Friday, December 14, 2007

Exciting news this week. Received the finished soundtrack from Cosmo, and Craig is now laying down the music tracks. We'll have a finished product in a few days! I've rented the Chaplin Screening Room in Raleigh Studios for the premiere, which will be Sun. Jan. 6th.

I wrote a "Making of ... " article (a 4-page condensation of this blog) and submitted it to Indie Slate magazine along with some photos. It was accepted two days later! My first magazine article! It will be printed in the March/April 2008 issue. I am now officially on three weeks Winter Break, and plan to spend most of it working on the press kit and entering film festivals. And bolstering myself for inevitable rejection ... if only it will be tempered by some acceptance and adulation.

Friday, November 30, 2007

You must remember this ....

Not longer after this escapade of hearse pick-up shots, Justin had the opportunity to view an early edit of the movie in its entirety. He called me and to make a few suggestions, because he felt it was worthwhile to put in a little extra to make a big difference. He said that he thought this movie really had a chance - and I hope he was being truthful rather than trying to wrangle an extra few hundred bucks for a few more days of shooting.

Justin explained that the current ending - which jumped from the highway showdown scene to Shore back at college - was too abrupt. There needed to be something in between, to help transition from an intensely emotional climax to the perky everybody-lives-happily-ever-after resolution. (my paraphrasing). I had never thought about this before, because when you work on something one page at a time and out of sequence, you lose sight of the organic whole. But I realized Justin was right. He suggested two scenes which I now feel are amongst the best in the movie.

The first scene he suggested was something to help bridge the previously mentioned awkward transition. This ended up being the police station scene. One thing Justin was emphatic about - "Give the audience their kiss. They sat through this whole movie waiting for that kiss." I was ambivalent about that. Technically, that kiss constituted statutory rape. But hell, the characters already had grand theft auto and kidnapping on their hands. And the kiss was really little more than your first experience playing spin the bottle. I also recall the first thing Lexie's mother said after reading the script. "What, no kiss?" And this is from the 16-year-old actress's mother. If she had no problem with it, neither did I.

The second scene Justin suggested was some sort of montage of Shore and Cass at the very end. He felt it wasn't clear enough that they were together at the end. Now, this suggestion was coming from a non-sentimental 25-year-old guy (redundant?) Not some prepubescent girl. If he wanted it clear that Shore and Cass ended up together at the end, I was going to give it to him.

Now I was thrown back into production mode. Michael and I agreed that both scenes could be done in one day. The end montage would be easy - we would take them back to the beach in which we first met Shore at the beginning of the movie. But a police station? Where the hell would we find a police station? An internet search produced a sound stage already dressed as a police station. Perfect - if it wasn't ridiculously expensive. To hell with them. I was going to make my own police station. All I needed was a very big nondescript room.

Craigslist again to the rescue. An acting troupe in Hollywood was renting out their practice room by the hour, dirt cheap. I booked the room and rounded up all the props shown in the photo of the ridiculously expensive police station set. Let's see - a flag. A computer. A phone. Wanted posters. Misc. office clutter. The only thing I needed was a counter for the policeman to stand behind. I called several prop houses and they had nothing. As Craig and I were driving to the set on the appointed day, we passed a used office furniture warehouse off the 5. "Stop! Go back!" I yelled.

They had exactly what we needed. A metal bookshelf turned on its side ($15), with a formica table top ($25) perched on top of it. Instant counter. I felt like the Martha Stewart of budget set design.

The last thing we needed - a policeman. Gavin Moore, who had rented us our police cars, was more than happy to fill that role wearing his own uniform. (and thus killing two birds with one stone). Somehow, like always, everything came together at the last minute.

And the kiss in the back room of the police station - I proudly rank it as one of filmdom's top ten kisses.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Oh Don't You Laugh When a Hearse Drives By ....

Filming wrapped in early May, and post-production was underway in early summer. The editors were doing their thing, and the composers were doing their thing.

I was thrilled with the early cuts of the movie. It was absolutely amazing to see it play out from beginning to end. I submitted a list of editing changes that were mostly minor - cut a line or two from various scenes, choose a different shot for another scene, etc. (The editors may claim differently, but my point is that both editors did a fantastic job.) However ... something was nagging at me. I realized we were missing something absolutely essential for a road movie (or partial road movie) - scenes of the hearse on the road. We had no long shots of the hearse cruising through the beautiful Southern California landscape toward Mexico.

So, I called the director, DP, and hearse owner, and set up a shoot day for the outdoor hearse shots. It would be worth it to pay for a half day rental of the hearse, and gas reimbursement, to get some key "picture shots". However, I did not want to haul out to Yermo or even Palmdale. So once again, I pored over satellite photos of regions in Orange County, which would be a happy medium between L.A. and San Diego Counties. I found one lengthy strip of road that looked like it was mostly remote. The question was, would it look enough like a desert? Craig and I drove out there on the Sunday prior to shooting day. We were in luck. Santiago Canyon Road in east Orange County was nestled in some gorgeous dry hills. (Sadly, this would later be the site of the outbreak of the Santiago Fire that ripped through Irvine in the October '07 wild fires.)

Serendipitously, while scouting we found an old-fashioned storefront that would serve perfectly for the exterior of the Car Rental Agency. That was something else I felt was missing - a shot of the hearse pulling into the parking lot of the Car Rental Agency. We needed an exterior that would match the 'mom-and-pop' look of the interior Car Rental Agency, which we had already filmed at the Four Aces in Palmdale. We also needed the exterior to look solitary (not part of a strip mall), and set against a desert landscape. This was a tall order in a county heavily populated with slick car rental franchises, and I'd pretty much given up getting this shot, until we came across this storefront. Moreover, it looked like the store had been out of business many years, making it an even more convenient choice.

The crew assembled two days later. We chose some key picturesque spots along the highway and filmed the hearse cruising along. We found a cool biker bar, and I impulsively lined up the DP and director for a fun sight gag. I told them to stand in front of the bar chewing the fat, and when the hearse drove by, to cross themselves, as many people do when a real hearse drives by. Note, this is the only scene of the movie that I myself filmed ... all 5 seconds of it. I also think it is one of the most funny.

What remained was the shot of the hearse pulling into the "Car Rental Agency" parking lot. I'd brought the same 'Deliverance Car Rental - We get you to Hell and Back' banner that we had used in the interior shots, so that we could hang it from the eaves. There was just one small problem. When we pulled the hearse into the gravel parking lot alongside the storefront, we found it was not an abandoned storefront at all. Someone was living in back of it. Being the producer, I was elected to go knock on the door and ask for permission to shoot the front of their home. A young mother with an infant on her hip opened the door, and I explained what we were up to, and how quick we would be. However, she was extremely reluctant. Her husband and his work crew were expected home in an hour with several work trucks, and they would need access to the back of the house. I tried to explain that we would be done in less than ten minutes, and we only had one vehicle, which would surely not get in the way of the work trucks even if they got back early. I offered her a fifty dollar bill (all I had on me) for her troubles. She remained reluctant, but agreed to call her husband to ask permission. He was not willing to allow it for only fifty dollars, the insinuation being that he wanted more. Apparently, their storefront had been used in other movies, and the large crews and vehicles had blocked access to their back area for hours. They wanted nothing more to do with film crews. I gave up and walked back to Michael, Justin, and Jeff to give them the bad news.

Michael was astounded. "I'm going to talk to her," he said, and off he went. I trailed behind, wondering what he could possibly say to convince her that I had not already said. Michael purposefully knocked on the door, and out came the young mother again. "Look," he told her. "This is an extremely low-budget production. This woman (pointing to me) is a SCHOOL TEACHER!" Those were the magic words. The mother looked at me with a complete change in expression. "You're a school teacher? So am I!" Out came a flood of questions. How does one make a movie? Where do you find a film crew? etc. And yes, it was perfectly okay to hang the banner from the roof and film the hearse driving up alongside. I was happy to share what I had learned during my eight-month (thus far) filmmaking adventure. It turned out this young mother, currently on sabbatical from school to raise her infant, had a dream to make a documentary about teachers. I encouraged her to pursue this, because if I could make a film, anyone could. I gave her my email address and told her to contact me with any questions.

The day ended on that happy note. We got the shots and possibly motivated someone to pursue a dream.

Postscript - I have stayed in contact with April, and she is definitely moving forward with the documentary.Of course I volunteered to be one of her teacher subjects, because I am a ham, and so that all America can see what it's like "in the trenches". My principal even agreed to allow her to film in my classroom, predicated on school board approval. I hope to see her documentary someday, with or without me.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The World's Most Valuable Shirt

There are small and large hiccups in the production of a movie. The small ones include such things as forgetting an important prop. Driving up to Palmdale early in the shoot, I took a quick inventory of items in back of the RV and realized I had forgotten to bring the shotgun. Now, I don't normally have a shotgun lying around the house - I've seen Bowling for Columbine - but my ex-husband did, and he was happy to loan me one. But now said shotgun was lying forgotten in my garage in Escondido. And a shotgun was definitely needed for the scene in which Milo the Cook scares off bad guy Lubitch from doing permanent damage to Lola with a switchblade. Yelling "Hey!" is not enough in such a situation.

