'Hickey': How a Commercial Director Made a Feature for Less Than the Cost of an Ad
Director Alex Grossman's road to production was straight out of a movie itself.
Like many in our business, Alex Grossman moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest with a screenplay and a dream. After a series of meetings and mishaps right out of a Hollywood movie about Hollywood, he decided to move from writing to directing and further pursue his burgeoning career in advertising. Grossman went on to a very successful, award-winning run of commercial directing, but he never gave up on making a feature film. He wrote upwards of 10 scripts in his free time and was determined to get one made on his own terms.
The resulting feature comedy is Hickey, the story of a high school math whiz who makes a heroic stand to save the failing mom and pop electronics store where he works—and win the heart of his longtime crush in the process. It references some of the best of comedic teen flicks (think Napoleon Dynamite and American Pie), but has more heart.
"When you give somebody in this town a script and they tell you what's wrong, they're probably right. When they tell you how to fix it, they're probably wrong."
In a conversation with No Film School on the morning of Hickey's LA theatrical premiere, Grossman candidly revealed how he pulled it all off. He also spoke in depth about the major differences between directing features and commercials.
No Film School: Your background is as a commercial director, but this is an independent film, which I imagine didn’t have a budget like what you're used to working with while making commercials.
Alex Grossman: No, the budget was probably less than 90% of the commercials I made before this movie. I'll just tell you, we made the thing pretty much from start to finish for under $200,000.
NFS: Wow. I'm really impressed.
Grossman: Thank you. In some ways, I feel like it almost hindered me, because I had to make a ton of compromises. The script changed drastically two weeks before shooting because of the location we got. Then it changed again because of actors we got. The mom, one of the leads in the movie, dropped out the day she was supposed to come to set. Things just kept changing.
There were people who said to me along the way, "Dude, put it on hold. Wait." I was like, "I'm not putting it on hold. The train's left the station." Shit is always going to go wrong, on a $200,000 movie or a $100 million movie.
NFS: Absolutely. If there's one thing I've learned talking to so many directors this year, it's that you have to be flexible.
Grossman: Of course, I would've loved to have more experienced actors or bigger names. I felt like I was breaking in a lot of young kids, which was tricky, but I love these kids. Everyone in the cast was in it to win it no matter what it took... 12, 14-hour days. We were lucky we were able to also make it DGA and SAG-eligible.
"If you're overthinking it, or if you have to start rationalizing to yourself why this person's right, it’s just not going to work."
NFS: In casting lesser-known actors, how did you know who was right for the roles?
Grossman: The way I learned to cast people is pretty much from my gut. Doing hundreds of commercials over the last decade and a half, I've sat in so many casting sessions where you see somebody and then the group gets together. You've got all the people, the producers, the clients, everybody like, "I don't know. What about this, or what about that? Can we see them do it again but standing on one leg?"
I'm like, "That's all bullshit." If your gut doesn't tell you that they're right, they're not right. You know when the person comes in and is right for the part because you look around at everybody in the room and they're all on the same page. You look to your left and they're smiling or they're nodding. It's like, "Yeah, that's the person." There might be five of those people, there might be two of those people, but it always ends up happening.
If you're overthinking it, or if you have to start rationalizing to yourself why this person's right, the second that that voice in your head says, "Well, maybe if I got them to play it like this..." it's like, "No way." It's just not going to work.
NFS: Stepping back to the development, was this project a side hustle to your mainstream work?
Grossman: I moved to LA 15 years ago and I'd been in advertising and I had a feature I'd written, a thriller. I'm at a Passover dinner within a month, and I'm sitting next to one of my good friend's brothers who is partners with Soderbergh and Clooney in a production company. He's like, "You're a writer. You must have a script." I'm like, "I did just finish this feature." He said, "I want to read it."
Two days later, I get a call from the Warner Brothers lot. He's like, "Hey dude, come on over right now. I want to talk to you about this." I'm like, "Fuck Hollywood, this is easy."
