The Chronicle of Cactus Jack: Examining an Indie Film From Inception to Distribution

The Chronicle of Cactus Jack: Examining an Indie Film From Inception to Distribution

Part Two: Panhandling, Pre-production, and Proving the Concept

If you’ve read Part One of this five-part series tracking our film Cactus Jack from conception to distribution, you might recall our transformative Odyssey from daydreaming knee-high yarn spinners to frustrated, tire-spinning professional screenwriters to cancerstruck DIY filmmakers with our fifteen-buck short, Knock Knock, and woven together through all of that the creative genesis of what would become our first feature film. We’d landed on a “Taxi Driver meets Talk Radio for the podcast generation” vision structured around a dastardly demon of a titular character in the antagonistic hatecaster “Jack,” and enticed a totally fearless lead actor we knew could actually do the diseased dickhead justice in local Milwaukee nuclear-grade secret weapon R. Michael Gull.

But that was it.

We didn’t have a script. We didn’t have a location locked, or props, or crew assembled. And we most certainly didn’t have any money.

As “working screenwriters” who’d already at that point grown terminally ill of the bureaucracy surrounding film productions and the industry in general, we vowed to make this maverick film completely outside of the traditional channels and system. We would ask no one’s permission to proceed. No agency or executive would be advised for want of their timid stamp of approval. No union we were members of was going to force us to submit some stack of forms to approve or disapprove of us writing a no-budget script to shoot ourselves. The WGA, bless its heart, still requires an executed Low Budget Agreement contract for any project with a budget below $1.2 million, and has provisions for films budgeted at under $200,000 (which ours would most certainly qualify as … we were thinking something along the lines of “a good used Hyundai” in terms of targeted budget).

This is, to our knowledge, the only way a guild writer can write a script for a film, even one they plan to direct: to fill out the proper forms, waivers, etc. in terms of deferred payments, signatory status, and all the rest. Perhaps we were and still are wrong about that (though I recall a couple of conversations with our attorney that reinforced this notion) ... but it didn’t matter. We didn’t give a fuck, even if it was a simple formality. We were just hellbent on making a film so far outside of the system that we weren’t jumping through a single one of these prescribed administrative hoops, even for our own guild who’d admittedly had our back like a Spartan phalanx on a couple of occasions. So, we concocted a way around even that:

“Fuck it! We’ll make the film without a script!”

I’d been enamored with the idea since long before going to a film school that leaned into the experimental (The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) or even attempting to write our first scripts—ever since, as a freshman in high school, I first saw the scene in Oliver Stone’s The Doors in which the band’s future organist extraordinaire Ray Manzarek (played by Kyle MacLachlan) tells fellow UCLA film school alum Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison (OK, film school dropout—like me!) about a meeting he had with the head of production at MGM, and how when asked by the honcho if he had a script Ray passionately said, “Godard doesn’t use a script, he just improvises with the camera,” to which the visionless man with the money blankly replied, “Great. Who’s Godard?”

To Chris and myself, as lifelong artists with rebellious streaks who’d found ourselves now primarily pigeonholed as screenwriters, the notion of making a film without a script felt like the most punk rock shit we could do. So, we set out to do it.

Still from Cactus Jack, a film made as a punk rock "Fuck You" to Hollywood convention.

But here’s the thing about a script: They come in pretty handy when you’re trying to convince people to give you money to make your movie. Especially when you’re nobodies like us. However! The beauty of making a film for “good used Hyundai money” is that you only need to find good used Hyundai money to make it, and for anyone who’s willing to bet on you—which is effectively what you’re banking on when you’re unproven, don’t even have a script or proof-of-concept, and are working in the nano-to-micro budget range—the film only needs to make “good used Hyundai money” back in order to break even and kick you and the backer into profitability and payouts. This was a paraphrase of an axiom I’d learned years prior when reading a book every aspiring filmmaker should seek out, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles by Peter Biskind, as Jaglom—the quintessential and perhaps prototypical true indie auteur—equated so eloquently, along with another quote Jaglom attributed to Welles that would become a mantra and the lifeblood of our attitude when approaching this and any future projects:

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

This is exactly how we felt the studio system had metamorphosed from the industry that had given us artistic visionaries and auteurs from Scorcese and Schraeder and Chayeksfy to Peter Weir and Kubrick and Ashby and Cimino and Stone and the Manns and Gilliams and even the more “popcorn” Lucases and Spielbergs of the 60’s and into the 80’s of our childhoods and then on into the second boom of “indie” cinema of the 90’s (after the halcyon days of Corman and Cassavetes and others decades prior) with Linklater and Kevin Smith and of course Quentin Tarantino to name a few icons among a talented menagerie, into an industry over reliant on rehashing overtread stories and throwing obscene sums of money at often still-unconvincing uncanny valley computer-generated images … it had devolved in many ways like something out of Kafka—into a floundering cockroach, creatively.

