Sunday, June 15, 2014


To bide the time, here are some completed VFX shots from the second version of Vampires Don't Sparkle. We really went full post apocalyptic with this one, and had a great time shooting it. You can expect to see a lot of this footage in the behind the scenes features, along with footage from the first version of the project (with the faces of certain litigious actors blurred out, of course).

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Remember Me?

I suppose people (people who haven't long ago forgotten about this project) are wondering where I've been. If it's any comfort, I've  not stopped thinking about you, nor ceased to agonize night-and-day over this film since its conception. I do want to thank my backers though, both for their initial faith in me, and for their patience during this entire ordeal. It means a lot, truly.

On to the burning question. Why in the hell do you people not have a DVD in your hands yet? The answer is multi-faceted, but basically boils down to the following: I'm cursed, or I'm incompetent, or perhaps I'm a bit of both.

Let's start at the beginning. I hear that's a good place.

SUMMER 2011:

It's May. I've just gotten married. President Obama has just announced Bin Laden is dead (which is one of the better wedding gifts a guy could ask for). Vampires Don't Sparkle has just met its funding goal. There's a fantastic team behind me (in particular are Skippy and Gunther, who are going above and beyond anything a director could hope for). We are set to start shooting in a week. Things are going well.

There are some complications. My wife and I are moving to NYC in a few short months. That means an unforgiving cutoff date for shooting, and production will have to be juggled alongside moving plans. All this makes me a bit uncomfortable, but I'm confident in my ability to multi-task and improvise.

After shooting has been underway several weeks, it becomes apparent I've written too much action into the script (action takes far longer to shoot, more camera setups, more choreography, etc..). There's no way we'll be able to fit it all into our remaining time in CT. I come up with a new plan. I'll rewrite the script on non-shooting days, so that half the film is told in flashback. This will allow me shoot half the footage for the movie with just two actors and one location, something I know I can accomplish in a single day. I quickly type up the changes, and am actually quite happy with them. It gives the film (which I found to be taking itself too seriously) a bit of a comedic edge. I send out the new draft, completely oblivious to the fact our first tragedy is about to strike.

It's the night before we're set to shoot a lead's final scene when they email me insisting we speak on the phone. I call them and discover they're very upset about the script changes and my leadership. This surprises me, as the script changes do not affect their character in any way, and they have never voiced their concerns about me personally until now. They say they don't want to speak on the phone anymore. They want to continue the conversation via email, contrary to them insisting via email we speak on the phone. This strikes me as erratic. Erratic people are dangerous to have on projects, so I start to get worried. I ask them if they'll be at the shoot tomorrow. I only need this last day. They say they don't know. I tell them this makes me nervous, as there are people driving very far to be there, and I would like a definitive answer. They say they'll call me back. Hours later, eating dinner, I receive a text. They're quitting the project.

And this is where my unprofessional approach to filmmaking comes back to bite me. You see, I haven't had anyone sign release forms yet. Professionals will tell you how foolish this is. They're correct. Maybe you think everyone is there for art. Maybe you think everyone is there for fun. It doesn't matter. The legal angle needs to be covered. I hadn't done this, and now I'm paying for it. The lead won't allow me to use the footage already shot, and they and I both know that, because of my negligence, there's nothing I can do about it.

At this point, the move to NYC is truly looming. There's simply not enough time to reshoot everything from the original script. After an obligatory night of hard drinking and unadulterated panic, I decide on my next course of action. I will write a new script, in one week, and in such a way that each actor will only be required for one day of shooting, none of them on the same day. I'll play the lead (a loathsome idea to me, as I far prefer to be behind the camera, but these are desperate times), so we'll only have to coordinate my schedule with the actor for any given day. Logistically speaking, it feels brilliant. Creatively speaking, unfortunately, my skills are not up to the task.

Now, the script is finished very fast, but I am deeply unhappy with it. What's to be done though? Time is limited. We shoot, again, very fast, but not fast enough. The clock runs out. It's time to make the move to NYC, and half of my scenes, along with the lead villain's, remain unshot.

