High Concept, Low Budget: An Interview with the Producers of Unknown

Want to make a feature film without studio backing and a screenplay that has been doing the rounds of Hollywood? You’d better find a good original script that you can believe in. It’s the situation producers Rick Lashbrook, Darby Parker and John Schwartz faced when they were setting up their upcoming noir thriller Unknown. The film stars Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear and Bridget Moynahan and was shot in Downtown Los Angeles and the California desert in Spring 2005.

Parker and Lashbrook optioned the original screenplay by Matt Waynee in 2003, sensing it had the same mind-twister appeal of Memento. The plot involves a journey to find the truth after memories have been wiped. "Five men wake up in a locked-down industrial unit, where they’ve been exposed to a chemical and their memories are erased," explains Parker. "Through a series of events they learn that some of them must be kidnappers and some hostages, and the main kidnappers are on their way back to kill whoever the hostages are. We watch in real time as these men try to break out and their memories start to come back. They have to figure out who they are and why they’re all in this place." Waynee’s initial screenplay underwent significant re-writes to produce the final storyline but, crucially, the producers had been attracted to it because it came ‘concept ready’. It was a character driven, psychological thriller and they were confident that a strong and dramatic original story would attract talent. "I love thrillers, and I love character-driven films," explains Parker. "The Usual Suspects was a character-driven heist film – even though it exists within the genre – and Seven was an investigative thriller, doing it in a way you’ve never seen a serial killer movie." John Schwartz adds, "I think if you can find the projects that attract great performances, you’re in."

Importantly, it would not demand a studio-sized budget to realise Unknown. The major studios may have passed on the original script because they neglected to spot its inherent potential. Parker oversaw the re-writes himself, and was confident the film could be independently produced and still be extremely commercially viable. "One of the reasons we chose the project was that from a practical standpoint the production demands weren’t significant," attests Lashbrook. "The film was something we could make for a reasonable price at a reasonable schedule." Both had already experienced frustration setting up movies at studios. As Parker recounts, "You put a film there, and it all gets so close… some just don’t reach the finish line. If you independently produce you have control and ultimately the only person that’s going to fail is you. That’s why we switched to this."

Both realised that re-working and honing the script was critical to the project’s success, the storyline undergoing several changes under Darby Parker’s supervision. Parker describes how for him the story was always going to touch on some pertinent themes. "There’s something so universally human about the extent to which we can call ourselves ‘good,’ or ‘evil,’ moment to moment. Do we define ourselves through the choices we make, and can we be absolved from bad choices? Even if you do change can you keep your past actions from coming in and defining you by everybody else’s hand?" Another important issue, Parker adds, was "having an ending that would challenge the audience and where you weren’t really sure where these characters were going to go."

First-time feature director Simon Brand came to the project during its early development. "The script for Unknown caught my attention. It needed some changes but it had amazing potential," he says. "Even in the very early stages I absolutely wanted this to be my first film." A recent émigré to Los Angeles, Brand moved to Miami from his native Colombia aged 20, where he started his own production company and made commercials and music videos for the likes of Britney Spears and Shakira. "For my first feature film I always knew I wanted to do something small, to get personal experience, and hopefully get talented actors," he explains. "I never expected to get the calibre of actors I’m working with on this film." Darby Parker recalls, "We were so excited when Simon came in, he had such brilliant ideas on how to handle the flashback scenes, and presented us with a million samples from his reel."

Momentum around Unknown began to build; John Schwartz was pivotal in bringing in much-needed development money. "Of course, financially it’s difficult to raise money for independent films," Lashbrook freely admits. "We found some private equity people who were willing to put their trust in this one and the plan is to treat them right and get them a good return on their investment – so far we’re well on our way to doing that." The script also attracted the attention of ICM’s Guido Giordano and Sean Redick, who both championed the work and recognised it was an ideal project for the agency’s talent packaging department. In the meantime, the producers also decided to bring in a casting director very early on. "She really fell for the project," John Schwartz says. "Her reaction to it was so positive, and she started mentioning talent names that we may have been too intimidated to think of." Parker remembers one actor who was eager to read for Unknown because the script reminded him of Reservoir Dogs. "He said it had the same kind of feeling and momentum around it – and that’s a thrill for us, we all love that film, so that’s the ultimate compliment."

The producers no longer just had a ‘great concept’ but the makings of a fine cast as actors began to attach themselves to Unknown. "I think we knew actors were going to come to the project because of how challenging it is," Parker says. "The script demands that as a character gets new memories, his motivation changes." He continues, "This project so clearly shows that actors want to find material they’re intrigued by. I don’t say this as a self-congratulatory thing, but I was shocked – someone like Jim Caviezel saying, ‘I’ll take X amounts of dollars upfront, because I want to be in something great’ – That makes you feel good! That affirms why people are here."

Unknown also features a stellar ensemble behind the cameras, including editor Luis Carballar (Amores Perros) and cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Brick). "BRICK was the talk of Sundance. That movie had a signature look, like a noir film, and a revisionist genre feel," describes Parker. "Yedlin is bringing a really unique look that we think is a complete complement to Simon’s style and background in highly visual music videos and commercials." "Unknown has tremendous production value," Lashbrook confirms. "We shot on Super 35mm with Anamorphic 2.4 Aspect Ratio. The DoP and Simon were adamant that they wanted the big studio movie look. It’s going to be a very beautiful movie; its limited budget offers absolutely no reflection on the scale or value of the film."

Lashbrook, Parker and Schwartz concede it is nearly impossible to make an independent film. But having a great script – like the character-driven genre piece that defines Unknown – is absolutely key. Their film attracted much interest at Berlin’s film festival earlier this year. "Our distributors Greenstreet Films made pre-sales for close to half the territories, and for amounts that exceeded their highest projections going into the market," Lashbrook says. "It blew us away. Those sales were based primarily on the screenplay itself." Parker adds, "We’ve noticed how the foreign market used to be more interested in the cast, and the ‘point system’ for a film – not everybody was reading scripts. Things are much more sophisticated now, people can’t afford to make mistakes. I think everybody reads these days, they have to!"

Through their experience on Unknown the producers have arrived at a model of film financing for the high concept, low budget independent film that they can utilise in future projects. Darby Parker has two supernatural thrillers lined up, and Rick Lashbrook is equally busy. "My goal now is to get a group of investors together to start a fund, get in early on projects at the development stage and work under the same ‘high concept, low budget’ model," explains Lashbrook. "The key is to be very hands on and active, yet not try to sink a bunch of money or take on all the risk. You’ve got to find ways to mitigate the risk and spread it across a couple of projects, and be very smart about it." Darby Parker maintains how imperative it is for aspiring independent producers to maintain a good business ethic. "Sometimes there’s such a momentum to get something, just anything, done, that this idea of investor responsibility is lost. When we started this exercise we weren’t looking to hoodwink somebody to giving us their money; we found and loved a project that was ‘studio friendly’ from the marketing on up, and we wouldn’t take somebody’s money unless we thought we’d make it back. There’s just no point, that doesn’t perpetuate a career."