Rance Howard – Acting As My Friend

As I stood on a fork in the road that would soon separate me from the actor standing next to me in the scene we were shooting,  I suddenly became aware I was not really acting with this man beside me, but simply just reacting to this quiet moment between us.  That state of being we as actors strive to attain via years of mechanical exercises and mental mind games.  But at that moment, I relied on absolutely nothing to feel the sense of loss and hurt I was to express in the scene; it was just there.

Rance Howard always had a habit of making me work that way over the 15 years I had known him.

I first met Rance in the old west.  Or at least an independent-film facsimile of one in 2002.  I had long followed the career and lives of Clint and Ron Howard, but only by the time I had my first screenplay produced in Tucson Arizona, The Reckoning (retitled Ghost Rock), I had learned of the vast career of the family patriarch, Rance Howard.   I was aware of him by name, as my indie filmmaker obsessed youth was spent studying all Roger Corman films and had always noted the senior Howard’s name after “written by” on the poster for Ron Howard’s feature film directing debut, Grand Theft Auto.  But until I began this new production with director (and friend) Dustin Rikert, I hadn’t realized how much the apples had not fallen very far from the tree.

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(Rance Howard and Michael Worth walking the tracks of Vermont on the set of Apple Seed)

Walking across the dusty western set we had temporarily revived to film our overly ambitious $300,000 martial arts-western, I met Rance with his then recent wife Judy.  Their hands wrapped in one another (an image that would rarely change any time they were together) he approached me with a copy of my script in his free hand and said “Mr. Worth, I want to thank you for including me in this fun picture”.  I know I must have smiled because to have someone with close to a hundred films under their belt call my first produced script “fun”  made the kid in me very proud.

Rance was quickly gaining the reputation as the most prompt actor ever in history, at times waiting through ungodly heat waves for his next scene rather than across the set in his trailer.  His character was a small one, the lovable Cash, a fatherly figure to the brothel owner played by Adrienne Barbeau who gives up his life to a very mean Gary Busey to protect his friend.  But it was not a role he simply walked through.  Script always in hand, he remained at the ready, his part as important to him, if not more so, than the many around him working in the above the line credits.

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Rance Howard and Christa Sauls as assassins in Killing Cupid, 2005)

By the time I was directing an extremely experimental action film (the budget now 20% of what the previous film Ghost Rock cost), shot on super 16mm short ends titled Killing Cupid, I actually wrote Rance into the script as an ostensibly retired assassin named Zeke who was now obsessed with Bruce Lee exploitation films and running an old hotel.  A few years later he attended a screening of my film God’s Ears and we just both happened to be going to the same Beverly Hills’ restaurant afterwards.  His son Ron and his wife were with he and Judy and I walked over to introduce myself, and tell his son how stalworth his father always was on a set.  Ron Howard smiled and said, “I like to hire him on my films to show the other actors how it’s done”.

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Michael Worth, Lance Henriksen, Dustin Rikert, Rance Howard, Karen Kim and Craig Wasson hanging out on Sasquatch Mountain (2005).

When opportunity presents a struggling filmmaker with writing a Sasquatch movie for the Syfy channel, he accepts.  And so with Devil on the Mountain (later rechristened Sasquatch Mountain) I immediately thought of a role to turn the journeyman character actor Howard into leading man hero as Sheriff Harris Zeff (my stepfather’s name).  Granted there was only so much muscle to stretch on a film like this, but don’t tell that to Rance.  He quickly became the man to watch in the film and was no surprise I had him survive the Bigfoot Massacre as the possible sequel would not have been as good without him.

It was on that Flagstaff, Arizona set that a story began to take shape in my mind.   Inspired by classic road trip movies such as Bound For Glory and The Last Detail, I once again undertook the cathartic exercise of transcribing inner musings on life in the form of a road journey and decided my cinematic co-pilot was going to be Rance.  The story was titled Apple Seed, not only named for the small town destination of the two characters, but for the pearls of wisdom the two discover along the road.  Like the ubiquitous Los Angeles filmmaker, I shopped it around town for a decade, even once agreeing to shoot it for $85,000 if they would just let Rance and I shoot it immediately (yes, I was preparing to dust off my DSLRs).  But dead ends on this road trip movie were becoming common place.

