Archive for June 2005

Movie Diaries 12

June 30, 2005

How far we’ve come

…since the early days of filmmaking. Gone are the days when there was no electricity and we had to build our sets outside and pray that the wind wouldn’t pick up. No longer do we have to hire a kid whose only function is to stamp out the embers created by the Klieg lights, an innovation made possible by electricity, so we don’t burn our interior sets down. Gone are hand cranked cameras. We no longer have to edit using glue pots and scissors. No more cue cards for the audience saying things like, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” in elaborate script.

Duct tape? Well, that’s something else, isn’t it?

It’s a high tech world we live in. Lights that put out hundreds of lumens of brightness and never got hot enough to heat a coffee cup beyond lukewarm. Digital video cameras less than a quarter of the weight of their ancestors that use no film and can make a sunny day look like cloudy twilight and vice-versa . Off the shelf software that makes any amateur with a few hundred dollars into a home-grown George Lucas.

And duct tape. Can’t forget duct tape. In this world where all it takes to make a 40 minute Star Wars fan film better than Episodes I and II is a few thousand dollars and a two-car garage, you can’t make a movie without duct tape.

Case in point.

Most of my character’s action takes place inside a van, where he sits in front of a video console with two keyboards and two monitors, a microphone and a headset, watching and talking to the team from a safe distance. Our set guy, with a sense of humor that knows me pretty well, even installed a coffee maker. It’s a panel van with shelves and just enough room for a man of average height to stand upright. You seen hundreds of these vans before, with “Wonder Bread” or “Snake’n’Rooter” or “Fix yer Pipes Plumbing” on the side. Ours bears the name of a local construction company.

We borrowed a bar stool from a defunct coffee shop adjacent to our principal location and secured it by means of large drywall screws through the steel base into the floor of the van to provide me a place to sit. Not comfortable, but we actors suffer. Should Kate read this she will undoubtedly remind me that there’s a world of difference between sitting for fifteen minutes on an uncomfortable chair and carrying fifty pounds of costuming and props for six hours. That’s true, and I sympathize, but this isn’t about Kate. Nor, for that matter, is it about my uncomfortable butt.

It’s about technology, and how it’s made the world of filmmaking what it is.

It’s about duct tape.

A quick lesson: Next time you watch a movie, note how faces are lit. Men are almost always lit harshly from one side; the lighting on women’s faces is a little more dead on, so the shadows aren’t so pronounced. And there’s almost always bounce light coming from somewhere, to fill in opposite the principal light.

Lighting the interior of a 6′ x 6′ x 12′ box for a movie is not an easy proposition. The McCandless rules don’t have room to apply; the best you can do is put some fairly bright lights in a spot where the action can be lit and hope you don’t get glare on the camera lens, which in our case meant a pair of halogen shop lamps on the accessory deck on the dashboard up front. Worked well, except that as I’d reach up to type with my left hand my arm would cast a shadow on my face. We also needed fill light from below, to eliminate the shadow under my chin.

The solution? A shop lamp, one of those that clamps on to any sturdy surface and has the aluminum reflector. Except this one only had a forty watt bulb, didn’t have a reflector, or anything to clamp to for that matter. The light needed to be about waist high, close enough for the low wattage bulb to light me, but low enough to be out of camera range. With nothing to clamp to, it was time to get creative.

It was time for the duct tape.

That day, I spent six hours with a shop lamp duct taped to my leg. This was a very dramatic scene, the part where Bill gets the injury he later confesses indirectly to Kate: I’m sure my scream during the branding scene could be heard all over downtown Excelsior Springs. I’m trying to concentrate on my lines, all the while the thought is playing in my head like the continuous reel of a nickelodeon: Jesus, that light bulb’s getting hot. Between takes I’d reach for the switch to turn it off; before takes, I’d push my wallet – in the leg pocket of my BDUs, directly under the lamp – between my flesh and the lamp.

In the end, we have to reshoot all those sequences anyway, at night. This time, I’m bringing my own lamp, with a brighter bulb, a reflector, and something to clamp it to.

