Single Location, Multiple Owners

This is the third part of my series of posts telling the story of how this film came to be. If you missed it, you may want to begin over at Part 1.

Making Contact

So we rolled on back into Indiana with our cats and our stuff and set about reconstructing our life. It took a little time, but by November 2010 I was ready to start pre-production on the movie.

If you’ve been following along and know anything at all about making movies you’ll no doubt have realized that the lynchpin of beginning pre-production on my single-location movie was securing that single location. I hadn’t bothered doing anything about this yet because I didn’t think phone calls from the West Coast were the way to go; I was much more likely to get permission to shoot in Westminster Hall by talking face-to-face with the people in charge at Grace College.

I made some phone calls and determined that the person on whom I should begin working my magic was Paul Derenzo, Director of Special Events. He’s the one in charge of scheduling the use of Westminster Hall, and he has his office just off the lobby of the hall. As I mentioned, I wanted to talk to Paul in person rather than over the phone, and I’m the sort of person who will avoid picking up the phone even to schedule a meeting if I think I can just drop in on someone randomly and conduct the meeting on the spot. “Ambushing” is, I think, the technical term for this behavior.

I tried on several mornings to just saunter into Westminster and catch Paul—or Tina Keaffaber, his assistant—at their offices, but no luck. Their schedule was obviously incompatible with my impromptu-meeting idea, so I decided I would have to make that phone call I so didn’t want to make.

Picking up one of Paul’s business cards from the front desk, I dialed his number on the spot. No answer—unsurprising, since I was standing right there and could see that he wasn’t in. I left a message, including the reason for my call. Then I went home and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Things move at a slower pace in semi-rural Indiana than they do in LA, so I wasn’t surprised or alarmed when my call was not returned the next day, or even the one after that. In fact, I let a week go by before I thought I could call back without seeming pushy. I made the call, left another message, and waited again.

Then the holidays happened. After a certain point somewhere in December, you know you’re not going to be hearing back from anyone, so I let my brain run off to deal with other things for a few weeks while I shopped, decorated, reconnected with family, and ate too much food. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened to recall my brain from its holiday, so I continued to enjoy my own.

Come January, I made another call, which also received no response. By now I was getting very mildly panicky. Pre-production takes time, and I didn’t want to start any of the bigger tasks in that process until I was sure I had my location.

Fortunately for me, Westminster Hall isn’t the only building for which Paul Derenzo schedules the events. Way across campus from the Hall is Grace College’s new Orthopedic Capital Center, which holds their basketball court. The court converts into a large-ish (for Warsaw) convention space, and in late January 2011 it hosted the first ever Warsaw Premier Bridal Expo.

I happened to be acquainted with one of the exhibitors, so I attended this event.

As the Expo was winding down I saw Paul Derenzo darting about with an underling, accomplishing some post-event chores. I seized my moment to talk to him, and very quickly explained what I was trying to do. Anticlimactically, he told me he’d have to talk to some of the Grace higher-ups and call me back.

And he did.

The Pitch

Apparently Paul is the sort of person who is really difficult to make contact with but very responsive once contact is established. He called me back in fairly short order and asked me to come down to his office to chat about the movie.

I showed up a few minutes early to the meeting, and Paul was running late, as I was informed by Tina Keaffaber. While I was waiting I told Tina what I was up to, and she got very excited. She had previously worked at a different event center that put on stage productions, and she had a filmmaker friend based in Los Angeles. Tina is obviously the sort of person who gets a big kick out of complex productions and watching disparate elements come together for a single event, which is probably why they put her in charge of scheduling all the wedding events for Westminster. We chatted for some time about the movie before Paul arrived and invited me into his office.

Unlike Tina, Paul was a stranger to moviemaking, so most of our conversation revolved around explaining how a film crew works and the needs of production. For example, it might seem obvious to someone who’s used to working on sets, but regular folks are often unaware that a crew includes more than just someone with a camcorder.