While trying to raise money in Oklahoma (Rance’s hometown state), I ran across a local woman who had a first-time script she wanted to get made called Broken Memories.  It was a touching drama about a man trying to deal with his father’s Alzheimers and I knew it would suit Rance to a “T”.  I returned home with a dual Howard script package I was now trying to pitch for us.  As it turned out, a couple years later it would be Memories I managed to sell first after I was given the guarantee my key element, a certain R.E. Howard, was a part of the package.

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Michael Worth talking with Rance Howard through a scene in Broken Memories)

As a professional actor first, when it came to directing I like to always find what the instincts of the actor for a character are first before I try and steer it in any sort of direction.  With Rance and his role of Jasper, a struggling 80-something year old trying each day to re-establish himself in life, his instincts for the role were clearly all that was needed.  Watching his salient passion for working was my daily reminder to cherish each job and each opportunity with all you can muster, as each and every one is unique and never to be repeated.  One day, when an actor was running behind about thirty minutes, my efficiency instincts kicked in and using the same camera set up (a phone call that was about to take place) I asked Rance if he was willing to improvise a phone call.  I gave him a scenario: talking to an ex neighbor from his youth who is clearly many years removed from those days, but whom he talks to as if it was just yesterday.  He jumped at the challenge and came up with a string of pearls that I was able to jump-cut through in the editing room and created one of my favorite moments in the piece.

When screening the film at festivals in early 2017, Rance’s love of 17 years Judy had just recently passed away from the disease that he had portrayed so passionately in Memories.  I decided while at The Sedona International Film Festival to shoot a short documentary of him processing this moment in his life (titled Love In One Act).  He expressed so clearly that moment of letting go of something you have held on to so dearly before, that moment so many of us have to face usually more than once in our lives.  And it was that “moment” that also happened to be the very heart of the story Apple Seed.  So, while spending that weekend exploring with him his emotional journey in life, I was reminded me how important it was becoming to get Apple Seed made sooner than later.

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(A short documentary shot by Michael Worth while at the Sedona International Film Festival)

In July, in a moment of what felt like pleading desperation (secretly all the moments in this business feel like that), I handed the screenplay over to some executive producers I was working with on another project.  I gave them a budget I had devised that was far less than many low budget films I had done over ten years ago but I felt it was time to “get this show on the road” now.  And three days later, what is always the most beautiful music to any filmmakers ears, I heard the words: “green light”.

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(Rance shopping on Melrose Ave for Apple Seed wardrobe)

Two months later,  we would be shooting day 1 on Apple Seed in the small town of Kingman Arizona.  Just prior to traveling, Rance and I had spent a day shopping vintage stores for an outfit he would wear throughout the film (a vagabond, road trip movie usually marries you to one outfit so you better enjoy it).  I was looking for something that would differentiate him from the other cast; something classic, timeless and red.  “Red” as I told him because his character, Carl Robbins (my great grandfather’s name), would also function as a kind of pulse and heart to the story.   Sometimes passionate, sometimes warm and sometimes filled with unstable energy, but always the engine that fuels the body of characters around him.  He smiled through my explanation as we walked through a Melrose store, nodded his thoughtful head and said “I can do that”.

And he would be so right.

In those first few dusty days in the Arizona heat, a strange reunion took place between five of us:  Adrienne Barbeau, Jenya Lano, Dustin, myself and Rance.  The five of us, all working together again for the first time since the film Ghost Rock where we all met exactly fifteen years ago to the day in this same state.  The first of many interesting cosmic  circumstances that followed our production across the U.S.

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From L to R: Adrienne Barbeau, Michael Worth, Dustin Rikert and Rance Howard sharing a 15 year anniversary of their last shoot together on Route 66 on the set of Apple Seed.  Note Rance’s ever present script, loaded with notes.

