“Let’s shoot a film like we are rehearsing a play”
Those words prefaced an approach I wanted to take with my next film. While sitting in Venice beach one sunny day with my friend and fellow thespian Raffaello Degruttola I ran this by him. I knew he wasn’t going to need much to get him on board, but it was always fun to watch his eyes widen at the idea of working again. Those familiar with the top to bottom sewing together of a feature (or for that matter a short) film know how much planning and preparation are involved. The permits, contracts, equipment, talent, food, lodging, etc. and etc. But, in that staging and building there is an amount of energy and “juice” that can dissipate into the artistic atmosphere by shooting time. I wanted to try and tackle a film fast and furious, as I would in my childhood with my brother Eric and our friends (granted not with super 8mm cameras this time). Back in those days, structure and dogma gave way to energy and optimism. (Not to get too ahead of my story but to give you an idea of “idea to completion” time on this, Seeking Dolly Parton – or as it was titled for my first draft; Pink Mermaids – from unwritten idea on Venice Beach until the final “cut” was called in Berkeley, California was exactly 58 days….).
I wanted to try this collaboratively with a group of artists, all of us on the same page, riding the momentum of the same fast bullet train. As a 15 year old, there were no unions, permits or billing order demands so filmmaking was a mysterious joy rather than mechanical chore. I was interested in following the recent lead of Ed Burns (someone Raff had worked with so many years ago in Saving Private Ryan) and abandoned the tenets of our industry and just make the movie with a similar budget conscious mind set as if we were doing a play… only with cameras. So my big Hollywood pitch to him was this: Two women looking to expand their family with a child ultimately involve one of their ex-boyfriends as the donor. Only problem is: he still has feelings for his ex-girlfriend. Let the drama ensue…. With only that and a handshake with Raff (and a phone call to Kacey Barnfield to see if she was up for engaging in some cinematic kisses with another beautiful woman) the whole thing was set in motion. I made a few calls to some prior investors and business partners to see if they would plunk down a pittance towards a group of raring-to-go artists and their non-exisisent script and of course they said “yes” (they aren’t dumb). Instead of writing a script and then casting for it later, I wanted to write it for the actors I already knew (in fact, I asked each one of them to name their own characters as to fully embrace their ownership in the project as well). Knowing the faces and temperaments of the people who would be inheriting these characters made my job as a writer that much easier. It was during the first couple weeks prior to Christmas that year that I wrote the script. Two and a half weeks later in January, we were all driving up the 5 freeway in rented trucks to Berkeley, California. With only 8 days affordable for us to shoot on location, we began filming the very next day (the day of arrival included some shopping on Telegraph avenue to find wardrobe and a suitable “nose ring” for Kacey’s character, Charlie). It also pays to film where your family lives so your mother can prepare things like food, location transport maps and convince her 91 year old mother to play a part.
So why try to shoot a film for so little money in so little time? Working on my day job as a “director for hire” on much larger budgets and productions (i.e.: almost any other film) I am aware of how the very abilities you are hired for can and will be manipulated and even truncated in the process. Those kitchens have plenty of cooks and can get pretty messy at times. “Please direct our film but no you can’t choose the lenses, or the cameras, or the shooting locations, or the cinematographer, or the composer or….” Yet on these small, essentially self financed projects, the freedom of all the artists, though restricted in money, time and even physical space, is unburdened with our creativity. That is the type of platform us filmmakers yearn for. And if it doesn’t come with green M&Ms, so be it.
I also chose to shoot in the Bay Area (rather than home base Los Angeles) because I grew up there and knew the character and architecture of that city so well (a little aside: we shot seven days in the streets of Oakland and San Francisco without a single hitch but on one pick up day in Los Angeles as our eight person skeleton crew walked through Balboa Park to get the first shot off of the day, we were swarmed with park rangers asking us for permits within two minutes. So why did I choose not to shoot in Los Angeles again….?) My childhood friend Mike Vaughn was connected with some of the Bay Area acting communities and served as a local casting director. I was very acquainted with with what areas would look best at sunset and which would at sunrise for shooting schedules. I had written for specific street corners I had walked across a thousand times as a kid to help both my visual approach and reduce (or eliminate) “tech scouts”. As I once heard Roger Corman state on his low budget quickies; “write for what you have available”.
Visually I wanted to be careful and not let the imagery get in the way of the performance. Though I wanted the city to feel a part of the story (I love the way Antonioni does this in films like L’Eclisse and L’avventura) I didn’t want the background to dwarf them. That approach is usually my favorite way to work regardless, for it is truly easy to devise nutty obtuse camera moves and over-the-head visuals to make a moment jump out at an audience. But harnessing the power, beauty and humor of a moment while not drawing attention to yourself (i.e.: the camera and director) requires more focus and creativity. But my co-operator and cinematographer Chia-yu Chen and I had already developed a short hand with one another (usually in simply referencing films or cinematographers we liked) to get a shot properly aligned and done. It’s usually a case of “sneaking” the beauty of the visual in so that you almost don’t realize it was done until it’s over. But once again and above all, the shooting had to be minimalist and direct so we could get the 9 pages a day done.