With that conversation out of the way, we moved on to costs. This was the part that made me nervous. I had a strong feeling that Westminster Hall was way outside my price range (next to nothing), and this proved correct. The building usually rents for several hundred dollars a day, which I definitely couldn’t afford. Moreover, I was asking for something unprecedented; usually the college just rents out the main floor, which includes two banquent halls, the main lobby, the courtyard outside, and sometimes a few rooms that still function as a conventional hotel. I wanted access to all those spaces, plus the upper floors the college uses as dorm space, the kitchen, the office area, part of the basement, and the attic.

I had explained before, and repeated now, that the production was very small in scope and that we were trying to keep the budget under a few thousand dollars, most of which I was planning to spend on food and housing the actors (who would have to be brought in from Chicago). Then I did the thing I’ve always heard you should do in these situations, which is shut your mouth and wait.

And Paul said he’d have to think about it.

He said he call me, we shook hands, and I went home to wait for his call. It came a few days later, and while he didn’t give me any actual numbers, the response was generally favorable. He asked me for specific dates and an estimate of the number of people who would be in the building, which I supplied. Then it was time to wait again.

Unanimity

I found out later that sometime during this interval Tina Keaffaber went to bat for the movie and persuaded Paul to let us shoot at Westminster even though he was skeptical about the prospect. She told me part of her pitch was that using the building for production might become a trend and a future source of revenue. Whether potential revenue played a big part, or whether he just wanted to be able to cut me a break because I was an alumnus, Paul eventually told me that he was open to having us shoot at Westminster but would need me to meet with him and two other Grace College staff to allay some of their concerns.

Those two staff were Mike Yocum, head of the drama department, and Steve Grill, who runs The Reneker Museum of Winona History. The Reneker Museum has its space just off the main lobby of Westminster Hall, which explains Steve Grill’s involvement, and I could only assume that Mike Yocum would just have some general questions as someone familiar with stagecraft.

As it turned out, both had previously been involved with movie production and knew about the kind of physical toll it usually takes on a space. For those who haven’t spent significant time on a set, I can tell you that heavy gear, dirty cables, hot lights, hurried art departments, and careless grips conspire to do damage to just about any location. Since Grace College had spent over $4 million renovating the historic Westminster Hotel, they were naturally concerned about the liability of inviting that sort of chaos.

I wasn’t nearly as concerned, for two reasons. Firstly, my crew were all going to be relative novices to film production—people with some experience in their respective disciplines who had nonetheless infrequently or never used their skills to make movies. Not having become jaded about such things, they were therefore much less likely to treat the building with contempt. Secondly, since we were shooting with modern dSLRs, which require much less light than conventional film cameras, we would not be bringing in nearly the volume or magnitude of equipment that Mike Yocum and Steve Grill were picturing. Our gear would be much more manageable.

I communicated this to the group, which seemed to assuage some of their fears, but I ultimately had to offer to take out an insurance policy in order to truly make them feel comfortable. Having heard over and over by this point how much money Grace College had invested in the building, this only seemed prudent to protect myself as well as the Hall.

I had two other entities to persuade before we would finally be cleared to shoot: Student Affairs and The Physical Plant (what Grace College calls their maintenance department). Paul Derenzo is only responsible for scheduling the public areas of Westminster, but I wanted to disrupt the dorm space, basement and attic, so I had to ask permission from the people responsible for those areas. Fortunately, they were all pretty indifferent once they heard that the Special Events team was on board.

And that just left the question of cost. Paul had spent several weeks by this time trying to decide how much to charge us for a whole week’s (really nine days’) use of the building, and not long after I had finished convincing everyone that we wouldn’t burn the place down if we shot there, he arrived at a figure: $600. Considering the usual cost of renting Westminster Hall, this was quite low and reasonable. With the $660 quote I had already gotten from a Chicago-based insurance company, this made the location our biggest single cost, but not out of reach.

I wrote two checks, and now we were in pre-production.