I got on my cell phone and called James Terry, the actor who was to play Milo. James had called earlier that morning to ask me my opinion on some wardrobe choices he had. Normally I would not expect actors to have immediate access to large firearms, but if anyone did, it would be Jim. He was a real go-to guy. "Hey Jim," I said, after getting him on the phone again. "We have a small problem. By any chance ... do you have a shotgun?"

He briefly pondered this. "No, but I bet I can borrow one," he said. He called me back five minutes later. "Got one." Now this is an actor worth his weight in gold - he showed up on time, knew his lines, came with his own chef apron and hat, and could satisfy bizarre prop requests on a moment's notice.

Shooting 'Defying Gravity' was filled with such fortuitous moments, in which I got by on the kindness of strangers over and over again. And I have appreciated each one of them.

Another big "oops" was Macauley's butterfly shirt. This was the shirt that he wore in roughly the last third of the movie - what comprised the extended "run for the border" sequence. Generally I called on call cast members the morning of each shooting day and reminded them about their wardrobe for the day. Key word "generally". One Friday evening I decided to go the email route instead. But when Macauley showed up the following afternoon, he did not have the butterfly shirt. He had not read his email, and who can blame him, he was probably as comatose from exhaustion as I was. He had a full-time job of his own, and had just driven 90+ miles to our location in Lake Elsinore.

Tip #5 for Producers: Do not rely on email for wardrobe reminders. Call your cast and get verbal confirmation.

We were planning to film several scenes both inside and outside the hearse. All four leads were there - Mac, Mario, Willam, and Lexie. The hearse was there. The hood mount for the camera was there. Everything and everybody was there except the butterfly shirt. Michael tried to reason that maybe one could assume that Shore removed the butterfly shirt while driving the hearse. I thought about this. No, several of these scenes, already shot, took place either (a) immediately after Shore jumped into the car wearing the butterfly shirt or (b) immediate before Shore got out of the car wearing the butterfly shirt. The audience would need to assume Shore performed inexplicable Houdini-like maneuvers to get into and out of the shirt while driving the vehicle. I just could not overlook this kind of glaring continuity problem.

I looked at Christian. "I need you to drive to L.A." Christian shrugged. He was being paid by the day, and driving with the radio turned up was probably easier than moving around large equipment. Michael generously agreed to loan Christian his car (I reimbursed him for gas), and Mac gave Christian his apartment key and instructions on where to find the butterfly shirt. Depending on traffic, this would be a minimum three-hour round trip. Fortunately, we had several scenes to film in the meantime that did not involve the butterfly shirt.

But believe you me, I kept my eye on the time for every minute of those three hours. Fate restored us to her good favor, and Christian made it back in time with the coveted butterfly shirt. I look forward to the day that this movie becomes a cult classic, and one of the cult members buys that butterfly shirt off ebay (from Mac) for tens of thousands of dollars. (Possibly me.)

Mac, don't wash it! The sweat stains will raise the value.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Story About Back Story

A little more about the background of the script. When it was first written as a short, the character of Shore just sort of appeared. He was a very simple character - kind of hapless yet happy-go-lucky. He was a bright, young, good-looking kid who just happened to be homeless and had no back story to explain how he got that way. In the first draft of the feature length script, he acquired an element of delusional behavior. But still, no explanation of how he ended up homeless or delusional. This is the story of how he acquired his back story.

Let me back up a little more ... to when my older daughter Wendy was 13. She had a bad habit of getting up several times during the night, going downstairs to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door, closing it again, and then returning to her bedroom. Over and over. She had other weird habits too. She would spend hours in the backyard running back and forth on the rocks that formed a border between the grass and flower beds.

She came to me one night and told me that she was very afraid, because she was hearing voices. She could not make them stop. One of the voices was the voice in the refrigerator. It kept asking for someone to help it get out. Another voice was in the iceplant in the backyard. Again, someone or something begging to be released. The same thing with coke bottles in the movie theatre. Cap on, cap off. A voice inside that only Wendy could hear, unrelenting.

This is one of the things that makes a mother's blood run cold. When your child hears voices, and can't make them stop, that is a very, very bad thing. Even someone who's never taken a psychology course knows that this is one of the signs of psychosis.

And so began a series of visits to psychiatrists. They prescribed medication, but I was afraid to give it to her because she was so young. By the time she was 16, she became so removed from reality that I had no choice. My brilliant girl who used to get "A's" and "B's" in elementary school was now getting all "F's."

But the medications we tried either made her gain weight, or fall asleep, or jittery, or just plain didn't work. We went through just about everything. We went through four psychiatrists until we found someone competent. Wendy is now on a combination of three drugs that keep her relatively stable emotionally and mentally. However, there is a trade-off. She sleeps well into the afternoon. And one of the medications, clozaril, carries the potential deadly side-effect of a lowered white blood count. In order to receive this medication, by federal law, she must go to weekly blood tests. At the time we were filming Defying Gravity, her blood count was erratic, so I was taking her twice a week. Furthermore, the pharmacy will only dispense enough of the drug to last until the next blood test. So, if she's getting weekly blood tests, she only gets a week's worth at a time. More often than not, the lab will forget to FAX the results to the pharmacy, so I'll drive all the way over there (there is only one pharmacy in Escondido that carries Clozaril), and they will refuse to give it to me until they get verification from the lab. For some reason they don't do this on their own until I drive over there and yell at them.

I began to understand that this is how so many mentally ill people become homeless. It is almost impossible to navigate the system whether you're competent or not. Even missing one or two days of meds can result in a meltdown for a schizophrenic person.

You might wonder just what is the big deal with the meds. If you listen to Tom Cruise, no one needs meds for anything - just a balanced diet and exercise.

From the clozaril website:

The risk of suicide in the general population is only about 1%. But people with schizophrenia are at a much greater risk of suicide. Approximately 30% to 40% of people with schizophrenia attempt suicide at some point in their lifetime. About 10% will actually die by suicide. In fact, suicide is the most common cause of premature death among people with schizophrenia. And the suicide rate may be even higher for people with schizoaffective disorder.

Wendy was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2004. This means she is not only schizophrenic, but depressed. The first time she cut herself with a razor was in 2004. Fortunately, she had the sense to come to me and show me what she'd done. I took her to the hospital emergency room - not so much for the wounds (which were superficial) but for immediate psychiatric support. They asked her, "Were you trying to kill yourself?" She said "no". "Then you can go home," they told her.

The second time she cut herself, she again came to me and showed me her bloody arms. "Wendy, why did you do this?" I asked her. She replied, "Because the voices told me to."

This is why she takes medication. This is why I will not leave her alone for more than a few hours. And this is why I will never see another Tom Cruise movie.

Schizophrenia is possibly the only condition in our society that carries a stigma and invites ridicule. When I explain to people what makes Wendy different, I tell them she has Asperger's Syndrome (her original diagnosis). It's much more socially acceptable - even quirky and winsome - to be slightly autistic. I'm working on my ability to give the honest truth about my daughter. She's schizophrenic.

Consider this movie my first awkward step toward that honesty. And maybe one small rip in the blanket of shame surrounding this condition.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Keeping the Community Safe

The fun was not yet over in Cabazon. We wrapped the desert showdown scenes at sundown, about eight o'clock, and broke for dinner. What remained were three scenes between Lola and Cass set in the diner's bathroom. Even though we shot at the Four Aces three different days, we were unable to do the bathroom scenes there because it didn't have a bathroom. Or running water. Or electricity. (We had to power up the lights using the generator in our RV.)

Earlier I'd found the perfect bathroom location a few miles east of Whitewater Rd. - a rest stop. I had the crew, Lexie, and Willam follow us there. We got there about ten p.m. Fortunately, there were two women's restrooms. Perfect. We'd film in one, and direct incontinent female travelers to the other.

The crew, however, did not feel it was perfect at all. In fact, they were horrified. One of them said, "Lisa, you can't be serious. How is it going to look with three guys, a transvestite, and an underage girl in a women's restroom in the middle of the night?"

"But I'm going to be standing right outside," I assured them. "Look, I'll put on the orange vest and yellow hat." (These two items had already demonstrated earlier their magical abilities in getting the general public to follow directions.) I found an orange cone and plopped it down in front of the entrance to one of the women's bathrooms. "Besides," I said, "How many people are going to stop here at ten o'clock on a Sunday night?"

