Saturday, February 6, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 13 – The Worst of Times

By ScottDS

During the making of our 35mm films, we were encouraged to keep journals. Needless to say, I was one of the few students who took this advice to heart and, inspired by the calamitous events that befell us during the making of our film, my journal grew to a nice and healthy 40-something pages. I will be including excerpts along the way, edited for clarity and corrected for grammar and punctuation. A couple of names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty. (I don’t come across in the best light either.) I’ve also gone and edited out most of the profanity – I don’t curse very often but this journal is replete with the F-word in all its diversity. Beware...

A Total Waste of Time

We took two classes for 35mm along with a business course that was taught by the (now ex-) wife of our DC instructor – her name was Windy. Pre-Production and Casting (PPC) was taught by a guy named Mike though we were told to address him by his nickname, “Spoon.” Feature Filmmaking (FFM) was taught by a cool guy named Rob along with his associate, Disco. Rob was great – one of the best teachers we had at Full Sail, if not the best, period. Disco was a bit of a hard-ass but, in hindsight, he was one of those guys whose respect you just want to earn. I had my moments with him but he graded my journal and said it was one of the best he had ever read. By the time we graduated, all was copacetic. Spoon was a nice guy and certainly meant well but I’d say half of what we learned in his class was either: a.) completely redundant (like storyboarding and making shot lists), or b.) a total waste of time. Windy was a very nice lady and helped us with resumes, business cards, networking and interviewing skills, and the timeless art of the elevator pitch.

We’d all sit in rapt attention during Rob’s classes (he had no problem cursing in front of us but promised a few students he wouldn’t use God’s name in vain), but during Spoon’s classes you could just feel the tension and restlessness. He had to tell us to be quiet... repeatedly. Rob never did. When Spoon would call attendance, I remember some students giving him Top Gun nicknames (“Call me Iceman!”). One day, he had some students from the Paul Mitchell School (they were all dressed in black, like a group of fascist hipsters) do a presentation on hair and make-up. That put half the class to sleep – not to mention they stole all of our desks! He gave us scripts and told us to split into groups, divide the scripts into scenes, and storyboard them using a special template. (We were given still cameras to use as well.) After we finished, he then went on to assemble every group’s storyboards into a 50-page book – each student received one of these monstrosities! The hallway after class looked like a white Christmas! Spoon used up a good acre of forest in ten minutes.

We also held a mock casting session in Spoon’s class, even though we had already held real ones just a few months earlier. This was a riot! Some students were assigned the role of “casting director” while others were assigned such roles as “nervous actor,” “egotistical actor,” etc. I loved this – in fact I had totally forgotten about it until now. I only wish I had it all on video. From looking at the class itinerary, we also viewed plenty of films, including 16mm instructor Jason’s short film (Post Human, which by this time we had heard about ad infinitum) from his time as a Full Sail student. We also viewed another Full Sail film titled Missing You along with a making-of documentary that some folks had put together called Missing Something. Very interesting and here I was sitting in class thinking, “Oh, none of that will happen to us. We’ll get along just fine!” We watched Lost in La Mancha, the darkly comic documentary about Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated attempt to make a Don Quixote movie. We also watched the Grand Guignol of documentaries: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which chronicles the making (and, on occasion, un-making) of Apocalypse Now and features an infamous quote from Francis Ford Coppola: “My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is Vietnam.” We had guest lectures about merchandising, poster design, and shooting on location – a 35mm perk that intrigued many students.

In Rob’s class, we earned how to operate the ARRICAM 35mm camera. A nice lady named Mindy was one of our lab specialists and she was great. Of course, it would help if I remembered any of this: loading the mags, threading the film… again, I was hellbent on directing. Much of our FFM class was spent on the soundstage constructing our sets and sitting in on demonstrations: the crane, the jib, the dolly, etc. Meanwhile, in business class we had videotaped mock job interviews and worked on our cover letters and resumes. If you wanted a top position in 35mm, you actually had to apply the old-fashioned way, with a resume and cover letter addressed to Rob. You also had to put together a portfolio.

A Tale of Two Scripts

One day, Spoon (or possibly Rob) announced the three scripts that would be shot in 35mm. They were In the Nude, Shooting for the Moon, and Stepfather. In the Nude was the script that Mike and I wrote for screenwriting class. (Please note: this Mike and the Mike who worked on Sanguinity are different people. The latter will now be referred to as Mike #2.) It had a “good buzz” as they say and many people thought it would be selected for 35mm from day 1. And best of all, people actually wanted to work on it!

