Friday, November 19, 2010

Quick Update

Just dropping a line to let everyone know that we're now in the editing stages of the film. I'll be meeting with our uber-DP Noelle tonight to finalize the order of several montages, and then we'll have a full rough cut next week. I'm also working on a new blog post, giving even more detail about just how I found such great people to work with.

Rock on....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Finding the Cast And Crew - Part One

As we draw closer to wrapping principle photography on Dark of Moon, my memories are drawn back to early summer (which feels both like a million years ago AND like yesterday), and how I assembled this menagarie to create this film...

First, let's start with the crew. I knew that I needed to assemble a technical crew before I did anything else, because all of the actors in the world would be wasted without a way to capture their performances. So I did what the producer for the "Extended casting call for Dark of Moon" did...I went to Craig's List.

In the Craig's list ad, I said that I was looking for a "camera operator" and technical crew to shoot my first film. After posting the request, a tech guy/friend of mine dropped me a line to say that I should have said I needed either a "cinematographer" or "director of photography", because a "camera operator" does just that...operates a camera. If I wanted what I was shooting to look GOOD, then I needed a cinematographer/DP. My first (but certainly not last) "doh!" moment of the film.

Lucky for me, DP's are used to dealing with tech-fumbly directors, because I had a few people contact me who knew what i needed. The first guy I spoke to looked great...his demo reel was top-notch, and (in a refrain I would hear a LOT over the next couple of months) he was looking for a non-horror project to shoot. Once I sent him the script, however, he passed...he was looking for something non-horror so he could show the movie to his kids, and unless one's kids are either teens or posessed by a Babylonian curse-demon, then my script was definately NOT kid-friendly! So I moved on...

The next person I spoke with was promising...again, his demo reel loked great, and his equipment list was juicy. However, his woprk schedule was NOT stable...he said that he didn't know from one week to the next just what his schedule would be, but was willing to use up his vacation time to shoot the film. I just didn't feel comfortable trying to shoot this thing in one 2-week block. So, the search continued...

Then, I got an e-mail from one Noelle Bye Hansen. She sent me her demo reel, and one scene in particular grabbed me. It was a scene from another movie she shot where 2 guys are having a conversation by a campfire. Knowing that I would have several scenes lit by candlelight, being able to light for flickering conditions was vital. The more I looked at her work, the more impressed I became. We had a meeting, and instantly clicked. These things being what they are, I decided to go on feel...and have been glad I did so ever since.

Throughout these past few months, I've found that my decision to go with Noelle as DP has been one of the luckiest things to happen in my fledgling film career. Noelle is anal-retentive about lighting, angles, shadows...everything you want a Director of Photography to be anal about. The technical aspects of film-making are the very things I'm least experienced in, and she's making me look good...very good. I just can't wait until I can hire her for a film that has a budget...then I can supply her with an army of strapping young PA's to slave away under her watchful, approving glare. She will have earned every peeled grape.

Along this time, I got an e-mail from a young tech-head who, while he had no equipment to put to use, DID have experience in sound and video production to
offer. At the end of the message, he had a MySpace url listed for his band, which I listened to and was impressed with. Also in the message, almost as an afterthought, he mentioned how he had also done some acting. So I wrote him back saying that I'd keep him in mind for crew, and that I might be interested in using his band on the soundtrack. While I wasn't ready to start casting yet (I was still doing the DP tango), I offered to send him the script to look over, and to see if there were any parts that he'd like to audition for. He looked at it, and said that he wanted to audition for the part of Miller (who he said reminded him of Randall Graves from "Clerks").

Little did I know it, but I had just made contact with my first cast member.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Writing Dark of Moon

The first step in creating a quality movie is writing a quality script. Without a good script, all of the acting talent, technical wizardry, and production values in the world can't make a good movie. The vast majority of bad movies begin with a bad script, and can never recover.

When I set about writing my first feature script, I'll have to admit that I was a little nervous. During all of my previous script writing experience, I had been writing for someone else's characters, and someone else's stories. This would be the first time I would be writing for my own characters, my own story...and I wanted to get it right.

