Monday, February 27, 2006

Happy Cloud Pictures returns to filmmaking!

Woke up this morning in enormous pain. I discovered over the weekend that I either need a new cameraman or a time machine.

We spent all day Saturday shooting our segment for JD Casey’s anthology, Brinke’s Tales of Terror. Our short, starring the usual Happy Cloud Pictures suspects (Amy, Charlie Fleming, Bill Homan, Nic Pesante, Tim Gross and Jeff Waltrowski), takes place in a back-room poker game. The best location we could find was the upper bedroom of Amy’s mother’s spare house. This tiny dwelling, where Amy grew up, coincidentally enough, is located on a steep hill in one of the nicer sections of Mount Oliver, across from one of the creepiest cemeteries in existence. The bedroom is roughly fifteen feet long by ten feet wide—not a great deal of room after we loaded in four actors, chairs, a card table and a trio of lights. At one point, I had Tim gripping for me, moving the primary light stand to accommodate my composition, but after a while it became clear that there just wasn’t enough room. Tim was just one more thing for me to frame out, though I really appreciated his help while he was there.

Eventually, it was just me and the actors. I couldn’t even use a tripod for most of the shots and simply went hand-held for the rest of the day. For six hours, I crouched, squatted, angled, craned and boomed with only the power of my legs and spine, using the walls behind for support when I could. Scene was dialogue-heavy, so I had the added pleasure of trying to avoid a room full of loose boards that would creak and overpower the dialogue like sonic booms. Added to my misery was a dying shotgun mike that, I discovered later, had added a hum over every line. This on top of a section where it had been bumped into the “off” position and I hadn’t caught it until after we’d shot four pages of script.

Not nearly the auspicious resuming of our career that we’d hoped.

Now, I’m fairly certain that if I can’t remove the hum in Premiere, a session of ADR won’t be so awful. I have a lavalier mic that works brilliantly, so it’ll just be a matter of getting the actors together to reloop their lines. I shot a lot of coverage and cut-aways, so perfect synch won’t be that much of an issue. We have some investor money coming soon, so we’ll be able to replace the dying Realistic mic with a nice Audiotechnica or a Senheiser (preferably), when we upgrade our camera equipment at the end of next month. Which will mean more for our future projects than our current ones. I just hate the fact that we can never just do anything once (echoes of The Resurrection Game here).

We had plenty of help Saturday, which was terrific. We just didn’t have the room for everyone. Tim, Carolyn Olvier and Shelli were relegated to the freezing downstairs quadrants for the most part (freezing as we couldn’t keep the furnace on in the house—the roar was overpowering and it turned the room we were using into an oven). There was some complaining at the beginning of the day from a few voices that our actors were late—crew call was 10am, actors at 11, but some of our crew don’t understand “pre-prep” time and think that we should be ready to roll film the minute they walk onto the set. But this is a common complaint that Amy and I are used to. The actors all arrived at the time we needed them, and we even had a rare rehearsal session, going through the script all the way. As we’ve learned in the past, it’s best if Amy works with the actors and I work with the crew and technical ends of things. Sadly, with the lack of space, the crew, as I said, became me by about noon, and that’s where all the audio mistakes were made. Ah well. (Oh, and check out Tim's coverage of the weekend at the appropriately-titled Bastards of Horror.)

We had two make-up artists working with us for the first time. Carlos Savant, a former Douglas School student I’d met at Horrorfind last year, showed up on one of his first days back from a very long car trip to his family home in New Orleans. Kirk Owen I’d met through Don Bumgarner and Tom Luhtula of Cleveland F/X and re-met just a few days prior at Don’s place (picking up gelatin fingers and a foam “lead pipe” for key sequences). I was happy to have them, and they quickly caught on to our speed of filming. We had three actors who needed several stages of make-up throughout the day and Bill only had three hours of shooting time before he had to leave for work. He took care of his own make-up while Carlos and Kirk tackled Nic and Charlie (kudos in particular to Carlos’ paint job on Nic—I was certain, even through the camera, that his make-up was three-dimensional until a closer look revealed his wounds to be mere paint! (?!)).

