It’s a wrap!

How to make a movie in Sacramento at garage-sale prices

First-time director Sarah Kreutz (far right) directs her heroine, played by Garian Grewe (left), and Mary Daffin (center) in a scene from <i>Elsa Letterseed</i>.

First-time director Sarah Kreutz (far right) directs her heroine, played by Garian Grewe (left), and Mary Daffin (center) in a scene from Elsa Letterseed.

Photo by Don Lipper

Sarah Kreutz, a former Paris runway model and artist, is proving that to make a movie in Sacramento all you need to do is hustle, have a few garage sales and have a dog bite your face.

When Kreutz directed a pivotal scene in her first feature, Elsa Letterseed, she had a problem. The lights were making her actresses sweat too much, but turning on the air conditioner created enough noise to make Ed Etzel, the sound guy, twitch. The decision was easy: When making a talkie, the sound guy rules. The air conditioner went off. The temperature increased quickly.

Kreutz’s brother’s house in Folsom was transformed from a tasteful mix of French country and craftsman into the garish parlor of a psychic, a place that could grace the cover of Interior Decorating for Brothels.

In the parlor scene, the film’s heroine, Elsa Letterseed (played ethereally by Garian Grewe), visits Cassandra (played by Mary Daffin), a palm reader dripping with licentious southern charm. In this scene, Cassandra foretells Elsa’s fate: “Interesting. … What an interesting young woman we have here! OK, let’s see. … The “loop of courage” reveals a courageous spirit. You’re gonna perform a courageous act? Now wait just wait a minute. Your final “risk,” shall we say, is satisfying and will last for the rest of your life. … See? There’s lots goin’ on here.”

There is a lot going on here. Cassandra’s dialogue just as accurately could describe Kreutz, someone who is bucking the talent exodus to Hollywood and giving hope to the locals that anyone can make a feature film in Sacramento. Almost a year after she first said, “Action,” Kreutz finally arrived at her last days of shooting last week.

Getting crew and equipment was fairly easy. The local talent pool is a mix of professionals, experienced volunteers and folks with a camcorder who want to become the next Steven Spielberg. The hard part of film production is getting someone to show you the money. The movie-making money maze ensnares most first-time filmmakers (and many veterans, too), but Kreutz’s extraordinarily creative hustle should be the first lesson in Film Financing 101.

When Kreutz wrote her first screenplay in longhand in her notebook, she hoped to sell it to Hollywood. But she didn’t trust the dream factory to tell her drama about a former violin prodigy who, after spending a decade in a mental institution, tries to find her purpose in a world full of deceit and betrayal.

For Kreutz, the film’s primary appeal is that it is anti-Hollywood. “It is something that the whole family can watch. There’s no nudity, no car chases, no profanity. It hearkens back to classic films,” Kreutz said. “I want to foster a theme that says, ‘Hey Hollywood, knock it off. We don’t want the sludge anymore.’ ”

So, Kreutz decided to shoot it herself. She rewrote it and developed a budget of $32,000 to shoot on digital tape. “I said, ‘OK, I can do it on credit cards. I have pretty good savings, and it can be done,’ ” Kreutz said. “It grew from there.”

A cinematographer friend insisted that if Kreutz wanted to be taken seriously, she needed to shoot on 16 mm film. “At the time, I didn’t know there was any difference between film and digital. I was a complete idiot,” Kreutz said.

Shooting on film pushed the initial budget to $75,000, which eventually would double to the movie’s current $150,000 budget. That meant outside investors.

“Finding investors for productions can take a lot of different turns. Anybody who is well heeled and looking to invest doesn’t make a big thing about it because everybody would be calling them. That’s the Catch-22: How do you find these people? Most of it is luck and talking to the right people,” said Beverly Lewis, director of the Placer-Lake Tahoe Film Office (a government agency that tries to promote filmmaking in the county).

“The hardest money to get is the first money. Once you have found and secured that, then potential investors look at you a little differently. They think, ‘Ah, somebody else has already gone out on a limb and trusts them and believes in them enough.’ That’s reassurance for them, and they’ll look at you a little more seriously,” Lewis said.

First money is generally anything in excess of 10 percent of the final production budget.

Kreutz’s first money was her life’s savings, $50,000 on her credit cards and money from her parents. Kreutz, who works as a stylist and designs fashion shows, even used her settlement money from when a dog gave her a nasty bite on the face that required stitches.

“I’ve been putting my head in strange dogs’ mouths ever since,” Kreutz joked. “I’m wearing bacon as we speak.” With script in hand, Kreutz had her first fund-raiser at Bravo Ristorante Italiano in Sacramento. “We charged $25 a person. They signed a guest book, and those names will be going onto our credits,” Kreutz said. “We raised over $2,000. That’s a day of shooting right there.”

Next up were the garage sales. “We asked everyone we knew if they wanted to clear out their house and donate something to the cause,” Kreutz said. “The first one raised $1,700, and then a second one raised $1,800.”

Kreutz has become adept at getting everything, from locations to food, for free. “We drafted a letter telling businesses what we’re doing. Ralph’s, Albertson’s and Longs have been really good about giving us gift certificates—$20 here, $25 there,” Kreutz said. “Longs donated eight crates of bottled water, which we really needed in June. We got cookies and pies from Spaans Cookie Company in Galt. That offsets the costs.”

