Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Murdering is funnier than killing.

A good low-budget director is above all able to adapt (and aptly) to whichever circumstances should arise. For example: in The Man Who Loved, there was a scene that featured pretty much every member of the cast, and it took us a lot of hoop-jumping to find a day that worked for everyone. And so imagine our dismay when almost everyone showed up-- that is, everyone but one, who was to be something of a major focus in the scene. There was no way we could reschedule the scene, and so we redistributed her dialogue to other characters and lamp-shaded her absence. And doing so actually helped us focus on what the scene was actually about.

Similarly, we're more than happy to rewrite lines for an actor, to make it flow more naturally for them, to let them put their own spin (and thus their own selves) into it. At the same time, our writing aims to be flavourful and precise, and thus somewhat immutable: you might be able to preserve the meaning of the words and the underlying emotion, but changing the words changes the feel of the words, the rhythm, the timbre, and-- when writing comedy-- the funny.

There's a line in Olivia Forever!! in which Olivia refers to her Halloween costume from "the two years previous"; Adrienne often flipped the word order to "the two previous years". Now, both versions mean the same thing, but "the two years previous" has a slightly dry or academic feel that communicates something about the character and her personal style. "The two previous years" communicates nothing but the facts; all the flavour is lost. And, this being a film about the hazards of idiosyncrasy, and Olivia being a character who derives a great deal of pleasure from verbiage, it was important that we preserve that flavour, and so this was one case in which we couldn't let it be rephrased. The punchline to all this? We ended up cutting the entire scene-- including the line-- anyway.

Not that, again, our scripts are considered holy and untouchable. We're constantly cutting and revising, looking for ways to punch it up, to be more precise, more flavourful. Recently, we were going over the following dialogue in rehearsal:

RODNEY: And you weren't planning on killing me?
OLIVIA: It hadn't occurred to me.
RODNEY (mishearing): It had?
OLIVIA (louder, clearer): Hadn't.

And it occurred to us that the word "killing" got the meaning across, but didn't have much flavour.

"Let's change that to murdering," we said: "'murdering' is a funnier word than 'killing'."

We crossed it out and they read it over again: it did, indeed, seem funnier. The word was more precise, communicating more of a sense of deliberate violence, which will hopefully stand in stronger and more comedic contrast to the polite, friendly tenor of the conversation. And it's a more flavourful word: "killing" starts strong but quickly becomes a slippery mush of l-sounds that mumble their way into "ing"; "murdering", by contrast, consists of three distinct syllables, the first two of which rhyme and are expelled forcefully outward: nothing soft, lilting, or indistinct about it.

It is, in our estimating, just the right word.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


This film is a period piece, taking place in 2004, and we've been pretty stringent about avoiding anachronisms, with one exception. That exception is the presence of Immortal Defense, Paul Eres's astonishing 2007 tower defense game (it's definitely worth the $9.99, but if you're unsure, download the free demo-- it's over thirty levels). With Paul's kind permission, we wrote his game into our script. Today we shot that scene.

Sometimes, the appearance of one work of art nestled within another makes perfect sense. Look at, for example, Reign Over Me; Shadow of the Colossus, and its motifs/imagery of collapsing giants, fits perfectly within the context of Sandler's 9/11 trauma.

Olivia Forever!! and Immortal Defense don't quite fit in that way; thematically, our little bauble and Paul's philosophical/metaphysical science fiction are miles apart. But in the scene itself, a comparison is made between Olivia and the game. It's not a particularly deep comparison-- it doesn't reveal anything new about the character-- but it carries tremendous significance for the character making the comparison, becomes a cherished memory, a part of their story, a token of love.

There's been some fresh hullabaloo about whether or not games are art. And while that's never been a question for me, while I've always come down squarely on the Art side of the argument, I can say that one characteristic of art is that it is potentially transformative: it can transform us, or be transformed by us, given a significance in our lives that even its creators might not have intended. Mary and Tom first met, first spoke, first bonded over a mutual appreciation of Taxi Driver-- hardly a romantic film, but one that is forever tied to our story and our lives, just as Immortal Defense will always be part of Tedward's and Olivia's, a totem to a time and a feeling, lush and sensuous, bursting with colour and light and possibility.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Halloween Party.

On Friday, we got another twenty seconds in the can. If that doesn't sound particularly promising, well, it is and it isn't.