Later, the poker scenes were done and we moved onto a pair of murder scenes. An exhausted Charlie accidentally clocked Jeff Waltrowski in the face while rehearsing. Suddenly, the whole room erupted into something out of the Simpsons (‘Not Lenny! Anyone but Lenny!’) where they all chimed in on who they would have preferred to have seen punched in the face. Nic and I were tied, I think.

A few minutes later, we’d moved onto a gun gag with a live pistol and a prepped ‘blank’ shell (courtesy of Bill and his patented projectile-free blanks)—safe but awful noisy. Everyone was concerned that a gunshot would send a neighbor to the cops. I doubted that. “Not in this neighborhood,” I said, “after only one gunshot.”

In all, we’d shot fifteen pages of script in about six hours. I’m a terribly insecure DP, but I was incredibly pleased with the footage, despite the dismayingly persistent hum. Our speed and the results cheered me up immensely. This was the first project we’d shot in over a year (Charlie’s entertaining Cannibal Aneurysm notwithstanding) and I was thrilled—I think Happy Cloud Pictures is back in the groove. (We’ve always shot fast. On The Resurrection Game, we once managed 42 distinct camera set-ups in a single 10-hour day. When I hear about other directors who require twenty-plus takes and only get a page or so shot, I start to feel like a slacker. But moving fast is what keeps our core group coming back, and it’s what has a lot of producers and distributors giving us serious consideration to produce for them. So maybe we’re on to something. All I know is, I like getting done as much as humanly possible. We treat our cast and crew pretty well, even when it’s just the HCP family—we feed them, we try to pay everyone for their time—and we work to make sure no one is sitting around bored for too long. Just the same, by the end of that six hours, my spine was in a square knot, I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since noon, and I hadn’t gone to the bathroom since I’d left the house that morning. So slacker I am definitely not. Lunatic, maybe.)

But by the time we were ready to leave, the muscles in my back and legs were screaming. My prior rotator-cuff injury courtesy of the post office usually keeps me in pain, but this was above and beyond what I was used to.

The next day, Amy and I drove back into Pittsburgh to sit in on an audition being held by Jeff Waltrowski and Steve Foland (along with their partner, Mike Cinceri) for their next project, The Host. As I loathe and despise auditions (the whole process—holding them, attending them, planning them), I like to piggy-back as often as possible. Out of the dozen or so people we saw during the day, there were about four I really want to work with in the future. Plus, it was cool to hang out with Jeff and Steve for the day, even though all Jeff did was whine about how Charlie actually punched him the day before (kidding, Jeff! Thanks for being a trooper!). To Jeff’s defense, Charlie really nailed him. Of course, if Jeff had had the foresight of attending a Catholic grade-school, he’d have learned how to take a punch in the first place.

Which brings us to today. I’d had all these plans for today—cleaning out the garage, repairing a hole in the garage door created by some woodland creature or other—but when I woke up, I discovered that I could barely walk. My legs and ankles are in agony and my back has me virtually doubled-over. I’m lucky I can breathe at this point.

So this is the sacrifice for some really nice photography.

Now, for our next feature, we’re planning on using this house again, but Bill is in the process of building a little Steadicam for me, so I’ll have some back-support in the future. We won’t have to stay as tight, either. Of course, I’ll be using a new camera on the next movie, instead of my neat, compact GL-1, so I don’t know what adjustments that will require. We’ll be starting off with all new equipment, sound and camera, along with our new light kit, a new Century Stand (yeah, I’m a film geek! Bite me.), all courtesy of a few investors who believe in our company.

But I think I should just come to terms with the fact that I’m not in my 20s anymore. Stuntwork leaves me sore for days, I knew that, but camerawork? I have to stretch before I can do some handheld photography? Who knew?

In extremely sad news, Darren McGavin, the great Carl Kolchak, the beloved ‘Old Man’ from A Christmas Story, died this past Saturday. He’d been sick for a long time, so the news didn’t come as a surprise, but I was still harboring the pipe dream of having him as a guest at Genghis Con II: The Wrath of Con. But that won’t come to pass… RIP Mr. M. You’ll always be Kolchak to me.

