The law catches up to Andrea Bowen as the prodigal preacher’s daughter.

In 2012, writer-director-producer Michelle Mower’s first feature, The Preacher’s Daughter, premiered on the Lifetime Network and opened film industry doors for her.  Mower’s inspiring “Reel Life” story appeared as the cover feature in Indie Slate issue 63. —Editor

By Michelle Mower

There’s a saying in the filmmaking world that there are three movies you make: the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit.  Actually, there’s a fourth — the one you deliver. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The fact of the matter is, the movie you set out to make often is not the movie that ends up being released. Here’s how I set out to make an ultra-low budget, guerrilla indie film… and failed miserably.

The movie you write…

In 2001, I wrote a short titled The Prodigal about a young, troubled woman who returns to her childhood home after running into legal trouble. The event inevitably forces her to revisit a painful memory that she had been running away from for years. I had sent the script to a local producer. He liked it but said, “This is a feature, not a short.” He recommended that I write a feature script. So I did.

I completed the first draft of the script in two weeks. It was horrible! I decided to let it go. But the story never went away; it simply remained, lurking in my brain. I spent nine years in what I call “rewrite purgatory.” I would take the script out, work on it for a while, get frustrated and put it away for months or even years. After many re-writes, readings and much feedback from colleagues, I finally had a script I felt I could be proud of.

Why this story?  Well, they say write what you know. I am a preacher’s daughter, so I felt I had a unique take on telling a story from the character’s perspective. That said, I didn’t want to write a script based on my life because, frankly, my life wasn’t all that interesting. I decided to write about a preacher’s daughter that explores the societal pressures and emotional complexities associated with being raised in a strict religious world, especially in relation to female identity and sexuality.

One of my biggest disconnects with my religion is the way women are portrayed in the Bible. They are either Godly saints or Jezebels. If a man “fell from grace,” you can bet a woman was involved. David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah… yep, always a woman to blame.  So, my story is a commentary on the biblical depiction of women.

Ironically, it was a Bible story that served as the foundation for the plot of my story — specifically, the parable of the Prodigal Son. I wanted to modernize the tale and make it about a preacher’s daughter instead of a farmer’s son who returns home after a long absence.

Preacher’s kids in general carry their own Dionysian/Apollonian mythos. Growing up, whenever people found out I was a PK, I was often prematurely judged as either a goody two-shoes or a wild child. When I wrote the screenplay, I wanted to explore that dichotomy. Most importantly, I wanted to make a film that takes viewers beneath the surface to show the human side of faith and religion in a raw, honest and bold way without falling into many of the common tropes and stereotypes typically associated with films featuring religious characters. It’s a world that many people think they know about, but few truly understand. So this is the story I wrote. It was a pretty damn good script, if I do say so myself. Sadly, you’ll never get to see it. Why?

The movie you produce…

I always intended to produce the movie myself. I had been working for the Houston-based nonprofit Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP) for six years and was heavily involved in the independent filmmaking world. I had seen many of my peers successfully produce beautiful films with little more than a handful of collaborators, some relatively inexpensive prosumer equipment, and a great story. I originally wanted to shoot on Super 16mm film, but quickly realized I couldn’t afford that option.

I looked to alternative formats, specifically HD. But the higher end HD cameras weren’t all that much less costly than shooting Super 16. In fact, some were more expensive. I wanted to find the best HD camera possible for the budget I had. I was able to use my connections with the film department at Houston Community College to secure pretty much all the equipment I needed — camera, lighting, sound, everything — free! If there’s any one thing you should take from this article it’s this: there is no such thing as “free” in moviemaking. More on that later.

So, I had a great script and all the equipment. Now all I needed were collaborators — both in front of the camera and behind it. This is where things started to shift from a guerrilla, no-budget project to a much more mainstream production.

My initial plan was to shoot the entire film in Houston, using only local cast and crew. The biggest concern, naturally, was finding the right actress for the lead. The role required an actress who could play both a young, naive teenager and an older, jaded druggie, so she had to be a strong performer. I began seeking talent through local talent agencies and film groups. Curiously, I ran into some resistance from a local talent agency. Seems they weren’t too keen on their talent working on an ultra-low budget production that paid $100/day (the minimum daily rate for a SAG ultra-low budget production). I was a bit surprised by this attitude because I know a lot of talent who are repped by this particular agency, and they have expressed that they want to work on indie features – even ultra-low budget ones. But I digress.

I held several auditions in Houston but just wasn’t finding who I was looking for. I expanded my search to Austin and Dallas, and still wasn’t finding “the one.” I happened to be attending the Los Angeles Film Festival and decided to hold auditions there while I was in town. I sent out a casting notice via Breakdown Services, and within 24 hours I had over 1400 headshot submissions for the lead character.

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Andrea Bowen

My casting director and I managed to narrow the pool down to 60 actresses to invite to audition. One of them was a pretty young blonde named Andrea Bowen. When Andrea first walked into the audition room, there was an immediate sense of familiarity about her. I actually got that feeling with several actresses I auditioned in L.A., but Andrea quickly set herself apart from the others. I had sent her two scenes to read – one for the young naive version of the character and one for the older, more jaded version. To say she nailed the audition would be a gross understatement. She came into that room with a plan of action and she executed it flawlessly. I was jumping for joy on the inside because I knew I had found my ‘Hannah.’

