Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Shooting "Coventry Lanes" part 2

Looking back at the shoot—which seems like having taken place months ago, rather than just a few short weeks—I'm having the same feeling as I did when it was happening: it was hectic, it was rushed and it was too short. Unlike Splatter Movie and A Feast of Flesh, where we had more time and less money, this time around, time was the precious commodity. Most of the problem was our own dumb fault. We completely misjudged the amount of time we had to shoot at King Lanes, thinking we had the entire month of August, where, in reality, where the rest of the world resides, we only had the first two weeks. So the entire script had to be boiled down to a lean eight-day shoot.

Our budget being what it was, we could only afford to bring our out-of-town people in for a single weekend. This meant that all of the "group diva" stuff, with Amy, Brinke Stevens, Debbie Rochon, Lilith Stabs and Robyn Griggs had to be shot during the first three days. With everyone involved having their own hectic schedules, we could only shoot with Debbie Saturday to Monday, Robyn had to be out at a certain time each day to accommodate a different shoot, and then there were all the other performers to think about, with their own jobs and lives to juggle around.

None of the above would have been much of a problem, truthfully, if it weren't for the fact that the five Divas (and the two main characters, Lisa (Nikki McCrea) and Taffy (Sofiya Smirnova)) had multiple costume and make-up changes to deal with. Gwendolyn, my more-or-less "sister in law" (in that she's married to Bill Homan, my closest friend in the world), had only a few days to create essentially six costumes. Eric Molinaris and his team were providing the extensive demon make-up. I had originally hoped that Don Bumgarner would be on hand to create teeth for the Divas on set, as he had done for A Feast of Flesh, but his duties at Scarehouse precluded his involvement this time around. Ultimately, as far as teeth went, Luke Miller (Splatter Movie) came through with upper and lower dentures that, in the end, just didn't fit anyone quite right. Through no fault of his own. Truth be told, had we used the teeth he'd created, we'd have had to do multiple takes and ADR so the actresses wouldn't be slurring their words. Which would have required more time that we didn't have.

Add to all this the fact that Amy and I were working with a crew entirely new to us. While we know Steve and Hugo socially, we've never worked with them or even seen them work before. And their D.P., Simon Garrity, was a complete wild card for us as we'd never even met him before. And has it been mentioned ad nauseum yet that their primary language is French, while ours isn't even English, it's "American"? This led to constant amounts of fun. They'd ask me what I wanted for the next shot, I'd tell them, then they'd go and confer in French and completely freak me out. By the end of the shoot, I was almost able to understand them. I pay attention to tone and body language, at least, so I could interpret what they were saying without actually knowing. And, apparently, I had caught on more than I knew because, in at least two instances, Steve would ask Simon or Hugo something in French and I, passing by, would answer in English. Took me by surprise too.

There were other "first time" things for us to contend with. I'm a complete novice when it comes to High Definition video, so I had to learn as I went along what their capacity was with Firestore Hard Drives versus "P2" cards, what the camera capabilities were, etc.

Amy and I are used to being the crew, along with Jeff Waltrowski, so watching these guys in motion was something to behold. For one thing, they lit like pros. So the backgrounds were always lit, multiple characters had their own key lights, etc. Now, in our defense, we were shooting on a much wider space than we're used to. On Feast and Splatter, we were usually cramming a dozen people into one tiny room. King Lanes is, of course, the size of a bowling alley! So we needed more light. Fortunately, we had more lights, including two I rented from Performance Lighting, the very place I used to rent lights from in film school.

One thing I knew right off the bat—while it would take us a while to get used to the Canadians, it would likely take longer for them to get used to us. Or, rather, the way we like to shoot. We like to call what we do, alternatively, "The McGyver School of Filmmaking" and "run and gun". When Jeff or I are behind camera, we concentrate on one thing: "get the shot". And since I do the editing, I know what I need. I'm not big on master shots and I'm not a big believer of multiple takes. It took me a while to analyze what I do. It seems lazy, but at the same time, I don't see a lot of benefit from the Stanley Kubrick school. Why do you need 187 takes of Tom Cruise rounding a corner? And while I like running lines with actors, I'm not big on rehearsal. I usually like what's invented in the moment than in the rote repetition of the lines. I like to be surprised. On the flip side of that, since I usually write the scripts, I know how they sound in my head, so I became, on this shoot at least, a "line reading director". (But as Brinke told me on the last day, "Most actors will tell you that they like getting line readings—they want to know how the director wants the line to sound." So that was comforting.)

