Jumping Off The Cliff

“…if life only teaches you one thing, let it be that taking a passionate leap is always worth it. Even if you have no idea where you’re going to land, be brave enough to step up to the edge of the unknown, and listen to your heart.”

— Marc Chernoff
“Practical Tips for Productive Living”

The last time I did this I said “never again”.

And yet there I was, some two decades later, doing it again.

Never say never I guess.

I’ll back up a bit.

My name is Ken Mader. I’m a filmmaker. Since the womb, I joke. But actually from 8-years-old when my Dad bought me my first Super-8 movie camera. Those kids in J.J. Abrams’ movie Super 8? Yeah, that was me growing up (more on that here). Writer, Producer, Director, Editor, Cinematographer… I’ve had to do it all and wear many hats in order to survive in this business. Sometimes barely.

My first jump-off-the-cliff moment happened way back in 1989 out of desperation to get something made. After years of searching for financing, false starts and almost-were’s, I finally said “fuck the money, let’s just make a movie”. And we did.

That naiveté paid off. The film was Carnivore, a micro-budget monster movie that I co-directed with friend and artist Frank Kurtz. Shot on 16mm film, on sets we hand-built in my parent’s garage and the basement of his rented house in St. Charles, Illinois, with friends and coworkers and neighbors and roommates as cast and crew, it was a film that took 2 ½ years to shoot and another 9 years to finish post production.

Yeah, when I commit to something…

I began that journey long before the digital revolution and affordable cameras and editing systems hit the market, so I had to borrow time and hard drive space on evenings and weekends at the production company where I worked in Chicago in order to finish the film.

CarnivoreSpartanArtwcreditsIt was finally completed in 2000, we licensed the video rights in 2001, and it eventually premiered on the SyFy Channel where it played in rotation for a year. And though like most filmmaker’s first efforts, the distributor made the lion’s share of the profits leaving us begging for scraps, it wasn’t too bad for an overly-ambitious micro budget monster movie with no name actors. But hardly a showpiece to launch a Hollywood career.

Nevertheless, with dogged determination I conquered my next jump-off-the-cliff moment, moving out to Los Angeles with little more than some clothes in the car and a computer system in the trunk. Non-linear editing systems had come down in price, and vowing to never suffer through another 9-year post-production process at the whim of other people’s time and equipment, I found a used Media 100 system (remember those?) and began building my own edit bay.

In fact, I actually edited the behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of Carnivore on the drive out to L.A. (a Bonus Feature that the eventual distributor neglected to include on the DVD release – much to the chagrin of myself and many others), literally setting up my computer system in hotel rooms every night and cutting for a few hours to make a hard delivery deadline when I arrived.

After Carnivore’s release, I came up against the wall many filmmakers encounter: unless you’ve proven you can deliver a picture at nearly the level you’re trying to get funded, no one in Hollywood will trust you with their money. You have to “do the job to get the job” as the saying goes, and “you’re only as good as your last picture”. Well, my last picture was a low budget B-movie that I had only co-directed, and though I had many offers to direct similar films at that same level, I frankly wasn’t interested in making lateral moves. I was determined to climb upwards, do bigger and better movies. Plus it’s very difficult to make a living on the paltry fees they pay directors for those small films. I could actually earn more creating demo reels for actors.

So I did.

I started a small business shooting and editing high quality scenes and reels for actors, all the while writing scripts, directing some award-winning short films, and working on ways to break into the ‘big leagues’. It was clear to me I needed to make another feature that could demonstrate my now much-improved skill set and show that I could deliver at a professional level. Thus Displacement was born. And my latest jump-off-the-cliff moment commenced.

It has been equal parts exhilaration and terror ever since.

Sarah Douglas and Ken Mader on the set of Displacement

When we launched into production of Displacement over four years ago, I knew it would be a challenge. For one I had no money. Well, barely enough for one day of filming. But that would have to suffice as my first name actor in the film Sarah Douglas had only a short window of time available in her schedule then not again for eight months, and I couldn’t wait that long to start or momentum would surely be lost and the film would likely never get off the ground. So I rolled up my sleeves, reached out for favors, and dove headlong into the abyss with little more than a dream and what I was being told was a really good script.

I had been writing this character-driven time travel thriller for the previous 3+ years. Inspired in part by the sudden loss of my mother to cancer in 2009 (and my inability to grant her final wish; to see the ocean one last time) it was by far the most personal story I had written to date, and one that I felt most passionate about getting made.