There I was, finally living in the city I'd dreamed of living in since I was a boy. Only that dream didn't include me being there with half a movie in the can, and a script that I truly, truly loathed.

WINTER 2011:

The cold weather sets in. Trees are barren. Exterior shots (which are the only kind the script calls for, this being a microbudget film and all) will have to wait until next summer. Even that is assuming we can afford the additional train trips to CT. Cassandra is doing well for herself, but I struggle to get steady freelance gigs.

Regardless, this gives me a season to rework the script into something I can view with less disdain. This task is hindered by the fact that it must somehow incorporate everything that has already been shot, not featuring any two actors on the screen at one time. Several drafts later, I have something no less horrific and so far removed from the source material it doesn't even feature vampires.

SUMMER 2012:

We're broke. There's more money going out than coming in, and the truth is that it's on my head. A sort of cycle sets in. If I'm working on the script, I feel guilty for not hunting down the next job. If I'm hunting down the next job, I feel guilty for not working on the movie. I'm spending far too much time wallowing in depression. Before I know it, the summer is nearly done.

WINTER 2012:

I'm a year past the date I'd set for the film's completion. I can't make any progress during the cold season, and I have only my own neurosis to blame for being stuck in this position. Briefly, I consider giving up the film aspirations entirely, settling down in a typical nine to five, and saving up until I can at least pay back my supporters. The thought doesn't last though. You see, I'm cursed with the artist's affliction. I'll never be satisfied without this. And so, I'll continue on until I succeed, or until  I die. With that in mind, I form a new plan. I'm going to stop beating myself up about the shortcomings of the new script. I'm going to save up some money and shoot the remaining scenes, as they are, next summer, get something I can show to my backers. It won't be the love letter to the vampire genre that I promised, but it will be something. I figure the DVD can go out with an apology for subverted expectations and a promise that my next film will feature vampires, and be sent to the Kickstarter backers free of charge. It seems like a good plan. I just need to start thinking less and acting more.

SUMMER 2013:

Things are going swimmingly. I pick up some decent gigs, and have money to afford train tickets and props. I manage to find a willing actor with IMDB credits to his name (production value!). A good friend has a great location available free of charge. We jump on the train, head to CT, and shoot the actor's scenes in a single day. I still have an enormous amount of pickup shots for my own character, but with a couple months left in the summer, that will be no problem. If it comes down to it, we can even shoot some of the exteriors in Prospect Park. It's happening. This thing is finally going to be finished.

And then the drive fails. The drive with half the film's footage on it.

There's an icy sensation as I check my backup drive and, inexplicably, find it empty. I don't understand. I always back up my files. With raw terror rising in my throat, I search through every drive I own, thinking I must have misplaced the folders. But no. The files are just not here. I've ruined things badly this time, and another winter is coming.

WINTER 2013:

It's now two years past the date I expected to have a finished film by. The season gives me time to reflect. I realize now that, by all appearances, I am a grossly incompetent filmmaker. The honorable choice to make is seppuku. However, I'd decided last winter that filmmaking was something I'll never give up on. I intend to stick with that conviction. There is no choice but to continue. Statistically speaking, I'm bound to succeed over time.

There's a silver lining as well. I now have the perfect excuse to start over, writing a new script (with vampires) and having the luxury of taking my time with it. I spend the winter with two primary goals. I'm going to find steadier work, and I'm going to write a script worth waiting two years for.


Not surprisingly, I fell somewhat short of my dreams, but overall did moderately well. I doubled my efforts to get my resume and reel out there. As a result, freelancing steadily picked up, and I eventually managed to secure a position as an in house editor, which means stability. Stability means less mental energy spent on gig-hunting, more spent on the film. The script was written, then rewritten. Now, it is going through it's second revision (thanks there to the invaluable feedback of my writing group), and, in my estimation, it's far better than what we were working with when this all started. Whether or not it was worth the wait is up to the audience, of course.

