The Encore of Tony Duran
Nine Days & Two Hundred Thousand Dollars
By Shirley Craig
After talking with Elliott Gould, I discussed the film, The Encore of Tony Duran, in more depth with, director, Fred Sayeg, who shot the movie in only nine days with a budget of less than $200,000. If you missed it during it's Festival run, it has now just been released on DVD and VOD.
Like Elliott Gould, Fred is not new to this business. He comes from the advertising industry and is the owner of a successful production company with very diverse clientele from celebrities to Fortune 500 corporations. The movie has done very well on the film festival circuit winning multiple prizes including the top prize at the Las Vegas International Film Festival and Best Feature at the Sante Fe International Film Festival.
I loved your film The Encore of Tony Duran.
Thank you very much.
It brought tears to my eyes.
Did it really?
Yes, it's very sentimental. So, tell me, how did you get involved in the project?
Mitchell Cohen, the writer, brought it to me, and he didn’t even really bring it to me. He just mentioned that he was talking to these guys in the desert about a project that he was thinking of writing or he was writing a draft, and he said he’s doing it by design to be very economical in that it can be done very inexpensively. It can be done in the desert. We don’t need effects. We don’t need a lot of things. So he says it’s about a guy – he’s a vocalist. And I had met Gene Pietragallo, who stars in the film, once before. We crossed at another time, probably years earlier, but not in this capacity. It was more on a video project or something, but I didn’t know he did any singing or acting or really anything like that. Anyway, he talked to me about it and I said, “Oh, that seems like a nice project,” and that was it, and then he asked me if I’d take a look at it, and I read it and I thought, “Hmm, this could work out.”
Then he said, “Well, there’s a guy in the desert that was going to direct it. He can come up with a little money.” If we had a dime for every time in L.A. somebody said they had money to fund something … I don’t need to tell you about that. But anyway, that was probably falling through. I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’d be interested in doing it if I could, you know; I saw some things I’d like to add to it and take some things out and add some things.” I said, “but before that, let me go meet these guys in the desert,” and that was primarily Gene and Terry Frazier, who … came up with the basic storyline. So anyway, I went out there, and I met them and asked them what they wanted to do, and they told me and I said, “OK.” And I kind of left there knowing I can do this because I knew that we can get the money, and I knew that it was simple enough to do. And it wasn’t out of reality to conceive that you can do something like this in a small amount of time.
What was the budget?
I made this film for under $200,000.
Probably actually shot it for 180, to be exact. I mean, shot it and edited it and done, less music rights and things like that, which cost almost as much as the film.
When I watched it, I did say to myself, "they must’ve had music budget?”
Yeah, close to 100 grand, after the fact, had to go to secure Mack the Knife, and that’s for nontheatrical, but I thought it was so important and that’s what it cost.
A 100 grand for Mack the Knife?
Yeah, it was $60,000 or $70,000, close to that. It’s actually one of the highest royalties you can pay. Figure we picked that one, right? But it kind of picked us. Anyway, so one thing led to another, and my ideas was we’ll use no names. That’s how it started: no-names … because that’s the only way you can do it. Then the more I looked at it, I said, “You know, let me get one guy. Let me get like one guy to be like Jerry.” Because I know that there are guys in that category: older, comedic, guys that would demand a lot of money that you can actually kind of approach now. So I called Ferne Cassel, who was our casting director–and she’s a friend of mine because we had been associated earlier–and I sent her the script and she loved it, and I said, “Look, I’m going to give you five people that I’d like to see,” and Elliott was at the top of the list. A lot of stuff happened between there and there, but eventually he got a hold of it. He liked it, he called me up. I’m riding my bicycle one day, and he calls me on my cellphone because my number was on the script, and he said he wanted to meet me. And that was the beginning.
Wow, that was very cool!
Yes, he was very supportive and great to work with.
So, what did you shoot it on?
The Red camera.
And you shot it in eight days?
