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"Yeah, well done lad!!!! Very Twilight Zone-like in a really good way."
- William Malone, Director THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1999)
THE MAKING OF LAST CALL
So you saw it?
Now that you've seen it, I can tell you the following. I didn't want to tell anyone before hand as that feels like an excuse. I'll tell a story, but not excuses. What's the difference to me between the two? Like wine I guess: I'll tell no tale before its time. So now that you've seen it and formed an opinion, I'll give you a brief history of LAST CALL. Think of it as a written DVD extra.
Vernon Mortensen, a short filmmaker and Star Trek geek, (who would later become one of my editors and sound editor on this), made me the following offer:
Sooner or later, every horror fan film buff learns about Roger Corman and his making - from start to finish - Little Shop of Horrors in only two days.
Granted he had a budget handy and waiting, access to sets and props and everything else he needed that I didn't have. Still, I wasn't going to say "No." to an opportunity.
It was late Saturday when my bro, Kelly Parks, told me about Vernon's offer. I had one week to shoot a film in a strange town where I knew no one except Kelly. And Kelly knew no actors, no crew, zip. Even Vernon doesn't live in San Diego, its just the city nearest to him.
So I started an actor hunt for anyone in San Diego via Myspace. I also needed to hunt down lights, locations, sound equipment, transportation, and props (the gun). I had seven days. Oh, and of course the most critical part, I needed a story.
So I started a script. I felt sure that I could find a two story house that I could make work with my script. Hell, an apartment with interior stairs would work if shot from the right angle.
Sunday I went to a signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. As it turned out, screenwriter George Clayton Johnson was there (THE TWILIGHT ZONE episodes:1. The Four of Us Are Dying
3. A Penny for Your Thoughts
4. A Game of Pool
5. Nothing in the Dark
6. Kick the Can
7. Ninety Years Without Slumbering.
Plus the movies, OCEAN'S 11 and LOGAN'S RUN [w/ William F. Nolan]) and in a talkative mood. I always admired the old Twilight Zone episodes for their economy of story and characterization. I asked him how they were told to write for Serling. George told some wonderful stories but he also gave me what I felt, was the very nut of every 25 minute episode of Twilight Zone.
In essence every episode of the first two seasons of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, boiled down to, "One person tells another person something scary and scares both of them." Nearly every episode was just a person verbally scaring the crap out of the other person, and by the end something happens to make someone realize that the first frightened person was telling the truth. From one episode to the next, this is always how it was and certainly for George Clayton Johnson.
Later that day, I'm getting a smattering of response to my MySpace query. My MySpace friends, who are also actors, don't live in San Diego. I go in search of more MySpace friends.
Page to minute equation means my short would be 5 minutes long. I had Kelly try to find someone who had a house I could use. The script was key on the person walking down the stairs being able to see the front door from the staircase. Since the whole of the very brief script centered around the staircase, that was a major point and couldn't be re-written for a staircase from which you couldn't see the front door.
Monday I had the final polish of my 5 minute script and sent it to Vernon. Vernon sent it back and said he liked it. I need a soundtrack. I load up bloated Myspace page after page, listening to tons of bands and with every long wait for every image and game application stuffed page, I feel that I'm wasting valuable time.
The test was how resourceful I could be. Speaking of which, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are now past. No location.
Wednesday morning I send my polished final draft to Vernon. 25 pages. Vernon isn't happy about that. He tells me that film festivals like to keep it to no more than ten minutes. A MySpace friend online responds to my music query. Their name is Wet Sans Brolly out of the UK and they set me up with their U.S. agent who lives, in of all places, San Diego! I don't need the music to do the shoot but now I can think about it while I film. I work on the script some more that night, editing, cutting. How much can I remove and still make it work? I shave it down to 20 pages. Vernon repeats the 10 minute mark but I tell him that I'll worry about that during film editing.
Kelly tells me that he's been talking to his future son in law, Danny Garcia, and Danny knows of some locations that might work for me. I won't know until Friday. I now have plenty of actors but everyone has a different schedule. The trials of working with volunteers.
Thursday and I have my actors. I haven't been able to do a casting call, I have no idea if they're any good. I'm stuck with what I've got. Who I've got at this point is actor Terry M. West, who is an old friend recently moved to California. Another is Dean Newbury, an acquaintance I met at the San Diego Comic-con and who became a MySpace friend. He's going to play a uniformed cop. Another is Jimmy Diggs, a writer I met through Kelly and his association with the San Diego Film Makers Group, who wants to give acting a shot.
Back in 2000 I acted in a short film and the director of that short, Christina Grenard, who amazingly still lives in San Diego (we'd been out of touch for years), agrees to be in my movie.
Rounding out my cast are two other actors with impressive enough credentials (under the circumstances). I met my waitress and Jack to be via MySpace and talk with them only via messages. The "She" does still camera work and has a tripod I can use. The "He" will play Jack and bring a clapboard. I send everyone a pdf of my script. That evening, I take the Amtrack to San Diego.
Friday I pick up the Sony DV camera from Vernon and acquaint myself with it and the boom mike. Terry West is bringing his lights. My actress is bringing her tripod. My Jack is bringing the clapboard. Dean is bringing the prop gun. Different script, but I still need a gun.
