"Hey baby," begins the communication from Polynation Pictures chief Wendy Weiner Runge in the message to partner Matthias Saunders. A producer for the film "The Scientist," Saunders ran a company that was supposed to provide equipment for the 2008 film. "I need a final Maximus ... invoice TOMORROW MORNING for $2.3 million in an odd, round number," Runge wrote. "Add it all up ... and make it look pretty."
Accused filmmaker's e-mail: 'Make it look pretty'
LEE ROOD • Des Moines Register
If there was one "smoking gun" piece of evidence on the second day of a Minnesota filmmaker's trial for theft while moviemaking, it came in the form of an e-mail.
"Hey baby," begins the communication from Polynation Pictures chief Wendy Weiner Runge in the message to partner Matthias Saunders.
A producer for the film "The Scientist," Saunders ran a company that was supposed to provide equipment for the 2008 film.
"I need a final Maximus ... invoice TOMORROW MORNING for $2.3 million in an odd, round number," Runge wrote. "Add it all up ... and make it look pretty."
The 11th-hour e-mail was written in mid-November 2008 - after filming on the movie had been completed.
Saunders anted up by adding more expenses to yet another invoice for in-kind services that prosecutors contend were imaginary and used to rake in already generous state tax-credit incentives.
Runge, 45, has pleaded not guilty of first-degree theft and other felonies stemming from the film she made in the year before Iowa's film program collapsed.
She is the first moviemaker among several people charged to go to trial since the state's tax-credit program for filmmaking was suspended in 2009. Testimony is expected to resume today at the Drake University Legal Clinic.
Runge's attorney, Matthew Whitaker, has said the Minnesota mother of four was a novice filmmaker whose primary role was to find investors to make the movie and a distributor when it was finished.
But prosecutors submitted evidence - including e-mails and invoices - suggesting that Runge, screenwriter Zach LeBeau and tax-credit broker and chief investor Chad Witter had developed a scheme to defraud the state that grew more brazen after their filming in summer 2008.
The 12-person jury learned the original script for "The Scientist" was written in Minnesota over about a week and the film was originally envisioned as low-budget: about $100,000.
That all changed after Runge and LeBeau heard about Iowa's newly retooled film program. Those incentives - touted as "half-off filmmaking" - drew Runge, LeBeau and other partners to make the film in Iowa.
Over time, other e-mails showed, the group received permission from fired Iowa Film Officer manager Tom Wheeler to continue increasing its budget using estimated expenses and "in-kind" services that prosecutors contend didn't exist or were without cost.
Invoices were submitted from companies run by partners in the film.
One of those partners, Chase Brandau, confirmed the alleged scheme Wednesday. A sound man who had worked on a half dozen or so small, independent films, Brandau testified that he eventually walked away from Runge and other partners.
He said he did so after Iowa officials began to question spending by numerous filmmakers.
When $1.85 million in tax credits for "The Scientist" were awarded in December 2008, Runge sent an e-mail to Brandau and other partners promising to toast them with champagne.
She also wrote that Polynation Pictures had netted more than $1.6 million from the state tax credits.
After those tax credits were transferred for 88 cents on the dollar, major investors like Witter got paid and partners like Brandau, also the film's postproduction manager, received a windfall.
Brandau testified that he received $33,000 - on top of his $52,000 paycheck, his $2,400-a-month loft paid for by Polynation, and the $450 he had received weekly to be on the set.
Runge and LeBeau never told Brandau what they took home, he said.
Brandau also testified that Runge alone dealt with Wheeler and Witter.
Prosecutor Jeff Thompson asked Brandau if he ever drank the champagne that Runge promised due to their success.
"I don't remember," Brandau said.
Brandau's testimony was in sharp contrast to a portrait Whitaker painted of Runge during opening statements.
On Wednesday, Whitaker called into question how much Brandau actually spent on postproduction costs and how much he really made.
Whitaker suggested Brandau had actually received close to $100,000, but Brandau said some of the money that went into his bank accounts might have gone to postproduction costs.
[Hat Tip: Isa.]