Exposing The Mortals – Rescuing the artist from the commerce (or how Zombies vs. Bigfoot can still be good)

Michael Here —

Remember when it dawned on you that your particular art or trade was what you would pursue in your life?  Somewhere early on you were so impassioned with the idea that you said: “I’d do it for free”.   In other words, it was the unavoidable drive of expression and creativity that stirred you at all cost in that direction.  So if film is for us “filmmakers” (including actors, writers, designers, etc.) the medium meant to replicate the intentions and passions of those past generations of artists (Rodin, Van Gogh, Mozart, etc.) who formed the basis of what we know today as classical art, then something was seriously off.  The idea of da Vinci saying to himself, “Well, it seems the trending art market today is leading towards portraits of seated women.  I guess I’ll paint something that I’ll title the ‘Mona Lisa’ as I bet it’ll do huge business” is pretty ridiculous.  Yet it is hardly uncommon to see the filmmakers we know who have spent any time in “the biz” now being driven by what is marketable rather than what truly inspires them.


I know those that work in the business whose approach to film-making, including writing and acting, has manifested more into “marketing” and “selling” themselves over the confidence in their own creative instincts.   I fall in that place all the time myself.   Who we “are” being consumed by who we think everyone else wants to see.   Not that one can’t inject their own language into a largely stilted project (Val Lewton was a master of that) but when your drive for acceptance replaces your unique inner urge to articulate, I think you are becoming the follower rather than the leader.   Though as a producer, I do understand the need to make something worthy of the investment.  If one is to survive in this business or any business you have to make sure you are making money.  I’m not sitting in a parking lot with a can of beans and a tent trying to tell you to just dive off a financial cliff (though in my career I’ve come close to that location and can a few times).  In fact, quite the opposite.  You are not going to have longevity in this town being a robot.   There are more people with the money looking for those original voices over the ones looking for the laborers.  If anything, being true to your personal talent and creativity is what is going to make you a more desirable commodity than simply “faking it”.  Though yes… faking it is sometimes part of it.


There is “safe” writing and “safe” acting and “safe” film-making that when relied on too much will lose you in a sea of others like you.   Being original does not mean being abnormal.  There are times where you have to write or act in or make things you may not want to, but you can still do it with that sense of “self”.    If we lose the willingness to fail for our originality in favor of the mathematical safety of the business trends we may regret it later.  There are those who can become too lost in their own musings  in trying hard to be “original” or different (we’ve all seen those films where we feel like we got hit over the head with a mallet).  But a sensible reminding of oneself to believe in what got you here in the first place and to trust in your original ideas and process will make you stand prouder in the end.

Since I have only in these last few years reconnected to the idea that film is the clay and canvas of my own “art”,  I have once again begun to reapply instinct back into the imagination .  And should I live a life worth remembering, then it would be a shame to spend it making stories up rather than expressing ones I don’t need to.  I’ve done the “by the numbers” scripts, the in vogue films, and they are no more likely to hit the bell than the ones that scream “damn the torpedoes” first.   And so with my film “Enchanting The Mortals” which we shot earlier this year,  I allowed the transparency of my own thoughts rather than the structure and mathematics of Hollywood fortune telling dictate my “voice”.  I wasn’t looking for original, I wasn’t looking for “hit”, all I was looking for was the clarity to express the ideas of the moment.  I am more afraid of being the “same” then I am of being “bad”.


I think most writers (and this goes for other artists as well) find that each script or book or short story they commit themselves to, includes some element of their personal life.  It may be as simple as a name of a character or two (in the SyFy film script I wrote called “Devil on the Mountain”, all the characters were named after people I grew up with) or something slightly more abstruse as in the story’s tone or a simple “tick” in a relationship between characters.   We do this because it is something unique that we know, something real we can relate to, and in turn this connection should in theory create poignancy via the medium we are working in.   Occasionally our stories can also be largely based on events or circumstances we experienced in our youth or in some recent past that we have always wanted to recapture and explore.  And so in making “Enchanting”  I was tackling one of the more challenging films I have ever done.  This story was solely a means to focus on the much deeper and assailable issues of relationships and the many stages and behaviors we face through love and fear.

