Tag Archives: monster

Writing Character: Getting into the mind of Bigfoot

My last three posts (Drafting Pt 1, Drafting Pt 2, and Drafting Pt 3)  were about how, once we had a script, my brother and I had to come to agreement on a version of the story that we both agreed on and connected with. “Connected with…” a generic sounding phrase. What exactly does it mean to connect with the script?

Danny, three dimensions of character goodness

Danny, three dimensions of character goodness

In this case, that connection occurred when we completely changed our primary characters around and added a new protagonist, the character of Danny. Danny was not some stereotype or one-dimensional caricature made simply to fit the mold of a storytelling paradigm. He was kid with a history, a back story  and a personality that came out on the page, and lent itself to reacting to the events of the story. He was someone we could not only identify with as the filmmakers, but to whom the other re-evaluated characters could connect and interact with.

For me, connecting with the story usually begins with my understanding, or rather, my complete knowledge of the characters I am writing. Particularly my protagonist(s) and my antagonist(s). Looking back on it, I feel that the bulk of the difficulty that Tyler and I had with seeing eye-to-eye on the script was due to my blind adherence to using The Hero’s Journey as my starting point. I filled in the archetypes with bodies, but didn’t put my normal level of attention on the “people” who were to inhabit those archetypes. It was new to me, and I let it run the show instead of doing what I knew to be the correct thing to do: focus on character.

Fortunately, it was not a mistake that I made entirely throughout the script. I had given a lot of thought to one character from the beginning, because without him there would be no movie: Bigfoot (the titular Grassman of our film).

Book cover, Monster Manual (original version f...

Monster Manual (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I took the job of writing a Bigfoot very seriously. As Tyler mentioned in his last post on the genre of Bigfoot movies, there are a lot of these types of films these days where the Bigfoot is simply a raging asshole, a generic monster in a part that could have been filled by any creature pulled from your 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. (You have that, right?)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching many of those kind of monster flicks.  But early on, I decided that I didn’t simply want to write a mindless, generic monster. I may be a skeptic, but I’m the kind of skeptic that wants to believe. I want there to be a Bigfoot, I want to see a ghost, I want to be abducted by aliens (probing is negotiable). So, if I was going to write a Bigfoot story, I wanted to write about a real Bigfoot.

Bigfoot store

Bigfoot store (Photo credit: amitp)

My basic approach was to combine Bigfoot activity as reported in documented sightings, as well as legends, and combine that activity with known animal behavior. I wanted to ensure that I didn’t just throw things in the script because they were “bigfooty” but also because they were behaviors common in other animal species. And since we’re dealing with a cryptid, I could also make some assumptions based on others work on the subject about the intelligence of a Bigfoot.

These things combined to allow me to do the same thing I would do for a human antagonist: figure out what he wants, as an intelligent animal with needs, as a character. And, armed with that answer, I was able to step into the size 26 shoes of that character and provide a rational, reason for every move it takes. Everything it does has some thought behind it which is tied to that central question of “What do I (Bigfoot) want?”

Grassman... doing character stuff...

Grassman… doing character stuff…

So, when the time came to do rewrites, the character of Bigfoot remained the same throughout. When we stumbled across a groups of characters and a story that connected, it was in large part because those characters and story connected with the existing motivations of our antagonist. The pieces seemed to fall right into the place, as if they were always meant to be that way, providing a dimension and purpose to all of them that was missing before. A common thread, a theme, which wasn’t forced, wasn’t the result of using another film as the model to work from, appeared which gave the whole script a feeling of legitimacy.

I hadn’t just written another mindless monster movie, a man vs the supernatural story. It was about people encountering and animal on its own turf, reacting to that, and facing the consequences of those decisions, man vs nature and man vs himself. To me, that’s a much more interesting world to explore as a writer and filmmaker.

Before you think me too full of myself, don’t get me wrong. I know I didn’t write Citizen Kane, or Casablanca. I wrote a Bigfoot movie. I don’t even think I wrote the Casablanca of Bigfoot films.  But, if ever there was a Once Upon a Time in Mexico of Bigfoot movies, this is it. Just wait and see. You’re gonna have a blast.

Cover of "Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Sup...

Cover via Amazon

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The Beginning: Part 2 of 2 – That’s not a Bigfoot movie. THIS is a Bigfoot movie.