We were mired in the era of IP and remakes (which has always been a thing, but not with the singular focus and uninspired aping of this modern max-corporatization era of the industry), which made us inspirationally attracted more than ever to the daring outsider mystique and provocation of the Werner Herzogs, Michael Hanekes, Gaspar Noés, Vintenbergs and of course Lars Von Triers of the cinema world—true artists who all operated well out of bounds of the neatly defined, safe Hollywood parameters of good taste and convention and a shareholder-appeasing missile-lock focus on garnering four-quadrant audiences. These were iconoclasts who all used limitations to their advantage. Von Trier even made a stellar documentary illustrating the unsung utility of limitation in creating art with his exhilarating The Five Obstructions (another touchstone all aspiring filmmakers should seek out post haste), in which the mad Dane challenges his friend and mentor, renowned experimental short filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to remake his seminal short The Perfect Human five different ways—each time with specific artistic limitations or “obstructions,” assigned by Von Trier. Seriously, check it out. Fascinating shit.

Ironically, at the same time we were having all of these rebellious outlaw inclinations regarding the state of feature films, off the strength of our TV spec pilot for our show The Revenger (see Part One for more on that), our manager Sidney scored us meetings at the Big 4 agencies (sans WME, who we’d left a few years prior) to talk representation. We ended up signing with UTA. A mere three weeks or so after I completed chemotherapy (which included a harrowing near-death anaphylactic reaction to a particularly nasty component of the concoction called Oxiliplatin, which—even while it was working and before it tried to kill me—was still so harsh in terms of increased cold sensitivity that it made drinking even tepid, room temperature water feel like swallowing shards of broken glass), we flew from freezing Milwaukee to surreal, sunny L.A. to meet with our new feature and TV points at UTA and were soon pitching the show to producers.

We had a few interested parties who were on the fence because the show is so bold and raucous, but after a fantastic pitch at The Weinstein Company we got the call that they wanted to do the show. For us, despite the rumors we’d all heard for years regarding Harvey and what we then thought was merely run-of-the-mill bargain basement lewdness and par-for-the-course Tinsletown transactional sex, this was Mecca. This was Miramax. This was Pulp Fiction and Clerks and Good Will Hunting and too many movies we loved to list. We knew with Butch Thornton’s blood coursing our veins we had nothing to fear from those jackasses, so we were ecstatic to be in business with them. We daydreamed that with the right deal we could even self-finance this little film and bypass the groveling stage.

Of course it was then that our spy/friend who worked at The Weinstein Company informed us of how notoriously cheap they were, and we were served another Hollywood bureaucracy rude awakening when it came to the six months-plus it took to get the deal done, and many months more to pay us to even embark on the long and winding road to Development Hell—not to mention taxes, 25% off the top to agents, managers, and attorneys, and splitting funds between Chris and myself as a team. Being a “pro screenwriter” almost always ain’t nearly as lucrative as you dream … suffice to say we would not be self-financing Cactus Jack.

Before I move on, for those curious about how that working relationship was … we only ever actually talked to Bob on the phone, and he seemed fine. We never saw him in the flesh. But we ironically did see Harvey in the flesh once, despite never talking to him. He waddled past and down the hall as we were meeting in their glass-paneled conference room. All I remember thinking was “Jesus. Motherfucker looks like one of those 'Bergens' from Trolls.”

As we waited in stasis for months while Weinstein lawyers sat on our paperwork as if they were incubating golden eggs (busy negotiating NDAs and settlements with assaulted starlets?), I’d been planting seeds with some friends of mine about Cactus Jack. Showing Knock Knock around, mentioning that we were gonna try to raise a few grand to make a proof-of-concept trailer as that would do a better job of selling the project to investors than a script would anyway. After looking over an eye-catching visual lookbook we’d crafted for the project, a long-time friend who had always been a fan of our feature scripts believed in us enough to throw down the seed money to make our proof-of-concept trailer (further proof that visuals are your best selling tool at the end of the day).

BOOM. We had our concept, our lead actor, and the money to make a killer proof-of-concept trailer with which we could—at least theoretically—raise more money to make the actual film.

I’d spent the months in contract purgatory perusing Craigslist’s “Free” section for props and set dressing (this was all before Nextdoor and Facebook Marketplace existed, but I imagine they could be excellent resources as well today—remember, this was 2015), as we’d decided to litter Jack’s basement dwelling with relics that belonged to his public school teacher/seamstress/knick-knack collecting mother and alcoholic TV repairman father. A lot of the items we desired to dress out the set were the kind of shit you’d never find through such outlets, to include notorious books by hatemongers, Nazi iconography, prop weapons and prepper accoutrements, etc.—but that’s where the bulk of our money we had and hoped to raise would be spent. This was effectively a one-man show with Gull under the spotlight, but filling out the mise-en-scène with parental paraphernalia would allow us to establish and explore these two characters we never see (Jack’s father killed himself in a room in that basement, directly under his son’s bedroom—it’s inferred the boy was above him at the time—while his incontinent, serrated-tongued mother is heard crowing venomously through the floorboards from upstairs though we again don’t see her in the flesh) and make the set itself, which undergoes changes with each of the structure’s three acts, an evolving “character” of its own (from subterranean prepper dwelling to studio set for "The Cactus Jack Show" once he starts podcasting to machine gun bunker in the film’s final paranoia-packed set piece).

We also had a few other tricks up our sleeves, as we planned to utilize a bank of shitty old TVs Jack’s dad left in various states of disrepair to display for us flickering, frightening Brackhege-like glimpses into Jack’s misery-crippled psyche (think some of the hallucinatory tricks employed by Stone in Natural Born Killers), and figured Jack could have some kind of interaction with the public via his show. In other words, we were keenly interested in finding ways to lend dynamism to a film that we acknowledged by design was going to primarily be focused on one “talking head” in one location spewing redundant, myopic hate speech.

Using the tried-and-true method Robert Rodriguez employed to make his first film that I exalted in Part One of this series, we crewed up with DP Quinn Hester, a talented UW-M alum who once did beautiful work on an aborted short we were making a few years prior. Another contact led us to our talented sound guy Ryan Meurnier. Eager UW-M film student production assistants (including a kid named Thunder Shi who would prove indispensable) volunteered from a class we spoke to about working as professional screenwriters after we were invited by its professor, Hollywood veteran and Milwaukee film fixture Rex Sikes. That hanger-on I described in Part One from whose mediocre unsolicited artwork we scavenged the named “Cactus Jack” insisted on being a part of the production. Though we didn’t have much use for him other than when he valiantly came to my rescue moving some of heavy old TVs in a pinch after I had surgery to fix a hernia the doctors had left me with when my tumor was removed, we reluctantly agreed at his urging to let him be an on-set photographer even though Chris and I hate that shit and prefer to just remain behind the curtain like Oz when it comes to our creative endeavors … we figured we could just never publish the photos.

Through Facebook we connected with a fellow Milwaukee filmmaker named Patrik Beck, who I knew had a house with a serial killer-quality decrepit dungeon of a basement that would be a visual boon. Being the mensch that he is, Patrik was kind and supportive enough to let us down there to shoot our lunacy. Using our friend’s seed money, we were able to establish an LLC for the project (Legal Zoom is a great resource for this), establish a corporate banking account, insure the two-to-three day production, feed the cast and crew, and purchase through eBay, Amazon, and Goodwill some of the essential set dressing and props and shit we felt were necessary to sell the feature through a mock-trailer (you can definitely get your hands on heavy-ass old tube televisions, but good luck finding vintage TV repair manuals and equipment and shit like that for free on Craigslist).

Still from the film: tracking past a bank of Jack's dead TV repairman dad's old televisions.

Before I continue on, having just mentioned using that friend’s money—an important note on taking money for amateur indie filmmakers: The system, as usual, is rigged against you. As reading up revealed and our attorney confirmed, no one is legally allowed to invest in your film unless they are an “accredited investor.” What does this mean? The term is, according to, “used by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under 'Regulation D' to refer to investors who are financially sophisticated and have a reduced need for the protection provided by regulatory disclosure filings. Accredited investors include high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs), banks, insurance companies, brokers, and trusts.” In other words, us dumb po’ folk ain’t smart enough to decide whether or not to put a little money into a venture such as a film a friend is making. Only rich people are cognizant enough to not be deceived by snake oil-selling indie filmmaker charlatans.

There are ways around this. We ended up instead taking a promissory loan, with the caveat that this loan would only be repaid in the event the film we made broke even. At the same time, he came on as a producer who advised us on several fronts to include social media engagement and crowdfunding (which he had done successfully with a project of his own), for which he was entitled to a commensurate back-end cut of the net profits of the film (services he actually did indeed render and have experience with, so this wasn’t just some sheisty legal workaround for any SEC hitmen reading this). So keep this in mind when you start schlepping your project around to friends and family and promising them a return on their investment (which, of course, should never be promised with a film anyway).