Another crew member remained unconvinced. He pointed out that the inside of the rest stop bathroom did not look like the inside of a diner bathroom. I cannot imagine how they differ. They both have sinks, stalls, soap dispensers, wall-mounted hand dryers, etc. Plus, this was the last shooting day that both Willam and Lexie were scheduled together. It was now or never. And I told him this.

The same crew member insisted, "This is dangerous. All kinds of weird people stop here."

"No one stops here except old married couples in RV's," I lied. I was losing patience. What was the problem? I grew up in Gardena and taught gang members in Moreno Valley. I wasn't about to be scared off by a little rest stop ten miles outside of Palm Springs. "Just do it!!" I told them.

So they did. Reluctantly.

Things went fine. Christian and I stood guard just outside the restroom door. To the few female travelers who wandered up, I told them, "Sorry, bathroom closed. We're fixing a leak in the ceiling. You can use the one in the other building."

Apparently the location was beyond perfect, because Michael finished in record time.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Kismet in Cabazon

The desert showdown sequence was re-scheduled to April 22, which was coincidentally Craig's and my 7th wedding anniversary. While it wasn't exactly romantic, I can't think of a more unique way to celebrate one's anniversary. We were doing something we loved, and surrounded by wonderful people.

After the sand storm experience the previous weekend in Palmdale, I was reluctant to return there. I did not want to chance another fiasco like that. At least not in the same exact location.

I spent hours poring over the satellite maps of a popular online mapping tool. I zoomed in until I could see whether a particular road was surrounded by houses, businesses, etc. As I mentioned in the previous post, I wanted a road that was remote and had a desert terrain. I dragged the viewing window in increasingly larger circles around Los Angeles. It seemed our best bet, apart from Palmdale, was going to be off the 10, heading toward Palm Springs. One road in particular looked promising from the satellite photos: Whitewater Road. A bit of internet sleuthing revealed that this road dead-ended at a closed hiking trail. That meant the only traffic would be the few locals who lived off the road.

There was no time to explore this road in advance. I told everyone to meet at Casino Morongo (the closest major landmark) and hoped for the best.

I felt more prepared this time around, except for one little thing. The two extras I had lined up to play the FBI Agents both called that morning and backed out. So here we were in Cabazon with two FBI outfits and no FBI agents.

Since Craig and I arrived early, we decided to pick up a few extra items at the only market in the area, which was more of a glorified liquor store. I'm in the back getting bags of ice, when suddenly I hear Craig propositioning someone at the cash register. "Hey, how'd you like to be in a movie?" Before I know it, Craig has recruited one of the unemployed locals, Marty, to play the part of an FBI Agent. But Marty turned out to possess all the qualifications of a good background player ... he showed up on time, he fit the jacket, he was tall and imposing, and he brought a buddy to play the other FBI agent.

I next convinced Craig to take me a few miles farther east to Whitewater Rd. It was perfect! We made it back to the Casino Morongo meeting place in time to lead everyone, caravan fashion, back to Whitewater Rd. We drove a few miles into a picturesque valley and set up our police blockade.

Now, we didn't want our police blockade to alarm any of the other drivers who chanced down the road. We also didn't want cars scuttling around our set-up while the camera was rolling. So I put on an orange safety vest and yellow hard hat and planted myself a few hundred feet down the road. I even had one of those hand-held STOP signs. (All of these items can be purchased from your local safety supply store.)

Tip #4 for Producers: Always have a few orange safety vests on hand.

It's amazing how much authority you can summon with those three items. I could have directed cars through a ten-mile detour to the top of the nearest mountain if I wanted to. "Uh yeah, we've got a flash flood warning up ahead - you want to get to high ground using the dirt road over there. No hurry. You've got about ten minutes before the first wave hits us."

But that would be silly.

I also managed to overlook an entire vehicle that day. FBI Agents need a FBI car. No problem. With all the cast and crew in attendance, certainly there had to be one car we had not used yet. And yes ... our DP Justin had a mid-size, dark-colored SUV that would be perfect. Even more fortuitous ... the gentlemen who rented us the police car and police uniforms happened to have an extra flashing light bar that could be mounted on the SUV. Bingo. Instant FBI car.

By this time everyone on the crew realized that both they and their cars would be used as background players in the movie at least once.

When the day was over, I was glad the dust storm hit us in Palmdale the week before. The Whitewater location was ten times more beautiful. Good luck was back on our side.

When Palmdale Hands You Lemons ...

The abundance of good luck I mentioned in the previous post was about to come to an end.

Without a doubt, the most difficult location to line up was that of the desert showdown scene. In this scene, the hearse was supposed to be stopped by a police blockade just before it reached Mexico. We more or less needed a long strip of desert highway with little or no traffic.

As much as possible, I tried to find locations close to L.A. I didn't want to drag my cast and crew all over the place, plus I was reimbursing everyone for gas. The "real" desert would have been the Mojave or Sonoran Desert - a 2-4 hour drive from L.A.

Many of the desert locations you see in T.V. and movies are actually in Palmdale/Antelope Valley, which is only one hour away from L.A., even closer to the San Fernando Valley. Personally, I find the Palmdale landscape to be rather flat, scrubby, and dull, but it was our best choice. We decided to meet in front of the Four Aces set, because most of us had been there before and knew how to find it. Michael would arrive an hour early in order to pinpoint a remote and deserted stretch of road.

At the appointed hour, everyone showed up. We shot one quick scene involving Shore and Cass, and then we were ready for the big Desert Showdown. We had in attendance:

Cast: Shore, Cass, Jorge, Lola, Two Cops, Shore's Father, Lubitch, Two FBI Agents
Crew: Lisa, Craig, Michael, Justin, Jared, Shanna, Steven, Christian
Vehicles - hearse (and owner Jeff, paid by the hour), police car (and owner Gavin, paid by the hour), monster truck (towed up behind our RV)

This was our biggest scene yet, and we were excited. Michael found a suitable road with little traffic, and we were ready to head over there.

Then ... the sand storm started up. Justin became immediately concerned about his camera. As did Jeff with his hearse. The sand storm became so intense that we clearly could not film. We took an early lunch, hoping the sand storm would pass. But as I mentioned before, this was not my lucky day. In fact it was a terrible day.

After lunch, there was no sign of sand storm abatement. Everyone looked to me to make that executive decision ... wait a while longer, or give up and tell everyone to go home? If you count the above people in attendance, you get a grand total of 20. Twenty people wanting to know whether we were going to hang out (in our cars, because we had no other place), or call it a day. I knew what I had to do; I just didn't want to do it. The expense of reimbursing everyone for gas was one thing. Trying to reschedule 20 people on a pick-up day would be horrendous. And so I told everyone to go home. However, Michael, Justin, Jared, Jeff, Mac, and Mario volunteered to drive back to Michael's apartment in L.A. to shoot an interior hearse scene in his parking garage. (The miracle of movie magic) So all was not lost.

I learned later that this was one of the biggest dust storms to hit Palmdale in a long time.

They say all's well that ends well. I managed to reschedule the hearse scene by rearranging the pick-up day schedule. Amazingly, seventeen of the 20 people would be available on 4/22. Two of them were the FBI Agents - easily replaceable. The chief concern was the gentleman who was to play Shore's father. He had a previous out-of-state trip planned on 4/22, and could not be persuaded to change it. (There is only so much persuading I can do when I am not paying people.)

Finding a new actor to fill this role also meant we would have to re-shoot the scenes we had already shot with this actor. Remember when I said that being a producer involved hours on the phone? This experience alone should give you some idea of the hustling I did nightly.

None of these phone calls yielded a replacement actor for Shore's father, though. And time was running out. I had less than one week.

One night Craig said, "I could play Shore's father."

I looked at my husband. I had never thought of him as an actor. He was a computer programmer, musician, author ... but actor? Hmmm. Well, why not? He was a talented and brilliant man. He ought to be able to say the lines convincingly. Plus, what was I going to do ... tell my husband and executive producer that he couldn't have the part?

"Really? You would do that for me?" I asked him.

Craig can now add one more talent to his list of amazing qualities ... actor.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return

Our third and final day of shooting at the cemetery was to be Sunday, 4/8/07. We didn't even realize when we put together the schedule that this happened to be Easter. The main scene to be shot that day was to be a graveside funeral. Try finding 12-20 extras willing to work on Easter Sunday in a Jewish cemetery.

This is where Bea Bernstein really proved herself to be worth a price above rubies. Bea plays the role of the Elderly Psychic Woman in the cemetery. Amongst the many activities in which she participates - including PFLAG and a Democratic Club - is a drama class for senior citizens. I asked her if they would like to participate as extras in a movie. Fortunately, several of them did. My eternal thanks go to Bea's classmates, and the several other extras from who showed up on a chilly Easter Sunday evening.

