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Mr. Null Makes A Movie

I think it was my brother’s idea.

At some point in a motion picture production, a producer stops thinking about the myriad of problems on the set and starts thinking about whose head is going to roll at the end of it all. Fade in on Day Two, where one finds me standing alone in the rain at 6:30 am, in the pitch black of early morning. Shooting on location, I can’t get in the building because my contact still hasn’t arrived. When she finally does get there at 6:45, I am informed that we’ll need to be out of the building by 8:00 am because of a 100-person meeting in the room next door that will make sound recording impossible.

Then again, this doesn’t seem to be a problem, because my sound guy is still asleep and won’t be on the set until 7:40, and we have 4 shots to get before 8:00. Plus, the extras are here — I’ve called them too early, in retrospect — as they aren’t needed for awhile. I send them to the other building where we are shooting later, but there’s no one there to supervise them.

Makeup is late. I’m in this scene (I wrote the script, co-star, and am producing the picture. My brother is directing.) and I haven’t even combed my hair yet. Plus I’ve got 3 nurses and a receptionist in the shot, and they all, theoretically, should look better than me.

Word from the Director of Photography (D.P. in movie lingo) is that the camera is running slow, so that all the action might be a little faster than it should. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that now the sound may not match up, giving the whole thing a dubbed kung fu movie feel. But I also hear that the sound is going to be super-noisy anyway thanks to footsteps, air conditioners, passing cars, etc., so really, why worry? And like I said, the sound guy’s still asleep and no one else can figure out how to run the DAT recorder.

And who has the energy to worry, anyway? I got 4 hours of sleep last night and 4 the night before that. Day One’s final total on shooting was an unbearable 18 hours straight, during which we were able to set up for all of 10 shots. (On Day Four we set up roughly 30.) With an unpaid 20-person crew — all with every reason to mutiny — I’m surprised anyone actually showed up at all.

(On the other hand, the D.P. and gaffer weaseled their way into staying at my house, so I knew they’d be there. The downside to this peace of mind is much greater though, because (1) they are very loud and slobbish, and (2) they smell funny. It is also impossible to exercise any authority over someone who is sleeping in your living room.)

The rain is unbearable. After three months of Texas’s worst drought ever, the skies have opened and show no signs of stopping.

Maybe all of this is in a day’s work for your average movie producer, but at this moment I felt this project was cursed and it might be time to just walk away and cut my losses.

But this is Day Two, and I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to several months ago, when ‘making a movie’ was still a great idea and our biggest concern was who to thank in our Oscar speech.

A Plot Is Hatched

Like I said, I think it was my brother’s idea. Brad has studied film at Stanford and NYU, and is about to graduate from the former. I have an MBA from Texas, three novels and two completed screenplays on my shelf, and almost three years of film criticism experience. Plus, we had a great name for our production company — Null Set Productions.

The idea was, originally, to shoot Fringe, a feature-length script I wrote. We’d shoot for 4 weeks, spend 50,000 dollars, and try to sell the finished work to a distributor. Instead, we opted to make a short film, and we decided to adapt a short story of mine called Pressurecooker, which, by the time this process is done, will turn into a $6,000 10- to 18-minute mystery drama that you will probably never see or hear of again.

I wrote the script in two days, and we started to put the project together. By all counts, the first month of preparation is a whole lot of fun. Thanks to the Texas Film Commission, crew resumes and actors’ head shots begin to pour in. While this is an unpaid production, it is a film — the holy grail for actors’ resumes. I still have some 500 photographs of actors ‘for future consideration’ which have arrived from places as far away as Florida, California, and New York. Sifting through the head shots and pulling those you may want to invite for an audition is actually quite exciting and really gets your ego going.

God Hates Me

But I can’t invite actors from Florida, California, and New York — only Texas — and this state’s acting community is bizarre. After careful consideration, I have broken it down into 3 distinct segments: (1) older male character actors, (2) young women looking for their big break (Fun fact: over half of all head shots come from women in their 20s), and (3) kids. The problem is that out of those 500 head shots, maybe 5 were appropriate in look and age for the two brothers who star in Pressurecooker. Problem #2: none of these was qualified, or more to the point, talented.

Auditions come and go (only half of those invited show up), and to make a long story short, I decided to star in the film alongside a friend of mine who I felt could do well with the part.

