I sat down with director Steven Feder at his Black Sheep Entertainment office in Studio City October 25.
Feder wrote, directed and produced 1996's comedy The Cottonwood and 2000's romantic comedy It Had To Be You.
Born April 3, 1958 to a Jewish mother and an Italian father, Feder grew up in Brooklyn. He got a scholarship to play basketball for Jacksonville University in Florida, dropping out six units short of his degree.
"I was horrible in English," remembers Feder. "Every English teacher I had said whatever you do, don't do anything with a profession that requires the English language. I didn't think about anything other than playing basketball. I majored in business because I heard the major was the easiest.
"At the end of the season, with six credits left to graduate, I called my dad and said I was done with college. I had come to play ball. I traveled with the Maccabee [Jewish] team.
"For a while, I worked for the family business in the textile industry then I went into merchant banking for nine years. That's where I learned about producing and financing. This is a business. It's not art. We don't spend our time in a loft painting a canvas. It's a grind it out business. It was good that I spent a lot of time in the trenches in New York learning how to make money.
"In 1987, the stock market took a mean crash.
"As bad as I was in English, I'd been writing feverishly since high school. I didn't show it to anyone. While I worked in the acquisitions business, I found myself, as an escape, writing short stories and prose. And then on a dare, I did standup comedy.
"It was 1987 and comedy was going through a weird change. The whole 24-hour channel stuff was not quite there yet. Most guys were still making money by hitting the road. I wasn't going to hit the road. By day I went to work at my office, Black Sheep Marketing, and at night I worked the clubs. Then I got involved with guys putting on off-Broadway plays."
In 1990, Feder married model Tracey Morton and devoted himself fulltime to producing. In 1992, they moved to Los Angeles.
Steven: "This theater stuff was great but you couldn't make a living at it. I didn't want to go on the road as a comic. We came out here in December, while it was freezing in New York. It was warm here. We thought Hollywood would be accepting. Boy, were we wrong.
"Someone suggest I go to USC and get on set of the student films. I met one of the teachers, Jeremy Kagan, who directed The Chosen. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said producing. He invited me to sit in on one of his classes and he introduced me to this hot-shot student director Jeffrey Nachmanoff. We wrote a script together and I produced his senior project film The Big Gig. I raised the $30,000 for the six day shoot on 35mm.
"These kids spend $100,000 to go to film school. I'm going to raise $30,000 so I can get film school in six days. I don't have the time that these kids do. I have to crash course this thing and find out whether it is for me or not.
"We took the film to a bunch of film festivals. We won awards. I got such a kick out of the process of putting together a film. When you produce a movie that small, it's not like you're sitting in a director's chair or a producer's chair. You're doing everything. I ran around with the PAs and picked up the food from McDonalds.
"I decided to make my own film. I knew that most of the time when you made these low budget films, you never make your money back. I wanted to make it cheap enough so I could go to certain guys and say, 'Look, you're never going to see your money back. But if you want to come to the set and hang out and meet the actresses...' Some of my friends said, 'That's not exactly how you sell something, Steven.'
"They say you should write what you know. When I was in New York, I used to hang out with this group of actors. We'd put a dollar a piece in the middle of the table and buy lotto tickets together. And we said that if we ever won any money, we'd make a movie.
"I'd been out in LA for five years and I hadn't met anybody. That was typical me - not bother with the system. Not find out how this thing works. Not go to the lot at Fox. I decided I just needed to make a movie. I didn't need to talk to anybody. It wasn't arrogance, it was stupidity.
"I spent six weeks casting, two of those weeks in New York. We saw about 800 actors. Every time someone came in for an interview, we talked. I got to know them. I loved the process."
Luke: "You weren't just boffing a bunch of actresses?"
Steven: "Absolutely not. Most of the people we were casting were guys anyway. We shot the movie in September in New York. My wife was about to give birth to our first daughter. I was alone in New York. That's a trusting and loving wife. A woman about to give birth and her husband alone in New York City shooting a movie. Some of those phone calls at night were not pleasant. Anyway, actresses are a crazy bunch."
Luke: "I'm just projecting."
Steven: "A friend of mine was casting. The first girl, a beautiful girl, comes in. He calls me to say that he's got the lead. I say, 'The lead? You just got started. How could you have the lead? Isn't this the first girl you've seen?' He says, 'Yeah, she's great. She's gorgeous.' I replied, 'They're all good. They're all gorgeous. That's the problem. That's why you have to have someone with you in the casting. Are you doing this alone?' He says yeah. You can't be alone because it's dangerous.
"I put several of my New York friends who were struggling actors into SAG (Screen Actors Guild). I was short $175,000 for my film and I hustled everyone I knew (for the full $288,000 budget). My biggest fear on day one of the shoot was that I would never get to go through such an exciting process again.
"A few weeks before the movie started, we had to change the cast. We lost somebody."
USA TODAY's February 16, 1998 edition gave these details: "Daniel Baldwin, who suffered a cocaine overdose Feb. 2 in New York, won't return to the set of It Had to Be You. Writer/director Steven Feder issued a statement Friday: ``Due to the situation and scheduling constraints on our production, all parties involved mutually agreed that we needed to continue filming.' ' Baldwin will be replaced by actor Michael Rispoli."
Steven: "Producer James Baffico battled about me playing the lead role in the movie. I said, 'I'm going to fill this thing. I can do this thing.' At the last minute, just before we start shooting, he said, 'I don't think you should do this. You're taking on something that you've never done before. On top of directing and producing.'