This Tyler/Dennis alternating posting may be a bit confusing, so allow me to quickly recap. When we last left off, the Meyer Bros has decided that it was time to make a feature length film. While that is the first step of making any feature, without an idea it’s kind of useless. We had a script we were eager to do, but were convinced it was too scary and expensive of an undertaking for us. So, we brainstormed separately for 30 days, with achievable feature film criteria, and returned with our ideas. Tyler’s brainstorming led to no ideas. My brainstorm led to numerous recycled past ideas, unfinished concepts, and one with potential. Well, potential like a lump of coal has potential to be a diamond. That lump of coal was…

…a Bigfoot movie.

Sounds simple enough, right? You get a guy in a furry suit, a bunch of young hot college age victims, some creepy back woods types, and a forest to shoot in. Piece of cake.

Well, not exactly. Although, it is kind of where we started: we both agreed that we don’t want to make that film. Not that we didn’t consider it. But, whenever we go down that “this is how they do it” and “this is what’s on the shelves at Blockbuster” we both wind up with a bad taste in our mouths. So, we just had figure out what we did want to make.

Sometimes, I talk to the Skull and complain to him about Tyler. The Skull is the only one that understands.

Sometimes, I talk to the Skull and complain to him about Tyler. The Skull is the only one that understands.

Now, over the years, Tyler and I have discussed doing a Bigfoot film numerous times. I could be wrong, but I felt that if Tyler had a bucket list of movies to make, a Bigfoot movie would definitely be on that list. I knew he had a tremendous interest in doing it, which is why it was my ace in the hole on my list. But, after talking about it so many times, I knew that we had never agreed on what that would be.

And this time was no different. I tossed out ideas, but Tyler shot them all down.

“Okay,” I said. “You don’t like anything we’re talking about here.”

“Not really,” he said.

“Well, since this has been your passion project for as long as I can remember, why don’t you tell me what you want in a bigfoot film.”

“Hmmm… how about a Bigfoot movie without a Bigfoot?”

What the hell? We talked about it for a long evening, but I still didn’t get it. We adjourned and Tyler went off to outline his idea. He came back with a six-point outline, a logline, and… that’s it. We talked about it, as I tried to get into the Tyler headspace. This is what have to do, because the two of us never start off on the same wave length. It’s normally up to me to try my damnedest to figure out where he’s coming from and translate it into a script that both recognizes his vision and maintains my character focused sensibilities.

raiders

So, I took notes from our talk and this 6 point outline and went off for a couple weeks and expanded on the outline. I came back with a several page, 95-point outline of what I still feel was a decent, dark, terrifying potential film.One of the things that I did in outlining was to break it into a series of events, like serial breakdown of the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark that Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan speak about in their now infamous Raider Story Conference Transcript from 1978. Tyler and I were fascinated with that. I still read it from time to time. I like to think that our meetings are like that, but with less clout and more dick jokes.

Anyway, Tyler dug the idea, but… it was extremely grim, darker than anything we’d ever done. I felt dirty after reading through it with him. This idea met all of the requirements we had set, but it was a real downer. We began to refer to it as Bigfoot Fuckers, at least I did. After talking, even though we liked Bigfoot Fuckers, it was not exactly what we wanted after spending years on other dark projects (The Projection Booth and Consumed).

[NOTE: I would love to share the Tyler outline vs Dennis outline, so you can have a better idea of where I start and what I wind up turning it into. But Bigfoot Fuckers is actually still one of those back burner ideas that may, after some tweaking, find its way a Monkey Prod greenlight. So, I can’t share it, as much as I want to. Sorry.]

Myth and the Movies – good book

I should point out that during this time, I was toying with the idea of reviving some old writing of mine and retooling it into a novel. Over the course of working with my characters and world I was creating, I became interested in trying my hand at the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I had all the requisite books and was studying all of the novels and films that I loved and trying to identify the journey archetypes and events in them. I was fascinated by one book in particular called Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Myth Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films by Stuart Voytilla. It broke down 50 popular films, organized by genre, into their mythic structures.

As we were going over the outline, and how this film may not work for us, something clicked in my head. I remembered going through the section in Voytilla’s book on The Mythic Structure of Horror. One film in particular suddenly made sense as the way to go with a Bigfoot movie. It was an overdone as hell premise to steal from; but, I would not be copying the story, merely using the mythic model as the launching point. I talked Tyler into not giving up on this just yet, but to give me a shot at the outline. I was excited, but I didn’t want to tell him anymore because it would come across as really stupid at this point. And I’d never overcome that first impression.

So, off I went for another two weeks or so where I took the mythic structure of a popular horror film from our youth and started to take some of the elements of Bigfoot Fuckers that I really liked and put them into the structure. I kept the serial nature of the story as well, making it event or tent-pole driven; the campground, the cave, the farmhouse, etc. I put all these elements into the structure of the Hero’s Journey.