Crew was a different matter altogether. Most of it came easy (by hiring friends of mine who are in the film business) but we caught a snag on two critical positions: D.P. and Sound Recordist. The D.P. job turned into a nationwide search for someone hungry enough to work for free, yet talented enough to get the job done. Eventually we settled on Bunny Parkerson, a Los Angeles lighting veteran that Brad had worked with before on another project. Bunny, however, has what I politely refer to as a commanding personality: spoiled rich kid upbringing, worked her way up through Hollywood, never gets respect on the set in L.A., and only sees one way of doing things. That ‘way’ is one that often takes 2 hours when it should take 15 minutes.

Rick Mace, our would-be Sound Recordist, and John Darbonne, our would-be Key Grip, come to us as a package deal. They’re ad execs or something in Houston and want to come to Austin for the shoot. Jump forward to August 28 — the day before we shoot the movie — they call to say they can’t make it until Saturday (Day Three). (This does me about as much good as a hammer to the forehead.) I have 12 hours notice to replace them both. (Scrambling, we promote production assistants, the grunts, to take their places.)

I think I would be remiss without making this knowledge public. Rick and John, if I have any say whatsoever in the matter, you’ll never work in this town again. Grrr!

One disaster after another is somehow solved. The camera we’re renting is broken. It is ‘fixed’ at 10:30 pm the night before Day One. Food for the crew is wrangled at the last second, with a few local businesses donating meals. The makeup girl and one of the supporting actors both drop out and are replaced. (They will never work in this town again, either!) My co-star’s back is messed up and he can’t walk. The county courthouse where we are shooting wants us to have $1 million in insurance, and they’ve given me a whole week’s notice. (I eventually got this waived as the policy would have cost more than the entire budget of the film.) Two supporting actors have had surgery and are incapacitated. One of my extras has had a heart attack and can’t come (he called twice, apologizing). Everyone is complaining about the schedule. Everyone wants a line of dialogue. Everyone has ‘great ideas’ which we have no time to implement and no film for, anyway.

And then, like that, it’s time to start shooting the movie.

Ready For My Close-Up

Day One begins with the greatest expectations. We’re all excited and ready to go. Couldn’t sleep last night thanks to nerves. 6:30 am is call time, thanks to my Machiavellian schedule. We’re on the location raring to go and then it’s time to…

Wait.

Two and a half hours later, we still haven’t shot scene 1. I don’t really notice the time going by because, at first, it’s really cool to be on a movie set. But then we’re called to the set to shoot the scene, which consists of a whopping 3 lines of dialogue. We say the lines, Brad calls ‘Cut!’ and that’s it. One take. It’s great. We’re moving on to the next scene.

2 1/2 hours for 3 lines of dialogue. While the pace of today’s shooting picks up a little bit, it never gets much past the 1 1/2 hours-to-setup stage. Now I start to notice time. Now problems start to creep in again. Now it is no longer fun to make a movie. Hollywood should remain a story that is told to children.

We wrap after midnight, still woefully behind schedule. Much of the footage has had to be shot in the dark with the lights cranked up to take the place of the long-gone sun. The air conditioning has been off all day because of the noise. The crew is dead tired. We have been on set for 18 hours, if time isn’t playing games with us.

Reality has ceased to exist. Kim, the makeup girl, speaks of eating her own foot. She’s so far gone she designs heroin tracks on her arms. Everyone has this glazed-over look that makes one recall a Night of the Living Dead movie. We’re inside a mental institution at midnight!

And we have to be back on set in 6 hours.

Tempus Fugit

After the early problems of Day Two, things start to smooth out. Day Three is a blessed respite from shooting, as we have only one scene to shoot in a lawyer’s office downtown. The D.P. and gaffer are finally kicked out of my house, too, to make room for my parents who are coming to visit for a day. (Revenge from above, as my mother gets some kind of stomach flu that night. Use your imagination as to how that went.)

With about 18 hours off between wrap on Day Three and start on Day Four, you’d think I would have been able to get some rest. Wrong.

3 Rules of Low-Budget Filmmaking

There are 3 rules of low-budget filmmaking, according to some unknown genius. Never write or shoot scenes that include (1) children, (2) crowds, or (3) animals. In a mere 12 pages, I had managed to get both (1) and (2) into my script. I was surprised, however, to discover that (3) was the biggest problem, because my cat (although not in the film) was uncontrollable on Day Four — the night shoot at my house.