I actually started writing another story. In what has become habit, I started by writing a couple of scenes...not at the beginning, but farther in. After writing those scenes (which I still like), I realized that what I was envisioning in my mind would require a budget to achieve, and a budget was something that I could NOT count on my first time out! So I shelved that project, and started another that would become “Dark of Moon”.

This time, I wrote with the idea that this would be a low/NO-budget movie. The vast majority of scenes I placed in private residences, because those are easiest to obtain. Any exotic locations (and I would up with two) I secured at least a willingness to allow me to shoot there before I wrote those scenes. I kept most of the action indoors (because that's easiest to light and shoot), and most outdoor scenes I kept either in daytime or right by houses (again, because it's easiest to light and shoot where electricity is available). I also limited the amount of private residences I would need...while private homes are the easiest to obtain as locations, even the best intentioned people have lives that can get in the way, and depending on too many people is a recipe for trouble down the line.

In writing the story, I decided to fall back on that writer's axiom: write what you know. So I made the main characters Pagan. I've been a follower of a Pagan path (Wicca) for 23 years now, and I knew that I could write about that world with a certain amount of authenticity. Even though I was solitary for my first 5 years, I've hung about Pagans and Witches for the past 18 years, so I had a wide spectrum of people and personalities from which to draw inspiration.

I also decided to base this film in the Pagan community for another reason: it's about bloody time! Even by the most conservative estimates, we're in the seventh decade of modern Neo-Pagan revival. We have millions who follow Pagan paths, and millions more who have tested those waters. And yet, Hollywood always gets it wrong. We're STILL treated all too often as cartoon-ish villains. And even when Witchy/Pagan characters are the good guys (Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, the Charmed sisters), there's still so much fantasy involved that when someone asks us “is THAT what you guys do?” we have to say “no, it's nothing like that.

I mean, other minority religions have had accurate portrayals of their people and practices. And Pagans are definitely consumers of pop culture. In an atmosphere where originality is at a premium, you'd think that Hollywood screenwriters and producers would jump at the chance to try accuracy for a change. Well, I decided not to wait for anyone else to do it, and set about the task myself.

Allow me to split hairs here, though...I would NOT describe “Dark of Moon” as a “Pagan Movie”. Why? Because the phrase “Pagan movie” invites assumptions that this movie doesn't meet. To be “the” pagan movie (or eve “a” Pagan movie), then it would need to show people just “what Pagans are and what they believe”. Those familiar with modern Paganism can see just how impossible a task that would be. For those who aren't: the word “Pagan” covers a wide, WIDE assortment of beliefs and paths that may appear similar, but are as different as the day is long. Wicca is just one particular Pagan path, and IT has so many permutations that no movie could ever hope to show you what Wiccans believe in one sitting. No matter how broad and generic one tried to make the final product, someone would always feel left out. Now, combine that with the need for characters, plot, and the development of both of these things, and it's easy to see why any film that tried to be a “Pagan movie” would fail miserably. For now, we'll have to leave such things to the realms of documentaries.

What I COULD do, however, and what I DID do, was to write a story about people. People with hopes and dreams, virtues and vices, ups and downs. I could write a story about people at a crossroads in their lives, and how they deal with this. People who are fully realized characters, and who's religion is but one part (though be it a big part) of who they are.

So while Dark of Moon isn't a “Pagan movie”, it IS a movie about people who happen to be Pagan. And I think this is best...after all, if we want more movies to feature Pagan characters who are realistic, then we can't go around breaking ground with a movie that ONLY appeals to Pagans, now can we? While a movie that contained 1,000 inside jokes that only Pagans would get might feel good for Pagans, it would classify films with Pagan characters as a niche that can be safely ignored by the rest of the entertainment industry. And that does us no good.

Writing Dark of Moon happened over a 6 week period stretching from the last week of December 2009 until February 2010. After that, it was time to read, revise, and re-write like a madman. I didn't know then that writing it would be the easy part...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lessons Learned...

They say that you can learn from adversity just as well as, if not more so, than from joy. I'm not so sure about that, but I DO know that, in the world of independent film, knowing what NOT to do can be a very, very valuable thing.