Was all the voiceover in the original script, or did you add that later to cut down on shooting days?
Yes, originally it was written and again, by design, we knew that a lot of the storytelling would have to be told via the voiceover and so, by design, it was laid in like that. Now, there were a lot of changes made in the interim, but we knew a lot of the storytelling was going to be done through the voiceover. And it was shot, I think, in seven to eight days with basically a day of pickup in Burbank because we did a couple of … flashback scenes … in Burbank. … if you combined it all, it was about eight and a half days.
That's moving fast?
Yeah, there was a day I shot 21 pages.
Oh, my lord!
Yeah, because you just can’t fall in love with the process - on this kind of budget and schedule - of, “Oh, that was great. Let’s do it again,” because you don’t need to. I was fortunate in that all the people that I had were very good, and they understood the feeling. And … by getting the emotion that you did, those are people who get it. So there wasn’t a lot. I always believe with direction, you have a good story and you have good people. You just basically need to know, through what eyes would you like to see this? Where do you put the camera? There’s very little about telling them how to do their craft, for God’s sake. They know how to do that. How much coverage do you need? Probably not that much, especially for something like this. You know where you kind of want to be. You know how close you want to get. They do it. “Do you want to do it again?” “No, actually not. Number one, we don’t have the time, and that one was just fine.” I don’t believe in overshooting. Especially in these things where you don’t have all these other, like with big-effect films and things, there’s no excuse. There’s no reason with professionals that you should have to do things. That was the only reason we finished it, because I made some decisions and stuck with them, hoping that it all cuts.
Because when you’re going that fast, it’s so easy to find that you get into the edit and you go, “Oh, my God. I didn’t cover that, and I have nowhere to go.” That can happen especially with simple dialogue … you drop a line, or he blinked funny there, but there’s nowhere else to go. We prayed a lot as well that we got what we did and, believe me, there were some problems. It wasn’t like we got there and it was all seamless. We got in the editing room, and there were some things where we’d go, “This is it. I think the train is coming head on.” But you avoid it because you have to. It’s not like you can give up and say, “Well, we gave it a shot.” You have to finish it, and you have to make it something that people will enjoy. Not just finish it, but finish it, and let people think that I’ll pay a dollar or 10 or whatever to see it, and I will feel like it was worth my time. That’s the goal. Many times it’s not just completing the film, which these days is hard enough, but completing it and doing something that you want to put your name on that people wouldn’t mind taking an hour and a half out of their lives to watch.
How much time did you spend editing?
It was longer only in that we didn’t have the luxury, again, when you work with talented people and you don’t have a lot of money, you have to work around schedules and things like that, and I was there 100% of the time. So it was me and Mitchell and Eric Weston got together. I think if you added it up, it was probably maybe a concentrated four weeks.
Did you cut it on Final Cut, Premiere or Avid?
It was Final Cut.
For the post, did you do the mix on a dubbing stage, or did you basically do it all in the computer?
We had a lot of ADR only because … for example, in the deli when Elliott is talking to Leah, all of a sudden it was lunchtime. We couldn’t buy the entire deli. We don’t have the money for that. So before you know it, there’s like 100 people within 10 feet of me talking about food and pouring clinking glasses. It was overbearing, like an ocean of noise. Nothing you can do about it–nothing. That was 100% ADR. It was 100%. Also, one of my favorite little stories and anecdotes is that scene where Tony sings in the senior center; this is where I fought not to ADR. There were some hisses, there were some pops, again, running so fast. The music was added later. The piano wasn’t live. It was done, Gene was able to listen to it in an earpiece, but no one else in the place heard it. But it had a lot of sonic or sound problems that when you put the headphones on in the edit bay, you hear hisses and pops, and it’s not pristine.
