Real to Reel

When an old friend told me she had produced and directed a major motion picture, I was pleasantly surprised. Then she told me what the movie was about.

But then Meredith Scott Lynn, one of the cast members, found more investors. Julie managed to finish the film by shouldering almost the entire burden of postproduction. She was so strapped for cash that she couldn't even afford to make a workprint of her film; she had to send the original negative out for editing. "It was the riskiest thing I ever did," Julie told me. "One false cut and the original negative would be ruined. The whole time it was out, I couldn't sleep." The film came back in perfect shape.

Oscar season was beginning, but Julie managed to book the Harmony Gold Theater, one of the L.A.'s prime screening rooms. She sent invitations to distributors, acquisitions people, agents. Her parents flew in from Miami. On October 17, 1996, I Love You ... Don't Touch Me premiered in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 425. "That was the best night of my life, and also one of the hardest," Julie said. "I thought my movie would sell from the screening. But no one was interested in distributing it."

Comedy is light. Comic films should be light things. But without a distributor, Julie's film weighed on her: "It was driving me crazy that there wasn't more interest. I mean, this is a movie about an adult virgin. No one had ever done that before. And a woman directing her own script? Plus, I was only 27. I had achieved this incredible thing at such a young age, and I couldn't get it sold." In desperation, Julie shot the rapids of last chance: She applied to the Sundance Film Festival.

The flagship in Robert Redford's pro-independent-film armada, Sundance is also an indie kingmaker. Steven Soderbergh ascended to the throne after debuting sex, lies and videotape at the festival in 1987, and other years' festivals have anointed Todd Haynes, Hal Hartley, and Quentin Tarantino.

After Julie mailed her application to Sundance, she took a vacation -- first to Miami, then to Toronto to visit Marla. "When I got back I had twenty phone messages on my answering machine. I listened to nineteen of them, and nothing. Message twenty was Geoff Gilmore from Sundance. He said I should give him a call." I Love You ... Don't Touch Me hadn't made competition, but it would be screened in the festival's American Spectrum series, a showcase for new directors.

In the months before Sundance, Julie had been a one-woman filmmaking machine. Now she became a one-woman marketing machine. In six weeks, she spent nearly $10,000 emblazoning her movie's logo on T-shirts, jackets, baseball caps, and condoms. There were even boxer shorts that said "I Love You" in black type and "Don't Touch Me" in glow-in-the-dark green. On January 17, exactly a year after she had started shooting, she met her parents, her cast, and her crew in Park City, Utah, for the ten-day event.

As it turns out, Sundance 1997 was another banner year for indie films. Mark Waters's black comedy The House of Yes was the first to go; Miramax paid $1.9 million. Star Maps went to Fox Searchlight for $2.5 million. On the fourth day, Julie screened her film to a crowd that included reps from Goldwyn and Touchstone. Goldwyn showed the most interest, but with two screenings left, Julie wasn't ready to commit.

Thanks to excellent word of mouth and a glowing review from Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, the second screening of I Love You ... Don't Touch Me was packed with studio reps. Suits from FineLine, Miramax, Fox Searchlight, Warner Bros., and Touchstone all showed up, brandishing checkbooks. Unfortunately, the screening was booked into one of Sundance's worst rooms. "They're not even using that room any more," Julie explained. "It's not raked, so you can't see over people's heads. The sound was terrible. And it was ten in the morning on a Tuesday." Julie gladhanded tirelessly, but her stomach was knotted. Her rosy face was the peach around the pit of her panic. "The screening flopped. I walked out of there crying hysterically. I thought I had lost my chance to sell it."

Goldwyn, however, remained interested. After two days of negotiation, including an eight-hour overnight marathon, she inked a high-six-figure deal. For an independent filmmaker, she had just achieved the rough equivalent of winning the lottery. "I called my mom in Miami. She started to cry. I called Meredith, who had gone back to L.A. She started to cry. Then I went back to the condo and went to sleep." If selling her film had given Julie new life, she was only four hours old, and newborns need their rest.

In adolescence, every day is a car wreck -- noisy, painful, and costly. But time is more like space than unlike it, and from a distance, what was once tremendous can seem trivial. That was my hope, at least, as I flew down to Miami last month; as I met my parents at the airport; as I fell asleep in the same room where I had slept throughout high school; as I woke; as I showered; as I went out the door to collect Julie for lunch. I was driving a rental car, a maroon Pontiac Sunfire. I would have preferred a silver Trans Am, but Avis doesn't rent props.

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