How My First Film Was Sabotaged from Within

Actress and producer Katherine Waddell shares the cautionary tale of one of her earliest experiences working in independent film.

It has taken me quite a while to write this. Not just because I felt lost at the prospect of trying to turn my anger, heartache and feelings of betrayal into something worth reading, but also because I didn’t want this to be just a sobfest about how unlucky I was at the beginning of my career. I hope this story brings you some comfort, that you won’t feel alone in your terrible indie filmmaking experiences. And if you’re new to the industry, maybe you can just learn to not do what I did and save yourself the grief.

To start at the beginning, I had worked as an actress with a producer-director duo on a few short films which had successful runs on the film festival circuit. They were talented and professional and I felt a synergy working with them that told me the three of us could go far if we stuck together. More importantly, we were all good friends.

Katherine Waddell on the set of her first film, #1. (Photo by Em Johnson.)

At first, they approached me with an offer to be the lead in a film they had written together. I declined – it just wasn’t what I was looking for at the time as an actor – but I knew I wanted to be a part of the film regardless because I liked the story, and of course, I liked them. I offered myself up as a co-producer. I had only been an associate producer before, but this small film felt like it would be a safe place for me and my friends to make our first feature film together.

Those first few months working on pre-production were bliss. The three of us were beyond excited. While they finished writing, I tackled everything from costume designs to helping with casting, and we Skyped weekly with updates, joyous and excited. I had no problem taking on more responsibility than what my job title would entail because I was just happy to be making a movie with my friends that we believed would be really great.

The work was hard, but fulfilling. We were a core team of five – the main producer, the director, the sound person, the director of photography, and me. And I was in charge of every department that I didn’t just list now. It was a lot of pressure and a million things to keep track of, but I was happy to do it. The first two weeks of filming were amazing. Every day we operated under this unspoken enthusiasm that exists when creating. That first day I brought donuts to set as a celebration. We ended early because we got everything we needed and had made our day. This was filmmaking. This was working hard on our art.

But then things slowly began to fall apart. By the end of week two, as passion and enthusiasm were starting to fade because of the long hours and inevitable complications that arose from having a small budget, I started becoming a metaphorical punching bag for the producer. Suddenly, all of my effort wasn’t enough, and small things – mostly beyond my control – became massive issues between us. For example, the producer had allocated $50 a week for craft services for a set that had anywhere from five to 13 people on it every day. Imagine, $10 a day to feed that many people. He couldn’t understand why food kept running out, and why I wouldn’t run out immediately for more. He said I must be buying the wrong things, and that me bringing donuts every day (on my own dime) was annoyingly unhealthy. When I was acting as an extra in one small scene, he asked why I had chosen the ugliest shirt he had ever seen to be my costume? He hated the props I chose and where I placed them. He didn’t like the lunch I had ordered.

Katherine Waddell on the set of her first film, #2. (Photo by Em Johnson.)

By this point, I was probably working 18- to 20-hour days. He called me at all hours of the night, and when I didn’t pick up, sent me passive aggressive text messages about how it was failing in my responsibilities to him and the film. I had nobody to lean on, even my friend the director, because the producer had manipulated me into not talking to her about anything “concerning the film,” so she could focus creatively.

Things were horrible during the shoot, but they really fell apart in post-production. After the film wrapped, we all took a breather for about two months. We all had to return to our jobs for a while and catch up on life. At this point, I still believed that any tension during production was just down to the stresses of low-budget filmmaking. Instead, I was about to learn just how controlling, manipulative, and downright ridiculous, the producer was.

Two weeks into post, he fired the editor, because he had been unsatisfied with her work. However, he asked me to keep this a secret from the director (which I did for a while), saying he would just edit the movie until he found a replacement. For months he kept up the façade, sending (awful) drafts of the film to the director. As the director and I started to talk more, we began sharing the different things he was telling each of us. For example, when he fell off the grid for a month, he told me he’d needed a break – and told the director he had caught a serious cold and hadn’t been able to work. He delayed hiring people to do sound and color – he wanted to choose the right person and didn’t like anyone we recommended. He refused to admit to the director that he was having financial difficulties paying for post, but wouldn’t let the director hire people herself. Excuse after excuse.

A year passed. Two years passed. We pushed to try and do small things that could somehow move us forward. Could we start sourcing music? Yes, but we had to send it to him for approval. We sent soft classical music to reflect the romantic atmosphere of the movie – he sent us back foreign rap music.

Katherine Waddell on the set of her first film, #3. (Photo by Danielle Park.)

In trying to move the project forward at all, the director and I pushed to create the IMDb page for the film, but were met with backlash even for that. IMDb works like Wikipedia; anyone can edit it. But he didn’t want us to create it because he wanted it under his “account,” where only he could edit it or add to it. We tried explaining that that’s not how it works. He wouldn’t budge. The director and I were at our wits end. I finally said to her, “Let me look at my contract and see what power I have in this situation.” However, when I opened up my contract, I was confronted with my own naivete and lack of experience.