The actors had all been along on this ride with me before (our soon to be released “Bring Me The Head of Lance Henriksen” was in many ways my most experimental platform of filmmaking and was done just before Dolly) so there was trust and understanding that a vision existed to this madness of mine. Anya Monzikova (though she was in a brief one scene cameo in “Head”) was working with me in this capacity for the first time, and it was her diving in the deep end that may have been the most admirable (or potentially craziest) quality of the bunch. Kacey and I had done one film along with Raff in Bulgaria together but this would be the first time she would have to trust me behind the camera (though not the last). Alex Ballar (playing Anya’s cinematic brother) has worked for me on a number of occasions (God’s Ears, Devil on the Mountain, etc.,) so he was aware that even without a 40 person crew (or even a single make up trailer) that I wasn’t totally clueless. And my grandmother…. well, she just owes me.
But as crazy and as unorganized as this all may sound, don’t misunderstand. We all make our living doing this back in the “real world” so we realize our limitations and what those limitations will restrict us to. The key is (and will be) in the writing and planning within the range of those limits. Echoing Corman again (love that guy), make your weaknesses your strengths by focusing on what is most important and feasible. Make the little things shine rather than trying to turn the carpet and some cardboard into an invading alien monster (admittedly the Creeping Terror has always been a favorite of mine). Though I am all for anyone going out and just making something with what you have (hell, shoot it on your iPhone) drive and passion alone might not always turn into the dream you had in your head. I still could not move forward with a project where people invest their hard earned money into without experienced crew and talent on board with me. We may be working for a sandwich and road trip, but we all still understand the mechanics and rules of making a film even if we are not doing it with three Alexa cameras, a full grip package and a 2 million dollar budget.
Even with best laid plans, things will not always proceed according to your road map. I usually joke that my company should be called “Murphy’s Law Productions” because you are best served by just knowing the path will change. Though we experienced much of this in the week of shooting (including reshooting scenes “too experimental”, locations inaccessible, etc.,) there was one visit from Murphy that almost derailed the film in a major way. The entire last act of the film involved an ex-girlfriend of Charlie’s (mentioned in the finished film) who as a stripper is brought in by Cerina (Monzikova) to “motivate” Josh (myself) into being a more willing donor. But things go awry at that moment and all the way through to the finale, everything is motivated by this action. Two days before shooting, our actress bailed on us. I even made a last ditch effort to recruit my Ghost Rock (2002) co-star Jenya Lano, who was then living in the Bay Area at that time. But the stripper motivational speaker was a bit much to throw onto someone in 24 hours. So that night I stayed up until 4am rewriting the last 20 pages of the script. Not an ideal way to wrap up a film, but with the cooperation of my experienced and versatile compadres (and a little blessing from the lesbian movie gods) the twist of fate worked in our favor with only two scenes having to be reshot to suit the changes.
Though let’s not take too deep a breath here. In truth, production does not end on the day of wrap (at least not for guys like me):
In fact, there is what usually turns out to be a MUCH longer and somewhat more intense period called post production that follows every martini shot. In the case of these micro shoots, much of that is done in my office at home. For this period of the production (as with the screenwriting) I become a one man show with my lap top. Editing is one of my favorite parts of the process so I can sometimes do it for months and even years as I shape and play with the outcome of the story. Eventually even this stage must end and the film turned over to the post sound mixer, the colorist and the composer. In the case of Dolly, the ever so talented Corey Allen Jackson came on board with two amazing recording artists Heather Stewart and Kathleen Smith adding the final magic to the film, making its soundtrack easily one of my favorites.
I understand that most people don’t have the access to the same money or facilities that we do at Grizzly Peak Films but the spit, polish and even the experience we bring into making these productions is not what is important. Just go out with your passion, your plans and whatever mode of camera you have and make your story! Listen, we don’t always have the James Franco and friends money (And he might not have the Scorsese money either) but at what ever financial level any of us are, we should really just go for it… exploring and creating art in the medium we love. This is in fact the point of writing this piece. Had we not pushed this in to actual motion on that day in Venice, I would be sitting at home now thinking of that idea I once had rather than closing out the 17th Annual Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival with our film. Los Angeles is filled with people waiting for the “perfect moment” to make their film (replace “film” with “having a baby”, “getting married”, “starting a workout”, etc.), and in one of my few pessimistic statements, I also think those people will most probably die waiting.
Make it. Learn from it. Get it out there. Think of your film as some sort of grand photo album. The memories will always be there and you will be able to clear those dusty scripts off the shelf to make room for a film festival award… or two.
– Michael Worth
“Seeking Dolly Parton” gets it’s world premiere May 2, 2015 at The Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Tickets on sale at the web site and ticket master.