When it was done I presented to Tyler a twenty-point, high-level, but still somewhat detailed, outline that had a sense of familiarity and comfort about it that I think is what won him over. It felt like a 70s horror film because it was based on one, and I finally revealed which: motherF’n Jaws. It made perfect sense that the starting point for us to make a non-dark, exciting, horror adventure along the lines of what we grew up watching was to use the best of that as a model. The hero’s journey gave us a story model that made sense and we could both identify with. It had the classic feel that Tyler enjoys, and had the potential for character development I look for. It was not perfect yet, but it was exciting to both of us.

Making script notes. By hand, because that's how I roll.

Making script notes. By hand, because that’s how I roll.

It was at this point that Tyler was fully on board. He saw potential in the idea and was excited about the concept of making an homage to the 70s era monster/horror movie. I made some more notes from his input and the went into hiding.  I took the next 5 months to write the first draft as Tyler began to figure out exactly how we could go about filming anything, much less a bigfoot film, on an out-of-pocket budget. I delivered the first draft of the script around Christmas time to the Tyler and he loved it, and to the Monkey Productions inner circle shortly after. It was exciting to watch everyone, especially Tyler, get pumped up over a project again, even one as seemingly impossible as this.

Although, it was the first of four drafts, it was enough: Monkey Productions was officially making a Bigfoot movie, our first feature length motion picture. HOLY. SHIT.

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The Things We Have to Go Through to Finish a Scene Around Here (Part I)

Steve Grothaus in character during some pickup shots for The Legend of Grassman, while Stephan Meyer stands to his left and looks on.

Actor Stephan Meyer runs audio while lighting director Steve Grothaus gets into character for a scene in The Legend of Grassman.

This weekend, like the parting of the Red Sea,  the weather here in Cincinnati quit it with that whole winter business and pretended it was Spring long enough for us to finish getting some pickup shots of Steve Grothaus as meth addicted barn owner, Tom.  Steve is our lighting guy and had no intention of being in the film, yet somehow he ended up sitting in a pile of logs, with a camera and shotgun mic pointed at him and me directing him to be the best meth-addicted barn owner he could in a scene that we began shooting in July of 2011

Back in summer 2011, we had just done our first shoot with one of those professional name actresses, Lynn Lowry, and I kind of dug the whole experience and wanted to do it again.  On one hand, there was this pure awesomeness of working with an actress who was a master of her craft, and on the other hand, there was some kind of weird producer rush I got from setting everything up and making it happen – a feeling that can only be compared to finding out you have X-Men powers.  I felt like I learned a great deal during the that shoot and I wanted to do experience this again and see what else I could learn.

Tyler pretends to be a director, fooling both Stephan Meyer and Lynn Lowry.  It's the hand gestures and the beard.

Tyler pretends to be a director, fooling both Stephan Meyer and Lynn Lowry. It’s the hand gestures and the beard.

About that time, I had spit out a rough cut of Grassman to DVD and it occurred to me that the first third of the film was a little slow to get moving.  Now, I experienced a tremendous amount of guilt about this, because the whole time Dennis and I were outlining the script we talked a lot about creating a streamlined narrative that didn’t mess around and got straight to the point, and his final draft delivered on that.  But I tend to like construct my films in a very intuitive way and the current cut had changed quite a bit from the original script.

We had added a new opening sequence with totally new characters, and some additional non-killing stuff in the first act, so it seemed that the insertion of a new scene with some new characters could help balance things out and also help tie the opening scene more into the larger story.  Dennis wrote up a scene about the mother of one of the characters from the opening and we set out to cast it with another actress that horror fans would know in an attempt to raise our visibility – a slightly whorish plan, but other than Lynn, our film at this point only featured my family members and 3 friends as actors.

All family.  Every one.  And me and Dennis are the Mommy and Daddy.

All family. Every one. And me and Dennis are the Mommy and Daddy.

I had been aware of Jessica Cameron from Facebook.  At some point in the previous year or two, she was living about and hour and a half away in Columbus and decided to become an actress.  Then she connected with a bunch of us local filmmaker-types with the social media and started promoting the hell out of herself and getting a lot of  work.  I hadn’t met her yet, but watching her going out and getting what she wanted was pretty impressive – She didn’t merely take the bull by horns – she tackled the bull and beat it into submission.   When it came time to cast this part, I thought of her first.

Rachel Meyer, who does all of the actual work on our films captured this photo of Jessica Cameron on set, evidently posing for some movie that is better than ours.   I would have had her character walking around doing this if I had known it was an option.

