Ronin filmmaker Ed Dougherty and his Grinning Man Media Group

Greetings! It’s my pleasure to introduce to you to a new breed of filmmaker, Ed Dougherty.

Filmmaker Ed Dougherty. Photo courtesy of Ed Dougherty.

Filmmaker Ed Dougherty. Photo courtesy of Ed Dougherty.

Ed and I took our first screenwriting class in USC film school together. Ever since, I’ve been reading his writing for sheer pleasure and watching his career evolve. Instead of becoming more concentrated and specific, Ed’s talents have become more versatile. He has expanded from compelling screenwriting to directing and producing as well as film financing and sales. He jokingly describes his job title as writer-director-producer-samurai. After sitting down with him at his downtown LA micro-studio, Grinning Man Media Group (GMMG), I’d say he’s a ronin filmmaker.

Let me backtrack a bit. This summer, Ed invited me to a screening of GMMG’s new film, Scrapper, at the Soho House in Los Angeles. After their sell-out crowds at the Seattle International Film Festival, it was a cozy, intimate setting to see this gem of a film. Star Michael Beach (Third Watch, Soul Food, Sons of Anarchy) was on hand. He explained how he got involved with the ultra-low budget film about an introverted scrap metal collector who takes on a promiscuous 18-year-old girl as his assistant.

“You never know where a good script is going to come from,” Michael said. “A friend hit me up on Facebook and said he had a script he wanted me to read. I said send it over and I just couldn’t stop reading it. The reason I started acting was to do projects like Scrapper. After being in the business for 30 years, sometimes I forget that. It was so inspiring to get a project like this one.”

Scrapper is a great indie film full of brilliant character moments. It has one of the most awkward, uncomfortable, amazing sex scenes ever filmed. Michael deftly plays the reserved and repressed Hollis, who has a keen grasp on his trade but nothing else in his life. Newcomer Anna Giles is a true discovery as Swan, a smart-mouthed lost girl who has learned to use her sexuality to approach all relationships. Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire) ignites the screen as the aggressive Ray, who is the polar opposite of Michael’s Hollis. The performances are captivating, making its budget one of the truly remarkable aspects of the film.

“We made it for $50,000,” Michael said. “We shot it in 13 days. And we busted our asses. For me, the accomplishment of the film is not just how much I like it, but also how we made it. That we did it! That’s so inspirational to me. I want to do more films like this one.

“It always starts with the script, the quality of the script,” he added. “When people are really passionate about it, you can create something beautiful.”

Actor Michael Beach as Hollis Wallace in "Scrapper." Photo courtesy of Grinning Man Media Group.

Actor Michael Beach as Hollis Wallace in “Scrapper.” Photo courtesy of Grinning Man Media Group.

And that’s Ed and GMMG’s mission: They want to make micro-budget films that can succeed on their own terms.

GMMG’s development slate is brimming. They have eight features, six web series, and one graphic novel in various stages of production. And while their focus is micro-budget films, two of their features do boast studio budgets; Ed’s writing the scripts.

One of GMMG’s studio features is a horror movie called Lazarus set in Mexico. Lazarus has been true to its name – dying and coming back to life. At one point, Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hell Boy) was attached. There have been numerous investors who have fallen in and out of the project. One film financier was shot – with bullets, not film – while scouting locations with the film crew. He decided to drop out of the project and out of sight. The project seems on course now to shoot in early 2014.

The project occupying Ed’s mind the most right now is a comedy web series starring Kevin Nealon and Michael Beach titled Racquetball. GMMG is currently in post on it. And as Racquetball’s writer-director-producer (and bit actor), Ed cannot contain his excitement about the project or the process.

Filmmaker Ed Dougherty and actor Kevin Nealon on the set of "Racquetball." Photo courtesy of Grinning Man Media Group.

Filmmaker Ed Dougherty and actor Kevin Nealon on the set of “Racquetball.”
Photo courtesy of Grinning Man Media Group.

Racquetball was the David Lean production of web series,” he said. “The budget swelled. We had a cast of 40. We had three units going. It was crazy.” He anticipates generating approximately 40 episodes from the mountain of footage they shot.

“I worked on that script for a year and a half,” Ed said. “It was really tight. But we also did a lot of improv, which turned out to be some of the best stuff.”

Ed is still considering distribution options for Racquetball. While he has several avenues to explore, he has adopted a DIY approach to his business as a whole. This approach takes him back to his roots.

“When I was 18 and 19, I was in a punk band that was pretty successful,” he said. “We booked a lot of shows and managed ourselves. I kind of forgot that when I went to USC film school. Film school followed a very predictable Hollywood pattern: 1) write a spec script, then 2) try to get someone to read it, and 3) write another spec. Now I’ve started applying what I learned from my DIY punk past and it’s more gratifying. I’m much more in my element.

“One of my philosophies now is to always have my own plan. I pursue my own plan and if someone else comes along and buys the project, that’s great. But I want to be completely self-sufficient in a kind of punk way,” Ed said.

Ed’s desire to be master-less, to be a ronin filmmaker, may stem from a soul-crushing moment in his career. Ed co-wrote and directed a spec TV pilot, The Further Adventures of Edmund and Pablo, which was produced for $2,200.

“It was a magical shoot,” Ed said. “We all loved it. We all got along. Everything broke right. And there were things I attempted I would never do now. It’s crazy to me that we did it.”

The project was well-received. Ed had planned to launch the series himself. However, a big cable network was very interested in it. Ed worked with the network for 18 months, anticipating they would pick the project up to series. However, after a heartbreaking turn, the cable network dropped the project.

“After a year and a half, it was difficult to get the cast back together and shoot more episodes,” he said. “I remember thinking, why did I ever let it get to this point? Why didn’t I follow my original plan?”

This experience galvanized Ed’s philosophy to be a self-sufficient filmmaker.

Actors Jonny Loquasto as Justin and Michael Beach as Carlsbad in the web series "Racquetball." Photo courtesy of Grinning Man Media Group.

Jonny Loquasto as Justin and Michael Beach as Carlsbad in the web series “Racquetball.”
Photo courtesy of Grinning Man Media Group.

“It’s an exciting time for film in general,” Ed said. “You can make projects now for less money than you ever could before. When some people say they’re going to make a film for a certain budget level, I think Grinning Man Media Group could make a comparable film at a fourth of that budget.”

Ed’s enthusiasm is palpable. Talking faster than most people can think, he has always been passionate about his storytelling. Right now, his drive has kicked into overdrive. He lives in the GMMG studio space’s loft apartment. He works nearly non-stop during his waking hours. Speaking fondly of Miramax and New Line in the 1970s, he says we’re poised to repeat that critical era because of Video-on-Demand (VOD) and the collapse of theatrical and video release dates.

“Just as Roger Corman could make movies and could make a profit with drive-in fare, I think VOD is the new home video drive-in,” Ed said. “It’s a whole new world where filmmakers can exist and make money. You have to be smart. You have to have an angle. And there has to be a good movie in there.”

Scrapper is GMMG’s test case. It’s the first feature from Ed and his business partner, Tarek Kutrieh, under their GMMG shingle.

Actor Aidan Gillen as the kinky Ray and Michael Beach as the repressed Hollis Wallace in "Scrapper."  Photo courtesy of Grinning Man Media Group.

Actor Aidan Gillen as the kinky Ray and Michael Beach as the repressed Hollis Wallace in “Scrapper.”
Photo courtesy of Grinning Man Media Group.

Scrapper is a good movie,” Ed said. “It has great actors in it. But it’s also about a man salvaging scrap metal. I would say that’s pretty un-commercial. Still, projections are we’re going to double our budget in profit. Everyone who has deferred payment on the picture is going to get paid. I just sold the African TV rights this morning. Our VOD release date is April 1, 2014. It’s all going to add up to a decent profit for us. And every dollar goes back into the empire so we can continue making small, quality projects.”

Making the projects he wants on his terms suits Ed well. He’s got a clear voice and keen eye for quality projects. He’s also well-versed in business having worked in his father’s small education business since he was 12. Since his father’s death, Ed has taken a more active role in the business, effectively running two businesses – one in New York and GMMG here in LA.

Ed relies on many of the small business practices his father instilled in him. He hires talented people he believes are on the verge of breaking out. He makes fair deals with artists. He looks to cultivate the next generation of filmmakers, encouraging them to push projects forward and be their own masters.

When working with emerging talent, he often tells them, “If you’re lucky and you have a good career, you’re going to have your heart ripped out about nine times, if not more. To have your heart broken, you have to be in it. That’s why you need to have something of your own, something to cling to.”

And it’s these next-generation artists who make Ed’s ronin filmmaking successful and rewarding. By gathering allies and like-minded individuals who aren’t beholden to the staid ways of Hollywood, he finds fellow warriors who want to make their mark.

Scrapper will be screening at the 2013 Austin Film Festival on Saturday, October 26th and Tuesday, October 29th. In case you can’t make one of the festival screenings, Scrapper’s VOD release date is April 1, 2014.

Racquetball starring Kevin Nealon and Michael Beach will be streaming on the web in early 2014.

Follow Ed Dougherty on Twitter at @grinningmanfilm for updates on these projects and more.