As I hobble around like an 80-year-old man, I’m trying to get stuff ready for this weekend. Amy and I are guests at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors (special thanks to Adam Malin of Creation Entertainment and Fangoria's Tony Timpone and Tom DeFeo for accomodating us!) Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in Chicago, where the main focus, for us, will be meeting the cast of James Gunn’s Slither. I just conducted an interview with Gunn for Film Threat (I’ll announce it here as soon as it’s up) and the next issue of Sirens of Cinema will profile both Jenna Fischer (Gunn’s lovely wife and the star of The Office) and Liz Banks (Slither’s female lead and Spider-Man’s Betty Brant). But even more exciting will be getting the chance to meet Firefly’s Nathan Fillion. Amy’s actually a little star-struck at the opportunity, which is kinda cute, considering how blasé she usually is at these things (I think Danny Trejo was the last actor she was this excited about meeting).

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Just a few thoughts

I sat down to write something specific, but damned if I can remember what it was. I feel like a grafitti-artist with writer's block (ever see a wall covered with "Um... okay, I ... no... wait..."?).

Got the new issue of Sirens of Cinema out to our new layout artist. It was a chore again, but this time the fault lay with having too much content, instead of not enough. For the first time, I found myself faced with having to bump pieces to the next issue. Having had this done to me countless times in the past by countless editors, I now understand the power and rush that comes with having the fate of someone's work in my hands. I should have bumped everything! Just because I could! (Insert evil laugh here.)

I'm kidding! Don't hit me!

Hopefully, we made all the right choices and we'll see the magazine on the stands by the end of March.

Amy and I are working out the final details of Genghis Con II: The Wrath of Con (TM), and finally locked down a date with the hotel. Look for a new announcement and an updated website very soon. (Thanks, JimmyO!)

We're shooting a new short this weekend. It's either going to be called High Stakes or Dead Man's Hand, as soon as we make a decision. It's for JD Casey's upcoming anthology, Brinke's Tales of Terror, starring the inimitable Brinke Stevens. This is the first thing we've shot as a company in over a year, and it was terrific to get behind the camera again last Saturday when we shot a quick sequence of our partner Bill Homan strangling his fiancee, Gwendolyn. It felt natural and right (not Bill strangling Gwen... well, yeah, that too) and I can't wait for Saturday. All of our usual suspects will be on hand - Charlie Fleming, Nic Pesante, Tim Gross, Jeff Waltrowski - and some new artists, Carlos Savant and Kirk Owen, to help us with the red stuff.

Finally, got a new review for The Resurrection Game. It's the closest we've ever come to a negative review, and it's mostly glowing. Everyone keep your fingers crossed - we have it with a new distributor. If they like it, our long, long road has come to an end. And wouldn't that be loverly?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I renew my acquaintence with George Stevens

Last week I was in Big Lots of all places when I came across the DVD of George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. I snatched it up immediately. Not because I’m a great admirer of the director (though I am), or because it was a great price ($4.99), but because I worked on it. And I wasn’t aware it even existed.

Several years ago, I worked for WRS Film and Video Lab, just outside of Pittsburgh. I worked in the Optical Printing department alongside my good friend, Ray Yeo. I sucked at the job. I sucked at just about everything I did there. I understood the technical aspects of what I as there to do—from printing on the decrepit Oxberry to the monsterous, proprietary Tri-Op (which was designed to put three-strip Technicolor negatives back together), film inspecting, Photoguard (a horrifying chemical machine)—but just couldn’t make the magic happen.

The work environment was miserable. We operated out of a former Armor meat-packing plant. With the constant cloud of chemical hanging in the air, to the complete lack of sunlight in the cavernous building, to the necessary dark and dim conditions, it was like working in a submarine. I was sick all the time—the chemicals, many of them out-dated and some of them illegal to work with—got into my lungs and gave me a persistent cough and would strip the upper layer of skin from my tongue. I had frequent migraines and occasional nose-bleeds. My hands were always shredded from handling the endless rolls of film on the rewind cranks.

But I was surrounded by film.
WRS also had a warehouse that stored original negatives. I got to actually handle the original negatives for things like the original The Thomas Crown Affair, The Magnificent Seven, Night of the Living Dead, Orson Wells’ Othello, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, A Hole in the Head, and The Seven-Year Itch. During the course of my stay there, I remade sections of Vera Cruz and A Hole in the Head. And for a few weeks, I photographed deteriorating sections of George Steven’s original 16mm footage of his time in World War II.