So, where does that leave us?

It's still the early days of summer, and I'm determined to polish the remaining two acts in the coming month and a half. This would leave me with three months of good weather to shoot (this new story has exterior locations in the city, which means we can shoot during the winter and not worry about the backgrounds not matching, but that's not a safety buffer I want to use).

Editing, color correcting, and doing VFX for a monster like this is going to take some time. Elm City Wuxia was ten minutes long and required a week's worth of all-nighters during post production. A feature length project will take considerably longer, but could realistically be accomplished by the time it gets warm again.

Giving a specific, or even estimated release date, after so many delays, seems comical at this point. Instead, I'll be posting regularly at this blog, so everyone can follow the project as it progresses. With any luck (and I think we're due for some) you'll have the DVD in your hands before long. Until then, thanks once more to everyone for their patience and support. I'm working hard to get you the movie I think you deserve.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Re-vamped (haha! Get it!?)

"Everything happens for a reason" is a particularly hateful adage in my eyes. Some things perhaps, but everything? Yes, you can find justification for any event, no matter how horrific, but it is my firm position doing so makes you a monster.

On the other hand, this tidbit of parental wisdom is easier to swallow when we're talking about something trivial, like filmmaking. Having a lead actor back out of the movie hours before he was set to shoot his final day did send a month's worth of work straight into the trash, but it also gave me the opportunity to jettison some problem cast members. A small consolation prize, you might be thinking, but, if you are, then you've never before had to work alongside adults who behave in a way entirely consistent with children.

Via the same sort of psychic osmosis whiners use to infect an entire set, the men and women who enjoy being there will flood the air around them with rainbows and unicorn farts. No need to huff this enchanted stew, just breath. This is the first production I've worked on where every member of the team has proven themselves on an earlier film. No prima donnas. No would-be-lawyers. No complainers. The first day of shooting I noticed the loosening of several long-standing muscle knots and a relief of the burning sensation that comes each time stomach acid splashes one of my ulcers. I described these symptoms to Cassandra, and she suggested that I may actually be having a good time. She's probably right, and it's now my hope that everyone will have as much fun watching this movie as we're having making it. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Most Recent Train Wreck

While the Fear, Loathing, and Production Notes series of posts was intended to be a humorous, heightened version of reality (more akin to Hunter S. Thompson's dark vision of Las Vegas than to the real world), there has been genuine drama on set, drama that's gone unmentioned. Creating alter-egos for myself and the cast was an opportunity to inject situations with humor and to blog about things that I might not have otherwise felt comfortable posting (those two people really did start licking each other at auditions, but they were cousins, not siblings). It seemed like a fun way to get in the writing practice I desperately need while simultaneously venting some of the nervous energy that builds when an actor constantly questions your competency, or complains loudly to other actors on set, or quits the entire production 12 hours before we're scheduled to shoot his final scene.

I'm not being hypothetical here. This actually happened over the weekend.

Filmmaking is a game where a multi-million dollar production can be classified as "low-budget". By that standard (the professional standard), what we do could barely be called filmmaking. The people who do these projects do them for deferred pay or, more frequently, no pay at all. They donate their time and resources, often paying for things like props and gas out of pocket. We were fortunate enough to have a generous network of patrons for this project, meaning we were actually able to afford to feed people, buy costumes and fake gore, and maybe have some left over for film music when all was said and done. This is typically not the case, as anyone who has worked with the underground filmmaking community in Connecticut can tell you. Far too often, you feel grateful at the end of the day if you managed to eat something. I'm afraid, dealing with a community that accepts these conditions, I've become naive. I've grown used to working outside of the regulated system, shooting and editing long nights for free because I love something, and the legal or fiscal issues never even being an after thought. My mistake was to assume everyone felt this way.

