Tag Archives: Movies

Lights, Camera, Action! What have I gotten myself into?

After a number of overly exciting posts on the highs and lows of screenwriting for this film, I thought I would take a post to put on one of my other hats that I wore for this production: my actor hat. It is a hat that I, like many others, have always wanted to wear. But, unlike others, as someone who also owns writer and producer hats, I am able to write myself into the script, and then make an executive decision to cast myself in that role. While it may sound like self-nepotism (because of my many jobs) or egotism, the fact is I had reservations over playing the part that I wrote for myself, reservations that I’m sure Tyler shared.

The Biggest Loser: Pinoy Edition (season 1)

The Biggest Loser: Pinoy Edition (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My first reservation was my weight. When Tyler and I first began work on the project, I was pretty heavy. Without getting into numbers, let me just say that if the movie didn’t go forward, I could have been a contestant on The Biggest Loser. It was not good. My weight had fluctuated a lot over the years, but always managed to creep upward. So, I took my desire to handle a role in this film as motivation to really get my ass back on track and get some pounds off before production began. It was a job I took very seriously, and it became the catalyst for Tyler’s command that everyone get in better shape for the project, simple for health and endurance reason. This was going to be a tough shoot, which we were at least partially aware of, and we needed as cast and crew to be able to handle it. Being a small production, we’d not only be handling the demands of the script (see the next point), but also of the production, carrying equipment, building sets, holding positions for ungodly lengths of time.

Making it happen for the film.

Making it happen for the film.

I set about dieting and exercising 5-6 days a week, consistently actually missing maybe a week in two years (not counting shooting weeks). By the time we got to the production (what I call Grassman: Year One), I was down 45 lbs. When Grassman: Year Two ended, I had lost over 80 lbs. By, the end of Grassman: Year Three, I had quit smoking to top it all off. It was no easy task, but I’m glad I finally had this to push me in a direction I hadn’t passionately dedicated myself to for over 10 years. It felt good, and I felt good.

There be action happening!

There be action happening!

The second concern was the level of action in the film. Action and stunts are always a concern on films, but when you are an insane micro-budget action horror film without the common sense to know that you shouldn’t be doing what you are doing, it’s even more so. As the character of Catch, I had a significant amount my own stunts to perform. Aside from the requisite running through actual woods, I had to fight, jump, fall, take hits, and roll around, all while carrying a real, non-prop 14″ Smith & Wesson Search & Rescue Bowie Knife. Like I said,   no common sense.

IMAG0026

Step 1 for breaking back: fall off of this. (Photo credit: vaxciliate)

My major concern was my back. I have chronic back pain due to an US Army Airborne training accident when I was 19. I have a bulging disc, an only partially healed compressed vertebrae, and a touch of arthritis. The slightest thing can set it off and leave me essentially immobile. I once collapsed in a ball of pain on a bike trail because the damn back decided that one more push of the pedal was too much to ask. Stupid thing. However, I was willing to do whatever I had to do to make my action scenes as effective as I could. To top things off, day one of shooting, I contused my heal to the point where I needed to wrap it up tightly at the beginning of every day of shooting and wear running shoes when my feet weren’t in the shot. It didn’t get back to normal until around December of Grassman: Year One.

It's a wrap!

It’s a wrap!

The final reservation was over acting itself. I am not an actor, nor have I ever claimed to be. But, I’ve always felt that I could pull it off in the right part, and have wanted to take on that challenge since I was a kid. I’ve had small parts in Monkey Prod shorts in the past (aside from BADNESS where I played Vlad the Rocking Impaler from Hell, an over-the-top rock stereotype based loosely on myself).

Me, acting. From HELL!

Me, acting. From HELL!

However, I usually either wound up on the digital cutting room floor (aka, the Recycle Bin), didn’t have my face shown at all, or the project never saw the light of day. Not a terribly auspicious bunch of credits for an acting reel.

