Monday, May 6, 2019

No Budget PreProduction on Indie Horror Short - Gumdrop Sampson

Hi. Ever made a movie? Not a home movie, but one you want others to see, others you don't know and will never meet? Putting yourself out there for comment. Making a statement. Sharing what you are thinking and showing how you think? Want to make a movie? Then stop listening to others who say you can't and just DO IT!

If you want to or are going to do it, this might be interesting. If you've done it, then this might just be sad, or hilarious. I know something about movies. Studied it some in college. I'm no practiced expert, but I've figured out a few things and I'm learning as I go. That's part of the fun of it.

I was with friend and local indie director Kelly Hughes when were at the Port Orchard Film Festival yesterday, to support the festival and see his music video collaboration "We're Nothing", entered in the Experimental Block of films, as I write this. From his website:

NEW COLLABORATION! To promote my docu-series Acting Up, I made a music video set to Postvorto's song We're Nothing. Postvorto is a post-metal band from Italy, and they have an intense sound that inspires me. The music video includes new footage I shot in Gorst and Sunnyslope, WA. One of the band's guitarists, Andrea Fioravanti, is also composing new music for me. I've heard several of his tracks already, and they are pretty amazing.

Kelly asked who he should introduce when we got (today) to Crypticon in SeaTac. We're spending the night, hitting panels on film production and Kelly's music video is also playing there. I'm obviously an author, blogger, aspiring screenwriter and now functionally, a filmmaker. I suggested that.

Kelly smiled and said, "Well, wannabe filmmaker."  I thought about that for a moment, a bit bummed out. But maybe he's right. Though, I would alter that slightly and say, "aspiring filmmaker". I have perhaps a few more projects to go, and maybe a feature-length film to go, in order to consider myself a full-fledged filmmaker.

To be sure I have earned the title filmmaker in having produced and documentary and a short. That's only fair to me. But, to be fair to more established filmmakers, I really should wait on that until I have a few more projects under my belt. Let's not jump the gun. Yes, you CAN call yourself a "filmmaker" after one project regardless the length. Or quality? Just Do it! But, strive to be more and really and proudly call yourself a filmmaker, once you have truly and fully earned. it.

I may add to this in the future as things progress if I find anything I left out. But following is the history and mindset I've had in building this project to production and preparing to shoot on set.

But that's not why you make films. As in being a writer, you produce because you have a need to produce. Because you enjoy it. You have a story to get out. Or you have a need to tell stories. Filmmaking, however, is not for the faint of heart. And then you put it out for others to see and you have to steel yourself for someone sooner or later shredding your work and your ego.

So do your best.

I started this by considering my next project, obviously. In 1993 I produced a documentary for public access cable TV at Viacom in Seattle. A studio up on Roosevelt Way Northeast. It was a comedy of errors like you wouldn't believe. I had moved out of Seattle and hard to return to work on the project, finished it, it "aired" twice in the PNW and that ended my work in production.

Until 2016. I got new equipment, I started writing. I came up with a viable project as a test after all these years and working with new equipment and produced "The Rapping". I have also been working with local indie horror director Kelly Hughes for a few years now.

Because I wanted to get on set and get a better understanding of what happens to my writings once it hits production. It's been fun, anxiety invoking (like when the police showed up wondering why a woman was screaming things like "Let me go!" "Why are you doing this to me!" That was actress Jennifer True. The cops couldn't have been nicer and said now that they knew we were shooting they'd be aware for the rest of the day.

art by Marvin Hayes
So, in choosing my next project I considered my original and recent reason for shooting films. To take some of my own published writings and turn them into live action. I decided the one with least special f/x could be Gumdrop City. I wrote about this before. Originally written in 1983, it was first published in an anthology in 2010. Then I put it in my own Anthology of Evil in 2012. And I wrote about this new film project in April.

But this is about the production now that it's been selected.


I came up with the idea to not produce the story itself, but to do a prequel. How did this all begin? The story itself is based on a true crime story I heard about in college toward my psychology degree in a class on abnormal psychology. It affected the class so strongly I felt in walking out of that class I had to write about it. I'd never even known such things existed back then.

But to do the story itself would require some difficult scenes I didn't want to get into, I didn't even want to get into in the short story. Special effects I didn't want to do on a first full narrative film project with my limited money and resources. So I settled on a prequel. An origin story of sorts. I just let my imagination go after re-reading the original story.

And a vision emerged. I decided to go a bit more bizarre. What if this was bigger than the short story. What if this guy wasn't such a degenerate as he is in the short story? What if, he lived the prequel storyline and then severely degenerated between that and the short story? That freed me up in many ways. Creatively. Financially. Resources. And it made it more fun.

So I wrote some notes out, then wrote my first draft. Over the next couple of weeks, I worked on other things and kept going back, adding ideas, fleshing it out, honing it to imperfective perfection.

I started to think about who should act in it. I had wanted to do something with my voice actor who has read a couple of my stories as audiobooks, Tom Remick. Nicest guy ever, playing the part of a sick demented murderer. Sure, why not.

I started to consider other actors I know. Tom said his son might be interested, and his two young boys. Excellent. I needed around ten actors. Three are voiceovers and never seen. I know actors from my friend and director Kelly Hughes' stable of actors (he and I will be at Crypticon Seattle in SeaTac this weekend, by the way). I've acted with some of them, done f/x around them, pyrotechnics, etc. As it turned out I'll only need a few of them. I now have the production cast.

I continued honing the screenplay. I started picking up props. I started researching the f/x I will need and some of the food props. That all in itself was an experience and an education. Any idea how expensive a lot of gumdrops can be? Single color? Red? Maybe easier to make your own.