I get to the Warner Brothers lot and it's like in a bad movie where I'm just driving around and I find myself on the set of the exterior of New York and the Friends building. I finally get to their bungalow, and it's not Soderbergh and it's not Clooney, but it's my friend's brother again, which is fine.
I'm sitting down in the mahogany room with the high-backed fluffy chairs and it's right out of The Player. He's super nice and he's like, "I really like this and that about the movie," and then he's like, "Then at one funny part... then that other thing was pretty funny. What if you rewrote the thriller as a comedy?" My background's advertising, so at this point I'm pretty used to somebody saying, "Like the idea, execute it differently." He gave me some notes, and I spent the next six months to a year doing a couple passes, rewriting it as a comedy, and I finally got it to a place where he really liked it and he showed it to Soderbergh and Clooney. Soderbergh was just coming off of a comedy of his that bombed—maybe the only one he did—and they're like, "Everybody loves it, but we're not going to do comedies." I was like, "Fuck me."
"I decided, 'I got to fucking start directing. It's not enough to write and beg and hope that people are going to make my stuff.'"
The long and the short of answering your question is that, after that, I wrote three or four other screenplays but had very similar experiences. I think in 2008, I had written a movie called Paternity Party that I was developing with Tucker Tooley who was a pretty well-known producer. I'm thinking we're moving along pretty well. Then the writers' strike happened, and I went to see this little movie called The Hangover which was so close to mine, and that's when I decided, "I got to fucking start directing. It's not enough to write and beg and hope that people are going to make my stuff." That's when I wrote Hickey and I said, "I'm making this, come hell or high water. I'm going to find a way to do it: micro-budget, locally, and just get it done no matter what."
NFS: You knew when you were writing that you were going to direct?
NFS: Once you had the script and you knew you were going to make it, what was your development and finance process? How did you actually get it made?
Grossman: My commercial producer recommended that I meet with a younger producer who made movies on that budget. That's what got the ball rolling. It happened that this producer didn't come to the shoot a lot of the time, wasn't involved in a whole lot of post, and didn't do much of anything on the back end. He made more money on the movies than anyone else and I think it's a quarter of my points, which as you know, will end up being zero.
That said, he got the ball rolling because I didn't know how to make a movie, and he found a great PM who budgeted it and who I can't say enough good things about and found a casting director who helped me. This guy got the ball rolling and then when it came to money, I was prepared—now stupidly, I realize—to take money out of my retirement account in the hopes of paying it back. Everyone said, "Don't do it." I'm like, "Why? If I can't put my own money in, why would I ask other people to put their money in?" They're like, "Well, for a number of reasons, but mainly, you're putting sweat equity into it. You've got a job. You could make so much more money if you just stuck to writing and directing commercials."
I now get that they're totally right. I put $2-3 million dollars' worth of work into this thing, but the money.... I was very, very lucky. I got a little chunk from my mom. A little chunk from my dad, and that made it easier to start asking other people for money. Then, a billionaire said, "Once you raise all the money, I'll put in the last $25,000." I just begged and borrowed and stole. The sales agent took a chunk, the distributor takes a big chunk, I pay all my own marketing. I'm like, "Damn. It's going to be hard to get this money back."
NFS: In terms of production, what were some of the decisions you had to make to keep within your budget?
Grossman: When I initially wrote the script, it was supposed to take place in a dying Fry's, or Circuit City, or Best Buy. A giant store. When we started looking for those locations, we couldn't afford it. Maybe we could've afforded the location, but we couldn't have afforded the propping.
NFS: Lighting a location like that could also be really expensive.
Grossman: It could be. There are some cameras nowadays... you can get away with so little light, which is really remarkable. My DP is really a master of that. We shot on a RED Epic. We shot in 4K, which was totally unnecessary.
