Brea Grant is a filmmaker/actress best known for her roles on Heroes, Dexter, and Friday Night Lights. Her first feature, Best Friends Forever, an apocalyptic road trip movie, premiered at Slamdance in 2013. She is currently writing and acting in the series Real Housewives of Horror on the Nerdist channel.
I’m going to talk about something that filmmakers often don’t like to talk about: Money.
If there are filmmakers who do love to talk about it, I don’t know them. The filmmakers that I do know are struggling to get enough cash to make their next feature, while trying to find that terrible balance between not compromising the film’s intentions too much and maintaining one’s own integrity — all while trying to make people happy who really could give a crap about art in the first place.
I went to see Hot Pursuit on Mother’s Day and the entire time I was sitting in the theater watching the Reece Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara comedy, my mind kept drifting back to money. How much was this movie making? How much did these ladies get paid to do it? Why did anyone pay to see it? And yes, my mind was wandering because, all in all, it’s not a great flick. A very paint-by-numbers comedy; whoever writes the next Save the Cat will have another Witherspoon movie to point to for every specific act break, plot, moment, etc. I went in with the hope that I could sit down later and write about the merits of female-driven comedy, but halfway through I realized that this was not the one I should plant my flag in. But it did get me thinking about cash.
A few years back, when I was in the sludge of trying to wrap up postproduction on my feature Best Friends Forever, I was in a slump. I hated life and I hated the movie and I hated everything. There was part of me that really wanted to give up and wait around for someone to hand me some money for showing up on set and saying lines (my distillation of being an actor, which I admit is very much a distillation). That’s how I had always made my money up until that point and that’s how I had gotten to where I was. I showed up on time, was a good little actor, and then went home for the day and waited for the check arrive while trying not to get fat in between jobs.* So why the hell was I going to the trouble of writing, producing and directing a movie when I could just be in someone else’s?
In the midst of one of my rants, my friend Chioke Nassor, tired of hearing me bitch, suggested I read Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life.
Hepburn, who had previously done well in the theater and in the first few years of her career in Hollywood, suddenly became the dreaded “box-office poison” after a few film failures. (Her outspoken and brash nature didn’t help her reputation either.) She couldn’t get a decent job and those roles that were offered to her were insultingly below what she was used to. So, not one to take things sitting down, Hepburn created her own comeback by producing The Philadelphia Story, ceding top billing to Cary Grant and shepherding the movie to considerable success, not just because she believed it was an amazing project, but also because she knew she had to get her career back on track. No one else was going to do it for her.
And from then on, things were just amazing for Hepburn! Just kidding. She still had a lot of ups and downs but crucially she did get rid of the whole “box-office poison” tag. And she did it by strong-arming her way into producing a movie that she knew people would like and appreciate.
But back to Hot Pursuit, and my mind wandering toward money and the question of how much this film was making. Sure, any movie star appreciates the money that a movie opening at #2 at the box office will provide for their families, children, non-profits, blah blah blah. We can always call a movie like this a “money job” and be done with it. But I think there is something more here. Both Witherspoon and Vergara were producers on Hot Pursuit. Previously, Vergara executive-produced the cancelled TV show Killer Women and has a few more projects on track. And Witherspoon’s company, Pacific Standard, did Gone Girl and Wild. Her previous production company was also responsible for Penelope (which I was a huge fan of) and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (which I am, to my shame, also a big fan of). So yes, while they are collecting checks as actresses for Hot Pursuit, they are also further establishing themselves as savvy producers who can open a film on Mother’s Day weekend. As a result, Reese can continue to take chances in the future on movies like Wild because she doesn’t have to prove that her projects make money.
I could go on and on about how Hot Pursuit isn’t a great film and shouldn’t we be striving for more depth or nuance in our comedies beyond funny accents (for both women) or slapstick that occurs because the main character wears high heels, but mostly I just want to say a “hell yeah” to these ladies for making their own stuff, even if sometimes they come out with bad movies (to add to all the bad movies that male actor-producers have been making for such a long time). I’m just happy that they are out there making things and putting their names somewhere behind the camera instead of just in front of it.
I’m not arguing for mediocrity by any stretch. But I’m also not going to pretend that women in Hollywood don’t have to deal with the crap that comes with aging — going from fuckable to somebody’s mom, and the stretch in between where there are hardly any roles. Witherspoon is heading towards it and I’m not sure how old Vergara is but I’m sure she’ll make it there in, like, 75 years or something, in spite of the amazing beauty she possesses. I’m just saying, “Good for them.” Make some films that Middle America likes. Make some mediocre comedies that will kill on Redbox and VOD for hungover afternoons and family affairs. Because I have faith that these money jobs will bring more to the table in the future, hopefully in the form of some good cinema that those of us with snobby opinions who write for filmmaking websites can love as well. Go get yours, ladies.
*I wish this were a joke.