The project that I call “The Extended Casting Call For Dark of Moon” taught me a lot. It was an ambitious project: shoot an independent TV show for one 7-episode mini season, and try to crank out one episode per month. "Not too bad", I thought, "we should be able to do this...." (Of course, I WAS just a writer on the show, and we're known to be an optimistic lot)

The project had a lot going for it: It was set in a comic book store, and we had a fully-stocked comic store we could shoot in. We had an extremely talented cast, 3 of whom our Producer/Director/Lord-And-Master had worked with before...a haunting beauty of a lady, an absurdidly talented gay character actor, and a rubber-faced fat man who could be the next John Belushi. Added to that were some great discoveries during casting. Mix all of this with an enthusiastic writing duo and the potential for greatness was there.

And yet, very few of you, if any, will ever get to see what little was shot of the show. Far from the one-episode per month goal that was set, we spent five months producing one pilot episode. And that, it appears, will all that will ever come of the project.

The reasons that this endeavour fell apart are numerous, but I'll limit the ones I list to those that impacted how I would (and wouldn't) run things during the production of Dark of Moon.

Lesson One: Location, location, location!

First of all, let's look at shooting locations. The comic store we shot in was great, and it provided a production value that the producer/director of the project would never have been able to afford to create himself. We (the writers) were instructed to place most of the show's scenes there.

However, the one big (huge) drawback to this location was it's (extremely) limited availability. We could shoot one day per week there, on Sundays. They were closed that day, but the store owner graciously came in on his day off to let us shoot there.

Independent productions, however, are unpredictable things. You just never know when life (or a gig that actually pays) will step in and prevent one or more cast members from being available on a given day. When you only have one day per week to film, losing that day means losing the entire week. This alone set us back months.

So, when I wrote Dark of Moon, I set the vast majority of the scenes in a private home. Shooting at private residences means more flexibility in shooting schedules, so the loss of one day isn't so catastrophic. While I am shooting at some more exotic locations (an occult/magickal store, 7 acres of Druid-owned land, etc), those are limited to 2 days each. If I were writing the TV show again, I'd set more of the scenes at characters' houses, and limit the time they spent in the store.

Lesson Two: Rehearsal is key.

Both “The Extended Casting Call For Dark of Moon” and "Dark of Moon" are dialogue-driven comedies. This means that the humour is delivered in the form of verbal jokes and one-liners, as opposed to situational comedies (where humour is in the setup of the story...think "Three's Company" where an overheard conversation out of context drives the comedy) or physical comedies (pie-in-the-face, pratfall gags). While all comedy depends heavily on timing, dialogue comedies are absolutely nothing without good timing.

Have you ever heard someone massacre a good joke? You know, a joke that you've heard (and laughed at) before is told by someone who just CAN'T tell jokes, and they turn a funny story into a painful exercise in awkward silences? Most often, it's because they lack comic timing...they don't emphasise the punch line, they tell portions out of order, etc. Without the right timing, the funniest gag on the planet can fall flat.

Because of this, most dialogue-driven comedies have extensive rehearsal schedules. Kevin Smith is notorious for having weeks of rehearsal. Even your garden-variety sit-com rehearses for four days and shoots on the fifth. This gives the cast a chance to shake out the cobwebs, work through the jokes, and find the perfect comic timing for each scene. It also gives the director a chance to start directing the cast before the cameras ever roll, and THIS saves time and money.

On “The Extended Casting Call For Dark of Moon”, the actors basically had no rehearsal. We did a table-read, read the script twice, and then started shooting. They didn't even get any rehearsal before the shooting started...take one was the rehearsal. This might work on a horror film (because let's face it...the dialogue in those can be pretty dreadful and nobody cares. In fact, the higher the cheese factor, the more popular some of those films are)...but on a dialogue-driven comedy, it will only work against you.

On Dark of Moon, however, we spent the entire month of August rehearsing. I was busy 5 days a week with various combinations of actors. Even supporting roles had to rehearse. And it's paying off, too...we're getting great takes, pretty much every time. We're getting the takes we need so quickly, we're getting the chance to experiment, get different angles, try different moods, have fun with cutaway shots, etc. In the end, the more choices we have when editing means a better, more nuanced film.

