Spit Take: Part 2 – A Look Behind the Scenes of Independent Film – By Bob Freville

“A VAMPIRE BONNIE & CLYDE…”
…HEMOGLOBIN APOCRYPHA & THE
SPURIOUS DISTRIBUTION METHODS
OF EVERYONE’S FAVORITE SHOWMAN-SHYSTER

 

Felicia and Calvin—the protagonists of my second project as director–were born from the shock and awe I felt when I spent time in the company of a young couple who were pale as Death and addicted to everything under the Morning Star. I had been the singer in a band that featured a teenaged drummer. The band broke up and, years later, I ran into the drummer’s ex-girlfriend. I invited her over and she brought with her a tall, almost mute Nancy boy that she said was the love of her life…Even though they fought like preening kindergarteners about all manner of petty things.

When they weren’t fighting this pair of emo drug scenesters would sit across from me, on my couch (the one on display in the flick), ingest large quantities of pain killers and suck face like rabid animals. Making out isn’t what you would call it. It was more an example of blood lust or Magicka Sexualis, a ritualistic regimen of biting, nibbling and suckling that usually ended in my former-band-mate’s ex-girlfriend sucking hard on her rather feminine boyfriend’s hip bones, which protruded from his livid frame in a cadaverous manner. They both resembled skeletons, only one was more healthy-looking than the other; “Felicia” had a fuller, rosier face that said she feasted until the pangs went away, where “Calvin” had the physique of someone who went without so as to satiate Felicia’s needs.

During one of their more heated drug-fuck sessions I breathlessly turned to them and said, “The two of you are a couple of vampires. I wish I was videotaping this.”

The story’s genesis had taken place. Felicia and Calvin had hatched.

These were kids whose lives, intellects and personae were unremarkable and indistinguishable from most of their peers. They had nothing of interest to say that hadn’t already been said and spoon-fed to them by the teary mascara-covered eyes of their favorite bands. They ate the same food, took the same drugs and shared the same morbid view of the world. But just because there were countless others like them didn’t negate their disconnectedness from the alleged human race. There was no humanity in their gestures and they felt alienated from the society that produced them.

This was and is Felicia and Calvin, two aliens, two blood-slurping malcontents who have no home, no tangible belongings and no future.

In this way they are far-removed from both the Romantic version of vampires propagated by latter-day storytellers and the “revenants” of medieval folklore who formed the basis of the vampire mythos. Instead they are revealed to be godless nomads, spiritual amnesiacs, neither of which has any visible knowledge of Dracula or Nosferatu or even Jesus Christ (except for a bloodied shirt bearing a religious icon).

The revenants of lore were ghosts or animated corpses, usually wayward degenerates brought back to life for some evil purpose. But our “vampires” have no purpose and take no pleasure or penance in feeding off the so-called innocents around them. In fact they are morally-developed enough to rob for their blood rather than kill for it and they only resort to murder or grievous bodily harm when all other options have been exhausted. Their blood lust is less erotic or idealistic than it is solitary and obligatory, like a person that needs a dose of methadone or a shot of Insulin.

Bringing Felicia and Calvin’s story to the screen cost me thousands of dollars, dozens of friends and several creature comforts.

This should act as a Caveat to all that wish to make a low-budget film. It is not a guidebook to filmmaking, in general, nor is it a manual that tells you exactly what is right and applicable for all projects or your project, rather it gives you a strong overview of one micro-budget project and prepares you for some potential situations you may find yourself in. Indeed if you are a freak magnet, as I was, and your production encounters flaky actors, Jesus freak cabbies, temperamental property owners and horny financiers with no sense of time, then this will offer you some ideas.

This is a tried and true recipe that shows you can get results by transforming your apartment into a studio with simple cans of paint and basic black fabrics for curtains. It is a recipe whose ingredients are mostly make-shift and inspired by the rags. By combining found objects, home-made supplies and a heart full of ingenuity, we made Salvation Army wardrobe, white linens stolen from a hospital, Styrofoam coolers, bottles of stage blood from a Halloween emporium and assorted candies from a variety store look like a million bucks. And my investment of $10,000 or less produced a work that, while not measuring up to the production values of a $100 million blockbuster, surely dwarfed the furniture-like acting and disregard for character of the same.