Needless to say, there was a level of anxiety on my part, some self-doubt over my ability to carry my own weight in the thespian department. Granted, we have a cast of primarily inexperience actors, but my role was a significant one, the third lead. I couldn’t let my performance be the one that stood out at amateur or, even worse, laughable.

Trying to learn my lines while getting AAA on the phone.

Trying to learn my lines while getting AAA on the phone.

To make my anxiety worse, I was so consumed with re-writes and my producer duties, I was often unable to prepare for scenes until right before we shot them. I tried squeezing in learning lines when I could, but I really was pushing it most days. Having seen much of my work in our rough cuts, I am relieved to say that my acting doesn’t make me want to go punch myself in the face. That’s a plus.

Taking on this project was a monumental undertaking, and most of the folks involved found themselves performing multiple duties for many hours. I was the only dumbass who had a choice to not take on one of my jobs, but I did it anyways. I guess the lesson here is that no matter what your part might be in making your film a reality, you’re going to have your doubts. Don’t let them stop you, but use them to motivate you. It also helps to check your sanity at the door. But, get your ass to do whatever you have to do to make shit happen and guess what? Shit will happen. It’s like magic. So endeth the lesson.

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What’s a writer/producer to do?

NOTE: Tyler, the hater of blogging, had the brilliant idea that we should update this thing more frequently as we prepare to unveil our film this year. Not just frequently, but weekly. I know. He is insane. But, there are certain times you battle the crazy and certain times you give in.  So, you’ll get new Tyler posts on Mondays, and Dennis posts on Fridays. Should be fun. And hard. Damn you, Tyler.  Here is my first Friday post. 

The toil and questioning of writing are complete. The confusion and delusion of pre-production is finished. The chaos and magic of shooting is over. And now, for some time now, the anticipation and impatience of post-production is well underway. And that is where I have the most difficult time as a filmmaker.

I am primarily a writer. No matter what else I might do on a film (produce, direct, act, etc.), the writing is where the bulk of my time is put in. It is the most satisfying, and sometimes frustrating, part of the project for me. I’m privy to information no one else knows, to the origins of what we are about to do. I get to be with it first, to nurture vague thoughts and ideas, mere images in my head, and turn them into plot and structure and living, breathing characters. I create the blueprint, nay the flag that, if I do it well, others will follow into the year(s) long battle that will become our film.

Once I hand off the script, if I am not directing, I enter producer/writer mode, where I am trying to organize an actual film and work on numerous rewrites of the script until Tyler and I are both pleased. Once production begins, if I am primarily producer, making sure shit is getting done, that people know when and where to be, bitching when we’re off schedule, making sure Tyler is doing okay, etc. And if I am acting, as was the case in Grassman, I still have to do all of that and pretend to know my lines and trick everyone into thinking I’m all thespian-like. Pre-prod and production are extremely hectic, exhilarating, and stressful times that make me want to get to do this full-time.

Powerless producer mode.

Powerless producer mode.

Then the lights are turned off, the cameras packed up, and the cast and crew head their separate ways. Post-production has begun at Monkey Productions and is, for me, the most useless I feel during the entire project. You see, unlike big time productions with money and facilities, Monkey Prod consists of Tyler’s home office and my home office, which means that Tyler takes all of the film home with him to work on. I take home… well, nothing. Once post-production begins, I put my writing pants on again and look for the next project to compose.

And as far as the film goes, I am considerably in the dark, particularly the further along it gets. Because we are a self-financed indie production, all of our projects, including Grassman, have had open-ended deadlines. Because we have no investors or studio or business partners to answer to, we can take as long as we need to complete our project. In fact, the time when this is most apparent, because it is literally just Tyler and I, is during post-production. There are no actors schedules to work around, no locations being torn down, no snow storms coming to white out the project. The only pressure we find ourselves under come from ourselves and the various friends and family members that continue to ask “So, where’s the movie already?” and “Are you ever going to finish it?”