June 1st, 2004. And then Rob introduced us to [producer] Katie. I remember when she walked onto the soundstage in 16mm. She seemed like a nice gal but I had no idea she worked here. I thought she was someone’s girlfriend. I also think she f---ed up one of our overhead bins since they all worked and, after she left, one always seemed to jam.

[After prolonging the suspense], they read off who was working on what. Canadians was up first. Unit production manager is Bill. No surprise there. I know he had wanted to work on In the Nude just a few weeks earlier but when Ryan’s script for Natural Born Canadians was thrown into the ring at the expense of Joey’s Stepfather script (poor Joey, though I must confess I only read the first page and everyone I asked said the script was s---... think Panic: Part 2), it made things a little more complicated. You see, everyone we liked (Mike and I) wanted to work on In the Nude, which we co-wrote. That was great. Not only would we get the best crew […] but also it was just great to be a part of something popular that people liked. After working on a story about a paranoid schizophrenic in DC and four semi-serious (in content, not in form) films in 16mm, I think most of us just wanted to work on something that would make us laugh and for all the right reasons.
Mike and I had finished it for a grade in screenwriting class, and then forgot about it. During 16mm, our friendship became somewhat strained due in no small part to my huge ego. By this time, I can only assume we were peachy. And of course, Spoon had printed the script incorrectly, leaving off the final page that featured the big “comedic twist.” Shooting for the Moon told the story of a kid who wanted to move out of his house where he lived with his (I assume) overbearing parents and become an astronaut. I think... I’m actually not sure what it was about. I don’t remember Stepfather at all and my copy of the script has unfortunately been misplaced.
June 1st, 2004. Then Bill [and possibly others] had to complain to Rob and Co. so they came into business class and gave us a little spiel. Rob had told us some people complained about Shooting for the Moon. Surprisingly (or not depending on who you ask), Stepfather was out and Natural Born Canadians was in. Uh-oh. What would this mean for In the Nude? Well, half of our Sanguinity crew switched sides, including dear sweet Gema who I thought would stick with our script. Claudia, Chris, Bill, and Dave... they all went to the proverbial dark side. Grant and Paul wanted to work on Shooting for the Moon, which Paul wrote. Steve wanted to work on In the Nude as did Mike #2. Me? My dream was to write a script and direct it (or co-direct it but that’s a rant for another time). However, I realized that what I really wanted to do was make a great movie and have fun in the process so I switched over to Canadians. I figured Mike would want to direct In the Nude so at least one of us would have a hand in the [film]. I wanted to work with my 16mm crew.
I’m really not sure what happened. One student might’ve played the religion card, saying he thought Stepfather was offensive. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It’s still a mystery.