We will get the so-called Rules out of the way. Better you think of them as suggestions or admonitions. I can’t tell you what to do, just like nobody could have talked me out of making a so-called vampire movie…Even if they had the foresight to know that, within two weeks of us being in production, True Blood and Twilight would create a modern blood-sucker brouhaha like none other in pop culture
history.

Regrets are a mistake when looking at a film in retrospect. In fact mistakes are a by-product of filmmaking that must be appreciated in order for the artisan of said film(s) to be able to feel any sense of fulfillment at all. Note that you can find multiple continuity errors in films with budgets numbering in the hundreds of millions. Why should your $40,000 credit card-financed picture be any different?

In fact mistakes often make for an effect far more magical and formidable than anything you could have premeditated. A great example is the final scene in my short feature Of Bitches & Hounds; We happened to arrive when the sun was at its peak over the lake and when I instructed my actors to slowly walk into that lake and immerse themselves in the water the sun’s trajectory hit just the right spot so that the entire frame was illuminated by wonderful prisms of light. These rays were better than all the CGI in the world and couldn’t have been foreseen with any kind of storyboard or shot list.

Sometimes you can capture lightning in a bottle…But not if you are trying. What’s that they say about a watched pot? That’s exactly it.  Still you can avoid many manner of calamity by looking at things with a combination of common sense and practicality, neither of which automatically loans itself to the toils of an eager director mapping out his/her no-budget flick. But this can be easily avoided by allotting a reasonable amount of time for pre-production and never jumping the gun on any department of your production.

NEVER HIRE SOMEONE FOR A HETEROSEXUAL ROLE UNTIL YOU KNOW THEY ARE HETEROSEXUAL

For the sake of the actor’s privacy and friendship I will not single him/her out by naming names, though I think it is clear when watching the film who the guilty party is in this equation. A good director and a good actor can make anything seem convincing, but on a labor of love, where people are getting paid in meals more than money why make more work for yourself?

DON’T PISS OFF LATINO GANG MEMBERS

While shooting an integral murder sequence with a notable horror legend, one of my actors—having been accustomed to doing whatever he wanted–threw his jacket on the hood of a brand new sports car. As the sequence was ramping up and the theatrics were in full swing our best take was interrupted by the howling of a very irate young man who told us he was in MS13 and not to fuck with his ride. We removed the jacket from the hood of the ride and it returned to its pimped-out status, but we may have lost a great take forever because of the failure to hire a reliable production assistant for the night’s shoot.

KID GLOVES

Get a pair. And handle everything with them from the minute you’re in production. It was kid gloves and a whole lot of moxie that kept Steve “Jason Voorhees” Dash (actor/stunt coordinator, Friday the 13th Part 2) working on the film for free…Even after waiting in the gelid winter climate without food or fuel.

Film classes (at least the ones I’ve been part of) teach a curriculum, they teach you influences and aesthetics, but they never instill in you the kind of real world attributes you will need to possess(charisma, perseverance, showmanship, self-confidence and shrewdness) in order to attract a movie star of any caliber to your no-budge movie. Certainly nobody taught me how to contain myself when I sent a script to Jason Voorhees (Steve Dash) himself and got a phone call from the cat, telling me he liked much of the script but, after careful consideration, didn’t think it was for him.

Devastated as I was, I refused to react like any one of his nervous fans and, instead, requested that he meet me for coffee so that we might discuss the so-called gray areas that he protested to. “Whatever they are, I’m sure we can do something about them,” I said.

This is the bedrock of negotiation, a term that anyone entering any avenue of the film realm should be well-versed in. If you can’t negotiate how the fuck do you expect to get anything done?

I hadn’t seen Steve in a film since the 1980’s and didn’t know what to expect. Maybe he’d show up with a burlap sack over his face, but I suspected he was more low-key than that. When he did arrive I almost didn’t place the face. The mode of dress was anachronistic.

Here was a freakishly tall man with white hair wearing a pair of pointed alligator boots, collared shirt and slacks suitable for someone on The Sopranos. He cut an intimidating figure and the second we took our seat in one of the Lindenhurst Diner’s many booths he immediately began to quiz me about who I was, what I did for a living and how I was making the movie.