The next big hurdle was getting crew and equipment. Landy Hardy, a professional cinematographer, was reluctant to work with a first-timer initially, but he quickly became impressed with Kreutz. He helped pull together a professional crew complete with equipment for less than half of their commercial rates.

How did she get such a great deal? Magic. Almost everyone involved with the production, from investors to government officials, crewmembers and actors spontaneously gushes about Kreutz. They’ve all fallen under her spell.

“When she first called me, I thought, ‘She has no experience. How can I communicate with her?’ I turned her down. She kept e-mailing and calling, asking me questions. She’s not going to quit. She’s a lovely person. I thought I’d give her try,” Hardy said. “You can’t not want to work for her. We’d do anything for Sarah, and we know she’s gonna make it.”

First-time director Sarah Kreutz has mastered the most important movie magic trick: financing her flick.

Photo by Don Lipper

What does Kreutz think about her little cult of personality? “I don’t see it at all,” she said, blushing, laughing and nervously changing the subject.

Shooting began on November 27 of last year.

“We had a lot of people working on this crew for free, and we who do it for a living were really impressed with the heart they put into it for no money. That’s unusual,” Hardy said. “Usually, the crew gets no pats on the back. You do your work, you go home. This was really all one big happy family.”

Kreutz could teach Hollywood a lesson in labor relations. Hardy remembered, “Every time we’d start working for five or six days, she’d give us the check at the beginning of the last day, which never happens. You can wait six months on some productions.”

After five days, the money ran out, but Kreutz had enough footage to cut a short trailer. She showed her trailer at the Crest Theatre and tossed her pitch to major investors.

One of the investors in Elsa Letterseed was Arlen Orchard, general counsel for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Originally, Orchard hired Kreutz as an artist to paint a fresco on his dining room ceiling. She asked him for some legal advice on some courtroom scenes in her script. After a while, he went from advisor to investor.

This normally levelheaded lawyer was a film-financing neophyte. “I have no experience with the movie biz. Other than that, I’m a fan of independent films,” Orchard said. “I don’t view this the same way I would my 401(k) plan. I think it is important to support the local arts and artists that I think have something special.”

Some of the investors may have visions of The Blair Witch Project dancing in their heads. That $35,000 horror flick caused nightmares for theatergoers but sweet dreams for investors. It earned $140 million in the United States and $248 million worldwide and spawned a sequel, books and merchandise.

Elsa investors have a net participation deal, which means that after all the bills are paid (including the full return of each investor’s investment), each investor gets, on average, 5 percent of whatever money Kreutz’s Endeavor Productions gets.

With Orchard and a few other investors, Kreutz made her nut. “We have eight investors total, investing 50 grand. Between garage sales and flat-out donations, we have probably another $12,000,” Kreutz said. Add her mom and dad, her nest egg, her credit cards and her dog-bite money, and there’s just enough to finish the movie and get it into festivals.

Back on location, amid the plastic skulls, electric candles, incense and palm fronds, a neighborhood boy, who spotted the two equipment trucks outside, wandered onto the set and started taking pictures like a tourist.

Money, or the lack of it, was constantly on everyone’s minds. When a crewmember joked that the wandering neighborhood boy might want to invest, the film’s producer, Mark Wells, leapt to action: “Lock the doors. Don’t let him out!” Alternative humorous funding solutions were suggested, including a soft-porn version of the palm-reading scene.

A sweaty Mary Daffin, who plays the psychic Cassandra, pulled at her short, red silk kimono. She’s very proud of Kreutz. When Daffin had a modeling school, Kreutz was one of her best students. Daffin, ever the fan, also bought the first painting Kreutz ever sold.

The heat of the palm-reading scene was nothing for this crew. During a heat wave, when it was 104 degrees in Roseville, Kreutz had to shoot 20 extras in a bus who were wearing winter coats and pretending to be cold. The scene took five hours to shoot, and the lights made the inside of the bus unbearable.

The final day of shooting, October 1, came 11 months after the first day of shooting. The scenes shot then had to mesh perfectly with the first half of the scene shot 11 months before.

Kreutz’s family showed up, as did other cast members. Everyone knew this was the last shot, and the excitement was palpable. Then, there was a delay. Ken Hilmer, the 77-year-old assistant cameraman ran to the truck to replace the batteries on the time-code slate. The crew, all in their 20s, watched the septuagenarian run like he was in Chariots of Fire. While waiting for the battery, Kreutz looked back over the shoot with 55 characters and 44 locations.

“There was never a moment of panic. It was constant panic. It was much harder than I thought it’d be. There were things that I could never have anticipated. That’s good because on some levels I would’ve never done it, and on other levels I would die if I didn’t,” Kreutz said. “I’m absolutely broke now. I’ve gone from having a nice savings account to absolutely nothing, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Hilmer clapped the slate on the last shot. Elsa’s angry mother propelled her down the hallway, as Kreutz shouted, “Cut. That’s great!”

Everyone looked at Kreutz.

Ed Etzel, the audio guy, said, “Say the words.”

Kreutz: “Champagne!”

Ed: “No, those other words.”

Kreutz: “Oh? That’s a wrap!”