Something high-tech. Maybe a plastic bucket.


Movie Diaries 11

June 14, 2005

A .44 makes one hell of a racket.

Well, I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory.

Let’s see. We’ve got ghouls. We’ve got dimension-hopping villains. We’ve got an abandoned hotel, haunted by the aforementioned ghouls and villains. One of the lead actors wears a black hat, black boots, and a white duster. Another of the leads is a retired police detective.

You can’t make a movie like this without guns. You have to have guns. Lots of guns. On the set at any given moment there are at least two shotguns, four revolvers, and two semi-automatic pistols. Those are the ones being held or worn by someone, and doesn’t count the ones still in the box. That doesn’t seem like a lot for an action adventure movie, until you learn that there are only two people on camera carrying projectile weapons. How many guns do you need to kill the undead? Eight, apparently.

For the production, I ordered a box of ear plugs, the foam kind that squish into the ear and aren’t really visible on camera if you put them in right, and reduce any noise to a maximum of 29 decibels, about half the volume of normal conversation. They don’t make you deaf, but they certainly take the edge off. What gets you is the concussion.

Our shoot has us one day in the basement of hotel. Built in 1890-something, and finally closed for business after a variety of failed business ideas through the 1970s and ’80s, the place has for five years or so been the home of squatters, pigeons, and local teens needing a place to fuck and smoke dope, and sometimes both. The owner tried unsuccessfully to sell the local city government on converting it to an old folks’ high-rise; it only took two meetings for them to refuse. Next stop, demolition.

In the meantime, it’s ours.

We’re in a large room, about thirty by sixty feet, one third divided off into a bath area and the rest open and used for storage of a lot of junk. The floor is dusty, of course, and the concrete ceiling is decorated with stalagtites of peeling paint. The junk has been pushed all to one side, leaving quite a lot of space to work. Oh, before I forget, no lights. No electricity in the room. The only lights are the one mounted on the camera and two or three flashlights.

The scene calls for the good guys to advance into the room, get attacked by monsters and open fire.

Imagine standing outside during a lull in a thunderstorm, not far from a telephone pole. Lightning strikes the pole, and when the flash is gone there’s that instant of silence before the air rushes back in with an astonishingly hard “whoomp”, the split second just before you hear the thunder. Imagine standing in the space vacated by the air and the lightning, and being there when the air rushes back in.


No pain, not like that. It’s not like it knocks the breath out of you, but it’s like having someone hit you flat on the back with a phone book. A big phone book. Like Chicago, or Los Angeles.

And with every bang, it snowed paint flakes.

I came to enjoy the days when there’d be shooting. The ear plus aren’t very comfortable, why should they be?, but still…it’s fun.

There was one casualty. Even with blanks, in this case half-load shotgun shells, there’s still stuff coming out of the barrel. Murphy and Gunslinger were careful to never point the shotguns directly at the ghouls, but to aim just off-target – on camera, you can’t tell, and it adds a measure of safety. One of our extras moved off his mark and bent down into the line of fire. A piece of wadding struck him on the side of the head just above his eye. He wasn’t injured, but it hurt like hell; we sent him home. He is, by all reports, fine.

Movie Diaries 10

June 10, 2005

The Basement of the Hall Of Waters, 2

We left the boilerroom and returned to main area. Personally, I was mentally and emotionally escaping from the place; buried memories from a past life maybe, or just a simple empathy reaction of the plight of drowned persons everywhere, had wound me tight and I was ready for a fight, any fight.

Any fight but the one I got.


Movie Diaries 9

June 8, 2005

In an earlier entry, I noted my belief that we are making a better movie than PD wanted. This is largely because he brought in a group of actors who were given the mandate to create their own collective universe and individual characters. We’ve taken the premise of the film seriously and refused, out loud, publically and more than once, to lower ourselves to the level of campiness that PD seems to want from time to time.

Changing The Tone

Had a scene go down one day that is some of the proudest work I’ve ever done. In just ten minutes Kate and I changed the entire tone of the movie, possibly the whole series (there will be three more films – as Evil Dead evolved to Army of Darkness, this series probably will go down the humor road, but that’s later).