The biggest casting challenge was to find someone to portray the rabbi. We needed someone who looked distinguished, Jewish, preferably elderly, and able to do a convincing Hebrew accent. I searched on and off for weeks trying to line someone up. There were a few gentlemen on who fit the bill, but none of them were available the date we needed them. I was getting more and more frantic.

Bea Bernstein to the rescue again. A few days before the shoot, she called to tell me that her brother George would be visiting from Mexico that weekend, and he would be happy to play the part of the rabbi. And George could speak Hebrew fluently! George showed up on Sunday, looked at his lines for the first time, and gave a stellar performance. And did I mention George is 90 years old?

I really feel that most of this production has been driven by a large amount of good luck. (Wait a second while I go get my evil eye necklace because I don't want to invoke the jealousy of whatever spiritual entity changes good luck to bad luck.)

Because it was Easter, there would probably not be many dining establishments open for obtaining dinner. So I did the next best thing. I picked up a Honeybaked ham the day before, plus all the trimmings, and prepared and served this "gourmet" dinner to everyone on Sunday. I don't know whether serving ham in a Jewish cemetery is appropriate, but I was not about to call my cousin Ben and ask him.

After our early dinner, we were ready for the big outdoor funeral scene. Now, what does a graveside funeral need? It needs folding chairs, a canopy, and .... an open grave.

Earlier in the week, I contacted the owners of the cemetery and asked them what it would take to dig up enough ground to make it look like an open grave from an angled camera. We didn't need the whole 6 feet. We'd be happy with 2 or 3 feet. Nancy was reluctant ... the problem was not in digging the grave - they were pretty efficient at that - it was finding a plot to dig up. All of the unused plots were going to be used someday, and no one wanted a recycled plot. Totally understandable. I'd seen "Poltergeist" so I knew it was unwise to mess with people's past, present or future burial grounds.

I was stumped. We needed a grave. Wait a minute ...

"Hey Nancy," I said. "I have a grave. Remember the one I bought a few weeks ago?"

"Yeah ... "

"Can we use that one?"

She thought about this. "It's an unusual request, but I guess we can do that."


I am probably the only producer in history who has ever had to tell their P.A., after a scene wrapped, to grab a shovel and fill in their grave. When I told you earlier that Christian was game for anything, I wasn't kidding.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Easiest Job in the World

or, Hint #1 for Everyone

The easiest job in the world is to be a site rep for a filming location. This is your job: to sit in a folding chair all day long and make sure that the incompetent people shooting a movie at your location do not break or steal anything. For this you get paid $20.00 per hour - by the production company - and this is on top of the location rental fee that goes directly to the owner.

Obviously, to sit in a folding chair requires no education or experience. However, the job is seasonal. You only get to work when the location is rented out. But hey, lots of jobs are seasonal. Like construction workers and Santa's elves.

If you like to B.S., terrific, because bored cast and crew might wander over to your folding chair and shoot the breeze awhile. However, if anyone should ask you what notable movies or TV shows were filmed at this location in the past, act vague. This is to compensate for your poor memory.

Another possible disadvantage is that you might be there for 12 hours or more. But 12 x $20 = $240, no taxes taken out. Not bad for a day's work.

Every production has to break at some point and eat. If your location is in the middle of B.F.E., then they are clearly not going to all jump in their cars and head off to Denny's. You can be sure that lunch and/or dinner will be catered. Be sure and ask the producer if there will be any for you. How can they say no, when at least 20 other people are eating? Plus, you work up quite an appetite sitting in a chair for 12 hours. They ought to understand this.

When it is after midnight and filming finally wraps, the crew will set about to the arduous task of striking the set. Disappear for about an hour, in case God forbid they ask you to lend a hand. Your $20/hour does not include manual labor.

Reappear when you have ascertained that everything is cleaned up, packed up, and/or put away. This is your big moment. You get to do an inspection to make sure everything is exactly as it should be. If you notice that the venetian blinds are open to a slightly different angle than they were before the production company arrived, find the producer and instruct him/her to have someone fix the blinds. Likewise if you notice that some salt (!!!!!) was spilled on the floor. Make sure the producer takes care of this, because after 12 hours of running around like a chicken without a head, and having reached a level of hunger and exhaustion previously unknown to her except perhaps the first week after each of her two daughters were born - she would love to deal with your incredibly important request. Never mind that you could have found a broom and dustbin and swept up the salt in the same amount of time it took to track the producer down and report the salt incident. Sweeping is not part of your job description. For that you would need, like, at least $25/hour.

I'm really not sure how one can get a job as site rep of a movie location. I think you have to know the right people.

Shameless Nepotism

In this movie, nepotism was not a matter of choice. It was more like a matter of desperation. I had almost a hundred roles to fill, most of them non-speaking or having just a few lines. Without further ado, let's take a look at Nepotism 'R' Us. First I'll give you a list of the roles that were filled, and then a list of family members who filled those roles (often under extreme coercion). You get to play the match game.

The Roles, in no particular order
1. A sarcastic fairy
2. A diner patron
3. The Biker Babes
4. A tarot card reader
5. Shore's father
6. The mourning couple consoled by Lola

The Family Members, in no particular order
My husband
My two daughters
My step-daughter and her roommate
My ex-husband and his wife
My step-son

My younger daughter was horrified when she showed up for filming and saw the costume I had brought for her to wear. "Mom, I'll look like a slut!" she cried.

"No, this is really cute," I tried to convince her. "This is not slutty at all."

She took the costume out of the bag and inspected it more closely. "There are no bottoms! What am I supposed to wear under this?"

Okay, she was right about that. Now I felt really guilty. But when you're the sole person obtaining costumes, props, food service, locations, etc., you sometimes miss a few details. Plus, she was supposed to be studying for a midterm on differential equations. I should have been tutoring her, not dressing her like a slut.

"Hey look," I said, "The shirt you're wearing is the right color of green. We can fold it down, attach a few safety pins, and convert it to shorts."

They say necessity is the mother of invention.

And I like to think she is secretly pleased that her mom "forced" her to be in a movie. In the adolescent female one-upmanship game of "You can't believe what my mom made me do ... ", my daughter will win hands down every time.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

God is a comic playing to an audience that's afraid to laugh. (Voltaire)

Or, Soapbox Part 2

This is not so much a soapbox as a backstory. The character of Shore spews out a lot of strange ideas. Some of them are innocuous, such as speculations about bending space and time. I think we'd all like to bend space and time on occasion. However, Shore also pontificates extensively about the inconsistencies of religion. Because Shore is a slightly crazed character, he can get away with saying some pretty outrageous things. They're not intended as MESSAGES. (that's my disclaimer, in case anyone gets really pissed at me for offending their religion. Let me just say I hope I have offended no one, or at least everyone equally.) Rather, they are intended as invitations for further reflection.

Shore's religious ruminations express the bulk of my life's religious experience thus far. It's been kind of a long, strange trip. Here's the chronology, as brief as I can make it:

1. I was brought up Jewish - in particular Sephardim, which are the descendants of Spanish Jews who were kicked out of Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. ("Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!") Many of them were given refuge, amazingly, by Islamic Turkey. It was near Constantinople (later known as Istanbul) that the Sephardic Jews built a large homogeneous community. All four of my grandparents left Turkey in the early 1900's and settled in Massachusetts and Brooklyn. There my parents were born, raised, and married.

We were not members of any Jewish synagogue, so my exposure to Jewish custom was limited to occasional temple visits, usually involving funerals and mourning. However, I was raised in the culture of Jewish food, Hannukah, and language smatterings of Yiddish, Ladino Spanish, and Turkish. And oh yes - guilt and foreboding. I remember being in the early stages of my first pregnancy, and wanting to start furnishing the nursery ... And my mother explaining to me that it was bad luck to start counting your chickens before they hatched (in this case literally and figuratively), because it invited the jealousy of the "evil eye". Even though I was a college graduate with a B.S. in math-computer science from UCLA, I took this admonition to heart. We did not furnish the nursery until one week before my due date, and even then, I felt like I was tempting fate.

2. When I was 19, I fell in love with a young man who had been a rather wild teenager, but was conspicuously tempered when he converted to Mormonism. He introduced me to the LDS missionaries, and I really enjoyed the attention of the weekly lessons. I liked the color illustrations they used to show families in the "before life" and "after life". They looked like the illustrations from the Dick & Jane books I learned to read from. Joseph Smith's search for the "one true religion" seemed entirely reasonable. And the fact that my LDS boyfriend REALLY wanted me to convert to Mormonism - and I REALLY wanted to get married - added to the allure. Before you know it, I was "Sister Savy". And soon thereafter, I got my engagement ring.

But!! Mormon Fiance' changed his mind. He decided he wanted to go on a two year mission to parts of the world unknown. I was heartbroken. The wedding was off - for two years, anyway. At that time I had just completed two years of community college and it was time to transfer somewhere. There was only one place I could go lick my wounds and immerse myself in the culture that would daily reassure me of my fiance's wisdom, selflessness, and commitment - Brigham Young University, Utah.