That night Danny and I go location scouting.
Back when I was in my 20s and single, I was the hunky guy's friend. Like a beautiful girl's friend, who is rather homely? That was me. I had several friends who all hit the gym, crunched, worked out, bulked up, and bought their clothes according to GQ. But I was the guy who could always go into a nightclub and walk out with a date. Not just a phone number, but date as in taking someone home. I wasn't a smooth talker, I was just a talker. And I could always guarantee that I could get a gal of my choice to go home with me. I couldn't get the gal YOU picked to go home with me, but I could damn sure get the one that I wanted.
Well now the "Gal" I wanted was a bar for a location. It had to be in a part of town that wouldn't have a ton of people driving past for the outdoor shots. It had to have many things. The first place we went to was called CHICO CLUB. I talked to the bar owner (co-owner actually), Mike Valencia, and left an hour later with my location on the first try.
Mike allowed me into his bar to shoot early Saturday morning. But we had to be finished by 10:00am because that's when his bar opens and he can't keep his patrons quiet. They're paying to be there and it's the game on TV. As we head home, two of my actors call me and ask if it is possible to rearrange their schedules. Not everyone can make it for the Saturday shoot. How about Sunday? I have no choice but to be firm. It has to be Saturday. I have the location for Saturday. I have to return the equipment Saturday night. Less than 24 hours to shoot time.
My "Jack" bails on me right there. I won't have a Jack? Jack is one of the three vital people in the script!
Uh! Uh! Um!
Okay, Dean will have to be Jack and I'll be one cop short. I'll shoot with two police detectives and no uniformed cop. The cop was just supposed to stand there anyway. Which was good because Dean has never acted a day in his life. But I have no choice! I need a Jack!
4:00am Saturday and to my amazement (because fear set in that no one would show up), Terry M. West appears and so does Dean. SUCH relief! But no Jimmy and no Christina. Kelly calls and calls but no answer. I try to ignore it. I HAVE to ignore it. I can't dwell on THAT! So I'll shoot around them. What I can't shoot around is my other actress, the one with the tripod, who is going to play the waitress.
5:00am, she isn't there. 5:15, still not there. By 5:30 I HAVE to shoot with less than 5 hours shoot time. Terry and Dean have been rehearsing guerilla style these past few minutes.
So I have no cop and now no waitress. I won't let myself think that I won't have ANY cops because my problem right now is that the scene I need to shoot RIGHT NOW, is missing one key character! BIG waitress part. She's the character balance, the normal in the abnormal: without her Tony and Jack are just two talking heads yapping weird shit at each other. Without her I'm making MY BEER WITH ANDRE.
Terry is concerned that I'm going to shoot without the tripod. I have to give Terry confidence in me because I have none in myself. It would have been nice to have a uniformed cop in the final scene, but No waitress means I have to rewrite my entire script in long hand! I have no confidence that I can pull this off, I'm just running on stubborn.
I play it off (I have a choice?). "I don't need a tripod," I say, "I'm doing this hand-held Robert Rodriguez style!"
Know it all actor!
It's freaking Saturday! I'm not about to go to Vernon that night and tell him that, despite all of my effort, I COULDN'T make my freaking movie!
Sometimes, when your confidence is gone, stubborn is all that gets you through the day.
But what about the Waitress?
By 6:00am (On a SATURDAY PEOPLE!) I've re-written my script without the waitress. I'm now down to 14 pages. I turn on the lights. I check the sound. The boom mike, the one that worked so well the night before isn't working. Do I have it plugged in right?
6:15am and I have to accept the fact that I'm wasting valuable time and there won't be a boom mike or sound recording equipment and I'll have to use the mike attached to the camera. Which means big time closeups as the damn Sony Camera mike picks up every damn sound in the bar EXCEPT what's right in freaking front of the fucking lens! Do you wonder why directors like Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo del Toro say "Fuck" so much? Direct a movie!
Terry has misgivings about the mike but what the hell else am I supposed to do? I think to myself, Soldier on, soldier!
Dean is worried about his lines. Without the waitress, Dean has to take up the slack and he's "Never acted a day in my life!"
My actors are losing confidence in me so I tell them just a little bit of what I'm feeling right then. Lloyd Kaufman, in his DVD set Make Your Own Damn Movie, tells you to be honest with your crew (or was it the book, Make Your Own Damn Movie? I have both). Sounds like good advice. Then again, Lloyd struggles to make and distribute and sell every god damn movie he makes. Still, he's inspired success stories of his own... sort of.
And I absolutely mean every word.
Semblance of confidence restored (or just wishful thinking on my part), we start shooting. I only have one camera but I've decided on a cheat. We're going to go through the whole script three times. Once with a close-up on Terry. One with a close up on Dean, and one with a two shot. I'll have three separate takes to choose from if anything goes wrong in one: no problem. I'm even covered if something goes wrong in two. Surely NOTHING could go wrong in all three! What are the odds of that (actually they're about one in three). I'll have a HUGE safety margin!
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Lots of retakes, trying to get the emotions just right. At one point, Terry becomes exasperated and shakes his finger at me saying, "Rehearsals!"
