The Back-Door Director
David Douglas was too cheap for Hollywood. They’ll be sorry.
By Mark Frauenfelder
This was David Douglas’ idea of a reward – to be in a Bulgarian forest at 3 a.m. in the dead of winter. It was 20 below, the wind was howling, and he was four days into a fever that left him wobbly with fatigue. Sitting in his director’s chair, David seemed to be the only one on the set of For the Cause who was unaware that the weather was trying to kill everybody. Knee-deep in snow, the crew was desperate to finish the shot and go to sleep. But not David. He didn’t spend years working for free at TV stations and movie studios, living in his car, sneaking onto the Sony lot to make a short film, just so he could go back to his crappy hotel in Sofia and nurse a flu. This was it. His dream was coming true. And if it happened to be taking place in the middle of an icy windstorm, so be it.
Lots of American movies are shot in Bulgaria – not because location scouts have singled it out as God’s little acre of cinematographic splendor, but because the economy is rotten, making it a cheap place to produce a picture. Most directors work here only reluctantly, dreaming of big budgets and more enviable locales. But David is different: He’s a self-starting computer freak who is more than happy to be right here, right now, making the best movie he can on a tiny budget of $2.5 million.
Douglas is the first to admit that’s not a lot of money, but it’s enough if you plan ahead and make use of new technologies that shift control from expensive specialists and their bolted-to-the-floor systems to DIY generalists with cheap PCs and powerful software.
David used tools like Photoshop to jump-start a career that seemed to have started and ended all at once a few years ago, when his idea of a reward was considerably glitzier. His roundabout trip to the director’s chair vividly illustrates how the plummeting price of digital filmmaking is giving talented misfits a chance to short-circuit the existing power structure and capture the attention of a global audience. In fact, you might think of him as Hollywood’s first breakout geek, a director who owes his debut to Moore’s Law.
Not long ago, Douglas didn’t need to scratch around and make do. In 1996 he had a multimillion-dollar production contract with Miramax, a 5,000-square-foot Spanish villa in Malibu with 11 acres and a private beach, and a black TransAm that ate BMWs for breakfast and crapped them out on the roadside. When he landed the Miramax gig, the gangly, 6Â½-foot-tall Fresno boy threw one hell of a party. But he failed to make a movie. Or maybe the system failed him. Inserting David into the bloated bureaucracy of a traditional studio system was like putting Carl Lewis on a moped: He sped around in circles and made noise, but he lost his sense of purpose.
When I first meet him, he’s just back from Bulgaria, doing postproduction on For the Cause, creating matte paintings and working with his younger brother Tim on visual effects. It’s a balmy evening in Santa Monica, and I arrive at the restaurant 10 minutes late. David is finishing a glass of iced tea, the first of at least six he’ll drink that night. When I introduce myself, he wriggles his legs out from under the low restaurant table and pumps my arm enthusiastically, greeting me like an old pal. Dressed in black, David, now 33, has a youthful mop of hair that he frequently brushes away from his eyes.
As soon as we sit down, he starts talking emphatically. His long arms swing from his elbows in complex arcs. He’s on a tirade about Philo T. Farnsworth, the genius who helped invent TV, only to have his technology swiped by RCA. Before the story has a chance to go far, he’s marveling at the fact that men traveled to the moon on 8K of RAM. Suddenly, he’s complaining that humankind’s ability to fake reality is “outstripping its ability to achieve real goals.” Now he’s chiding the ancient Romans for inviting their own downfall by building a road to Germany.
I interrupt him politely and ask what he’s getting at. “Invention, exploration, war,” he exclaims. “The three things that drive all of human history – that’s it. Everything else is what we do in the meantime: love, death, misery, joy, whatever. You’re either exploring the world, inventing something, or having a war to fight over the area you explored or the thing you invented.” Then he launches into a history of weapons, beginning with the discovery of the first spear crafted for combat – hey, he says, it’s estimated by carbon dating to be 300,000 years old!
For the Cause is a war epic, the sort of story the Douglas brothers were raised on. They grew up a four-hour drive north of Los Angeles in Clovis, California, a Central Valley burg that proudly calls itself the rodeo capital of the world. For David and Tim, their dusty town may as well have been on the other end of the Milky Way. Their mother, Joqueta, ran a second-hand shop. Richard, their father, worked as a historian for the California state park system and “never made more than six bucks an hour in his life,” David says. But Richard Douglas was a gifted artist – he repainted Sonoma’s chapel of the San Francisco de Solano Mission during its renovation. Besides reproducing the original wall art using period tools and paints, he built detailed models of the mission for museum displays. His sons learned how to paint and construct models from him.