Part of B.Y.U.'s graduation requirement is a lot of religion classes - religious history, religious philosophy, etc.. One each semester. It was there that I learned a lot about both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament. However, I got a little weirded out when my "Mormonism and Modern Science" instructor mentioned the part about becoming a god and creating your own world someday. I didn't remember this from any of the missionary's lessons. I couldn't even decide on a major - how was I going to create my own world someday?

Meanwhile, fiance' promptly decided, the second he dropped me off in Utah and drove home to California, that he didn't want to go on a mission. Nor did he want to get married. I didn't like the cold weather in Utah - or the crazed virgins in my dorm - so I came home after one semester and transferred to UCLA. I eventually married Noncommital Fiance', but that's another story about Complete Lack of Self-Esteem, and this is supposed to be a story about Religion.

3. When I was at UCLA, I took as part of my breadth requirements a class called 'Philosophy of Science'. It was excrutiatingly boring. Unlike math and computer science classes, this was a class in which students were encouraged to discuss and give opinions. I hate listening to other people discuss subjective things. However there was another student who sat next to me every day. He was always eating M&M's, and one day he noticed how I was eyeing those M&M's the way E.T. eyed Reese's Pieces. He offered me some of those M&M's, and a lifetime friendship was born. (yeah, I'm easy.) We started to chat informally during class, walking out after class, and soon, we were having lunches together. Brian was fascinated with the fact that I was a Mormon. He was a Catholic who had just spent time living in a friary - he's been a friar more times than I can count - and he was the first person to really ask me thought-provoking questions about my religion. His questions caused me to dig deeper into my own knowledge of Mormonism - and I was often confused and doubtful about the answers.

4. Fast forward through the next two or three years. I am now married to the Reluctant Fiance' (also named Brian), our daughter is born and baptized in the Mormon church, and I become a Sunday School teacher to 6-year-olds. One day someone gives us a copy of "The God Makers: A Shocking Expose of What the Mormon Church Really Believes." I read it, realized what a doofus I'd been, and stopped going to church. I reverted to the religion most familiar to me, Judaism.

Brian's retreat from Mormonism was longer - he sort of eventually fizzled out. Like our marriage.

5. My first job out of college was as a computer programmer. One day my Catholic friend Brian called to tell me that he was going to be teaching Biology at the Catholic high school. I was immediately jealous. I wanted to be a teacher too, but I didn't have a credential! No problem, Brian said. You don't need a credential to teach in private school. And a few weeks later, I was teaching Trigonometry and Basic Programming to Catholic High School students. That year I learned quite a bit more about the Catholic religion - including the fact that it was better to put on the job application that I was Mormon and not Jewish.

I also learned just a few years earlier that my birth father was French-Irish Catholic, and my birth mother was Russian-Jewish. So technically, I was sort of Catholic. Maybe I should have put that on the job application, or brought it up when they decided to 'let me go' at the end of the year.

However, I relate far more to the religion I was brought up in - Sephardic Judaism. Even though I'm whiter than white, I felt my roots lie in Turkey and Spain. And I still do.

6. I married Craig in 2000. Craig is an avid Atheist. I don't even know if that should be capitalized. I didn't care what he was, the important thing was that he didn't care what I was. Craig was a rare 45-year-old in that he had no preconceived notions of (or biases against) Jews. I had to patiently explain that if a name ends in "stein" or "berg", it's probably Jewish. That we're cheap. That we generally have wavy hair, olive skin, and big noses. So he can thank me for all his new stereotypes.

Craig has been writing a book over the last year called 'The Religion Virus'. I think you can tell from the title what the book is about. It's an extremely intelligent, enlightening book, and you should read it. So, you can imagine what many of our conversations have been about the last year ... how religious ideas have evolved over human history according to Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' schema. Most religious beliefs about God have gained prominence not necessarily because they are true, but because they overpower and eliminate competing beliefs.

I believe most of what Craig has written, but not all of it. I do believe in God. Why? As Lola says in my screenplay, "Because the thought of never seeing someone again is unbearable." I'm sure there are other reasons for God's existence, but that's the most important one to me ... I need God to be real.

Soapbox, Part 1

I like to think that Defying Gravity addresses various issues without hitting people over the head with a MESSAGE. For example, in the scene when Jorge takes Shore and Cass to a group of undocumented Mexican Immigrants for temporary refuge, it would be easy to have him deliver a stern lecture: "These are illegal aliens. They risked life and limb crossing the border to make a better life for themselves and their families in this country of opportunity. They can't get legitimate jobs or housing, so they live in a canyon. This is an epidemic problem in Southern California." That's hitting people over the head. No one wants to be lectured to. Instead, I chose to have Jorge dump Shore and Cass with no explanation, so the audience is possibly as perplexed as they are. Shore finally makes a conclusion that is logical according to his own life experience: "So, I used to go camping too when I was a kid."

Since this is my blog, and not a movie, I'm gonna hit you over the head with it. Watch this trailer for the documentary "The Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon".

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls

Everyone on the cast and crew was excited about the third weekend, because this would be when we would finally meet Willam. Although Willam did not have the most voluminous resume of our cast (that distinction went to James Terry, whose appearances goes back to the sit-coms I watched in the 70's), Willam had the most juicy credits, most notably for a recent extended stint on 'Nip Tuck'. Plus, there was the whole mystique surrounding a professional transvestite ... Did he dress in drag all the time, or only in front of the camera? Should we refer to him as 'he' or 'she'? Would he be friendly or would he bite?

Willam arrived in full make-up. I think it takes him hours to apply, literally. My secret desire is to have Willam do my make-up someday. He was gorgeous. Willam also had all his own costumes. Do not ask me how or why he had a fifties waitress costume. I was just happy he had one. Shanna noticed at his audition that he was wearing high heels that retailed for hundreds of dollars. I don't remember how many hundreds, because I have never owned shoes that cost more than a hundred dollars.

Willam's first scene just happened to be my first (and only) scene - the rental car scene. I have not acted since high school, when I played the nagging Jewish wife in the second act of Neil Simon's 'Plaza Suite'. But, I figured the part of the bitchy rental car agent was not too much of a stretch for a sarcastic high school teacher. Also, I'm the one who wrote the damn script. How hard could it be to act out my own lines?

The hard part was remembering my own lines. It was fun though! I got to act in a scene with all my main characters. I got to wear my over-the-top fuzzy green cat sweater, which generated some attention of its own. During a break in shooting, Mac asked me, with polite hesitation, "So .... do you wear this sweater ... in real life?" (only once, on Halloween).

When Michael yelled the last "cut!", Willam looked at me and said "Bitch!". I knew then that I had nailed my part.

You're gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion

For the second Saturday of filming, we needed a secluded wooded area in which to film the immigrant family camp scenes. Not easy to find such an area in a metropolis like L.A. Sure, there are some very nice state and county parks - Griffith Park, Topanga, Malibu Creek, etc. All of these required a permit - which we had already discovered was costly and involved paperwork - and meeting guidelines such as filming is only allowed on weekdays. Complication Two was that we were filming some of these scenes at night, requiring large lights. Large lights need to be plugged into a generator. The generator was in our RV. So, our filming site was limited to a 50' radius of wherever the RV was parked, 50' being the length of our extension cords (stringers).

Michael scouted out a hiking path in the Topanga/Malibu area. We could park the RV on the street, and unobtrusively run our stringers down a hillside into a secluded wooded clearing.

We also had to schlep the gardener's truck up there, for a brief scene in which Jorge, Shore, and Cass park and clamor out. Fortunately, the truck came in handy for transporting all the props and set dressing that would comprise the immigrant camp site. Unfortunately, it kept stalling, so we were limited to one or two takes of the parking scene.

My job was to (1) put together the camp site and (2) set up the food service table nearby, for hungry/thirsty cast and crew. Each item had to be unloaded from the RV or truck, carried down the sidewalk which led to the hiking path, then carted down the hiking path and through our 'secret' path to the clearing. I'm pretty sure I lost a lot of weight that day, although I gained it back and double over the course of shooting, because the snack table always had grabbable goodies on it. Especially since I'm the one setting it up, replenishing it, and tearing it down. (Hey, there's less to put away if you eat all the leftover cookies and chips.)

I had to do all this as unobtrusively as possible, so that the local residents did not feel our crashing around in the brush warranted a phone call to the police. Try being unobtrusive carrying arrilites, stands, and chimeras down a hiking path.

Craig was busy in the RV hooking up stringers, trying to set up wireless internet, etc.

I tell you this not just for sympathy, but to explain why I was not around when they filmed the scene in which Shore and Cass are sleeping peacefully in a bed of leaves. Look closely at those leaves. They were lying in poison oak.

