ROCK & ROLL TIME AT LAS VEGAS INTL. FILM FEST
A walk or two down the Red Carpet with some of the actors in my movie, at the Aof Megafest and Las Vegas International Film & Screenplay Competition. It was sort of 15-20 film festivals merged into one. HUGE!
And then my movie screening of DEAD WEIGHT with a Q&A by me at the end, screened in a beautiful IMAX theater. Wow, I’d never seen my movie like that. And in the Q&A, in answer to a question about why I made the film and what it meant to me, I CRIED!!! No, OK, I blubbered. And couldn’t stop for a minute. Oh well, I’m an actor, I’m emotional. What do you want? It’s all good. Other than that, the screening and Q&A went off splendidly. Yeah, even that blubbery moment went off splendidly.
After making many new friends – shout out to Annette Hull, Warren Hull, Del Aof Weston, Carlo Essagian, Brian Sturges, Melissa Skirboll, Dream Muse, Rene Mena, and many more – and WATCHING ALL THE GREAT, INTERESTING, AND UNIQUE AND FUNNY MOVIES, well, then it was time to spend some downtime, eating my Panda Express chicken and brown rice by the resort pool (who knew Las Vegas charges a hotel fee AND a “resort fee”? So of course I was going to use that “resort” pool), then wandering through the cough-inducing smoke-filled exotic casino (every hotel has a cough-inducing smoke-filled exotic casino – another part of the “resort” allure), wondering at the lonely gamblers who while away the hours at slot machines – and then taking in the sizzling sinfulness of the Las Vegas Strip! (another part of the “resort” allure we all pay for). After all the resort spending and film watching and hobnobbing, no time or money to take in the shows. I’ll maybe see you next time, dancing girls and cirque du soleil. And oh yeah, I was nominated for Best Actress at the Film Festival. I didn’t win, but oh, well, maybe the Oscars some other time? All in all, a whirlwind of a good time.
It’s ON! DEAD WEIGHT premieres at the Las Vegas International Film & Screenplay Competition! Wednesday, July 31, 2019 at 3:15pm. Brenden Theaters at the Palms Casino Resort, Las Vegas, Nevada.
And – I have been nominated for Best Actress, while one of my other actors, Nigel Vonas, has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor!
TRAILER HERE –
See you there!
BLOODY HOSPITAL, BLOODY HEART – IT’S A WRAP!
Movie Shoot – Day 12
I’m nervous.. More nervous than I’ve ever been the entire film shoot – even the first day. The reasons are many. The entire cast is here (minus Baby S Girl). We have more crew. This is more people than I’ve ever dealt with. It’s indoors, which means LOTS of lighting and a lot slower pace. Two different rooms and a hallway to light. Wirh a hard out at 6pm and we are already behind.
And the vacant animal shelter is not only a shambles we must turn into a hospital, but I just discovered a new problem. The previous movie production that was here stole the crates and mattresses and things I had left in storage to make our hospital beds. Now what? And to top it off, the all-night drizzly rain has left my hair frizzy and unmaageable and I definitely never have time for hair. Frizzy it stays.
First order of the day – hospital beds. Anyone not doing lighting must scatter throughout the sprawling animal shelter to look for raw materials. Boy is this place spooky. It would be a great setting for a horror film.
Amongst all of us we find – some kind of weird railing for a bed backboard, two moldy mattresses I wouldn’t be caught dead in, but will have to snuggle into, an uneven coffee table and a smaller table on which the mattresses will rest. And some kind of bedside table.
When we’re done assembling, we end up with a lop-sided bed that slopes and whose mattresses cave in on themselves unless you lie straight and horizontal at all times. The bed is in danger of spilling me out of it with every move I make. I bring out the blankets and hospital-white sheets and pillowcases I bought at a discount store.
Pillows! I forgot the pillows! First prop in the entire movie I have completely forgotten. While I chew out the insides of my mouth out wondering what kind of a hospital bed has no pillows, one of the crew members says, ‘hey, I just bought some pillows and forget to take them out of my car.’ Well, lucky me! Brand new too. Now we’ve got – hospital beds!
And just as I fix the hospital bed, another problem stares me straight in the face. Blood dripping on the walls! Yeah, must have been a horror film in here before us. Everywhere I look, the spray of blood spatter assaults my eyeballs. Luckily, I saw some kind of detergent in one of the bathrooms. So I start scrubbing.
Next, the medical machines. The IV drip is easy. The vital signs monitor… not so much. I stare at it, trying to remember what the rental guy told me. I plug it in, see a bunch of flashing numbers that mean nothing. As I stare blankly (I’ve got way too many things in my head to focus on numerical technology) our good friend Mr. Alpha Guy comes and hooks it all up – without directions. All right. It is sometimes good to have a guy with an Army and technological pedigree.
Wrist bands, nose tubes, IV needles taped to my arm. Hospital gown. Whew! We finally have a real-looking hospital setting. I plop on the bed, whose mattresses immediately cave in on me. I will have to learn the fine art of getting in and staying on.
Now – as more problems with the lighting are dealt with, it’s time to focus on my scene and my fellow actor, E., who plays the great and formidable Mother Lala. I breathe in a few times to get into that baseline zero acting mojo, and breathe out every other useless thing. E. and I haven’t rehearsed together at all. Still I trust we are both ready and will meld together nicely. She is a pro.
Let’s do it! I normally like to start with anything but lines when we are this close to doing the scene. The lines better already be there. I like us to take each other in, do some energy exercises, do improv or motivation paraphrasing. Anything but the lines. But we have time for very little. And most actors want to get to the lines. She’s no different. So we do lines.
Good thing we do.
A few lines in, we realize there’s a problem. She’s doing a whole different scene than I am. What?
-Oh, you’re doing the script from a couple of versions back.
-Yes, two and a half weeks ago, I sent you the latest version and I said this scene has completely changed. I totally changed the scene. Didn’t you get it?
-Well yes, I got it, but I didn’t think it would be that different.
-You didn’t print it?
-I didn’t have time. I was on set on another project.
-What? …Well, we don’t have extra copies. The last pages of all the scripts we had have been torn away by desert winds, stepped on and ripped off, or bitten off by Baby S Girl’s dog, who loved to chew paper. Those hospital scenes on the final pages got the brunt of it.
-That’s OK, I’ll write in the new stuff on the margins.
-But it’s ALL new. And this is a long scene.
-It’s OK. I can do it.
She starts scribbling – on the margins, upside down, sideways, on the back, wherever her handwriting will fit. It’s slow going. We go on like this for the better part of an hour. And I am wondering when she’s done writing it all, how she’ll be able to read it without needing neck traction, much less assimilating it and making it hers. The crew are now done with lighting and are staring at us. I’m fuming a bit. But quietly. On the inside. I breathe, swallow, and go over the lines with her a few times – just to make sure she knows the trajectory of the scene and we’re both on the same page.
I don’t know what fiasco this will turn into, but when the lights, camera, and action are on, and we go, E. is spectacular and formidable. And we go up, energy to energy, mano a mano. She learns by osmosis. Whenever we have to stop and redo things, it’s because of me. Or rather, usually the mattresses caving in on me.
I have an “I deserve” monologue that I never really fully wrote out. So I wing it. Several times we have to wing it, as we forget what’s next in all those scribbles. But it still goes off pretty darn great on her part. And, to a lesser extent, maybe even mine.
A short scene with just me, waking up in the hospital and finding my heart intact – and we’re done with this room. On to the next one.
Actor-Man is now waiting around, circling like a shark for his turn and his scene. While I work with the crew, moving our “bed” and the machines, re-arranging the new room, making sure the lighting and all props are in place, making sure Lou goes to get lunch somewhere, E., always a pro, asks if she can help.
-Matter of fact, yeah. Actor-Man needs to be bandaged up in some creative, I’ve-been-hurt-real-bad kind of way, and I’m all thumbs with that.
-I’ll do it!
She gets to work on him. And does the job of a master ER technician – with a few creative movie touches thrown in. I stare. I couldn’t have done that. E. is magical.
We break for lunch. The bill Lou brings back is sky high. Nope, she’s not much of a Scrooge as I had hoped. A sky high bill for soggy sandwiches on overly thick bread and weird tuna salad stuff. But – it’s lunch.
After the late lunch, one more scene with E. and me, while Actor-Man lies “dead” in the background. The bloody heart scene. I have a big tureen of fake blood right by me to dip my heart and hands into every two seconds. There’s going to be a lot of cleanup.
I am proud of the heart prosthetic I made. It is gooey and heartlike and bloody. AND IT LOOKS REAL! If only it could beat. I tried to rig something up with balloons and turkey basters and plastic tubing. But it didn’t work out as good as the guy on Youtube made it look. Still, my heart will have its moment. I’m less inspired by the rest of the scene. E. is doing too much on this one, and I am doing too little. Perhaps due to exhaustion and who knows what. It’s like we’re each doing a different scene. Oh well, I will just cut the scene shorter. But leave all the heart shots in.
E. is now wrapped, an incredible actress to go up against and a treasure on set. She hugs and kisses everyone goodbye. I give her a check. And she’s gone.
On to the scene with me and Actor-Man. He surprises me, bringing things I hadn’t thought of, like the sweating and fast shallow breathing throughout the scene before the heart attack. I hadn’t thought of that. He has obviously thought of his character. We are about halfway done with the scene when the shelter lady arrives.
-Time to lock up.
-But we’re not done! Can we have a couple more hours?
-Six o’clock, that was the deal.
-Welllll….you will have to pay $200 dollars. I’m going to have to hire a guy to come out and lock up.
-Eight o’clock sharp.
-Yup. Eight o’clock sharp.
We finally finish at 8:30, while the poor guy waits around. Well, we had no time for real closeups on me on this one. But we did it!
The cast and crew wrap and haul everything out. And wait. They want their last paychecks now. I go into my car to regroup. I honestly at this moment, cannot figure out how to add numbers and figure out crew hours. It’s beyond me. I wait five minutes. Still nothing. Five more minutes. Ten more. I can’t focus. My mind is not working. How does one even write out a check in a checkbook? Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know I know these things…
-You all right in there?
-Yeah, give me a minute.
They give me quite a few more minutes. I really can’t compute. At some point, I start anyway, hoping I don’t make some huge blunders. When I hand out checks, no one complains. I guess I did it right.
After the goodbyes and ‘we’ll see you again’, they all scatter. (yes, it seems we have a few more mini scenes left to do next weekend). Actor-Man wants a ride back to LA. Oh please no! I can’t take another moment of – anyone! I ask Lou to give him a ride.
Once they’re all gone, I sit outside in the dark by myself for a long time, the props and medical gear and accoutrements of moviemaking spread around me. It seems I am unable to figure out how you fit IV drips and medical machines, props and blankets and hospital sheets and trash and leftover bad lunches no one ate, back into a car.
But, after two weeks of shooting, thousands of miles logged, 90 pages of scenes shot, and many adventures and ups and downs, I – have – made – my – movie!
THE JOHN WAYNE SHOT
Movie Shoot – Day 11
We’re in the flats. The desert stretches out in front of me, shimmery with heat – the hottest of hot. Little yellow pinprick buds are flowering on the cacti. Tiny springtime delights. Other than that, sparse bushes, dry, dry sand, even dryer distant rock mountains.
…Actor-Man is back on a Greyhound bus to L.A. And I’m getting some much needed me time. Today will be a pretty laid back day, doing catch-up scenes and transitions. The DP catches a great shot of me where I walk into the shot in a closeup and then walk off. Real gritty cowgirl desert renegade look. Like John Wayne – if John Wayne was Italian-Latin looking and a girl. A tough as rocks expression with the underlying pained angst of someone who’s ridden the desert sands too long and lived through hairy stuff.
I think of how lucky I am to have acting. It’s brought me closer to my own humanity, just the working of it day to day, year to year, discovering what makes me tick as a human, what are my griefs, triumphs, failures, what gets me, what angers me or drives me crazy, even – sometimes – what makes me kind. Right now I get to explore all that humanity in this movie I’ve written and created. Sometimes that gives me a lump in my throat and a fear in my belly. Can I live up to this?
I mean, what if the film sucks? What if the thing I’ve dreamt of forever, worked on forever, put all my blood, sweat, and tears into, all my own money into – my dreams and passion into – what if it just sucks? It’s a possibility. But you gotta risk sucking even for the smallest chance of being great. Play in the mud puddle, make ugly mudpies, get real dirty. Maybe fail a hundred times or a thousand times or a million times before the one success. Yeah, it’s worth it. I breathe deeply and dive back in.
