Mark and Adam Kassen do things their own way. The gregarious New York writers and producers emerged from the theatre world to teach themselves about the film business without any formal film school education. As a result they have been prolific in the low-budget independent arena, culminating in 10 Emmy nominations for HBO's Bernard And Doris.
The brothers' 81 Pictures benefits from a small development fund backed by entrepreneur Nikolai Amburgey and the way they put together Bernard And Doris, starring Susan Sarandon as a livewire billionairess and Ralph Fiennes as her gay butler, speaks to their overall philosophy.
"We started out as producers to get done what we wanted to do creatively," Mark says. "It's allowed us to get the most out of something for less." Bernard And Doris was one of three films to come out of Triggerstreet Independent, a cut-price digital film-making enterprise the brothers launched around 2004 with Kevin Spacey's TriggerStreet Productions. The other two titles were The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang, which premiered at Slamdance in 2006, and Mr Gibb, which has sold to Screen Media Films.
By the time the brothers heard about Bernard And Doris, Warner Independent Pictures had considered shooting it for $11m. The Kassens persuaded executive producer Jonathan Cavendish to part with the rights for free in exchange for profit participation, something they eventually offered to all the key collaborators. Bob Balaban came aboard as director and once Sarandon joined, Fiennes followed soon after. They secured the Old Westbury Gardens mansion in Long Island, the former estate of steel baron John Shaffer Phipps that doubles as the stately home in the film, for a knock-down rate in exchange for participation. Donna Karan donated jewellery and clothes.
The film shot over 21 days a couple of years ago and came in at $750,000. "We made the movie and felt it was really special and that it would be best to finish it with an industry leader," Adam says. HBO Films president Colin Callender eventually acquired domestic rights and invested in post-production before the film premiered on HBO. "He told us he could support it in a way it wouldn't get if it went out theatrically, which was fine because we knew that even if it had gone out in theatres it would be small - it's an asymmetrical love story, after all."
The brothers have a healthy slate of projects lined up, including the legal drama Vanish Point that has financing in place through private investors and is ready to shoot in Texas at the end of the year. Coming up is an adaptation of an Off Broadway show about Hitler's nephew that the brothers produced and Mark starred in called Little Willy. The Kassens are also negotiating with a studio on a bigger project that will shoot later this year.