by Michael Paul Girard
The clock on my iPhone showed a few minutes past 8 o’clock on December 16, 2019 – still five days short of official winter. Over two years had passed since I began principal photography on my film ‘Gam Cam Grrl’ – Monday, October 30, 2017. It was just me and three actors: Roger Wan, Heidi Luo and Jack. Jack was a little dog that Heidi’s neighbor asked her to take care of the day before we started shooting. Heidi called me and asked if it was okay to bring a dog to the set. I said ‘sure, we’ll put the dog in the movie.’ In the first draft of the script I had actually written in that Shane and his mom, Ling, had a little dog but I cut it out as I got closer to production and I had to face the reality of what I could and could not wrangle on a limited budget and me being a one man crew. But there was Jack the dog like a baby in a bulrush basket on my doorstep eager to take his cues and hit his marks. I could literally fill a book with stories like this of all the strokes of Good Fortune that occurred on the long and winding road of making Gam Cam Grrl. But for brevity’s sake I’m going to
CUT BACK TO:
INT. MEXICAN RESTAURANT ON PICO BOULEVARD – MORNING (DEC. 2019)
The scene continues with Me at the table eating chips and salsa while the huevos rancheros are being cooked in the kitchen. Before diving into the Google News feed I instinctively tapped the Gmail icon on my phone. There was the bold type of an unopened email from a familiar sender in my inbox: FilmFreeway. But the subject line was one that even to this day has never ceased to cause me trepidation: “Judging Status has changed for GAM CAM GRRL.”
Even though the preceding two months of October and November 2019 had brought an unusual string of successes with winning the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Marina del Rey Film Festival, selections in the River City Fest, Culver City, Calcutta and even the Mediterranean International Film Festival Cannes, I had been submitting to festivals for a full year at that time and I was used to going for two or three months at a stretch with getting nothing but rejections. So after reading the words “Judging Status has changed…” I had gotten into the habit of scrolling down through the long boilerplate screed of “…what a difficult decision it was this year that we couldn’t include all the wonderful projects that were submitted…” I just wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty little box where the well-worn words that I had become so used to seeing:
This particular rejection letter seemed to be uncharacteristically long-winded, it seemed to go on and on until I finally got down to the little FilmFreeway box and I had to do a double-take to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating and lo and behold rather than the dreaded dark-circle slash I’d grown accustomed to seeing, the box instead contained the rare little green check-marked star that brought a gleam to this clouded emerald miner’s eyes:
I scrolled back up to the top of what I had erroneously assumed was a longer-than-usual rejection letter to find out that Gam Cam Grrl had been selected to be a part of the North Europe International Film Festival in London.
The rest of my breakfast was a brisk juggling act between fork and phone as I replied to the email that I would indeed be attending and finding out everything I could about the festival and how it is run. The festival was the week of 15 – 22 February so I had a good two months to prepare. I learned The North Europe International was one of four festivals in Europe run by Fusion International Film Festivals. When I went on their website I found out that Gam Cam Grrl had been nominated for three awards: Best Original Screenplay of a Feature Film; Best Comedy Feature; and Best Lead Actress in a Feature Film – Dani Savka.
I was especially pleased to see the nomination of Best Actress for Dani Savka. After editing the film and doing all the color grading and post-production sound I have watched the film from beginning to end literally hundreds of times. And each time I still discover endearing nuances in Dani’s performance playing the character Karol in the movie. Of all the fortunate occurrences that I was blessed with during the production of Gam Cam Grrl – my luckiest break was when Dani Savka walked through the door of the casting offices to audition for the roll.