Writing was always a more vulnerable task for me than acting.  There is always something about acting that even when you may be digging into the darkest and most painful recesses of your history to lay bare for the sake of a scene, it is still your private moment hidden by the mask of the character you are portraying.  If your tears must flow for a scene, and thinking of your long, lost dog is what does it for you, the audience is still only seeing you as the contrite hit-man wailing over his assassinated wife (or mother/partner/workout buddy) rather than the tortured dog owner.

But when you write something from scratch, when you create from the fertile recesses of your mind, there is a much more palpable exposure and vivid magnifier into your personal world.  Even if it’s a radical zombie vs. bigfoot script with vampire cheerleaders thrown in, you can’t help but feel your personal life is so much more unmasked.  I have always felt a little more critical of the things I have written over the many moments on camera I have performed as an actor (and that does not come from my over confidence in the latter).   Even when the story is as fictional as you can muster, it still contains the flaws, foibles and imagination clearly belonging to you.  But it was that scary prospect ironically that I wanted to get over.


In writing “Enchanting the Mortals” last February, I was not looking for the next award winner, a new “indie take on relationships” or some swank project to grab people’s attention.  It was meant to be just for myself; my inquisition into those mystifying emotions and incomparable actions and changes that arise out of our deep and sincere connections to people.   In other words; the enigma of falling in and out of love.  I write about love almost every time I put finger to keypad, even on the most subtlest of scales.  Love may not always be the syrupy Romeo and Juliet type, but can even be a love of life (the drama or even horror film) or of country or idea (the action film).  But what made this attempt so much more penetrating for me was the sole focus of investigating that conundrum.  The script was becoming more a narration about what I don’t understand rather than what I do.  It was replete with questions over answers and stitched together via fragmented memories over a more structured dramatic narrative.   I wanted to tackle the subject not as a subplot, but as the focus of the story.  The inspiration for delving into this was so great and so caustic from start to finish that the first draft was done in just 8 days (my previous best was 10 days for Seeking Dolly Parton, if “best” is appropriate).   But the first draft of “Enchanting” would have not have been soberly shootable.


That was not just because I was using actual names of people who the characters were based on (something I do many times while writing to help me remain truthful to my goals) but because my “freedom of expression” was so well executed that the script read more like a melancholy love letter to a fading suitor on a fog shrouded shoreline (yes, that was how it actually read) than a screenplay. I’m all for breaking the rules, but you still need to apply some rules within any film-making rebellion.  Draft number one would have sent the audience home exhausted, dizzy and depressed so I knew a little structure was still required.  But it was important I tackle that side of nature that we men typically shy away from.  Our instincts to be the survivor and the provider leave little room to invest much time in the frailty of our souls.  I’d rather go punch the bag then vent my feelings, but then if making films was easy…….

In recently looking through a book of art by William Hopper (an inspiration for much of the photography in my films) it was clear to me that every stroke was done with emotional susceptibility dripping from his fingers.   I wanted that same integrity to return to my work.  And so it was somewhere about day 6 or 7 in my writing sabbatical I realized that purging through a 90-some page screenplay simply to just sit on my shelf was not going to suffice.  The classic sculptors and painters, back in a time when the artist’s voice had much more difficulty being heard, conveyed their ruminations on life, love and death for themselves, but also intended them to be explored and pondered by an audience (another subject which arises in my last film, “Catfish Blues”).   The journey I had begun with my writing I now knew would not come to completion until I had manifested it into its final stage: a film.