The kids proved to be easy to work with, and the crowds were no problem with one exception: a woman sitting behind me in the big courthouse scene was asked to move her kids to another part of the room, basically because she had two kids (see rule (1)) with her. It would have looked a bit silly, so I put a cute girl in a pink dress behind me instead. The lady drags her kids out in anger. C’est la vie.

The Martini

The martini is filmmaking lingo (like everything in filmmaking) for the last shot of the day. In order to wrap production of this thing on Day Four, we have to get one easily-overlooked bit of film: the credits. After a lot of debates over video, computers, lithographs, etc., we get negative transparencies made at Kinko’s, which I pick up at 6:00 am on the last day of shooting. The idea is to shine a light from behind a window onto the pages and slowly scroll them up the window as we roll the camera. This is easier said than done, and at 2:30 am we’re still trying to rig up tracks, tape, weights — all manner of things to get the credits done.

A higher authority decides when we’re finished with all this, as the camera magazine decides to eat the last few feet of film. Who knows if it will develop.

From Idea to Reality — I Hope

The sheer number of details that have to be thought of, organized, and choreographed in a film production are astonishing — it takes the mind to a level of complexity that this writer has never been to before.

It’s an easy matter to sit in front of a computer screen and type up a scene involving a judge sentencing a criminal to death. Two months later you’re sitting in a historic courtroom with 100 extras, trying to get the necessary shots without anyone getting themselves (or their feelings) hurt, and ensuring that the weather is just right during the shoot. Next time you watch Matlock, think about it. It makes you look at film and TV in an entirely different light.

By 5:00 am on September 1, the cast and crew have all gone home — in four days they have bonded and parting is difficult — leaving me with a house full of equipment, props, empty beer bottles, and a few small cans of film in the refrigerator. The next day we pack it all up, send the film off to the lab in New York, and say our prayers that it doesn’t get lost on the way. Then again, that would be a convenient way to lay blame — ‘Oh, man, we had this great film and Airborne lost it!’

But I’m secretly dying to see how it looks.

Once you get a whiff of this business, be it writing, acting, or producing, it’s impossible to stop. I slept for 19 hours out of 100 during the shoot. All the rain, fiascoes, delays, and financial costs in the world couldn’t keep me from trying this again. The only question is, what do we produce next?

Now What Do We Do?

A week later than promised, the video dailies arrived from DuArt, our film processing lab in New York.

Actually, DuArt doesn’t make promises. It’s policy; they never make promises. They just ‘hint’ about when the film or video ‘might’ be ready. Never mind your schedule — DuArt lives in a world of its own, oblivious to the outside. I didn’t actually get to see the film right away. It was off at the editing facilities (read: a friend’s house) where my brother Brad and co-editor Jana Huskey were already starting to figure out how to put this movie together. I quickly learned one thing:

It was not going to be an easy task.

While the sound turned out surprisingly well, it was the picture that was, well, not quite all I had expected. And let me try to list just a few of the problems we encountered, which include, but are not limited to:

Picture is out of focus.
Picture is underexposed.
Picture is overexposed.
Actors’ lines are incorrect and/or unusable.
Crew member wandered into the shot.
Microphone wandered into the shot.
Actor wandered out of the shot.
Framing of image is unusable (only half of actor’s head is in the shot; etc.).
Continuity is off (actor should be sitting, but he’s kneeling; etc.).
Actor spilled pizza on himself (okay, that one’s my fault).
…and the kicker…
Camera is running slow.

Knowing what I do now, I would give just about anything to avoid that last teensy little problem, but it was not to be. I’d estimate a third of the film we shot was almost completely worthless because it was, in industry parlance, ‘out of sync.’ A motion picture camera, ideally, runs at 24 frames per second. This is ideal because that’s how fast the projector is going to be running when you show the film to an audience, so you’d better get pretty close that 24 fps figure. Some scenes in Pressurecooker were exposed at the mind-boggling speed of 10 frames per second, which, when projected at 24 fps, looks so fast that it makes your average Charlie Chaplin movie look like a slow-motion replay.

