Friday, November 30, 2007

You must remember this ....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 18, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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