Saturday, February 27, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 16 – The Worst of Times IV

By ScottDS
Alien 3 is one of my favorite films (in its extended form) and I make no apologies for it. It was cursed from the beginning: multiple scripts, multiple directors, a soaring budget, and battles with the studio bureaucracy every step of the way. Alien 3 marked the feature directorial debut of music video wunderkind David Fincher. To this day, he disowns the movie and, despite being approached, refused to have anything to do with the extended cut and declined to be interviewed for the Alien Quadrilogy DVD collection. Ironically, Alien 3 also has (in my opinion) the best acting of all four films and one thing everyone involved agrees on is that Fincher did his best to shield his performers from the proverbial storm that was raging outside. Hey, so did we!

Crooks and Canucks

Having conquered my fear of working with professional actors in 16mm, this time I was ready for anything. While our script was never that funny, we (Ryan, Jerrod, and myself) were convinced that with the right actors, we could make the material funny on the stage. The actors would bring their ideas, we could improvise (if only we had more film)... it’d be fun. However, in the back of my mind I knew that: a.) considering some of the performances we’d seen in other Full Sail films, there was no guarantee we’d get good actors, b.) there was no guarantee we’d get actors who could do comedy and/or improvise, and c.) the fact that we even had to pin our hopes on the possibility of getting good actors only made us look bad. “Don’t worry, the actors will make it funny!”

Our casting director was Demitris and to this day, his was the cleanest apartment I’d ever seen! He was assisted by Ashley who, during principal photography, would double as our hair and make-up person. As directors, we couldn’t sit in on the casting sessions but, just like in 16mm, they were videotaped and we were able to look at the actors’ resumes and headshots. (Some were funnier than others but, again, who am I to judge?) After building our sets and being subjected to endless meetings, it was nice to do something different – something that only the three of us had to worry about. We wouldn’t have anyone from the camera crew secretly veto our casting choices.

June 17th, 2004. We met at Demitris’ place on Tuesday evening to watch the videos – some good, some bad, none great. We watched a highlight reel and waded through volumes of headshots and evaluations. One guy was in an episode of Clarissa Explains It All. Others have done theater, shows at Disney and Universal, etc. We ended up with a general idea of whom we wanted [but] later found out that Rosonia, who worked with us on Sanguinity, would only be available for one day so we’re going to have to use our alternate [to play the female employee].

We found a couple good guys to play Stanley [the boss]. Tom [our directing teacher who had some acting experience] is still an option but I don’t think that’s going to happen. One of the candidates is a student and will be starting pre-production next month. No way! Both Kit and Derek expressed an interest in playing the “male co-worker” [a nondescript guy with one line]. Kit had an idea that they should both play him as conjoined twins. I’m all for it but I’ll have to clear it with the guys. For Nathan, Michael, and Steven, we simply chose three guys who we think auditioned the best. Steven was a bit of a challenge. I guess it’s difficult to play the straight man here and Steven is the straight man. And my personal favorite... St. Pierre. To borrow a line from Blazing Saddles: “A black sheriff?!?” Yes, that’s right. If the planets align, we will have a black Mountie. The concept in and of itself is funny. And at this point, anything we could use to make the movie funny (without inflicting bodily harm on others) is a good thing.
From a cursory glance at my notes, it appears that we got our first choice for Stanley, Steven (his subordinate), and St. Pierre. For Michael (the new guy) and Nathan (the American), we got our second or third choices. I can write this with the benefit of hindsight and say that our cast turned out pretty good. But it wasn’t smooth sailing and, before we started rehearsals, we had the Meeting to End All Meetings. What follows is an e-mail I sent to Katie afterwards:
Hello, Katie. It's Scott. Ryan, Jerrod, and I as well as Matt and most of the camera crew spent a couple hours yesterday going through shots although, without the viewfinder, we weren't able to determine the proper focal lengths. We might try again on Monday after the meeting so just giving you a heads up. I believe we have rehearsals on Tuesday evening.