Watching this 10 year old story begin to take shape from my mind as a writer and into my hands as a director has been one of the most illuminating and satisfactory moments in this business.  Not because every scene reflects the long imagined vision, not because every frame lived up to my hopeful standard of aesthetics, but because the cast and crew embraced the story and the task with a kind of care and passion most directors can only hope for.  And at the center of it, that “heart”, was Rance.  A few of us already knew him, but it would not be long before everyone grew to love and cherish him.  His presence on set was never one of entitlement or expectation, but of artistic servitude and gratitude.

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(The cast of characters: Rance, Dasha Chadwick, Worth and Sarah De La isla)

Our roles as a kind of transient, surrogate parent and child quickly took on a life of its own for both of us.  As we mimicked in a manner the physical journey of the story via our mobile production, Rance and I spent many hours driving the picture car, a 1967 Mustang, from the Nevada border ultimately to a mere few miles from the Mexico border, all the while discussing the growth and wisdom we have each embrased through this artistic endeavor we had chosen.  Though the 5th time we had shared the screen together, this time we both explained we were finding the working relationship that felt the most ideal.

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(Rance Howard and Michael Worth on the road in Apple Seed)

At one point, I brought my 95 year old accidental-thespian of a grandmother to play a role in the film.  For many years I had felt she and Rance would make a great on screen pair and luckily I made the call to bring her into our small fold.  It would be the one time I managed to convince the rather by-the-book Rance to attempt a more improvisational approach to a scripted scene.  My grandmother, her memory also one in jeopardy, was not able to retain a sequence of dialogue and so I relied on careful off camera prodding and the actor’s instinctual connecting to get the job done.  And it was a joy to watch.  The two actually meet for the first time on camera, their exchange an almost unrepeatable moment caught on camera, a moment I was very proud and happy to facilitate and now be able to always recall.

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95 year old Lois Stewart (Worth’s grandmother) and Rance, share a poignant scene together in a small retirement community in the town of Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Our caravan made it’s way to Vermont where the last leg of production would conclude.  Our first day was spent filming on a running train.  Rance and I spent several hours, moving past the gorgeous fall painted landscape as we began to once again talk about life and even the lake creatures he recalled near his home as a child.  I gave my cinematographer Chia-Yu a tacit “roll” signal and began to capture the moment of these stories from Rance as even in my best writing moments I could never mimic the truth of.  The two characters, wayward travelers on a cross country journey, once again took on real life as we both laughed at this unusual field of work we had chosen.

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The crew and cast of Apple Seed spend a day shooting on a working train, replicating as much as possible the reality of the two men’s adventure.

Towards the final days, several other actors joined our troupe, including Esther Anderson, Sarah De La Isla, Jennifer Kamstock and Rance’s long time friend and one time neighbor, Robby Benson (I count myself as a life long fan of Ode To Billy Joe).  I continued to feel that this film was cast by the gods as I could not have handpicked better collaborators.  One in particular was the actor playing Rance’s son; Clint Howard.  With the advantage of a lifetime of rehearsal, Clint came on for a long one day shoot as prepared and as passionate as his father.  Much of their scenes I had played in a small lakeshore home where the two moved as characters around sensitive topics and each other in a carefully choreographed sequence between actor and camera.  As an actor myself, working between them was a powerful sensorial experience, but as a director, stepping back and watching them pace each other in one of the pivotal moments in the story ranks as one of my favorite days on set ever.

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Rance and Clint Howard rehearse a sequence together in a scene from Apple Seed.

Some film shoots feel they drag on forever, but a rare few feel like they end way too soon.  Even though you know the footage has been shot, the money has run out and the crew needs to go home, you want it to continue on.  This was one of those.

So on one of those final days, I found myself standing on that fork in the road with him.     Our dialogue was now feeling less a prepared script and more just an organic part of the moment.  With the sun falling over the hill, the two of us staring quietly at the other while the camera rolled, I could tell we both felt something similar.  That thing.  That moment where you can’t actually tell if it is good or bad, but you just know it is you and your partner and the absolute truth.

After the scene wrapped,  Rance walked over to me, put his arm on my shoulder and said “you know Michael, that was a good one.  I just felt it”

I did too Rance.  And I will always thank you for that.

