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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Previously, on Casting This Film ...

We had cast all our major roles with the exception of Shore. The future success of this film really depended on who we cast for this critical part. As I mentioned before, we needed someone dynamic and enigmatic - someone whom you could watch tying his shoe for twenty minutes simply because you couldn't take your eyes off of him. Not that we had a 20-minute shoe-tying scene. I'm just saying.

We were really in a quandry. None of the actors we had seen so far were thrilling us. One young man was a fantastic actor - but didn't quite look the part. He looked too wholesome. This was not his fault - it was just one of those things. We needed someone who had a bit of an edge. Not quite dangerous, but not someone you'd fix up with your sister.

As we were beating our heads against the wall, Michael (or maybe it was me) said, "Hey, we've seen Macauley read for Lola, why don't we ask him to come in and read for Shore?" Sheer genius. We got him in for a call-back the very next Saturday, and asked him to come in costume (i.e. homeless).

And in walked Shore, I mean Macauley. Macauley was a recent transplant to Hollywood from New Jersey. Like so many other talented young men and women, he came out here to make it in show business. And I really think he's going to be one of the 1% who makes it. His audition was perfection. He clomped around on the stage in these big black untied army boots, and nailed a performance that was both comedic and tragic.

I called him shortly thereafter to offer him the part. He must not have expected it. "Aw geez," he said. "I just took a job, and it's a really good job, and I have to work weekends."

"Oh," I said, hoping to impute into that syllable as much disappointment and guilt as possible. I was not about to tell him to screw the other job. If my movie didn't bring him fame and fortune, then I'd be the guilty one for telling him to quit his other job (which was leasing apartments).

Macauley's mind was churning around the possibilities also. Maybe his future was flashing before his eyes. Suddenly he blurted out, "Oh fuck it! Fuck that other job! This is what I came out here to do!"


Happy Ending: His other job let him take off seven consecutive weekends to do the film, so he got to have his cake and eat it too. Whoever you guys are, apartment people, THANK YOU!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Issues of Morality

In response to the email I sent out to all my close friends and family, inviting them to be extras, I immediately received the following:




This came from my cousin Ben. He is not actually my first cousin - he is my mother's first cousin, so I don't know what that makes him to me. Second cousin? First cousin second removed? He is about 58 years old, never married, and still lives with his mother. He came to this country from Israel when he was 17, and in spite of over 40 years in the United States, he still speaks and writes with a distinctive Israeli accent. Let it be noted, though, that he is a prominent and successful Real Estate Agent who has also served as a Commissioner in the City of Los Angeles.

He has also been in and out of Court - both Small Claims and Superior - more times than I can count.

Now, Ben had every right to request that I not film at the cemetery on Saturday. He is a strict follower of our Jewish faith, and an active Synagogue member. I admire anyone who follows a code of ethics for the betterment of mankind, whether it is self-prompted or a religious dictate. However, I personally feel that many of the laws and commandments from the Old Testament are either antiquated or inaccurate. If one were to rigidly follow all Jewish law, Jewish doctors would not be allowed to operate on Gentiles. If modern men were to emulate the lifestyles of our greatest Old Testament prophets, they would be able to take in various concubines. I could go on an on, but the point is that one needs to consider the spirit and intent of the law in question. None of my cast and crew observe the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, and no one who did would be at the cemetery on that day to be disturbed by us. No harm, no foul.

However, Ben felt himself to be the self-appointed guardian and enforcer of All Things Jewish, and was hell-bent on keeping me out of the cemetery on Saturday. The above email was sent not only to me, but it was "reply-alled" to every one of my friends and family members. I was appalled that he would not only interfere with my professional plans, but portray me as a heathen in front of everyone I knew.

And just in case I wasn't checking my email every 5 seconds, Ben called me immediately after his poison-penned email to tell me that the cemetery was breaking all the rules, that he is going to tell the Temple Board of Directors that this is
absolutely not allowed and that they are going to break all affiliation with the cemetery, that ALL the synagogues are going to be pissed off and break their ties with the cemetery, and that I am going to be all over the news for causing this. I just told him, "Ben, I respect that you feel morally obligated to oppose this, so do what you have to do." .. and congratulating myself on my calm composure, especially considering that I take medication for impulsive anger issues.

Ben managed to escalate the issue and make enough threatening phone calls and emails, including to what he claims was the entire Sephardic community, that the cemetery directors apologetically asked me to please reschedule the shooting days. I complied, because they had been so accommodating to me, and I did not want them to get in trouble with the very community that they service.