Under that assumption, I began shooting Vampires Don't Sparkle without a release already signed. Getting the wording right takes time (especially when you're poor and must rely on bi-weekly dinners with your attorney/step-dad to obtain legal advice), and I figured that time would be better used shooting. A mistake. One that primarily my cast is paying for. It quite honestly makes me feel like shit.

Friday night I received a text message from an actor informing me he was quitting and would not be arriving the next morning to shoot his final scene. There was considerable drama leading up to this, arguments over the way things should be run. I had a gut feeling from the beginning that he was the kind of person who could do this sort of thing, but had pushed that feeling aside. At the time it seemed like there was no other choice. It's hard to find good actors after all. Of course, I realize now there is always a choice. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say.

The affair has effectively derailed production. The majority of footage thus far features him in some way or another, and he is legally empowered to stop us from using it.

Where does that leave the film? Not in a good spot, obviously, but things will continue. Many of you are expecting DVDs in the coming months, and, come hell or high water, you will be receiving them. We're going to circle the wagons this week, regroup and replan. We've suffered a serious setback, but the movie will continue, and you'll be watching it soon enough.

Our promise still stands. "There will be blood..."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

FEAR, LOATHING, AND PRODUCTION NOTES: A Savage Journey Into The Heart of Indie Filmmaking (Part 4, Shooting)

It was a beast of a day, hot and wet, air sticking to the skin like damp wool. We were still a good 2,000 vertical feet from our destination.

"I can't," Lansing shook his head, flinging beads of sweat here and there. "I just can't."

It was too late to send him back to the cars now. We were there illegally, sans permit, and a nazi-outback park ranger had been tracking us since the start of production. Alone in the forest with no woodsman skills, she'd be onto Lansing in no time, and I doubted he'd withstand more than a second or two of waterboarding before revealing our location. He had become a serious liability.

"I can't let you go now. Too big a risk. I'll have to throw you over the edge." 

I'd not realized I was speaking out loud until Lansing's face knotted up. I could see the son of a bitch was on guard then. I pulled him in close and dropped my voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I'm going to tell you something because I might need backup in a minute. Don't panic now, but I think Uwe's gone around the bend."

I pointed downhill to where Uwe was crouched in the underbrush, a predatory stare on his face, a splash of crimson on his lips. Lansing turned, and I yanked him back sharply. "Jesus! What are you doing? Don't meet his eyes. You'll provoke him." 

"Is he dangerous?"

"Hell yes he's dangerous. What kind of question is that? He's slipped too far into the role. This is Stanislavsky's nightmare. The best we can hope for is he comes back down from it before anyone gets eviscerated. You didn't give him the scythe, did you?" 

Uwe's jaw had gone slack, but he continued to eyeball us. I gripped Lansing by the shoulder. "Here it comes now. He's fast, but heavy. If we're selected as targets we'll have to work together to knock him over the side."

And Lansing was gone, scrambling up the rock face with all the dexterity of a mountain goat. We'd reach the top now with all actors intact, but it was a hollow victory. My body was weighed down by a fatigue that had nothing to do with the climb or the sleepless nights. It was the early sign of a manic fit, a severe bout of depression. I had already doubted my ability to provide morale for the entire cast and crew. Now I wondered how long I could prop up my own deflating mood before the entire production  came down around our heads.

As far as psychic anchors go, you couldn't find a worse candidate that I. Yet, on a microbudget film, the director is often expected to be that foundation. This expectation is heaped upon other duties. It's a must that you edit the film in your mind throughout the shooting process, cutting and rearranging the footage as more becomes available or reworking entire sequences when (as so often happens) a shot is impossible to achieve. The scenario is not unlike trying to solve an equation in your head. You bang through the math in steps, solving for each section and holding the number in your mind while you attempt to solve the next for the next piece. It's typically halfway through this endeavor that some of the more well-intentioned crew might ask if you've remembered to solve for the first piece of the equation. If so, what did you get? Perhaps they can shoulder some of the burden, if you'll only tell them what you've solved already and what still needs to be solved. This would be a tremendous help, provided those solutions weren't slipping out of your short term memory every time you stopped to explain the equation to someone, and provided any of these people offering their aid knew how to do math. And they don't. None of them know how to do math, or rather, how to make a film, which, in case you've lost the plot, is what I was actually talking about.