My character, Bill, is met and phsically and psychically branded by the Bad Guy – BG shakes his hand and leaves his mark. Bill knows deep down that because of the contact he’ll eventually be used to betray the team. He wants to tell them in the worst way, but is under a compulsion not to that is excruciatingly painful. (He’s in a van a mile away, communicating with them via audio feed)

The person who confronts him is Kate, the empath. The two are very close – he’s the only “family” she’s got and she knows something’s wrong. When she tries to ask him directly what’s going on she can hear the pain in his voice, so they have to work their way around to it.

As you see it on screen, Kate’s in the scene, talking to the camera; I’m off camera.

K. Bill, what’s wrong.
B. (trying to keep it together – he’s still in real pain from the handshake) It’s okay, Kate.
K. Has something happened?
B. (panting. No answer)
K. Are you alone, Bill?
B. (pause) Now.
K. What happened?
B. There was someone…(gasp) I had a (panting, now, close to tears)
K. I retract the question…don’t answer…
B. Kate, you like medieval art, right? You’ve got all those books on your shelves…
K. Yeah Bill, that’s right.
B. Art books…Okay…okay…The Last Supper…you remember the last supper, right..? You know how all the painters put Judas on the other side of the table from Jesus..? He was always on the other side…you know?…okay…now Leonardo Da Vinci changed that…he painted Judas (almost crying now, torn between despair and rage) on the same side. Judas was on the s-s-same s-s-side…
K. I read you, Bill. Looking at those paintings, I’ve always wondered…
Both. What made Judas turn?

long pause

B. The devil shook him by the hand.

Realization dawns on Kate’s face

K. Fuck.
Gunslinger. (who hasn’t been in on the conversation) Kate..?
K. We’ll talk later.

The director gave a beat or two, said, very quietly, “Cut….very nice.” Silence. Nobody moved for damn near ten seconds. Then there was this collective intake of breath – I guess everyone on the set had stopped breathing – and applause. Big applause.

It’s been the only scene in the movie that we did in one take, on purpose anyway. Took me almost ten minutes to calm down from it – I’m glad we didn’t need a second take. What’s truly fun is that we made up the dialog – Kate and I, with input from GunSlinger – moments before the shoot; PD didn’t know how the scene was going to play out, only that we needed to convey what happened, and the depth of it floored him.

I was behind the microphone during the shoot, so my voice in the scene is muffled some. Since most of my dialog will be re-recorded in post-production anway, that’s alright. There are scenes that actors remember, that define their best and worst moments in their Craft. In a body of work that’s been little more than fluff, that moment was a good one, and I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to have had it.

Movie Diaries 8

June 6, 2005

The Basement at The Hall Of Waters

I have this thing about drowning. Being cold and drowning.

I’m not afraid of swimming, have enjoyed water skiing the few times I’ve gotten to do it. Ditto, sailing, fishing, other more or less benign water sports. Put me in a situation that resembles the hold of a ship, though, and I’m fucked. The movie “Titanic” holds a special fascination for me. I couldn’t care less about Jack and Rose: it’s the death of the big ship and the hopelessness of the passengers (particularly those in steerage) that captivates me; the scene where the Irish mother tucks her children in bed and tells them a bedtime story to distract them as the water rises chills me, makes me need to go grab my kid and hold on to her until she complains. I’ve never watched the first VCR tape more than twice, but I’ve about destroyed tape 2. I’ve never done a past life regression, but I wonder if there aren’t a few bones rattling around in that closet, like yellowed dice in the bottom of a dusty Yahtzee cup. I don’t know if that cup has a White Star Line logo on it or not; probably not.

In terms of the paranormal, this whole movie experience has not been kind to me. Thankfully, I’ve only been stung twice; hopefully, that’ll be it. I’ve already written about the graveyard. As before, I was taken by surprise, stepping on, if you will, the tines of a supernatural rake. The handle, as it flies up and smacks my forehead and bloodies by mental and emotional nose, is well worn.