He also taught them history. “Instead of Mother Goose, we got Nuremberg and the Brownshirts,” says David. “Our dad is the world’s great walking repository of historical information.” Pop culture was part of the family feed as well. In the summer of 1977, Richard read his sons the novelization of Star Wars. But it was the movie itself, which the brothers saw one night in Fresno, that David says changed his life.
“People can overanalyze that movie and say it’s this or that, but for an 11-year-old boy, that film was all about being a poor kid in a crappy town with no hope, and how you get out of that. And it was the greatest thing in the world.” Star Wars pointed to a better life, not in a galaxy far, far away, but in a big city a couple hundred miles from home – Los Angeles.
How do two kids from Clovis make it in Hollywood? By now David Douglas has learned the system: “The guys in charge make the rules. But they broke the rules in order to get there, all of them. Every single one, and I don’t give a fuck who it is. He lied, he cheated, he declared bankruptcy to get out of the bill – God bless him. That’s humanity, that’s life. The tricky son of a bitch wins.”
In his Clovis days, however, David was still learning to be tricky. He became a 13-year-old intern at Channel 18 in Fresno, dragging cables, lugging equipment. (Tim was a go-getter too. He taught himself computer graphics on his Vic 20, sent some samples to Sierra On-Line, and was offered a job. But right before he reported to work, the game company discovered he was underage and retracted the offer.) David didn’t have any problem logging hours at the TV station: “They couldn’t work me as an employee, but I could work there 24 hours a day as an intern and nobody gave a shit.” It was the first of many unpaid jobs.
Although David was hungry to learn, he despised the teachers and the rules at Clovis High and was flunking out. His do-it-yourself curriculum consisted of twirling knobs at the master control panel and setting up lighting systems at Channel 18, playing D&D, reading books by Carl Sagan, watching movies, drawing, and painting. By the age of 16, David says, he had ditched class so often, he’d racked up a year of detention. He describes the last straw with cinematic fervor: The truant officer nabbed him at the Clovis public library, where he was poring over a copy of Richard Feynman’s Quantum Electrodynamics, and dragged him back to school. Basic Health was in session, and the students were watching a filmstrip in which a hand puppet named Billy the Brain was stressing the importance of washing your hands.
Hollywood’s first breakout geeks owe their debut to Moore’s Law.
David went home and told his parents he was finished with high school. He went back to work at the TV station. Tim hung on for his high school diploma, making life bearable by producing music videos and horror films in his broadcasting class. When Tim graduated, he and David formed a computer graphics company called Grand Designs Animation that did mostly commercial work for the Fresno TV station and local car dealers. Their parents mortgaged the house to buy David and Tim a Compaq 286 and graphics software that was, as David puts it, “buggier than a bait store.” They made their first mistake by bringing clients to their bedroom office and showing them the computer system. When potential customers saw the puny setup – the 286 and Tim’s old Vic 20 – they shook their heads and left. David and Tim quickly cut out the company tours, and when clients asked, they took to describing their system as something you’d see purring away in a corner of NORAD.
Charging $500 a job, the brothers would spend three sleepless nights constructing and rendering an animated logo for a commercial. They had no video output system, so they had to copy the files onto Bernoulli boxes (unwieldy 10-Mbyte removable hard-drive cartridges), drive the 225 miles to Los Angeles to get them transferred onto tape, and return the same day.
“By the time we tallied it all up, we didn’t make shit,” says David. “Well, we broke even,” says Tim, “and in our spare time we’d use the computers to work on our ideas for films.” They were reading William Gibson and writing mounds of treatments for movies dealing with cyberspace, cyborgs, and biohacking. But the scripts weren’t doing any good collecting dust on their parents’ kitchen table, so in 1991 David and Tim said good-bye to Clovis and moved to Los Angeles.
With a half-dozen treatments in hand, David and his brother did the “young-idiot-in-Hollywood thing,” telling everyone they met, “Hey, we got this great idea, wanna see it?” Nobody did. David worked as an unpaid grunt “running sandwiches and shit” at DreamQuest and Apogee. Tim got a job as a graphic artist, creating titles for TV shows, and later scored a gig as a visual-effects supervisor for a bottom-feeder studio, producing tinfoil and toilet-paper-tube props for movies like 1992’s Prototype X29A, starring Kato Kaelin as Rebel #1. Life at the lower reaches of the motion-picture food chain paid so poorly that in 1994 David was forced to sell a cyborg design – the star of one of his unproduced movies – for $1,500.
