Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Release forms and the Skunk-Ape

Most filmmakers know that anytime you show someone prominently on screen you need permission to use their image. This permission is granted in a brief statement known as a "release" and is usually included as part of an actor's employment agreement. If you're project is a documentary or other non-fiction work that is relying on interviews and b-roll footage rather than hired actors, a single page release form may be used instead.

I am constantly surprised at how many filmmakers fail to have their subjects fill out release forms before filming begins figuring they'll just "get it later." In many cases, the release forms are eventually acquired and the production continues to it's successful end. No harm, no foul. But every once in a while, this seemingly minor element can bring a production to a sudden screaming halt.

Several years ago a fellow filmmaker and good friend, who I'll call "Bob" to protect his identity, began work on a documentary film investigating reported sightings of the legendary "Skunk-ape", a South Florida Everglades version of Big Foot. The central figure in Bob's documentary was a extremely colorful self-proclaimed Skunk-ape expert that dedicated his life to tracking and validating the Skunk Ape's existence. Bob and I call him "Skunk-ape guy."

Bob arranged for Skunk-ape guy to spend a few days with his film crew hunting the Skunk Ape and conducting interviews at his remote cabin in the Everglades. During that time, Bob recorded hours of interviews with the him and alleged eyewitnesses, countless reels of b-roll footage of the everglades, and even filmed a series of "re-enactments" complete with an actor in a Skunk-ape costume.

When the project was nearly complete, Bob was gracious enough to let me sit with him in the editing room to preview a rough cut of the film. My immediate impression was that it was a cross between a Discovery Channel documentary, and something you might see on Comedy Central. It was pure video gold.

When I asked Bob if he had all of his paperwork in order, he replied that he still hadn't gotten around to getting a release form from Skunk-ape guy. According to Bob, he was a rather eccentric man, and the last few times he had tried to call, he had been assaulted with an alternating barrage of excitement about completing the film, and threats of bodily harm.

"Threats?", I asked him not quite following.

"Yea." he said. "He threatened to disembowel me or something like that the last time we spoke. The guys a bit insane."

I reminded Bob that unless Skunk-ape guy signed a release form, his documentary was destined to become a very expensive paperweight.

"Let's give him a call right now," I suggested.

Bob shrugged, pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number.

After a few moments, Skunk-ape guy answered the phone and Bob introduced himself. Almost immediately, the screaming began and a string of obscenities and various death threats emanated from the other end of the line. A moment later the conversation ended as Skunk-ape guy slammed down his receiver.

Now, Bob is the kind of guy that doesn't get intimidated very easily and tends to find humor in situations like these, which in and of itself is a bit disturbing, and he burst out laughing.

"See. I told you!" he howled as tears ran down his face.

"That's messed up" I replied.

Bob regained his composure. "Watch, in about another minute he'll call back like nothing ever happened." Sure enough, before he even finished his sentence, Bob's cell phone rang and he held it up to show me who was calling. "Like clockwork" is all he said.

Bob answered his phone and held it way from his ear so I could hear the conversation better this time. From the other end came the voice of Skunk-ape guy, calm and composed as if nothing had ever happened.

"Hey Bob! It's good to hear from you! Hey man, sorry about that. I'm just a little stressed over here."

I tried to silently coach Bob on how to convince Skunk-ape guy to sign the release forms.

We thought it was going well, when suddenly Skunk-ape guy declared that he had been giving this whole "film thing" a lot of thought and decided he wanted something more out of the deal. He was standing firm and wouldn't sign the forms until his "demands" were met.

Bracing himself for the worst, Bob gathered his courage and asked what Skunk-ape guy's demands were. After a brief pause, Bob put his hand over the phone and mouthed the words "This guy is absolutely insane."

Rather than reiterating Skunk-ape guy's words in graphic detail, let's just say that a single man in his mid 40's who spends his life skulking around the Everglades in search of a fictitious man-ape doesn't have much time to build relationships with members of the opposite sex. Enough said.

Very calmly, Bob attempted to explain to Skunk-ape guy that he was a filmmaker and not the owner of an escort service, but it was falling on deaf ears. Eventually he gave up and ended the call. Bob put his phone away, looked up at me and just shrugged. To this day, he still hasn't completed his documentary or collected a release from Skunk-ape guy.

Now obviously the Skunk Ape story, as it's come to be known, is not your typical scenario. But the point of the story is still valid: If Bob had collected a release form before filming while Skunk-ape guy was excitement about the project, he would have been able to finish his documentary, release it, and possibly even win a few awards to boot. Instead, it just sits on a shelf and serves as a reminder of what can happen if you don't have all your paperwork in order before you start filming.

The moral of the story: Get ALL your paperwork in order BEFORE you start filming.

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