Natural Born Canadians was written by a nice guy named Ryan who worked with us on Sanguinity. I remember spying over his shoulder when he was working on it and thinking, “What a piece of crap!” Canadians (a.k.a. NBC) told the story of industrial espionage at a Canadian corporation: the boss attempts to frame the lone American employee by refusing to flush the toilet. Don’t bother to analyze it (please… don’t). I’m sure there was some anti-corporate message buried in the subtext but at the time I wasn’t cognizant of such things, though there’s a joke in the finished film about moving to Canada “for the free healthcare.” NBC was ostensibly a comedy though it was never that funny on the page. At one point, there was a chance it might’ve been shot in DC. Even though Panic was a complete clusterfrak, shooting NBC in that class – with classmates playing Canadian corporate lackeys – might’ve been fun!
June 8th, 2004. Flash forward many moons later and Bill decides that, since he wants to work on a comedy, he’ll pimp for Ryan’s script in 35, after it was passed over in DC (probably for the best) and 16mm. Ryan’s script never went through the usual process. And guess what. It’s still not funny as it could or should be. Ryan has his ideas. Jerrod has his ideas. I have mine. I also wish I had a time machine so I could go back to December and help Ryan with the script, knowing that I’d be co-directing it later.
At this point, I still wasn’t sure which film I wanted to direct: Nude or NBC. With Nude, I was afraid of possibly losing my objectivity. A writer/director can only wear one hat at a time. Besides, Mike can be a larger than life character sometimes whereas I can be a manipulative little bastard. The skeptic in me said it wouldn’t have been a good combination: Mike and I co-directing from our own script. (Even in 35mm, Full Sail was big on multiple directors.) I ended up producing a portfolio for both films. Director portfolios needed to include the following: pitch, script breakdown, storyboards of a pivotal scene (our choice), character breakdowns, and character/transition questions. I produced two of each. In addition, I applied to be script supervisor so I also had to include a lined script for each film. Ryan had since written a revised draft so I lined three scripts: one for Nude and two for NBC. I also applied to be in the art department on either film: not production designer but just… there. I gathered some research and reference photos, including a spiffy diagram of a Mountie uniform.
June 1st, 2004. I had spent a week and several Tylenol gel caps working on the portfolio. Mine might be the biggest but Henderson (I think) submitted his in what looked like a large wooden box. I don’t know the guy and I have nothing against him personally but, considering his work on Taste of the Past, it’s probably safe to say the box is full of either: a.) a few stray moths or b.) lots and lots of money. Mike was right. Mine was the biggest, not counting any artwork that our prospective production designers and art directors might have handed in. [...] I should tell you that I used a 1-inch Avery presentation binder and, when I was finished, the front cover was perfectly parallel with the back cover. I don’t think it’s my best work ever but it’s detailed, thorough, and there was not one spelling or grammatical error.
Rob and Disco announced the crew rosters for each film. Mike became co-director on In the Nude along with another guy named Ryan (a different one). Nude also got Chris (the genius) as production designer, Steve as script supervisor, and Dave as production coordinator. Damn! For Canadians, the directors would be Ryan, me, and another classmate named Jerrod. And in addition to Bill as UPM...
June 1st, 2004. Our production coordinator is Will. One of the Sanguinity guys. Great guy but what happened to Dave?? I know he went out for the job and you can’t separate him and Bill. Directors are Ryan, Jerrod, and me. No surprise there but who the hell is Jerrod? First assistant directors are Jeremy and Chris [a different one]. Who is Chris? He raises his hand, I turn around. Oh, that’s Chris. He’s an okay guy and it’ll be nice for Jeremy to have some help. Jeremy was [an] A.D. on Sanguinity and I think he might have stressed out just a tad. Director of photography is Matt. This will be interesting. He and Ryan are roommates. [Matt wasn’t the easiest person to get along with though I was usually sympathetic.]

Production designer is Claudia. Yes!!! Not only is she great to work with but I also have a bit of a thing for her. Art director is Jor’El, son of... oh forget it. I’ve never worked with him so I can’t really say anything. It’s just surprising to see him get art director. I had no idea he was interested in the area. I just hope Claudia can work with him. That’s all. [...]Casting director is Demitris. I’ve never worked with him either. Well, I did mic him for his scene in Panic that was cut out of the (crappy) version they put on the DVD. He seemed like a nice guy. Assistant casting is Ashley. [...] Script supervisor is Zeb. I’ve never worked with him or even spoken to him but I’ve heard nothing but good things.

The camera department consists of Dan, Billy [not the same person as Bill or Will], Gema, Kit, Dennis, and Geraud. I worked with Gema and Kit on Sanguinity. No complaints. Dan [...] I didn’t get anything out of him one way or the other. Dennis is cool. I’ve said maybe two or three things to him but I’ve heard nothing but good things. He was in the Man-Pampers commercial back in DC. He was very good. I really felt for him. I’ve never worked with Billy and Geraud is new. We’ll see what happens. I just have to keep an open mind.

Sound department is Derek, Josh, and Andrea. Derek I like. He showed up both days to be an extra on our film in 16mm. I respect him for that and it was much appreciated. Josh is okay. Andrea is nice. In every teen movie, you have the hot cheerleader who every guy wants and the cheerleader’s cute best friend. Claudia’s the cheerleader (just much smarter) and Andrea’s the friend. Gaffer is [the other] Scott. Yes! He’s a nice guy and he knows his s---. In fact, in 16mm, he was our original production designer but was tempted to take a leave of absence (he never did) and Bill and Dave knew they couldn’t trust a guy who had his heart and mind elsewhere. They made me production designer and I found them a plane. It’s funny how these things happen. Scott ended up staying. At the wrap party, he congratulated me on a job well done.
There were a few other grip and electric positions that were filled plus we’d have student volunteers, both from our class and others. We had most of the Sanguinity crew but not everyone. Then something interesting happened. Our script supervisor (Zeb) left to work on Shooting for the Moon. Dave, sensing an opening, came aboard as his replacement. This left In the Nude without a production coordinator but with a very pissed off Mike.