Since we had no script, for the proof-of-concept, we simply came up with a shot list of a few dozen set-ups we could envision in the final film and I scripted dialogue sides for an ultra-triggering, climactic hate screed in which Jack implores all of his understandably triggered enemies to literally come and try to take him dead or alive after he’s doxxed by Anonymous, which would serve as our big “Break Into Three” moment structurally. As I recall, for the most part, shooting the proof-of-concept trailer went off without a hitch, with the exception of Gull’s then gloriously emaciated ass always needing a space heater on him (in his defense it was cold as shit in that basement and we had him prancing around in tightie-whities and Jack’s trademark red Doc Martens, which I had years ago procured while serving in the Air Force in Germany when I traded a pair of yeti-like fur boots I found at a yard sale for them with a fellow Airman—again, using shit we had lying around ala Rodriguez), a few scheduling issues with Patrik, and another incident in which our gracious host caught me discreetly smoking weed from my supposedly clandestine one-hitter in his front yard, to which the only response I could summon when he asked me “are you stupid?” was “... yes.” Gull, as expected, smashed it. He brought all of the menace and mayhem we asked for, and even went above and beyond by eating an actual dead spider pulled from a strand of cobwebs in the rafters—a shot that would, along with a handful of others filmed during the POC, end up in the final film. Incredible.

Chris cut the trailer, and did an amazing job cobbling into something coherent all of the disparate, dynamic bits we shot into an edgy, provocative mock trailer as promised. He layered snippets of Jack’s uber-triggering, no-epithets-barred hate screed I’d scripted over one another until the staccato insults built into a cacophonous crescendo and Jack unmasks himself—if you read Part One, you’d know the character employs an old Abraham Lincoln mask I had lying around when inhabiting his alter ego “Cactus Jack” (pssst—secret: his real name is “Ronald”)—explosively throwing down the gauntlet and challenging his army of detractors and ill-wishers with his wild-eyed, vein-popping “Come and fucking get me!!” The few people who saw the trailer flipped over it. Our seed investor was ecstatic. Our manager Sidney felt we were cooking with grease and said he’d officially like to put his name on it as a producer, which was extremely validating considering Jack’s vile racist and anti-Semetic nature and Sidney’s Jewish heritage and family history. To have someone like him who would be a direct target of Jack’s vitriol appreciate and understand that we were using that hate to fuel a new kind of horror film, a “horror of rhetoric,” was emboldening. Even as we always knew we were destined to be grossly misunderstood by a large swathe of future audiences … at least he “got it.” Now it was time to take this bad boy and try to go get some money.

Before we even launched a crowdfund campaign we found out about a grant associated with the Milwaukee International Film Festival called the BRICO Grant, which was geared to help supply finishing funds to films already in some state of production. It seemed like a great way to at least in part finance our film. We were still in pre-production but we had high hopes that we could act as big fish in the little pond of Milwaukee with our recent successes in the industry, we had our lookbook, and we now had the trailer. We made out an official budget, thoroughly filled out all of the application forms, attached the trailer and other materials and sent it off. After a couple of months we received letters in the mail inviting us to attend in person the Awards Presentation. Considering we already felt good about our chances, we were confident we had a very good shot at actually being awarded one of the grants—especially in light of this formal invitation. Though I felt very ill that day, I will forever recall getting all dressed up, leaving our one year-old boy with a babysitter and going along with my wife and Chris to the show only to stand and watch as ... all of the grants were awarded without our names being called. Fuckers! How dare you not only have me fill out all of the kind of paperwork we’d been avoiding like the plague, but now make me get all dressed up to go hobnob over finger foods with these people for fucking NOTHING! The gall! Shit brought out my inner Daniel Plainview.

In all seriousness though, Chris and I—at least at that current juncture—were always motivated by defeats. We just came back harder. It was time to reach into our thoroughly unimpressive rolodex, befitting the antisocial creative lab-tinkering misanthropes we are and go a-beggin’.

And that brings us to crowdfunding. Let’s get this established first and foremost: crowdfunding is NOT for the faint of heart. It’s akin to a political campaign. Lots of conjecture and ramp-up and trying to get the message out, then you have a limited window in which to maximize impact and hopefully garner “votes” (of confidence) in the form of cash commitments. It helps tremendously to either have attractive elements attached to your project, or to have spent years laying groundwork networking.