On to a little monologue on top of a hill. We end up doing it right by the place the gunslingers were shooting the other day. Today, the only sound is the wind. And a crow once in a while. Well, and the planes. I swear our movie shoot could have been done in half the time if you don’t count all the seconds, minutes, and hours we waited for a wind gust to die down or a plane to go through. Out in nowhereland, planes have zoomed through every movie location we’ve been on, no matter how remote.
There’s no more Tony the caterer. He kept raising the rates every day or two. When I pointed it out, he went all Mafioso on me. So today we have Lou driving somewhere to find a place to buy lunch. She’s late – very late – two hours late. Where is she? Phones don’t work out here.
Almost three hours later, she drives back, breathless with stress. She got lost – three times. No navigation. She found a little Mexican restaurant somewhere. The quality of the food is kinda low – the bill is kinda high.
Then a sunset mini scene of me at a campfire eating my first gutted rattlesnake. I actually have to eat some of this liquid-latex-jello I’ve shaped into pale snake-chunk hunks. It tastes like I am poisoning myself. I swallow. Yes, I have to swallow. The camera is watching. At the very end of the bite, a sweet industrial little after-taste. Yum.
We are now done, except for one last day off. And then – the very last day of our principal shoot. It will be a doozy so I’d better rest up. But I can’t.
I’m headed back to L.A. I leave my crew nested at a new motel near the abandoned animal shelter we will use as our hospital. With Lou in charge of one of my credit cards for crew meals. Oh, I hope she is frugal as Scrooge.
I’m picking up medical equipment rentals – privacy screen, vital signs monitor, IV drip machine, other medical looking things, just because well, they look medical. Also, hospital gowns, trays, oxygen nose pieces, medical bracelets – the medical knick knacks that make a film look real. All this for about four hundred bucks, thanks to the poor filmmaker discount.
A nighttime drive in misty rain, back to the motel. For the first time in our shoot, us desert rats are going to be inside, filming in a civilized, though decrepit, building. It’s a tall order to fill – to turn this abandoned animal shelter into a hospital…
I’m supposed to get back in time to get the place ready tonight. But as the rain stops and I arrive, ready to unload equipment, I remember… pick up Actor-Man at the Greyhound Bus Station – for – the – last – time.
Movie Shoot – Day 10
It’s a big day. Lots to shoot. I’ve never tried this. Setting up base camp in two different geographical locations. Yes, it will be ambitious. A hike is involved in one of them. Straight up the mountain. It’s a lot.
Actor-Man and I are filming the top of the mountain scenes near the end of my film, when I finally reach the peak. It’s 45 minutes of hiking on reasonably easy uphill terrain. No sweat. But – I find out Lou is averse to hiking anything longer than five minutes. It brings up her fear of heights – and vertigo. The rest of the crew isn’t too thrilled either, especially after the hot springs hike. I keep saying, “this one isn’t so bad. Just a little longer, right up ahead”. But “right up ahead” keeps not coming up.
I pick the wrong conversation topic and realize it too late. “Did you know there’s feral wild dogs that run through these hills? Oh yeah. And feral cows and bulls. I’ve heard they charge people.” Yeah, not really what they needed to hear. Lou keeps looking around, seeing feral bull ghosts already. It doesn’t help that we see their big splatted dung patties everywhere. Shit threats. A kind of “this is my territory and you’re trespassing at your own risk” message. Every time I see one of the menacing piles, my heartbeat kicks up a notch and I sneak a look around. Lou must be having a couple of coronaries by now.
We reach a nice area near the top. No sign of feral bulls. Except for the ever present dung patties. This will do. It’s not quite the place I wanted, which is a bit further and even more breathtaking. But judging from the looks of the crew, this had better be it. So I say, “we’re here.” We plop down for a break before setting up.
OK. Time to gather my energy, my commitment, my acting mojo. Quit worrying about feral bull dung patties and the nagging, cajoling, and encouragement that goes into getting reluctant people up a mountain.
I do my deep breathing while they eat or smoke or drink or whatever it is they’re doing. It’s OK… I can be in the mojo at any moment. Right now my eyes feel jumpy, my spirit feels jumpy, my body feels jumpy, and I need to calm down and energize myself in a relaxed way. Forget the bulls.
I wish I could do some screaming. Let the energy out. That would help. But it might attract the bulls. I go off by myself and scream and sing to myself. Silently.
Finally, I’m ready, sort of. And so is everyone else.
…The scene is going pretty well. Lou is snapping away. We’ll have lots of photos. Then suddenly….
“Bulls!” screams Lou. Which startles all of us. We look to where she points with a shaky finger.
“Oh,” I laugh, relieved. “They’re way down the valley. They won’t hurt us.”
“But they weren’t there before… and now they are. What’s to keep them from coming here?”
We watch fascinated, as three male bulls square off, or should I say, triangulate off, mooing and bellowing at each other. Each fiercely holding down their corner of the triangle. We can’t film while they’re making all that noise, so we watch. After a half hour of this, it sure looks like none of them will back off. Boy, are these feral bulls stubborn.
Lou is scared. “Don’t worry,” I say. “They won’t come up here. They’re too busy eyeballing each other.” After a while, their bellows start sounding hoarse. Then they quit bellowing altogether and just stand there. No one has budged an inch. Them or us.
When all is quiet, we go back to filming. Actor-Man and I do the bang bang segment (no guns involved), the dropping the bag down the mountain thing, the hearfelt talk thing, the clothes blowing back up in the air thing.
The clothes blowing in the air thing brings up the naysayer voices.
-That thing with the clothes will just look silly. No one is going to believe that an updraft blew all the clothes up.
-Let’s just try it, shall we?
-How can it possibly look real?
-We’ll have the crew members throw clothes up in the air that fall on me.
-Just try it!
The crew members are all laughing as they pelt me with clothes.
-No! Throw them UP in the air. Not AT me! So they drift down. Yes, like that.
It works when we use the filmiest of the shirts.
-I think it’ll look good in editing.
-I think it’s not gonna look real. It’ll look silly no matter how you edit it.
-We’ll see. We’ll use a leafblower when we get down the mountain and do some more clothes blowing. I think it’ll look great.
-OK, if you say so…
Several hours later, I’m happy. That came off better than even I had imagined. We’re packing up when we look at the bulls. They have not moved in hours. We leave them there like that, frozen statues in spotted cow colors. I guess their motto is, if I can’t win, I won’t let you win, even if it makes me lose and I die here shitting cow dung patties. A good lesson on the dangers of stubbornness taken too far.
As we head down, Tony the Italian paisano has arrived with a late lunch way down the mountain. We can’t see him, but we sure can hear him. He leans on his car horn. “Come and get it!” His shrill voice and that car horn sure carry.
After lunch, a bit of travel and on to our second location of the day. We’re setting up for a nighttime shoot back at the gangbanger gunslinger location. We hope the lateness of the day will mean the gunslingers are gone.
The crew takes hours setting up the lights. Afternoon fades into night. We have set up in a beautiful narrow little canyon, devoid of gunslingers. The crew are being real picky about the lighting. The hues from the camera lights and the campfire they’ve started creates a beautiful interplay of soft blue and orange hues.
Tony is now back with dinner. The car horn, the screaming, and this time, also a bell of some sort, tell us he’s here. I head down to join Lou and Actor-Man, who have already gone down to meet him. Tony awaits with a shrimp scampi for his main entree. And there’s something else. It appears we have a visitor that Actor-Man has made friends with – Robert, a guy decked out like he’s going on safari.
His big Desert Storm Humvee is loaded to the nines with every kind of computerized gadget, tracking device, telescope, radar, scanner, viral map, night vision camera, satellite radio, and eletronic gizmo ever invented. The tires look like they belong on a tanker truck. I’m sure there’s a few guns in there too, maybe the same ones we encountered yesterday. A SWAT command mobile unit wouldn’t be as loaded. “Wow!” I say as he invites me to look inside.
-Hey, so Actor-Man here tells me you guys are shooting a movie, huh?
-Yeah. And you are…?
-Robert, nice to meet you. We’ve been watching you.
-We? Who’s we?
-All us neighbors. Through our telescopes. We live in that sub-division.
-You have telescopes at home too?
-Sure, we all have telescopes. At home, in our cars, on our guns, you name it.
-Yeah, we were wondering what you were filming. We watched you all day yesterday.
-All day? You can see that far?
-Sure, I can tell you what you had for lunch.
-Hopefully not what I shit for lunch.
He laughs. I’m not really kidding.
-So you guys ran from the target shooters yesterday, huh? I don’t blame you.
He’s a jovial guy, quite friendly, charismatic even. Dare I say, even quite attractive, in a desert rat, safari-man kind of way. I don’t think he bears any ill will and is nice to get to know, but it sure is unnerving to know a whole town has been spying on you at super magnitude.
-Well, nice meeting you. I’ve got to get back to my crew. They’re waiting for me to bring dinner.
-Oh, I can help carry it. Actor-Man has invited me to the set, see what’s going on.
-What??? Actor-Man? But… he’s not the boss. And we have a permit.
-Well, if it’s a problem, I’ll leave.
-No, it’s not a problem. That’s Actor-Man who pipes up.
My blood starts to boil. Somehow I feel very protective of my crew and my film and what we’re doing.
-Well, I will have to see if it’s all right with everyone. I’ll come back and let you know.
Lou and I head back up the canyon with dinners for us and the crew. I think, maybe it’s OK. The guy is pretty nice. He’s just curious and wants to see what goes on.
I tell the crew. And all of them hit the roof (though there is no roof). All at the same time.
-What does Actor-Man think he’s doing? Why is he making decisions that affect all of us? This guy’s a stranger, we’ve got thousands and thousands of dollars in gear, and yesterday we almost got shot by some of these gangbangers!
-I know, I know.
I don’t want to say that Robert is so nice, he’s kind of co-opted me as a friend, and that he’s got more gear in his Humvee than all of our gear put together, so he really doesn’t need it, and he certainly doesn’t look like a gangbanger.
I am torn between the two sides. Just then Actor-Man brings Robert up, even though I had told them to wait. That sends my blood shooting through my head.
-I can’t handle this.
-I’ll handle it. That’s Mr. Alpha Military Guy.
I am quite willing to let him carry this one. He quietly takes Actor-Man and Robert a ways off and speaks in dulcet but manly tones. When he returns, both the other two are headed down the hill.
-He was a nice guy, I say. I feel a wistfulness. He might have been a nice man to know. Attractive, charming. Though full of guns and telescopes…
-Nice or not, we have to be careful who we bring on set.
In the aftermath of all this, the crew, still wanting to vent, send Lou our for more firewood for the campfire. She hangs her head in resignation. And takes her flashlight, pointing it on the ground and looking for snakes like I told her.
On the bright side, the shrimp scampi is to die for. Some of the crew make fun of Tony the caterer and his walk and his weird greasy ways, but I think he’s come through really good for us at the last minute. Sure, his food sometimes tastes of discount store food. But all in all, pretty good. This shrimp scampi is good enough for three servings on my part. Never mind where he got shrimp in this desert; 24-hour desert Walmart, I suppose. Best to just enjoy it.
Soon even the angry crew is laughing when I tell them about Robert’s safari HumVee truck, and how the neighbors are eying us through their telescopes right now even as we eat our shrimp scampi.
-Do these people have nothing better to do?
-That’s what they do here – look through telescopes and shoot guns. And run dune buggies and HumVees through the sand at night. It’s the way of the desert.
Later, Actor-Man returns sans Robert. A new crisis hits when we realize the scene I have written just does not work. It – just – does – not – work. And it’s obvious to everyone. How did I write such a badly motivated scene? After a lot of rigamarole and squirming and arguing and hemming and hawing and re-dos, we manage to save it. We change everything, pretty much improvising our way through it. Somehow it comes out. I think.
But I sure was sweating there for a couple of hours. Wondering if I should give up filmmaking and screenwriting. And finally, the longest day of our entire film shoot is wrapped. Witnessed, I’m sure, by dozens of roving telescopes…
BANG! – PEOPLE ARE SHOOTING – AT US!
Movie Shoot – Day 9
We’ve now got a caterer number two, but he is no Mountain Lady. Tony the caterer is a tiny leprechaun-like Italian paisano. He doesn’t so much walk into our motel room with breakfast. He blows in like a ferocious little tornado. I stare at him through blurry sleepy eyes from the bed.
-Um, you think you could wait outside while I get up and put some clothes on?
-Oh you ain’t got nothing I haven’t seen. Don’t worry about me.
He’s bustling about, clearing our motel room counter space and table so he can set up. Lou looks at me apologetically. “He said he couldn’t wait.”
He serves buffet style – trays of scrambled eggs, trays of bacon, hashed browns, toast. Not Mountain Lady quality – more of a disount food 24-hour desert Walmart kind of vibe.
“Hey, you!” he makes a hard whistle like he’s out of West Side Story, then shouts out the door to our neighboring crew members. “Breakfast is served! Come and get it!” They start filing in. I quickly scoot into the bathroom with my clothes.
“Oh no! Wait. HOLD OFF! Not yet!” he screams. “Don’t come in. I forgot the serving spoons.” They dutifully go back outside. He skitters out to his car – a cross between a gnome and a sideways hustling crab, scoots back in with serving spoons.
By then, I’m dressed. I quickly throw the bedspread over the bed in a half assed attempt at propriety. The crew members help themselves and sit on the beds to eat. Wow, a weird breakfast motel party.
The food isn’t bad. Discount store food and all, it’s still yummy and filling. And I am grateful I will not have to food scavenge today.
After Tony and Lou clean up, we head out to our new filming location – a backdrop of broken mountain rock hills overlooking flat hot desert where we will shoot the flashback campground scenes. I am feeling good, powerful, released from catering worries, buoyed by Lou’s help, confident of my crew, ready to tackle today’s shoot. I feel omnipotent really.
Then – BANG!
BANG BANG BANG BANG! A stray bullet hits the road a ways in front of me, sends dirt flying. I screech to a halt. Smoke from the hailstorm of gunfire wafts through the hills, along with the acrid firecracker smell of cordite.
PEOPLE ARE SHOOTING!
I freeze, omnipotent powers evaporated, not sure if I should duck, run, or turn my car around and zoom out of there on the narrow dirt trail that is now blocked by the car caravan with the cast and crew in them.
“People are shooting! People are shooting!” My crew yells, as their cars’ brakes scream. It’s chaos.
We finally manage to turn our cars around and regroup a ways down the dirt road as the gunfire continues. My crew is scared and incensed.
-No way I’m going up there!
-No one’s asking you to. I don’t want to go up there either. I don’t want anyone killed.
-Who are these shooting yahoos? They look like gang members (we can’t actually see them).
-Well then, we really better not go up there.
-It should be illegal.
-We’re in the Wild Wild West. It’s what they do around here.
-What are we going to do? We’re not going up there.
-I have a permit from the agency that operates this land. They didn’t tell me about any shooters.
-Well obviously, they don’t feel like they need any stinkin’ permits, and if you bring it up, they’ll probably shoot you.
The cast and crew all stare at me. I’m in shock. My entire filming day is in danger. I am a deer caught in the headlights.
“Well, uh-“ There is no Plan B. “We’ll go find someplace else.”
One crew member says, “I know a place that might work.”
We spend the whole morning looking at his “place” and other possible places. But we are not in the sticks anymore. There’s tourists and day travellers and noise. No place good enough for filming. And I don’t have a permit for them. And there’s cops and rangers around.
We head back to our first location, hoping the local yahoos have stopped their target practice. Nope. The barrage of gunfire has intensified. We go back down the hill to a safe place. I feel an “I’M LOSING MY LIGHT!” moment coming on. A terrible terrible moment. It’s coming…it’s coming.
Instead I take a deep breath.
I eye the desert around us. It’s not as deep in the hills as I had wanted or as spectacular, but the area isn’t bad. It has a mountain backdrop. Though it is a little close to a sub division of homes. Far enough to avoid most sounds – unless a dog barks. That stuff carries long distances in the desert. Along with gun shot sounds. I don’t even know if this is part of the agency’s permit area. Who will know? I make the executive decision to pretend it is.
Firm and strong now. Steady. With all the commanding certainty I can muster, I say, “We will film here. This is part of the permit area.”
People stare silently for a moment. One crew member pipes up.
-It’s too close to the cowboys and their guns. I don’t feel safe.
-Oh come on, we have rock hills, desert fields, and a subdivision between us. We can’t hardly even hear them from here. They’d have to shoot the residents first.
It’s a make or break moment. One more protestor, and they will all protest. Finally someone says “it’ll work.” And with that, everyone nods. I breathe a sigh of relief. The protestor, outnumbered, has no choice but to fall in line.
We set up our tent campground set. It’s probably better here anyway. Up there, we would have had to clean up all those spent shell casings, and there were a lot when I went there on a scouting trip. Of course I didn’t know what they were then. I thought they were spent firecrackers.
I need a fire for the campsite. Mr. Alpha Male says no, there’s too much wind. He has pretty much taken over as some kind of executive producer who calls the shots. And yet I let him. Why? Well, maybe the wind advice is a good one. But darn, the campsite is supposed to be engulfed in smoke, as the whole place is supposed to catch fire.
I bring out my bags of dry ice and my smoke grenades. Between the two, it will look like smoke from a fire.
-You can’t use that.
-Why not? It’s not fire.
-As a matter of fact, smoke grenades are indeed incendiary and can catch fire.
-No they’re not. They’re smoke grenades. That’s why people use them. Cause they’re safe. Just harmless smoke.
-OK, you can’t possibly have anything bad to say about a little harmless dry ice.
-What are you putting in it?
-Just sprite and dry ice. It’s cool. I learned it on Youtube. Lots of smoke but it’s just dry ice. And sprite.
-No, let’s not.
-How is that possibly incendiary?
-I don’t know, but it probably is. Just do the smoke in post.
-Smoke in post looks like fake smoke. It doesn’t even move right.
-I’ve been in the Army. There will be nothing incendiary on my watch. Too much wind.
I successfully fight down another “I’M LOSING MY LIGHT!” tantrum. I put my little incendiary tools away. And sigh loudly.
-OK, we’ll do a tiny campfire, no flames, just some smoke we can easily control.
Well, thanks, Mr. Army Alpha Male.
And so we get a little smoke. I gotta give it to them. A couple of our crew members are really good with fire, really good at starting it and putting it out. Another piece of good news – by the time we are ready to shoot, the gunfire is finally over.
And… we now have an onset photographer. Lou takes spectacular pictures.
Night-time – after a Tony-catered dinner, we set up for the night flashback scenes.
The wind has died down. Mr. Army Alpha Male gives his OK for a real campfire.
We need wood and brush. The crew sends Lou out to get firewood in the dark.
-It’s dark, she says.
-Yeah, we’re in the desert, they tell her. Take a flashlight.
She takes off, mincing gingerly in the sand. Poor Lou. It’s just not her element.
-Why did you bring her on? Why didn’t you hire a real crew member?
-She’s a friend. And she’s a real good photographer. And she helps me. You know, a personal helper.
-She’s not doing a lot of helping right now.
-Well, she’s afraid of the dark. And heights. Oh, and she gets dizzy. As long as you don’t ask her to do those things, she’s great.
-Well, she’ll have to get used to the dark. Because we need firewood.
Lou finally returns with some firewood, eyes peeled out and round. Like she’s seen a few sand ghosts. The crew make her go out and get more.
We need a couple of extras for our night scene. I enlist a crew member and Lou, bribing them with extra money. I think Lou agrees because it’s better than walking around in the dark, picking firewood. I’m glad they accept. There was no Plan B if they hadn’t.
The scene is fun and light, a party really, totally improv-ed, providing a nice respite from the gun slinging and incendiary problems and fear of the dark and near disasters of the day.
Finally, we wrap and start moving equipment to the cars.
Lou and I walk side by side with flashlights.
-You OK, Lou?
-Yeah, I just don’t like the dark.
-Just keep your flashlight on. Oh, and I don’t mean to scare you more. But keep it on the ground and watch where you step. There’s… uh… rattlesnakes.
TACO SHOPS AND CAMOMILE TEA
Movie Shoot – day 8
We’re back to one-man band acting. Just me. I have to dig deeper, but it’s also a lot more easeful. And it gives me time to really feel the character in a different, more palpable way.
OK, here’s the scene where I wake up in the desert, lost. I have lost the mountain landmark that guides my journey. I played with this scene on my video camera while scouting locations for the movie. I filmed myself spinning as if some force or object was in the middle of the circle, watching me spin around it, and I was at its mercy. It made me look imprisoned in lostness. Physical, mental, emotional. I want that. I tell the crew what I want.
-It won’t work.
-Why not? I’ve tried it on my own camera. Here, let me hold the camera and do it to show you.
-No, you’re not holding my camera while you spin.
-OK, you hold the camera and try to follow me from the POV as if I was holding the camera.
-Can’t be done.
-Why not? Just stand in the middle of the circle and shot from there, turning with me as I spin.
-Can’t be done.
-(Sigh) OK, then follow me from the outside of the circle as I spin.
-Don’t want to fall with the camera.
-Well, have someone hold you from the back to guide you.
-You don’t need that much spin.
The most I get is the camera following me for half a turn. I hate when people say things can’t be done. Especially when they can. I’m not asking them to fly to the moon. Just follow me in two full circles. Fine, just one full circle. But half a circle is all I get. Not the same effect. I let is slide. I will have to edit this in twice in opposite directions so it looks like I’m spinning more. Next time I shoot my next feature film, this kind of stuff will not slide.
I am excited for the next scene. To do it, we have to dive under a tunnel of rocks to get to some broken canyons that are exquisite. I can hardly wait to show them this place that I love, born from the incredible upheavals of two warring shelves of continental rock pushing against each other on the San Andreas fault. The result to me is breath-taking.
But the crew doesn’t see any of it. All they see is hot horrible landscape and rocks that the gear must be passed under and pushed through. Just a lot of hard work. It’s not far, but by the time we get to the location, they are unable to see the beauty at all. “You got a permit for this place, do you?” “Yes, I do.”
After a while, they get into it a little. They even climb the rocks to get better vantage points. It turns into a fun shoot. At least, fun for me. Fun and grungy and gritty. For them, more gritty than fun. For me, more fun that gritty.
This is our first day out in full flat desert sun. And boy is it different from high desert mountain sun. Everyone is growing red as lobsters. Even though we spend half the day in the shadow of the broken canyon. But the March desert warmth is balm to my spirit after the frozen mountains.
I’ve done a bad thing today. It’s four o’clock and the crew hasn’t had lunch. What I thought would be half day shoot turned into a full day shoot. Of course, there is no lunch wagon out in the canyons. Or caterers. And I didn’t think ahead. I miss Mountain Lady, a hundred miles away.
We head to the town nearest to the desolate wilderness, find a taco shop, pretty much the only “restaurant” around. I could swear we’ve been dropped right in the middle of a Mexican village south of the border. It reminds me of my younger travelling days. Some of those beach towns where Gringos would spend the days snorkelling and eating tacos and the nights drinking tequila around a campfire on the beach. This place brings it all back. Except there’s no beach. Only desert.
As I walk towards the taco shop, daydreaming, the others stop me.
-We’re not eating here.
-Look at the shady characters all around. I wouldn’t trust our gear in the car for one minute.
I look around. There are some bereft sad-looking people and some working poor. Mostly working poor. Only difference from a poor “white” town is everyone is Mexican-looking and speaks Spanish.
-There is a window in the taco shop, you know. We can look out. The cars are only five feet away.
-I don’t feel comfortable.
-You don’t want lunch?
-I’d rather go without lunch than stop.
-I can go in and buy the tacos to go and we can eat them out here or in the cars.
-I’d rather go. I wouldn’t even trust the tacos here.
On down the line. All of them stare, red lobster faces set. Their utter digust and fear of the place is palpable. Why am I not seeing what they’re seeing?
-Well, OK. But it’s a long way back to “civilization”.
They shrug. We get back in our cars. I feel bad. They didn’t get lunch. Now they don’t even want lunch. Not even a to go bag of tacos. That’s a lot of disgust. The taco place looks fine to me. But then, I’ve eaten bean burritos off vendors at train stops in Mexico that gave me projectile diarhhea and vomiting. As long as they’re not serving dead fish eyes, I’m fine. I draw the line on that.
We end up having dinner – because forget lunch, that ship sailed long ago. Then they head back to the motel. Not I. It’s time to head to the Greyhound bus station to pick up Actor-Man again. Thankfully, this time the bus station is only a few miles away.
My eyes are blurry and red, as they get after a day in the sun and elements. It makes me feel so tired. But I have to handle the motel reservations. Get another room. Actor-Man rooms alone. Darn Coachella and Stagecoach. Who knew the motels here more than quadruple their rates when the festivals come to town. And they are still a month away. I’m seeing red when I see the pricetag on these motel rooms.