And Then There Was Katie

Each 35mm film would get a faculty producer. A guy named John was assigned to Moon and a nice lady named Debbie (who trained me and Steve in the fine art of script supervision for 16mm) was assigned to Nude. (Disco later helped out as well.) Producing our little Canadian adventure would be Katie. As I mentioned above, Katie walked onto our set in 16mm and promptly damaged one of the overhead bins – the one that our dolly shot started on! I got a bad feeling at the time and when she walked into the classroom, I couldn’t believe my eyes: “She works here!?” To add insult to injury, Canadians would be shooting first: pre-light on July 1st, blocking on the 12th, and principal photography from the 13th to the 16th. We had less than a month to revise the script (which was in desperate need of a revision), design and construct sets, scout for locations, cast actors… you name it. Immediately after class, we had a read-through of the script – you could hear a pin drop. Ryan, Jerrod, and I decided to meet at Ryan’s place to iron out any issues: no idea is too stupid; just throw everything on the wall and see what sticks.
June 2nd, 2004. Ryan, Jerrod, and I had our first meeting. I really wish they gave us our jobs last week so we could have had the slightly extended Memorial Day weekend to iron out script issues. Oh well. Technically, this isn’t a meeting; it’s an informal get-together. I figure we can just go over the characters and get a general idea about the tone of the film. I’m leaning more towards The Office. Ryan is leaning more towards Coen brothers. In any case, these are two kinds of comedies that most people don’t laugh out loud at, or even find funny at all. It’s the kind of humor that will have maybe five people in the back of the room laughing and the rest shaking their heads. I hope we’re able to convey that feeling to the rest of the group (yeah, right). We also have slightly different ideas about the characterizations. Jerrod by the way is surprising me. I’ve never heard him say two words and then we get put together on an assignment and, as luck would have it, he’s a semi-talkative guy. I’m probably the most verbal (no [kidding]) but it’s nice to have someone to spar with. Ryan is somewhere in the middle. He’s assertive at times but, if time has taught us anything, it’s that he’s usually the most laconic one in the room. He’s going to have to speak up here. Sooner or later, we’re all gonna have to.
The characters included Stanley, the boss; Steven, the beleaguered middle-manager; Nathan, the lone Yank; Michael, the new guy; and Officer St. Pierre, the Mountie who’s called in to investigate the toilet situation. We also had a female co-worker with two lines and a few spots for classmates who wanted to be extras.
June 2nd, 2004. We have to iron out the characters before anything else. We have to compromise on things. Ryan saw St. Pierre as Wilson from Home Improvement. I saw him as Joe Friday from Dragnet. We sort of agree on the Joe Friday angle. However, being the diplomat that I am [ha!], I had to give up one of my ideas. Ryan’s idea for Nathan Miles was that he was hand-picked by the Board to work for the Company. Literally just flown in from NYC. The fact that he probably ended up with some poor Canadian schmuck’s job is what irks Stanley. My idea was that Stanley had to hire an American because of affirmative action. I loved the idea but I knew I had to compromise.
So far so good, but the following week would mark the beginning of one of the most depressing periods on my life. Tears (not mine), secret meetings, and a script that would prove to be our Sword of Damocles. Stay tuned...

13 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Interesting article. I'll got to run though, so I'll be back to comment in an hour or so.

ScottDS said...

No problem. I sent you an e-mail re: the formatting of the journal entries but I have another idea in mind. No rush! :-)

Writer X said...

Scott, this period in your film career sounds a little like high school on steroids but without the senior prom? I wonder why they wanted you to keep journals (although I'm glad you did). BTW, love the nicknames. And can't wait to read more about those secret meetings. :-)

ScottDS said...

Writer X -

Thanks! It is like high school... there were people who didn't like me, people I didn't like, cool teachers, overbearing teachers, useless teachers, and a dash of unrequited love.

The secret meetings are quite anti-climactic - I wasn't there so I could only guess what happened. You'll find out more next week. :-)

The nicknames are real. I know I wrote that I had changed some names but only one name is different - at school, one student was referred to by his last name but I used his first. That's all. Disco is a real name and Spoon is a real nickname.

As for journals, I assume they wanted us to have some memento. I was one of the few who kept one and I subsequently wrote a prologue and epilogue months later.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree with Writer X, this sounds a lot like high school. It's a wonder you got anything done.