It was October 3, 2017 – less than 2 months before we started principal photography. I was holding auditions that day at the Film Indepdendent casting offices that were then in the 9911 Pico Building in Century City. That building has held a special place in my own personal history. It was there on the top floor where I signed the distribution deal for my very first film “Oversexed Rugsuckers from Mars.” I went on to make several more films for Vista Street Entertainment including “Getting Lucky,” “Body Parts,” “Witchcraft 7: Virgin Heart,”
(all 3 of these films are now being distributed by Troma). I even filmed a lot of scenes in some of those movies right there in the Vista Street offices – the famous School- Principal-paddling-Bill scene from ‘Getting Lucky’ is one of many.
Film Indepdendent was in the process of moving their offices over to their new location in Mid-Wilshire, so Gam Cam Grrl was probably one of the last films to be cast out of the Pico offices. So with my long personal history in that building, the 3rd of October 2017 was an especially auspicious day where I auditioned both of the lead actors in my film: Roger Wan and Dani Savak – both of whom I had found through the online casting site Backstage West.
There are close to forty different characters in Gam Cam Grrl and because I spent the better part of three months casting the major roles, I had neglected to cast a lot of the supporting roles by the time we launched into principal photography. At the time, Dani Savka was involved with the Groundings and Second City improv groups and had acted in plays in L.A.’s local theatre scene as well as indie films. I asked Dani to help me cast some of the roles with actors she knew and she brought in several whose talents made such a contribution to the film that I told Dani she would be credited as Associate Producer. Some of the actors Dani brought on board were Nika Khitrova, Heather Lynn Smith, Stuart Martz, Charlotte Quanjel, Umberto Celisano, William-Patrick Coleman, Daniel Moore and Romane Goodlow.
Cut back to December 2019: So when I called Dani to tell her that not only did we get into the North Europe International Film Festival but that she was nominated for Best Lead Actress she screamed: “My passport just arrived in the mail! I’m there!”
A lot of prep work needed to be done during the two month interval before the festival would start in mid-February. I found out Fusion International Film Festivals is very focused on presenting each selected film in the best possible way – particularly when it comes to publicity and getting your film noticed. They encourage filmmakers to use pull-up banner displays to advertise their films. When I looked up photos from their past festivals I saw how this creates an attractive professional look to the festival site rather than the hodge-podge of posters on precariously positioned easels that you see at most festivals. They also publish a glossy magazine as part of the festival to present the slate of films. And during their awards dinner they play a 15-second film clip for each nominated film before the winner is announced – just like they do at the Oscars. The communication with the festival staff was great during this period as I prepared the requested clips and promotional materials to get them in by the deadline.
Then came the festival. There were five of us from the Gam Cam Grrl team who attended: myself, Heidi Luo and her husband, Ludwig, Dani Savka and Charlotte Quanjel – who made the short flight over from Amsterdam. The festival directors, Steve Grossmith and Dan Hickford were consummate hosts – every detail was well thought out and implemented. The daily screenings were paced to allow for meal breaks, meeting times, plus scheduled free time to go experience the incredible city of London. Having everyone staying at the same hotel where the festival was being held was an added plus – it made everything so easy and accessible.
During one of the days when I had a few minutes before the start of a screening I wanted to see, I was in the lobby looking over some of the literature on a table where Dan Hickford was seated. I was looking through the 2019 AFM book of film listings of a distribution company called ‘Indie Rights Movies.’ At first I was looking through the book mainly to see the different samples of film posters being displayed – since I was constantly re-designing the Gam Cam Grrl publicity materials I always like to see other film’s posters as examples.
“Indie Rights is a great company,” Dan chimed in, “are you looking for distribution for Gam Cam Grrl.”
“Yes, I am,” I replied, still perusing through the pages of movie posters in the book.
“I’d be happy to give you an introduction,” Dan added.
The remaining days of the festival were a joyful blur of breakfast buffets (remember those?) and film screenings and riding the tube to Buckingham Palace and a Canary Wharf pub for after-hours fish ‘n chips and clinking champagne glasses and meeting filmmakers from all over the world. We learned there were a few filmmakers from China who were unable to make it as all flights out of that country had been cancelled. In the midst of our jubilance we still had no idea that in a mere three weeks time this would be the new normal all across the globe.
The closing night banquet was a highlight for everyone on our team when Dani Savka took home the award for Best Lead Actress in a Feature Film. Her performance was truly deserving of the award. As the festival photographer’s camera flashed, I briefly flashed back to that day she auditioned for the part: she was completely ‘off book’ and had already memorized all of the sides.
We flew back to Los Angeles the next day on 23 February. Gam Cam Grrl was screening at the Golden State Film Festival at the famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood the following Sunday on 1st March.
During that week between the festival in London and the screening in Hollywood I did some research on the distributor Indie Rights Movies. I talked to some people who had worked with them. I read reviews and listened to podcasts about them online. They seemed like a reputable company that really cared about independent films and filmmakers. I learned they were filmmakers themselves so they understood what it was like to be in the trenches. I emailed Dan Hickford at @Fusion_Film_Fests and told him I was interested in his offer to give me an introduction to Indie Rights. Dan gave me the introduction to Linda Nelson and she said she would be interested in seeing Gam Cam Grrl.
The screening at the Chinese Theater on 1st March was a joy – many of the cast who live locally were able to come out and join in the red carpet photos. On 2nd March, at the Golden State Film Festival awards I was an especially proud Papa when my daughter Jaya won the award for Best Costume Design in a Feature Film. Jaya was still in the United Kingdom at that time studying costume making in York. She woke up the next morning to a host of congratulatory emails from her friends back here in the States. No one knew, including Jaya, that her class would be postponed and she would be back in California in two weeks time under quarantine.
One week later, the Chinese Theater was closed along with all the other theaters in Los Angeles. Two weeks later, everything but essential businesses were closed and everyone else was ordered to stay at home.
It was during this time of tectonic social change that the distribution deal with Indie Rights Movies was made for Gam Cam Grrl. Everything was changing during that time as I prepared the delivery requirements for the distributor: film festivals like Tribeca and SXSW were canceled, even the Cannes Film Market was moved to the end of June and was eventually decided they would try it this year as a virtual online event. It was like dancing during an earthquake – you would make the moves not entirely certain of exactly where your foot would end up.
In May, Gam Cam Grrl was selected to be in the Switzerland International Film Festival. But because of the travel restrictions, the festival decided to do it online this year. It was nice to see a lot of the other films that were in the Switzerland Festival lying in bed with my laptop on my belly. But its not the same as seeing a film on the big screen in a darkened room with a rapt audience. Oh how wonderful it would have been to have flown into Paris, take the Ligne 4 bus to Gare de Leon and then the train over to Aubonne where the festival was meant to be held in a theater in that beautiful city on the lake in the Alps. I look forward to the day, hopefully not to far in the future, when we can all start going to film festivals again. I hope my next film gets accepted into another one of the Fusion International Film Festivals during that new time so I can experience it once again in one of their other sister cities: Valencia, Warsaw or Brussels. Or hey, maybe all three!
But even now in tumultuous times, we humans continue on, hoping for a glimpse of light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. Just last week, on 8 June, I got an email from Indie Rights notifying me that Gam Cam Grrl was now available on Amazon Prime Video. Now it’s available for anyone in the world to see. And if you’ve already seen the movie, then one thing you already know about the mysterious Cami Fawlkes is that ‘she wants the world to see everything.’
Most filmmakers are dreamers by nature. You have to be to embark upon such a massive undertaking with such overwhelming odds of ever having your film find a way to be seen. But when it works and all the pieces come together and you have that magically time to share your vision with others on the big screen – it makes all those steps you took along that long and winding journey that led you to that moment worth it. And it makes you want to do it again. And again. Even though it doesn’t always turn out the way you envisioned. But sometimes it does – with a few unforeseen plot twists along the way. Like that little dog Jack that Heidi brought to my apartment that very first day of shooting.
Sometimes you just get lucky.