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  • Michael Worth – November 28, 2017

 

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Grizzly Peak Films Launches Youtube Channel

Grizzly Peak Films’ youtube channel launched today with the World Premiere of “Seeking Dolly Parton” and the current production of “The Butterfly Guard”.  The goal of the channel is to display all the video content (trailers, clips, behind the scenes, festival coverage, etc.,) of the company in one convenient place.  Please subscribe to the channel for a chance to keep up with the series of releases and productions in 2015 and beyond.

Below is a small clip of the cast and director in rehearsal before shooting “Seeking Dolly Parton”:

Principal Photography Wraps on “Broken Memories”

Michael Worth directs on the set of Broken Memories

Michael Worth directs on the set of Broken Memories

Ivan Sergei, Rance Howard, Cerina Vincent and Kelly Greyson Stars in Romantic-Drama

Los Angeles, CA – “Broken Memories,” a romantic-drama directed by Michael Worth (“Enchanting the Mortals”) has officially wrapped principle photography. The feature film, shot throughout Southern California, stars Ivan Sergei, Rance Howard, Cerina Vincent and Kelly Greyson.

The screenplay was written by Frankie Lauderdale and is produced by Kassi Crews through Broken Memories, LLC with Gary Levinsohn (“Jack Reacher”) as executive producer. “Broken Memories” enters into the postproduction phase at Digital Jungle and is on track to be released in 2015.

“Broken Memories” is a romantic drama that follows a son, Levi, dealing with Jasper, his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. While Jasper fights everyday to remember, Levi is trying to forget and put the past behind him. As the father’s state continues to decline, the family welcomes a beautiful and somewhat mysterious caretaker named Maggie who’s presence helps to heal old family wounds.

Director Michael Worth started his acting career in film before landing the role of Tommy on “Acapulco HEAT.” In 2002, he began to write, produce and direct his own projects. “God’s Ears” is his first feature film as director for which he has received Best Director as well as The Domani Vision Award For Emerging Talent in New York. Most recently he directed “Fort McCoy.”

Director and actor Michael Worth on location.

Director and actor Michael Worth on location.

Ivan Sergei, who plays Jasper’s son Levi, first became known for John Woo’s 1996 film “Once a Thief.” He has been featured on screen in “Dangerous Minds,” “The Opposite of Sex,” “The Break Up,” “Jewtopia” and “Vamps.” His wide spanning career includes television roles on “Crossing Jordan,” “Hawaii,” “Charmed,” “Touched by an Angel,” and “Warehouse 13.” Currently, Sergei can be seen portraying Jack Taylor on ABC Family’s drama “Twisted.”

Rance Howard plays the Alzheimer’s inflicted Jasper In “Broken Memories.” The father of Clint and Ron Howard, Rance has acted in over 100 films beginning with “Frontier Woman” in 1956. He is best known for his roles in “Cool Hand Luke,” “Chinatown,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” In 2013, he played Woody Grant’s brother in the acclaimed film “Nebraska.”

Worth works with actors Cerina Vincent and Ivan Sergei

Worth works with actors Cerina Vincent and Ivan Sergei

Arguably best known as Maya the yellow Power Ranger, Cerina Vincent moved from the small screen to big with prominent roles in the hit films “Not Another Teen Movie” and “Cabin Fever.” After which, Cerina has found much success in guest star roles on most television’s major hit shows including “CSI,” “Bones,” and “Two and Half Men.”

Kelly Greyson is best known for her staring role in the historical drama, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” which screened nationally this summer. “Alone Yet Not Alone,” gained industry wide attention this awards season when its titular song, written by Bruce Broughton with lyrics by Dennis Spiegel, was nominated and then rescinded for an Academy Award. Greyson can also be seen in “Return to the Hiding Place” (www.hide-movie.com) wide-released in February 2015. She is featured in the film “Little Boy,” starring Kevin James, due out in 2015 as well and stars in the upcoming period piece “To Have and to Hold.”