Tired and drained, I’m about to leave the lobby when my friend “Lou” gets up from the chair she was sitting in, waiting patiently with her rollaway bag and her camera bags neatly beside her. She is a photographer. I let out a yelp of surprise, come over, hug her.
-Hi Anna, you said you might need help for your movie, so here I am.
-But you said you were out of state.
-I came back early and I remembered the motel you’d be at, so I thought I’ll just head out to the desert and help.
-You just thought you’d head out to the desert and help?
I start to laugh and my tiredness goes away. How many people do you know who will just “head out to the desert and help”? She didn’t even call, just came out on a lark. It strikes me very funny. I can’t afford yet another over-priced motel room, so she rooms with the DP and me. Three of us. Lou and I will share one of the queen sized beds.
I’m overwhelmed. So much to do. I still have a couple of props to buy, my pants need sewing, and oh, I must get a caterer for this part of the shoot. I don’t want to revisit the taco shop incident. Then I really need to look over my script.
But I am so tired, I just want to crash….
“You want me to get you some camomile tea?” Lou says.
“We have camomile tea?”
“The motel does.”
She doesn’t wait for an answer, heads out, brings me back hot camomile tea with just the right amount of honey, just the right amount of camomile, and just the right amount of hot. I didn’t even know I needed camomile tea, but I did. I really really did. I needed a mother. I really really did. And here she is.
While I drink my tea and spend some much needed time with my sript, she takes my credit card and heads to a local 24-hour Walmart, bringing back the props I was missing. By then, she sees I’ve drunk my tea and brings me another. Did I say it already? I really really needed camomile tea.
“I’ve got to get a caterer. I can’t deal with meals.”
“I’ll call them for you.”
“There’s a list here somewhere. I don’t know where I put it.”
She finds it, dials a few numbers, finally gets someone on the phone. I talk to him, eyes half closed. “I need some catering for a small movie crew, three meals a day for the next several days…”
The price is right and he’s willing to go for it on such short notice. “I am heading out to the 24-hour desert Walmart to stock up as we speak,” he says.
My eyes are already closing when I hang up. It’s all set.
“Don’t worry. I will deal with setting up breakfast when he brings it tomorrow,” Lou says.
We three make a cozy trio, the DP, Lou, and me. We get along. Very mellow. The DP is deep into her watching of the dailies and the battery re-charging and video transfers and camera coddling. The camera sleeps by her on the big queen sized bed.
And… Lou is now threading the needle for me so I can sew my pants. I put my script away and sew really big stitches to get the sewing done quick. I finally hit the pillow. Who knew I needed camomile tea. Who knew I needed a mother. But I did…
THE UNDERWATER SHOT
Movie Shoot – Day 7
It’s really day seven of our movie shoot; but we took a day off on the real day seven.. The DP assured me the crew must rest on the seventh day. Just like God making Creation. Oh, and unlike God, who needs no food or lodging, the crew does, and I must pay for it on the days off as well. Why? I ask the DP. Do you want them to scatter and go home and not come back for the second week? she asks. No! Heck no. So I pay.
And on this last day of Mountain Lady crew-catered gourmet, I bid farewell to Mountain Lady and her cuisine. We kiss and make up and give each other gifts, forgiving all past transgressions. I ask her to keep the crew well fed and happy for their last day of her A-list cooking. But that’s like asking the rain to be wet. Of course she’ll go overboard in her cooking, as always.
But there is no rest or Mountain Lady munchies for me on this seventh day of Creation. I go back to LA to return the blasted lumpy snake. So I don’t have to pay another $300 for something so useless. And, in the process I find out it rained forty days and forty nights for four days in L.A. ‘Didn’t you guys get drowned out in your desert shoot?’ people say. ‘It rained?’ I ask blankly.
…Now, back in the desert on this eighth day, which is really the 7th day of the shoot, we car caravan to a deep hot springs creek – to shoot Baby S Girl’s floating underwater scene. It’s going to be more hiking than shooting today, and I just hope the crew doesn’t throw me off one of the rock cliffs when they see the hike.
The drive gives me time to look back. I’ve just finished my first week of shooting, and almost half of my film is shot! I offer my thanks to the roving tumbleweeds and stark desert vistas.
Oh, look there! I love that. Both sunshine and rain clouds fill the sky. From zenith to horizon. The rays of light and shadowed cloud burst through each other, over and under, playing on the mountains and coloring them in the most unearthly hues – layer upon layer. I dream of this vista in my movie. The way the sun rays strike through the foggy depths, making everything incandescent. But we’re always on the way to somewhere, or having to shoot something else, or my DP is nowhere around when it happens. Sigh.
Later, adrift without Mountain Lady meals, we rush all over town to find a sandwich shop open early so we can load up on lunch. Finally we find it. But the tuna sandwihes especially, soon appear to be melting and reeking in my sun drenched car. A situation only worsened by the long drive and the fact that we get lost several times in the rutted byways and canyon-like roadways to the creek (made even worse by a couple of crew guys saying they know a better way). One steep route attempt has several cars sliding backwards on the packed sandy silt. We give up that route quick.
“You think we could go the way I said the first time?” I ask. They finally all agree, only because we’ve run out of routes. Eventually, after another wrong turn, and the discovery of a camp of formerly homeless people who have staked their claim in the wilderness, we arrive at the creek.
Time to load up for the long hike. I carry the lunches, a gallon of water for refills, and the giant glass fish tank I got for free from the curb outside my house. The DP has already practiced operating her Blackmagic camera inside it, while we submerge half of the tank underwater. Voila – the poor man’s underwater filming container.
Just as we reach the first steep part of the trail, the lunch bags and gallon of water I carry compete with the fish glass bowl for more of my hands. I re-arrange things. But it’s too much. Like butterfingers, my grip loosens its hold on the fishbowl and it shatters on the sandy packed earth in a million pieces. Our underwater filming vehicle is gone – just like that. I stare at it, wanting to cry. Someone helps me pick up and carry the pieces to a trashcan at the top of the trail. I walk like a zombie.
“Not to worry,” Baby S Girl says. “My mother and I just bought a Go-Pro camera and it’s got an underwater case!” Sure, a Go-Pro is no Blackmagic, but I thank them, grateful they’ve saved the day.
The hike is a killer. It kills me the most. Perhaps I’m still traumatized by the fish bowl. Perhaps it’s the lugging of a gallon of water and lunches and assorted props. Perhaps it’s my aching knee. By the time we get down, no one seems much in the mood for filming.
“Let’s eat,” they say. “But, we just got here,” I say. “And the sun sets early in this canyon.” But it’s eat or bust apparently. They’ve already started ripping into the lunch bags. While they eat and crunch their chips loudly, I check around and find a nice couple of little hot pools. Perfect. Baby S Girl won’t even have to get cold.
Excitedly, I head back and tell them about the hot pools. I finally get the DP, Baby S Girl, her mother, and one crew member moving.
They balk. “You didn’t tell us we’d have to wade across a wide freezing cold river with a slippery bottom.” “It’s not a river, it’s a stream.” I finally get them to cross. They balk again.
“You didn’t tell us there’d be NAKED PEOPLE at the hot pools.” Yes, there are. A few. Baby S Girl and her mother seem the least offended by it. “Oh, come on, I’ll just tell them to move to the other pool while we film in this one.” And so I do. And so they move. And we shoot. The nudists are a mellow bunch.
They watch the proceedings with curious friendliness. I see Baby S Girl’s face when one guy with a particularly long in-your-face dong rises out of the pool. Her face kind of blanches. I feel bad. I hope it doesn’t scar her for life.
It’s a lot of nudists to make everyone suffer through – and a long way to make everyone hike – to shoot such a small scene. There’s a few terror tales to get through too. One naked elderly nudist scares Baby S Girl with stories of water worms that crawl in your ears and eat your brains out if you go underwater. The scene requires her to swim like a fetus underwater. I look at her mother, wondering if she’ll believe this terror tale and squash the underwater idea. But she seems unconcerned as she dangles her feet in the water, making friends with some of the nudists. And we start shooting. Fish bowl or not, nudists or not, and worms or (hopefully) not, we get the underwater shots.
The way up is ten times harder. Wow, does the trail go straight up almost ninety degrees at one point? It feels like it. For part of the way it is a jagged path on a cornice with a steep cliff dropoff on both sides. We stop to huff and puff a million times. As we get going again on one of our rest breaks, one of the nudist skinny dippers – a Bohemian woman – comes jogging up the trail, friendly and free, her two giant Pitt bull-Great Danes in tow. She overtakes and passes us easily.
“Hi!” she smiles widely, jogging as body parts jostle up and down. The two dogs jog in tandem, as if they’re all one. I watch, baffled. I can’t imagine jogging up this lonely trail as a naked cheery woman. I’d be one paranoid woman. What if somebody attacks? I look at the two super friendly Pit bull-Great Danes. Or should I say – trained killing machines. That’s how she does it.
Once she disappears up the trail, we break into guffaws. What randomness to see a naked cheery woman jog up a trail with her two ferocious friendly beasts.
At the top, we download the Go-Pro footage and say good bye to Baby S Girl and her mother. For real this time. She is wrapped for the film. “Bye, it was fun. So much fun.”
And the rest of us head out for a long drive to our next destination – the flat hot desert. The real desert. No more Siberian cold.
LET’S JUST IMPROV IT
Movie Shoot – Day 6
Some people may wonder – why a Baby Shaman? Aren’t you misappropriating Native American culture? I don’t have a super PC answer, other than I’m half Hispanic, which is partly Native American. Maybe Quadroon or Octoroon native blood in there. And I wrote what fired up my imagination. It was fired up by a haunted-looking Mexican American boy with dark skin and green eyes that looked into other worlds; I met him on another project. He, of course, was not misappropriating anything, as he was obviously part Native American somewhere. And he was going to be my Baby Shaman.
Then over the year and a half that it took me to prepare my movie for production, I saw him change. The innocent quintessential Baby Shaman with green luminous eyes devolved into… a strung out boy-man with a patchy half beard who looked like he might be battling a meth addiction. He was Baby Shaman no more. I frantically searched for a replacement that had the essence of Baby Shaman-hood. And I found Baby S Girl, with the innocent quality of the green-eyed boy before he got strung out. She is now the quintessential Baby Shaman. Who’s to say what race you must be to be a Baby Shaman? She is more a symbolic metaphor for an innocent healing spirit rather than a real Shaman anyway. So Baby S Girl it is.
* * *
…This morning Baby S Girl woke up, wonderfully healed. The movie gods have heard and I am happy. But today will be just as cold as yesterday and definitely much longer.
My DP and I do some quick re-calibrating in the lull after breakfast, trying to cram in today’s scenes and those we missed yesterday. We scratch out one night scene, shorten a couple more, blend two others. We are ready to go.
The motto for today is go Zen. High-speed Zen. The scenes roll out one after the other. The mind meld is forward moving. No slowpoking around. Wish I could make that serendipity happen every time.
On to another scene, this one with no location yet. Time to yet again pull one out from the seat of our pants. And then we find it. The tree for the hanging necklace scene rises up out of nowhere on the edge of the rock mountain, its bare wintry branches spanning out like crooked fingers. A perfect bare gnarled little stunted tree. On the edge of nowhere with a dropoff behind it. Just as I had envisioned it when I first wrote my screenplay.
Lunch is delicious juicy lamb burgers. I am happy with how things are going, and that makes me hungry. It makes me, a mostly questionable, white-meat-but-other-than-that-non-meat eater, ravage my lamb burger, enjoy every juicy meat morsel. Mountain Lady’s dishes can do that. The guys emit little sounds as they gobble and lick fingers – like porpoises having orgasms. Well, it’s how I imagine porpoises having orgasms might sound. Baby S Girl and her mom, true vegetarians, opt out and go for a walk or eat their own Subway vegetarian sandwiches or something. If they tried this, they’d also go cannibal. The guys pounce on the extra burgers. I think this is their most orgasmic meal yet.
My DP and I take a walk, location hunting for another spot we must pull out from the seat of our pants. I had wanted to use some death defying rocks at the edge of Desert Earth Man’s property. The DP shakes her head. “It’s too far and we don’t have time to set up camp at a second location if we want to get all of this done today. We’ll find something here.”
