Celebrating The Production of Pi, Two Decades On…

Industry Creatives Testimonial Update – Chris Gill

M. Scott Vogel
Director, Photographer, Writer, Producer

Oren Sarch
Editor, Director, Producer,
Creative Consultant, Cameraman

Hey Film Folk,

As you’ll all know, I love films… but I equally love filmmaking. My happiest experiences of watching movies are when they are an excellent piece of cinema and they’ve been crafted by passionate, indie filmmakers who are maximising a budget. This is everything that I stand for and promote.

In 1998, I was rocked by a slice of “Pi.” Not the sweet or savoury variety, this Pi was mind-bending, challenging, stunning, surreal, weird and a thing of cinematic beauty. For those who haven’t witnessed it yet, Pi is a black and white psychological thriller, the debut feature of Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, The Wrestler, The Fountain and Noah.) If you watch Pi today, you’ll find it a really bizarre, stylish and thought-provoking piece of cinema. Imagine how innovative it was when shot two decades ago, in 1996!

The story is deep and innovative, the direction crafty and sophisticated and the acting is sublime. It’s shot on high contrast, black-and-white reversal film and looks unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I can imagine the challenge in accomplishing such a film on a small budget, especially in a non-digital age.

When first writing this article, it was to reminisce about how it was shot for $60,000, a tiny budget for an indie film in 1996 (shot on film.) The story goes that those funds were gathered through multiple $100 loans from friends and family. This is how I understood Pi to have been funded. This is how the industry and the public understand the film to have been funded. It is outlined as such across the internet, from IMDB to Wikipedia and everywhere in-between. The thing is, it’s simply not true.

The reality is that the “friends and family” story is a myth. When you analyse the numbers, it doesn’t add up; it aches your cranium like one of protagonist Max’s “cluster headaches” in the movie. M. Scott Vogel (a talented director, photographer, writer and producer) is one of the industry experts who very kindly provided a testimonial for my book: Hollywood Hates This Book – The Seven Step Guide To Making Your Film For FREE. Vogel produced Pi and Requiem for a Dream and he explained to me how Pi was actually produced.

The film hit Sundance in ‘98. A large part of the Pi-buzz coming from news articles who announced the film budget to be that $60,000, and that the money came from friends and family. The team behind the production decided to let that story go unchecked, in the desire to see the film build momentum and gain notoriety. Publicising an independent film is never easy (I can attest to that) and you have to grasp what opportunities you can. When I asked about these numbers, Vogel corrected me from the start. “The idea that it was made for $60,000, with friends and family investing $100 here and there… we didn’t have that many friends.” The truth about how the production was actually engineered is far more interesting than the tale people have been told.

Vogel resided in New York where he ran a successful production company in Tribeca; producing music videos for artists such as Run DMC, Puff Daddy and Jay Zee, before they became global stars. He wanted to make a feature and was keen to produce Pi with Darren Aronofsky and Eric Watson. “It was a down and dirty, independent film,” states Vogel. “In my view, for these projects, everyone has to commit.” Vogel was prepared to do just that, he closed down his music video production business and turned his office into a bespoke one for the Pi production. “We knew that we were going to tell a story, we were going to create some entertainment, we were going to go and make it happen.”

Vogel put in the first $10,000 himself to get the ball rolling and was able to secure his Father’s warehouse for the main location, Max’s apartment. He had fostered contacts from his music video work and went to them for help, the first being Broadway Stages for equipment. After getting a positive but vague “yes”, he turned up with a van and wasn’t sure what they were entitled to. In the end, they were given everything they wanted, for free. “Just go in the warehouse and take what you want,” they told Vogel, and he did just that. This saved a fortune and was a key component in getting the film made.

The other huge consideration was post-production. In 1997 you didn’t have the option to shoot digitally, and you couldn’t hope to edit a feature film on a home PC. Shooting on film is expensive and professionally editing and processing it is even more so. Vogel approached his contacts at “Palestrini Post”, a multi-million dollar facility geared up to edit top commercials for the likes of Coca Cola, Pantene and Jeep. Vogel knew a skilled editor there called Oren Sarch and in 1996, he was approached to edit Pi. “Scott called me up and told me he was helping an independent film get off the ground and that they were looking for an editor,” remembers Sarch. “I read the script and I couldn’t put it down. I stayed up late that night to finish it and I decided I had to cut the movie.”