After the meeting on Friday, Rob spent about an hour and a half with us and we attempted to get everything out on the table. Communications issues, egos, all the nonsense about the script, a little bit of everything. I'll admit pre-production has been so much more hectic, rushed, and tumultuous than we thought and sometimes I think we set the bar too high with Sanguinity. Sometimes. However, the general consensus was that we're all friends, we're all working towards a common goal, and we just have some issues to work out. However, with only one week [to go] (we have five days, then vacation, then blocking, then shoot... good God!), we don't have much time left.

Rob went around the table: Jerrod, me, Ryan, Billy, Dennis, Kit, Gema, Dan, Chris, Jeremy, Geraud, Matt, and a couple others. No one hates anybody; it's just been a stressful period for all involved. I said how, after Jeremy told us we have to get our stuff together, I went home so depressed because I had disappointed a friend and colleague. Claudia looked like she was about to cry, Jerrod apologized for the crane shot business (he and Matt never told us about it), and Dennis said that Matt was being treated unfairly. Dennis also mentioned the disappointment about not being able to use all the cool camera gear which I can understand but I told him [we] have to look at it from two points of view: director and toy freak. Gema mentioned how the 1st A.D.s aren't really motivating anybody. I mentioned all the hierarchy problems. It's set design. Do we talk to Bill? Is Claudia the boss? Where do we come in? The camera crew mentioned how they were never consulted re: shots, ideas, etc. I said how, as much as I'd love to walk up to Dan or Dennis and tell them some cool idea or listen to what they have to say, it can't possibly work like that. Matt has to tell them. And he can't tell one person on his crew, he has to tell everyone. And Matt can't do anything until we tell him. And we can't tell him without coming to an agreement. It's all a vicious cycle.

I'm sending you this e-mail, not only to bring you up to speed but also this way I can never be accused of being non-communicative. I told Jeremy I'd try to improve and I was truthful. Besides, I've only received e-mails from two or three other people during this whole month. It's not just us; it's a bit of everyone. In 16mm, Bill and Dave had it down to a science. They'd send us e-mails after every meeting, Dave would take notes, etc. Nothing like that has happened here. Bill's lack of enthusiasm isn't helping either. We're friends and he's a great guy but he doesn't care about movies and he DID leave the camera lab after five minutes. What kind of example is that to set for us?

Have a nice weekend and we'll see you soon,
Scott :-)
Things slowly got better after this. We started rehearing with the actors. I’m sure I was nervous, having never met any of these people before. None of the actors we’d hired worked with us in 16mm but one actor in particular had starred in several other Full Sail films. At one point, the actor playing St. Pierre informed us that he had a day job and would only be available on the weekends. As soon as he said this, I could just hear the smoke come out of Jeremy’s ears.
June 30th, 2004. We had our first rehearsal last night. For the most part, it went well. Chris and Jeremy stuck around to fix the schedule. [...] The actor playing St. Pierre told us that he had a day job at a furniture moving company. He would only be able to act nights and weekends, something he could have told us TWO WEEKS AGO! I e-mailed Spoon but that didn’t help. Jeremy e-mailed Katie. Also, the actor playing Michael has a class during the day and wouldn’t be able to act during a three-hour period in the afternoon. Thankfully, Jeremy didn’t flip or anything. He told us to pick new actors. I had Demitris start making calls [and] I’m also going to have him call Tom [the teacher], just in case. He can play any role.

Anyway, the actors were pretty good. The Stanley actor was a bit theatrical but it actually worked for the character. The Steven actor needs some work but the others are just fine. We did a reading in a classroom, and then moved to the soundstage. They actually liked the set, which leads me to the bad news: everything else. The set, for all intents and purposes, is s---. I don’t blame Claudia (she blames herself); I blame us. We could have done location and, if we did, we wouldn’t have these problems. We weighed the pros and cons and the cons won out, just by a hair. We decided we’d rather have total control of the set on the soundstage. This has been one of the worst experiences I’ve had to endure here at Full Sail.
I may have been a little harsh on the set and, looking at my old photos, it doesn’t look too bad. We could’ve used one more day to decorate it. But the sight of Claudia (the apple of my eye) in tears... man, that hurt.