The first symptom of poisoning is a severe itching of the skin. Later, a red inflammation and a blistering of the skin occurs. In severe cases, oozing sores develop. The rash spreads by the poisonous sap (urushiol), not as the result of contamination from sores. The blood vessels develop gaps that leak fluid through the skin, causing blisters and oozing. (Robert Rietschel, M.D.)

It wouldn't have done any good if I were standing there anyway - I'm a city slicker just like everyone else on the set that day. It wasn't until Craig watched the dailies later that evening that he recognized Potential Disaster. On top of the discomfort and inconvenience to Mac and Lexie - if they broke out in a rash, we would be unable to resume filming for weeks.

Craig immediately called the entire cast and crew together and delivered a sober lecture about poison oak - identifying it, its potential harm, and how to ward off the ill effects. He told Mac and Lexie that they needed to go to the drug store immediately and purchase a lotion specifically to counteract a poison oak outbreak. This involved a strict sequence of lathering, rinsing, and repeating.

This was the closest I'd ever seen Mac come to being pissed off. Okay, he was pissed off, and rightfully so. But he and Lexie followed Craig's instructions and all's well that ends well ... they never broke out.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

My Glamorous Life as a Producer

Craig and I settled into a weekly routine. On weekdays, I would frantically organize locations, props, extras and minor players for the upcoming weekend. On Friday night, Craig would go get any picture vehicles we were borrowing, whether it was the VW bus, gardener's truck, motorcycles, or Lubitch's monster truck. The first three required that we also rent a trailer to tow behind the RV (a lesson learned after the clutch went out on the VW bus that first weekend). On Saturday morning, we went to the market to stock up on snacks for the "food service" table: fresh fruit, granola bars, cookies, nuts, chips, coffee, cokes, fruit juices, etc.

On the first and second weekends of shooting, I made lunch/dinner runs around 4:00 p.m. Taking orders, going and fetching the food, bringing it back and serving it - this took hours. Plus, the cast/crew was composed of both vegans and carnivores. It was time-consuming to find a reasonably priced take-out restaurant that offered a tasty selection of both kinds of meals. I had no patience for this. I have never enjoyed cooking or serving. I have limited - some people will say extraordinarily picky - tastes in food. Plus, I was supposed to be producing, not catering. When I watched the dailies of what I missed, I saw that errors were being made. Cass was being shot with bare arms exposed - arms that were supposed to be hidden until the full extent of her cuts and bruises were revealed later on. We ended up having to reshoot these scenes at a later date, at additional expense. I absolutely needed to be on set, not gallivanting around.

We also needed someone to pick up the rental equipment on Friday afternoons, and return it Monday mornings. Michael was currently handling that job, and was not happy doing it. Most weekends required equipment from two different rental houses, on opposite ends of L.A.

I made it known that I was looking to hire a production assistant. Principal duties: handle rental equipment and lunch runs. Experience not required.

Jared, our sound guy, recommended a friend of his named Christian, who was between jobs. Christian was perfect. He was happy to do whatever was asked, and even though he did not own his own car, he managed to get the job done. (most of the time borrowing Jared's car - extra shout out to Jared for that favor.) I was thrilled to have an assistant. It was the closest I'd ever come to having a minion.

Even though his job description did not call for this, Christian allowed us to put on green face paint and dress him like an ogre. Come to think of it ... If that's not a minion, I don't know what is.

Shooting ran til after midnight every Saturday and Sunday. Craig and I were always the last to leave, because we had to wait for the download from Justin's camera onto our mac. It was then a two hour drive back to Escondido. We'd get home usually at 2 or 3 a.m.

And then I was up at 5:30 a.m. on Monday, to get ready for school. Two and a half hours later I was in the classroom, bleary-eyed, telling students to get out a pencil and paper for notes. "Does anyone remember the standard form of an equation for a circle? An ellipse? A hyperbola?" I was asking them because I could barely remember myself.

It's a Nice Place to Visit ...

On the second day, we were scheduled to shoot all the scenes that took place at the cemetery's garage. We did not need to film this at the actual cemetery, because the garage was supposed to be secluded. This was a problem, though. I live in San Diego, and the entire cast and crew live in the L.A. area. How in the world was I supposed to find a secluded garage in the L.A. area? Even though I grew up in Gardena and Torrance, I had no idea where one could find a secluded garage, let alone rent one for filming. I tried to think of everyone I knew who lived in the L.A. area. (not many) Were any of them homeowners? No. They all lived in apartments or housing tracts.

I was getting desperate. Here it was Friday, and we were supposed to shoot at the garage on Sunday. I tried to think of anyone I knew who lived on a large property - near L.A. or not. I finally remembered my former neighbors in Murrieta, Tim and Tracy. We had lived on the same street for 12 years. Our kids grew up together. I knew they had recently moved to a large property in rural Murrieta. The question was, did it have a garage? Was it remote enough to pass for a cemetery garage? And would they let us film there an entire day? I contacted Tim and he was eager to help. He emailed me some photos of his property. No garage, but he did have a large tool shed. It was surrounded on three sides by scrubby hills, so one could easily imagine a cemetery on the other side of the hills. Not perfect, but it would do.

Sunday was an exciting day. We had five out of six of the principal cast there, plus the hearse and the VW bus. This was a long drive for those coming from L.A. (everyone)- at least ninety minutes, culminating in a bumpy ride on an unmarked, uneven dirt road. But they were raring to go once they got there.

Tim catered to our every need - not that we were needy. If we needed a cot, he found a cot. An old oil can? No problem. Tracy and their daughter Kandi went to get pizza for us. They even wanted to pay! I had to struggle to get the dollar bills into their hands. Cast and crew alike commented on how the Browns were the nicest people they had ever met. This is not hyperbole. If you'd met them, you would say so too.

At night, the stars came out. I forgot that this is a rare sight in smoggy Los Angeles. The Angelinos seemed to truly enjoy the beauty of rural Murrieta. Day Two of filming wrapped.

Lights, Camera, Awesome

The first day of filming was March 10, which was coincidentally my mother's birthday. I wish I had an exciting anecdote about the first day, but it went relatively smoothly. We shot a few scenes in and outside of Michael's apartment building (the college dorm and hotel room scenes), and at the beach.

Not only was this my first time producing a movie, this was my first time on an actual movie "set". I was amazed at how many times Michael had the actors repeat each scene, in so many different ways. He had an incredible way of using analogy to guide the actors into the right emotion. Instant of saying "Be more irritated," he would say something like, "Try that line again. This time, make it sound like you're missing the auction end for beanie babies because of these people right here who want to rent a car." He was always excited, and made it seem like this was a grand fun game we were all playing. Mike worked harder than anyone else on set, because he was involved in every detail of every angle of every single scene, and all our days were twelve hours or longer. He never complained, and was as good-humored and enthusiastic at the end of the day as he was at the beginning.

Likewise, Justin (our DP) and Jared (our sound engineer) worked tirelessly, scene after scene, take after take. The quality of their work was unbeatable, and their good humor helped create a fun atmosphere.

In the evening, we relocated to a small strip of beach off Pacific Coast Highway. These scenes involved the VW bus, which I had driven up from Riverside County. I hadn't driven a clutch in years, and this one had no power brakes and no power steering. Pete, the owner, had given me a list of rules: "The gas gauge doesn't work, so make sure you don't run out of gas. The odometer doesn't work, so make sure you don't speed. The passenger door can only be opened from the outside. The seatbelts don't work." And, as I found out, every time I shifted, the top of my hand scraped against the underside of the dash. This was definitely our most temperamental star. Later that night, as Craig was driving it home (I elected to drive the RV home), the clutch went out. Fortunately, Craig used to be a hippie in Santa Cruz, so he knew how to drive a VW bus with a broken clutch.

I asked myself several times that day why I was bothering with this dinosaur of a vehicle. To me, it was really just an over-sentimentalized tin can. But ... this VW bus attracted more attention than a beautiful girl in a bikini. It represented a piece of retro pop art that you could drive around and sleep in. Who needs power brakes and power steering? I was asked by many a young man, over the course of filming, how much a car like that cost. (Answer: over $10,000, running or not.) Hey girls, you wanna attract cute guys? Get a VW bus, park it at the beach, and hang out in front of it. Better yet - act like you're having a problem starting the engine. No guy can resist this challenge. But I digress.

It was just before sunset when we got to the beach, which allowed us to spend a few hours shooting both morning and nighttime scenes. It was here that I realized we could ask Mac to do just about anything, and he would do it. Mac, can you play the guitar? Sure. Mac, can you wear just your underwear for this scene? Sure. Mac, can you pour a gallon of water over your head? Sure. Five more times? Sure.

Let me be the first to put this in print - he is going to be the next Brad Pitt.