As soon as Andrea left, I looked at my assistant and said, “Wow. She was really good.” That’s when the assistant informed me that Andrea was on Desperate Housewives. “A pretty big part,” I was told. I was actually upset because I knew there was no way I could afford her. I honestly wasn’t going to pursue her. I wasn’t going to waste her agent’s time. I mean, look how our local agent in Houston treated our production. Why should I expect any better from an agency in L.A.?

Boy, was I wrong. Two days later I received a call from Andrea’s agent. She was interested! So, I sent her the script, but still didn’t get my hopes up. I figured she’d read the first 10 pages and say, “Hell no, I’m not doing that!” But she didn’t. Andrea emailed me about a week later telling me how much she loved the script and that she’d like to be considered for the role. That was pretty much a game changer. No way could I do this film guerrilla style now.

Once Andrea was on board, we decided we needed to structure the production in a more traditional way. One of my producers was Susan Elkins, a long-time location and production manager in Texas.  Susan managed to get a number of industry professionals to work on Preacher’s Daughter, and I am still amazed at the experience level of many of the people who worked on it. I had what one crew member described as “the dream team” for keys.

Even PD-ProdStill-20though many of these industry pros were taking a reduced fee, there were expenses they required that definitely put a dent in our budget. For instance, our costume designer insisted we have a wardrobe trailer. Susan managed to get a wardrobe/make-up trailer donated since we hadn’t budgeted for one. However, that donated trailer cost us $1000 per week to fuel the generator, transport and, on occasion, repair. See what I mean about “free” not being free? Everything costs money on a film set. Volunteers cost money to feed. Cars cost money to fuel. Equipment costs money to maintain and transport. You get the idea.

Now we had trailers, we had a 40-person crew, we had a TV star, and we had tons of locations. We had 21 days to shoot the film.  Our goal was to shoot five pages per day. We were averaging two and three-eighths pages per day. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t go into here. But suffice it to say that we were in trouble. There was no way we could finish the film in 21 days at the pace we were shooting. And we didn’t have the money to add any days to the schedule.

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Michelle directs from the chopper.

Pic 1The only choice I had was to cut down the script. I ended up cutting 19 pages, losing entire subplots and even characters. Even with the pages being cut, we still weren’t going to be able to finish in 21 days. So, right in the middle of production, I had to go out and raise more money. The pressure to do this was so intense that I started to get ill. Physically ill. It was a nightmare honestly. I managed to raise the money needed to get through production. And once production was done, I was able to get the rest of the funding to finish the film. Or so I thought…

The movie you edit…

Once we started editing, I began to realize how much cutting the script affected the overall story. The pacing was off, some of the characters’ motivations were lost… it was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces. I did the best I could to assemble the film using the footage I had. But once it was all cut together, I realized that pick-ups would be required. That meant I had to raise even more money. I also discovered that Andrea would not be available to return to Houston for pick-ups until after April. I considered doing the pick-ups in Los Angeles for about two seconds… until I realized the cost would be exponentially higher.

As it turned out, we weren’t able to do the pick-ups ‘til June – a full seven months after we wrapped principal photography. But this was a good thing in some ways because it gave me the time I needed to really identify the pieces of the story needed to complete the puzzle. I actually wrote new scenes to fill in the gaps in the story. Thus, through the editing process, the film changed significantly yet again.

Then there’s the movie you deliver…

We finished a rough cut in October 2011. My plan, like most indie films, was to submit it to festivals and hope to attract a distributor. Through my work at SWAMP, I met Orly Ravid. Orly is the co-founder of The Film Collaborative, a nonprofit organization in L.A. that counsels indies on all aspects of distribution, sales and marketing. (She is also the co-author of the book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul).

Orly watched the rough cut of Preacher’s Daughter and said, “This is not a festival film. No major festival will program it.” This wasn’t terribly surprising to hear since I had pretty much come to that conclusion on my own. The reason the film wasn’t festival fare was because it looked too commercial… too television. We discussed alternatives, and television was the avenue that seemed to make the most sense. Orly put me in touch with Imagination Worldwide, a sales agency that specialized in broadcast sales.

The folks at Imagination Worldwide watched it and loved it. They wanted to take it to the European Film Market in February 2012. I signed on with the company, and they sold Preacher’s Daughter to seven different international territories. At the same time, they sent it to Lifetime.  A few weeks later, Imagination called to tell me that Lifetime had made an offer. It was a really good offer, but it came with stipulations. Specifically, I had to cut the film by 20 minutes and eliminate scenes that were too “graphic” for the Lifetime audience. At this point, I had made so many compromises that the film didn’t really feel like it was mine anymore. I agreed to the changes and went back to the editing room. As I write this article, the sound is being finished in Portland. Once that is complete, Preacher’s Daughter will be delivered to Lifetime.

My film may not have turned out the way I originally envisioned it, but it’s okay. It is being sold, my investors will be paid back and several million people will watch my movie. How many first time filmmakers can say that?

Connect with Michelle Mower via thepreachersdaughter.com.

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