By the way, I saw your discussion at BH today about conservatives and nostalgia films. I agree. I cringe every time someone says "here's finally a film that conservatives can like" and it's from the 1940s/1950s. That certainly plays into the stereotype.

ScottDS said...

Thanks, Andrew.

Re: high school... yeah. One of the things I mentioned in my journal was that this period was very much like my hellish time at FSU (which was very much like various other hellish times in high school). All I wanted to do during much of this time was stay in my apartment and not talk to anyone, lest others make my life miserable at school. Reading it now, it's amazing this all took place.

I also remember thinking, "Scott, it still won't get any easier than this. The real film business will probably be much worse!"

As for BH, thanks. I'm glad Leo got what I was saying. But I'm still weary of mixed signals. How can you have one blog about how audiences prefer PG and PG-13 movies to R-rated movies, then the next day do a tribute to Dirty Harry and talk about how The Hangover is the most popular movie in America?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Nothing in life ever gets easier, and from what I hear (as a total outsider) the film industry is particularly nasty and chaotic.

re BH: What troubles me are the conservatives who just constantly complain about every movie made since them liberals added color to the talkies. I think too often, that's the kind of article that you see about films at conservative sites. Yet, those people really aren't representative of most of the conservatives I know.

Think back to the rap debate, that was started by someone who I suspect has never heard rap (or pop or rock) and who periodically writes about how movies have gone down hill, but who clearly has never seen a movie that isn't G rated. Why should I listen to anything someone like that has to say?

ScottDS said...

When I lived in LA, I managed to work (as an extra and a PA) with a lot of cool and talented people. In the handful of things I worked on, only one person proved to be difficult (a production coordinator on an episode of The Simple Life) - everyone else was alright.

Of course, I can only speak of working on sets with technicians and other PA's and extras. I never worked for an agent or studio exec, nor would I want to. I like watching Entourage but after every episode, I ask myself, "And I want to work with these people?!" :-D

As for movies and rap... yeah. I don't want to derail this comment thread but all you can do is shake your head and wonder.

AndrewPrice said...

I've rarely watched Entourage, but that seems pretty typical of what you see whenever Hollywood focuses on itself. It also seems to fit with the stories that you hear. Of course, those stories always involve the actors/directors/agents/producers rather than the technicians.

ScottDS said...

I agree. And it's quiet tonight so I'll derail a little!

Re: your comment about the rap debate being started by someone who'd never heard rap, that's when you get people who say, "Well, I don't need to look under a manhole cover to know there's a sewer under there?"

In the recent BH article about unprecedented levels of sex on TV that we're all about to encounter (which was presented with no proof at all), some folks compared TV to mixing battery acid (or other icky substances) in brownie mix, saying, "Well, would you eat the brownies if you knew even a small amount of acid was in there?"

It's really the holier-than-thou "I'm better than you because I threw out my cable box" attitude I can;t stand. As someone who might just want to work in this biz, I can't help but take it a little personally, even though no one knows me from Adam.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think you're right. Whenever someone starts off by telling us that they have never seen/heard whatever it is they are about to talk about, I automatically take their comment with a huge grain of salt.

When they then add in the self-righteous attitude, then I dismiss them entirely. Anyone who is proud of their ignorance is a fool who has nothing of value to say. And believing that you are better than others because you isolate yourself from the world just makes you an ass. . . nothing more.

I also have no respect for people who elevate matters of taste to "right and wrong." As you've seen in my discussions of the movies, I can dislike a movie but still respect it and I can love movies that I just can't respect. But a lot of people simply equate their own tastes with quality or with right/wrong -- that's called narrow-mindedness. . . and it's nothing to be proud of.

MegaTroll said...

Scott, I like these articles a lot. They're fun. Sounds like you had both a great time and a horrible time. Do you think you learned enough to do it professionally now?

ScottDS said...

Mega - Thanks for the kind words!

Had I continued learning new skills and perfecting old ones, I think I could say yes. But, unfortunately, I have forgotten more than I learned (as I mention in the article re: using the camera) and my life has taken a slightly different path than I intended at the time. If a friend came up to me today and asked, "Wanna make a short film?" I'd need to do my homework!

And yes, a great time and horrible time. I talk about the making of Canadians in the next four blogs. The fourth is the darkest (for reasons that will soon become apparent) but the last ends things on an optimistic note. :-)

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