A few weeks later, just when David’s cyborg trust fund was drying up, a friend told him about Sony Pictures Imageworks, the newly created computer-graphics division on the Sony lot. David became the first employee – once again, unpaid – and was put in charge of training new hires to use the computer system. The studios still viewed computer graphics as an expensive novelty, an experiment that wasn’t worth pouring too much money or time into. It was the moment just before the digital revolution swept through the industry. David recalls a catalytic event: Eating lunch one day at a production company where a friend worked, he and Tim heard that all of the stop-motion artists on the Jurassic Park crew had been fired. The dinosaurs were going to be CG! They could hardly contain themselves.
Suddenly, computer-graphics artists were hot. The brothers catapulted from techie grunts to revered experts. “Within six months I was Superguy,” recalls David, who began earning a paycheck – a good one. Tim easily landed a job as a CG artist at Imageworks, and David was one of only a couple dozen digital-matte painters in Hollywood. They scored work on big movies like Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Virtuosity, In the Line of Fire, and Speed.
For the first time in their lives, David and Tim were living above subsistence level. It felt so good they forgot the reason they’d pilgrimaged to Hollywood in the first place. Their plans to make movies were back-burnered. “All of a sudden you’re making $120,000 – your parents didn’t make that much in their lifetime,” David says now. “You’re around all these supposedly famous people. You get comfortable and it kills you, because all you think about is getting the next paycheck, and starving-to-death-to-make-your-dream-come-true becomes a bad idea.”
David was cranking out matte paintings for the bus-jump scene in Speed, working seven days a week, and living the good life. “But God always steps in and takes care of things,” he says. “When I got carpal tunnel syndrome it fucking ruined my life.” He couldn’t even open his car door. “Sony came to me and said, ‘You are letting us down – you gotta go, go, go! Have our doctor check you out.'”
Diagnosis: minor wrist fatigue. David’s rehab regimen: Take Tylenol and keep working. By the end of the week, David’s right hand had swelled up like a catcher’s mitt. So he went to the left hand and got CTS in both arms. Bandages and hot and cold treatments didn’t help. He went to a specialist at Cedars-Sinai, who taped magnets to his wrists. That didn’t work either.
That was it for David’s matte-painting career. He was fired.
“Star Wars was all about being a poor kid in a crappy town, and how you get out.”
Fifteen thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money to make a movie, even a short one. But that’s what David got from Sony in a worker’s compensation settlement. Friends told him to hang on to it, but he didn’t see the point. He could sit in his dingy apartment, peeling a few bills off the stack at a time, until the money ran out? Screw that. He decided to do what he’d wanted to do ever since he saw Star Wars 17 years earlier – make a movie called For the Cause, a science-fiction tale about two cities on a faraway planet that have been at war with each other for so long, they’re starting to draft children.
He chose a six-minute segment from a three-page treatment he’d written, a scene in which a group of terrorists accidentally trip a bomb’s timer and have four minutes to get out of the building. He rounded up a few friends for a crew, rounded up actors with a classified ad in Dramalogue. Then he called his ex-workmates at Sony to ask a favor. Would they mind leaving a few doors and equipment boxes unlocked over Labor Day weekend? They agreed, says David, because “they all figured that I had gotten a bum deal.”
As David points out, $15,000 couldn’t buy “sweeping vistas, but I could make a film out of cardboard and tinfoil that kicked ass.” In order to stretch the money as far as possible, the Douglases created an animatic – a limited-animation video storyboard using sketches and cardboard miniatures – to make sure every shot worked before committing it to expensive 35-mm film. They also used the animatic to impress a camera rental shop into lending them cameras and lenses to film the short. The brothers made use of the painting lessons their father taught them to transform plywood and construction paper into costly-looking machinery and equipment. They hid the collapsible sets and props in their cars.
On Friday evening, after most everyone at Sony had left for the three-day holiday, David, Tim, and a small crew worked through the night setting things up. Although a minor legend later developed that they snuck onto the lot, the truth was simpler: Almost everyone – except upper management – knew what David and Tim were up to. Nobody snitched, says David, “because it was exciting for them; it was something new.” With plenty of caffeinated beverages on hand, they started shooting at noon on Saturday and worked until midnight. Using his knowledge of stage lighting from his years at Channel 18, David was able to make quick changes to the same set, achieving the look of a whole new scene. The brothers slept a few hours, installed new sets, and resumed shooting through Sunday night. They used the same alleyway five times, rearranging props to make it look completely different. The short wasn’t finished – not by a long shot – but at least they’d gotten about 1,600 feet of footage shot with 35-mm anamorphic lenses, with sound recorded in six-track Dolby.
