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.