"I would never make this decision again. And when I made my second film, it did not even cross my mind for a second to cast myself. But my theater background. When you're in theater and you're live, it's the connection you have with the other actor that saves you. It's the net. It's not so much that you're remembering your lines but that you're hearing his. That reminds you of what you're supposed to say. I thought that if I was going to sit at the table with those other guys, I would feel if the scenes were right and going well.
"Looking back on it, that was ridiculous to think I could be the barometer. Now when I talk to first time directors, you've got to realize that when you watch a scene, you may think that looks real and live, but when you see the dailies, it may look slow or too fast. That inner sense saved me. It turned out to be the greatest move I did. Crazy in terms of exhaustion and concentration level."
Feder and his first film appeared in a two minute segment of Australian Showtime's short "The Director's Cut":
"Feder plays the lead character Charlie. Charlie's a big of a chum. He deals in counterfeit designer labels while waiting for his big break as an actor writer. His three other buddies are pretty much in the same boat, playing off-off-off Broadway gigs. That is, until their ship comes in in the form of a three million dollar lottery prize. In true showbiz edition, they can now realize their dream of making a movie that will catapault them to stardom. The only problem is, they don't have an original idea in their heads.
"In hilarious sequences, they end up scripting a movie that has the grit of Rocky, the morality of the Lion King, the action of The Fugitive, the appeal of Enchanted April, and the commercial success of Home Alone, by blatantly deriving 52 scenes from 38 Oscar-winning films. There are some wonderful tributes to Saturday Night Fever and Broadway Danny Rose.
"But like the fake labels that Charlie deals in, these scenes are simply not authentic, and end up landing the boys in deep trouble with the Writer's Guild. The Cottonwood is named for the real Cottonwood Cafe in Greenwich Village where Steven Feder and his actor buddies hung out in real life. And a lot of the film was shot there too after Feder promised the owners that he would pay tribute to the place in the title.
"It wasn't the only deal that Feder struck. Watch out for the street scene shot with the assistance of a police officer who closed off an entire block in return for a cameo role. There's a terrific performance here too by Australian actress Gia Carrides who pulls off her sassy Bronx character Kathy with great gusto. And from Pruitt Taylor Vince who gave such a potent performance as Victor in the 1995 film Heavy."
Steven Feder: "When you make an independent film, everything's great until the time you finish it. You have no sense of marketing and distribution. That year, 1995, was the end of the independent film trend. The greatest lesson I've learned in this business is how hard it is to get a theatrical release. You get passionate about your work. One night I sat with an audience at the Hampton's Film Festival and we sold out for several nights. And it was a high. People were laughing. We had numerous write-ups in local papers, and four stars and all that crap. And I thought, this is it. And then we do a couple more festivals with the same reaction. And then I realize that we're not going anywhere. When it's all said and done, we're going home.
"Two years later, the picture was picked up and got some foreign distribution.
"You have to do this business for itself. And then if you get the recognition, that's cool. The rest of it is just going to work like everyone else. If you're working to make one hit movie, you're working against yourself. When it doesn't happen, you get disappointed. The talented people who don't make it in this business are the ones who quit. And the ones who do make it, are the ones who don't go away.
"Making my second movie (It Had To Be You) for $5 million was a whole different story though I probably had more fun with the first movie. Looking back on it now, it's weird that I didn't send the script out on spec. But the minute I finished the script, I asked, 'How can I make the movie independently again?'
"We got a hold of a sales agent who told us to get him a list of the stars who were on the project. If you can sign up one of these girls, I can get you the financing. The first name on the list was Natasha Henstridge, who I really didn't know. I knew she'd done Species.
"I had great actors in the first movie but at the end of the day they weren't saleable. As much as I was in this business for all the creative reasons, it was time to put my business hat back on.
"Independent filmmaking is the ultimate in the creative process. You go into dailies that night and see things you like, things you don't like. And you make adjustments and you don't have to fax the studio for permission to make changes.
"It's not like we want to make films for $300,000 but nobody's going to back them. If a studio backs you, it's because you've either done one already or you've sold a huge spec. Or you've shot a lot of music videos.
"Do I want to go through the independent process again, raise my own money to shoot the movie? No. Because at some point in your career you have to wake up and say, I've proved that I can make a movie. I'm not asking for any favors. I've paid my dues. And I need to step up and make a studio film. I have many friends in the business who made it through that process.
"It Had To Be You was shot in February 1998. We finished post production in December. Then the distributor New Star went into bankruptcy. The movie sat until finally I worked with Regent Entertainment to get it out of bankruptcy (which was no small feat). The film finally premiered at the 2001 AFM [independent film festival in Santa Monica] in February where it was selected to the A-list by the Hollywood Reporter, a list compiled by buyers responses of the five films with the most buzz at the market. After the AFM it then began it's release. First foreign, airline, then domestic this March, 2002.
"I remember when I took it to AFM. I drove over there with the posters for the film and call my wife. 'Ten years ago, I was selling soda and cookies at intermissions at my theater in New York. Five years ago, I'm running around on a student film. Now I'm running with the trailors and the paraphenalia.' And I'm laughing, this is the independent business. If you're not willing to do this, don't make a movie.
"Now it's playing all over Europe. It's been playing on 75% of US and international airlines since September 1st because of a deal with What Women, Want, Chocolat, and my movie. Then September 11 hits, and all planes are grounded.
"On September 20th, I was sitting in the kitchen with my wife and kids and she said: 'I just thought. I know this is awful, but your movie. Nobody's flying and nobody's watching it.' And I said, 'Tracey, that's just the business.'"