OK, I pout. I had really wanted my death-defying rocks. We find some so-so rocks and boulders a good cardio workout of a trudge up a rock mountain. Not as perfectly death-defying as my rocks would have been. But workable with the right camera angles.
“OK?” she asks.
“”I guess.” I’m still moping over my death-defying rocks.
I am supposed to dangle from here with imminent death upon me while Baby S Girl helps me climb back up the rock. The giant boulders are treacherous and steeply pitched. There are only small level spots in between here and there where one can stand and hang out. So right now, there’s a lot of people and a lot of gear and cameras crunched into one small space. The DP mutters a complaint. She must tilt the camera at an extreme angle to get the shot, but it’s so cramped here, her camera keeps hitting a rock as she tilts and adjusts. She’ll figure it out. I pick a giant boulder to dangle from where I am only about a foot off the ground. You can’t tell from the camera’s angle. Still, some of the crew laugh. “That won’t look real.” The DP and I persist until we get something that looks kind of real. We think. In editing, it will look real. We think.
Late afternoon – Baby S Girl and I are rushing to learn our lines. This is one scene both of us forgot and didn’t learn. When you’re making your own movie, it’s easy to forget you haven’t learned some of the many scenes from an actor perspective. Just because you know them as a writer and director doesn’t mean you know them as an actor. And that’s what’s happening. Not only are we learning our lines and our motivations on the spot, we are running out of daylight. The DP says the whole thing has to be condensed, and we won’t get any cutaways or closeups. Just one straight shot as we walk down the mountain, with no uh’s or mistakes. Yeah…
Baby S Girl looks downright nervous. Right about now is the time for the Zen thing – just accept what you got and how you feel and what you know and what you don’t. And mostly, we don’t know this scene at all. So I say, “let’s just improv it”, which seems to increase Baby S Girl’s anxiety. “It’ll be fine,” I reassure her. “We know the beats. Just work off each other.” Well, there is no other choice. So we improv. We do leave out a couple of important chunks of dialogue, but in the long run, they turn out not to be so important. In Indie world, you make do and do it the best you can. OK, the DP says, you only get a couple of takes of this. The mountain light fades and goes into shadow. And she’s right. We get no closeups or cutaways. We have lost our light. And what we got will have to do.
A couple of short sunset scenes, then someone goes to get dinner so Mountain lady doesn’t freak out over her cold cuisine. It takes forever to light the night scene with the huge monolithic rocks in the background. The trusty generator keeps put-putting away, hammering out the mega wattage we need. The result is lovely for Baby S Girl’s yogi tree scene. I add different-colored sparklers to the tree, courtesy of the 99-Cent Store. It adds some pizzazz. But I don’t place them quite right, and none of them come out in the closeups. But I don’t know that yet. I won’t know that until later. I’m too cold to even look in the camera to check.
All right, let’s get this done quick. It’s sub-freezing out here. But quick we are not. The lighting’s not quite right and has to be adjusted. The lens aren’t right and have to be changed. That gel isn’t right and another one must be gotten from the car way up the hill. Wait, adjust that light again. No, move it over. Wait, move it back. To the left just a tad. Nah. Just put it back where it was. Meanwhile, my three parkas just aren’t cutting it. The wind whistles through them like they’re gossamer negligees.
Forget Siberia. We are in the North Pole. Baby S Girl is being a trooper. Not one complaint as she sits there shivering, not long recovered from her bout of sickness. We put a parka on her whenever we stop.
Her mother and the dog wait in their car with the heat turned up full blast, watching from a distance. In between setups, Baby S Girl goes in the car to warm up.
Finally, on the ten hour stroke of the clock, I let Baby S Girl go. I honor the ten hour rule as she is only 17. We finish her closeups and wrap her. She and her mother zoom off in their heat blasting car, while the rest of us hammer out my last few closeups, wondering if hell might really be a frozen windy tundra instead of a fire pit of flames under the earth. Wait, I don’t even believe in that stuff. I can’t be responsible for that I think right now. I’m hypothermic and close to hallucinating…
THE FLINTSTONES ROCKS
Movie Shoot – Day 5
Baby S Girl, my second actor, her mother, and their huge energetic puppy are up bright and early with the crew… all waiting for me. “Hi! Hi!” Hugs and kisses. Her child-like eagerness and trust are a balm on the spirit.
We head to a new location on Earth Desert Man’s land. He’s got a lot of it. This time our auto caravan goes miles and miles up a bumpy rocky car-destroying dirt road. Then another dirt road, more bumpy and forsaken than the last. Beautiful rock formations and Joshua trees and desert washes long drained of water line the way.
Then, onto Earth Desert Man’s property, where hippie buses, tents, wigwams, and assorted hobbit homes pop up here and there. This is the more populated part of his property. A fork into another dirt road now. This one is more of a gutted ravine. Oops! My car suspension might now be gone.
Finally, two giant rocks on each side open up to reveal a path up a hill full of rocky mountains and Fred Flintstone looking formations. Our Baby S location.
If our first set was Siberia at night, this place is Siberia morning, noon, AND night. I’m sure it must be the highest point of mountain desert on the planet. We shiver all day in the bright dazzling bone-dry sun, as lonely whistling winds gust through the steppes and rock hills in all directions, fighting each other, creating little cyclones and whirling vortexes. No amount of parkas seems warm enough, especially as we must strip them off between action and cut anyway.
In our first two scenes, Baby S Girl has rescued me from a near drowning. She’s waving smoking sage over me and is supposed to jab my impalement injury (to heal the wound was my thinking). She is holding the sage near my leg, hasn’t even jabbed me yet, and I suddenly feel a sharp burning pain. I look down and the sage is ON FIRE…! As is my blanket. And my thigh! Aaaahh! I scream, slapping the flames out. Baby S Girl looks down at her hand, also on fire. We both watch dumbfounded. What is this? The brutal winds have whipped and turned the tiny innocuous sage bundle into a raging mushrooming bouquet of flames. Even as we watch, it grows and metastasizes. Fire sparks, picked up and made to dance by the wind, zoom around us like a myriad tiny fireflies. THE SKY IS ON FIRE! If one of them catches, the entire hill could go up in flames. The crew runs over, pours half the gallons of water we brought for drinking on the flaming little firestorm. Thankfully, nothing catches among the dry stunted twig trees and bushes near us. The sparks fall harmlessly on surrounding rocks, killed by hard cold stone.
We sit there, heavy breathing for a moment. We came close to turning Earth Desert Man’s oasis paradise into a raging inferno. Who knew a few sprigs of sage fanned by wild winds could do that? Note to self: winds are fire-breathing monsters. Don’t mess with them.
We do a couple more scenes for the day. I wonder at Baby S Girl’s mother’s ability to adapt. I was expecting some school-marm-like stage mother. Not this girl scout who makes her way around the desert roads thst have no name and always unerringly finds her way back. She makes herself scarce, taking the rambunctious dog and letting him run in fields and rock hills away from us. Then she locks the dog in the car and comes to take pictures of our set, helping out when she can, unobtrusive when not needed. She’s already made friends with one of the desert dwellers, some guy who lives in a round-looking shiny geo-dome of some sort.
I do get the feeling, even when she doesn’t appear to be watching, that she is. With a sharp eye. Probably wondering why things are done so wayward and ticky-tacky. Welcome to my first-time director-filmmaker micro-budget set. A car costs more than the entire budget of this movie. So ticky tacky happens. A lot.
…And then Baby S Girl begins to feel sick. All that high desert cold, being out in the elements, the raging mushrooming sage fire, it is too much for her, this tiny child-like seventeen year old girl. And she didn’t really eat much today.
“Oh, but, can we do one more scene-?” I cajole.
The mother looks at me hard. “She’s sick.”
I take a closer look. Yes, she really doesn’t look so well. There’s a bit of that drowning look you get when you’re awash with nauseous feelings. The kind of look where you might go down hard for a whole week. Oh no, please don’t let it be.
“OK,” I say, seeing my movie with its dysfunctional schedule, further blown to smithereens. “See you tomorrow, I hope?”
“We’ll see how she feels.”
I take a deep breath. “OK. Feel better.” The drowning look on her face me does not give me a lot of confidence. She’s unable to speak at this point.
An earlier out than usual for the crew – and me. But not before Mountain Lady tells me she can’t go on, she positively can’t go on with this catering gig. It’s too much, this movie catering on top of her bakery business. Today she burned her corn and jalapeno muffins for her bakery. HER MUFFINS! It’s too much. And she’s, well, overwhelmed. I really wish I could tell her, “Just relax. You take everything too hard. We’re not even picky eaters. You don’t even have to do as much as you’re doing. Dial it back a notch.” But she would murder me with such a comment. She must ALWAYS do too much because that’s who she is. So instead I try the practical approach. “Well, I paid you $1500. So you still owe me two more days of meals. Unless you want to give it back?” No, she does not want to give the money back. I finally convince her to hang on. Whimpering, crying, she agrees. Breakfast will be on, same time, same place tomorrow morning. Another fire put out.
Back to the motel. I’ll use the time to look over scripts, plan ahead for once, sew my pants, glue my boots, and oh yeah, I need a book of matches for a prop. I head into “town”. No matchbooks of any sort at the two bars and two convenience stores. Are matchbooks too old school anymore?
“I got lighters,” a friendly, gravel-voiced, cigarette-hardened lady tells me, “But you know what? I’ll bet you the Indian casino at the end of town has ‘em matchbooks.”
A casino! Of course. Deserts. Indian casinos. I head over, trot around the place, wondering at the stares. Whole bowlfuls of books of matches greet me, by the slot machines, the roulette tables, the bar. I grab a bunch.
One lady positively gasps. What is up with these people? I look down. Oh. My bloody torn pants, with the blood dripping down my thigh, calves, and decrepit boots with the soles coming off. “Oh, that’s all fake. I swear. I’m shooting a movie!”
I scoot out of there fast, remembering too late, my backside is even worse. For the fourth day, my pants are torn from end to end down the back of my ass. Lots of sewing to do tonight. I guess I should have planned for a backup set of pants. But I didn’t.
I just hope there’s no fish eyes for dinner.
Nope. No fish eyes. Just the DP, resting from dinner and a hot shower, deep in the middle of her daily post-shoot routine. Charging up the twenty or so camera batteries she’s got lined up on her battery chargers, downloading the day’s footage onto hard drives, big Red camera lovingly cradled in all kinds of doodads, as she looks over what she shot. Our motel room is a hive of high-tech hardware.
“We got great stuff. Wanna see?”
“No, it’ll put me in my head. And my eyes are too bloodshot from the sun to look at anything.”. Note to self: no matter how bloodshot your eyes are, you need to get some idea of what is being shot and how it’s being shot. It can’t all be done “Zen”. But at this moment I don’t know that.
I settle for the mindless task of sewing my pants. Blindly, of course, as I can’t really focus my sun-burnt bloodshot eyes. The ends of the pants flaps can no longer be sewn together. I need extra cloth to sew underneath. I surreptitiously eye the neutral beige blanket on the motel bed. Who will know? I reach under the mattress, snip a good chunk off with scissors. It matches the beige pants, as far as my bloodshot eyes can tell. Close enough.
And as I sew blindly, I pray and meditate that the movie gods work their magic on Baby S Girl tonight so she feels better… and well, so my movie shoot can go on.
FIGHTS, FISH-EYES, AND BLUEBERRY PIE
Movie Shoot – Day 4
The sun is golden on the rocks in early morning. I’ve made my peace with the crew’s need to chat and smoke in the lull after breakfast and the unloading of the gear. So I’ve taken to going off on my own to breathe in the desert air. And just be grateful. Something about the desert cleans me.
“ANNA… WE’RE WAITING!”
“NAH…I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU!” I shout back.
…I’d forgotten. Our first scene of the day still has no location. It was supposed to happen at the top of a tree. We never worked it out. The DP laughed raucously when she first heard that. And she doesn’t laugh raucously. “Uh. No.” It was a hard-up-concrete-wall-with-razor-wire-on-top kind of no. And she hardly ever gives that kind of a no.
“Whyyyyy…?” I cried.
But no it was – and no it still is. So now I must look for a location on the fly that is not a tree. The DP and I look up at the overhang of geometric rocks that’s provided a backdrop for some of the brother scenes. We walk around it. A very large formation.
“How about this?” the DP says. “The brother climbs on top of this rock formation instead of a tree. It’s pretty cool-looking. And the cameras won’t even have to climb on it. There’s a lot of places to shoot from all around. And right here, in the back, it’s easier for you to climb onto it, so it’s not as unrealistic as you climbing up a tree on an impaled leg.”