So virtually everyone around my close team said, “You must ADR this. It’s not good enough.” I always believed that people will forgive an imperfection if the performance is good. I said, “There is no way that that man is going to sit in a booth several weeks later and go to the place that he was there and make that sell. No way, not going to happen. I’ll fall on my sword on this one, but we’re not going to ADR it. We’ll clean it up the best we can.” The guy broke apart nicely. My DP was crying in a closet shortly after he shot it. He walked away and was crying on the scene. So no, we knew that worked. I was just going to leave it alone, and I think I made the right decision because I just don’t believe you can go back and redo that.
You made the right decision.
Did you try to get a theatrical distribution, because you did well on the Festival circuit?
Yeah, we did well on the festival circuit. And there are a lot of upside-down deals. We were offered several distribution deals … and, frankly, the ones that we received, while I could’ve told everyone and my executive producers and people who helped us, “Oh, we have distribution,” to me, that would be like telling somebody, “Oh I have a job, but it’s costing me $8.00 an hour to have it.” It didn’t make economic sense because we put too much into it, and it was done at such a low number that we don’t need this to make a billion dollars or even a million dollars or even $500,000 to be really good. I knew that the product was good enough, that I wasn’t going to just give it away simply to tell somebody I have the name of a distributor because they just wanted too much. And I just didn’t believe that it was worth that. I know we have a good product. I know that people react to it once they see it. My problem is, I don’t have a machine to push it. People like you, you’re the machine. I have people who believe in the cause. … We don’t have the arm to make it go, and it’s too small for the bigger distribution houses because they have to consider what the budget is, and I did it for such a ridiculous amount of money. You do a horror film for that, and people will try and get to you all day. I’m not interested in that, and that’s not what we did. And I believe there’s an audience that will appreciate that and there’s an audience for horror. They’re two different things.
I think there is. Your background is in commercials isn't it? And you own a production company, correct?
My company does several … I did commercials, and now it’s a lot of corporate film, corporate videos. I've actually tailed off on some of the commercial work because I’m doing more film stuff. I have another film in development right now. Although that company is still doing very well, it allows me to take the time to not only develop new projects but push Tony Duran along. This is still kind of where I want to go. I’d like to make a picture like this or something maybe every two years, but that company does very well with corporate clients that I met while I was in the ad business.
What did you do in the advertising industry?
I was a writer. I was a copywriter, and then I was a senior writer, and then I was a writer agency producer, and that’s when I left in about, I think it was the year 2001. I decided I’m going to – one of the things is I had clients who knew that, and I helped build some agencies, like the agency I was with, I helped it. We were billing $17 million when I was there, and when I left, we grew it to 200 people, and it was billing like $60 million. But part of the reason–it certainly wasn’t just because of me, obviously, it’s a team of people–but my clients who knew me when I’d sit around the table, they knew that I knew how to spend their money. In other words, I wasn’t spending their money to make myself look good, that I felt that if they were giving us a budget, that I had a responsibility to bring them income, and it wasn’t about doing something funny or pretty necessarily … and they understood that. Some of those people helped finance my film 15 years later because it’s credibility. … I scanned some of your questions, and I think one of your questions–since we’re talking about it now; it’s kind of appropriate–is the advice to filmmakers. The festival response was so great. People felt, as you did, we had people applaud–and it’s very rare in an independent film–you have people applauding during the credits. But I was lucky enough to be at all those screenings and just sit in there with everyone else. They didn’t know I was there or they didn’t care. They just reacted to the film, and that’s a nice thing. So I would go do Q&A afterward, and they would stay. Everyone stayed for an hour or two, and we’d finally say, “We have to quit,” but it was a nice feeling, and people would line up and ask me questions.