Vogel had hoped to arrange a single avid edit-machine but there were times during post that Sarch managed to arrange multiple avids (edit machines) to process their film. Sarch and Vogel estimate that the production received anywhere between $150,000 and $400,000 worth of post-production services (based upon the rates to produce top end corporate work.) The production negotiated to pay Palestrini Post $15,000 at the back end, when Pi was sold. Palestrini Post made this deal because they were interested in making a feature and Vogel had done a good job of passionately selling it to them. Sarch was editing out-of-hours, so it wasn’t affecting their business.

Vogel explains the importance of these factors in no uncertain terms:
“Without the equipment, we wouldn’t have been anywhere.
Without the location, we wouldn’t have been anywhere.
Without the office, we wouldn’t have been anywhere.
Without the post-production, we wouldn’t have been anywhere.”

These are the sorts of relationships that need to be developed and deals that need to be brokered, to make a successful independent production. Vogel hadn’t just invested his money, office, contacts and father’s assets in the film; he went as far as having crew sleeping in his house. Sarch remembers the pressures he was under: “I was a busy commercial editor during the day. By 7pm I would be exhausted and ready to shut down for the night and Darren would bound in, full of energy. I gave up pretty much all of my free time and the film almost ruined my new marriage.” These guys sacrificed and threw themselves into the production, because they were committed to the project, to getting a result.

So, why the myth about the film simply being down to a $60,000 collection from friends? Well, the media and the American public love a “rags to riches” story and this story was an easy one to tell. It wasn’t an outright lie either; friends and family did pay into the production pot. It came after principle photography and amounted to about $6,000, barely making a dent overall. The idea that the film cost $60,000 and that all the funding came from home though? No. Not even close.

There’s more to indie film production than just financial numbers. You certainly couldn’t have made Pi with a $60,000 cheque and no other resources. Vogel put it best when he told me, “Everything is so unconventional, it’s not rigid and there are lots of handshakes, winks and nods.” They worked very hard to get that film produced and it wasn’t as simple as collecting some coins from friends. Sarch adds, “I think collaboration is ultimately what filmmaking is all about. The best projects I’ve worked on, including Pi, have come from a relationship that I’ve developed and maintained with someone. You never know when a relationship will pay off, so don’t burn any bridges.” It’s about being passionate, having the willingness to network, pool resources and sacrifice. “This is indie filmmaking, we busted our asses!” Vogel motivationally blasts.

From this author’s perspective, the lesson for Atomic Filmmakers is simple. Indie filmmaking is not about stashing a cluster of cash from family or maxing out credit cards, it’s about gathering resources. This is money and assets, but it’s also about relationships. Get out there, communicate with people and passionately sell your ideas to them. If you can excite people, you can get them on board and collaborate with them to make a better film. “I wanted to have a result, I wanted to make a movie and we made one,” says Vogel.

It turns out that the story of how they cooked Pi is a little bit different from how we had been told. It’s not just about money, it’s every bit as much about ingenuity, passion and sacrifice. Vogel finishes with, “Bottom line, it is all about committing. That’s what it takes to get something like this done.”

Thanks for reading,
Hollywood Hates This Book Email Signature on Black

Scott Vogel very kindly put a brilliant testimonial on my book:
“Andy Wilton’s book is like having a mentor in your back pocket; if you are new to this game, don’t leave home without it”.

At the time of this article, Vogel is preparing for his feature film directorial debut with, ΩYBERIA (CYBERIA), a screenplay he co-authored with Adam Buchalter. It’s early days for the project, and it’s all very “hush hush”, but I’ve read an early draft and it’s a phenomenal read. I devoured it in one sitting and couldn’t put it down. I can see ΩYBERIA being a massive success, and hope to see it at a cinema sooner rather than later!

It’s been a pleasure, as a huge fan of both Pi and Requiem For A Dream, to talk in depth to Scott Vogel and Oren Sarch. Two very talented filmmakers with a lot of experience. Watch this space for their coming work, and we might be lucky enough to have them back for some mini-skype masterclasses in the future.