The shoot in question was for a cut-away gag. The movie's going along, a scene's in progress, someone mentions something that gets us into this scene, scene does it's thing (ha!), and we're back to the original scene. We have a couple of these sorts of gags planned, one of which involves a Sasquatch we're still in the process of trying to acquire without spending too much money.

That's a tricky thing, actually: part of how we can justify making films of perhaps limited commercial appeal is that we make it out of our own pocket, and part of how we can justify making films out of our own pocket when we don't have that much in our pocket to begin with is that we make our films cheaply and quickly. We pride ourselves on being the scrappy low-budget filmmakers. Our most expensive film to date cost under five hundred dollars. And so we can't in good conscience justify spending almost as much for a Sasquatch costume that's going to have at most thirty seconds of screen-time, even if perhaps those thirty seconds would be worth it.

The shoot we had on Friday, this cut-away gag Halloween Party shoot, hardly cost us anything in terms of dough (which, of course, we like) but did take a lot of preparation and planning and coordinating of schedules. Our actors aren't getting paid for their work and have day jobs; finding a day that two actors have in common for a rehearsal and shoot is sometimes a chore. Finding a day when a third can join them can be nearly impossible. Having learned this lesson in the past, we like to write around "guest stars"-- limiting most actors to one really good scene. See, for example, Son of a Seahorse, where we did this extensively.

But this film, and this scene, aren't really amenable to that approach. For the Halloween Party to be convincing, we needed it to look like a party. And so, in addition to our two leads, we had planned on seven background characters. I'm not going to call them "extras", because it's vaguely dehumanizing. And, having worked on a few horror sets as an extra, I can vouch that most directors treated me and my fellow extras like cattle, flesh-and-blood cogs in place to realize their vision. And if I ever treat a fellow human being like that, I hope someone punches me in the God-damn face.

So: background characters. Seven of them. We even had a bio in mind for each, what their relationships were with one another, et cetera. Not because the viewer would pick any of that up-- it is, again, only a twenty second shot, with the focus squarely on the two leads-- but because it would give the actors something to do rather than stand there bored out of their wits.

I confirmed the day before the shoot with some of them and the day of the shoot with the others. One I saw in person less than two hours before the shoot. You can probably see where this is going: of the seven, only two showed up. We were so disheartened that we didn't give our two background actors their bios, as it's a little hard to explain a web of relationships between just two people.

We, of course, made due, as that's what you have to do when you're the scrappy low-budget filmmaker. We even put Tom in the shot, his face obscured by a Virtual Boy, so that we'd have a third background character. Because we're a two person crew, this necessitated balancing the boom mike rather precariously on a light-stand. We shot about a dozen takes in about as many minutes, turned out the shop-lights and watched one of those aforementioned horror movies in which the lowly extras were treated so poorly. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and when we were done, we had twenty seconds of footage.

And over the weekend, we were faced with that fact-- we had expended a lot of time and energy for twenty seconds of footage. We have a shoot coming up on Wednesday that might net us another thirty, maybe forty. We're lucky if we get a shoot a week-- usually something comes up with one actor or another and we have a week or two with nothing. And so getting these tiny little fragments for a feature-length film, well, it's a little maddening, no doubt about it. It's a long ways from Seahorse, where we'd typically shoot ten or fifteen minutes at a time.

At the same time, we're kinda consciously trying to shoot all this small stuff now so that it makes it into the film. We've been working on this film for so long that we just want to be done with it; if we shot all the major (i.e., long) scenes, we might just declare the film done before we've shot the little piecemeal stuff. We'll say, "Well, we don't really need it", and maybe we really don't. I mean, you don't really need anything-- there's always a way to make it work, and one should always be flexible.

We don't need a Halloween party cut-away gag, and we don't need a Sasquatch, but at the same time they add something to the film, and they're things that we want. By shooting them now, with all these other, bigger, more necessary scenes still ahead of us, we ensure that they don't get lost in our eventual frustration and apathy.

At the same time, we want to cut down on that frustration and apathy, and so we're aiming to alternate some of these little shoots with some bigger ones. And maybe even doing two shoots a week, if we can.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Early into Olivia Forever!!, and by early we mean less than a couple minutes in, Tedward (played by David Schonscheck) proposes to Olivia (Adrienne Patterson). Well, sort of.