There was one young guy, and he was a filmmaker and he said, “Do you have any advice? I love the way you did this, and it’s a great story, how you put it together.” It’s a story about how I found a $20 bill on the ground, and that was my first deposit to make the movie. And that’s a true story, but there were several like that, that’s all about the making of Tony Duran and he said, “So what advice do you have to give me?” … and I’m sure he expected something like a telling you how to do it story, cinematography, or directing, but I said, “If you tell someone you’re going to be somewhere at 9:00, be there at 10 ‘til 9:00. If you owe somebody money, pay it back. These are things that if people can’t trust you with their money, they’re not going to trust you to run a film or production or lemonade stand or anything if you can’t be trusted to finish something, to get it done, to not go nuts. It’s really credibility. Build that and then the rest. If you have any talent, that will rise to the surface and people will see that. But if you’re simply an artist who has no credibility, no one’s going to trust you. No one’s going to hand you that kind of money, whether it’s $200,000 or $200,000,000, it’s still money and it’s still other people’s money, and they’re not going to trust you to run a production unless they think that you’re credible.”
That was really my thing, especially with younger people now, where it doesn’t seem to me, not to sound like my dad, but the younger people now, they don’t seem to have that. They don’t seem to know that if you say something, you kind of have to mean it in business. If you say you’re going to be there at 10:00, you don’t show up at 10:40 and say, “What’s up?” You can’t do that.
No, you’re absolutely correct. Credibility and integrity is really all you got.
It kind of is, and it sounds kind of hack, but at the end of it all, I think that’s what it is, because I know a lot of talented people that are broke. I know a lot of very brilliant people, with my limited education, thankfully I’m doing better than a lot of those people, and it’s not because I’m smarter. Maybe it’s because of credibility. Maybe it’s because I have ambition. I don’t know. It’s all those things, but I think that ambition and credibility trump a lot of other things in life.
I think that’s all very true. What do you think of the advertising industry in the Internet age? Where do you think advertising is going?
It used to be that wit and cleverness and the ability to write a headline, and things like that would sell products. And I think now, it’s how fast can you let people know that you’re out. Because the attention span isn’t the same, and people don’t appreciate the writing as much as they did then. It’s not necessarily about great campaigns. Yeah, there are some good campaigns out there, but I think now it’s much more immediate. It’s much more how fast. They call one person and within the speed of sound, the speed of light, they can get to another company. It’s not like they have to spend a lot of time, you know. It’s hard to sell people anymore. They just need to know what’s the fastest, what’s the fastest way to connect the dots. That’s why the word branding came back. Branding was back from when I was little; Campbell’s soup and Nestle chocolate and jingles, and people laughed at them in the ’70s and ’80s. … but guess what they’re doing now? I hear people all the time say, “Oh, you remember that great beer commercial with the horses?” “What beer was it?” “Oh, I don’t remember, but it had horses in it.”
Well, to me, that beer company just blew $100 million because they’ve got horses and they bought airtime, but nobody knows what the hell they’re selling. With a jingle and with branding, you’re always linked to that. So that’s kind of coming back because they realize it’s not that stupid. It actually works, because I can remember jingles from when I was 4. There must be a reason for that. So I think people are coming back to that, but a lot of it has to do now with, like I said, it’s the speed in which they get information, but also a lot of it is sometimes being funny just for being funny’s sake. And I’m not sure that what people do actually sells products. I don’t think there are enough people thinking about what sells something rather than, “How funny can I be?” or, “How great of a commercial can I art direct?” It’s more about, how can you sell? So while there may be great campaigns, to me, it’s always about who sells the most product. That’s the greatest campaign. Creative art, people like that, Tellys, CLIOs, they’ll tell you by industry professionals, “This was the cleverest. This was the funniest. This one looked the coolest.” Ask the client how many loaves of bread he sold. That’s really what it is.
I've been able to kind of walk the line. I can do both. I feel I can do both, but I think there’s a time and place that you can do both if you’re clever enough. But at the end of it all, if you spend a client’s money foolishly, you’re probably not going to get it again, and they will go to somebody else who will promise them the moon, and they probably won’t get it, and they’ll go to somebody else. And that’s why advertising … that’s why they desperately need to hold onto clients because although they can be sold a bill of goods, the proof is, what did my profits look like after we ran that? That’s what it comes down to.