This is where what I call “networking sideways” likely, in retrospect, may not be your strongest play. What I mean by “networking sideways” is networking solely or extensively within your own peer group. Screenwriters trading notes and trade secrets with other screenwriters, filmmakers with filmmakers, etc. can most certainly come in handy. And it did for us on this project … but I also came away with a Freakonomics-like understanding that everyone has limited social currency, and that there is fatigue with this shit. Everyone is in the same boat in which they can only share so many friends’ crowdfunds before the perceived significance of each one wanes, not to mention they are quite possibly going to need to beg this same network for funding on a project of their own some day. The ask or the share itself becomes a form of valuable social currency people want to hang onto. Though theoretically people who share your plight should at the very least be willing to help pimp your campaign, there seems to be a bit of a scarcity mindset pervasive in these communities.

While I haven’t put this to a scientific test, following our experience my gut tells me that if crowdfunding’s a financing tactic you’re considering employing at some point you’re better off focusing your networking time and energy on non-creatives and people with more disposable income than fellow starving artists who likely hope to at some point exploit the same mechanism to fund their own projects.

When you crowdfund, you have to make promises and offer perks—which have to be fulfilled. As an independent, DIY filmmaker who has gone through the gauntlet I’ve come to the hard-earned conclusion that promises should be avoided at all costs. There are just so many things out of your control. When we crowdfunded via Indiegogo, we told our contributors that we expected to have the film out to market within a year. It took us over five, and closer to six. We got called away from working on Cactus Jack for long stretches of time on not only The Revenger but also another original TV show we’d later successfully pitch a financier called The Incorruptibles (more on that one in Part Three of this series), but that’s only one way—and one of the best ways—production on a bootstrapped film can grind to a halt.

There are untold things that can go wrong: sickness, injury,  pandemics. Locations altered, actors bailing, footage lost. Or, you know, wild shit like your actor who you cast in part because of his fucked up, accident-ravaged teeth’s oral condition progresses to the dire point that he suddenly needs brand spanking new emergency teeth while you’re still shooting (as happened to us). As the late, great master Stanley Kubrick said in part when accepting the D.W. Griffith Award: “Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film knows that it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park,” so it’s best to be as limited as possible in terms of perks and promises should you be forced to crowdfund your film—which, again, I would personally try to avoid at all costs unless you already have a name or large fan base or a needle-pegging attachment that does.

Jack's initial fucked up grill—which needed to be surgically overhauled before we finished production.

Should you choose to willingly face the fire of crowdfunding despite my warnings, I would suggest treating it like its own production. That is to say, I would maximize pre-production on the crowdfund by spending as much time as possible planting seeds with people, networking with folks with disposable income (think the Coen Bros canvasing dentists to finance Blood Simple), and garnering email lists so that you can send focused if awkward asks when the time comes vs just shouting into the canyon that is social media. You unfortunately kind of have to corner people and put them on the spot or it’s all too easy for them to treat your crowdfund like that piece of desiccated dog shit under the table that they hope their spouse or roommate will see and deal with, absolving them of the responsibility. I would reach out to and try to go on as many podcasts as possible during the campaign, so people can be directly linked to it. Same goes for a small print/online media tour.

Our crowdfunding campaign was a slow form of torture. Within days my personal rolodex was tapped out. My producer buddy and filmmaker and writer buddies all shared for the most part the same network. That said, a few folks—to include strangers—came through big time, one of them being an old casual acquaintance of a person in my network who thought it would be fun to slap a grand worth of  converted cryptocurrency down to buy themselves an Associate Producer credit, along with a very wealthy guy I just happened to know who loved the project but wanted his name nowhere near something so radioactive. This angel anonymously gave me five thousand dollars on the side—which more than matched the four grand we raised during the month-long slog of a campaign (which included the random thousand dollars from our newly-minted AP).

With the roughly two thousand we had left over from the proof-of-concept seed money, that gave us about $11,000 all told—you know, “good used Hyundai money”—with which to make our little unflinching gut punch of a film. When next we meet I’ll recount every fucked up stop and start and twist and turn it took to get the monstrosity in the can over the next four years.

Coming Soon—Part Three of The Chronicle of Cactus Jack: Production Pitfalls and Pivots

*Feature Photo: Still from the film Cactus Jack.

As one half of The Thornton Brothers—along with his bro Chris—Jay's a filmmaker (Cactus Jack), writer, podcaster (Hard Out), binge eater, gadfly, and non-practicing humanist. Repped at Rosa and UTA.
More posts by Jay Thornton.
Twitter icon Twitter Facebook icon Facebook Pinterest icon Pinterest Reddit icon Reddit
Click here for our recommended reading list.

An Invitation

To a global community of creatives.

All Pipeline Artists members are eligible for monthly giveaways, exclusive invites to virtual events, and early access to featured articles.

Pipeline Artists
Thanks for Subscribing