Tag Archives: screenplay

Getting Rich – Part 1: Listen to Rodriguez, damn it

There is a common maxim in the world of low-budget, independent film that says to write for locations that you have. In fact, Robert Rodriguez, one our idols and role models in the making of this movie, and wearer of superior head gear, perfected this method, which Stu Maschwitz called “The Rodriguez List.” You make a list of all the stuff you have at your disposal, and then you write your script around those items and locations.

Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez, whose hats are cooler than my entire wardrobe.

This makes sense on a number of levels. First of all, the financial benefit of this approach is obvious. Things that you have equal things that you don’t have to acquire or make yourself. In Grassman, all of our characters arrive at the forest in vehicles that the actors actually drove to set. No rentals, or special needs; just some consideration for who will be on set with what vehicles for an scenes shot around that location.

Second, it is a great way to figure out early on what you have that will make your film uniquely yours. Taking stock of your inventory of stuff and locals lends itself to a level of personalizing of your script in a way to can add to its authenticity. Writing a scene that takes place in a science lab that you don’t have access to, versus a gravel pit that you do because of your connected uncle “knows a guy” may not have the same feel or tone, but if you make it work, it will have production value like a mofo.

Cover of "Rebel without a Crew: How a 23 ...

Cover via Amazon

Of course, despite our following the Gospel of Rodriguez (Rebel Without a Crew), this was not something I did when writing the script for Grassman. Like the inexperienced, delusional dork that I am, I wrote a film that takes place 90% of the time in the woods. Woods are easy to find, I thought. Hell, if we have to we’ll just do this guerrilla-style, sneaking into local parks and making a Bigfoot movie when no one is looking. Yeah, I know. I was an idiot.

But, that’s what I did. And when I was finished, I had a forest, but also needed a gas station, a cave, a shed, a cliff and a gorge, a large creek. Somehow, this thing seemed a bit bigger than showing up at one of Hamilton County’s fine parks and hoping we weren’t going to get caught. It was a huge feature film, which a lot of action, blood, screaming, fighting, falling, and fire. These thing do not lend themselves to a stealthy guerrilla production.

Robert Rodriguez, Jaime King, & Nick Stahl at ...

Rodriguez with people who actually listen to him.

It became abundantly clear that 1) I had not followed Rodriguez’s sage advice, 2) we needed to run this gig like professionals, not idiots running through public parks until we were banned for life, and 3) we needed an alternative to that. Somewhere where we could be both professionals and idiots, which would lend itself to the film seamlessly and not cost us a thing.  Essentially, we were screwed.

Until, in one magical moment at my real job, when I had a thought that would change everything. A beautiful, serendipitous, life just falling into place moment that made the movie possible. I had my Rodriguez List after I wrote the script in the form of a gentleman that I had known for 5 years. All I had to do was ask and pray that he said yes.

Next week, I will conclude the tale of Rich, the man behind the non-acting character of The Legend of Grassman: the best location a growing filmmaker could hope for.

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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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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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