OK, she makes a lot of sense. Who needs a tree? Why I ever thought I needed a tree, I don’t know. I was going to use a convoluted story by which the brother makes a Tarzan swing. Out of shirts. Which I somehow manage to climb with my impalement injury. Yeah, right, very realistic. Anyway, I look around and there’s not a heck of a lot of climbing trees out here in the desert. Sometimes you need someone else’s opinion. Because sometimes, just sometimes your ideas are just plain silly.
…The scene works out great on the rocks. Without a Tarzan swing made of shirts.
Our second scene is in a mini-cave with a little tunnel, where I crawl through grunting. Yesterday, during one of my-breathing-in-the-desert-moments, I found it. Right in front of me. A little tunnel leading into a cavelike opening, with the added benefit the cave has an open fourth wall, so cameras and crew can shoot from that side with plenty of space.
Me Grunting through the Cave Tunnel
This place never fails. Every time we look around for a new scene setting, it offers one up. A treasure chest of stark beauteous one-of-a-kind scene sets.
I think about what needs to happen in this scene. It was one of the problem areas. The brother’s anger needed some vulnerability in it. This “directing and acting at the same time” thing is still new. So far, I’ve just been rolling with what my fellow actor gives me. Not a whole lot of hard core directing going on. Really, much of my directing was in how I set up and created the scenes and characters, in who I cast, in the explaining to the actors what these characters and their point of view is all about, in how I talked with the DP about how to set up shots (though I am finding we didn’t do that enough). Still, I feel much of the directing is done, right? Now it’s just time to play. Do the Zen thing that a hippie acting teacher once taught me. Be in the present with the person. Breathe in and react to the whorl of energy created between your two selves. Well… so far, it’s worked. Until now. I think I am going to have to direct my brother more in this one.
This scene is a raging fight, but without the vulnerability, it doesn’t meet the emotional arc for the characters. It’s just an angry fight. I try to get Actor-Man to see the scene needs the deep raw hurt and pain the brother feels about what his sister did and didn’t do in his life. He feels vulnerable AND enraged. You have to see the pain and grief, not just the anger and rage. That sounds pretty well explained, I think. But he says, “I have no idea what you want, or what you’re talking about. No idea.” I try again – “he feels heart-felt pain AND rage. Both. Together. At the same time. He loves his sister. It’s not just about the anger.”
The cameras start to roll. “I still have no idea what you want.” He smirks and laughs. “Here goes whatever.”
The testiness between us, which had died down and disappeared, comes back and rears its ugly head. And…yes, well, we really are fighting in this scene. For real. So I guess it works, sort of. The DP says, “You guys are so much at each others’ throats, that it worked.” OK… I still would have wanted more raw vulnerability.
Now we need another setting for the brother-sister makeup scene after the fight. Yeah, that one was also supposed to be up in a tree. I snicker at my own self. I had even wanted to bring a tall ladder into the desert to do it.
I turn my head forty degrees, walk a few hundred yards. There. A fallen, half-burnt Joshua tree curves like a giant tusk off the ground. It even has sitting nooks and crannies. Perfect for making up after a fight – you are sitting together and yet not together in the Joshua tree’s various curves. It all goes off without a hitch, other than Actor-Man getting his coat (which is really my coat) snagged on the log again and again, so we have to do at least seven or eight takes of the shot where he sits down. Come on, we’re losing our light! You never know just how much that means until you are shooting all day outdoors. We do run out of light and have to skimp on any closeups.
A last scene, a sunrise scene in which the brother and I play chess. Only we’re using the sunset to substitute for sunrise. The DP and I have a long discussion. “No one’s going to know if it’s sunset or sunrise. They look the same.” (That’s me).
“No, they don’t look the same,” she says. “One’s pinker with more light spreading in. One’s more orange with the light disappearing out. People who know will know.”
“Who are these people who know and will know? I don’t even know. I wouldn’t know. And I’m right here filming it.”
She looks at me but doesn’t say, “that’s because you’re a lighting dunce and not a DP who shoots a lot of sunsets and sunrises.”
“So what should we do? Camp out here overnight and wait for the sunrise?”
So we do our sunrise scene on the sunset. Sometimes she wins. Sometimes I do.
Another long day over. Still, good stuff. And today, at least, was on schedule. The crew heads back to food and the motel. Not I. Time to drive Actor-Man the hundred miles back to the Greyhound Bus station. He is wrapped for a few days.
I return, more batty, exhausted, and blurry-eyed than my first hundred-mile trip to the Greyhound bus station. Although, no cop stop this time. The DP offers me a covered plate as consolation. “Dinner was so good, I saved it for you.” She proudly uncovers the plate. I find myself staring at a cold, congealed trout, yellowed eyes popping, bulging, accusing. I take one bite…and can’t. I just can’t. The dead bulging eyes keep staring. Not just staring, following me. For all I know, Mountain Lady went out and caught the darn fish herself. Couldn’t she have hacked the head off too? Or the eyes? Just the eyes? Maybe this is some kind of high-end culinary art trick, to leave the fish eyes in so they look like they’re following you, up until the moment you crunch their eyes down your gullet. Do people actually eat those bulging eyes with their toasty crunch on the outside and bulbous squirting liquid gel on the inside? I try to imagine what kind of caveperson would enjoy eating the bulging accusatory eyes. I look over at the DP, deep into the task of watching the footage. Did she eat the trout eyes? I wonder.
I try the potatoes and vegetables, so buttery and perfect. I could eat them all and more. But I can’t take those death-yellowed fish eyes. The terror stricken orbs follow me even when I benignly munch mashed potatoes. I finally push the plate away and cover the thing, unable to eat. I could swear they’re following me under the covered plate. I have missed a heck of a lot of dinners lately.
“There’s blueberry pie,” the DP says. She presents a giant homemade pie, still wrapped, still covered, and – still warm. Mountain Lady must know some magic. Her dishes stay warm longer than is physically or scientifically possible. The DP and I take a couple of good fat chunks of pie, give the rest to the crew. It makes up for everything…
@#@##^#&#&#@%%^@ I’M LOSING MY LIGHT!
Movie Shoot – Day 3
It’s late at night when we leave the Greyhound bus station. I’m chauffeuring our first supporting actor to come on set tomorrow. Actor-Man.
Fighting a swirl of exhaustion, I chatter the entire one hundred miles back to the motel just to stay awake. I talk about the shoot, desert windmills, rattlesnakes, anything to keep the conversation alive. Actor-Man seems disinclined to add to the chatter. Does he know my eyes are dangerously crossed right now? Does he know how close I am to swerving headlong into the hazy oncoming headlights? Am I really driving a hundred miles after a day of shooting, driving a tightrope away from a bad car accident just to get him? Is this a bad dream? I am batty, blurry-eyed, sun-stroked, dinnerless, and ready to fall into a coma. And still I keep chattering.
Almost home (by that, I mean motel). I make a weird U-turn. I’m talking too much; I missed the turn. Actor-Man by now is starting to feel wary about riding in the car with this madwoman who’s hired him to be in her movie. He answers in monosyllables and only when he has to. Then, out of the blur of my eyes, I see the red and blue lights behind me. I stop, relieved to give a rest to my blurry eyes, tense death-grip hands on the steering wheel, and non-stop motormouth. The cop saunters up to my car window, looks down… Uh oh. I am still wearing my grungy pants full of caked fake blood and dirt from a day of moviemaking drama. They are torn front, side, and back. I am in bloody tatters. He stares at Actor Man, his eyes shooting rays of laser light. He doesn’t know the blood is fake. I see the story running in his cop brain. Husband beats up wife to within an inch of her life. Maybe he’s shot her in the thigh. He makes her drive out into the desert to finish her off.
“Oh…no no no,” I say. “This isn’t how it looks. We are shooting a movie.”
“Yes, yes, we’re shooting a movie,” Actor Man pipes in. “It’s fake blood.”
The cop stares at the blood again. It looks so real. I swipe some on my fingers. “See? It’s cornstarch and food coloring and sticky stuff. Not real.” He won’t touch it.
“OK,” he says, only half convinced. “Don’t go making weird U-turns now.”
I promise, Officer.”
Once he’s gone, we break out in hysterical giggles. “He thought… he thought,” I try to catch my breath, “you were trying to kill me.” I don’t know why this is so much funnier than it should be. Finally, calmly, we proceed to the motel.
I made this prosthetic DIY
…Morning time. I feel way better. Nothing like a couple of hours sleep. I give Actor-Man the coat he will wear to cover up his lack of a leg and the crutches he will use as my crippled brother. Two 99-Cent Store walking canes, actually. With curved hand rests. They can extend to almost a full man’s height. But not quite. I give him some iron rods I had a blacksmith make me for twenty bucks. “Sorry, they won’t be comfortable. But it’ll make the sticks the right height.”
We try out the iron rods but they don’t work at all and won’t stay put inside the hollow canes. This crutch thing is very important. My brother must have crutches. He’s missing a leg. What to do?
“No worries.” He throws the iron rods away. “I’ll do it without them.”
“You’ll fall. They’re not the right height. I’d fall on my face.”
“I’ll be fine.” He parades around the motel room, showing off his 99-Cent Store walking cane style. Stooping low and manouvering himself on the spindly supports without falling. Under the coat, he’s got one leg tied up with a belt. Yes, it looks realistic. He’s walking one-legged. I sigh in relief. Walking stick crisis averted. There wasn’t a one-legged Plan B.
Our first scene of the day is a light-hearted one with lots of camaraderie. We both seem to welcome it, kicking back and having fun, in spite of an unspoken testiness between us. Is it me? Is it him? Is it a weird chemical reaction between our personalities? I can’t figure it out. This is a scene we semi-rehearsed during our one single rehearsal at a public park. But we fall into it naturally. Looking at us, one would never know while the camera is rolling… But there is testiness. I can feel its pulse. Still, things are clipping along and I am happy at the improved filmmaking pace of things.
Lunch is late. Mountain Lady has agreed to bring lunch every day. But phones don’t work up here, so we agree every morning on what time she will come, always meeting at the same crossroads. We send one of the crew guys to meet her so she doesn’t get lost in the wilderness of Joshua trees.
Mountain Lady is not only an hour late. She drives up in a tire screeching swerve, sobbing that she’s late (as if we don’t know), crying that she got lost (same crossroads every day, just like the last two days) and that she knows I’ll kill her (I have never talked about killing her or given her any time ultimatums. In fact, I’ve been pretty fluid about time). But sob she does, like she’s facing a firing squad, leaning her head into the young crew guy’s chest, sobbing like I’m approaching with the gun already.
“Shh”, the young crew guy consoles her. “No one’s going to kill you.”
“You sure she won’t?” she says.
“I won’t allow it,” he says. Happy now that the evil villainess in this soap opera has been neutralized, her tears dry as quickly as a sudden desert storm. She is happy we will now forget her hour-late faux pas, all eyes turned towards the evil villainess instead. But we do end up talking about her anyway. The Moroccan chicken papusa-like dishes she leaves us are making us are lick our fingers. Oh Mountain Lady, you’re bad, but wow, you’re good.
Mid afternoon – we are trying to get a long scene done before the sun gets too low. We’ve got another long one to do after the sun sets. Just as we are almost finished with the last day scene, an elderly hiker guy comes jauntily down the trail, right into our movie set.
-Hey, what are you doing?
-We’re filming a movie.
-You from Hollywood?
-You ain’t got a permit, Hollywood Lady.
-Yes, I do. I have the owner’s permission. Earth Desert Man.
-No you don’t. You’re lying.
-I am NOT lying. I paid him. And we even signed a contract.” (I dread that he might ask to see it; I do have one, but I left it at the motel. Thankfully, his own anger distracts him).
-You good for nothing Hollywood types, you don’t even know about this land, you know nothing about it, you just come up to shoot your films. YOU DON’T KNOW THE HISTORY OF THE PLACE, DO YOU? WELL, DO YOU?
-Well (I say though gritted teeth), it’s true, I don’t know, but it’s very beautiful land, and we are taking good care of it, we leave nothing behind. And we do have permission.
-YOU’RE LYING. AND YOU WERE LIGHTING A FIRE!
(I shoot a guilty look at the pretend fire we’d set up, which ironically, we had already decided we wouldn’t light because it’s too windy).
-Well, sir, we weren’t actually going to light it. It’s too windy. It was just for show.
-You’re liars. You better not. And you know nothing about this place. Come with me up the hill, and I will show you what this place is about! The history of it.