Gary Levinsohn is a Los Angeles based film producer and owner of Mutual Film Company. He has earned a reputation as a highly innovative film financing entity, known for delivering eclectic, high quality films. Some of the titles Levinsohn has been involved with include “Saving Private Ryan,” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, which received 11 Academy Award® nominations and grossed over $400 million worldwide; the “Tomb Raider” franchise starring Angelina Jolie, “Deadfall,” starring Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, and Charlie Hunnam; and the blockbuster hit “Jack Reacher”, starring Tom Cruise. Earlier films include “The Jackal,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “The Patriot.”

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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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View the film’s trailer here:

A New Star Opens the Heavens

The first time I saw Karen Kim was high atop an archaic hotel roof in the middle of Bulgaria in 2000.

The film I was shooting there was Isaac Florentine’s US SEALS 2, and I knew the actress I was about to meet was playing the very stoic, disciplined Karate expert/ Samurai specialist who was my unsettled love interest in the film. Though as it appropriately turned out, she was also playing that character’s rambunctious and all-be-damned twin sister, so I wasn’t quite as taken aback by her animated entrance into my life.

Her laugh made it across the precarious rooftop of the building long before she did. Her bouncy gait told me she was as athletic as her character’s Bulgarian-terrorist butt-kicking role required, but like her colorful cinematic twin sister, she was also loaded with energetic personality. She sat next to me in her skintight jeans and t-shirt, raised her sunglasses and extended her hand:

“Hi. I’m Karen. I guess you and I are going to be kicking some butt”

That foreign filming experience set the tone of our relationship over the next dozen years: deep, thoughtful conversations intermixed with wild rides through alien streets and alleyways.

And that would sometimes take place before even leaving her front door.

She immediately shattered my perception of the gorgeous ex-cheerleader for the NFL. Granted, my perception of that type was rather vague and still shrouded in adolescent fantasy but she broke through it nonetheless. Her focused intelligence combined with an energetic playfulness made her stand out in a crowd. While shooting in Sophia, we would get lost for entire days walking the tangled streets and the deeper we got spun around, the happier she seemed. She was the tye that enjoyed the promise of her hard work, but also seemed content at times to toss it all away and risk a moment of discovery.

Over the years, she became not only one of my closest friends, but one of the most stalwart parts of my filmmaking team. After SEALS, I invited Karen to be in five more of my films, quickly learning that whatever I offered to her, she would become that part, embracing it with the same importance and passion that I had written it with. She got those characters, even in ways that I didn’t. And she got me. I realized that during the Christmas of 2005 when she surprised me with a gift of the Criterion Collection’s John Cassavetes’ Five Films DVD set. I had not told Karen that this actor/director became a sort of human road map for my career. She made that connection all by herself. “He sounded like you”, she told me. Though I knew I was far from as skilled, her recognition of my ambition touched me all the same.

Karen’s ability to adapt to our irregular working conditions through many of our independent films including Killing Cupid and God’s Ears, was always a welcomed relief for a director to see in one of his leading actresses. While in the 110 degree heat of Palmdale, Karen, playing a black leather clad assassin in Cupid, would between takes, simply strip down to her underwear, sit on the nearest box and fan herself until the next take. The few outbursts we would ever see from her, always concluded a few minutes later by her typical smile. She would address the small crew saying “Okay, thanks for bearing with me everyone in my girly moment of grief. I love you all”. And everyone loved her back for it.

When she was eight months pregnant, we went up to Vasquez Rocks outside of Los Angeles to shoot some photos of her before she became a fully active mother. She effortlessly moved through the rough landscape (recently turned charcoal black from a controlled burn done in the area) wearing nothing but a shawl; a pregnant phoenix, rising from the ashes. Towards the end while on the rocks and the sun setting in the distance, she moved over to one peak, standing bare to the falling sun and smiled. “Mikey”, she said, as she always called me, “this baby is going to bring me a lot of these sunsets”.

And that was certainly as true as she said. She invited me to her home to take the first photos of them together there. Watching the way that small baby in her hands illuminated her face as if she were holding some brightly burning candle, was the happiest I had ever seen her.

