In summer of 2011, we had just finished our shoot with Jessica Cameron, having shot around the not-yet-cast role of Tom the hunter pervert. She was just the second real-life professional actress person we had worked with on the film, and we were pretty pleased with ourselves. But we could never have predicted that this would eventually lead to Steve Grothaus, our lighting director, sitting outside in a pile of firewood a year and a half later in the middle of January pretending to be a meth addicted barn owner.
You see, Steve Grothaus isn’t an actor, and like a lot of people who work behind the camera, he doesn’t like being in front of it. Years ago, while helping me on a college film, Steve glared the Grothaus Death Glare at me because my wide shot of him walking way the hell down the street wasn’t wide enough. And then there was the time he was working on the crew of the 1995 film A Reason to Believe with Holly Marie Combs and The Boy Who Could Fly, and they found themselves short an actor. What happened next is not a cherished memory of Steve’s.
That hat I gave him to wear was a lot less of a… what’s the word… “condom-shaped buffoon helmet”, I guess is the phrase I’m looking for. Still, why would I, who claims to be his friend, put him in this horrible position again? And why wait a year and a half and do it in bitter cold of January? He was actually on set taking stills when we shot the scene with Jessica so I could have easily added him to the scene then. But at the time, I was hoping to fill the role with an actor in a cameo appearance.
As we mention any time we get a chance, our film is an homage to the classic Bigfoot films television shows we grew up with, and I was hoping to find actor who had been in one of those productions to play the role of Tom the perverted hunter. I searched for a few different Sasquatchploitation celebrities and ultimately ended up approaching a guy named Joseph Butcher that I thought looked like Joseph Butcher from Bigfoot and Wildboy (he wasn’t), and Joshua Rudoy, who played the little boy in Harry and the Hendersons (who unfortunately didn’t get my message until it was too late. He didn’t say whether or not he would have done it, but it would have been AWESOME.)
As I was getting nowhere in my search, Dennis suggested a guy he knew and, since this guy hadn’t been in any Bigfoot movies, I was reluctant to agree – But I eventually did. In the meantime, we had added this character to the opening teaser scene of the film, and had transformed Tom the hunter pervert into Tom the meth addicted hunter pervert. I don’t remember why – it may have been to make the role more appealing to the new actor. What I do remember is that the worse Tom got as a human being, the more I became enamored with the character. It helped that I thought our actor looked like a young Jack Elam, who had played a minor role (with top billing) in The Creature from Black Lake, one of my favorite Bigfoot films. So I was really looking forward to shooting these two scenes with this gun-toting meth addicted pervert who looked like Jack Elam.
But long before we ever added this awful person to our opening teaser scene, we had started shooting it. It was November 2009, the first year of production. We had planned to finish shooting the whole film that year, but the months progressed and the cold weather and lack of leaves on the trees eventually shut us down. This scene was one of the few interior scenes in the script, so leaves wouldn’t be an issue, but we were shooting in a house without any heating, so there was some pressure on us to shoot what we could before winter. So, even though we couldn’t find actors for two of the roles in the scene, we decided to go ahead and shoot the main action with the 3 most important characters, who had been cast. (This happens a lot.)
The best way to describe our shoots before this one is that they were sort of like chaotic all-day family picnics with a lot more fake blood than usual and a guy running around dressed as a bear. That, believe it or not, was our strategy for getting the film shot quickly.
This opening scene would be our first interior shoot, and I wanted it to have a different look and feel to it. Steve Grothaus was brought on board for the first time on the production to do lighting for us. (The poor fool couldn’t see where this was headed.) Also, we used lights for the first time.
My wife’s cousin, Naomi Goldman, who was probably about 14 at the time and studying acting, joined the cast for this shoot making this the first time we did a shoot with anyone who had any type of acting training. (Stephan Meyer, who plays Kyle, may have had some, but no one cared.) Her presence greatly added to this strange new professional feel that was floating around in the air. She came in and did her part with very little input from me. She delivered her angsty lines like the angsty teenager she was portraying and I could see her character thinking – I often have to coach people to look like they’re thinking. (The “smell a fart” technique tends to work for all untrained actors…. except Wayne Burton. Remind me to tell you about that later.) So I just got to stand back and watch the scene and not do anything, which was great because I’m not really into… you know… doing things.
As for our other actors, my nephew Dennis had jumped at the chance to play one of the roles because it required him to have his head smashed through a window. (?) We weren’t shooting that stunt this night (We really didn’t know how to do it without smashing his actual face through an actual window.) and he didn’t have any lines, so mostly what Dennis did was sit on the bed next to his wife Erin.
Erin, by default, was drafted to play Dennis’ character’s girlfriend because of all the making out that the script required. She had never done anything like this before, and in retrospect, maybe subjecting a first-time actor to an awkward on-camera make-out scene her first time out when we didn’t have any experience with scenes of characters having any kind of physical contact with each other (ew) was probably not a good move. She quickly developed a serious case of The Giggles.
(A lot of filmmakers offer advice on how to approach love scenes on filmmaking blogs like this one. Here’s my advice: Hell with it. No one wants to see a bunch of kissing anyway.)
I remember being in an audio class in college and stepping into a recording booth for the first time because the teacher needed someone to record a couple lines for a project we were working on. Didn’t seem like a big deal. I had been doing this kind of thing as an actor for my own films for years. But as I stood there next to the microphone, I looked through the window and saw the whole class staring at me… TERRIFYING. Years of experience but NOT WITH PEOPLE WATCHING.
Clearly, Erin was having a similar experience now. Even after we said “to hell with” the making out (because it was awkward and no one wants to see a bunch of kissing anyway) she was still having trouble getting through her lines. The whole process of pretending to say and do things while people stand around and watch is weird and unnatural, and out of everyone we worked with up to that point, she seemed to be the one who had the hardest time with it.
But she had one of the best attitudes ever in the history of ever. She hung in there, and I did what I could to help her (even though I don’t know the first thing about acting… probably should work on that). This was someone who had been drafted into service just so her husband could put his head through a window (?) and was totally out of her element. She focused on the task at hand, worked hard, and got the job done no matter how silly she thought she looked. If she couldn’t do a line one way, we’d do it another way. If she couldn’t do panicked and hysterical, we’d have her play it stunned and in shock.
Skill and experience are nice to have. But attitude is what really counts. Skill can be learned and experience can be… experienced. Attitudes can be changed, too, but no one wants to hang around while you learn to be less of a jerk/drama queen/downer/lazypants. I’d work with Erin again in a heartbeat. I don’t care if her husband wants to put his head through a window or not this time. (?)
So you see, the reason I cast Steve Grothaus as a meth-addicted Jack Elam was because of his attitude. But wait a minute… What about the other Jack Elam? What about the Grothaus Death Glare? Why the hell did we do it a year and a half after the main shoot? In January? What’s this about Wayne Burton smelling farts?
Get all these answers and more next Monday in the third and final chapter of “The Things We Have to Go Through Around Here to Finish a Scene.” Except for the Wayne Burton/fart story. I’m saving that one for later.