So it was likely agony for Simon, at least, when I would veto multiple takes. "We need to make another," he'd say after every take, and, invariably, I'd ask why. Eventually, he caught on and would reply, "For sound. To make sure." Which was vague and the one thing I was most afraid of. So, inevitably, we'd "make another one." Which was fine on day one. By Day Four, we didn't really have time to "make another one." We barely had the time to make the first one!

We were also working with a lot of people who were good friends, but were first time actors. And a couple of folks we didn't know at all! It always takes me a while to find an actor's rhythm. Mostly, because I'm not that good of a director when it comes to actors. Actors frustrate me and I don't usually know how to communicate with them. Dust on a lens? I know what to do. Blown fuse or bad lamp. I know what to do or how to get around it. 'What's my motivation?' No clue how to answer. Not a lot of patience with that question either. But I forced myself. I had fifteen-plus people who needed to know what the hell was going on in front of the camera, and another dozen more who wanted to know what was going on behind it. The people in front were the scarier group for me.

Tara Cooper and Tabatha Carrick, two wonderful ladies and very good friends, were acting for more or less the first time. And both had confessed that they were terrified. Michael Barton, Gary _____ and Stephanie Bertoni were veteran actors, but we'd never worked with them before. Okay, Steph was the script supervisor on The Screening, but I didn't have that much contact with her on that show. And everybody in the movie was playing a character that could become a cartoon without much nudging. Steph's "Rochelle", in particular, is so over the top that finding a balance for her was vital. So I was learning about them as they learned about me.

In the meantime, Amy was doing her producer duties by solving an endless amount of problems beyond the camera perimeter. She was juggling travel and sleep arrangements with the make-up and costume departments, figuring out with Sandy Hall what food would be served and when, and dealing with multiple emotional breakdowns. It should be said that I love all of my female friends. I understand women a lot better, in a lot of ways, than I do men. Which is one of the reasons my scripts are so unbalanced with the amount of female-to-male characters. But I swear to god, once our ten-plus female cast got on set together, their cycles all synched simultaneously. Hell, by the end of the first weekend, I was menstrual.

There was one day in particular that blew my mind. Gwen had just gotten all the Divas and Lisa fitted into their glamour costumes and the Canadians and I were just finishing up with the "strip bowling" section (which came with its own calamities). Amy comes up to me in between set ups and tells me that she and Nikki have to run out. Suddenly, half the cast was gone! Nikki and Amy had also taken Tara and Aaron and Sandy with them. And I had no idea why.

Steve comes up, "What's next."



"Amy and Nikki went shopping."

Long pause. "What?"

As it turns out, Nikki's glamour dress didn't work on her. Again – nobody's fault. Gwen didn't have enough time to fit it to her properly, so it didn't quite hang on her correctly. And since Nikki is twice Sofiya's height, she felt like a giant next to the tiny Asian girl. So, in a bout of producer professionalism, Amy took her out to get a replacement costume that would fit her and allow her to look and feel sexy. Fine. Aaron went for Nikki's emotional support. Tara went for Amy's. And Sandy drove, knowing the quickest route to the stores. Fine.

Except, none of this was explained to me. Just all of the sudden, I had no cast.

"So what do you want to do?" Steve asked me, clearly enjoying my misery as I flipped through the script, trying to find anything we could shoot so we could move on.

"Send everyone home and get drunk," I responded.

"Works for me," Steve replied.

There were a lot of little things like that. Maybe not as dire, but dump them all into a heap…

One day was like ten minutes before a first-grade play. This person didn't have the right pants, another didn't have the right underwear, another had forgotten their hat, one of the aprons was missing, another was lost. All of this, Amy had to deal with, as I tore pages out of the script haphazardly to make sure we'd be able to finish before Sunday morning.

