With his movie finally in theaters, writer-director Jake Goldberger can look back at the struggle to make his film, “Don McKay,” and laugh – a little.
Still, much of the mirth is reserved for himself and his naïve belief that landing the actor of his dreams meant his film was on the fast track. Seven years later, well, the fast track seems like a relative concept.
“The day he was nominated for an Oscar for ‘Sideways,’ my phone rings and it’s Thomas (Haden Church), saying he had read my script and wanted to do it,” Goldberg, 32, recalls. “In my naïve thinking, I thought we’d be making it in three months. It actually took another four-and-a-half years until we actually got the money. I had to move back in with my parents when I ran out of money.”
Still, Church, who plays the title character, served as the first-time filmmaker’s rock through the trials of getting “Don McKay” off the ground: “L.A. is a pessimistic environment,” Goldberger says. “Nobody cares. Having Thomas have my back was crucial – he insisted that I direct. That kept me going.”
“Don McKay” casts Church as a lonely janitor, who is summoned back to his hometown by an old flame (played by Elisabeth Shue), who wants to reconnect because she is dying of cancer. Once he’s there, however, Don finds himself caught up in a web he doesn’t quite understand, one that involves murder and deception, at a minimum.
A would-be filmmaker who had moved to L.A. to break into the business, Goldberger got the idea for the film after seeing a revival of the Coen brothers’ first film, “Blood Simple.”
“I loved the way the audience has a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on,” he says. “Everyone has their own weird, twisted story and nobody knows what anybody else is thinking – except the audience. So I felt inspired to start writing ‘Don McKay.’ It’s about a man living with regrets and loneliness. I thought it would be interesting to make a noir that wasn’t really a noir.
“I was at a friend’s parents’ house and he was playing the Motown hit, ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’ and I had this image of a man in janitorial outfit handcuffed and being led away to that song. And I started from that.”
Goldberger finished the script and began holding workshop readings, where he got strong positive responses: “So I started offering it to actors,” he says. “For a first-time director, the odds of getting an agent – or even an agent’s assistant – to read it are minimal. And even offering the part to an actor – it was a bullshit offer. There was nothing concrete.”
One way around that was to hire a casting director to send the script out, despite not actually having the money to make the film. Goldberger assumes that’s how the script got to Church – but beyond that, he can only guess.
“I’ll never know how it became the script he chose to read,” Goldberg says. “He has 50 scripts coming in each day, I imagine. But he told me he was on an airplane between L.A. and Texas and said he liked the name of the script – and that it hooked him from page one. When he landed, he called his agent and said he wanted to talk to the writer-director. But I’ll never know how it happened to land in his lap.”
Landing Church, however, was not the money magnet Goldberg assumed it would be. He and his producing partner began beating the bushes for financing, with little success. Though other producer-friends threw Goldberger writing work, it wasn’t enough to support himself.
“It was $3,000 here, $5,000 there – it was OK, but I didn’t have enough to live on my own,” he says. “My parents let me move into my old room. So I was sleeping in a twin bed under a Motley Crue poster. It was hard, coming back to my parents’ house at night and tiptoeing down the hall so I wouldn’t wake the dog- as a 30-year old. It didn’t feel good. They were very supportive; they believed I could make it work. But there’s pressure even with that support. You want to prove you can get it done.
“I thought that, as long as I had Thomas, I’d get actors of his caliber attached. But there were times where I thought, What am I doing? But this was all I ever wanted to do. I wouldn’t have had the skill to flip burgers.”
Those months and years of trying to get the film off the ground included numerous meetings with upbeat-sounding money men who, eventually, found one reason or another not to invest in his project. Even when he and his partner thought they’d found the money, they still faced another false start.
“When it comes down to signing contracts, most financiers are full of shit,” he says. “Most of them are middle-men. I went through a whole chain of them without being aware of it.
“At one point, we thought we had the money and we went to Boston to scout locations. We were putting our expenses on credit cards because we thought we’d be reimbursed. And it turned out these guys were full of shit. So we had 15 people on the crew and the producer was paying them out of his own pocket. It was a nightmare. Fortunately, my producer was able to meet a financier in Boston who was able to put the money in escrow for us.”
Once he got on the set, Goldberger faced unexpected challenges (“It was very overwhelming at first, to work with multiple actors in one scene who all have a different way of working”). But the problem of not having enough time or money proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“Every filmmaker says they didn’t have enough money or time,” he says. “It put me in the position of not over-worrying. We had to get it. If we didn’t get it that day or that afternoon or that hour, then I had to go rewrite the script because we were never going to get it. I didn’t have time to be neurotic.”