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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

FEAR, LOATHING, AND PRODUCTION NOTES: A Savage Journey Into The Heart of Indie Filmmaking (Part 1, Casting Calls)

It was midway through our sixth line reading for the night when the wine ran out. Each successive sip had left me with less and less weight in hand along with a rising sense of dread. Even with Dionysus on standby to smooth the road, a raw anxiety had taken hold of my skin during this audition process. I could feel it moving beneath the surface, needle-sharp, like the claws of a million tiny kittens. Good lord, if this is what it's like under the influence, what will happen when the well runs dry? The thought had scarcely coalesced in my mind when another swig drained the container entirely. Until that point, I'd staved off the fear of sobriety by chalking up a lack of heft to my SIGG bottle's light-weight aluminum design. Now, it was time to face the harsh reality.

The next contestant chose to enter the room in character, cracking a beer in preparation for his monologue (not unlike a young Billy Dee Williams). The fizzy sounding pop was sweet music. My attention snapped forward.

"I hope you brought enough for everyone."

My strategy was to break the ice with a joke and segue into asking this stranger for booze, but there was a desperate tinge to my voice, and I could see the sound had unsettled him. I tried then laughing it off, but it came out too shrill, evoking more the whinny of a horse than human gaiety. To hell with it.

"Just start," I snapped at him "The camera's already rolling."

The botched social encounter had shaken my self-confidence, yet I knew I couldn't afford to lose it over something so trivial. There had been a man in the hallway waiting to see me for the better part of an hour. He had arrived with a box gripped tightly in both hands, and I knew, deep some primordial part of my brain tasked with self-preservation, that this box contained a severed human head. If the silence following an awkward joke was enough to give me the shakes, what would stave off a complete psychotic break once I was presented with some grisly trophy of intestine and polished bone?

I must have developed a bad case of the sweats then, because Sandy, to whom I'd recently been wed, jabbed me in the ribs and shouted, "Relax!" She then pointed out the entire affair was my fault.

"I know. That's the worst part, don't you see? I did this to myself."

I'd placed an ad on the New Haven Craigslist earlier that week encouraging men, women, and those of less clearly defined gender to come and audition for our new independent film project, Vampires Don't Sparkle. Experience not required! Come one come all! Why, you'd have to be a damned fool not to take an hour out of your weekend to come try out.

"You need to understand," I spoke to distract, rummaging through her purse for muscle relaxants. "This is a micro-budget endeavor. It's important to our work, it's vital, that we don't leave anyone out."

The practice seemed foolish to her because she'd never had to attempt it before. I'd done it only once and then for a short. The experience had been a harrowing one. There was a fear present, a gnawing beast. The fear was made manifest as actor after actor gave line readings and I was no closer to finding someone for the crucial role. At this level of the game, you end up casting people in roles they don't have to act for, typecasting. An accomplished talent like Charlize Theron in Monster can transform herself, making you believe the person on screen is a killer. You could get lucky. Maybe you'll find some fantastically talented down-on-their-luck thesbian willing to star in your production for rock bottom prices, but it isn't likely, so, when the script calls for a crazy man, you take the second option. You go out and you find a genuine, honest-to-god lunatic to play him. That madness the audience sees in his eye is genuine, that fear we see in the victim's face? Also genuine. This technique requires sifting through a fair share of the wrong kind of lunatic. An easy thing. If only I hadn't run out of booze so quickly.

"Why is he licking her like that?"

The question sprung from my lips like a muscle spasm, involuntary, without consent of my higher brain functions. This man before me had begun dragging his tongue across a female companion's cheek, once, twice, three times over. Like a cat. When did these people get here? I must have blacked out, been carrying on the audition process as a brain-dead zombie and no one was the wiser.

"I don't know why they're here!" Sandy shouted at me, once more failing to grasp the danger we were in by drawing attention to ourselves, "They aren't part of the audition. That's Hugo. The woman is his sister."

Easy now. This is no time to panic. It was day two of a grueling three-day run. I set my mouth in a stoic line, and called for our next participant.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

New Haven Register

We had a pretty cool write up in the New Haven Register. You can read the article online here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Casting Call!

We've got an open casting call coming up. You can check out the info here.

The audition will be held at this place...

So tell all your friends or even come out yourself.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Trailer!

So, we were at the CT film industry mixer last night. They had an open bar which was pretty exciting, and (long story short) I ended up assaulting former U.S. president Bill Clinton. The secret service were really on their A-game too. Had me off him in like a second.

Also, the new teaser trailer for The Ward was showing. People seemed to like it, so here it is now, online, for your viewing pleasure.

The Ward - teaser trailer from Happy Mercenary Studios on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Older short films

Hey everyone. I'm starting to post up some older short films (which I promised would be here yesterday, yes I know).

This one is called Elm City Wuxia. It swept the awards at the Reel New Haven film festival when it premiered and involved many, many sleepless nights to make the submission deadline. It's a more moody, experimental work than what I would typically do, but you'll note I still managed to work in a sword fight.

Elm City Wuxia from Happy Mercenary Studios on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Vampires Don't Sparkle: the movie

 So what exactly is this movie about?

Without giving too much away, it's the story of a girl named Ava meeting an unusual and mysterious boy named Sid. Suffice to say, there's a lot more to Sid than meets the eye. If you're thinking Twilight but with vampires that are actually scary, you're not too far off the mark.

I've always been a big vampire fan, and, like a lot of people, found the idea of sparkling vampires to be outrageous. I'm pretty sure a piece of my soul died the first time I heard about it. This movie is a response to that outrage, and should please anyone who grew up watching movies like The Lost Boys and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The more people pledge on kickstarter, the more blood and action we can promise. So head over there and check it out now :)