To everyone's credit, nobody else seemed out of sorts or stressed out. I felt bad for the people who were just sitting around, waiting for us to get to them. That was always a source of pride with us—we didn't keep people waiting around. But then there'd be Steph or Brinke reading their books and waiting for their scenes. And then there was Mike Barton who spent about an hour lying half-naked on the floor, covered with fake gore, because no one told me he was ready (or if they had, I didn't listen).

Right off the bat, things went weird. Not just with the language barrier and the idea that I was somehow in over my head—all of these things contributed to our running behind schedule, continuously. The first Saturday, Jeff, playing "Brad" and also A.D., informed me: "We've got to start moving faster."

Which pissed me off. "What would you suggest?"

"I don't know. Going faster."

I didn't hit him. He was doing his job.

Strangely, the more I felt compelled to apologize for time and delay, the more people seemed to console me and tell me things were fine. Brinke was happy and said she was relaxed. Stephanie was used to much longer days on the "bigger" sets. Others were just hanging out and having a good time in between sets. The Canadians were happy because people were helping them, particularly David Cooper who was gripping in between all the set photography he was conducting. Every now and then, Amy would send someone over to make sure I was hydrating or eating. I had three people, including Amy, prepare me a plate for dinner on Sunday. So maybe this is what directing is: watching time sift away while everyone else orbits around you. Amy, as producer, had the unenviable task of existing in the middle of this sea of stress, though. And she kept as much of it as possible away from me.

For perhaps the first occasion since filming The Resurrection Game I felt the time-crunch. In Res Game, we had to shoot the 15-page climax and fight over a period of four different weekends at the American Mattress Factory because of the owner's time limits. We could only shoot while he was open, which meant six hours start to finish. The last hour of every shoot was maddening, but we knew we had free reign to return. This time around, we had to get everything done by Saturday the 9th.

Our first Saturday, the 2nd, was hectic and ran long. We didn't get out of there until after 10pm, shooting out the people with the least amount of time first. Sunday wasn't much better, but we did manage to wrap before 9pm that time around. Sunday was particularly stressful because of the costume changes. The Divas all start in their bowling outfits (their "white trash" costumes, as we dubbed them), moved to their glamour outfits for a couple of sections, then had to all throw themselves at our make-up department for their prosthetics, detailing, contacts and tattoos. Each stage per woman took about an hour, including the "plain" make up and particularly the glamour.

Because of limitations, we only managed to get all the Divas in a group for about four shots. Robyn was the first who had to leave, so we ended up framing her out of other sequences. My thinking was that she could be included in either a single, or a two-shot with Amy later. As we got more and more crunched for time and people started to burn out, we had to radically rethink the end fight. Nikki, as Lisa, had different stages of make up she had to go through, which would have meant more time and more delay. Ultimately, Amy, Simon and I came up with a way to keep the spirit of the Divas acting as one entity but separate characters, while still retaining the high-energy of the action that, hopefully, will work in editing. We'll see soon, won't we? By the time we started shooting that stuff, I could barely think straight.

The following weekend made the first weekend look like a vacation. We were without Tabatha, Brinke, Debbie, Henrique and Lilith and were only praying that the coverage we'd gotten with them the previous weekend would be enough. I was fairly confident, editing in my head, but I've gotten burned by myself before.

The second weekend was made doubly-complicated because it also included gore sequences. This was going to be even trickier because we couldn't get blood anywhere near the actual lanes for fear of staining the wood. I'd already talked to some digital effects artists about the possibility of digital blood in post, so I wasn't overtly worried about this restriction. But gore also equals time, particularly if you want it to look, you know, good. So a quick panic-stricken perusal of the script gave us the vital effects verses stuff we could shoot later on one of our ever-popular "garage gore days".

Things were going well Saturday. Crew call was 9am and we got our first shot off at 10:30 (which I was determined to do, even if I had to keep setting the clocks back!). Our first sequences involved two of our regulars: Bill Homan (who had to be at work by four, which meant out by two) and Stacy Bartlebaugh-Gmys (who was starring in a play and had to be out by also two). Their companion was "Mrs. Homan", Gwendolyn, who had no time constraints beyond having to take Bill to work. So, okay, say about two. We got all of their scenes done and wrapped, including a quick prosthetic, by 12:25. I was feeling pretty good about the day.

That rapidly vanished by about 10pm that night. As we were still going.