Anyway, the actor playing St. Pierre was out – too bad, since I was looking forward to the Blazing Saddles jokes. He was good, too. He had the right kind of pompous attitude but wasn’t over the top with it. The actor playing Stanley (who had appeared in other FS films) was very good and, as I mention above, somewhat theatrical. (There are major differences between theater acting and film acting.) The actor playing Steven wasn’t really an actor – he came from radio. He gave it his all but an objective observer could tell you he wasn’t great. The actors playing Michael and Nathan were fine though there are a couple of line readings in the final film that I wish we had reshot.

Demitris and Ashley came through for us with a new St. Pierre; they hired an actor who had worked for them on Die Todes Groupe. He played a soldier and wasn’t half bad. I have no idea who obtained the Mountie uniform but it worked and the actors got a big kick out of it. He performed well during rehearsals but by the time we got to the set, he’d developed a habit of occasionally deviating from the script. Thankfully, no one tried to analyze the story or ask why the characters said X and did Y. While it was just another credit for them, they still wanted to have fun.

I only remember a few things from this period. We had to cancel a table read due to inclement weather. Not every actor we worked with was a local resident; some had to drive a great distance to get to the school. Another table read had to be relocated due to a leaky roof. (It should be noted that this all took place during the infamous 2004 Atlantic hurricane season – one of the costliest and deadliest in history.) During one rehearsal, I made a suggestion that people liked but it didn’t end up in the film. St. Pierre walks in and is greeted by Steven at the office door. “When Steven goes to shake St. Pierre’s hand, St. Pierre should give him his hat instead.” I had it all in my head – again, nothing very funny but it was something we could use. St. Pierre, the pompous Mountie, would give Steven his hat. Steven would hang the hat up on the rack adjacent to the door and turn around to lead him to the bathroom. St. Pierre would simply grab his hat on the way and the next time Steven turns around, he’d get a bemused look on his face, like “Where did you get that hat from?” Unfortunately, during shooting, the hat rack was placed on the other side of the door and the gag didn’t work.

For the final rehearsal before our week-long summer break, we worked with the actors on the soundstage. We didn’t make any major changes during this time and I recall the actors coming up with ideas that we couldn’t use for one reason or another. At one point in the film, Steven and some of the others are standing in the bathroom looking down at a toilet (again... don’t think about it). The female co-worker walks in on them (we made the bathroom unisex). The actor playing Nathan asked if they could maybe get in some odd position in front of the stall so when the lady walks in, it’d look like... well, you get the idea. I told him I’d love to do that but if we shot it from her point of view, we’d see the soundstage – we only had three walls to work with! At one point, Stanley chews out Steven for complaining about work, spitting out his coffee in the process. “How about I talk funny for a line or two after I spit out the coffee? If it’s too hot, that’s what I’d do.” That’s what we did and it made us laugh.

Wardrobe was very simple. Had I been in “production designer mode,” I might’ve attempted to get our hands on a real Mountie uniform with authentic badges and insignia. The actors playing Steven and Stanley wore their own suits and dress shirts while the actors playing Michael and Nathan didn’t need suits, just nice shirts and ties. Stanley was given a necktie with a maple leaf emblazoned on it and I gave the actor playing Steven my Three Stooges necktie, which he never used (and he might still have it!). Since our film (like most films) was scheduled not in chronological story order but to minimize the number of camera and lighting setups, the actors would have to change wardrobe several times a day. The woman who was playing “female co-worker” only had one or two lines but she attended rehearsals anyway (and wore her own outfit). She was required to be in a bathroom stall and look down only to see smoke emanating from two stalls away. She couldn’t quite perform that physical activity so Rob (35mm instructor) told us we should have her use a compact mirror to see into the stall, like something out of an old prison movie.

“You’ve never faced death.”