Movie Diaries 7

June 3, 2005

A Knack For Directing

Our Producer/Director is not, as I at first suspected, a first-time filmmaker. Turns out he’s done training films for the military and two, count ’em, two documentaries*. He can, apparently, set up a scene, figure out how the lighting is supposed to go (more or less, but without art), and point the camera at the activity and capture it to the recoding media. It became abundantly clear, very quickly, that he’d never worked with actors before. Not real actors, anyway: actors with minds toward motivation, and character development, and the minutia of making a fiction come to life. To borrow a phrase from Stephen King who I’m pretty sure borrowed it from someone else, we’ve taught our minds to misbehave. Take away our script, and God only knows what you’ll get.

Remember that the original idea of the film was to keep the actors in the dark until the last possible minute, providing the scenario and salient points that needed to be covered by dialog, if there was to be any, just before shooting. Ostensibly, the purpose of the practice was to keep things “spontaneous and real”, but I think that was a reflection of the director’s lack of experience and trust in his cast. Given those circumstances, we actors did what any good actors will do.

We took over.

I believe that the movie we’re making is not the movie that PD was working toward. I think, given his obvious taste in digital trash, that he wanted a B-grade horror flick, with beautiful tits and ugly villains and at least one digital monstrosity whose only function was to eat extras in red uniforms. What he got was a cast who took the premise seriously, and is producing some really, really good cinema. We are, with one sad exception, good actors, capable of performing a scene like an olympic volleyball team: one actor sets, another spikes. If the set isn’t there, one steps into keep the ball in play until a set is possible. We’re also not afraid to step onto an empty court and start our own game, if none is forthcoming.

In the basement. The setup is simple. The team finds a man, critcally injured, in the basement of the abandoned hotel. Kate and Murphy get into an argument about what to do with him. They can’t take him with, and it wouldn’t matter if they did since he’s already dying. There are more ghouls waiting in the wings who want to eat the team. It’s supposed to be a dramatic scene, but no one’s scripted it out. The discussion between Murphy and one of PD’s assistants (no, PD is not, himself, there) goes on for quite some time, and the rest of us are, shall we say, sitting on our thumbs.

Guys, guys? I cut in. I gesture at the group. May I? Cool, okay.

I got to work.

“We’ve got one camera to capture all this action with. Murph, you and JD are there, and…there. JD, you’re watching the ghoul pack, waiting for the charge, unwilling to fire. Murph, you too, but you’ve also got Kate to deal with. Who’s the guy on the ground? Fred. Okay, we got an actor for him? Still working on that. Shit. Okay, I’ll be him for now. Doc, you’re standing there, by his feet. Kate, kneel down beside me, here. No, open toward Murphy a little. Good. Cecil [our cameraman], you’re there. Little to the right, you’ve got Doc; center, you’ve got the guns and ghouls; left, you’ve got Kate and Fred. We good?

“Kate, Fred’s dying, pure and simple. You can’t just leave him, but have to, and you know it. You’re looking for someone to lash out at, and that’s Murphy. Murphy suggests that the best thing to do is shoot him up with Morphine. Get up, Kate, get in his face. You can’t do it, you scream at him. Murph, you’re unmoved. Not unsympathetic, but a realist. He’s already dead, his body hasn’t caught up yet. At that moment – ghouls, are you listening?! – the ghouls attack. JD, you start shooting, shouting things like We’ve got to move, Goddammit! and Whatever you’re going to do, do it fucking now!!!. Here’s the important part: Kate, turn your back on Murphy, and let the camera see you do it. You’ve just split with him philosophically, the audience needs to see it happen physically as well. Kneel down, start rummaging in your bag. Setup the injection. Set the needle, hesitate.

“Fred, here, he’s Hispanic, therefore probably Catholic. He’s going to ask for a priest – we don’t have one handy of course. Doc, do you know the Rosary in Spanish, by any chance? Rats. Okay, Kate, you’ve got all the talismans, so get him a rosary. Wrap it around his hand. Look in his eyes as you kill him – yours is the last face he’ll see, and the first kindness he’s had in twenty years. When he dies, you hold him until the last possible second.”