-Sir – (a heroic amount of will is now needed to stay courteous, but it is fast evaporating) please, we are trying to shoot a film and we have to get back to work. We are losing our light.
-TO HELL WITH LOSING YOUR LIGHT! YOU COME WITH ME. I’LL SHOW YOU THE HISTORY! WHO CARES ABOUT YOUR LIGHT!
-NO..! (I bite my lip, cutting off the GODDAMN MOFO that almost slips out).
I turn away, signal the cast and crew to get back to work, but… a crew member, whom I will call Mr. Alpha, comes and saves the day, grabs my elbow and softly mansplains that he’ll handle this, that I have to let the old codger have his way. They will all go with him, and it won’t take long. I stare at them all in stupefied wonder, as the old guy leads the entire cast and crew up the hill (minus me, the DP, and the Mountain Lady-consoling crew guy, who have stayed behind to guard equipment). I finally find my voice when the others are tiny dots up a distant hill.
MOTHERF——-, WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS? CALLING ME A LIAR! TAKING MY CAST AND CREW OFF, WASTING MY TIME – ON MY DIME. THAT %%#%#%#%#% BETTER BE BACK! AND THOSE IDIOTS FOLLOWING HIM LIKE HE’S THE PIED PIPER! #$##*@**@*@!!! I BET THIS WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED IF I WAS A GUY DIRECTOR. I AM BEING DISSED!!!! I’M LOSING MY LIGHT!!!
-I – AM – LOSING – MY – LIGHT!!!!
And sure enough, the sun is shedding a haunting golden light on everything that signals the imminent loss of daytime.
The DP and Mountain-Lady-consoling crew guy just stare. Maybe Mountain Lady was right, their faces say. Maybe I am the evil villainess who might kill someone. It’s the one time I allow myself to vent in front of my cast or crew the entire shoot. But maybe, I justify to myself, it doesn’t count, as there’s just two of them. Though I’m sure the entire crew will know by tonight. I take some deep breaths, try to hyper ventilate myself back from the brink of werewolf-dom into calm-director-lady waters again. My one movie shoot temper tantrum.
Mountain-Lady-consoling crew guy quietly says, “I’ll go get them.”
“You do that!”
More hyper ventilating from me as he trudges up the hill to get the others. The DP says nothing. My deep breathing is the only sound that breaks the calm desert silence.
A long time later, they get back. I am somewhat calmer, though more and more worried about losing the light, which has turned more golden yet. At least my eyes have quit whirling madly in their sockets. That’s a good sign. And the old guy, they’ve done wonders for him. He is peaceful as a lamb. He smiles happily as he says good bye, glad that someone took a few moments to listen to him today. “You guys have a good shoot.”
“Bye.” I am flummoxed. What did they do? Give him a drug? His jaunty legs take him on down the valley and he is soon gone from sight. That was a near mutiny that just happened. But OK, my crew did pacify him. They turned him into a lamb. That counts for something. It was a job for the people persons. I’m glad I stepped back. I am not a people person. Especially when I’m mad.
We say nothing more about it and get back to work. Night brings on another Siberian winter. A cold night shoot. We clock in thirteen hours for the day. Would have been twelve if the old guy hadn’t intervened. We tiredly haul generator, movie gear, props, and trash back to the cars. And now we have one more helping hand. Actor-Man, who’s taken over generator duties. All jobs are hyphenated around here.
ACTING ZONE MEETS CIGARETTE BREAKS
Movie shoot – Day 2
Sworls of peachy-colored rocks, in sandy tones, oranges, browns, reds, pinks, blacks. Tall buttes. Squat monoliths. Grand cathedral spires. Another day of cavorting through the high desert feast of raw, elemental, savage, beauteous wonder.
The crew has been notified. Hup to it. Today we make up for the two and a half pages yesterday. But that was after they told ME that it is I who needs to speed up. Wait a minute. I am always waiting for you… Sure, sometimes I have to go get a prop I forgot. Or figure out where I left my script. Or clean up after lunch. But mostly I WAIT FOR YOU. As you smoke, and gossip, and talk about your equipment. Nope, the DP says, it’s you. Nope, I say, it’s you. All right, let’s just both speed up. Agreed.
I watch them unload the expensive movie-making gear. What a difference compared to my odds and ends and gallons of water and cardboard boxes and plastic bags full of props and things. And the Mountain Lady breakfasts. And the broom (what for?) and my own video camera (for candid “making of” shots) and my walking stick prop, and the toilet paper, the clothes, the boots, the parkas we’ll need tonight. And the carefully packaged prosthetics. All kinds of bulky and/or small things of various mismatched shapes and sizes that are darn hard to carry together in any combination.
I can’t help but notice my stuff looks like Goodwill junk compared to the uber sleek black lines of all that high-class camera techno gear. I think the crew draws the line at hauling Goodwill junk. They’re just not going to help with Goodwill hand-me-downs. After they’re done unloading the real gear, it’s time for a cigarette break.
Hello…? I’m the one paying your checks! I’m carrying the lunches and the 100-pound generator. The thing weighs almost as much as me. Look at me! I quickly drop the heavy generator thing (which probably doesn’t really a hundred pounds but just feels like it) and I make a really dramatic, swooning motion, complete with sound effects, loud enough for them to hear. Somehow, in this new movie making situation, I am rendered speechless, unable and unwilling to boss my subjects around. I can only HINT at things. Thankfully someone – one person – takes the dramatic swooning hint, reluctantly breaks away from the cigarette clique. No more generator-carrying for me. From now in, it will be their job.
…Aaaaand Action! I have the DP or first AC yell it so I can be in my zone. It takes a moment, after all the Goodwill hauling, and breakfast catering and cleaning up and trash collecting, the prosthetic fine-tuning and gluing of it on my thigh to make sure it won’t fall off (though it does, constantly), the prop arranging and fishing out of things from various boxes and bags, the worrying about cigarette breaks, and everyone calling my name for all kinds of issues, important and umimportant, foreseen and unforeseen.
After all that, it takes a very hard moment or two or three or more to breathe, let go, and get in the acting zone. But when I do, I feel like I’m in the very center of life. Like I am present to everything around me and inside of me. I must disentangle my left brain and “get-things-done” mode to get into this one.
It’s a new thing, finding it in the middle of directing a movie. Here, acting is the last and least of the issues I have to worry about, and yet, the most important one. The only way I find my way in, is breathe and let whatever that moment is be exactly the way it is. It’s the only way in. I can’t force it to be different. If I feel dragged down and dispirited, I accept it and let myself feel that. Funny thing. Once I accept and own where I really am at, instead of trying to pave over it, I really can go from there to wherever the script and story take me. It’s like the little kid in you was allowed to have her say, so now she’s willing to do whatever you want. But not before. I am doing a Zen moving meditating the whole day. In between the worry over crew cigarette breaks.
Or the fears of coyotes and rattlesnakes. I have nightmares about a den of coyotes circling us, or a rattlesnake lying in wait until one of us steps on it and it kills us with its fang poison. That would really mess up my movie schedule. Secretly, it’s the reason I’ve brought the broom. To use as a prodding stick against savage coyotes, or to imprison a snake’s fangs under its many straws. Quite a weapon.
…First scene of the morning is in the can. And it’s still morning! I feel accomplished. We’re making better progress today. And just as we’re about to wrap and move to the next location/scene/desert angle, someone looks at my feet. “You have the wrong shoes on!”
I look down incredulously at my whitish, dirty Nikes that have betrayed me, that should actually be the dark brown hiking boots whose soles are coming apart that I wear for the entire movie. Everyone lets out a visible groan. WHY DIDN’T I LOOK AT MY FEET? Where’s a continuity person when you need one? We are forced to reshoot the wide and medium shots, as my feet are pretty visible in this scene. OK, note to self: continuity people are really important crew members to have. Or else, make your mind like a steel trap. I promise myself, in spite of my acting zone, I will also make my mind like a steel trap.
Several scenes later, it is sunset. We are filming the scene where I do a makeshift little gravesite for my brother, as I just realized he is dead. It’s a hard scene to do after a day of bossing people around. This calls for finding calm, quiet open spaces inside yourself, unguarded vulnerability. And here I am feeling out of sorts in a Nazi matriarch kind of way. A few moments ago, I was short with one of the crew. Probably over a cigarette break. Now the Siberian wind is knifing into me. And it’s hard to find rest out here. I look at the crew, how they’re busting ass to get so many scenes done in the bitter cold. A wave of repentant sorrow hits me. I want to be kinder. I really do. Here. At this moment. And in life. I wish I was kind. And I fail often. Like now. And now we’re doing the gravesite scene. I flow from repentant sorrow into grief. As the evening sky washes from light pinks to purples and the cold wind dies down, the tears start to stream quietly down my dirty face…
Night-time now. We’re doing a couple of short night scenes. Boy, do I need the parkas I brought. The coldest winter ever must be a March night in the high desert. No rain or snow, dry as a bone. But the freezing temps, coupled with the wind factor, make it a place of Siberian harshness. I am secretly grateful no one complains. In spite of all their cigarette breaks, they sure are troopers. If this wasn’t my movie, I’d plop down and cry and refuse to do anything, while shivering uncontrollably and letting myself drown in hypothermia.
I hug a tree, the beauty of the moon behind me. It took the crew hours to light those giant monolithic rocks behind us. And they are beautifully lit, thanks to the heavy generator that’s such a pain to haul around. I sure hope it’s worth it.
Finally… finally… in spite of the frozen epileptic seizures quaking though my body under the hoodie, the jacket, and two parkas, we are done. The crew’s eyes, mouths, noses, hands are red and swollen with cold, but not one peep out of them.
Not bad – seven pages of script. Not caught up but not behind. The crew is headed back to the motel for a late catered dinner. Their day is done. Not mine. Dinnerless, I must drive a hundred miles to pick up one of the actors, who has no transportation. Desert Greyhound Bus Station, here I come. Oh yeah, and then, I must sew my pants back up when I get back. They ripped right up the ass today as I was climbing rocks and crawling in the sand…
IRONING OUT THE KINKS
Movie shoot – Day 1
OK, that crew that I wasn’t sure would show up… is knocking on my motel door at 6:30am – half an hour early on the first day or our movie shoot. They go and wait in their cars, motors running to warm up the engines in the glacial high desert morning. The DP joins them at 7am on the dot. “Um…I think you should get up,” she says to my blanket covered head as she steps out. Finally, half asleep, I saunter out with my chicken gizzards at 7:30am – half an hour late to my own party.
First order of the day – a stop at the catering Mountain lady’s home to pick up coffee and breakfast. We’ve agreed we’ll pick up breakfast and dinner each day, and she will deliver lunch to us, as our set is only ten miles away. She’s already furious that we’re almost a half hour late, her perfect breakfast growing cold. We set her at ease; a couple of us spill hot tea and coffee on ourselves. See? It’s all still HOT.
On to our shoot location, a beautiful high desert vista. I pull to a stop near geometric rock formations guarded by Joshua trees way at the end of a very rutted dirt trail. I picked real good. Every direction you look is a whole new set of vistas. All you have to do is turn and face a different way and you have a new scene. Location, courtesy of the Earth Desert Man.
I sit for a moment, not believing I am here. I watch the broken limb of a half burnt Joshua tree as it sways in the gentle breeze. Creak creak creak. The sound and the swaying limb are hypnotic. Its brokenness brought on by a wilderness fire that raged through here several years ago. Many trees are still recovering and/or still dying. And yet, it’s so iconic . The dead bleached white bark with its unruly dark tufts of Joshua tree leaves sways starkly against the cerulean blue and very alive sky. I will need a shot of this before my shoot is over. It somehow seems so right for my story of desert survival.
We eat before unloading equipment. Holy Guacamole. This lady can cook! Our freezing hands and bodies are warmed by the still-warm scrumptious breakfast burritos bursting with organic eggs, organic bacon, and organic potatoes. Meatless eater that I am, I chomp down, bacon and all. It’s just too good. And it seems there are several courses to this breakfast. The crew, a respectably professional set of assorted indie types, seemed cold and unsure of the undertaking this morning (not helped by my late appearance and lack of call sheets). But this is now a party. The food definitely gets them in the mood. The right food can work magic. Thanks, Mountain Lady.
…The Blackmagic and Red cameras are now set up and ready to go. I lazily wonder if their footage will match each other. But what do I know about technical stuff. It’s time for…lights, camera, action! And getting into my acting zone. The first two days it will just be me as the sole actor, so the pressure of directing someone else is off for now.