Lesson Three: You cannot be too prepared.

This isn't so much a lesson I learned from “The Extended Casting Call For Dark of Moon” (I wasn't privy to pre-production much on that project), but from the stories that I heard from the cast and crew on that project about OTHER projects they had been on. Stories about how poor pre-planning either sunk the project, or took what was a great idea and turned it into a so-so finished product. They're so varied...scenes that get forgotten and never shot, locations that suck, closeups that never get done (ever see a low-budget movie and find that, suddenly, an entire scene is played out in one wide, static shot? Yep...they forgot to shoot the close-ups)...that I could never go into detail about them. Instead, let me tell you (briefly) what I and my tech crew did to prepare for the shoot:

We story-boarded the entire film: Yep, we went, scene by scene, and drew primitive sketches (VERY DP refuses to let the cast see the drawings because they were basically stick figures with some exaggerated feature to denote different actors) for how each angle and edit would look.

When she goes to do the rough edit of the film, the storyboards will be her basic guide. They also made us look at the composition of each scene and ask ourselves "is this the best we can do? Is there some way we need to liven things up here?"

(As an aside, let me say that this step has permanently changed the way I look at movies. Now I notice things like edits, angles, transitions... sometimes to the point of missing what the actors are saying!)

I made a list (and checked it twice) of each and every angle we needed: This is under the mantle of script supervision. Basically, to avoid unhappy discoveries come editing time ("What do you mean, we never shot his close-up?!?"), I listed each and every angle and camera setup that we needed to make each scene "complete". I then made another version of the list location-by-location. This way, if we finish the "needed" shots for our planned
scene early that night we can choose between getting extra angle and takes for that scene, or having everyone change clothes and shooting part of another scene at the same location. Either we get creative, or we get ahead...a win-win situation!

Costume Meetings: The cast of the film supplied their own wardrobes, but we all wanted to make sure that the clother fit the character. So we sat down with our cast and talked about their characters...who they were, how they saw the world, and how this played out in how they dressed. We never got too elabourate with this part...after all, this is a contemporary comedy, not a period piece. However, knowing which characters dressed a bit more modestly and which ones were more flambuoyant in their style helped with the consistancy of the overall piece.

Shooting a film can be tedious...setting up lights, laying the dolly track, re-setting the lights every time you move the camera, shooting every angle two or threee times IF every take is perfect...poor planning can make it torture.

All in all, this may be my first film as a director, but I like to think that I've recieved an education in film...even if it's what not to do. To paraphrase Sammi in the film: we can make bold, new mistakes all on our own. There's no need to repeat the mistakes of others.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In The Beginning...

My journey to Dark of Moon started a year ago...almost exactly. It started with a TV show, and an ad on Criag's List.

Well, I guess it started earlier...if I wanted to, I could go back to when I started writing stories. I won't, though, for two reasons: One, I don't want to go over 30 years of writing mis-adventures (as entertaining as some find failure to be, for the person who lived it it's akin to banging your head against a large blunt object because it feels SO good when you stop!), and two, because those early stories I wrote suck pretty bad. I mean it...they suck worse than Nicholas Sparks on Prozac and ecstasy. So I'll spare you the sordid details and say that I've tried to write fiction for some time, but found that either the stories weren't very good, or else when they were good, that I'd just never get around to finishing them.

Laziness has inspired more than one person towards greatness. Just look at food: sliced bread, sliced/wrapped cheese, pre-cut vegetables...Americans spend billions every year just so they don't have to pick up a knife. Well, my fiction-writing habits were extremely lazy. I have a novel that I've worked on, on and off, for 18 years. What stops me from writing it isn't the story, the characters, the dialogue, etc. THOSE I have set. It's just...everything else. Or, more specifically, prose descriptive passages. You know, those bits of a novel where the writer paints the scene for the reader? “Eliza entered the room and looked around. Dust laid over every surface like the embrace of an old lover whose affections had long passed passionate and ventured on trite and pedantic. The smell of must hovered everywhere, assaulting her senses with long decayed promises of beauty squandered. She took a step, and the floorboards creaked in protest at this unwanted intrusion.....” THOSE always tripped me up. It's not that I'm bad at them (above example not-withstanding), I just don't like writing them. Characters, story-line, dialogue? Love it...I can write that stuff and enjoy every minute. But every time I'd sit down to work on my novel, those damned prose passages would quickly send me to check my e-mail. Every 30 seconds. Or balance the checkbook. Or offer to take the neighbor's dog for a walk.