The remedy to this often involves snapping at assistants, and dismissing all questions with a wave of your hand. The periods of respite this action buys you are blissful, but it's not destined to last. The production is a ship with no one at the rudder, and these are treacherous waters.

"Don't wipe it off!"

Uwe had burst from the underbrush, flailing wildly at unseen assailants with an improvised war club, and managed to land a glancing blow upon Sandy's leg before she could scramble away. Bright, angry crimson dripped from the wound.

"Squeeze some of it into this." I dumped our batteries and handed Sandy the empty case. "I forgot our corn syrup, and we're going to need some blood for this scene."

She obeyed, hands trembling, and I had to wonder what it was that kept us coming back to it time and time again. A personality defect? Some misfiring of the synapses, mistaking pain for pleasure? No, that wasn't it. Filmmaking is a torturous experience, but there's nothing else like it. We do it because we love it. We do it because we have no choice.

Monday, June 20, 2011

FEAR, LOATHING, AND PRODUCTION NOTES: A Savage Journey Into The Heart of Indie Filmmaking (Part 3, Screenwriting)

"I'm not a writer!" 

It was the first honest thing I'd said to Sandy in weeks, and spat out in desperation as she wrestled me back through the window frame I'd sought to escape through.

I've never been skilled with words. When other minds are forming coherent sentences, linear progressions of thought, and tangible plans, mine is almost constantly in some sort of right-hemisphere daze, a perpetual acid trip which has saved me hundreds of dollars in drug-related expenses over the years.

"Fred Lansing has been calling me non-stop for two days now. We're shooting tomorrow and he wants a copy of the script."

So that was her game. Feign offense at my procrastination and thereby clear her own name with the cast. I realized she had to be recording our exchange and gave the room a cursory scan for surveillance equipment, spotting nothing out of the ordinary. No surprise. She's far too good to leave a trail. Releasing my grip on the window sill, I allowed her to pull me back inside and made a mental note to return the next day with some industrial-grade debugging equipment.

"The script is finished. It just needs some editing for grammatical errors and typos." This was a lie to throw off the unknown third parties which were certainly listening in. " Also, I'd like to state for the record this woman is under the influence of several known hallucinogens."

That would give the bastards on the other end of the wire something to chew on. "Hah," I laughed, maybe out loud, maybe not. The world had taken on a hazy sheen and it was difficult to distinguish between the two. On some level of consciousness I was aware of Sandy throwing her arms up, exasperated, and storming from the room. Good. I needed my space dammit. I'm an artist.

It's easy (some might say inevitable) to go a little mad while creating. The trick is to ride it out, see the chemical shift coming and prepare for it. Clearing your workspace of sharp objects and some of the stronger drugs is essential. You don't want to be chasing the wife around with an ax when your last tenuous connection to reality finally snaps. And it will. It will certainly snap.

Starting a new project means making a date with the blank word document, its featureless face challenging you from behind a wall of expensive and easy-to-crack glass. Delay if you want, but any respite is tainted by the knowledge that soon, very soon, you will have your time with that hateful, empty screen. Every line written will spawn a dozen questions. Can my actors pull this emotion off convincingly? Do I have the time for all these effects shots? Do I have the time for all this dialogue? After hours of second-guessing every letter committed to the page, you're left with something of a cinematic stew spoiled by too many chefs, each and every one those chefs being a figment of your imagination. Philistines will believe that a psychic landscape fertile enough to host such a roster of distinct voices could also bang out a screenplay. They are wrong, of course, as philistines so often are.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

FEAR, LOATHING, AND PRODUCTION NOTES: A Savage Journey Into The Heart of Indie Filmmaking (Part 2, Callbacks)

I'd been pacing for precisely twenty three minutes when the phone first rang. Stopping immediately, I answered. The caller spoke quickly, and I listened, offering no response. When she had finished, I replaced the phone and resumed pacing.