And so, I was barely typing FADE OUT on the first draft by the time I had raised enough money to get this story in front of the cameras (at least in my driven state of filmmaking insanity I believed I could).   Within a few days of my pittance of a budget arriving, I miraculously received the “I’m in!” from my first choice for a leading lady, Kacey Barnfield.   Though in some ways different from the girl I would be having her portray, her sense of spacial honesty and own truthful transparency was VERY much what was needed for the film.  Keep in mind, getting a first choice for an actor is one thing, but getting one for deferred money is quite another.  So I counted myself as very lucky.  I had worked with Kacey the year before on another micro budgeted film called “Seeking Dolly Parton” where I watched her give in to her character so fully that I had no doubt she would draw this one to vivid life.  This person she would be playing was a difficult one as she was representing the seductive stability of allegiance  while still portraying a somewhat tentative sanctuary.  And to see her willingness to place herself into a somewhat experimental role, if not also an extremely translucent one, I knew she was stepping in with the same willingness to fall as I was.


The last few days before the small crew (my loyal crew and cast of regulars as well as a few new converts… I thank you all) was to drive to Monterey where we would shoot the first third of the film, I had to reconstruct some of the more obviously personal details, people and places I had chosen to include and blanket them in a more fictitious Mise en scene.  I would not stray from the truth that got me here, but I also knew the film needed to stand on its own.  It is one thing to leave yourself exposed on the page but you also need to make sure it is translated to others.  This reassembling of reality into narrative would also in some ways help me approach the directing from a more micro-manageable way.   My broader focus as a writer, painting a bewitchingly painful picture, was for the most part done (though I’m a big believer in allowing moments of inspiration and collaboration to take place on set).  Now the more objective hat of the director needed to be worn to make sure that on a technical level I could illustrate the words on screen.


Earlier that month I had driven from Los Angeles to the Monterey Coast in search of the many locations that would visually portray the moods and tones of the emotional journey the two characters go through.  It was not that difficult to do as with the variety of landscapes and the rawness of my own disposition at the time, drawing those connections would prove to be the easiest part of the whole process.   Standing in the middle of  Central California, among natures’ most resilient attributes and man’s more modern assault, could not have been a better reminder of what I was doing this for.


We would shoot about 8 pages of sequences along the drive, speeding through the scenery to drag out the amazing “magic hour” for as long as we could.  And this would be the first of a continuing examples of the honesty of the interpretation of this story.  The period of dusk is in itself a gorgeous time to shoot (and much easier on the exposure) but for me it had to have another purpose, one that was not solely for aesthetics sake (both Rossellini and Cassavetes had indicated in their own works, if a shot was beginning to look too pretty, they’d muck it up or cut it out).  Dusk and dawn have always represented a more palpable transient part of the day.  Where we can notably watch and experience one moment dramatically changing into another.  And as one of the larger questions of the piece was the transmutation of emotion and feelings, I tried to shoot as much of that time of day as I could possibly get away with.  To “paint” the locations in a state of constant change,  giving the appearance of metamorphosis always looming on the horizon.  There are times where a shot or the lighting or the staging are so purposely drawn it removes one from the organic moment of the story, but as this film revolves mostly around a man’s memory of a significant romance, the slightly enhanced settings would be appropriate for this view of his history.


When the cast and crew arrived to our destination of Monterey, I knew that the returning to both the areas of my childhood and the origins of my vocation would be the absolute right place to start the beginning of this cinematic romance.   The opening of the film takes place on a film set being shot in a coastal town.   The romance that blossoms between these two flawed but genuine people appropriately begins in such a fantasy setting.  Both of them vulnerable and passionate yet still afraid and concealed.   Here in this state of inculpability and purity, both feel comfortable enough to let their expectations down of  both themselves and each other and allow the dawning emotions between them to bloom.  This journey they take will certainly lead to the unexpected.  And it may also lead to a difficult climb or possibly even to a dead end one.  But it will be an important journey and an essential one to take because when we stray too far from our heart and begin to cling too tightly to the fears of failing and hurting, we lose the gifts and possibilities being given to us.

And that gift also includes trusting our “artist” to come out.


View the film’s trailer here: