NYWIFT Member Suzanne Hayes Kelly on Producing ‘Isn’t it Delicious’

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Still from Isn’t it Delicious with Alice Ripley (L) and Suzanne Hayes Kelly ®. Photo courtesy of Aquapio Films.

Last week, New York Women in Film and Television members were invited to see Isn’t It Delicious, an independent feature film produced by NYWIFT member Suzanne Hayes Kelly, at the Quad Cinema in New York City. The film opened in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago this month and stars Kathleen Chalfant. This is Kelly’s first time producing a narrative feature. Her previous work includes acting in commercials, theater, and film, and producing two feature documentaries, along with several award-winning short films.

NYWIFT Blog Editor Amanda Lin Costa interviewed Kelly to find out the scoop on getting Isn’t It Delicious made and opening theatrically in major cities. Kelly offers advice for first-time feature film producers, and shares how she juggled producing while acting in the film as well as her experience working side by side with her husband, the film’s director, Michael Patrick Kelly.

It’s a great interview with some surprise behind-the-scenes disasters revealed, in addition to straightforward, honest insights into producing an independent feature, including financing and distribution.

C: Thank you for taking the time to discuss Isn’t It Delicious. When did you join NYWIFT?
K: I became a NYWIFT member in July of this year. Gerit Quealy, NYWIFT member and fabulous actress and writer and scholar, contacted me and basically asked why I wasn’t a member. I didn’t have an answer, so I joined right away, and I’m now realizing I should have joined ages ago!

C: When and how did you become involved in producing Isn’t It Delicious?
K: Back in 2011 when my husband, Michael Kelly, got the screenplay from his colleague Kathleen Kiley. Michael and I knew Kathleen Chalfant from an earlier documentary we made called Operation Lysistrata. We sent the script to Ms. Chalfant, and she said she hoped to play this role because it resonated with her so well.

I then began the process of negotiating the SAG contracts and sending the script to other actors we knew and writing deal memos, etc. We have produced two feature documentaries together, as well as several shorts, but the contracts for features are way more involved, of course, and we knew we would be using many union people. It was daunting at first, but once you get over that initial trepidation, you just, as they say, put your nose to the grindstone and get it done.

C: What attracted you to the project?
K: I loved the fact that the lead character was a woman—and a woman over 60. There are so few projects that feature older characters, and we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fine actors over 40, 50 and 60; and I personally have always wanted to see them more and more, so I loved that aspect of this script.

Secondly, I loved the fact that none of the characters had to be “nice” or “likable.” In reality, most of us are neither saint nor villain, just real, flawed people, struggling against our weaknesses, some more successfully than others, of course. Thirdly, we had wonderful actors on board after we sent it around, so I was beyond thrilled to be working with Kathleen Chalfant, Keir Dullea, Mia Dillon, Alice Ripley, Robert LuPone, Malachy McCourt and Jay Patterson. It was a treat! We had our first reading of the script for an audience, and after the reading, we were approached by Alice Ripley’s agent, who said that Alice would be a perfect fit as Caroline.

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Still from Isn’t it Delicious with Kathleen Chalfant (L) and Keir Dullea ®. Photo courtesy of Aquapio Films.

C: Was there any financing in place before you sent the script to Ms. Chalfant? If not, did her attachment help with that process? Could you discuss the executive producer’s involvement and the film’s budget?
K: There was not any financing in place prior to her seeing it. We really needed her assent before we could even think of the project as viable. I believe that she made a huge difference in our being able to gather the funds.

The executive producer came on board after we lost our initial funder. Much to our dismay, he [the initial funder] decided against funding at the last minute, saying that our cast was great but not bankable, and we then had to scramble. Scary time. Our new EP turns out to be an old friend who has always wanted to invest in film and came aboard at the eleventh hour, literally. He thought that having Kathleen Chalfant, Keir Dullea, and Alice Ripley was a solid enough cast for an ultra-low budgeted film.

We had planned on using the SAG ultra-low budget contract, which stipulates that it be in the can for $200,000 maximum. Post-production costs can be as much as $500,000, when deferred payments are factored in, no more. With distribution costs, etc., the final budget was around $300,000, quite a small amount for a feature!

C: What were some of the challenges you faced during production?
K: As per Murphy’s law, on the first day of shooting, our camera went down, and we were just sitting around waiting for it to be repaired for nearly five hours, which was a nightmare. When you have such a tight budget, time is indeed money, and so, when we finally got back up and running, we didn’t get all the coverage we wanted, and then we were quite behind schedule, and of course, you have to move on to the next location.

The icing on the cake was Hurricane Irene, which occurred during one of the days we were on the boat, no less! The Coast Guard had to come out and insist we come in, and the next day there was no power anywhere in Fairfield County, CT, so we definitely couldn’t shoot that day, but we had to scrounge around for food because everyone was pretty much stuck. We couldn’t even get out of our housing because the roads were blocked with downed trees. Luckily, no one was hurt.

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Still from Isn’t it Delicious with Kathleen Chalfant (L) and Robert LuPone ®. Photo courtesy of Aquapio Films.

 

C: When thinking location, did particular state tax incentives come into play?
K: We wanted to shoot in CT, and they did have a nice tax incentive, which we took advantage of, but one that they have since modified that makes it less attractive for very low-budget films. The new rules include using a soundstage for some portion of your shooting in order to qualify for the tax rebate, which is of course is very expensive and so shuts out very low budgets. But at the time, they had another very good program in place, one that pays the filmmakers to use crew from the film program at Quinnipiac University, which we took advantage of and saved us $25,000 in salary. It was great. We found lots of talented people, who are since having good careers.

C: Was it challenging to both produce and act in the film?
K: It was very challenging trying to produce and act at the same time. I was also working, so it was truly crazy, but I did use vacation time to my advantage. Luckily, my role was small, but I’m not sure if I will try that again. I got very sick during the 25 days that we shot, so I did find out that it’s not easy to do three jobs at once!

C: You’ve worked with your husband as a team for a few films now—very Nolan/Thomas! Can you tell us about how that experience is, pluses and minuses?
K: Ah! Yes, working together as a team is quite a feat, really. At one of the talkbacks, Kathleen Chalfant said, “In case you were unaware, Suzanne and Michael, the producer and director, are husband and wife—the amazing part is that yes, they’re still married!” She was referring, of course, to the incredible stress of making films. The pluses are that if you’re not really tied together, differences of opinion could really kill a project and fights over who owns what could get very hairy. The minuses are, well, what Kathleen said—the stress on your relationship.

C: How long did post take? Did the film screen in festivals? If so, was there a strategy going into it?
K: Post was completed in early 2013 and we always planned to take it to festivals. We, of course, hoped for all the big ones; we got into and won best film at the Rainier Independent Film Festival, best comedy at the Manhattan Film Festival, and second place best film in the Tupelo Film Festival. Ms. Chalfant won the Best Actor Award at the San Antonio Film Festival, and we were the opening night film at the Big Bear Film Festival, which is non-competition, and had official selections at Big Apple, St. Augustine, and Ft. Lauderdale film festivals.

C: Can you discuss distribution for the film, and if the goal was always theatrical?
K: While navigating the festival circuit, we had interest from a very good boutique distributor who was planning to release the film, opening it in 27 theaters as long as we could provide the P&A (publicity and advertising) money. The estimate for P&A funds was $250,000. Our goal was always theatrical, but, having no budget for this, we decided on four-walling and self-distribution. We opened the film ourselves, booking theaters in NYC, LA and Chicago. We are still negotiating for video on demand, overseas distribution, DVD, and online sales sites where we think we will do well.

[At this point of the interview, Michael Kelly jumps into the conversation to add some terrific advice on budgeting.]

MK: The distribution dynamic has changed very dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years. The model, since truly independent productions began, used to be that you made your film and hit the festival circuit, and even if you made a film that garnered mixed reviews, as long as you had an audience, a distribution company would acquire your film and provide the necessary P&A funds. My advice is that when budgeting your film, you need to also budget for beyond post-production, editing, music, etc., and have money in place in case you need to four-wall, or at least have some P&A money in place to make your film more attractive to both big and boutique distributors.

C: What advice can you share with other NYWIFT members looking to produce their first feature film?
K: First, you have to have a great script. Something you’re passionate about, a story you feel really needs to be told. You must have a great director of photography (DP). And you need terrific actors. We were lucky that we knew a lot of them. The lower the budget, ironically, the stronger they need to be because you have no time for multiple takes. They have to come fully prepared so a couple of takes is all you need.

I would also say, just hang in there—meet every challenge as it comes. Stay dedicated to your vision of what you want the film to be. Leave no stone unturned when it comes to meeting your needs—getting the budget you require, finding the best crew, casting the best actors. Many people will help you if you just ask! Don’t be afraid of that. You’ll be surprised how many people can hook you up with talent in all departments: makeup, costuming, even catering, everything. And I would definitely say that finding great camera people is one of the things you want to be sure of going in. But there’s a lot of talent out there! NY and the tri-state area have fabulous film schools, so we’re lucky there.

To learn more about Isn’t It Delicious and find a screening in your area, check out the film’s website.

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