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 triggerstreet.com 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.

Venicearts.com 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 (4-aces.com) 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.