I even attempted to explain to Ben that I would never do anything to disrespect the cemetery I loved and hoped to be buried in someday next to my parents. He replied:
"The reason your parents are buried in Home of Peace and Shustermans have reservation is because of me. My Temple have agreement with home of peace only members of the sephardic Temple can be buried at Home of Peace in the sephardic section. Your parents were never member of the temple thru my influence Hy sold your parents a plot and Shustermans a reservation."

I don't know about you, but that sounds like Sorry Lisa, you're not getting a plot near your parents without me to pull strings for you. I was beyond grief!! He was holding my future resting place next to my parents over me?!!

To put the icing on the cake, Ben threatened my husband Craig and cousin Marla with slander, for things they said when they found out how cruelly manipulative he was.

So, what began as a scheduling debacle was now an eternal condemnation and potential lawsuit. Thanks Ben!!!

Home of Peace

Before we conclude the Search for Shore, let's take a look at what else was going in pre-production.

Michael put together a shooting schedule that spanned seven consecutive weekends, beginning March 10. The key location, I felt, was the Jewish Cemetery. When I first wrote the script, I envisioned not just any Jewish Cemetery, but the Home of Peace in Los Angeles. In fact, that was the cemetery that inspired the script. That was the cemetery in which my mother was buried ... the cemetery which conveyed peace, beauty, history, and a window to heaven.

I was so happy and relieved when the owners of the Home of Peace agreed to let us film there. Many other movies had also filmed there, so they already had a Location Agreement available. They also required that we get a filming permit from the FilmLA office.

Our shooting schedule designated a minimum of three full days at the cemetery. Because this included two simulated funerals - one outdoors, and one inside the chapel - I felt it best that we film on Saturdays, when the cemetery was closed to the public. Number One, we needed to make sure the chapel was available to us on a pre-designated date. If we planned to film on a Sunday, and someone died on a Friday, their service would bump us out of the chapel on Sunday, no matter whether we had it reserved or not. Perfectly understandable.

Reason Number Two - the cemetery is supposed to offer a quiet, dignified, peaceful atmosphere to visiting mourners. We did not want to interrupt this atmosphere with our film crew and equipment.

Reason Number Three - we wanted to film a few scenes within the cemetery office. Again, best done when we weren't underfoot of the staff and visitors. No one wants to be discussing the final resting place of their loved one with shouts of "ACTION!" and "CUT!" in the next room.

The cemetery owners wanted to do everything possible to make our shooting experience a success, so they approved our schedule.

My next step was to start recruiting extras to play mourners in our two funeral scenes. A natural first step was to contact all my friends and family in the greater L.A. area.

That's when the sh*t hit the fan.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Awash with no Shore in sight

Feb 17 - Day Two of Auditions

Another productive day. We were privileged to find our Lola, Jorge, Milo, Handler, Miss Grace, and the Health Inspector. Willam came in full drag and we were all so completely intimidated by how gorgeous he was that we barely knew what to say to him. Needless to say, he nailed the audition, and I had to keep myself from becoming supine and begging him to be in my movie.

The 'Rules' for Casting

  • Be friendly but inscrutable
  • Wait at least two days before you call them and offer them the part
I broke rule #2. I only waited one day before I called Willam. To his credit, he requested a copy of the script before he would accept the role. Fortunately, he emailed back fairly quickly that he would take the role. I would like to add, And the rest is history, but we're still history in the making.

If you take careful inventory of the list of roles we had cast thus far, you may notice we were missing one key ingredient: Shore - our manic paranoid schizophrenic homeless brilliant adorable 20-year-old male lead. The scene we were using to audition the Shore wanna-be's was the one in which he catches Cass cutting herself, and then attempts to distract her with a rambling monologue about the moon, teleportation, the CIA, and returning to college. We were looking for someone who could impart a manic energy as he switched mental gears faster than a cyclist going uphill.

The actors we'd invited in to read for Shore looked beautiful in their head shots. We wanted these guys to knock us over. However instead of manic, we got mostly wistful.

Tip #2 for Actors - Move around the stage. Don't stand there like a fence post.

Macauley read for the part of Lola not long after Willam came in. For a straight guy who had never done a transvestite (that I know of), he was amazing. If Willam had not come in, Macauley certainly would have won that part.

We auditioned six Jorge hopefuls that day. They ranged from decent to frightening. One of them explained, at length, about a fight in which he had participated at a nightclub the previous evening. None of them demonstrated the "soul" of our philosophical Mexican gardener - except one. Mario was the only one who truly listened and reacted to the other actor in the scene. There was true intelligence, and something almost tragic, in his expression. As soon as he left the room, we all looked at each other and nodded.

Who is the "we" in "we all"? That would be me, Michael the director, my husband Craig (who I introduced as Executive Director), and Michael's friend Shanna, who was running the camera. I loved Shanna and managed to convince her to work for us on the weekends as Assistant Director.

But here we are at the end of our second and what we thought would be last day of auditions - and no Shore.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Can't Start a Fire Without a Spark

We were lucky - we found our Cass, Lubitch, Menendez, and Handler that day. These were not just competent actors, but fabulous.

Lexie first contacted us in response to our ad on Backstage West. In addition to her head shot, she sent photos of herself lying on a grave. (!!) I was dying of curiosity - were these photos already part of her portfolio, or did she have them done specifically for the role we advertised - that of a goth girl who lives in a cemetery. I emailed and asked her this very question. She replied with honesty that these photos had already been taken several months ago.

One could interpret that as an omen - here was someone so perfectly suited for the part of Cass that she was already hanging out in cemeteries. Plus, she looked the part - waifish, with big expressive eyes. We invited her in to audition, and I prayed that she could act.

It's not easy auditioning for the part of a mute girl. The scene we had her do was the one in which she is found cutting herself by Shore. We needed an actress who could convey every emotion through her eyes and body language. And she BLEW us away. Lexie was only 16, but she had the stage presence of a 30-year-old.

The remaining candidates just did not knock us over. Some of them were downright stiff. Michael had each applicant read the audition piece several times over, to give them as much a chance as possible. He also wanted to see how well they took direction.

It was a productive day, but we were still missing three of our four leads - Shore, Jorge, and Lola. Another day of auditions would have to be set up.

I did not look forward to running another ad in Backstage West, and then clicking open each respondent's email, one by one. Fortunately, my cousin Marla produces commercials, so she had a casting director account on When she heard we were casting, she set up a 'project' for us with descriptions of our available roles. We started receiving applicants immediately. Lots of them. I was able to click on the name 'Shore' and instantly see hundreds of head shots on one screen - very efficient. It was like being a kid in a candy store. It was like being a single person on

Once again, I studied the applicants' photos, looking for that undefinable "spark" that could somehow transcend their frozen expressions. I couldn't care less about their level of experience. I selected only a few out of every hundred Shores, Jorges, and Lolas.

Tip #1 for Actors - Don't skimp on headshots. Hire the best photographer you can find.

When Marla set up the breakdown, she indicated that either males or females could apply for the role of Lola, our flamboyant transvestite waitress. We received 99% females and 1% males. But I wanted a male. Yes, I know Felicity Huffman won accolades for playing a transvestite in "Transamerica." I watched that film, and personally, I could not for a minute suspend my disbelief. I wanted my Lola to be a male, which means I had to wade through the list of Shore applicants.

One young Shore applicant had both an irresistible smile and beautiful blue eyes. He was flawless. I could easily imagine him wearing a wig and high heels. Now I had the challenge of calling him up and somehow selling him on the Lola role, in spite of the fact that he had submitted for Shore. Fortunately, Macauley needed no convincing. He was perfectly game to come in and read for whichever part we wanted. And so we invited him to the next audition day, Feb. 17.

It is never a good idea to limit yourself to a single applicant for a critical role. Lola was the heart and soul of the story. What if he was a no-show? What if he looked great but was a terrible actor? Or a terrible transvestite?

While I was surfing lacasting, Michael posted an ad on craigslist advertising for a transvestite. Almost immediately - within an hour - we received an email from an applicant named Willam:

Lots of experience including CSI:NY last month, Because I Said So (in theaters now) and a 5 episode stint on Nip/Tuck as Cherry Peck, a transexual.

full resume and more pics available at my site below

willing to work for no pay and relish any chance to do funny roles instead of all embattered trannies.

I'm easy to work with and hit my marks, am frequent with sexual favors, and bring 2 kinds of chili (turkey or tofu) with me to work (just kidding about that last one)

Clearly the most clever and appealing cover letter received thus far. I went straight to his web site and saw that he was not only a professional transvestite with experience in TV, movies, and the Vegas stage (this was the only time I was impressed by credentials), but he was GORGEOUS. He looked (in drag) like a young, thin Anna Nicole. I was ready to hire him on the spot.

The web site contained a link to a youtube video. It was a hysterical parody of cop shows called 'Tranny Magyver', with him playing the lead. I was ecstatic. I immediately emailed Michael: "There is a God." We booked Willam for the next round of auditions.

I wasn't extremely thrilled with the office space we had rented the previous week, so I found a theatre group in Hollywood willing to rent their stage for $15.00/hour. We were good to go for Audition Day Two.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Producing for Dummies

As I mentioned previously, the final impetus to my making this movie was the screening of Michael's film 'Crackpot'. That was Dec. 26, 2006. In early January I sent him the most recent revision of my script, and asked him what he thought a rough budget might be. Could it be done for less than $15,000? He thought maybe - "it’s possible, but only if you can get great deals on locations, props, etc." Sure, I thought. I can do that. No problem. More famous last words.

I asked Michael to direct. I was thrilled when he accepted, and we quickly agreed on a salary.

Let me just mention right here, I trust Michael not only as a talented filmmaker, but as a real friend. In spite of our 20+ year age difference, we have enjoyed a steady email correspondence over many years, and have exchanged many screenplay reviews with one another. He has always expressed a sincere interest in my extended family and our various escapades. Not only this, but when I needed someone to take my younger daughter to her high school prom - don't ask me how a beautiful, brilliant girl ended up with no invitations to the prom - Michael came through. That act alone made him worthy of directing my movie.

Back to January 2007. I had no idea how to make a movie, so I decided to just take it one step at a time. Michael certainly knew how to do this, so I figured I would just ask him what came next, every step of the way. As of today, with principal photography wrapped and editing underway, this has worked out pretty good so far, knock on wood. I also purchased a few books with titles such as "Producing Movies for Dummies".

I'm not exactly a dummy. I have a bachelor's degree from UCLA and two master's degrees - one from UCLA and one from UC Riverside. However, none of them are in Film.

Our first task was to put a casting notice in 'Backstage West', then to arrange a time and place for the auditions. We held the first round of auditions in a vacant rented office in Santa Monica., on Feb. 10.

Here is how we chose whom to audition. Michael and I went through each of the respondents and looked at their photos. We agreed 90% of the time on who we liked and who we didn't. This was completely based on the photos. We did not read the resumes at all. Aspiring actors, are you listening? We did not read the resumes. We had in mind very specific "looks" we wanted for each main character, and no amount of summer theatre, commercial work, bit parts in TV shows, student films, other indie films, etc. was going to make the wrong face look right. In fact, one particular Shore applicant had absolutely no experience except some stage work at his small town college. We didn't care. We liked the expression on his face in his head shot.

This was a non-SAG film, because I couldn't afford to pay the actors. We still received a plethora of applicants willing to work for no pay.

I set to calling the desired applicants and arranging audition times. I was a little nervous about this. What if they asked me a question I didn't know the answer to? I felt like a complete imposter - a math teacher posing as a movie producer. I was sure they would be able to sniff this out, like the smell of fear in trapped feral creatures.

"Do you have any sides?" the first applicant asked. I froze. What the hell were "sides"? Sides of fries? I decided it was best not to promise anything I might not be able to deliver. "No, " I replied to the first applicant, and every applicant after that. "I don't have any sides." I eventually figured out it had something to do with lines (of dialogue). So I was able to qualify my answer somewhat. "No sides. It'll be a cold reading."

The appointments were made. We were to see three Shores, five Cass's, three Lubitch's, two Jorge's, one Menendez, and one Handler.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Self-confidence is worth way more than a pair of new toenail clippers

Let's see, I think we are still on Reason #4 of Why I Decided to Make a Movie.

In Fall '06, I was practicing hypnotherapy in addition to teaching high school. Surprisingly, most people don't go to hypnotherapy for losing weight, or smoking cessation, or for confident public speaking. Most of my patients came to me to explore their dreams, desires, and goals. They wanted a subconscious motivation boost. I called them "mental smoothies". I spent a lot of time infusing people with affirmative messages about their self-esteem, self-confidence, and identifying and pursuing their life dreams. If you deliver the same message over and over again, after awhile the message starts to sink into your own subconscious.

The seeds that were previously sown (but lying dormant) finally began to cultivate. It was time to pursue my own dreams!

5.) The impetus. (not to be confused with incubus)

Let's give credit where credit is due. I met Michael Keller through an online screenwriting site about six years ago. I had written "Defying Gravity" (initially titled just "Gravity") as a 30-page short. He was a senior at Brown University, and wanted to make the script for his senior project. I was more than thrilled. Every novice screenwriter dreams of seeing their words played out on screen, even if optioned for the grand total of $1.00. Michael revealed himself to be extraordinarily mature, perceptive, ambitious, talented, and brilliant.

For some reason that I can't remember, he ended up choosing another script for his senior project. However we stayed in touch through email, and met when he graduated and moved back to Los Angeles. I credit Michael for encouraging (almost haranguing) me to continue screenwriting, regardless of whatever turmoil was going on in my home life. In particular, he kept after me to expand "Gravity" to a full-length script. Even though I wrote several other screenplays in the meantime, I could never figure out how to get past the 30th page of "Gravity". What happens to Shore, Jorge, and Cass after they pull out of the cemetery in the shiny restored limousine?

It finally came to me last summer. I added the second and third acts, fleshed out the first, and felt pretty damned satisfied with my final product.

Now what? Back to Square One - whom could I possibly trust to do justice to this story and characters? This was my baby.

6.) In Fall '06 Michael was also giving birth to a baby of his own - his second, in fact - called 'Crackpot'. He wrote, directed, produced, edited, and starred in this little gem. We attended the screening at the Beverly Hills Digital Film Festival the day after Christmas. When I saw the quality of the finished product - it looked and sounded like a real (film) movie - I made up my mind instantly. If Michael could do 'Crackpot' on a $5,000 budget, surely I could do 'Gravity' for $15,000?

Famous last words.

An Impulsive Decision Six Years in the Making

People often ask me, "Why did you decide to make a movie?" and I'm not sure how to answer. They have every right to ask this, because I'm not the type of person you would expect to be a movie producer. I'm a 47-year old female math teacher with absolutely no experience making movies. I don't live in Los Angeles. I don't work in "the Industry". I never took a film class. I couldn't even tell you the model number of the video camera that was used to shoot my movie. I know that it was a Sony, that it was "HD" (high definition), that it cost approximately $25,000, and that it (or a model very similar) was used to make several recent films such as "Miami Vice". That's good enough for me. Who cares what the model number was?

Back to the hypothetical question. Why did I decide to make a movie? The shortest answer is "Why not?" But that doesn't really shed much insight into the matter, and presumably you're reading this for insight - if only to arm yourself with facts that justify your opinion of what an incompetent idiot I am.

There were actually several factors that went into my decision to make this movie:

1) I love movies. I always have. But that's a given, right? I wouldn't spend tens of thousands of dollars making something that I don't love.

2) I have written several screenplays over the past fifteen years. One of them was even optioned for two years by a producer with a first look deal with HBO. What a first look deal is, I don't know, and why he couldn't get HBO to look at it, I don't know either.

Tip #1 for Producers - Don't be afraid to admit what you don't know. Being female helps a lot with this - we were socialized to develop a strong sense of "learned helplessness". This is very handy for getting out of things you could easily learn how to do yourself, like assemble furniture from IKEA, but don't want to do.

However, I was heartened that this well-connected producer thought enough of my screenplay to push it for two years. He was also an expert on James Bond movies, having written several definitive volumes about the franchise. Since my screenplay was a suspense-thriller involving several action sequences and bad guys, I felt like I had managed to convince the Big Boys to let me ride bikes with them. For a short distance, and with training wheels.

3) Defying Gravity was such a personal and quirky story, I couldn't imagine anyone else doing this film.

4) I never would have made this decision a year ago. I was raised by cautious (bordering on pessimistic) Jewish parents. We took no monetary risks. (This probably explains why I majored in Math-Computer Science instead of Creative Writing. ) Never buy anything you don't need (like 64 crayons instead of 16 crayons) and never, ever throw anything away. When I was cleaning out my father's house after he passed away, I found toenail clippers that I recognized from forty years ago. When you are raised with a mindset in which you don't buy something unless you absolutely have to, and real estate is considered highly speculative - investing in a movie would be absolutely unthinkable.

Let me make it clear, though, that my parents also gave me something invaluable - the belief that I was extraordinarily talented and brilliant.