In last week’s first part of this third part of a series (it’s gotten totally out of hand, I know – we’ll pull it together) our story left off when I had just broken one of the Rules of Rodriguez by offering to pay Rachel Scott to play a small but important part in the opening scene of our film. “Never spend any money on anything ever” is a pretty important guideline for any filmmaker doing a no-budget feature, but in many ways, it’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you get smacked in the head by Bruce Lee.
Before resorting to this disreputable business of paying people, we had tried getting someone to play the part for free. Our attempts were met with a constant stream of people flaking on us and never getting back to us. There were a couple girls I talked to who were really excited about doing it, and when it came time to schedule a time, I’d never hear from them again. Then they’d be interested again. Then I’d never hear from them again.
I can never get too mad when people flake out like that, because it’s not a paying gig (it’s like a finger) and I think if you tested my DNA, you’d see that my genetic makeup is at least 80% flake. But man, are flakes a pain in the butt to work with. Or do things with. While I am always disappointed in flakery, I always have to say “There goes one of my people.”
We did manage to get us a professional stage actor for this scene to play the “Tom the Perverted Meth Addicted Gun Bastard.” Jack Elam Guy (not his real name) knew Dennis from back in the day and kind of looked like Jack Elam. He had recently lost his job and was looking for something to do. Of course, we had told him we couldn’t pay him – in case he thought we were real filmmakers or something. (A common occurrence. It happens a lot.)
The setup made for a potentially an awkward situation, if he found out we were paying Rachel and not him. I stand by the decision, because Rachel was brought on board to single-handedly get the scene back on track, making her sort of like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. Jack Elam Guy’s involvement, while important and greatly appreciated, wasn’t as critical. (See, it is like a finger pointing over at the moon and stuff like that.)
We weren’t able to get everyone on set at the same time, so we split the shoot up into two nights with some of the actors one night and the rest the next. This actually made the shoots much easier, because the amount of actors I had to concentrate on was cut in half. (This movie contains the largest cast I have ever worked with. Sometimes there are up to 5 people in a scene. Ahhhhh!!! What the hell do I do with all of them?)
The first night, we shot again with Dennis’ son, Dennis, and his wife Erin, who stepped seamlessly into their roles after two years and a baby. Erin’s chronic giggling was in remission now, but I had changed Dennis’ son’s character, originally named “Dennis” by Dennis, to “Pahoo” (after a character in The Creature from Black Lake). This unfortunately caused laughter problems – not just with Erin, but with all the actors and people in the room who were humans. You see, everyone was under the mistaken impression that it was a stupid name. Very strange.
My cousin Adam Stigler had taken one of the roles and was able to make it both nights, so he was the only character who could be in the same shot with all of the characters. Adam had joined our production as a member of the crew. Among the jobs he performed for us were operating the boom pole and trying to get a mouse out of one of our tents. I asked him to take this part, in part, because he seemed like he’d be a natural at the acting thing and also because the ladies demanded it.
Everyone did a great job. Having been re-christened Pahoo, Dennis was allowed to say lines this time and even get off the bed. And we ended the shoot that night by finally putting his head through that window just like we promised him we would. (?) It was sort of a fun reward for all our hard work at the end of the night. Like when you get to wear jeans at Catholic school cause you sold a lot of raffle tickets.
The next night, we were back at it again with Adam and our two new actors. Rachel, thankfully, showed up before Jack Elam Guy. If I remember correctly, what I did first was immediately get her payment and contract signing out of the way so Jack wouldn’t be privy to it. Then I said “hi” or “nice to meet you” or something and then we ran off to start shooting so that when Jack Elam Guy showed up, he wouldn’t ever suspect that we had just paid her.
We started with an emotional freakout scene where Rachel’s character reacts to death and destruction and all sorts of mayhem. I called action and without hesitation, she brought it – Full Freakout Mode. She was great! I knew instantly that hiring Rachel had paid off. Robert Rodriguez would have approved.
I couldn’t wait to get started with Jack Elam Guy and see what wonderful acting surprises awaited me with him. I loved his look and someone with that much training and experience can take the scene you have written on the page and elevate it to… Wait a second… Where the hell was he?
He totally flaked on us.
Well… There goes one of my people… At least the money wouldn’t be an issue.
We had no spare actors laying around, so my first plan was to quickly rewrite the scene combining Adam’s character, Adam, with Jack Elam Guy’s character, Tom. I thought about that for 5 seconds before realizing it sucked. Still didn’t have a second plan, so I kept working on the sucky plan. Boy, do I hate flakes.
I remember standing around with Dennis, Stephan, and Steve and someone was all like, “Hey, buddy, you could play the part yourself.”
Sweet blazing tiger hearts! I could play the part myself! Our film has a number of quirky, offbeat characters and I had been missing out on all the fun. But I already had a cameo! I play “70’s Bigfoot Hunter.” A dream come true, for certain. But no lines. No quirkiness.