“We knew they were gonna catch us,” says David. “How do you hide something like black paint all over the floor?” So he wasn’t surprised when the call came Tuesday afternoon. David recalls that a “huge manager” for Sony berated him, saying, “Do you realize the precarious legal position you’re in right now?” “Oh yes,” he remembers responding, “but I have nothing. You’ve taken everything from me. I don’t have my hands, I don’t have a future. Sue me. However, I was on your stage all weekend, and I could have slipped and broken my neck. So don’t threaten me. You know me and you know that what we have is worth seeing. Do you want to see it?”
Sony did, and even paid to develop the film. Imageworks senior VP Bill Birrell liked it so much he gave David and Tim the go-ahead to use the lot and equipment after hours to complete the short.
“They backed us for the rest of the shoot,” says David. “But if we hadn’t taken that chance, gone around their backs, they never would have.”
When the For the Cause short was finished, an actor who appeared in it called his friend Nick Reed, an agent at ICM. Reed took one look at the footage and signed David and Tim as clients. He began screening the short for execs at Disney, Warner, Sony’s TriStar, Triumph, and Miramax, and invited a Variety reporter to attend. When the article hit, on September 25, 1995, the turmoil across Hollywood couldn’t have been any greater had David and his crew rappelled into the Sony lot from a UH-60 Black Hawk with MP5s at their sides. Reed says three companies eventually bid for Grand Designs. The Douglases chose Miramax. The deal included production overhead and salaries for David, Tim, producer Kia Jam, and director of photography Christopher Salazar (a friend from Fresno). David says Miramax told them, “You can make whatever you want as long as you keep it cheap. We are about making filmmaker’s films. Consider today the first day of preproduction on your project.”
Suddenly, David had a killer office and a private parking spot for his new car. He moved into a Malibu villa and threw a party that lasted four months. Everybody wanted to be in David’s movie. There was just one hitch: As it turned out, Miramax never green-lighted a Douglas picture. The company wanted David to work on other projects first, the kind that Miramax cut its teeth on when Bob and Harvey Weinstein opened their studio in 1979. “They handed me movies like Children of the Corn V, Phantoms, fuckin’ Hellraiser V, one after the other,” says David.
As one person in David’s circle puts it, Miramax had hired Grand Designs for its talent in extending the production value of a dollar, not for developing any of the scripts he had written.
But why not let him do both? It’s not easy for David to answer this question. He’s reluctant to trash-talk Miramax – he’s still friendly with Dimension, the genre division of Miramax that owns the domestic distribution rights to the feature version of For the Cause, and with Andrew Rona, the Miramax vice president who signed the brothers on. What David does say is that “we supplied 27 different projects – all of them turned down.” Rona, now at Miramax’s New York offices, says, “We were never able to find a piece of material that excited everybody. And it happens – not with just him, but with a lot of our filmmakers.”
“That’s Miramax,” one director told me when I recounted David’s experience. “It isn’t known for its in-house development.” This director (who spoke only on condition of anonymity, lest he lose what little chance remained for an all-but-dead deal with Miramax himself) said David isn’t the only director who hasn’t been allowed to make the movie that Miramax had said he could. “It’s about who can stay and fight long enough,” says David. “We’re kids. We can’t stay and fight long enough. We don’t have the money.”
“I could make a film out of cardboard and tinfoil that kicked ass.”
And the money they did get from the studios couldn’t actually be used to make their movie. While at Miramax, Grand Designs began working with a movie studio called Capella to develop Santiago, a science-fiction epic written by Michael Resnick and adapted by David.
“They spent $50,000 to send me and my partner to Cannes for 10 days” to hobnob with power players at the film festival, David recalls. “First-class tickets, warm nuts coming out of the oven as you landed, a $750-a-night room, the best dinner, driving around in a limo. But they wouldn’t give us $2,500 to build a model of our fucking gun shop for the film we were working on. It’s a different world. I don’t understand it; I never will.”