Craig had splurged and bought a laptop mac with Final Cut Pro, in order for Justin to offload footage from his camera. At the end of the day, I got to see the first set of dailies. The first scene I watched was the one in which Shore and Jorge are walking down the street, discussing the mysterious mute girl who lives in the cemetery. I'd never seen magic before, but here it was. Mac and Mario were incredible - they literally became Shore and Jorge. They nailed the dynamic and rapport of the unlikely friendship that formed the backbone of the story. Any doubts I had about the wisdom of making this movie went out the window. This movie was going to be awesome.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

And They Lived Happily Ever After ... NOT

The short version of Defying Gravity ended when Jorge helped Cass and Shore escape from the police at the cemetery. Instead of leaving in the gardener's truck, they left in the limousine. Jorge turns around and asks them, "Where to?" And Cass says her first and only line: "Yermo". The meeting with Lola is promised, but not delivered. The End.

There was no Lubitch in the original. Cemetery Director Menendez was the only threat.

Shore had no background. He was, quite simply, just a talkative guy who lived in a minibus. His biggest issue was that instead of befriending strangers, which is all he wanted, he turned everyone off. The mute girl in the cemetery was his biggest challenge.

The short version of the script was written in 2001 in less than a week, with no planning. It was the easiest thing I'd ever written. Michael encouraged me to expand it into feature length. I then had what was probably the world's longest writer's block - six years. I had absolutely no idea what could possibly happen to my four lead characters in a second and third act.

My patience (or procrastination) paid off. The ending of the script came to me all at once, at the beginning of 2007. And I was filming it three months later.

The short ended with a resolution. I had to turn that into a conflict, or turning point. Solution: Separate Cass from Shore. A feature-length script also needs more complications, more outside forces working against the protagonist(s). Enter Lubitch, the abusive step-father who wants to find Cass as much as Shore does. He also provided a stronger reason for her deciding to run away and seek refuge in a cemetery.

Shore needed a back story. There was time to develop why he was living in a minibus and spewing about religious dichotomies. Recent developments in my personal life acquainted me with what happens when mentally ill people stop taking their medication. Thus Shore was given personal demons of his own - and a concerned father trying to find him.

I put the first draft of the full length script on for peer review. Most of the reviewers mentioned that the beginning was too slow, so I tightened it up. They also wanted to see more Lola, so I wrote an extra scene for him, to shed some additional light on his fish-out-of-water existence in Yermo.

The triggerstreet reviewers were almost unanimous in their biggest complaint about the script - they hated it that Shore died at the end.

Yeah, in the first draft, Shore was killed by the highway patrol because he pulled out a fake gun. Before writing that ending, I had read a story about a mentally ill man who pulled a fake gun on police, and they killed him. I'm not blaming the police- they have to make split second, life or death decisions. The tragedy is that schizophrenic people have terrifying delusions which are very real to them. And when they arm themselves, those delusions become self-fulfilling prophecies. I wanted to dramatize this. Perhaps I chose the wrong vehicle to make such a strong statement. The triggerstreet reviewers were mortified. They did not want Shore to die. (Does anyone ever want a protagonist to die?) They said it smacked of Thelma and Louise. (So there can never be another movie where the protagonist dies at the end?) But, I finally reasoned that this movie had the potential to affect and educate people without banging them over the head. Let the audience have their uplifting ending.

As long as they realize that in real life, not everybody gets a happy ending.

From Death Springs Life

Defying Gravity was initially written as a short in 2001. I remember sitting down and banging it out in less than a week. Usually, when writing a screenplay, I try to follow the three act structure with all its turning points, midpoint, climax, etc. I begin with an outline and generally stick to it, with allowances for brief bursts of productive creative deviation.

But I have no recollection of spending any time planning or outlining DG. I sat down, started with page 1, and just kept going. I have no idea where the characters came from. They just appeared, and the story fell in place around them.

I could tell you how I got the idea for every one of my other screenplays. Black Belt Biker Bimbo Babes started as a catchy title. Honeymoon on the Run started as a dream snippet when I woke up one morning ... What if a woman woke up in a Las Vegas hotel room, newly married to the guy in bed next to her, and no recollection of who he was or what happened? (And no, this never happened to me. Although I did wake up in a Las Vegas hotel room once, newly married, and filled with dread. The dread was because I did recognize the guy next to me.) I also wrote a suspense-thriller based on a kidnapping case that had been in the news. My romantic-comedy Ghosts with Issues was inspired by a visit to a Maine lighthouse. And so on. Every idea had an identifiable genesis.

I believe Defying Gravity arose from a single snapshot of my life. My mother passed away in 1998. I was devastated. The first time I visited her grave, I could not even process the consuming grief. It was almost surreal. It was like watching a movie about someone else. Look at that poor woman standing at her mother's grave. But no, this was real. There is the headstone. There is the grass. And there is my mother buried underneath the grass. I knealt down to touch the stone, and I was immediately distracted by the weeds. Weeds! How dare they! This was my mother's grave! I had a vision of my mother at her favorite pasttime ... kneeling in the soft dichondra of her front or back yard and weeding. I saw the canvas gloves, the knee cushion, the sun visor, the white bucket. I could hear the sound each weed made as it hit the bunket. Plunk! The weeds on her grave were a personal affront - to me, to her, to the grass, to the entire cemetery. I started yanking them out. I wished I had the little hand weeder. Then I would have had something to do, something that would allow me to spend hours in the company of my mother, and occupy my hands so that my heart would not ache. The cemetery was peaceful. I wanted to live there.

But that's crazy. Who would do something like that?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Lisa's Adventure's in Screenwriting, Part 2

Having completed my first screenplay ("Double Trouble"), I was thrilled with my new skill. (or, futile pursuit). I moved right into my second screenplay, with its alliterative and highly descriptive title: Black Belt Biker Bimbo Babes. I kid you not. I was now writing about not one, but two things I had no direct experience with: martial arts and motorcycles. But, I reasoned, this would be an easy sell to international markets. Can you just imagine the poster? Shiny spokes and lots of zippers and cleavage. Who could ask for more?

I was damned pleased with the completed screenplay, which I affectionately referred to as B5. There are (male) friends and co-workers from that period in my life who still remember this screenplay. When I mentioned to them this year that I was producing a movie, their eyes immediately lit up. "Oh - is it that one - that Biker Black Belt Bimbo Babe one?"

"NO," I reply emphatically, and guiltily wonder if I should have made B5 instead.

From this experience I learned how ridiculously long it takes to send out email queries one by one to producers - especially if you screw up copying and pasting their respective names - and wrote the automated program that would later turn into the aforementioned Venice Arts Automated Query Submission Service. So, every experience can turn into a lesson of sorts. Even bad boyfriends and ex-husbands.

No bite on the B5 queries. Oh well. If at first you don't succeed, etc. My next screenplay was an action adventure involving a woman who woke up in a Las Vegas hotel room next to a strange man who claims they were married the night before. And very soon, someone is trying to kill both of them. This screenplay involved several more elements I knew absolutely nothing about - amnesia, pharmaceutical companies, government agents, thugs, car chases and helicopter chases. Did this stop me? Hell no. I wrote and re-wrote and sent out queries to everyone and their brother. I had several companies request the script and surprise - someone wanted to option it. Yay! I decided that before I entered into any agreement with this upstart producer, I should check with the other producers who had requested the script but not yet responded. And surprise again - another producer wanted to option it!

I made appointments to meet both of them on the same day in Hollywood. On that day, I felt like the belle of the ball. Two suitors! I was impressed by both of them, but decided to go with the producer who had a first look deal with a cable network. He seemed to have more connections. I was also impressed that he was one of the world's foremost experts on the James Bond movie franchise, and had authored several books about them. I had optioned my crazy little action-adventure to 007's biggest fan. My action scenes must have been more than a little convincing.

Unfortunately, he was unable to obtain financing, and my screenplay fell to the wayside. Bad timing - in the two years that it was under option, at least four movies about memory erasure were released. There was no point in trying to re-submit my screenplay about memory erasure.

What did I learn from that experience? That maybe I have a small modicum of talent ... and that re-writes are a bitch.

Lisa's Adventures in Screenwriting, Part 1

We've been talking a lot of production nuts and bolts so far, which I hope some aspiring inexperienced filmmakers may find useful.

Now a little bit about the script, because in my heart of hearts, I consider myself a writer above all else.

I may have deceived you a little bit. My background is not strictly limited to hypnotherapy and teaching math. Because I have not yet figured out how to relax in my free time, I am usually involved in several ongoing pursuits. One of these was the Venice Arts Screenwriting Competition, which I founded and ran between 1999 and 2003. I read, evaluated, and critiqued thousands of scripts over the years. I rounded up judges, hustled prizes, and designed the first competition to offer a fully automated online script submission process - point, click, upload, pay. (That UCLA degree in Math-Computer Science came in real handy.) With the help of my husband Craig, the best techno guru of all time, we even allowed the entrants to log in to the website and check their scores and judges' comments. This is probably standard operating procedure for today's screenwriting competitions - but we were the first to be fully automated. The sound you hear is me patting myself on the back.

