Posted by Valentina Valentini on April 6, 2012 at 3:00 am
Nina Jamil and Russell Simpson are what I like to call trailblazers in the independent filmmaking world. A year since trekking over from the United Kingdom, they’ve written, produced and acted in their own TV pilot, Sunset Bar. They’re also engaged and both trained in drama at the Arts Educational Schools in London – impressive, for a couple of talent, right?
“We’re not the sort of people to sit back and expect our agent to do all the work,” says Jamil. “We’ve always been really proactive about contacting casting directors and putting ourselves out there. You can’t just wait for things to happen here.”
The couple – Jamil from England and Simpson from Northern Ireland – came up with a few ideas for television shows and decided on the one that made the most sense. Sunset Bar is the story of a hapless British couple who inherit a seedy strip club on Venice Boulevard. A classic fish-out-of-water dark comedy, where cultural divides come into play as the pair struggles to learn the ropes of a dirty industry all the while developing a soft spot for the characters they find in their life and at the bar.
“We had to tackle the job thing from a different angle,” says Simpson. “We had to create work for ourselves. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia crew just went out and did it themselves. So we just did it. Everyone might as well have a shot, right?”
This is why I call them trailblazers – instead of waiting around for a short film to come up that hits the big time at Sundance or Toronto while making money to survive off of some bit role on an ABC Family sitcom, these two are cutting through the jungle and finding their way to the sunny beach.
For Sunset Bar Simpson and Jamil took aspects from their life – like moving from the UK and job hunting in LA – and mashed them with experiences with people they’ve come across – like an senior neighbor that Nina would watch the sunsets with (his character gets a key role in the pilot). But bikini bars are finally what did it.
“That culture is so different than UK,” admits Simpson. “You’ll be driving along here and you pass a school, a post office, a Starbucks, Oh! And there’s a bikini bar. A lot of the show was born from our cultural experiences here in the US. Even though we have a common language, there is a massive cultural divide still.”
The pair got quite a reputable list of help from Hollywood stock, via their friend Chris Duskin, whom they’d shown the script to. They really hadn’t thought about pitching it to networks in the beginning, and were more interested in making their own work, something they could be in and be a full part of.
Duskin, a longtime camera operator and director of photography (Nip/Tuck, The Hangover Part II, Transformers, NCIS LA) read the pilot and instantly gave it to John Scott, a mutual friend and veteran in the television world, first as a cameraman and in the last five years directing such biggies as Nip/Tuck, Glee, The Office, Outsourced, Ugly Betty and American Horror Story. In fact, Duskin and Scott began as operator and focus puller, respectively, on Nip/Tuck’s pilot and ended up as cinematographer and director by the last season.
“Chris and I had been looking for a project we could do on our own for the past year now,” explains Scott. “I wanted something I could show to prospective clients – networks and producers – that I had produced and directed myself in collaboration with a writer.”
In the serendipitous way that Hollywood can often work, Duskin introduced the three and all knew that it would be a great fit. But really, the script sold itself apparently. For Jamil and Simpson, two relative unknowns in the states, there was very good response from all who laid eyes on the script, otherwise they wouldn’t have signed the talent they did.
Sometimes it’s about who you know in this industry, and sometimes, it’s just about pure talent.
Scott, Duskin, Simpson and Jamil then managed to score the Emmy award winning art director Edward Rubin (American Horror Story, Love Bites, Moonlight) and Nathan Allen, the editor from Glee and Nip/Tuck. Above the line they snagged Michael Ironside (Total Recall, X-Men: First Class, Top Gun) John Hensley, the prodigal son from Nip/Tuck, Dominic Keating (Star Trek: Enterprise), Al Brown (The Wire), and Anita Barone (Curb Your Enthusiasm, The War At Home).
“I called in favors from all the A-list crew I knew,” says Duskin. “All those professional relationships I maintained over the years, they were my friends and were happy to help.”
The motley crew of four, along with their producer/production manager Rorie D. van Klaveren, did everything from the ground up, including getting coffees for cast and crew. Scott put in his own finances to shoot at an ultra-low budget level and they all called in favors from everywhere, knowing that so much was on the line, but believing in the script so very much.
They shot on two RED Epics over three days, and did 13 pages on the final day. On top of all of that stress and excitement, they had the cops coming in to the club during their martini shot to shut them down, even though they had permits. (LA’s District Attorney actually apologized on behalf of the city when Simpson and Jamil had to go to court to contest the ticket.)
“We were at the final scene and we didn’t have an ending without this scene,” recalls Duskin, “so while Rorie was stalling out front I strapped on the camera and got the shot. Failure was not an option.”
With the myriad of different platforms available for independent distribution, it makes a whole lot of difference when you’re in the stage that Sunset Bar is – it used to be either sink or swim, but now there’s a wading area. There’s Netflix’s original content, Hulu, even YouTube maybe if all else fails. Although if this gang is attracting interest from both foreign and domestic network and cable distributors (according to Scott), I’m pretty sure they won’t have to resort to that.
“We just want someone to distribute it that really gets it and enjoys it for what it is,” offers Jamil. “We don’t want it to end up somewhere where they’re going to change it loads into something its not.”
See the pilot presentation of Sunset Bar HERE.
Any interest in further information on Sunset Bar should be directed to Scott Seidel at WME, 310-285-9000.