I went home for a much-deserved break. I spent the 4th of July dodging shrapnel and nearly blowing off my hand at a family friend’s party. Gema called me one day and asked if I could give her a ride back to school. No problem – her folks would drive her up to my parents’ house and I’d drive her the rest of the way. Ryan also called me during the break – we were to have another meeting on the Sunday night before our blocking/final dress rehearsal day. The only caveat was that Jeremy wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to make it. I’m sure I said something like, “I hope he gets well soon.” Needless to say, I don’t remember the meeting.

On the morning of July 12th, I drove to school fully prepared to make the best of it. We had our crew, our volunteers, and our actors. I had missed a call from Dave – “Why would he call me at two in the morning?” We were instructed to park behind the soundstage and when I did, I could tell something was amiss. Dave walked up to me. “Jeremy died.”

For once, I had nothing to say. “He died?” Apparently, he had gone to the hospital the night before and called Bill and/or Dave at one point. By the time everyone arrived at school, he was gone. Dave had called me to let me know but I slept right through it.
July 12th, 2004. Dave, Bill, Ryan, Matt, and a few others were standing there looking rather solemn. I asked Dave about his call and he flat out told me, “Jeremy died.” Nobody saw it coming. Apparently, Jeremy was ill the night before. That much I knew. Ryan had called me back in Boca to set up a meeting Sunday night. I got there with Gema and asked about Jeremy. Ryan said he wasn’t feeling well. Bacterial meningitis .

It’s sad and pathetic that it’s going to take the death of a co-worker and friend to finally rally this ragtag bunch together. I just hope Claudia gets through this okay. Claudia was to Jeremy what Gema is to me: a close friend and confidant. Katie, Mindy, and Disco were around. Almost everyone knew by the time they arrived at the soundstage. Gema and Andrea just looked dour. We went inside and Dave [the head of the film department] said a few words. If we feel sick or anything at all, we should go to a hospital. They decided to give us the day off. No blocking day. We’re gonna [have to] crank it up to 11 tomorrow.
Physically, everyone felt fine though my parents insisted I go to the hospital and get a shot. (I didn’t.) For some reason, I didn’t want to be alone that morning so I went to breakfast with Nick, my neighbor and one of our volunteers from the In the Nude crew. I’m sure I babbled up a storm – I do that when I’m anxious. We went to Best Buy (read: comfort zone) where I called Mike, who was back in South Florida enjoying his break. (Nude shot two weeks after Canadians so his break was after ours.) He couldn’t believe it when I told him what had happened.

Interestingly, word of Jeremy’s death never got out. A few years later, a single student at UCF was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and it appeared on the local news. We had a student die and no one in the outside world knew anything about it. I don’t know who handled publicity (or lack thereof) for Full Sail but they deserved a raise. I say this not to be cynical... I just find it interesting.
July 12th, 2004. When Phil Hartman died during Newsradio, they put his photo in a fake magazine cover, framed it, and put it behind Dave Foley’s desk. That way, whenever the camera looked towards the desk, we’d see Phil in frame center, just smiling. I thought Jeremy deserved proper recognition so Nick and I put together a fake magazine cover with a picture of Jeremy that I took (one of the few in which he’s actually smiling) and printed it as an 8x10. It looks real nice. I saw [16mm instructor] Jason in the hall and gave him the bad news. I think he was a little shaken by it; who wouldn’t be? I fully intend on having a dedication to Jeremy either at the start of or the end of the film.
All of our 35mm films have dedications. During graduation, they showed his picture on the big screen and Dennis (the elder statesman of the class) said a few words about him during our little film festival. Jeremy’s parents flew in from out of town but I never met them. I did, however, take his girlfriend to the airport to pick up her mother. She didn’t know me from Adam but I was happy to do it. I was also borrowing Jeremy’s copy of Strange Brew and he’d been borrowing some of my Marx Brothers DVDs and I admit I was worried about how we’d make the trade but his girlfriend took care of it.

It’s ancient history now but once a year Andrea posts something about Jeremy on Facebook. Part of me still can’t believe it. My next blog will wrap up Canadians with a look at principal photography, post-production, and our vindication.