Stevens, who’d directed Gunga Din and Penny Serenade, headed up a “combat motion picture unit from 1944 to 1946” in the Army Signal Corps. His division shot the Normandy landings, and the liberation of Paris. The part that I worked on, pulling sections and rephotographing sections late at night, was the liberation of the Nazi prison camp, Dachau. My fellow co-workers kept referring to it as “the Auschwitz footage”, and though I knew it was Dachau, I started referring to it the same way. This was the stuff that had been used during the Nuremberg trials! It had inspired him to form “Liberty Films” with Capra and William Wyler. Many think that the things he’d seen in Germany were what inspired his attention to detail in character in his later films.

Stevens had shot the only color footage of the War, and sometimes during those late-night shifts in the dark back Optical room, I was the only one in the building. Just me and the horrible Oxberry machine—a pre-war monstrosity itself—chugging away and fouling up, conspiring to keep me later. Now and then I would have to stop the machine and look into the view finder to check where I was, make sure nothing had slipped in the gate. Several of those times, I would find myself looking at the piles of bodies left behind by the Nazis prior to Stevens’ unit’s arrival. I was haunted by just a few of these images, in still form. I can only imagine what Stevens went through, seeing it before the rest of the world in living detail.

I was alone in that room with history.

When I found myself enjoying my job, it was because I was surrounded by all these wonderful films—particularly the original negatives, handled by the artists themselves, the single degree removed from the people who made them. The original Night of the Living Dead—one degree from the people it had captured. That negative had been, obviously, in the room when Romero shot it. And it wasn’t on a television or in a theater, it was in my hands!

Very few of the people who worked there gave a shit about movies one way or another. It was just a job to them. And it was a miserable job, for the most part. The man who owned the place was a crook and a tyrant. The wages were ridiculously low. We were all technicians treated like gorillas. Most folks would have been just as satisfied working on cars, computers, or any other assembly line.

The all uniformly hated taking their terms working in the warehouse. It’s boring, was the usual complaint. But that’s where I was happiest. Lost among the shelves lined with the movies.

What I couldn’t get across to most people there—what I can’t really get across to anyone now—is that movies are important. They resonate in our culture the way that literature and music used to. Art, even committed by committee, of any form, is important. Movies aren’t fleeting like live theater or sporting events. It’s permanent, and reflects our changing society. It is a mirror of all of us. And even the worst can be wonderful to some degree, if you truly love the form.

In the dark and inconceivably dirty warehouse (dirt, like every other element, destroys film; and the warehouse was supposed to be temperature-controlled, but it always seemed too hot or cold in there), I was among art history. And 90% of the titles I saw, I not only recognized, but usually had seen in one form or another.

Most of my co-workers thought I was weird. For my passion for the movies, for my passion for the job (despite my ineptitude at virtually every position). I had wanted to try my hand in every aspect of the job and had done just about everything there to one degree. I had cut negative, hot spliced, ran the film cleaner, worked in the video lab across the hall, ran the antiquated animation table (I animated the title crawl for John Russo’s ill-advised Night of the Living Dead: The 30th Anniversary—I’d even done some color correction (despite my red/green color blindness). I worked endlessly making new negatives for a horrible and oddly soul-killing Jesus project that a lunatic Christian company had distributed to every company in the world.

And even when I hated being there, part of me loved it. Because movies are important. So I picked up this George Stevens DVD to remind me of my hellish time at WRS. And to remind me of why I make movies (or try to). Not for the financial reward, clearly. But to bring something to life that hadn’t been there before me. To maybe inspire others to do it. To leave my footprint in the sand.

Movies are important.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Eric Thornett

There's something extremely wrong with Eric Thornett. I have a number of theories. My primary one is that he slept in a crib just coated with lead-based paint. Not as a baby, mind you, but as an adolescent. And possibly an adult. I have it on good authority that he slept on the floor as a teenager - not because he didn't have a bed. He did. He just chose to sleep beside it.

Anyway, Eric has an odd fascination with me. And tells constant lies about me. And often mentions me in full, derogatory sentences. Or derogatorily in passing.

Anyway, here are some of his most recent ramblings:

"An Ode to an Empty Convention Room" - where he harasses Debbie Rochon and Joe Bob Briggs.

