Saturday, June 12, 2010

New Shoot: "The Night We Didn't Read Myra Breckenridge"

Once again, my body has taken it upon itself to remind me that I’m not as young as I used to be. All because I had the audacity to shoot a short movie. Lousy body.

A quick little “prequel” to Demon Divas has been in the works since our first screening of the feature at Cinema Wasteland. While the movie went over better than we’d hoped, the majority of the audience really responded to the Book Club characters played by Gwendolyn, Stacy Bartlebaugh-Gmys and, especially, Bill Homan as the bizarre and flamboyant Max. Knowing that we wanted to do a few things to round out the inevitable DVD, we started kicking around ideas for a companion film. Things gelled for me, storywise, with a visit to Scarehouse in Etna.

As we’ve long espoused, Scarehouse is an awesome haunted attraction outside of Pittsburgh. I’ve championed this haunt for years, not just because the owners, Scott and Barb and Wayne Simmons are good friends of ours, but because it’s just quite simply an awesome and elaborately-put together experience. One room in particular caught my imagination: a library being slowly demolished by some Elder God—tentacles bursting through the book shelves and a giant mechanized eye peering through a gaping hole in the wall. I love this room. By the time we finished our trip through the rest of the haunt, I had a skeleton of a story in mind.

Obviously, I don’t want to give too much away… so I won’t. Suffice to say we designed a script that could be shot in a maximum of two days, in two locations, with a minimum of characters and crew. It would be a down-to-the-basics shoot—short, quick and funny. What made this movie different for us is that it would be the first time we’d shoot a sequel/prequel with characters we’d used before. We’ve done little Necro-Phil promos, of course, and I’ve done continuations of things in different mediums (the upcoming Severe Injuries follow-up graphic novel, for instance), but I saw this is a new little challenge to see if we could reproduce some of the magic from Demon Divas in a new setting. Albeit goofy and way more over-the-top.

The Simmonses were already onboard and would provide anything we needed, including a trio of really talented make-up artists (Chris, Dejah and Dale), and since their pre-production prior to the Halloween season lasts pretty much from February to September, they’d be at the site anyway, so long as we didn’t mind a little hammering and sawing while we worked. Since that was something we’d gotten used to while shooting Splatter Movie at the Hundred Acres Manor, we were completely in our element. We’ve also gotten pretty good at ADR over the years, so even if that proved to be a necessity (and it did) it wouldn’t be a problem.

The short, under the working title of “The Night We Didn’t Read Myra Breckenridge”, really harkened back to our salad days—bringing our friends together for a quick shoot in exchange for gas money and doughnuts, after weeks of emails trying to nail down a day when six people would actually be available at the same time (with varying time-limitations), everyone chipping in to wear multiple hats as cast and crew, and making-it-up-as-you-go style of filming utilizing the limitations of the environment to our advantage.

The main drawback came on Monday, however, when I failed to reach Tonerwoods’ Jason Thompson in time to utilize him as DP. Selfish bastard decided to take a paying job instead! So I was more or less on my own as my own DP and camera. Now, as I’ve whined ad nauseum, I’ve studied cinematography, I know the principals of good lighting, I even have a decent lighting kit, I just hate doing it. There’s no joy comparable to having a lighting crew at your disposal to make everything pretty. My lighting style can be summed up by “enough light to get an exposure, preferably with proper shadows”. But, fortunately, I wasn’t alone. In addition to Gwen, Stacy (but not Gwen Stacy) and Bill, Amy was doing her usual acting and producing and crewing, Michael Varrati and Mike and Carolyn Haushalter were all available to make the requisite magic.

Another drawback, however, was shooting HD to P2 cards. I am not an expert at this. In fact, the only other times I’ve worked with this type of technology were when shooting other Demon Divas inserts. In those cases, I was dealing with seconds-long inserts, and nothing of real length or involvement. When the Diggerfilms hommes shot DD for us, they had two cameras and card-readers at their disposal. There was no loss of productivity during footage capture. I had only our HVX, a laptop and hard drive. So every fifteen minutes’ worth of footage required a real-time dump accompanied by panic. I had redundancies in place—after transferring, I burned the shots to DVD as a back-up, in case the hard drive decided to fail on the way home, but it was still nerve wracking to the extreme. As Bill and I discussed, even back in our film days, if a roll got damaged or came back out of focus, at least we still had it. The damaged reel still existed. A failed hard drive after a wiped card eliminates all proof that we did anything at all. And since I seem to be an enemy of all technology, these possibilities weighed heavily on my mind throughout.

On the happiness side, though, we had awesome sets to run amok on (even with the added joy of trying to find the hidden outlets to tie into with lights), outstanding make-up effects and cool-as-hell mechanical coolness providing coolitude. The coolness level was upped even higher due to the presence of our star, courtesy of Tom Sullivan and Pat Reese, one of the original Evil Dead Necronomicons (which should give you a hint of the plot).

But the nice thing was the feeling that we were back to the basics, doing something for fun. It’s been more than a year since we shot anything substantial and since we have a big project a ‘brewin’ for the fall, it was essential to get back into practice, particularly as the new project will have to be professionally structured and regimented. This short was loose and collaborative—everyone tossed out ideas, making the scenes the best they could be under the restraints we had (space for people, lights, choreography—everything had to be done right then on the spot).

This required forcing my body into odd positions to get the best angles. Rolling on the floor, using the Bill-built steadicam when possible, balancing, crouching, using my back to boom and tilt. By the end of the shoot, I wanted to curl up and die but my spine wouldn’t allow it. But we finished on schedule and the footage really does look terrific. As much as I hate production, it was definitely a satisfying experience.

We have one short day of pick-ups ahead of us to shoot Bill’s character’s wrap-around, but once that’s done, the Demon Divas project will be complete and the official DVD will likely see a release at October’s Cinema Wasteland. By then, we’ll hopefully be neck-deep in the next feature and starting forward on Happy Cloud Pictures’ second thirteen years. 

 Photo by Carolyn Haushalter

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