With this as the backdrop, we fast-forward to August 2009, and my wife is looking for writing jobs on Craig's List for me. She happened across an ad from an independent producer who was trying to launch an indie TV show, a comedy set in a comic book store (which will henceforth be referred to as “The Extended Casting Call For Dark of Moon” for reasons that will become appearant later). It said that there would be a fair amount of “geek humour” (well, it said “geek humor”, but if I write it, it shall be spelled as “humour”), which made my wife believe that I'd be a natural fit for the show. I don't know why she thought that I'd be into geek humour, but I went ahead and stopped editing my list of Star Wars-inspired knock-knock jokes and sent the producer an e-mail. Several e-mails and one in-person meeting later, and I have the job of writing the pilot for the series.

Whoever said that half of success is showing up wasn't kidding...over the next few months I would go from never having written a script before in my life to being the main writer on the show by sheer value of doing what I said I'd do in the time I said I'd do it. For example, the producer of “The Extended Casting Call For Dark of Moon” had been trying to get the show going for a year before our meeting, but he wasn't a writer and needed writers to make the show happen. He had been going through traditional channels in the Northeast Ohio film scene to find writers, and while he found enthusiasm, he saw no actual scripts being written. I vowed to be different. Six days after our first meeting, I handed him a complete pilot episode. While I wound up re-doing a scene here and there, that script I handed him wound up being 90% of what we shot. I created backstory for characters, plotted a story-arc for the season, and wound up writing 3 complete episodes, and half of three more.

I took to script writing like Sarah Palin takes to a RNC expense account. I wrote with increasing speed, increasing quality, and loved every second. In fact, once I ran out of episodes to write (we were only doing a 7 episode mini-season...well, we PLANNED on doing a 7-episode mini-season, but we wound up with one episode, and it took five months, and....oh, bugger it! I'll just write an entire blog post about what I learned from “The Extended Casting Call For Dark of Moon”), I didn't want to stop writing. So I started writing movie scripts. And the rest, if not history, is another blog post....

Kind Of Quiet Lately...

Looking at the blog, I realized that I've been slacking off on doing the whole “update” thing. Of course, I've been phenomenally busy as of late. Here's a sample of what I've been doing lately:

* Working on a shooting schedule
* Making up individual schedules for each actor
* Adjusting accordingly
* Planning our 366 separate shots to achieve the film
* Arranging those 366 shots into both a scene-by-scene list, and a location-by-location listing
* Rehearsing 5 days a week with my cast
* Doing astrological charts for cast and crew
* Doing Tarot readings for cast
* Acting as a sounding board for various problems, crises, and whatnot

...all of that in addition to being a father of two, a husband for one, and finding a replacement for my parts in Cleveland's Pagan Pride Day (note to self: while in pre-production for a film, never NEVER volunteer for jack shit outside of it!).

But enough excuses...this is meant to be a news source for the making of the film, as well as my experience making it, so I will now start work on a blog on...something. I'm not sure what yet, but I've just loaded 143 hair metal songs from the 80's onto my computer, built a playlist, and I'm ready to rock!

Stay tuned....

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Scheduled Insanity...

Well, we now have a rehearsal schedule. And I'm working on the shooting schedule. I'm still hammering out the details, but we may have principle photography done earlier than I thought.

My cast is kicking ass! Every rehearsal is less like work and more like a joy...these people are nailing every scene in quick succession. We read, I direct, they read again, and nail it! These people are going to make me look good...

(And you...yeah, YOU! Go and "fan" our cast on Facebook. You can find their pages here. They deserve it...)

This is becoming epic...