Later I would discover the reason for this slow camera problem. For starters, when the batteries were getting weak, the slow-down would get progressively worse. (Again, I’ll point out that someone should have been aware of this…) And then I find out much later that the crew that had rented this camera before us experienced a complete motor failure, only a few days before we got it! Maybe it was fixed, maybe it was replaced, I don’t know, and I probably never will, but the amount of fuming that occurred between myself and my brother over this little issue does
not need to be discussed in any more detail, largely because the makers of Mylanta, Tums, and Pepto-Bismol don’t need any more of our money.

Out of the Frying Pan…

Now, we were on a low budget to start with, so we didn’t have a lot of takes. Two, maybe, three max. None of this 54 takes to get it just perfect. No way. Coverage was extremely limited thanks to the slowness of setting up the shots, thus making us cut out much-needed angles. To sum up, we didn’t have a lot of film to work with, and as the picture started to come together, it was clear that we were going to have to use some of the out-of-sync super-fast scenes and try to find some way to cover up the error.

Basically, this meant two things. First, entire scenes were cut. That was easy.

Secondly, there was dubbing. My co-star Dave Kaufman and I went in for ADR (additional dialogue recording) twice, trying to somehow speak our lines at double speed and still maintain the tone and feel of the part. But the work we did is nothing in comparison to that of Elizabeth Price, the tireless actress who played Pressurecooker‘s version of Nurse Ratched. Elizabeth has some of the longest monologues in the film, and her scenes were unilaterally the worst out-of-sync. She drove down to Austin from Dallas, and I (the ruthless taskmaster) made her re-record virtually every line of dialogue she had. At double speed.

Elizabeth turned out to be pretty damn good at the dubbing game. Now, my seven-line sentences kinda sorta match up to my lip movement. Elizabeth could almost match it up without even watching the video. She turned out to be so good that we enlisted her to re-record the sound of my character as a teenager (in flashback), letting our a blood-curdling scream. She was perfect, and if any would-be producers are reading this, you should call her for your next project, right now.

I was also introduced to the joys of foley artistry, the re-recording of certain noises like footsteps, chairs dragging, and fist punches. When you lose sync from a scene, you see, you don’t just lose the dialogue, you lose all the audio. All of it. Everything going on has to be faked, which is commonplace for a big-budget movie (almost all the dialogue and sounds are re-recorded in a multi-million dollar film, and you can tell if you watch closely), but we hardly had the facilities for this. As it turned out, Jana’s house was the perfect place to do the work. We just slapped a microphone on the floor and stomped around, dragged chairs here and there, and punched each other until it sounded right. I think it’s some of the best work on the film — with the exception of a punch to the face that sounds more like a knock on the door. Oh well.

I keep telling myself, ‘It’s a low-budget movie. They don’t even want it to look that good!’ I still haven’t figured out who they are.

… and Into the Fire

One month later, the editing is done. I had to re-shoot the titles and credits, which I think went well (although I’ve yet to see them on film), then the negative cutters put the film together the way we want it, and then the lab runs off the this-is-it-there’s-no-turning-back-now-final copy.

Probably twenty people have seen the tape so far, and I’ve been surprised by the universally positive comments I’ve received. Then again, these are all my friends, so they have to say nice things. I mean, that’s what I pay them for!

The movie is 13 minutes and 13 seconds long. I’m not yet sure if that’s a horribly bad omen, but at least it’s short enough that my dad doesn’t fall asleep while watching it.

And now it’s time for the real test of the film — the film festival circuit, which consists of sending out loads of applications, videotapes, still photos, scripts, and apologies for the rough parts of the film, and not necessarily in English, either. (We’re applying to film festivals in Germany, The Netherlands, and France this month alone — eventually we’ll try to get into fests in Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, and even Poland.) Eventually, someone will want to show our film in public, a Hollywood fat cat will see it, will instantly recognize the talent therein, and will sign me up to write and produce the next $120 million Bruce Willis action vehicle.

That’s how it works, right?

It’s yet to be seen if anyone important will recognize the unique charms of our little project. I’d almost lost sight of the original goal of this thing — to make a splash in the film biz and learn exactly how a movie is made, from start to finish. The problem is there are thousands of crews out there just like ours, and they probably have enough money to rent a camera that works. As for me, I’ll always have a special love-hate relationship with Pressurecooker

And I already know who to thank in my Oscar speech.

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