Anyway, we found a place called Al and Ed's Car Stereo, which is a small southern California chain of stores. A big problem was it was mainly window tintings and stereos and speakers for cars. It was completely car-centric, which my script was totally not. That's when things started to get tricky with the rewrites and the script so close to shooting.
"There's just this great camaraderie and passion for filmmaking that you don't have on a commercial set."
With a script, you change one thing, and it's like dominoes—all these other things started to change and we're weeks away from shooting, and I didn't have time to do a whole lot of second-guessing. Fortunately, I had a great young production designer who repainted the store, re-propped the store, and built Consignment Mountain [a pile of discarded and outdated electronics that features centrally in the story]. We had to shoot everything around what was still being built. We were really hustling and trying to be smart about which angles and which scenes. Unfortunately, we couldn't shoot a lot of stuff sequentially, which I know is typical, but I always thought I would have the benefit of doing that. That was a bummer. But everybody was so cool. There was no money, and I would ask my production designer, "Oh, could we get a sign that says this?" She's like, "Yep." "Can we make a DVD that says 'Cat Eats Bananas 2'?" "Sure." "Could we make a can that's our own energy drink?" "Okay." I didn't want to ask where the money was coming from, but she made it all happen.
NFS: I think our readers would be interested in the fact that you were almost working in two totally different worlds. You had to transition from being a big-budget ad director to a total indie filmmaker. What were some of the other differences between those two types of productions?
Grossman: It's interesting. On a commercial film, other than the above-the-line people, for the most part, it's a job. People are there to make good money. There's usually not a ton of talk about craft or movies or cinema.
In this movie, even though people were making across the board, I think, $120 a day, everybody was into it. Everybody loved movies. They moved to this town to make movies, and there's just this great camaraderie and passion for filmmaking that you don't have on a commercial set. A commercial set is this well-oiled machine: you could have anything you ask for and it'll happen instantly, but most of the time, there's no passion.
"People mimic the energy of the director."
NFS: How did you, as a director, keep everybody motivated when they were low-paid, with grueling, long days?
Grossman: I think I shine when I'm on-set with my energy level and engagement and passion, and I am involved in every aspect. I'll help anybody, I'll move props I'm not supposed to move, I'll be the first one there and the last one to leave. I'm just into it. I think that it's fortunate that I don't have to fake that because I think that's a huge part of being on a set. People mimic the energy of the director.
NFS: What are some things that you wish you had known at the beginning of production that you now know?
Grossman: Save a huge chunk of your money for post—and not just post-production, but marketing and selling of the film. I've been floating that on my own for months because we just didn't budget for it. You're going to want money for PR, you're going to want money for festivals. Once you sell the movie, little did I know, I'm paying for E&O insurance, I'm paying for an attorney, I'm paying for all kinds of things.
NFS: What about on the production side? Any advice that you'd have for folks with a similar-style budget and film?
Grossman: Even though I made some sacrifices, I would still say the script is everything. Once you get on set and you start everything else, if the script isn't there, you're going to have a lot of trouble. I've found that when I'm writing something, if I have some nagging doubt about some scene or plot or character, and I have somebody read it and they point it out, then there's no doubt. It's that little voice in your head you have to listen to. If you don't, it's going to come back and bite you in the ass.
I really try and listen when people have positive, constructive criticism. Somebody once told me early on, and I've always thought about this, when you give somebody in this town a script and they tell you what's wrong, they're probably right. When they tell you how to fix it, they're probably wrong. To me, the metaphor that comes to mind is, if I broke my arm and showed it to you, you're like, "Oh, fuck, your arm's broken." "Yeah, can you fix it?" You're like, "No, absolutely not." It's easy to recognize flaws in the script, but then as the writer or director, you have to fix them. You can still collaborate, but you've got to be happy with it. As I now know, you're going to live with this thing for many years, especially an indie movie.
Once again, I think it's a really good and humbling lesson about this business and life—and this is nothing new—that you can't take the praise too much to heart, or the criticism. You've got to do it because you love it.