In 2002, we partnered with Zeta Entertainment ("Shiloh", "Gun Crazy" etc.) in running the competition, and that year called our joint venture 'Script World'. This was my first direct experience with an actual producer. My initial and lasting impression was that producers are people who spend all their time on the phone. I had no idea what they talked about - just that it involved a lot of shmoozing. I later found out first hand what it is producers talk about. (casting, locations, vehicles, scheduling, permits, insurance ....)

Tip #3 for Producers: You'd better like talking on the phone.

Because of our partnership in administering the competition, Zeta Entertainment generously gave me the title of 'Director of Development'. Look it up in the 2003 Hollywood Creative Directory under "Z" for Zeta. There's my name. And in Hollywood, it's all about getting your name out there, on as many things as you can. also offered the first fully automated screenplay query submission service. I built and maintained a database of producers willing to accept email queries. I sent out thousands of queries between 1999 and 2006. I have put spin on every conceivable screenplay concept - the good, the bad, and the ugly. My query submission service was apparently such a good idea that it was copied by two other services. One of them literally lifted copy directly from my web site. The problem is, when too many query submission services start sending out too many queries per day to the same database of producers, their inboxes become diluted. Instead of getting one or two per day (I strictly limited my output to two per day), they were getting ten to twenty queries per day. And at that point they stop being queries and start becoming spam. It ruins the whole system for both the query services and their clients. After 7 years of writing and editing queries every night, I was happy to retire.

What I really wanted to do was write my own screenplays.

My first screenplay was in 1993. My cousin Marla inherited some money and decided to produce a film. She was already involved in working with other producers. What's the first thing you need to make a movie? A screenplay. So she gave her nerdy cousin Lisa a call.

"Lisa, remember how when we were growing up, all you ever did was sit in your room and write stories?" (This could be perceived as either a compliment or insult.)

"Yeah ... "

"I'm going to produce a movie. Can you write a screenplay for me?"


This was a big leap of faith for Marla - commissioning a writer whose sole experience was writing bad Six Million Dollar Man novellas in her bedroom 15 years earlier. However, she did have down Producer's Tip #4:

Tip #4 for Producers: Never underestimate the value of a free service.

So I went out and bought my first book on screenwriting: Viki King's "How to Write a Movie in 21 Days". I have read tons of screenwriting books since then, and this one remains one of my favorites. I highly recommend it to first-time writers.

I banged out a screenplay for Marla in roughly 21 days. It was about a female karate instructor (a topic I knew absolutely nothing about), because her partner felt this would sell big in international markets. Alas, Marla never made her movie. She married her 3rd husband and spent all her inheritance on a used Mercedes and an extended honeymoon in Europe. She kept the Mercedes longer than the husband. (Marla, if you're reading this, I hope you will think twice about impulsive decisions. Love, Lisa.)

But - one can't view this as wasted time. I learned a lot writing that screenplay. And I found my passion.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Location, Location, Location

Our film was heavily dependent on two principal locations - one was the cemetery, which we already discussed, and the other was the shithole diner in the desert.

Various cities, counties, and even the state of California, have film commissions which offer a library of available locations. You can search for anything from a quarry to a convent to a morgue. You can specify a preference for architectural details, time period, and in the case of outdoor locations, type of terrain.

I found the Four Aces in Palmdale ( at the Antelope Valley Film Office web site. This was a fantastic facility used exclusively for filming, although to casual passers-by, it looked like an authentic 50's diner, gas station, and seedy motel.

You've probably seen this set before in any number of movies, TV shows, and commercials. In the past month alone I've seen it used as the backdrop for a car commercial and the setting for the horror movie "Vacancy". It was perfect for our needs. In addition to the diner, I would be able to use one of the motel rooms for Lola's apartment, and fix up the motel office to look like a car rental agency. The owner of the facility is a very friendly and accommodating person to work with, and offered me a rate that would fit into the budget (what budget?) of my movie.

But ... both the Home of Peace Cemetery and the Four Aces required me to get a permit from FilmLA (City and County of Los Angeles Film Office). At the time of this writing, the base permit application fee is $450.00. But - dependent on the nature of the location, there are add-on fees such as fire review, notification, etc. I paid close to $1000 to FilmLA when all was said and done, to film a total of 6 days at those two locations.

We almost got hit up to pay a lot more. The County Fire authority wanted us to rent a 6000-gallon water truck due to the dry conditions at the Four Aces - this would have cost $2000/day to rent the truck, the driver, etc. This was ridiculous - it was far more than the rental fee going directly to the Four Aces. I called the owner to ask what he knew about this "hidden" charge levied by FilmLA. He was amazed - he had never heard of this requirement and its associated fee - a fee that I simply could not afford to pay.

My husband Craig made at least a dozen phone calls to water truck rental companies and finally to the County Fire Marshall himself. It turned out that for the small size of our generator (the one in our RV), and our small cast/crew, we would not need the water truck. Several more phone calls were arranged between our coordinator at the FilmLA Office, the Fire Marshall, and the owner of the Four Aces. The fee was finally removed and our permit approved.

But wait - there's more. Another requirement for the Filming Permit is to obtain Production Insurance covering general l liability and automobile liability. Another two thousand bucks to cover seven consecutive weekends of filming. There's really no point in making a budget if you've never made a movie before, because someone has their hand out at every corner. Just get a credit card with a really high credit limit, and kiss your money goodbye.

But this is art, right? You can't put a price on art.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Picture Vehicles

In addition to the human stars of the film, there are also two automotive stars - an early 60's classic cadillac hearse, and an early 60's VW bus. We also needed a police car, a highway patrol car, a monster truck, an older, worse-for-the-wear pick-up truck, an RV, a sports car, and 3-4 Harley Davidson motorcycles.

If you think it's tough finding people for your film, try finding vehicles. If I had even imagined when I set about writing this screenplay that I would someday produce it myself, I would have written it with half the cast, half the locations, and two vehicles max. And I would have written a much bigger part for myself.

Actually, I was pretty lucky finding the VW bus. I noticed that another teacher at my school occasionally drove a beautiful blue-and-white 60's VW bus to school. I ran into Pete in the faculty parking lot one afternoon, and just sort of blurted out, "I love your VW bus. I'm filming a movie. Can I use your bus?" And in an unbelievable act of kindness - we'd never even had a conversation before - he said yes. Pete proved to be unbelievably accommodating in allowing us to use his VW bus on three different shooting days.

Now the hearse. I had to do a little more legwork here. I managed to dig up several hearse afficianado clubs in the Southern California area. I posted notices on a few of their online bulletin boards, and received a response from a wonderful hearse owner named Jeff. I explained the shooting dates and times, and he provided me with a very reasonable rate. When we were forced to modify the shooting schedule along the way, Jeff was flexible in showing up whenever and wherever we needed him. Since the hearse was used quite a bit, Jeff became a welcome member of our Defying Gravity "family". See if you can spot his cameo in the movie.

By this time I learned that unique cars that are rented to appear in movies are called "picture cars". I called many Hollywood picture car vendors in search of a police car and CHP car. I was quoted rates between $500 - $1000 per day (Most of them required that the cars be driven by one of their handlers, who also needed to be paid an hourly fee. In one case, the car had to be transported to and from the location on a flat bed truck - another ridiculous expense. And in all cases, there was an 8-hour minimum. No half-day rates.) Since I needed the police car for one day, and the CHP car for another day, this was going to be a hefty budget item, and the budget items were adding up fast.

Tip #2 for Producers: When all else fails, try craigslist.

On Craigslist, I chanced upon an educational video producer who owned his own police car. Gavin did a number of films for schools about the dangers of drugs, etc., and most of them featured what else but police cars. His rate - $100 for half-day, or $150 for full-day, plus the cost of gas to and from the location. Not only that, but Gavin had a wide assortment of police officer uniforms that he also rented out, at extremely reasonable prices. Gavin, too, was extremely accommodating to our schedule. He even showed up on Easter when we asked him to. If you ever need to rent a police car and/or uniform, call Gavin at Cal Motion Picture Productions - 818-985-3239 - tell him Lisa James sent you. (And see if you can spot Gavin driving one of his own cars in the movie.)

I was quickly learning not to settle for the first price that is quoted. Call around. Get at least three quotes. This is true not just for movies, but for everything in life.

Now for the less exotic vehicles. I borrowed the monster truck from an old neighbor, Tim, in Murrieta. I borrowed the older model pick-up truck from Nick, a fellow teacher, friend, and carpool mate. I used my own RV for the RV. The sports car you see Macauley driving was in fact his own beautiful convertible mustang.

And the Harley-Davidsons - that's a story in itself.