The refined art of bullshit is a commodity to the filmmaking process, but honesty can be twice as effective. I told him I had no real budget to speak of, but that I would do what I could to arrange some form of compensation, even if it meant some sort of deferred payment.

He looked at me solemnly and said that the Screen Actors Guild would forbid it.

“Well,” I countered, calling his bluff. “That’s not really true because SAG actually has a thing now called the Union/Non-Union Agreement and the Low-Low-Budget Agreement, two recent treatise that would make it possible for you to work with me despite my situation.”

Steve smiled slyly and regaled me with the story of the last time he helped out some eager film student who wanted him to star in a student film. He said he used to get offers like this not infrequently and that I caught him at just the right time because he was looking to get back into the business after dealing in various businesses, including a local taxicab depot that would come to be our primary means of transportation from location to location.

“Just tell ‘em you’re a friend of Steve Dash.”

He grilled me on all fronts and if I hadn’t answered his questions in the rapid-fire way that I did and with the candor that I couldn’t help but give a legend such as Dash, I may not have gotten my way.

But I did. Steve agreed to be in the film, agreed to let me advertise the film by plugging the fact that I coaxed him out of retirement, and even picked up the check at the Lindenhurst Diner.

“Put that away,” he said when I tried to slide some crumpled bills across the table. “I make more money than you.”

I would love to say that I repaid Steve’s kindness by giving him a smooth and easy role and a multitude of catering and pampering. But that is not the reality. Instead he had to drive out from his home on the other end of Long Island, New York, at his own expense, park on a side street in a crack-infested neighborhood, get his face covered in cold goo (stage blood), aid in the choreography of a fight sequence, contend with an amateur actor and suffer the ineptitude of a forgetful filmmaker who went to cut his monologue short by four sentences in the wake of a delay that left Steve waiting on the side of the road for over an hour.

My associate producer and our surrogate make-up assistant (ye who replaced our hired make-up artist who never reported for work) had skipped off to my loft to pick up a spare battery pack after the primary pack died. This was right after Steve showed up and the loft was only a five minute drive from the location. They took off in the direction of the loft in our only “crew car,” the make-up surrogate’s.

What should have taken ten minutes total ended up lasting nearly two hours by the time they finally resurfaced. Later it became clear that the shoot was delayed and my only name actor almost lost because our associate producer had been having sex with our make-up assistant on the couch that my two leads would be sharing for the next three plus months. Again it was finesse that saved the day, as I kept Steve entertained with stories of filmmaking jitters, low-budget foibles and long-term goals for the flick.

When charm and good looks fail there’s always creativity. When we arrived at a desolate parking lot location to shoot a murder sequence a bus was double-parked right where we needed to focus the action. I set up the tripod, readied props and camera, but it looked like the driver had no intention of moving.

I took a look at Kevin who, along with Pamela, was wearing formal wear for the scene, and rubbed my chin. Kevin was wearing a black suit with a frilly white dress shirt and a bow-tie.

“Go over there,” I said to him. “And ask the bus driver if he wouldn’t mind re-locating so we could take some wedding pictures.”

“Wedding pictures?”

“Yeah, tell ‘em you just had a wedding reception down the block and you want to get some photos of you and your friends on the way to the after-party.”

Kevin scampered off and I laughed, thinking that the driver would refuse to open his door or even acknowledge us. As I bent down to reach into my equipment bag I heard a hiss and the bus’s engine rumbled to life. I looked up and Kevin came marching back to us as the bus pulled away.

Kevin smiled. “He said I made a handsome young groom.”

DON’T DRINK A HALF A BOTTLE OF RUM & THREATEN TO EAT YOUR LEADING MAN’S HEART

Kevin and I started out as opponents when production first began. I was irritated to be gifted with the job of being his first cinematic mentor and resented his exclusively theatrical background (again, refer to thorough pre-production before making your final casting decisions). In time, with proper coaching, Kevin emerged as one of the best actors in my stable and I was happy that we put our differences aside and worked consummately for the remainder of the shoot.