This independence is both good and bad. It’s good in that unlike many investor finance or distributor-advanced films, we don’t have to rush to meet unreasonable deadlines to make unsympathetic suits happy, putting out something that we aren’t 100% happy with. On the other hand, given the types of people that Tyler and I are with various levels of ADHD, OCD, depression, and numerous other therapy demanding issues hindering our effectiveness and progress, this lack of deadlines can become a crutch. It can be seen as an open excuse for delay, or as a rational for a level of perfectionism that could border on obsessive.

It is one of the things I struggle with as a writer: I have no deadline, therefore I have no reason to complete my novel just yet. I should take some time to perfect my outline, or to really nail this world-building I’ve only begun to sketch out. I can’t possible start yet, because I haven’t gotten into the heads of my sub-characters yet. The excuses and rationalizing can be endless.

It has, at times, also puts a strain on the relationship that Tyler and I have as creative and business partners. During post-production, I’m in powerless producer mode. This means I am producer in name, but with no real effective way to motivate the production. I have no purse strings to tighten, no jobs to threaten, no alternatives to offer. I am essentially neutered. All I can do is complain and whine and hope. I find myself going back and forth between bitching and motivating. And all from my virtual office, via texts and Facebook messages and Google Hangouts. I can’t even stand over his shoulder and do it.

Although I trust no other person with our film like I do him, Tyler has all the cards at the juncture. He has the entire film, all the files, the editing machine(s), and the backups. I often tell him that at this point in the game, he understand the characters and story better than I do, because he is working on the final version of which my script was only the framework. His edit is the true story now, the one that will be shared with you. And, unfortunately, he’s the only one that truly knows where that story is right now and what needs to be done to complete it.

The point is this: filmmaking is indeed a collaborative effort. But depending on the budget and size of your production, it may be less collaborative than you would like at times, to the point of frustration and helplessness. But you must drive on. Depending on your role, you need to do the hell out of your part and support the other when they are doing theirs. And if you are a producer in powerless mode, try your damnedest to keep communicating with whomever your creative, mad scientist is as they lock themselves away to edit your project. I choose to communicate via bitching and motivating, so Tyler knows 1) that people still give a shit about the film, and 2) that he’s still the guy to get it done right.

–Dennis

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Director’s Journal #11 – Still Getting There…

We’ve been hard at work the last couple months and there have been some exciting things taking place.   Here’s a quick(ish) summary:

Annual Bigfoot Conference

Last year, Don Keating, of the Eastern Ohio Bigfoot Investigation Center, was kind enough to let us shoot a scene at his Annual Bigfoot Conference held at Salt Fork State Park in Ohio.  As a result, our conference scene will feature several real-life Bigfoot researchers with our fictional ones.  We’ve just started doing the necessary legal paperwork, and so far we’ve for Dr. Jeff Meldrum officially on board, and several others who have verbally agreed.   Very cool.  We’re very thankful to everyone involved.  This scene will go a long way to helping make this film the authentically Bigfooty experience we’re hoping to present.

Me and Bob Gimlin

P.S.  Them Bigfooters were EXTREMELY nice.  Everyone was very helpful and accomodating to me.  People get the idea that a Bigfoot Conference is a freak show – I, myself, didn’t know  what to expect when I went – but it was really nothing of the sort.  Lots of families in attendance and a lot of friendly normal people.  The Conference itself was very impressive.  If you love you some Bigfoot, it’s really a lot of fun.  Go there.  Also, I ate a Bigfoot cookie.

Cleveland Shoot with Lynn Lowry

Where the hell are we going?

Most of March was spent planning for what turned out to be our most expensive shoot on the film.  We have a short scene where Stephan’s character goes off by himself and meets a stranger living in an old, creepy house.  We had been talking about getting a name actor for a small role in our film… for years really, before we even started working on Grassman.  With our original budget, this wasn’t really a possibility, but I’ve been making some extra money by working on sports shoots on the side, and I felt with this scene – and with the slight break in our schedule caused by the cold weather – that it was a perfect opportunity to learn this particular skill.  I’ve begun thinking of The Legend of Grassman as my film school and so I like to set up lessons for myself – to teach myself specific skills.  Since 1999 when I took Dov S S Simens’ 2 Day Film School, I had become aware that I had the power to not only produce my own film right now (this was a novel idea for me at the time) but also to get a name actor in that movie.  It’s not a superpower.  Anyone can do it.  All you need is a project, money, and the ability to stop being a chicken shit.  Finally I found myself in a position where I had all three.

