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.