HARD SELL – diary of a first-time feature filmmaker

Recently, a former student and current consulting client, Sean Nalaboff, completed shooting his first feature film – HARD SELL.

As he’s putting the finishing touches on the picture (color and sound), we talked about this remarkable experience.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

ES: Tell me what led to the idea for HARD SELL.

SN: Everything I write comes from a level of my personal experience. I had a comfortable upbringing, but, personally, I was isolated. So, there’s a bit of me in nearly every character in HARD SELL. I was born and raised in Long Island. I went to a private school. But I always felt like a square peg in a round hole. The environment in HARD SELL is one I know very well

ES: When did you get the filmmaking dream?

SN: From the first movie I could remember watching – I was 6 or 7 years old – it was JAWS. I was afraid to take a bath for months. The picture had a tremendous effect on me. It took me to new worlds. I was SO captivated by it. While I loved soccer, I had an internal dialogue: do you want to be Pele or Spielberg?

ES: How did your dedication manifest itself?

SN: My dad had a high-end video camera. He shot the usual home movies: the family growing up. I tried to make the camera see the way I see. But none of my friends wanted to act; they thought it was lame! So I used toys and moved them around. Then, in high school, I tried to get more people involved. Then I went to film school in California.

ES: Why did you decide on the West Coast?

SN: I wanted to experience something new. I thought California was far away enough. First though, I tried it in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Two years there. I met cinematographers, art directors, and others of like mind. Then I went further west.

ES: The two inciting incidents (meeting a stripper; and your dog getting sick) – which happened first in your life?

SN: First was the dog. I had one, “Walter.” It needed a surgery to survive. But it was so expensive, I couldn’t afford it. We finally held a fund-raiser for Walter. But I needed more money. Next, I thought, what could happen that would be a new and unique way to make money? Maybe I could have met a stripper, who could’ve “danced for the students,” and I could have charged for that to supplement Walter’s surgery fund. That would have been exciting! I did my “research,” and emailed lots of actual strippers. So I developed this unique character for HARD SELL – a stripper who actually ended up giving the kids counselling about their personal problems, for which they were willing to pay me!

ES: A man comes looking for the stripper in your film. Was he really her uncle, or a pimp, or from a mental hospital, or a policeman?

SN: It’s okay with me if you wonder about that! Remember RISKY BUSINESS?

ES: How did you get Kristin Chenoweth to agree to play the hero’s mom?

SN: Matthew Rolston, the great photographer, took me under his wing. He mentored me. I was doing behind the scenes videos for him. We did one for Jennifer Love Hewitt who shares the same manager as Kristin. That led to me doing a video with Kristin. We got along very well, and she told her manager, “When Sean has a project of his own, let me know.” We had very little money, but she loved the part. She’s a wonderful comedic actress, and a very nice person. She felt the part of a mom in distress would be something new. She worked with me for five days. This was a dream come true for me. She treated me with such respect; it was amazing! She is SO gracious and courteous.

ES: How about the rest of the cast?

SN: I hired a casting director early on. We put together a “pitchbook.” Our investors, of course, were excited by Kristin’s involvement. All the other actors were locals. Therefore, no transportation and minimal housing costs. Skyler, the main male role, really embodied the character. It was his first leading role.

ES: How many shooting days did you have?

SN: 20 days; four 5-day weeks. We had one pick-up day. I had enough time! We got ALL our shots. We had blocked out everything in advance. Had only about 2 set-ups per scene; maximum 4 takes per set-up. This was an EFFICIENT shoot!

ES: And the inevitable question – will you tell me what the budget was?

SN: Let’s say “under a million.” You could even say, WAY under a million.

ES: What made you come to me as a Production Consultant?

SN: When I knew the script was ready, I now needed to know, “How am I going to make this film? How and from where should I get the money?” I came to you because I know you, I trust you, and you know how to do it! By the time you helped us schedule and budget the movie, we knew how much time and money we needed. Jimmy Seargent, my producer, came to most of our meetings and took copious notes. Because of our preparation, there were no real surprises on the set. You had accurately warned us about everything!

ES: Were there any specific problems?

SN: So many variables. Weather in New York during the Fall. Just a year earlier, we had Hurricane Katrina. We knew we couldn’t afford to take off any days. So we covered ourselves by having interior scenes possible to shoot if it rained.

ES: HARD SELL, because of the subject matter, could easily have been an R rating. But it seems milder to me.

SN: Yes, the intended audience was a younger demographic. We wanted a PG-13 rating. We even removed some of the language to ensure that.

ES: How are you getting HARD SELL to the marketplace?

SN: Working with an agency that’s setting up screenings for festival programmers. Ideal, of course, would be a theatrical release. Next would be VOD and the other usual routes.

ES: What’s your next project?

SN: This’ll be about a group of friends in their twenties (also Long Island-based). They go searching for buried treasure and end up getting mixed up in the disappearance of a young girl. I’ll be going for a higher budget. And you were right – the “pride of ownership” factor is the primary determinant as to my abiity to interest investors. It’s been quite a ride so far!

Orson Welles – The Magician

Many of you know that I had the privilege to work with a true genius – Orson Welles – during the making of his last feature film: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. It was his final film, and he worked on it from 1970 until his passing in 1985. The subject of the film was a “cult” movie director (portrayed by John Huston) who was having difficulty completing his last work! Self-fulfiling prophecy, indeed!

Peter Bogdanovich (director of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, WHAT’S UP, DOC?, and PAPER MOON) had phoned me and said “Want to work with Orson?” I said, “Orson who?” He said, “Welles, of course!” I and my friend Felipe Herba raced right over to Orson’s rented house in Beverly Hills, set up our equipment, and began filming an unbelievably complex party scene.