"That was one Audrey Valentine. She'll be thirty minutes late."

"She's already fifteen minutes late."

It was Sandy who spoke, and she was right, but I still felt it was imprudent of her to say it aloud. We were talking about a lady. And not just any lady. Our leading lady. A business acquaintance had that very morning stressed to me the importance of having a really top-notch leading lady. Someone with class, he'd said, someone who'll really light up that screen. And by God, that's who I'd found.

"If there's one thing I hate more than auditions, it's callbacks!" I waved my wine glass to add an air of dignity to the statement, noting with annoyance it was already empty. "Where the hell is that girl?"

"You just said she-"

"Don't start putting words in my mouth now," I extended my glass, "here, fill this."

The downtown loft was the perfect venue for phase two of an audition process. It was unlikely that our alcohol stores could be depleted in a single night, and, even if such an event transpired, two bars and liquor store operated out of the adjacent building. If our leading lady was an alcoholic (and I heavily suspected her to be), we'd be well provided for. I'd selected her personally out of a list of dozens, dozens, wading tirelessly through a pile of applicants who actually had no desire to partake in the film. It struck me as unusual that anyone would go to casting call when they had no wish to be a performer, but actors are a mysterious lot. Who knows what dark and perverse engine drove those minds of theirs?

My aim tonight was discovering any cracks in the otherwise pristine surface of my players. They had impressed in auditions, but I'd been burned in the past by those who put out during initial casting, and petered out when it came to actual filming. If I'd been honest with these people over the phone, I'd have told them they already had the parts. There was no one else of note, and if things fell apart during the callbacks, say, for example, if Audrey revealed herself to be nothing short of a holy terror on set, I'd be hard-pressed to find a replacement. The entire casting process would have to begin again from scratch, and that was one experience I hoped to not revisit anytime soon.

"Where the hell is that girl?"

The other players had already arrived. The younger two members of the group, a Mr. Thomas Ripley and Mr. Fred Lansing, had been selected for their fine stock. Sturdy bones are a must for an action-heavy film like this. I wasn't concerned with lawsuits. Anyone dragging me into court for money was sure to end up with a miserable surprise. No, my thoughts were of fractures, lost shooting days, and the great, fiery failure this movie could turn into at a moments notice. Yes. Sturdy bones were of utmost importance.

"Ten minutes,"Sandy made note.

As for the remaining three, one (alias: Uwe Von Cleaver) had attacked me at random during a horrifying camping expedition several months ago. In light of his aptitude for hunting men like animals, I waived all criminal charges and cast him as the primary villain.

The second, one Ian Kingsley, had studied theatre at Oxford and recently fallen unto hard times. I first encountered him while panhandling young students for change at the university downtown. He'd given me some helpful tips at the time, and I felt nothing said thank you like a potentially dangerous role in an obscure film.

The last was a man who went by the stage name "Chunky". He attended my second casting call, and, as my instincts had warned me would happen, he had presented me with Osama Bin Laden's disembodied head at the conclusion of the event. After fighting down the reflexive nausea, my heart had swelled with nationalistic pride, and I offered him the part of a crazy woodsman right there and then.

"Her thirty minutes are up," Sandy reminded, tapping her watch.

A madness seized me, and I came at the cast with a broom, as one might the errant family dog.

"Son of bitch. Out! All of you out! Don't let me see your faces around here again."

They scattered in my path, and I could hear the thudding footsteps as retreat was made down the back stairwell. Sandy threw her arms up in frustration.

"Now you've done it. We're starting from scratch."

I snarled at the the thought. Like hell. Leaning from the window, I shouted down to street level, letting everyone know they had the parts. It would have been my preference to discuss salary, but they were running by then and nearly out of earshot. There would be time for negotiations later. I shut the window, and set my mind to screenwriting.