Marvin Hayes who did most of my ebook covers and my print book covers had some f/x suggestions. That was handy.

A production is a collaborative effort. In a low budget indie, or no budget indie, it can have much more of a family/community feel to it. People volunteer their skills or efforts out of a love, not payment, for what they want to do. Some who never dreamed of doing it find they're doing it and living a kind of dream. But they still have to be able to pull off whatever it is they are offering. They still have to show up on time and pull their schedule off or they're replaced.

Some directors can get gold out of even problematic actors. Kelly is like that. I've been told I'm quite good too at directing by actors. We'll see soon enough. I'm used to working with professionals in other careers. I'd expect no less in this one. Demand quality and it shows on screen. Let the production take over your production, or your actors or crew, and you lose the production. Set up an environment for productivity and creativity and keep things moving forward, and you'll all feel the joy of creating something special.

Rule #1 in a production... Preparation: a solid screenplay, actors, camera work, f/x, and sound makes life so much easier and sets you up for a much better end product. Especially pay attention to sound. Because it can so easily ruin a good project.

Rule #2 in a production...Finish the production. David Lynch took five years to finish Eraserhead. But he finished it.

OK. So, I hit the point where the screenplay was finished enough to send to the actors. A screenplay is finished when the film is shown. It's perpetually in a penultimate state as things change on the set when shooting.

At the same time, I was working out practicals. Number one, gumdrops. Purchasing them was too expensive and finding only red ones even more problematic. So I decided making my own was the cheapest. AND, it gave me a new scene where Sampson, the lead character, makes his own. That gave me more opportunity to add in some more creepy factor.

That meant I had to research the recipes. That led to ingredients. One was problematic and expensive. More research until I found one source that was best and purchased it online. It's here now and more than we will need.

I had an idea for an opening camera shot involving my Syrp Genie and equipment. I continued honing that complex shot in the screenplay. I finally got around to digging out the equipment.

Syrp Genie configuration for this opening/closing shot
By the way, I charge all my equipment batteries the first of every month on all my equipment, something an assistant would be assigned to do if I had a bigger crew...or a crew. I set up the configuration I would need and began to plot out the setup and execution of the shot. Which, as it turned out, wasn't practical.

So I had to work around that. Splitting up the programming (there is a cell phone app where you program the equipment) into two programmed shots. The Syrp equipment simply won't do the shot I wanted.

The plan was to start high and happy and shoot downward slightly, tracking to the right and lower to and sad, at the other end of the track. Uncovering and exposing the other side of a face. Then I could take that shot and split it up, using the first half in the opening and the second half at the end. It was a moving example of "the Comedy and Tragedy Masks" or just "the theater masks".

Preproduction is so important in so many ways. Having a good screenplay. Rehearsing at least some. You want the actors to understand what you want of them which relaxes them some. Trying out camera shots ahead of time. Testing f/x and recipes for things like blood. Lighting issues and setups. Locations and test shots. Etc.

I've learned not to send my screenplay out to too many or ask for too many comments on it (same with dailies or rushes if you have them) as a lot of times it simply muddies your thinking. If you find someone who really does understand how you think and can productively critique and add to the project, they are simply gold.

I'm deep into preproduction now.

At some point, you need to write up a list of shots, or a shooting script. Some don't do it at all, some get very technical about it. Find your bliss, what works best, what turns out the best product for you and go with it. Always considering to enhance or alter as you find what works better, or you are eventually able to evolve into. The mission, the project, the product, the film is what takes precedence, not you. Kick your ego to the curb and produce quality at all costs.

You also need a schedule for the production and consideration for what needs to be on set before anyone arrives. You can send a screenplay to a company and they will produce for you a shooting screenplay, or cost estimates or all kinds of things.

Or you can do it yourself (preferable). it can be as intricate or simple as you like. All that matters is that it is good enough to make your life easier and the project more productive and aid in enhancing the quality of the end product.

What day, what actors, when do the actors /crew need to be where. If you have any crew and I suggest you have some. I hear, certainly, on a larger crew/production, an AD is so important, an assistant director to take on your more mundane or difficult tasks freeing you up for the real directing on set issues.

What do you need for all of them? Food and drink, to be sure, always keep your actors happy and fed and happy to return. Costumes? Practicals? Props?

The list of who is shot when and in what scene. You may have an actor in scenes all through the production, but do they need to be there in chronological order or can their scenes all be shot on the same day and edited into place later?

Taking the screenplay from its format and order and timeline into when is most economical in many/all ways is imperative. Logistics are important and getting them right in preproduction is a life saver.

I have children in this project. So getting them in as early as possible, their scenes shot all in one day makes my life, and theirs, and their parents lives, easier.

Paperwork. Do you need shooting permits from the city, county, area? Or are you guerilla shooting, shot and run shots? Actor waivers/agreements. I know many don't bother with them on no budget films but it's so easy to do, I think it's worth it.

That alone makes the actors feel more respectable, more professional, more respected and sets a tone overall for the project. Not to mention it gives you and them, the reasonable protections you want later on if something unforeseen does come up.

Now with all these things under consideration, preproduction is a matter of going over them until you hit your desired level of perfection and costs. Which is where I am now.

Last Friday Tom and Amy came over and we did a run through on Amy's scene and it was so enlightening. Table reads, rehearsals, save so much time and can really add so much to tweaking the screenplay. Iron your issues out before you begin principle shooting.

Next up? Production?

Actually, just a lot more preproduction. I'll let you know how it turns out.


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