I knew at once that I was in the presence of a major creative mind. Orson asked me to do things with the camera I had never even dreamed about, let alone thought were possible.

Now, not only has that movie been announced for possible release (http://variety.com/2014/film/news/orson-welles-final-film-2015-release-1201341048/), but there’s a 90-minute documentary about Orson’s life and times – MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES – which soon will be hitting theatres in select cities around the U.S. (http://cohenmedia.net/films/magician).

I’m honored to be included in this documentary by Chuck Workman, Academy Award-winning filmmaker.

MAGICIAN is one of the best portraits of a film director at work. It’s a loving but no-nonsense telling of Orson’s life and work. During our interview, Chuck asked me a number of insightful questions about working with Orson, and I realized that nearly everything I know about making movies came from my 2-week stint with Orson.

He is the largest (physically, mentally, creatively) person with whom I’ve ever worked. He utterly pervaded the space – he was EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME! He knew precisely where my camera was and what it was seeing, though he never looked through the lens. He controlled me and all the participants through the strength of his will. Once while we were shooting a scene, there were dozens of people running around behind the camera. Four people holding cue cards; electricians pulling cable; prop people racing ahead of our camera; etc. After thirty minutes of straight rolling (I was alternating with Orson’s dedicated DP, Gary Graver), my back started to cramp up, I reached behind my back to rub out the “knot.” Orson yelled out, “Cut. How do you expect me to concentrate with all that extra motion?” I said, “But Mr. Welles, there are dozens of people in motion behind me.” He said, “Yes, but I didn’t plan your moving!” This was TOTAL control!

It was a life-changing experience for me, and I’m forever grateful to Orson and Peter – and now to Chuck. When I teach film history, I divide it into “pre-Welles” and “post-Welles.” He represented the turning point between objective and subjective cinema.

I’d love it if you’ll see MAGICIAN as soon as possible, and let me know what you think. Click on this link to learn more about the picture. (http://cohenmedia.net/films/magician)

Eric Sherman

The Best and the Winners

Aside from my usual consulting, expert witnessing and teaching, I occasionally get called upon to do something out of the norm.

Recently, I had the interesting task of being a kind of “executive producer” for six commercial spots (30 seconds each) and six “viral” videos (1 minute to 15 minutes each).

There’s a brand of Tequila called Avion – it’s been voted the world’s best tasting.  The entrepreneurial founder of Avion Tequila, Ken Austin, came out to my Art Center College of Design Advanced Workshop class and gave the students a challenge:  the six best proposals for a new commercial and the six best proposals for a “viral” video would each be awarded $2500, and the winner of each category (determined by number of votes, clicks, tweets, etc.) would each be awarded $10,000!

Nearly 100 concepts (accompanied by storyboards, look-books, pitches, mood boards) were submitted, and Avion chose the finalists.  They each, then, had two weeks to produce entirely their films.

I’m extremely pleased to tell you that everyone fulfilled the task!

To see ALL the finalists, go to YouTube and type in “tequila avion art center.”  AVION, NO CHASER and TAXMAN were the winners, but all the finalists’ work is up.

This shows what you can do in a VERY short time when you’re guided by a theme and a purpose.

About Steve Balderson

My friend, colleague, client and former student Steve Balderson has been remarkably productive over the past decade.  He has written and directed more than a dozen feature films, and he’s gained quite a reputation as the focal point of a new movement in Kansas for independent filmmaking.

Recently, he wrote about our relationship in his blog.  For the computer challenged, the text is below.  If you’d prefer, here’s the link:


I recommend you read it, and join up.  He’s always got an interesting viewpoint!  And, thank you, Steve!



August 20, 2014

Eric Sherman is my mentor and consultant and guru and… well, he’s just like Yoda.  Only real.  I first met Eric when I was a student at CalArts in the mid 90s.  Eric taught Film Directing and on the first day of class, as he arrived, I handed him my business card.  My attendance was spotty, but I thoroughly enjoyed learning what he had to share.

At the end of the semester, I left CalArts for a few weeks to direct a feature version of Anne Rice’s novel THE VAMPIRE LESTAT.  See, for another class, we were given an assignment to direct something with texture (or something about composition in general).  The assignment was supposed to be a short film, but I never thought in short-storytelling format, so I instantly thought I’d adapt and direct LESTAT since I’d just finished reading the book and was really inspired.  Anyway, I had to leave CalArts in order to get back to Kansas to make the movie.

When I returned, most of my instructors asked where in the world had I been and I replied, “I was doing the assignment!”  Then I handed them a double VHS set of the finished and edited movie.  (Yes, this was before DVDs were invented and the movie was longer than 2 hours, so I had to use a second VHS tape to hold the last part).

Eric gave me an INCOMPLETE on my report card.  I didn’t know what that meant, so I went to see him.  Evidently if a student doesn’t attend the class, there’s no way for him or her to learn what is being taught in the class.  Of course he was right. 

God, Mankind and Movies

As a film professional, I try to keep up with current movies – successes and failures.

However, I admit that I’ve had an aversion to the modern “comic book” type of bloated, special effects-laden, blockbusters.

Recently, I decided to check them out – so many ticket-buyers canNOT be wrong, I figured.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen SUPERMAN-MAN OF STEEL (directed by my former student Zack Snyder!); all the TRANSFORMERS (directed by my former student Michael Bay!); all the BATMANs; all the IRON MANS; the AVENGERS;all the SPIDER MANs; and AFTER EARTH.

At last, I’ve figured out their appeal…they show an individual rising to super-human powers, controlling matter, energy, space and time. This factor has always been the subject of mythology, ancient and modern alike.

There is a fundamental human desire and The dilemma of channel profitability