I have the jitters. I remind myself – I CAN DO THIS. It’s OK to be nervous when you have never made and directed and acted in your own movie. But how to feel like no one’s watching with all these people watching? I don’t even know most of them. I don’t even have an acting partner to bounce off of, and take the edge off – or rather, get on edge with. Maybe I should have scheduled another actor today. But it’s just me and my energy and myself. And the land. The land will be my partner. Rags, the little stuffed monkey I carry in the film, will be my partner.
I take a deep breath. So much planning went into this… Now I have to let it go, be in my right-brain Acting Zone. I am supposed to tumble and get impaled by a stick that lodges in my thigh. I have to feel and live that. Even though I am not in an impaled thigh kind of mood. Thankfully, it takes the crew so long to get ready, I have time to dream and feel and sense my way into this gravely impaled and injured thigh state. I look at my prosthetic impalement. a thing of art and grotesque beauty. Its gorgeous ripples of torn red, brown, and purple flesh cascade down off the impalement, corrugated by untold trauma. Just looking at the thing helps get me in the mood. I start trembling my leg, on purpose. Soon the trembling feels real and spreads throughout my body, into my mind. And I am feeling this injured impalement state.
The crew is staring, impatient. “We’re waiting.”
“What? Oh no, I was waiting for you.” They got it wrong. It is I who was waiting for them all this time… I was just spacing out into my Acting Zone while I waited. Let’s go. Wait, I have soot on my face in this scene, don’t I? Yes. And blood on my leg. And the prosthetic. I stop and get the soot from a plastic baggie, real soot from a recent California wildfire. I pour fake blood copiously on my impaled thigh. Check that the impalement is glued on firmly. We’re waiting…. Check. Check. Check. I got it all now. Now let’s go.
…The action is slow to get off the ground, coming in stops and starts. Much longer stops than starts. Is it my imagination, or does the crew take way too long to change lenses, shots, angles? We are doing simple stuff, the fall and the impalement. Scenes with only myself, to get us warmed up. Hardly any dialogue. Should be a breeze, I think. OK, there’s a few various shots and angles for this as it is an “action” shot. But I figured 6-7 pages today at least. Maybe ten! But we’re working out the kinks. And boy are there kinks.
After lunch, I start to fret. Two crew members spend gobs of time teaching each other the intricacies of their gear and their shooting philosophies. Come on, this isn’t a Socratic get together on the Athens market square. We have a movie to shoot in the middle of the desert. Most of the other crew members take the time as a chance to get in their umpteenth cigarette break of the day. Every time I turn around, there they are, gossiping and smoking, smoking and gossipping, and trading shop talk. It sets my teeth on edge, the smoking and talking on my dime. At one point after lunch, I tell a crew member we need to get a move on and get things done faster. This crew member looks at me like I am a Martian who just uttered unintelligible ET gibberish, the wide open eyes staring at me like I just wet my ET pants. Did I just not talk? …The pace stays just as slow as before.
The afternoon rolls on. The sun starts casting long shadows. A whole day and we’ve shot two pages! All non verbal easy stuff that should have gone much faster. We are at least three or four scenes behind. And I want to cry. Yup, lots of kinks to iron out. I should have hired a 1st AD to kick people’s butts. Apparently, when I do it, I just sound like a Martian uttering garbled ET speak who just wet its ET pants. I choose not to get too left brain and Nazi about it, choosing to stay in my right brain actor zone. So I settle for a sort of slow motion Zen movie-making style that goes at a snail’s pace. In between, gossiping and cigarette smoking and shop talk lectures abound… Zen. Just stay Zen.
The impalement scene is finally done.
“Can we please hurry and shoot the rattlesnake scene? The chicken gizzards have rotted. They can’t wait another day.”
For once, I must not sound like ET. We all bust ass to get to the top of a blustery hill that makes a great rattlesnake setting before the sun sets. We are rewarded with the most beautiful full desert moon. I stare at it with rapture for a moment. “OK, let’s go people. It won’t last.” Now the DP is hurrying me. Ironic.
All right, here are the raw materials we have to turn this into a violent, ominous, killer rattlesnake scene. We have a fake rental rattlesnake, made of some polyurethane material that’s seen better days (is its head actually falling off? Yup, it’s dangling by a polyurethane lump or two). Then we have a vicious-looking rattlesnake head with savage eyes and open fangs I bought on Ebay (it stinks of old shoes when you smell it, so I think it’s the real thing), and there’s some rattlesnake skin, also from Ebay. And the bloody chicken gizzards from the 24-hour desert Walmart, now rotting. They exist so I can pretend I’m gutting the snake. I also have a jackknife and fake blood.
OK, let’s set it all up. The rattlesnake is sneaking through the brush, following my bloody trail left by the impalement. You don’t know how hard it is to pour enough blood so your boots leave a trail of blood. But we finally get that on camera. Done. Now the snake slithering through the desert sand. It’s supposed to work, the guy who rented it out tied a nylon string you’re supposed to pull to make it look like it’s slithering around. But the old polyurethane slithers more like old frozen crepey skin from an old buzzard. A fake one made of plastic. Ludicrous. We try pulling the snake, slithering the snake, letting it lie still, nothing works. It doesn’t look real. So much for the $300 dollar a week rental. We finally settle for leaving the snake still in the sandy brush. One crew member does manage to put the nylon string on the tail and shake it so it looks like it’s rattling its tail. That part works.
I get the bright idea to bury the snake’s almost decapitated foam head in the sand and put the vicious open fang snake head I bought on Ebay on top of it instead, so it looks like this fang head is coming out of the body, about to strike as I kill it. I take a jackknife and pretend to hack off its fang-slobbering head. Bam! A little editing magic and it’ll work. I hope. We’ll just have to buy stock footage of a slithering rattlesnake and edit it in.
On to the skinning and gutting. The yellow gold moon is now super low on the horizon, mega big and bright. The DP gets excited. Something about a Super Moon or a Strawberry Moon. “Hurry, let’s do it now!” With the Mega Moon behind me, I come up into frame from below as if I’d had just hacked the head off. I pretend to skin the snake with my jackknife. I studied Youtube videos on how to do this. I could probably skin a real one. I got this. Only I don’t. The snake’s crepey old plastic-foam skin doesn’t move right and the knife just kind of slides over it. Plus I’m hampered by the fact I can’t actually stab and gut this lumpy good for nothing snake, much as I would really like to obliterate it to bits. It would cost me upwards of $1000.
Now the gutting of the snake… and the rotting chicken gizzards. After a day in the desert sun, they must be crawling with Salmonella, e coli, and who knows what. They certainly smell like it. Squeamishly, I dig my hands into the gizzards and try my best to make it look like long snake guts. I pull to try and elongate them. But the gizzards are short and stubby without tension and they keep breaking up. After five tries and most of the chicken gizards destroyed on the ground around me, I finally make a somewhat real-looking pull. They hold long enough for the camera to catch them being pulled out of the lumpy snake. Oh, I hope this works. I fling the snake on my back and take off in the moonlit night.
The DP is ecstatic over her moonlit shots. Strawberry Moon or Wild Moon or whatever it’s called. I’m still wondering how I will make that crepey lumpy snake look real as I clean chicken gizzards off the ground. No sense in getting a coyote sick with Salmonella.
Whew! It’s in the can! The moon is down and we have two and a half pages of my movie shot! I survived my first day of shooting!
Our cold and tired crew piles into the car caravan, each of us wondering what deliciousness Mountain Lady has cooked up for dinner.
And no, there will be no call sheets. You got that? NO CALL SHEETS! Tomorrow, back for more indie moviemaking high jinks, same time, same place. And that’s your call sheet.
BLASTOFF! ‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE MY FILM SHOOT
The night before…
My first day shooting my film can’t be tomorrow because…well, I’m not ready! Nothing’s packed. I get that nightmare feeling I used to get in grade school; I’d dream I got up so late for school, I’d find myself reading in front of the class… in my pajamas! God, not the pajama nightmare again. I stare at the devastation my apartment has become. Every square inch of the floor – and furniture – is covered with stuff ready for movie mobilization. But yet not ready. A mess. I cannot be caught in my pajamas on the first day of my shoot.
My beautiful homemade prosthetics, the impalement and the heart, are carefully packed with lots of buffer around them. Catering and motel reservations made. Film props are roughly categorized and boxed in mostly their proper places. Overnight changes of clothing and toiletry articles…I’m still in my pajamas on that one. Better get packing.
I will make this very organizational. Streamlined. Methodical. But… the packing soon disintegrates into a desperate throwing and re-organizing of articles, props, clothing, helter skelter into various bags and boxes. I guess things weren’t as well categorized as I had thought. This is not the way a movie should be prepared for, probably. But it’s almost midnight now, and I have two hours of driving into the desert before reaching the motel, to then get up and be ready at the crack of 7am. And my filmmaking debut.
So the throwing grows more frantic. When all the bags and boxes are packed and bulging in a most haphazard, unmethodical, unstreamlined, uncategorized way, I guess I am ready. I bring the giant rental SUV around to the front of my apartment and just throw stuff in. I shove the generator way back to make more room.
Oh wait. The gallons of water for me and my crew tomorrow. I run back in the house and get those. Finally I think I’m ready. I have checked and re-checked every prop I will need. It’s all there. Let’s go. Oh! The freshly revised scripts – and the hard drives to transfer the footage to. I run back in and get those. Almost forgot. That wouldn’t have been good. I make a bathroom pit stop, see a tiny sewing kit in a half open drawer. Take it. Why not? I don’t know it now, but boy will I need it.
One last check of my emails on the computer. A crew member wants to know where are the call sheets. Call sheets? Wasn’t giving you the motel address enough? How’s this for a call sheet? Meet me outside my motel room door at 7am. We don’t need no stinkin’ call sheets! What is he thinking? If he thinks this is another run-of-the-mill well-planned methodical movie shoot where things are done right and everything is planned, he’s got another thing coming.
Finally, just past midnight, I hit the road. Halfway through the dark, starry, sleep-inducing midnight desert drive, it hits me. The snake guts! I need snake guts! We’re shooting the rattlesnake scene tomorrow (which is already today). Everything must stay on schedule to make the twelve to fourteen-day moviemaking blitz work. I remembered to stop and get the fake snake from the prop rental house but I forgot to get snake guts!
I hightail it off a freeway exit. Thanks, 24-hour desert Walmart. I walk to the meat section, half asleep. The rotten smell of semi fresh meat that’s about to go south knocks the sleep right out of me. I need something slimy, ropy, pale, smooth, slippery, snake-gut-like. Intestinal. But no, everything is very red and very meaty. The closest thing is a container of chicken gizzards, bloody, leaking, way too red, and looking several days too old. There’s nothing else. Don’t these desert people eat octopus and things like that? Well, chicken gizzards will have to make do. The thing starts to leak smelly rotten blood in the car, in spite of the two paper bags and two plastic bags it’s in. Ugh!
Two and a half hours of driving later, eyes mostly shut, nose and senses numbed by the rotten meat smell, I finally pull into the motel. I noisily (but quietly as possible) haul myself and some of the must-have stuff into the motel room, trying not to wake my roommate, the DP. Her blond head peeks half out from under the covers, makes a moaning sound of angst, and dives back down again. Sorry.
I set the chicken gizzards quietly on the table. As if that will make up for my noisy entrance. Now, that was stupid. I should have left the gizzards in the car, where it’s a gazillion degrees below zero. The high desert in March is positively Siberia-like. They’ll rot in here. Oh well. I’m not going back out there.
I quickly super-glue my movie boots (the sole is flapping around and I keep tripping), take a shower, put finishing touches to my best and final impalement prosthetic, and finally fall into bed at 3am. Whew! Four hours to go.
As I look over my script, trying to get into my acting zone, I drift off to sleep, wondering if the crew will show up… I guess I could have checked with the 3am motel desk clerk, see if they’re here. Too many details. I can only keep so many details in my head. No more details. … Is it true? Am I really making a movie tomorrow (today) …? It seems surreal. Will they show up…?
LOCATION SCOUTING – THE VERY BEGINNING
Sept. 4, 2017
Yes! I’m makin’ movies! These are pics from my location scouting for my new movie I am making, “Dead Weight”. A woman-in-the-desert survival story. Think of it as “The Revenant”, except instead of the arctic tundra of the Northwest, it’s the SoCal desert, and instead of Leo DiCaprio, it’s me – Anna Maganini, and instead of revenge, this story is about redemption. Stay tuned.