We intended it to be slightly ambiguous-- he asks, but does so in such a way that if she says no, he can pretend that he was kidding. Which is, not to spoil anything, more-or-less what happens. We wanted to add to this by having Tedward reach behind him for a hidden ring. He starts to ask, his arm goes behind the television set, she says no, his hand comes back, empty.

And we agreed early on that we should really leave it at that. Keep it subtle, underplayed, make it something that adds to the scene if you pick up on it but doesn't harm it if you don't. We didn't want to do the obvious thing and cut into the box, and see him put it back. Too schmaltzy, said us.

But it became clear as we were cutting the scene together that, no matter the take or the angle, it was too subtle. He's doing something with his arm, but it's nothing that anyone would really pay attention to. No one would ever pick up on it but us. And so, we decided we needed an insert shot of the ring.

But how to do it so that it wasn't schmaltzy, obvious, and boring? Everyone else would cut to the box in his hand, so how could we add something to that? How could we make that moment, that shot, into something special instead of something merely ordinary?

Our simple, hopefully elegant solution was to start outside the box-- an old box, its felt entangled with wisps of dust-- and to dissolve inside of it, to see the ring itself. It's the sort of little cinematic touch that we love to see in films-- watch how much aching emotional resonance Scorsese gets out of the trick in his Age of Innocence-- and the sort of thing that might ever-so-slightly set us apart from the cult of realism that often plagues American independent films.

Don't be afraid to be obvious-- better something be obvious than to be nonexistent. And don't be afraid to be stylish. What both things have in common-- obviousness and style-- is that both are the tools of the bold, of the confident, of the ballsy, and low-budget films are in need of balls.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Fifth Shoot.

We shot with Steampunk Legend Jake Hildebrandt (pictured above) on Saturday. Tom's uncle, Mike Brennan, was kind enough to let us shoot at his collision shop, B & K Collision. Dearbornites might recall that B & K has sponsored the annual homecoming ceremonies and fireworks several times over the last few years.

So it wasn't completely surprising to us when Mayor Jack O'Reilly showed up. I mean, it was still totally random-- one minute we're shooting, the next minute we look out at the parking lot and there's the Mayor on his cell phone.

Between takes, Mary went out to chat with him-- they had been neighbors growing up, and of course, since Tom ran against Mayor O'Reilly in the 2007 Special Election, he knew who we were.

Because both Steampunk Legend Jake Hildebrandt and Tom are employed as part-time civil servants, and because the local newspaper recently printed some rather troubling remarks about the future of our department that someone is purported to have overheard the Mayor say at a rotary club, Jake suggested we "Michael Moore" the Mayor and ask him to set the record straight on camera. Tom declined.

During one the takes, the Mayor and Uncle Mike stood outside the building, chatting indistinctly, occasionally laughing boisterously, no doubt unaware that our mike could pick them up as background noise. Amusingly, a number of technical errors resulted in only one usable take-- which was, you guessed it, the one guest-starring Mayor Jack O'Reilly and Mike Brennan as Background Laughing Guy Numbers One and Two, respectively.

Now, we had promised some screen-grabs from our January shoot, and intending not to disappoint, here they are. This was the scene that introduced David Schonscheck's character.

Friday, March 19, 2010


So, it's been awhile. From technical issues to personal issues to scheduling conflicts, we haven't shot a lick since January. We have, however, been preparing-- trying to firm up some actors, locations, props and effects, revising portions of the script, lots of stuff. We've been busy but we haven't felt particularly busy, and as two people who need to keep busy to ward off bouts of moodiness and depression, it's been a hell.

But! On Friday, we had a shoot and a rehearsal. In less than twelve hours, we'll be shooting another scene, one that functions as a sort of experiment in comedy, using obscenely long pauses between each character's lines of dialogue as our main joke. We've been looking forward to this one for a while.

We cut together today's shoot shortly thereafter. Running under the opening credits, it's an audio-only sex scene. The first cut of it ran about a minute and twelve seconds, the last cut under a minute. Usually, we're the sort that's shameless about extending a moment, drawing it out-- we are, after all, the people who made Son of a Seahorse, which starts with a 22 minute phone conversation-- but this particular sequence needed to be compact and tight.

We're getting better at this, better at making these kind of precise decisions, more confident in our abilities as filmmakers, more comfortable with making comedies and entertainments instead of genre-less drama-comedy-slice-of-life stuff. Experimental in some aspects, yes, highly personal and idiosyncratic, certainly, but still comedies, still unafraid to embrace punchlines, sight gags, and surprises.