“You look totally different now,” Stephan offered.
OF COURSE! I knew there had been a reason I gained 30 pounds and grew out my hair and beard in the years since we started this film! ACTING!!!
The only problem I could see with this is that I can’t really act. I had played an angry tree faerie in Steve Grothaus’ short film The Wood Sprite that had aired on Chiller as part of Synthetic Cinema’s Monster Mash-up Competition in 2010. So, at this point, I was pretty much an internationally known horror star. But that was just me basically playing myself, you know?
But there was a dark secret in my past. In my first very dramatic film, I got to perform my first very dramatic scene, opposite my cousin Joe Maurits. I, in the role of “Kevin the Perverted Theater Manager,” was very dismayed that one of my employees just “accidentally” died. After waiting for the police inspector (played by Dennis Meyer with a tie and cardboard badge) to leave, I confronted Joe about my suspicions.
I had been so focused on how to direct good, I didn’t give any thought to my character, how not to overact or, you know, learning my lines. Then around about 3am, after torturing the crew with my “acting,” I turned to Kirk Westendorf, who was running camera that night. We had been friends since college and prided ourselves on our blunt honesty when it came to our work, so I ask him,”What do you think?” I was sure it was pretty damn good, but I’m the type that always likes to take it up a notch. Work ethic, you know.
“You’re so incredible, I can’t believe you don’t do this professionally!” is what I was hoping he might say. I can’t remember his exact phrasing, but, in summary, I sucked and it reminded him of an Ed Wood movie. Except for the obvious absence of Kelton the Cop, Kirk was right.
And those were the best takes culled from 45 minutes of footage.
I guess the lesson I learned from that experience, besides never to straight up tell an actor he sucks, was that directing and acting both require a lot of focus and I shouldn’t attempt combine the two things until I got better at one or the other. I couldn’t jeopardize this scene just so I could take a crack at a whacky bit part. I turned to Steve Grothaus.
“I cannot play Tom the Perverted Meth Addicted Gun Bastard,” I told him, in sincere disappointment. “BUT YOU CAN!!!”
Of course, if you’ve read Part I, II and Part 1 of Part III of this series, you know that Steve hates being on camera and once had a terrible experience on a film set experiencing a situation just like this.
So, how could I possibly convince him to-
“Yeah,” Steve replied, “I figured I’d have to do that so, I stayed up last night and researched how meth addicts act.”
-do this when I knew this wasn’t his cup of… Wait… What?
He suited up in my coat, which we determined made him look more like a meth addict… (?) and we went to work.
At first, it was a bit difficult to find the characters’ voice. We were trying to get the right delivery of a particular line of dialogue. Steve had done it a couple times and it just wasn’t clicking with me. I don’t remember what the line was, only that it was decidedly non-sexual.
I suggested “Say it like it’s something dirty.”
And that did it. Tom the Perverted Meth Addicted Gun Bastard had entered the building. I once again became enamored with the character, who had taken the form of Steve, and we worked together to gleefully come up with awful ways for him to act. The scene came off great.
Winter came, and with it came a diagnosis 0f moderate to severe sleep apnea that sidelined me for half the year. In June, I finally had it under control and was feeling normal again, so I started editing like a fiend in an attempt to make our end-of-December goal for the film.
Then a hard drive crash wiped out a bunch of work. I figured that it was only 2 weeks, and while that still sucked, I’ve had worse. Then I realized in my apneatic haze, I had neglected to back up the footage from the previous November. Rachel bringing it. Dennis’ head through the window. Steve’s transformation to my favorite awful character. It was all mostly gone. The creepy old house we had shot in was gone, too, having been torn down the previous spring. A reshoot was not practical.
If you’ve never lost a project due to a hard drive crash, don’t do it. It sucks. It totally killed whatever momentum I had built up since June. But I was very lucky – I was able to rebuild it all with rendered files, exported clips, and original audio recordings I found scattered among my hard drives. After a while, I was able to rebuild my spirit, too.
But now it was winter again. So, one week in January, when the temperature got up into the 60’s, we assembled a movie strike force and prepared an emergency scene shooting blitz.
Most of Steve’s shots would be shot with a barn behind him, so the lack of leaves wouldn’t be a problem. We would shoot a couple shots of him that could be combined with the shots of Jessica from July 2011. If we needed leaves on the trees, we could get them from the many stills we had taken previously during the production.
And so there was Steve Grothaus, with my adventure hat on and a shotgun in hand, saying everyday normal lines as if they were dirty. Rich Shevchik, whose barn it is we were shooting at, offered up his best ideas for creating phallic symbolism with the shot gun and we thought of great ways for Steve’s character to lasciviously leer at Jessica & awkwardly fumble about.
If I were an actor, this is the character I would want to play. Oh, my brother. How lucky you are! What I would give to have one night in your bootsies!