"How to Build a Film From Scratch

by Sura Wood, Marin Independent Journal, 27 July 1999

To produce and distribute an independent film in the current climate is to enter a labyrinth; a maze with gatekeepers, poseurs, moneymen and the occasional visionary.

Without the cushion, let alone the marketing budget, of a studio-backed film, independent filmmakers rely on the proverbial kindness of strangers and, of course, luck. Just ask Tommy Rosen, a Mill Valley producer and fledling screenwriter. With little money and even less experiencem, Rosen, along with his co-producer and longtime friend John Comerford, built his first film from the ground up.

IJ photos — Marian Little Utley
TOMMY ROSEN: The Mill Valley filmmaker has made a semi-autobiographical film titled 'Around the Fire.' It will be shown Aug. 9 at the Wine Country Film Festival.

"Around the Fire" is a coming of age story about Simon (Devon Sawa), a troubled adolescent from an affluent family. After he is caught shoplifting, Simon is sent to boarding school where he finds camaraderie among the followers of the Grateful Dead and struggles with drug abuse. The film be shown Aug. 9 at the Wine Country Film Festival in the town of Sonoma.

"After seeing it, I'm convinced that they exceeded their own expectations," says festival director, Steve Ashton. "They were able to meld a wonderful universal story with an authentic creation of the times; yet, they avoided exploiting the psychadelic era."

The semi-autobiographical film is basedon Rosen's 15 years as a Dead Head, an archaic term he politely disdains. "I'm a Dead Head and proud of it; but, that term is kind of antiquated now," says Rosen. "I had a grand appreciation of the Grateful Dead's culture and music. So, I thought, why not tell a story about the people I've known all these years."

Rosen — who shot the film's outdoor concert scenes in Novato at Stafford Lake and used Dominican College in San Rafael as a stand-in for the boarding school — came to filmmaking with no credentials, other than a few film classes he had taken. "Until the beginning of this project in 1995, I had never done anything that would warrant my pursuing the writing of a screenplay and the production of a feature film," says Rosen, who graduated with a major in French literature from the University of Colorado. He briefly taught French at Marin Academy before moving to Seattle to collaborate with Comerford on the script.

IJ photo — Marian Little Utley
'AROUND THE FIRE': Tara Reid and Devon Sawa rehearse a scene during the making of Tommy Rosen's film in 1997.

"He had a willingness to go for it," says Comerford, who has known Rosen since their undergraduate days. "He's just absolutely out there flying in the breeze. The freedom that he has is part of his nature and it's a terrific thing to jump on board with."

Rosen, 32, grew up in a privileged family on New York's Upper East Side and first came to San Francisco in 1985 to see the Grateful Dead perform at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. "I was 18, bullet-proof and my life has never been the same since." He settled in Mill Valley in 1991, drawn by the "people, culture and lifestyle" he found in the community. Rosen raised $2 million to make the film from private investors, family, friends and, "a lot of Dead Heads who really appreciated the material and gave us quite a bit of money to get it done."

Though the Grateful Dead allowed the filmmakers to use one of their songs in the movie, the group didn't offer financial backing. "Our movie touches on controversial issues — drugs and the like and they didn't want to be associated with that any more than they already have been. So, they decided to sit this one out," he says.

"In no way do we advocate drug use, but we aren't in the just-say-no camp either. We really believe out movie shows a very realistic interpretation of drugs and how they can add to or take away from your life. Drugs aren't all good. They aren't all bad. They're certainly something kids have to deal with."

He says, "My feeling about the film business and film market is that it is as hard as it's ever been for independents to break in. You are up against so much."

Despite that grim assessment, it appears that Rosen was on the receiving end of some extraordinary breaks. After getting a standing ovation at the Seattle Film Festival, the filmmakers signed a foreign sales agreement with a company which screened their film at the Cannes Film Market, a wing of the festival reserved for films not in competition. "We worked out butts off for five days," recalls Rosen, who says he was impressed by the crass, decadent and frenetic atmosphere of the film industry's ultimate circus. "Cannes is crazy. Cannes is nuts. It's 24 hours a day of business. You're in the most swank, cosmopolitan place. It's totally glamorous and glittery. People are literally striking up business conversations on the street as they pass one another."

IN 1997: Shooting for the Rosen film was done partly at Stafford Lake in Novato. Here's a scene in production.

But attending Cannes is something of an anomaly when one consider the high price that Rosen — and other filmmakers — often pay for independence. The practical reality is that making a film on a low budget means working without a net.

Take, for example, the time when only 25 of the 300 extras needed for a scene showed up on the set.

"All of a sudden, we're in really serious trouble. We're not a studio. We don't have the ability to extend filming an extra day. We have 25 days to pull this off and if we miss a day, then those scenes just don't get shot."

To solve such problems, Rosen and his crew resorted to some ingenious, albeit desperate, measures.

"We were literally pulling homeless people off the street in Berkeley and taking them to the Kaiser Convention Center in vans."

Rosen now finds himself in what he describes as, extraordinary debt. "It's the typical independent filmmaker's sob story."

He says, "When the project was in jeopardy we took out loans from banks, credit cards; anyone who would give us money to finish it."

And after working on the film for the past five years doing "everything, every step of the way by ourselves," Rosen is somewhat weary from the relentless headaches associated with production.

"The job of producer is never done. We have dealt with unions, we have dealt with lawsuits, with every hardship you can possibly imagine. We have even dealt with having to hire and fire friends of ours. If I had it my way, I would never produce again."

For the time being, Rosen is working on two screenplays and is sanguine about the future of "Around the Fire," which will have a limited theatrical release in several college towns this fall.

"We are lucky enough to have something that we feel is commercial."

He says, "We're the one in a thousand that make it to teh movie theaters, and we're really proud to be at this level."

"Though it remains to be seen if we make our money back, we did something we truly believed in. We gave our heart and soul to the project. I don't have any regrets."

©1999 Marin Independent Journal

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