Dead Heat

For Miranda Bailey, producing and starring in the low-budget horror comedy "Dead & Breakfast" began with a house. Bailey and Matthew Leutwyler, her partner in the film company Ambush Entertainment, were in discussions with Joe Madden—son of football great John Madden—and his company Goal Line Productions to make a football movie together. Bailey and Leutwyler went to the small Northern California town of Livermore in November 2002, where Madden was showing them around. "[The Maddens] owned their own football stadium, a church, and this house," recalls Bailey of the first time she saw the domicile that would feature prominently in her film. "And he said, 'It's too bad because we're going to remodel this house and it's so spooky, we'd love to shoot a horror movie in here before we remodel.' So we asked them when they were remodeling it, and they said in April. Matt and I looked at each other and said, 'We can do a horror movie here in that time.'"

Bailey and Leutwyler had previously worked together on his 2000 film "This Space Between Us," starring Jeremy Sisto. A good friend of Bailey's was Sisto's roommate, and when the film was seeking another producer, she met with Leutwyler. "I realized that even if I wasn't in the movie as an actress, it could pan out for me somewhere down the line, and I just had faith in that," recalls Bailey. "And it really did." The two went on to form a production company, and "Dead & Breakfast" was the first film under the Ambush Entertainment banner.

Just one minor problem: There was no script. Bailey wasn't daunted. "We came back from Livermore and were, like, 'All right, we need a cast, we need a script, we need some financing. But we've got all our locations for free and we have this company, Goal Line, willing to throw in lighting and camera packages, and all their producers are onboard.'" says Bailey with a laugh. "So we used all of our connections with actors like Jeremy and basically wrote the parts for people we knew and literally threw this movie together." In addition to Sisto, Bailey called on old friends Oz Perkins ("Legally Blonde"), Erik Palladino ("ER"), and Gina Philips ("Jeepers Creepers") to fill the roles of nubile youngsters on a road trip who find themselves stranded in a small town overrun by zombies. Bailey appears as the town records keeper, who also happens to be a hardcore military survivalist with a talent for blowing away the bad guys.

"Dead & Breakfast" became a textbook case of frugal filmmaking. Shot in only 18 days on 35mm Fuji film stock, the movie was made for about $500,000. "None of the producers or the director took any salary," says Bailey. "It was a total labor of love. It was about getting the movie made, not paying ourselves. And all of the actors worked for SAG minimum." Thanks to the equipment provided by Goal Line—along with rooms at the local John Madden–owned hotel—all the money was put toward making a high-quality film. With the elaborate special effects and impressive makeup, one would never guess how low the budget was. "Basically, we have a $3 million movie for $500,000," says Bailey.

Still, the limited budget resulted in several challenges for the filmmakers. Because they were shooting outside of Los Angeles, the film had to be shipped every day before they could view dailies. "The problem was, after our third day we started getting stuff back, and we realized there was a camera problem in certain shots," recalls Bailey. "So we had lost several scenes based on this shake in the camera. We got the camera fixed, or so we thought, and reshot the scenes. When we viewed them again, the camera still wasn't fixed." On the second day of shooting, the generator outside the house blew. "We were already behind schedule, so we decided to hook all the power up to the house," says Bailey. "And within 20 minutes, the lights went out, and we saw the power line outside the house spark. And suddenly we had blacked out an entire block. We got it fixed but lost a night of shooting and upset a lot of people." Also logistical nightmares were the actors' busy schedules. "We shot it during pilot season, so we were constantly flying actors back and forth; schedules were all over the place," Bailey adds. "It really teaches you how to plow through and make things happen."

Perseverance is a quality Bailey already possessed in excess, thanks to her career as an actor. While she was logging screen time on TV on "Port Charles" and the miniseries "The '60s," she was quickly learning that the best way to be seen was to create her own projects. "When I first came to Los Angeles, I did a lot of really bad theatre," she recalls. "But I felt that was really important, because for the first year that I was here, I was surrounded by a lot of actors who never actually acted." In 1997, after appearing in several "really awful" plays, Bailey took matters into her own hands and found a play, "Borrego," by local writer Robert Glaudini that she produced and starred in at the Hudson Theatre. "It was an incredible learning experience as an actor and a producer," recalls Bailey, who discovered she had a talent for the production end of the arts. "Originally I was producing to get myself seen as an actress. However, I have found a new love for it that doesn't include me acting. I'm not only interested in just producing the thing I act in anymore."

Bailey is currently making the rounds with "Dead & Breakfast," which premieres at the SXSW Film Festival this month, followed by upcoming showings at the Madrid Fantastic Film Festival in Madrid and the Dead by Dawn horror film festival in Edinburgh. Ambush Entertainment has several projects on its slate, including a horror film being written by Bailey and business partner Francey Grace. And of course, there's the upcoming pilot season. "My dream is to be on a half-hour sitcom, which is interesting since I have a film production company," says Bailey with a laugh. "As an actor I think it's ideal because 1.) I love comedy and 2.) I love working with an audience. That's the only place you really can do that and make money at it."

Bailey offered the following advice to anyone considering producing their own projects: "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it. But if you're going to do it, finish the project. I know too many people who say they're going to do it, start it, and it falls apart. So get all your pieces together, go to everybody you know who has any money—even $10—and get donations. But do it the right way: write the right letter, come up with a great business plan, find somebody who knows how to help you put that together. Do it and don't take no for an answer."

Jenelle Riley writes for Back Stage West.