To Be Concluded...

22 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's eerie when someone you know dies, especially when they're young and seemingly healthy.

Hopefully, this taught all of you that some things in life are important, and the rest really isn't?

ScottDS said...

You know, it was the first time someone that I actually knew in my own age group passed away. I know a few students unexpectedly passed away in middle and high school but I never actually knew them. It was always So and So's friend.

And all the minutiae sort of vanished after this. Everything that had come before, everything that I've been writing about... it all fell by the wayside. Water under a bridge. We had a mission to accomplish and this only strengthened our resolve (I think I used that expression correctly.)

And I didn't even know Jeremy that well. He wasn't in my circle of friends. He worked with us in 16mm. A few of us went over to his place for a bite to eat once and that was it. I don't even remember where he was from.

MegaTroll said...

I guess at thsi point not much else could have gone wrong? I'm glad you got the film done though. I know the tendency when these things happen is for people to stop the projects they were on, especially where schools are concerned. Any chance we'll ever get to see any of the films you made?

ScottDS said...

Mega - In retrospect, I'm kinda surprised they went on with the production (which was to start the next day!). I suppose the folks upstairs didn't want to rock the boat too much.

You'll be able to see the film next week. In fact, I will be uploading both the final DVD version and a rough cut that Ryan and I put together (for a VHS copy, it looks pretty good). Same for our 16mm film, Sanguinity.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, We had a couple kids die in high school, but I wasn't close to them. After that, I made it many years before someone I truly knew died. And that was a total shock. They weren't very old, and it came as a total surprise -- in fact, it was hard to grasp for a while that they weren't going to show up again one day.

In any event, that certainly reminded us just how little so much of the minutia does matter.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Cool on being able to see the films. I'm looking forward to that!

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

re: the films - I'm sure you guys will laugh and marvel at how a ragtag group of egomaniacs were able to Make a Movie. But it's a stupid movie and not meant to be taken seriously at all. Just letting you know now. :-)

re: Jeremy - I've been accused of being a heartless, emotionless robot. I didn't cry. I didn't know what to do. But that was then. I've grown up a little bit since then but I'm really not sure if I'd react any differently today.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Having dealt with many emotional issues as an attorney, I can honestly tell you that people react differently to tragedy. And the idea that people who don't cry and act all upset aren't upset is a myth. Some of the most upset people I've ever met showed few outward signs of it.

Unfortunately, this is one of those myths that many people believe -- especially cops. If they don't see the "right" amount of emotion, then they assume the person doesn't care. With cops, if you aren't upset about a death or something similar, then you instantly end up on the suspect list.

When it comes to juries, stoic people are at a real disadvantage, because even though trials typically happen 3-5 years after the painful event, many juries want to see you act like it just happened.

We really shouldn't judge people based on how we think they should be grieving.

Anonymous said...

can't wait to see the films!

ScottDS said...

Anon -

Don't plan your week around it or anything! They're just harmless little trifles. Of course, when I watch them, all I can see are the mistakes: shots I wish we had redone, awkward edits, etc.

You'll find out more next week but the films were never really completed. We literally ran out of time. And the instructors further messed with our work during the DVD transfer process, adjusting audio levels that didn't need adjusting, etc.

But I appreciate your enthusiasm! :-)

LawHawkSF said...

Scott: Even though I can see how disruptive it would be, I think that about half the actors in Hollywood should get day jobs. It might give them a better perspective on the real world, help them with their acting, and inform them that there are actually two sides to politics outside the imaginary world of Hollywood. We could start by giving Sean Penn a job as a ditchdigger.

ScottDS said...

LawHawk - I immediately thought of Judge Smails' line from Caddyshack: "The world needs ditch diggers!" :-)

Andrew and I had this conversation about James Cameron. While many actors and filmmakers in Hollywood were born into the trade and don't seem to know anything else, a lot more (I assume) came from the regular workaday world. But since Hollywood can (and usually is) a very insular place, a weird change takes place.