Around 8:30, Amy and I sat down with the script while everyone else ate dinner and started crossing out sequences the movie could do without. There were a number of short sequences with Nikki and Aaron's characters that were either redundant or didn't do much to forward the plot or, because of the way we had to stage scenes before and after them, just couldn't be logically blocked. I started condensing longer sequences, too, including an extended fight between Nikki and Sofiya that would not have worked either practically or, ultimately, thematically.

Then we started eliminating and redistributing lines. Then trying to figure out how to shoot action with only one of the involved parties.

By midnight, there wasn't a single person on set who wasn't fried beyond salvation. I had long since lost the ability to communicate with anyone, in English or French. At one point, I sat down with the Canadians and explained something, "Look, I'm going to ask you to shoot things a certain way and you're not going to understand why. How do you say 'trust me' in French?"

They told me. I never did say it correctly, but at least they never argued. Of course, I'd catch Hugo or Simon shooting cutaways of this or that while I was doing something else, for which I'm sure I'll be eternally grateful.

We shot the penultimate "Abby Singer" shot—an effects shot with Sofiya—and the Martini Shot with Amy and wrapped just shy of 1 am. Since my iMac cannot currently display the footage, I have no idea if we got everything we needed and will, doubtlessly, have to either return to the alley at a later date or do a very long "garage gore day" before the end of the year.

As we dragged ourselves out of the alley that night, triumphant in knowing that none of us would have to return to Kittanning on Sunday—which was a blessing for Bob and Sandy, who had to ready the alley for league inspection by 6pm that day—we retired for the evening. Or, at least, went back to Sandy's for sleep.

Coming next: what we did in between those two weekends and how the movie actually wrapped!

Friday, August 15, 2008

New Shoot part 1

Sunday night, shooting wrapped on Coventry Lanes. In an epic shoot, beating our own personal records by completing principal photography in just seven days—which included breaking another record by extending one shoot past twelve hours to a whopping seventeen, leaving most of us exhausted and hysterical—we emerged scathed and scarred, perhaps wiser, but likely not.

As most of you have already doped out, Coventry Lanes is a bowling movie. It takes place in the beautiful King Lanes in Kittanning, owned by the beyond-generous and patient Bob and Sandy Hall. Bob and Sandy also went above and beyond to feed and house the majority of our 30+ cast and crew for the bulk of the seven days. Which is actually karma, in a lot of ways, because truth be told, the entire impetus of the movie was Sandy’s fault.

A few months ago, Amy and I attended a one-day comic book convention in Ohio, in the very hotel Robyn Griggs hosted her Twisted Nightmare Weekend show for two years. Robyn was also a guest at this show and, as they’re want to do, she and Amy wound up in the bar for a good portion of the day. As Robyn is a veteran of soap operas—Another World, primarily—she and Amy have often tooled around with doing a web-based soap spoof and they returned to this topic again, amidst many lemon drops. As we left, Amy and I continued to outline the plot of this silly thing when we got a call from Tara Cooper, make-up artist and costumer extraordinaire. She was at her mother’s place. Her mother, Sandy, was the co-owner of the aforementioned Kittanning Bowling Alley with her husband, Bob. Ever since Mothman Prophecies had been shot in Kittanning, it’d been Sandy’s dream that a movie would be filmed in her alley. And this dream was expressed to us over the phone. Or, rather, over Tara’s shoulder and over the phone.

“Tell them they have to shoot in my bowling alley!” we heard.

Now, for the last two years, Happy Cloud Pictures has been trying and failing to raise funds necessary for a larger-budgeted straight horror movie called Painmaker. It’s at the top of our dream projects. It has a big concept, will require a huge effects budget and will likely involve multiple SAG actors. It’s not something we can toss off in our back yard. But we like to shoot something every year. Blame our work ethic or our sense of masochism, but we like to stay busy. And since Splatter Movie continues to this moment to be requested and rejected by major distributors, we didn’t have anything currently on our plate for the Summer. So by the time we got home, we had a brief outline for a fun, goofy horror comedy similar to but very different from our first DV movie, Severe Injuries.