"Adventures at a Nerd Convention" - where he showed up at Genghis Con and harassed the rest of the people I knew (where the photos for the "Ode" were taken, not so coincidently).

If you check out the rest of his site, you'll see that he's been harassing me for years. If his movies - particularly Shockheaded - weren't so amazing and well-done, I'd probably have killed him by now. Or, at least, hurt his feelings more than I usually do. Plus, there's a post on there that claims to have been written by Klinton Spilsbury, star of The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and if it's true, it can't possibly be something to recommend.
It's snowing here... a lot. Not as much as it did in New York, it seems, for which, I'm grateful. Don't like snow... I have the opinion that most human beings are just a hairs-breadth away from cannibalism as it is. So all it would take is a single heavy-snow (or, lets face it, a really long red light) to make them start eating each other. Not that I think that would be a particularly bad thing, but I know for a fact that Americans are too lazy to follow recipes.

Monday, February 06, 2006

I wanted goats!

We finally moved the horses up to our land - well, up to the land across the road from us, anyway. Where they once only had two acres of straight up to run around on, they now have over fifty. Plenty of grazing and hay, with only sheep to share it with. They seem a lot happier now.

Of course, getting them up there proved to be a chore. For one thing, they'd both thrown their halters, forcing Amy and I to trudge through two acres of foot-deep mud to find them (only to locate them at the bottom of the lots, about three feet from where we'd started!). Then putting the halters on them became a challenge as the younger saddlebred had no desire to wear it and would run from us when we tried it.

Miraculously, getting them into the trailer proved easier than expected. I thought sure that would result in a fight as well, but the Appie-Walker, Callie, went right in, following her grain bucket, and the saddlebred, Shadowfax Filly, just followed her.

Our stableowner, John Henderson, loaned us the trailer and drove them up to our neighbor's pasture. I drove up after them and got inside the trailer to untie them from the hitches. Callie trotted right out. Filly, of course, slipped on a new pile of droppings and lost her footing. Her head swung around and cracked me right in the temple. My vision went white and all I could hear were her hoofs pounding against the floor of the trailer. All I could think of was "I refuse to go out like this! Being kicked to death by a clumsy horse!"

By the time my vision returned, I realized that she was nowhere near me and was actually back on her feet in seconds, but I was sure I was going to get further injuries.

Once Amy and John led the dopey beasts through the gate, all was fine. Both horses had their ears straight up, as if to say "Really? This is all ours?" Then they took off running into the valley.

That evening, the constant drizzle turned to snow and bitter, knifing wind. We lost our upstairs heaters for some reason and I can't locate our local plumber to fix things.

Which brings me to today. For the past four months, I've been fighting one thing after another. A producer who owes me money; a publisher who owes me money; writers who owe me pieces for the next Sirens; agents who still don't think our magazine is "important" enough for their clients...

I'm sick of fighting. I'm sick of having to justify myself, my experience, my talent. I know that not everything that be easy, but can't something?

We're more determined than ever to get a few projects produced over the next year. We already have one interested investor, and produce Joe Casey has already employed us to shoot a short for his upcoming anthology, tentatively-titled Brinke's Tales of Terror. But this year is going to be for us. We're not putting anything on hold for anyone else. We saw two projects die and put another two aside in order to help people we thought were friends. Never again. The business has proven itself to be cut-throat, and while I refuse to play the game that way, I won't be nearly as trusting in the future. Or eager to help those who are beneath me.

If you aren't in this business because you love movies and want to bring your own stories to life--but want to make movies because you desire to hang out in Hollywood, the movies being secondary--then to hell with you. Good luck with your endeavors, but count me out. I'm in this business because I fought to get here, I believe in the movies that I've promoted, I believe in the people who have stuck by me all these years. It's time I rewarded those who helped us--and it's time we rewarded ourselves.

Mostly, I want to be like our horses. I want to find someplace where I can just run. I want someone to take us there, show us what we have been dreaming about. I want to turn to them and say "Really? This is ours?" I know it's not going to happen and I know that there's plenty of fighting ahead of us. But I know our own pasture is out there somewhere. Even if we can only play there for a few moments, maybe that, at least, will be enough. At least for a few moments, we won't be fighting.