I agree. So, tell me the $20-bill story.
So I’m walking down … some of us are walking down the street. We were ready to open an account to actually start production. We didn’t even have a bank account in Palm Desert. So we’re walking down the street. I’m waiting for some money to be wired. I had put a check in or I had the check that I was going to deposit, but I was waiting for money to be wired, but I physically didn’t have anything in my hand. It was running so close because we had just gotten Elliott, we just got confirmation through SAG, and everything was finally buttoned up because those things can get very complicated, especially when you don’t have any money or very little. So we were so against the wire because Elliott’s window was only so big, which means we had a date we had to get in on, and so all of a sudden it was, hurry up and get it done.
We’re walking down the street and I’m realizing, “We don’t have … ” and just as I’m thinking that, a $20 bill blows across the sidewalk in front of me. I stop and I look at Gene, Gene looked at me, and we didn’t need to say anything. I picked up the $20, we walked into the bank, I said “Hi, we’re going to start a production company. We’re going to shoot a film here with Elliott Gould in about a week and a half. I’d like to open this with this $20 bill I just found in the street,” and this woman looks at us like we’re completely from Mars, and I think she realized we weren’t joking. I told her what just happened and she said, “Well, I can’t normally do that, but if what you just told me is true, and I think it is, I’ll do it.” She was at the premiere in Palm Springs, and I announced her and she stood up and verified my story. [Laugh]
That’s a great story. So Elliott told us a story: Gene had difficulty doing the filming and wanted to pull out. What was all that about?
Gene, yeah, what happened was, as you saw, he lost an enormous amount of weight. He lost 40 plus pounds in a few months and everything was fine during the first five to seven days, but that last day when we shot the finale, which was the musical number at the end when he loses the weight, we shot that in a day. We left after principal and we said, “OK, Gene. Goodbye. The circus is leaving town. Go lose the weight. Bye” and I think the reality hit him that, all of a sudden, “I've got to climb Mount Everest, and I’m kind of by myself.” He had some difficulties. He had some demons he was fighting. He had some issues, and he kind of slid back into those things. And it looked like at one point we weren’t going to be able to finish the picture because –
How long did it take him to lose the weight?
Let’s see, about five and a half months.
So you shot the entire film, and then you came back and did the finale when he’d lost the weight?
Correct. And we knew that. We knew it would be dependent on that. But we just didn’t expect there to be a bump in the road as big as it was to where we thought we couldn’t finish it the way we wanted to finish it. Because we thought he was just going to check out, which meant that I had to come up with another ending. So imagine me going back, the guy that everybody trusted, making a phone call or sending an email saying, “Remember that ending? Go with me now. Now the guy gets killed,” because you can never just not finish it. My job was to then say, “OK. Let’s get together, and let’s rewrite another ending because we can’t force. We can’t have a guy at gunpoint to lose weight and show up. We can’t make that happen.” I never thought it would, but it looks like it did. One thing led to another, and Elliott spoke with him, and my DP, Ken, spoke with him, and I spoke with him. And it was a long story, but it came back in fairytale fashion, and he came in and hit it out of the park.
That’s terrific. Was this his life story?
It wasn’t. It’s kind of loosely based on Gene in that he was in - that footage that you see in the beginning of watching on the VCR - that’s him. That is him doing Bobby Darin 30 something years ago and he was a soap star and he was on Hill Street Blues and he did episodic TV, Magnum, P.I. and things like that. But then he did kind of go away and have some, you know, probably dealt with some dark things and thought it was gone, and then he kind of came back. I was a part of that just because of my timing and brought him to the forefront. And he does such a great job that I think people need to see him because he does such a great job.
He does. Well, this is great, Fred. Thank you for your time. I shall tell everyone to go rent this movie.
Click to read my article with Elliot Gould, one of the stars of The Encore of Tony Duran.
Photo Credit from The Encore of Tony Duran - Mark Mecalis/Mecalis Photography