In trusting my friends, in being a first-time producer, in my excitement to make a film, I had not read my contract closely enough, and did not realize that the title I was getting was “associate producer,” and not “co-producer.” The contract also only covered the four weeks I had worked on the film and none of the pre-production, and none of the years I had spent working on post. I was livid, confused, and felt dumb as hell. I emailed the producer immediately and said we needed to change my contract. I had been referred to as co-producer for years. I had done the work. But to him it was simple – it was a no, brandishing examples of times he felt I’d let him down.

At that point, it was clear to me: I was done. I told him it was time for me to leave the project, since technically I hadn’t been supposed to work on post at all.

After my departure, things got better. Sort of. The director was finally able to convince him to let her hire composers, an editor, and a colorist near where she lived. However, everything had to be pre-approved by him. He demanded to call in to the meetings, and he set up lengthy calls afterwards that he demanded the director join so he could continue to give notes. At one point, communication between them broke down so badly, they brought in a mediator to help them communicate because his demands and working methods were so outrageous, verging on abusive. (Funny enough, the mediator ended up with something I didn’t: a full producer credit.)

Katherine Waddell and director Em Johnson during the making of their upcoming feature Balloon Animal. (Photo by Jessica Perez.)

But the chaos didn’t stop there. I could talk about how the producer “lost” the director’s contract and strong-armed her into making a new one where she gave up all rights to the film. Or how he didn’t fulfill contractual obligations to post contractors he eventually hired, and that the director had to pay them out of her own pocket without him knowing, under the table.

There’s not a single scene in the movie where you can’t see my work. I handled the costumes, production design, hair and makeup, location management, call sheets, shooting schedules, and props, plus lunch, craft services and more. Of course, if you watch the movie and look at the credits, you’ll never know the extent of my contributions. The producer minimized me in the credits, even replacing my name with those of both real people and fake people in departments where I did all of the work. And I only know this because, despite being technically banned from watching the film, the director let me watch it in secret.

Despite all that happened and how much I suffered throughout this process, I don’t think I’m the victim here. I don’t even think the director, who unquestionably has suffered more than I have, is the victim. The movie is. It actually turned out beautifully, for all the director’s hard work over the years, but the producer has complete ownership over the film, and till this day has suppressed it, holding it back for a film festival debut that may never come. I love the movie. I cried twice when I watched it (not from my experience, but from the power of its storytelling). The performances are enthralling, the visuals even more compelling. Sure, like any low-budget debut, it’s not perfect, but it’s a resonant piece of art and it’s a shame that no one may see it. It is wasting away, collecting dust, most likely destined to never be seen by a general audience.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see my five percent; I agreed to a deferred fee, instead of actually getting paid for years of work. I don’t think anyone expects to make money back with an indie film, and at this point, I don’t really care. I don’t have that fight in me. What I really want, however, is for the film to be released. To be able to let go – to have everyone who got to work on it finally be able to see it, for the work of the director and the lead actress to be seen and celebrated.

Katherine Waddell today. (Photo by Maria Kanevskaya.)

Finally, I don’t think it’s a mistake to make movies with your friends. I own a production company together with the director, who is my best friend. We just finished our second feature together, we are signed on to two more, and we write scripts together in our free time. We have never fought, and we respect each other’s boundaries when it comes to work. It’s a career joy that I pride myself on. My work as an actress is going well also. The milestones I have reached in my career since that first film have been nothing short of blessings, and I celebrate them all. So, my takeaway is: do not be afraid to say no. In this industry, it feels impossible to walk away from anything for fear of retribution or potentially ruining your career. But it’s more important to ask for what you’re worth, put yourself first, and not suffer for your art if you don’t have to. Any success I have now does not stem from that movie. It comes from my own hard work and collaborating with people who share my vision about what films should be, and more importantly, how we should treat each other while making them.

Oh, and my final piece of advice is: read the fine print of your contracts.

Producer-actress Katherine Waddell is best known for her work as an actor and co-executive producer on acclaimed indie feature Dinner in America, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. She recently completed the coming-of-age film Balloon Animal, shot entirely during COVID-19, in which she plays lead character Poppy, a girl who makes balloon animals at a traveling circus. It is also the debut feature produced by her new female-driven production company, First Bloom Films, created with director Em Johnson. She recently executive produced IFC’s We Need to Do Something, a horror feature starring Vinessa Shaw which premiered at 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Her first major producing credit came from her role as associate producer on Gasoline Films’ Six LA Love Stories, starring Alicia Witt and Matthew Lillard. For the past few years, Katherine has worked as an associate producer at Poitier & Dunaway Motion Pictures and Gasoline Films. (Photo by Leah Tribett.)