As the production wore on Kevin and I became better acquainted and engaged in some very rich dialogues about current murder trials, celebrity inanity and kick ass rock music. But one night, when I had him all to myself and Pamela had taken off for Los Angeles for another film job, I finally snapped.

By this time it was December and the weather was in the minus. I had purchased a bottle of rum to warm us up for what amounted to a measly five scenes we needed to get between the two of us. We accomplished the two exteriors with no problem, but when it came time to shoot some solo shots of him in the loft, he kept stalling. We had each poured a drink and were discussing the remaining scenes when he got up and excused himself. He went to the bathroom and returned thirty-five minutes later.  By now, having sat in these sub-degree conditions for so long, I was already on the end of my second rum and coke. I began to set up the camera and ready the props as we continued our conversation. Again.  Kevin had to go to the bathroom.

I’ll never know what was behind his long bouts of bathroom time, but I’ll never forget the state he found me in by the time he had cleansed his bodies of all impurities and half the bottle of Potter was gone. The camera was dangling from my hand and nearly hit the floor. Kevin made the practical decision to get the next train home to Manhattan. I objected and he calmly explained that he would come back the following week to make up the unfinished work.

He excused himself again and I assured him that I would sober up. Another thirty-five minutes went by and he found me in the laundry room, videotaping the linens and yelling at the washing machine in a very dictatorial British accent.

“I control the future!” I kept squealing. Kevin laughed his head off until he saw my eyes. He said they looked like glazed donuts that had sat on a dashboard in the sun. They were weeping, but the weepingwas not tears. It was as if the whites of my eyes were oozing out of the sockets.

“I control the future!”

When all was said and done, Kevin was the one controlling the future and, if it wasn’t for his philanthropy, the middle of the film may have been rewritten in the same way films are re-tooled when
an actor dies.

A lesser man or woman would have left and never returned, but Kevin knew what I had been through, what we had all been through. That is why he ignored my angry epithets and just laughed a weak laugh when, as he was calling himself a cab, I ran up in his face, told him he was destroying my movie and insisted that I would eat his heart. That’s the next admonition:

DON’T GET DRUNK WHILE MAKING YOUR FILM, NO MATTER WHAT THE WEATHER!
DON’T BECOME ENAMORED WITH YOUR LEAD ACTRESS, ESPECIALLY IF SHE ISN’T
INTERESTED IN YOU…PROBABLY THIS APPLIES DOUBLE IF SHE IS…

I knew I had made the right casting choice when I met Pamela for the first time. She was bright, exuberant and just as beautiful as her headshot. But her interest in me was as a creative person, the way it should be. When a director allows himself to be enraptured by a leading lady or leading man (depending on your persuasion), he/she makes the oft-fatal faux-pas of fucking up the overall architecture of the film.

With Hemo I was lucky to have restrained my crush before it compromised the picture. But a crush between actor and director is the worst thing that can plague a film, as it distracts from the camera’s focus on all of the other characters, however peripheral. Remember that an ensemble is what every world is made up of.

TREAT EVERYONE EQUALLY.

The above pretty much says it all, but I will reiterate. Your cast is your crew, especially if you have no money. Your characters should all be as precious to you as the next. A good director, like a good coach, wants to take the entire team to the majors, not just his star player. A good film is one in which the guy serving ice cream to the leads is every bit as memorable and enchanting as the gallant man hanging from the bad guy’s airplane.

FUCK THE POLICE

In the age of the digital machine there is no good reason to pay exorbitant fees for permits. With the technology of the digital camera and the lucidity of the High Definition format at every consumer’s disposal, there is not a single filmmaker who can’t play make believe and say that he or she is a film student. We are all film students. Perhaps not in the academic sense, but every person who ventures to make a film should be permitted to consider themselves a student of film.

Instead of seeing your credentials on paper police officers should be required to ask you who the DP was on Goodfellas(Michael Ballhaus) or what kind of format Lustig shot Maniac on (Super 16mm). They are here to protect and serve you, not to trip you up when you’re trying to do some harmless shooting.