So we picked an actress and I went after her.  Used that IMDb Pro to get her manager’s contact info.  Emailed him with an offer and immediately received a response to give him a call that night.  I was terrified, but I wrote down notes about what kind of film we were doing and about the role and called him up and tried to subdue my chickenshitness.  When I hung up, it occurred to me that there’s no reason to be nervous.  I’m hiring someone to do a job.  Like calling a plumber.  I offer them money and they either say yes or no.  So I hung up, feeling like a badass.  A total badass.

The phone call did not get me an actress.  It did, however, give me a direction to head in.  I had never heard of Lynn Lowry or seen any of her films at this point, but once I took a look at her demo reel, I knew I wanted her.  Eventually, I was able to get in touch with her, make an offer, negotiate (holy shit, I’m negotiating with an actress) and we made a deal.

Lynn Lowry bringin' it...

In my dumbass mind, I thought I could do this for cheaper if I went to her rather than flying her to Cincinnati.  She was scheduled to be in Cleveland (about 5 hours away) soon for the Cinema Wasteland horror convention, so we planned to shoot then.  I paid to change her flight (which was more expensive than I imagined) and put her up in her hotel room for a couple extra days.

Then came the process of finding a location in a city I had only visited a handful of times.  I was looking for an old Victorian house.  I had this idea that the scene should be like a quick trip to Psycho or Dracula, in the midst of a film that was took most of its inspiration from 1970’s Bigfoot movies and 1930’s adventure films.  Chuck Gove, from Haunted Cleveland Ghost Tours, was kind enough to direct me to the Robert Russell Rhoades House, a 19th century home currently occupied by the Cuyahoga County Archives.

The people I spoke with from the County were very accommodating, helpful, and eager to work with us.  Unfortunately, due to the historic nature of our location, there were extra expenses involved, including liability insurance for the duration of the shoot.  (We don’t do no insurance.)  To that, add the cost of gas for two trips up and back (location scout, and shoot), rental car (my wife and mother-in-law insisted my car wouldn’t make it (thankfully)) food and hotel rooms for the crew (thank goodness for Priceline) and it became an extremely expensive shoot compared to what we are accustomed to.

So, a terrible idea for a no-budget movie.  Don’t shoot five hours away to try to piggyback on your actress’ convention schedule.  This is probably a no-brainer, but being an idiot, it’s tough for me to tell.

As a film school class, it was AWESOME.  Money well-spent.  College can go suck it.  Our location was incredible.  Lynn was absolutely amazing to work with.  She’s very easy going and incredibly talented.   Watching Lynn perform our script, I felt like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert – she was amazing.  I’ve never had raw footage that was so fun to watch.

Other Stuffs

Shooting in Real Restaurant = Production Value

We recently had a great shoot at the Little River Cafe in Oregonia, Ohio.  It’s for one of those exposition scenes that set up the movie at the beginning.  Justine Moore joined our cast as a waitress.  And thanks to Mark Burris, who owns the restaurant and was gracious enough to allow us to shoot there, we also had – for the first time ever – EXTRAS!  It was weird.  We never have extras.  I didn’t know what to do with them.

In addition to Lynn and the Bigfoot researchers, we’re working on getting a couple more guest stars, which we will tell you about when the contracts are signed.

Stephan Meyer, who plays one of our main characters, just finished up the last of his scenes this past Saturday, so we have kicked him off the set.  This leaves two more main characters, who’ll be finished up soon, and a couple short scenes involving different actors.  Production is almost DONE.  Seriously.

Seriously.