As children of the ‘80s, we’re all at HCP fans of the straight-to-video horror movie. Among my personal favorites are Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, both starring the wonderful Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer. Right before Hookers came Nightmare Sisters, which was the first time these two starred with the just as wonderful if not wonderfuler Brinke Stevens. Now: bowling alley, horror comedy—our first idea was to do either an indirect sequel or, possibly, a remake of Sorority Babes. We entertained this idea for all of four seconds until we realized we’d have to hunt down the rights, either through director Dave DeCoteau or Fred Olen Ray, whose Retromedia label was the current distributor. Add to that the fact that I’m not a fan of remakes and consider myself an intensely original individual, a rip-off—uh, I mean, homage was more keeping with my sensibilities.

I knew what elements I wanted to include: the evil preppy girls, the outsiders, the hunks, the misunderstood hunk, and the female villains that would set all the gore and nastiness in motion. The original concept was to include the three genuine scream queens: Brinke, Michelle and Linnea, and add to them Amy and Debbie Rochon, who are often pegged as scream queens anyway, regardless of the fact that they very rarely scream in their movies. Then mix in our normal cast of zanies, perhaps bring in a number of out-of-town friends to round out the parts.

By the end of the week, I’d banged out a first draft that contained no less than fifteen main characters, including one that would be perfect for one of the A-list horror con regulars like Michael Berryman or Kane Hodder. We sent the script around to everyone we wanted involved and… immediately, things started to collapse.

First: our meeting with Sandy and Bob went swimmingly. They were excited. The alley was fantastic. We couldn’t wait. Except for the fact that I’d inadvertently written in scenes involving a pool table and a gymnasium (hey, the bowling alley in my old neighborhood had these things and an upstairs video arcade; my assumption that all alleys had these things were valid based on the information I had at the time!), it was a perfect location. We signed the location agreement and went along our way. Completely misunderstanding one vital piece of information involving the alley’s need for readiness before league play started in September. More on that in a minute.

The script was sent out to our “scream queens” and Brinke was the first to sign on. Debbie was second. Michelle had to be tracked down. Linnea had a new management team we needed to deal with. All fine. We had two investors come through almost immediately and Amy received a decent severance package from her job of ten years following a layoff; for once we had money to play with.

Then we contacted our SAG actor. He was on board. So we contacted SAG.

Then one of our investors started to get itchy to get everyone signed, which meant putting pressure on the rest of our out-of-town cast.

Then the director of photography we’d been hoping for had to back out due to his selfishly accepting a job in New Orleans on a big budget movie.

Then one actress was on board, wanted too much money, accepted a counter offer, then realized the dates we wanted to shoot conflicted with a prior engagement.

Then, we realized our miscommunication with Sandy and Bob. Where once we thought we had all of August, by July 3rd, we discovered we only had until August 10. See, there are all sorts of things one has to do to get a bowling alley ready for league play. They need a lot of time to accomplish those things. Playing host to a huge team of delusional filmmakers is not on that list of needed accomplishments. Suddenly, our production time—not to mention our pre-production time—had been cut by two weeks.

We booked flights, continued negotiations, abandoned negotiations and sought new cast members to replace the ones we didn’t have after all. Our key to the five villains was getting actresses cast who were not only recognizable but also had a reputation in the indie horror world. Since we’re morons, it took us a day or so to realize who our leads should be and quickly approached our good friends Lilith Stabs and (duh!) Robyn Griggs (who we had originally envisioned in a different role but worked perfectly in the one we pitched to her). What was better, with Amy, Brinke, Debbie, Robyn and Lilith, we had a mini-Severe Injuries reunion going on as well, so that was very cool.

And during all of this, we negotiated with the Screen Actors Guild.

Let me take some time to bitch and whine about SAG. First, when you contact them, the first thing you have to go through is listen to them lecture and degrade you for not using all SAG actors. SAG actors, don’t you know, are better trained, better disciplined and all around better humans, more moral and closer to divinity, than your normal, run of the mill, unwashed heathen non-union actor. The next thing you have to do is fill out paperwork. Which we did. And faxed said forms back to them.

Then refaxed them because our SAG rep never received them.

Then called back to confirm they received the refax. They did.

Two days later, a package larger than our mortgage financing appeared in the mail. Complete with a Book of Mormon-sized guide to SAG contracts.