A couple years later, I got a call from her and I immediately heard in her voice something was wrong. She needed to go to a doctor to have some secondary tests done for something she had not yet disclosed. She needed someone to drive her because of the nature of the tests, which may have prevented her from driving home herself. That day, though already aware of the possibility she was suffering from a serious form of cancer, she continued to discuss with me her future and how she wanted to start producing some of our films together. I was the shaken one that day, watching my friend with the tubes and needles protruding from her in the hospital bed even as she joked with the nurses. She continued to talk to me about her plans for a children’s play place she wanted to build for Skyler while I was the one doing my best to remember to breathe. All the while, Karen kept her medical staff laughing and smiling.

It may have been a month later when some of the reality had sunk in with her and we had a long talk about the expectation of her time here. Karen passionately ran through all her feelings and options, extreme as some of them were, all based on one thing: her daughter. Every thought that crossed her mind about being here on this earth or moving on to another place, all revolved around how it would affect her little girl Skyler. The love and concern she had for her daughter was as clear as anything I had seen. And it only grew stronger as her body grew weaker.

Sunday morning, when I was told about her passing the night before, I felt a deep loss along with a simultaneous gain that was almost overwhelming. My conversation with her just the week before was entirely about life. How during so many of our years on this planet, we can easily miss the gift in front of us. The “tool” of existence that allows us to grow and share growth with all those around us.

Our mutual dear friend (and “God’s Ears” cinematographer) Neil Lisk had passed away (also much too early) a couple years before, and we spoke about how it had opened our eyes to the impermanence of our stay here. We discussed how it made us feel, both discovering that living a life to be remembered means we must first live a life WORTH being remembered. And though being an actor is sometimes mistaken as the main stage in which someone can leave that kind of a mark, we both agreed that was far from true. Even the most famous fall into obscurity over time. It is in passing on the hope and the love to others, the gift of self recognition, that is the most memorable thing one can do. Your name and face may one day be forgotten, but the ripples you begin through the most genuine, truthful and simple acts will be the ones felt through the generations for the rest of time.

I see Karen’s ripples have only begun in those around her. And I am one that will be watching them grow for the rest of my time here.

I love you my friend. And I already miss you like crazy.

Mikey

“God’s Ears” gets Thailand Premiere!

Grizzly Peak Films’ “God’s Ears” will get its Thailand premiere at the 9th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok this November.

The film festival runs between November 4 and November 13 in Bangkok and features a large selection of international features and documentaries. “God’s Ears” will be participating as one of four films in the “Autism & Special Needs Section” of the film festival. The three other films in that division being screened are “Kids With Camera”, “Ocean Heaven”, and “For Once in My Life”. The festival is only the 2nd time “God’s Ears” has been screened internationally, the first being at Japan’s “Skip City Film Festival” in 2009. “I am really happy to have the film screen here.”, director and actor Michael Worth says. “And excited with their division of films focusing on the special needs of people on film.”

“God’s Ears” is Worth’s feature film directorial debut and focuses on a man with autism who discovers love in the form of both a woman and the challenge of the boxing ring. It has gone on to great festival success most recently with The Feel Good Film Festival and Route 66 Film Festival awards.  The film also stars Margot Farley, Tim Thomerson, Mitzi Kapture-Donahue, Karen Kim, Dominic Daniel, Lois Stewart, Alex Ballar and John Saxon.

Festival screening times to be announced soon.

WORLD FILM FESTIVAL OF BANGKOK

“God’s Ears” Feels Good

On Sunday, August 15th actor and comedian Hal Sparks was taking a moment to drag out the reading of The Feel Good Film Festivals final Award of the night, Best Feature Film. Earlier in the night, “God’s Ears” had been nominated for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Director but the awards would ultimately go to the deserving productions of Herpes Boy and Eagle’s In The Chicken Coop. As the list of prizes were read that went along with the award, both Margot Farley and myself looked to each other tacitly agreeing that whoever was winning this was going to be looking at some nice support towards their next film. A 60 thousand dollar in kind camera package deal from Panavision, over 10 thousand in kind rental credit from several grip houses such as Camadeus, Hollywood Rentals, ISS Props, etc., and to top it off a big bottle of TETEO Tequila! Nothing says award like alcohol and camera deals!

