It is a truth universally acknowledged that the US healthcare system is fucked up. Case in point: actor Ellen Haun is $804 shy of meeting her Screen Actors Guild minimum earnings in order to qualify for health insurance. SAG members must earn at least $26,470 during the year to remain on their health insurance plan.
Despite a frantic dash to audition as much as possible, Haun was worried she’d still not meet the minimum before the end of 2022, so she and her husband Dru Johnston decided to go meta and make a short film about her predicament. Haun (How to Get Away with Murder) and Johnston (The Chris Gethard Show) wrote the comedy Ellen Needs Insurance together and cast 15 actors in the same difficult situation as Haun, including some familiar faces like Doug Olear (FBI agent Terry Fitzhugh in The Wire), comedian Danny Jolles (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, You Choose), and Liz Jenkins (Black-ish). They started crowdfunding for the project on Seed & Spark so they can pay Haun and her fellow cast members the necessary amounts for them to meet their minimums. As of this writing, they have about three days to raise the just over $2,000 left of their $29,600 goal.
Filming starts this weekend, with Haun in the lead role, Johnston directing, and Darren Miller (Funny Or Die) and Savvas Yiannoulou (Evergreen) producing. Paste caught up with Haun and Johnston over email to see how they formulated such an unconventional and ingenious plan to both qualify for insurance and showcase their talents as artists.
Paste Magazine: How did you two first meet?
Ellen Haun: We met at our friends’ wedding! We had a number of mutual friends but had never met. The bride had been listing off who the single men at the wedding were, but forgot to mention Dru, so I kept wondering why he was flirting with me.
Dru Johnston: I had a lot of college friends there, so Ellen got to see who I really was immediately. It’s hard to pretend to be cool when a group of your old classmates drag you out to the dance floor whenever Counting Crows comes on. So there was nowhere to go but up!
Paste: When did you first come up with the idea for a film to fulfill health insurance needs?
Johnston: Five years ago, unfortunately, when I was in almost this exact situation as a television writer. A lot of the entertainment unions function this way, where they tie your insurance eligibility to yearly earnings, and I was about $800 short of qualifying for WGA insurance, which as a human seems so close, but as a writer seems impossibly far. Because writing jobs in this industry feel like winning the lottery: you either get hired for a full season or you don’t get hired at all, so $800 might as well be $40K. I wrote a screenplay, some pilots, and numerous packets for late night comedy shows, just trying to land my next job, and I prayed for a last minute residual check. It didn’t happen. I thought up the idea for a short film called Dru Needs Insurance with only a month left, which wasn’t enough time to get funding together (you aren’t allowed to pay yourself), or production ready… and I was too late. I lost my insurance, and figured that idea was dead. But when we realized Ellen was in the same situation this year we resurrected it. Unfortunately the idea is evergreen in a dystopian sort of way.
Haun: When I realized something similar might be happening to me this fall, Dru and I started talking about the logistics of actually making a movie. That’s when our executive producer, Darren Miller at Big Mischief, came on board and got the ball rolling on making this project. From there we started our crowdfunding campaign and assembled a production team. After writing the script of course.
Paste: What’s it like writing together as a couple? Do you find your process is different than with other writing partners?
Haun: We each did a pass at the script and then sent it back and forth for edits. We’ve given each other feedback on scripts before, so the process felt similar to that. We’d debate jokes, defend our favorites, and find something we both liked. Then for the final script pass we sat down next to each other and went through it all, line by line.
Johnston: Yeah it felt very natural. A lot of people already say writing partnerships can feel like a marriage, we just cut out the middle man.
Paste: Who would you consider your creative—particularly comedic—inspirations?
Haun: My north star is Elaine May. I love all four of her films, and how she wraps bitterness and acidity in a polite sheen.
Johnston: Mel Brooks was my first love. I like the dumbest jokes about the smartest subjects.
Paste: For Dru—have you ever directed Ellen before? What do you each anticipate being the benefits and challenges?
Johnston: This will be the first time! (unless you count this dumb as shit sketch we filmed on my iPhone two months into the pandemic). But I’m really excited about it. She’s one of my favorite actresses. As far as benefits, we’ve got a great short hand and know when we’re pushing each other too far, we’ve also worked so closely on this script that we’ve got a very unified vision of what we want. I think the biggest challenge is to separate our personal story from the product, and be able to drop it at the end of the day and not bring our work home with us… which is hard when you’re making a film as meta as this.
Haun: I like to joke we’re entering our Cassavetes-Rowlands era. I am an Academy Award winning actress, and Dru is a 5’7” chain smoker.
Johnston: I lose 3 inches whenever I direct.
Paste: What are some of the strangest jobs you’ve taken to meet your SAG minimum in the past?
Haun: I’ve been doing a lot of background work in the last few months to help me hit my minimum. This is my first time doing background work, so I’ve been learning a lot. It’s totally different from being a principal actor. You have to carry your costume and hangers around all day, which cracks me up. The stereotype is that background actors are all weird, which I have found very much to not be the case. A lot of people are in the same situation as me, or just trying to make some extra money between regular acting gigs. Some people are retired and doing background work as a second, part-time career. There are also a lot of immigrants, including many Ukranians, so it’s been harrowing to hear their stories over the last few months. It’s an eclectic and interesting group of people.
Paste: How did you recruit the other 15 actors in the same precarious position as Ellen?
Haun: We put out the call to a lot of our friends, which led to us meeting a lot of friends of our friends who are in a similar situation. And then we also put up a casting call for anyone who would be interested in being in a short comedy about insurance.
Johnston: It’s an idea that resonates emotionally, especially with actors. A lot of people reached out saying: “Oh I’ve been there before! I will find you my friends who are there now!” The community is really good at taking care of each other, and knows how ominous and brutal this feeling can be.
Paste: How do you think the SAG system could be reformed in order to better meet actors’ health insurance needs?
Haun: I’m incredibly proud to be a part of a union that offers its members excellent health insurance. That puts me and Dru in a very lucky group of Americans, who have relatively easy access to affordable health insurance. The fundamental flaw is that in the US, we tie health insurance to employment. For people in the entertainment industry, the pandemic really exposed this problem. Not only could performers/writers/directors not get covered, the health plans themselves couldn’t get funded, because those artists weren’t working and the studios and producers weren’t paying into the plan. I think all creative unions have to start thinking outside of the box about how to get their members covered. But most importantly—this wouldn’t be a problem if the United States had universal health care.
Paste: What do you hope to achieve with the film, besides helping Ellen and 15 other actors reach their minimums?
Johnston: In an ideal world people watch this film and say: “That was a lot of fun! It’s insane they were forced to make it!” And then all of America agrees on that, and then they introduce universal health care, and that way our unions aren’t forced to spend so much energy on getting producers to fund the health plan in our negotiations and can instead focus on securing fair wages and residuals with the rise of streaming. If not that, I hope we can at least start a conversation about how silly it is that we tie insurance to employment in this country and have a few laughs about it. I also really hope we get at least one Twitter troll who comments, “Maybe she should get a real job,” but that might be asking too much.
You can keep updated on Ellen Needs Insurance at their Seed & Spark page here.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.