If Miramax wasn’t willing to play ball, neither was David. He refused to direct any of the pictures the studio put on his desk. He says he was afraid to. With his matte-painting career in the tank, he wasn’t about to kiss his directing career good-bye too. “You make two bad films in a row and it doesn’t matter who’s backing you,” he says. “We held out to make the kind of film we wanted to make.”
In August 1998, David and Tim’s obstinate refusal to direct anything other than their own movie landed the brothers back where they’d started – on the street. As they sat pondering their next move, the phone rang: It was Rona at Miramax, who told them that the full-length script of For the Cause, which David cowrote with Christopher Salazar in 1995, had gotten a great response at Nu Image/Millennium, a low-budget film company, and that the owners, Avi and Danny Lerner, wanted to talk.
“We took a look at the For the Cause script, and we were very impressed,” Danny Lerner recalls. The short film, he says, looked “unbelievable for that money. We’ve been filmmakers for years and years; we’ve made about 150 movies by now. David’s short film was quite an achievement.” The Lerners met with David and Tim. Five days later the producers signed off on $2.5 million and said, “Go make your movie.”
Within five months David had hired a cast and crew, signed Lois & Clark’s Dean Cain to star, and was off to Bulgaria. “We got the maximum production value there,” says Lerner.
What’s more, the location worked in favor of the plot. Says David, “If you want to go to a place that looks like a futuristic world that failed, Bulgaria is it.” The nation’s major rivers are awash in detergents, nitrates, heavy metals, oil, and raw sewage belched out by factories with no pollution controls. It was a bleak place even before inflation went hyper and banks started collapsing like dominoes. In short, it was the perfect setting of For the Cause.
The gloomy economy also suited David’s DIY nature. By giving up a seat in first class and scrunching into coach, he saved $3,000 – enough to pay a day’s wages to 40 extras. He then produced 173 scenes in six weeks – an average of four scenes a day – while fighting off a flu bug that raged through the film’s company.
The last time I meet with David, he’s in Los Angeles doing postproduction at Blur Studio, a visual-effects house in Venice. Actually, he and Tim are pretty much living there. It’s a Douglas kind of place. Unlike the f/x shops with floors of Silicon Graphics machines and expensive Houdini software, Blur works wonders with six dozen el cheapo Windows NT boxes and a $3,000 package called 3D Studio Max. (I get lambasted by three Blur artists within earshot when I utter the word Houdini.)
The scene inside Blur is always the same, whether it’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday or 2 p.m. on a Friday: the old, cavernously dark brick warehouse, and a dozen 25-year-olds with translucent blue skin and that bug-eyed look sitting in front of workstations with 21-inch screens. Since the film’s budget has pretty much been used up, David’s been working on side projects for Blur as a barter. He’s also resumed matte painting for the movie, and though his right arm gives an occasional warning throb, he’s saving about $100,000.
Walking from workstation to workstation, Tim supervises the effects work, asking for a little more glint on this flying blade, a little less shimmer on that force field. In one nearly finished scene, a couple of soldiers in a field are grabbed and squeezed to death by giant Gigeresque disembodied hands. In another scene, some fighter pods pop over a snow-covered hill. Both effects look as good as anything I’ve seen in a big-budget sci-fi flick, and Danny Lerner, who visits a few days later, agrees: “We saw what they made, and it wasn’t a mistake,” he says. “This will look like a $20 to $30 million movie.”
When it’s ready for release next year, For the Cause will be thrown onto a crowded marketplace, and there’s no telling whether it will enjoy a long theatrical release or shoot quickly to the video shelves. Either way, David Douglas will have an impressive calling card. And if the movie does well, it could launch him on the kind of directorial trajectory that commands Hollywood-size budgets.
For now, he seems chiefly happy to have made something the only way he knew how: by breaking the rules, ignoring the system, pushing the technology. With For the Cause, he’s coinventing Hollywood’s parallel universe – the cheaper, faster, networked hacker filmmaker of the future. For the Cause definitely proves that technical ingenuity can exponentially magnify a budget up on the screen.
If Miramax wasn’t willing to play ball, neither was David. He ended up back on the street.
After our last meeting, David cuts out early to meet with the movie’s editor. I leave about 20 minutes later. Driving down Main Street in Venice, I see him standing on the curb, squinting into the late-afternoon sun. He’s at the bus stop. When I drive around the block to offer him a lift, he’s already gone. I ask him about this later. He says his car is broken down, and he can’t afford to get it fixed.
“I’m riding the bus right now,” David says. “But I’m making a film.”