I was thinking about the day before when we screened the film in the Spielberg Room of the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Built in 1922, the place just felt like old Hollywood. This was where Sid Grauman held the very first Hollywood premiere and made me feel in good company with our very first Hollywood premiere. I had had some memorably good experiences in the past with several festivals “God’s Ears” was lucky enough to attend, such as Visionfest, Skip City, Japan and The Big Island Film Festival in Hawaii. What I always kept in mind is what made them so great was the thing being replicated here: awesome staff! These guys at Feel Good were attentive and gracious hosts making everyone feel like they belonged here and they wanted you to stay.

Being caught up in some development of other projects, I could not prepare for the festival like a responsible filmmaker should. I did not bring a poster or stack of postcards or even the cute buttons with a still from the film stating “support Autism”. But I made sure to invite any and everyone I knew, and surprisingly (as with promises to film screenings it can be) most of them showed up. Coupled with the other attendees we were only about three seats short of a full house. As always, the ever faithful cast and crew of Margot, Neil Lisk, Karen Kim, Alex Ballar and Dominic Daniels were there seeing the film for the umpteenth time. The screening was done on digibeta, which even though it lacked the vibrancy and scope of an HD projection was still fairly strong. I sat mainly on the aisle floor so I could get up and pace. I sometimes find watching my work as an actor or director a bit unnerving at times, even though I do feel it is an important part of the learning experience to see what the crowds respond to or don’t.

As the film ended, I was privileged once again to listen to the stories of a handful of people who have someone dealing with autism in their close network of family or friends. I never grow tired of hearing that “God’s Ears” reminds them of someone they know or in some cases of someone they want this person to be. It always reminds me that I managed at least once in my life to be a part of a film that went beyond being just a film and served a greater purpose in at least some people’s lives. Not much more you can ask of your art than that. As the small group of my cast/crew slowly dispersed back into the streets of Los Angeles it felt like one those family reunions that happen every few years where for a brief moment, you all connect, remember and then move back out into that space where time does not stop.

But on Sunday night, the culmination of the event was coming together. Though the audience/film experience in itself is truly the goal of all films, these celebrations can give actors and filmmakers some added validity to all the trials and tribulations of trying to get your film seen by a broader audience. As most of the productions here have yet to see the major spotlight, and “God’s Ears” is no exception, these hard working festivals make those struggling artists feel for a moment they have made it, have been heard and have been thanked for following their dreams. What may on the outside appear to be a group of the same people, in the same rotating industry, all patting each other on the back for a job well done, is in reality a personal reminder from your peers that you made a good choice and stuck to your guns when we all know the voices screaming “get a life” can be the more dominant echo between our ears.

As Hal turned the envelope over to the beautiful America (that would be one of the staffers, not the metaphor to the country) I continued to look at the audience. I had a flashback to writing the script in various Barnes and Nobles or Coffee Beans while trying to envision the words coming to life and now I was sitting with a packed house of people, some of whom have actually seen that vision realized. It felt strange. Odd. But maybe that was just the pessimist buried in me forced to face the reality that some dreams do come true and goals are accomplished when you persist in your ambitions.

“And the winner of The Feel Good Film Festival Best Feature is…… ‘God’s Ears’ “.

If Margot and Kerry Connelly had not started screaming and jumping up and down in the aisles it may have hit me a few seconds later what she had just said (later they would tell me they had wished their camera had been pointed at them as they never had a reaction like that before) but eventually it did. Maybe one day I can summarize and explain what goes on in your body and mind at that moment when there is this kind of profound recognition for an effort that you and a small army of like-wise individuals put their heart in over a brief period of time.

But until then, I will just hope I get more opportunities to examine the feeling before I make an attempt at it.

To all those hard working people at The Feel Good Film Festival, I want to say “Thank You” for all those individuals who followed me on this journey in which this great honor represents. People like you keep us all going.

– Michael Worth