Keep in mind, we wanted this SAG actor for one fucking day! And he’d already agreed to it and liked the role! His price was better than we’d anticipated. We knew him personally. He was a terrifically cool guy and we wanted him to play something he’d never done before. But his Union… they don’t like their members to work on piddly little projects like this. They’d much rather they not work than deign to shoot a single day on a no-budget production. Even when the no-budget production has a fucking budget.

Sorry, sorry. The frustration flashbacks keep coming.

Anyway, by the time we got all the paperwork filled out and finally received a return phone call from our alleged SAG rep, our actor had already booked another job. I checked; he wasn’t working with our former DP. It was something different.

At this point, I’m having panic attacks hitting me like a clock bonging the time and we haven’t even started shooting yet.

Fortunately, our flights were booked, the rest of the cast was set, our good friend and pseudo-sister-in-law Gwendolyn offered to do costumes for us, things were starting to run smoothly. Things got even better when our good French Canadian friends at Diggerfilms, Steve, Hugo and their DP Simon, offered to come down to shoot for us with their HD equipment. Suddenly, the light at the end of the tunnel was not an oncoming train! This movie might actually get made after all.

We sat down with FX master Eric Molinaris to discuss some of the more gruesome kills needed, as well as the cool-ass demon makeup, he was all about it, even though he was in the middle of shooting his own movie, Black Sunrise. Concurrently, Jeff Waltrowski came aboard as an AD, even though he was in pre-production on It Came from Yesterday, which will be shooting in December.

We still had a couple of parts to cast, so we held open auditions at the alley. Kittanning is about twenty miles outside of Pittsburgh. Our rationale for holding the auditions there was based on the idea that people who would schlep all the way out there for an audition would have no trouble doing so for the actual shoot.

Out of nearly 100 applicants, four showed up. Of course, we only needed to fill three roles and liked everyone we saw. One of the four, Gary, impressed Amy and Tara so much that they insisted I write a role for him. Suddenly, our fifteen person cast grew to seventeen (I needed someone for Gary’s character to talk to, so I imported Henrique Couto as well). We cast the other three in the necessary roles.

Then panicked when one had a family emergency.

Then panicked again when another felt that the movie’s sex and nudity would damage his career as a professional stand-in. It might prevent him from ever standing in again!

We approached another actress to fill the void. She couldn’t do it. Add to that another had to drop out even closer to the start date due to an even more dire family emergency and I was waking up every morning looking at Christopher Walken in my mirror.

I’d gotten used to taking shallow breaths and conversing with others with my head between my knees. All was good.

Amy solved the first two absences admirably. She approached our good friend Tabatha Carrick (who runs “Corpses by the Bunch” with her mother, Sharon Titus) and asked her to take the part of “Becki-with-an-I”. Tabatha, game as she was, insisted that she couldn’t act and that we’d fire her within seconds of learning this on set. (She came up anyway, making the five hour drive from Baltimore.)

The “duh” moment came when we realized that the perfect actress for the other dopy sorority girl, “Infinity”, was right under our noses. We just didn’t ask her because she was already slated to do make-up, hair, costuming and general assistance. But we figured, what’s one more thing on the plate and asked Tara if she’d be up to playing Infinity. She was. Just as terrified as Tabatha as it turns out, but game she was.

Our longtime partner was put into the role of Max, originally written for him, oddly enough, but slated for our SAG actor when we started reaching for the moon. Gwendolyn came on for Roxanne, again, doing double-duty. Our last male-ish associate, Jeff, was recruited for Brad.

Then came the last family emergency—two days before shooting. The person who seemed most excited about shooting was suddenly thrust into a family nightmare and had to pull out. Our sympathies and heart went to her, but we couldn’t do anything to help and we couldn’t push shooting back. My mind raced. I invented a few deities and said prayers to them. Suddenly, a name popped into my brain, someone I’d worked with on The Screening many moons ago. Coincidentally enough, the better half of our original DP. I didn’t know if I still had her number or email. Miraculously, I did. I called, left a message. Took a shot of the hard stuff. Wished I had remembered to commit suicide weeks ago like a rational person.

The phone rang. It was her: Stephanie Bertoni.

She accepted. Liked the script, pitched her salary requirements, suddenly, all was right with the world.

Two days later, we were shooting.