I'd divide it into four categories: a.) actors who do have perspective, b.) actors who don't have perspective but are still young and naive, c.) veteran actors who should have perspective but don't know any better, and d.) veteran actors who should have perspective and lost it along the way.

I'm probably over-analyzing this (who, me?) but, in my case, I want to work in the entertainment industry so I don't have to work at a regular day job anymore! No offense to those that do and, unlike so many, I've done it before. I've worked pretty much non-stop since high school.

And it's only the ones that are vocal about it. There are literally hundreds of actors that we like and recognize (from A-listers down to "Hey, it's that guy!" character actors) whose politics we don't know because they're not vocal about it and know better.

LawHawkSF said...

Scott: I'm sure you're right (remember, I my younger days I represented a lot of B-list movie actors). It's just so hard to resist taking jabs at the ones who get all the publicity. Like Harrison Ford getting his chest waxed to save the Amazon Rain Forest, just before he hops into his private plane to go out for a hamburger. Say what?

ScottDS said...

LawHawk - I dig. Harrison Ford would fall into Category D: ones who've lost it along the way. :-)

Sometimes you need to look at root causes. Is it upbringing? A sense of entitlement? Ignorance? Something genetic? Groupthink? A desire to sit at the cool kids' table for once?

When Andrew, TN Jed, and I were talking about James Cameron, my thing was: he was a blue-collar guy who drove trucks for a living before entering the film biz where he worked his way up. Very American Dream, right? But Andrew and Jed reminded me that, Hollywood being what it is, his upbringing was irrelevant. When you're in the same circle for so long, you start to develop similar traits. (I could've phrased that better but you know what I mean.)

As for me, all I can do is keep my sanity, surround myself with a good network of people (not all of whom work in the same biz), and remember my roots. That's all anyone can ask for.

StanH said...

“Here today, gone tomorrow, so live each day for what it is.” It’s always wild when someone inside your orbit dies, it has a way of putting things into perspective. When you think of it you guys finishing that film was in the best traditions of showbiz, “the show must go on!”

Look forward to seeing your film

ScottDS said...

Stan - I couldn't have put it better myself! :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - just read this and as always found it fascinating. I am only just now getting back to E.S.T. time and haven't even begun to go back and go through the stuff I missed. The emotional part was, well, emotional. Still, there was a certain Hunter Thompson feel to some of your descriptives here and all I can think to say is, thanks for sharing it.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Thanks! I'd noticed your lack of posts the last week or so but it's all good. And your welcome.

I'm sure one or two friends of mine would raise an eyebrow: "Why is he writing about this stuff now? And why is he writing about it on some right-wing 'fringe sleaze' site?"

And I'll tell them: "To flex my writing muscles and prove that not all filmmakers are Oliver Stone. And I'm an independent but they like me anyway!"

My only knowledge of Hunter S. Thompson comes from watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas years ago. Can you elaborate - what about my description reminds you of his work?

Writer X said...

Scott, sorry to hear about your friend. It seems that you got much more than film school at Full Sail.

ScottDS said...

Writer X - Indeed. And thanks. I can think of a couple things I didn't get -- nevermind. :-)

Anyway, it's ancient history now. Makes me wonder what he'd be doing today.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - Back in the late 60's or early 70's, Hunter Thompson was writing freelance magazine articles for periodicals such as Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Esquire. I remember one where he covered a tropical saltwater sport fishing contest on the Yucatan that had me in stitches. Part of Thompson's schtick was to describe all these events while stating (probably exaggerating) how high/drunk or both he was the entire time while covering these stories. He developed a very conversational style of writing. Thompson, as you probably know, was the person on whom the Uncles Duke character was based in the Doonesbury comic strip.

I am hardly comparing you to Thompson in terms of your content or state of altered consciousness, Scott. Some of your writing style just happened to remind me of some old articles. I would definitely not read much, if anything, into it.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Just wondering. I'm not making any comparison myself; it simply caused me to raise an eyebrow and ask, "Really?"

And I can assure you I am quite sober when I write these (unless you don't like them, in which case I'm not). :-D

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