened a lot of doors. Soon, we had invitations to festivals in Atlanta, Bermuda, Boston, Buenos Aires, Cleveland, North Carolina, Poland, South Korea, and Taiwan.

But for now, we were thrown into another panic. It looked as if we needed anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 to finish. (What’s more, we still needed permission to use those songs. I had been asking for months; without approval, we wouldn’t have a movie. We’d have an 85-minute copyright infringement.) With a deadline approaching, the tension grew. I began to understand how filmmakers lose control of their projects. You’re tempted to do anything for the money. The big spenders are suddenly there and looking for a disproportionate share of your film. You cave in and cash out.

Except I wouldn’t. Yes, I was desperate, struggling to sleep and totally distracted at home. But I decided not to act it. I was working every angle I could, but I needed a fair deal. I turned down a big offer because it meant selling more than half the film. I also dealt with a temperamental investor who thought my decision to contact one of his wealthy buddies was impolitic. He actually called me “sleazy.” I brushed it off. A few days later, that buddy gave us 20 grand.

Carlene didn’t flinch. Borrow whatever we need, she said. My parents found my fund-raising woes so disturbing that they kicked in some cash. Sometime in late December, I did what I had once promised never to do: I borrowed $25,000 on our home equity line. That’s when I really knew what it meant to be a producer.

Rob, whose own finances were even shakier than mine, seemed to take pleasure in loading more onto me. During a three-day stretch, he told me I needed to order kerosene to heat the house that contained our editing bay. That threw $382.75 on my Visa. He had me drive to Ashland to pick up chicken feed and hay for the animals he kept on this property. (He didn’t have time.)

Without any cash but needing a sound mix, I got in touch with Kerouac Films in Rhode Island. As a huge favor, they agreed to do it for free. (We would pay them back if and when we sold the film.) Rob’s response? He said he needed to be in Rhode Island to supervise the mix, but he couldn’t drive there unless his car got an oil change. He didn’t have time to take it in. So I did.

I felt like a sucker, considering we owned the same amount of the film but I’d thrown in so much money. He had a different view: He was frustrated and annoyed that he was under my deadlines without any cash to show for it. “You only raised money for the things you thought were important,” Rob told me recently. “So things I think are important – like my salary – never got met. That’s very frustrating, because while we would pay a 22-year-old kid, we would never pay me.”

Thanks to borrowing, begging, and the generosity of others, I had the cash. Total cost: about $120,000. Months later, I would still be searching for a studio to buy and release our film, enabling us to at least recoup that money and maybe even turn a modest profit. But for now, I just had to make sure Do It Again could be shown.

Our Rotterdam screening was scheduled for January 28. For the licensing, I had finally secured agreements for some of the songs, but not all. The record company reps said they were still waiting for approval from London – shorthand for Ray’s office.

Sometime before Christmas, I broke out in shingles, the viral infection sending shooting pains across my back and arms. I started to have a repeating nightmare: An e-mail arrives from Ray Davies with “licensing” in the subject line. I open the message and it’s blank.

Finally, on January 26 at 5:30 a.m., I drafted a desperate letter to Ray’s assistants: “The last two weeks have been heartbreaking as I imagine two years of hard work and all of my savings going for nothing. As I said, I’m about to jump on a plane with my very pregnant wife for what I was hoping would be the realization of a personal dream. In that spirit, I ask for your help.”

I left for a Dunkin’ Donuts run. When I got back, Carlene told me Ray’s assistant had called. He told her not to worry, that it would all work out.

At 4:30 p.m. on January 27 – 20 minutes before my dad came to drive us to the airport – Universal sent the final bill: $937.50 to use our last four songs.

I wrote a check and handed it to my father. “Please pop this in the mailbox,” I said. “It’s kind of important.”

Our Rotterdam premiere played the next night. The theater, an IMAX screen with 460 seats, was sold out. When the lights went down, Rob, sticking with a tradition of his, got up and left. Suddenly, I saw my head on the screen. Carlene squeezed my hand. And then the first joke. The audience laughed as if it were one organism. Was this really happening?

I wish I could say that sitting there, watching, I felt as if I had fulfilled all of my dreams, that I no longer felt this inner drive to prove something. But I actually felt a little sad. This beginning was really just the start of the end. I would never experience this moment again.

When it was over, the audience cheered and stayed to ask questions. Carlene teared up. That day, we were voted the most popular film of the festival. Later in the week, we’d get knocked off by Francis Ford Coppola and Wes Anderson. After all we’d been through and what we’d created, I could live with that.

Geoff Edgers is a Globe arts writer. E-mail him at gedgers@globe.com.

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