ALWAYS HIRE AN EDITOR WHO YOU KNOW IS ABSOLUTELY PROFESSIONAL AND KNOWS WHAT HE IS DOING…AND DON’T PAY HIM UP FRONT…MAKE HIM WORK FOR IT

I’ve lost more money and more time on each project by hiring incompetent editors than I have saved dollars by finishing on schedule. If your prospective editor tells you that he cut a behind-the-scenes documentary for an Eminem Concert DVD ask him to see the completed doc. If an applicant says he’s got all the tricks and tools you need and that he’ll work for free to earn experience it’s invariably because all he’s ever edited were fan boy videos for YouTube.

PITCHING A TENT WITH A MIGRAINE: SKIMMING THE PAGES & ABUSING OTC MEDICATIONS

Pamela had told me how enthralled she was with the script when first she read it. After she had responded to the ad and after having a chance to peruse the shooting script, I asked her if she had any reservations about the more challenging material (nudity, fetishes, blood and guts, etc.). She said that she absolutely loved the material and had no qualms about performing what the script called for.

Before the morning’s shoot I am hung over from a Friday Night birthday bash. My associate producer Duane hands me a large gray bottle of pills called RIPPED Fury, some metabolic tornado popular among weightlifters. It’s a so-called “muscle fuel” and Duane says it will get me sufficiently jazzed for the afternoon proceedings.

Neither he nor I thought the two cups of coffee would suffice after only grabbing three hours of sleep and waking up dehydrated.  In the thick of the woods beside Bergen Point, site of a long-promised but never executed “Restoration,” now we are a pack of wild earth children ready to get naked, get bloody and weather the storm. In this case a heavy drizzle that won’t let up. There are four of us in total–Pamela, Kevin, myself and Duane. And Duane’s grandmother’s tent.

Several failed attempts at assembling and properly expanding the tent by both myself and Duane give way to the realization that team work really is key when it comes to guerilla filmmaking, thanks to Pamela stepping in and suggesting we each take a side. Lo, in ten minutes flat we form a rectangle and have the tent erected.

The tent works as a means of hiding the camera from the elements, but the sequence, an erotic love collage between Felicia and Calvin, requires our leads to lie out in the misty soil, their naked bodies curled into each other in a series of erotic positions…

The nudity was not a problem for Pamela, though it may have been for Kevin (who seemed vulnerable throughout…Hence no used coverage of his manhood, as originally intended). What did erk her was the mosquitoes, swarms of them biting her on her wet ass, on her arm pits, breasts and every other crevice (from the looks of it in the dailies anyway).

We neared the end of the sequence and then it came time for Kevin to suck Pamela’s toes, something that appeared in the then-current draft of the script. I gave them their beats and Pamela’s face dropped.  I thought it was another mosquito. Turns out she wasn’t aware of this detail of the scene and was more than uncomfortable about doing it. This would mark one of the few occasions that I fully compromised for the sake of an actor’s vulnerability. Fortunately my doing right by Pamela meant that she did right by me and the majority of the shot footage made for a magically-poetic sequence.

A couple weeks later another occasion occurred where Pamela displayed utter shock at what we were about to undertake.

“You didn’t read the whole script?” I asked her at the time, fearing that we were about to get into a tug of war as to whether or not she would do a rape scene.

“Well, actors skim,” she told me.

“I see.”

That was the cool thing about Pamela. In the words of Derek Zoolander, she may not “read good,” but she is a real trooper on most days and when it comes to challenging material–like a violent seizure of womanhood or the sacrifice of an unborn child, to name two examples–she’ll throw herself into it with remarkable depth, folding deep within herself until it’s almost hard to see Pamela any more.

There were several times where I couldn’t think of her as anyone but Felicia for weeks at a stretch.

The Ripped Fury Fuel Pills, which is a great name for a punk band, are not to be taken more than prescribed. I think the limit was two or three tablets twice a day. I had eaten a quarter of a bottle by the time we shot the forest love sequence. Further example of that team spirit previously mentioned could be glimpsed along Montauk Highway, in West Babylon, New York, as a bushy-haired man with one eye closed was followed by a triumvirate of free agents lugging a folded up tent through the rain because they felt pity for their director…who had overdosed on over-the-counter speed and was suffering from the feeling of several microscopic fairies stabbing him with tiny pitchforks in his eye socket.