We ran the scene, and it was fucking awesome. I overheard Kate say, “If it goes down like that when we shoot it, I’m going to cry.”

Afterward, waiting to go eat lunch, I was sitting in the lobby at the Elms Hotel. The rest of the cast was on their way upstairs; Doc was the first to arrive, JD right behind him. Murphy joined us. Doc says, “If you see anything I need to be doing differently, you tell me. You’ve obviously got some experience at this.” JD nods. “Yeah, I’ll take direction from you anytime. You know what you’re doing.”

I couldn’t not notice the ever-so-slight emphasis on the word “you” in JD’s comment. Murphy just grinned and nodded. “That’s why I wanted you on this project, Bill.”

It was a good day.

As it happens, the day of the actual shoot, we were running low on ammunition and it was late in the day. We had to get the scene in one take, and ended up rushing through it, and it ultimately lost some of the drama we’d rehearsed it with. The actor playing Fred, a terrific young man who looked the part and who, I suspect, would be a pretty good actor, was never given the time to work out the details. The direction from PD: Just look cold, bloody, and then die. That’s what happens when the director (the real one, who was not there for the blocking) gets involved.

That’s okay though. Another scene, supposed to be a blow-off moment for a little exposition, completely changed the tone of the film and PD’s expectations.

* I have since learned that even that was a bit of an exaggeration. The fact is that no one is quite sure exactly how much moviemaking he’s done, but his career also includes soft-core porn.

Movie diaries 6

June 2, 2005

The Twins

Most of the preproduction meetings were mostly about socializing, so I stopped attending. When you’re making a movie where all of the dialog and most of the action is improvised, there’s not much rehearsal involved, and we had all the important stuff after the first couple of meetings. (This I know in retrospect, and it took me a while to realize it.) There was one that stuck out in my mind, though: the meeting I took The Twins to.

I have known Kent and Kevin since high school. They were in my life when my father died. They were in my life when I nearly killed myself by rolling a Honda Accord, reducing it to something you could fit through the mail slot of a basement apartment. We shot bad movies together when I was in college. We did pretty good shows together at KCRF. I thought it might be fun to have them on this project, so I invited them along.

We arrived on time, or close to it. I still don’t know what that meeting was about, or supposed to be about. Producer/Director was, as always, unapologetically late. He carried a few DVDs. Popped “Kill Bill” into the player, and we watched the restaurant fight and death of O-Ren Ishii, listening to PD’s running commentary, the entire gist of which was “This is what I want to do in film three.”

Wearied of that, we watched the trailers for a couple of low budget Japanese films, listening to PD’s running commentary, the entire gist of which was “This is what I want to do in film two, possibly four.”

Then we watched the trailers for a low budget American film, listening to PD’s running commentary, the entire gist of which was “This is the look I want to have in films two, three, and four.”

The one bit of business that involved us in the context of the current film in any significant way was the decision that the cast was closed, so the only thing the Twins could contribute to the production for film one was set construction, which they agreed to.

As we drove home, the question floated around the car, finally settling in and making itself comfortable: shouldn’t we have been working on the details for this film. You know, the one that isn’t done yet?

Their first day on the set was their last, and gave us all a very clear picture of the man we’d all – with the exception of Kent and Kevin – be working with as a director in the coming weeks. Anyone who’s met the twins will tell you they’re hard to tell apart until you really get to know them. For my part after so many years, I don’t even see them as twins anymore, really. Not so, P/D. As they worked, putting in time – for free, mind you – putting together bits of a set that probably wouldn’t survive more than a day or two’s shooting, he said, and I quote, “I’ll just call you ‘twins’. That’s easy for me.”

One thing I learned early on, with K & K no more so than anyone else, twin or not, is that you don’t group them together and treat them as one person. They ask to be treated as individuals, not lumped together because of their mutual resemblance. They finished the job they were given (a mark of their own integrities) and walked away, never to be heard from again. At least, not for the movie.

P/D had some learning to do, and over the next several weeks of filming, got all the instruction he could handle.