Rachel Meyer, who does all of the actual work on our films captured this photo of Jessica Cameron on set, evidently posing for some movie that is better than ours. I would have had her character walking around doing this if I had known it was an option.

I wanted a scream queen-type, and though she had since relocated to LA, she was planning on coming back to Ohio for a couple weeks, so I wouldn’t have fly her in (turns out that costs money).  Jessica didn’t look old enough to play the character, but after a lot of thought about how hold she was when she had these kids and how old she is now and that sort of thing, we were able to rationalize our choice of actress by saying “Hell with it.  Maybe no one will notice.”  (She is supposed to be mother to two girls.  We eventually solved this problem by making her the step-mother of the older girl and the birth mother of the younger girl.  It still doesn’t really add up, but maybe no one will notice.) 

I had a half hour car ride to the location to try to get to know her a little before the shoot, and immediately liked her.  She was very enthusiastic and funny and easy to get along with, and she seemed to have an understanding and an interest in film-making that went beyond just acting.  She’s an expert on “that’s what she said” jokes and, perhaps most importantly, she liked the Photoshopped “storyboard” I sent of the scene. (I can’t draw so I do them in Photoshop.)

It's cause I can't draw.  I have to use photographs...  Not sure why I would have shown this to her.  Or anyone, really.

Not sure why I would have shown this to her. Or anyone, really.

The shoot itself was a blast.  One of her scenes was opposite the meth addicted barn owner, Tom, who hadn’t been cast yet.  (I had big plans for the role, but I’ll go into that next week when I explain how our lighting director got stuck with it.) We shot around the character and it went very well.  I had her running and tripping and falling and getting smacked in the head and all sorts of shenanigans, and she was a real trooper.  She offered to do a horror movie scream for us (which we normal humans are incapable of doing, so I kinda didn’t expect to even have one in the film).  It was glorious.  We’re supposed to do a new trailer soon  and we’ll have to use it that.

While shooting one particularly emotional scene, she asked me if I wanted her to break down and cry.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever described the emotional deadspace in my heart, but it’s something I’ve struggled with since our short The Projection Booth, which I thought didn’t work as well as it could have because it was emotionally sterile.  I tended to focus on events rather than what the characters were feeling and experiencing and it ended up as a horror film with some killing, but no actual horror in it.  Using a cast mostly made up of my family doesn’t help this situation, as being emotionally dead inside runs in the family, and hell, I’d rather not stand around directing while that kind of thing is taking place anyway.  But I know the film will be crap without the emotion stuff.

So I was all like, “You can do that?  Uh….  Yeah… Ok.  Let’s do that.”  And then she said she needed a minute to get ready.  And me and my brother Stephan, who was reading Tom’s lines, just stood there like “Whaaaat’s haaappeenning……”  It was like when E.T. makes the little clay balls that represent the planets fly up in the air and the kids realize for the first time that he’s got magical powers.  It turns out he was just using a visual aid to convey to them that he had come from another galaxy, but I bet for a moment there, because those kids had never seen magical powers before, at least one of them suspected that they were all about to die.

So she did her emotion things and I just kind of stood behind the camera thinking about the fact that our film now had some emotional content that I could take credit for as director.  And then, when she was done, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to call “cut” or something, or if that’s frowned upon in the world of emotional filmmaking.  Later, I looked it up.  Turns out you just say “cut.”

Jessica Cameron having emotions, through the use of a new filmmaking technique we stumbled upon called "acting."  Our characters usually just look at things and say words.

Jessica Cameron doing emotions.  Our characters tend to usually just look at things and say words.

So it was a great experience, and when I put the scenes into the rough cut, they looked great and accomplished the anti-boredom purpose they were intended for.  Since we had no Tom yet, the rough cut featured Jessica talking to a graphic that said “Tom” with Stephan’s voice.  From a strictly cinematic perspective, this sucked.  But how were we possibly going to fix it?

Normally, you just cast someone and finish the scene.  But that’s not really how we do it.  We’re idiots.  Stop by next week for the thrilling next chapter in this incredible filmmaking odyssey –  Right here on the one and only Grassman Movie Production Blog.

-Tyler

[You can see more of Jessica as one of the regular cast members on TLC’s Brides of Beverly Hills, or in one of the many films she’s done, including last year’s Silent Night with Malcolm McDowell.   Check out her IMDb page.

Here's the boring part in filmmaking where we signed contracts on someone's car.

Here’s the boring part in filmmaking where we signed contracts on someone’s car while two guys looked at their phones.