Ken Mader with Susan Blakely and Bruce Davison on the set of Displacement

And though ambitious in that it deals with quantum science, I had constructed the screenplay to be produced economically, with limited locations and only a handful of characters, four of which were supporting roles or cameos that recur throughout the story, but could be shot out in 2-3 days each. I figured I could find name actors to play those characters via the various industry contacts I had made during the past decade of living and working in L.A., which turned out to be exactly the case. It would also help elevate both the acting quality of the film and its inherent marketability, while still retaining the ability to shoot it low budget.

The structure of the script also allowed me to shoot out setpieces and sequences over a number of long weekends, like a series of short films, taking it on in smaller bite-sized pieces, where I could then use that footage to help raise money for more filming.

So similar to production of Carnivore, we shot the entire movie piecemeal like this over the course of two years, beginning on February 19, 2013 and finally wrapping on May 10, 2015. And interestingly, that insane process actually allowed for much more creativity along the way, as we had the time between shoots to adjust and enhance the script, making improvements as we went along that would otherwise have been impossible on a ‘normal’ shooting schedule. What it didn’t allow for however, among other things, was ease in continuity.

Ken Mader and Courtney Hope discussing blocking for a scene in Displacement

Fortunately my lead actress, the extremely talented Courtney Hope, was enormously committed to the film and had a terrific stylist who was able to match her hair throughout the 2+ year shooting process (imagine asking anyone to keep their hair exactly the same for more than 2 years!) and my Art Director Tiffany Smith did an amazing job recreating set dressing on the occasions we had to return to a location after a long hiatus from filming there previously. In fact, my entire cast and crew were very supportive and collaborative throughout the process. Even though I was the driving force behind this project constantly pushing it forward, I could not have made it happen without them.

So we spent a total of about 32 days (some of which were half-days) over the course of two years filming, another few months in post finishing the film, then started submitting to film festivals. We were accepted into a few, traveled all over the country with the film in the early part of 2016, enjoyed screening it in cinemas with audiences, were honored with some awards, and then the crazy happened.

After receiving a few mediocre to downright awful distribution offers, I sent the screener to my former sales rep on Carnivore to see what he might be able to do with this, and he proceeded to get us an offer from A+E Networks for the World Broadcast Rights! Crazy. Completely out of left field.

And I initially turned it down.

Wait, what?

Yeah. You see, I’d been positioning this film as a limited theatrical release. A broadcast premiere felt premature and would negate that. However he convinced me that we could do both, and after weeks of hard negotiating, he did indeed get some theatrical rights carved out of their contract, a rather unprecedented concession for these types of deals. It became one of the largest deals they had made that year, and one we could not refuse.

displacement_keyart_smSo the ink was barely dry on the contract when it premiered on the Lifetime Movie Network in September of 2016. We then secured an international sales agent who has been taking it out for foreign sales. In early 2017 we began negotiating a limited theatrical release, and premiered at the Laemmle Theatres in Santa Monica on April 28, day and date with a VOD release on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play, followed by a run in my hometown of Chicago in May. Shortly thereafter it was released on DVD, available for rental at Family Video Stores and for purchase online at Best Buy, Barnes & Nobel, etc. (You can check it out here)

As a result of our theatrical release, the film was also invited into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences world-renowned Margaret Herrick Library, a reference and research collection devoted to the history and development of the motion picture as an art form and as an industry.

Although the whole release process was a bit upside down, so is the industry right now as we all try to figure out where everything is headed, and I am happy I was able to start paying back all my deferments and investors and get the movie out in the world.

So I guess my point in telling this incredibly truncated origin story is to go for it. Chase your dream. Create your future. Jump off that cliff.

Do it smart, figure out Plan B’s and C’s to know you can reach your end goal, but just do it. Do not listen to the naysayers (especially the ones in your own head). It may take time, far longer than you would have liked, but you will have achieved something that only a few select people have accomplished.

I am proof that anyone with severe perseverance and determination and a willingness to sacrifice can “make it” (insomuch as I can be considered to have “made it” – depends on how that is defined) if you plan accordingly and then just… jump.

You can stitch wings on the way down.

* * * * *

Kenneth Mader is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and self-determined dreammaker. Much to the chagrin of his ex-wife, certain family members, and the “committee” in his head.

His award-winning feature film DISPLACEMENT was released theatrically in Spring 2017, was acquired by A+E Networks for broadcast on Lifetime, and is now available on VOD and DVD. For more info click here.

He is the founder and operator of Maderfilm Studios, a full-service boutique production studio specializing in high-quality films and entertainment projects. He was named one of the “Top 100 Indie Filmmakers in the World” in the book by Action On Film’s Del Weston.

He is also available for consulting on scripts and film projects. Contact him here.

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