Meanwhile, Dean just can't pull the acting off and it bugs him. He's becoming frustrated with himself, cutting himself off when he thinks he didn't do something right instead of waiting for me to say cut. Dean is his own worst critic, tearing himself up, and it's ruining some of the shots that were working until he cut himself off. Argh!
ARGH! ARGH! ARGH! God Damn it! (I think)
There is an interior me and an exterior me. The exterior me tries to re-assure Dean (I've already assured, but sometimes folks need to be re-assured) and put him at ease. I knew Dean wasn't an actor,
I remind them both about the three take shots and how I can cover for Dean's non-existent skills and a script that Terry didn't rehearse for because I had to re-write the damn thing minutes before the shot. As it turns out much later in editing, Dean's frustration with his acting abilities come through his character, Jack, in just the right way. Dean winds up looking like he's perturbed with what Tony is telling Jack because Dean IS perturbed: it's the cause that's different.
I pause to switch out video cassettes and Kelly tells me that it's 10:00am and the bartender HAS to let the customers in. We haven't quite finished the second pass through the script and people are coming in. Throughout the rest of the shoot, while Dean not only says his lines BUT also has the camera ON him, there is noise in the bar. It couldn't have been tougher for Dean. The metal ice maker periodically keeps screwing up the sound as pounds of ice go clattering into the depths of its bin and I have no idea how bad this is going to be later when I edit. Well, okay, I have an idea, but I didn't imagine it would be THAT bad! I threw Dean and Terry into a lake of fire when I promised good times. The interior me is starting to not like myself.
We have to take a bathroom break and Kelly tells me that Jimmy called and he's on his way with Christina. Whew! Well that's a relief!
"We can finish the outdoor shots next week," he says. I let him know that the test is THIS week, not next. There IS no next week for me and this film. What I shoot today is what I'll have. Period. By midday we're done and it's time for the outdoor shots.
It WOULD be bright and sunny today and the sunlight directly overhead is ridiculously bright. The image in my viewfinder is zebra striping like crazy. The light and shadow and drop off is just too much. We pause for lunch, which is good because everyone is hungry anyway. I treat us all to a fast food restaurant that I can't stand but it's the only thing nearby and available.
1:30pm and we get back. The sun looks like it hasn't moved and the traffic noise is a bit much. Worse, planes are flying overhead every few minutes and motorcycles are grinding past.
By 1:45pm, Jimmy and Christina finally show up. I have them cool their heels in the shade. I'm trying to finish up with Terry, who is now very late because of me. Then I notice Jimmy, who is a very large man, is starting to sweat. I have him wearing a suit like a police detective and it's hot and he's staining his shirt. I have no choice, I have to shoot him and Christina right now before he soaks his shirt.
I forget to share my inner monologue and just stop the scene with Terry and Dean to shoot Jimmy and Christina. This doesn't sit well with Terry at all. I KNOW that he's on a schedule, WTF man?
I get half of J & C's shots finished when Terry, fuming, calls me aside. He's doing me this big favor and I'm putting him off? When I got him running late and getting into trouble with his wife for ME? What the hell am I doing?
I'm so much in the "now", worried about every freaking thing going wrong with "the shot" (did I mention no clapboard? My first Jack had one of those). Only then does it click as to how it must look to Terry.
I explain about the sweat. Terry looks over at Jimmy. He pauses for a minute. He sees my point. He's far from happy but he sees my problem.
I rush through the whole thing with Jimmy and Christina, at one point getting so involved with staring at them through the viewer, while walking backwards, that I nearly trip over a curb and fall. Luckily Kelly saves me at the last minute before I break myself up. Or worse, break the expensive CAMERA!
Oddly enough, right after that moment, the rest of the shoot went amazingly well. Perhaps the worst that was going to happen, HAPPENED. But in another 30 minutes of smooth shooting. We were done.
This doesn't even cover what I went through with editing, but it gives you some idea of what's involved in making a ultra low budget ($20 bucks plus lunch before post) short film with multiple indoor and outdoor sets.
As it turned out, the Point of the Challenge was that I wasn't supposed to finish the shoot, let alone have enough shot to have a complete story. Kelly and Vernon wanted to see how I handled failure (Gosh! My very own Kobayashi Maru! - did I mention that Vernon and Kelly are Star Trek geeks?).
An On-location movie set is a hard-work, high stress job for independents. It's not for the timid, weak, or those whose thin-skin feelings are easily hurt easily (except for high strung actors - which is why they need their own trailers. Then again, the rest of the crew aren't the ones who are in front of the camera, their every Word, Move, Twitch, and Blink being Recorded and Judged by Everyone on the set!).
The fact that I got all my shots and could walk into Post Production with everything needed for a full movie, convinced Kelly and Vernon that I had what it took to work on their movies as Actor and Art Director for THE CRUSADER (2009), Production Designer and Special Effects Make-Up Supervisor for UNIVERSAL DEAD (2010), and Special Effects Make-Up Artist (SFX MUA) for A SIERRA NEVADA GUNFIGHT (2013).
My deepest thanks to everyone who helped me on that day!
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