At a fast-food burger joint I dry-heave on the pavement as we wait for a cab to take us back to the Loft. There are six more scenes on the day’s shooting schedule, but I can tell from the severity of the
headache that they will all look like shit with my vision so blurred. This is the kind of moment that separates the sinewy from the feeble, that decides whether you are going to make films like El Topo or
end up producing shitty television programming for the E! Channel.
Floaters on my eyeball like little clouds raining shit on my vertiginous brain.

I know I have to say, “Fuck it,” and forge ahead. My cast and “crew” have soldiered through it for me and now I must repay that.

We make it to the Loft and shoot two simple scenes. I gag as I prepare the next set-up. Pamela suggests we push the remaining four shots to the following Saturday and double up on our work. At that moment she was more angel than demon.

Procrastination is not usually the answer when it comes to filmmaking, at least not when it’s on a tight budget and a tight schedule. But sometimes you have to wait. Certainly no auteur ever crafted the perfect rain sequence when the skies were clear and the sun was bright.

PILGRIMAGE

It’s the end of September and things are on the verge of dying, but not this film. That would be unacceptable. We are at the Pilgrim State Mental Hospital, shooting in the ruins of the old buildings
that once housed Allen Ginsberg’s poor old mother.

“Follow your inner moonlight;
Don’t hide the darkness”–Allen Ginsberg

I was here once before, back before they started reducing these artifices into piles of twisted patina and rubbled concrete. I had gone on one of those adolescent jaunts with my former-heroin dealer, his girlfriend, and their pacifistic college buddies. We had traversed the tunnels beneath the main rooms, dank hallways littered in rusted buckets full of baby doll heads. I had dragged my feet knowingly over broken glass, felt a spirit or many drift through my corporeal form as we marched through the corridors.

My dope dealer had his Gat, a violent instrument that makes men out of sissies, and he held it several inches from his right arm, his muscles tense for no reason, as his girlfriend’s feeble roommate waved around a flashlight trepidaciously. They all laughed at the apparent burn-out who strode along ahead, deep into the indigo unknown before them. I must have been stoned or crazy. That’s what they thought.

But I felt at peace there, because inside a bruised sadness for the poor lobotomized inhabitants of Yesteryear throbbed…and I knew that the crazies wouldn’t do harm to a soul they were already
possessing.

Now the place was a heap of jagged concrete and broken failure piled high. And I mounted it with my actors and my camera, knowing the aura of this strange jettisoned facility would give way to great
footage. And it did.

“We’re film students from Marymount Manhattan College and we’re doing our thesis video.”

If the cops or security guards disturbed us we were ready with this explanation and Pamela had her student ID propped in front of her driver’s license in her purse.

Nobody here. The newly-hired orderlies of the freshly-built facility down the road paid no mind to the frisky “videographers” on the hill of triturated architecture at the entrance to the grounds. No cops. No guards.

An abandoned mattress that looked like the one Felicia and Calvin must have shared after KO’ing their supervisors, many moons before they made their escape to a very bland and overwhelming sub-Urban
Dystopia. A single homeless man squats between a bushel of garlic tree and a bent window frame in the brush and smokes freely from a tin can.

He offers us a hit and I take it. It looks like nothing but ashes sitting dusted atop the tiny pen-tip perforations of the makeshift bowl. It burns my lungs but offers nothing but the taste of metallic.

“It’s spent,” I say. “I’m getting nothing.”

“What are you talking about?” he exclaims gruffly. “I just put a full stem in there!”

“You smoke stems?” I ask, frowning all squinted with the sun in my grayish eyes. “Like stems and seeds? You can’t get high off that.”

“What do you think you’re smoking?” he says.

“Weed, right?”

“No, kid. What the fuck? You just smoked some crack!”

It makes sense now. This whole vampyric skull-fuck has been a violent propulsion of the unconscious, one powered by an energy that I do not usually carry with me on any bleak Everyday. Here we are. We’re lifted.

*   *   *

Keep your eyes peeled for part three of Spit Take in which writer/director, Bob Freville, expounds on the trials & tribulations of indie distribution.