Working with Murphy 5: Ten Years in Clown Town

I made a short for Daryl Gold’s hard Liquor and Porn Comedy Film Festival.  I won’t leave a link to it because to be honest this is one that – even though it played well and kicked off a character Jay Ould played in several shorts and monologue videos – didn’t project a production value that ages very well.  For the most part I’m referring to framing and the fact that it was done with a 3 chip camera we borrowed but had it been done two years later it would have been HD.  I had been wanting to make something about sexual repression and had made several attempts at screenplays that I have submitted to contests over the years in those iterations but now that Porno the Clown was established as a character I thought of building it around him.

Producer 1 was a neighbor of Jay who was working with him on an unrelated film.  My first draft of a Porno the Clown feature was a clunky hodgepodge where I wove my old material in with the new character and tried to make him fit into an old premise and serve as a mentor.  Producer 1 didn’t think it was the right “format” meaning three act and simple Syd Field, which I thought I had been adhering to.  He suggested the three of us, myself, actor Jay and he fill out paperwork for a corporation that would then make the movie.  When I showed up to sign the documents, Producer 1 was not listed and he said he had decided he doesn’t have to be part of the corporation.  I absolutely should have firmly put on the breaks then. There was for a few years a corporation Jay and I had signed on to that was ostensibly to make the movie but I don’t really know why it was necessary.  As far as I am concerned, we let it elapse. As the sole writer, I was the only person that really had to be tied to the project.  I had been led to believe that since Producer 1 was from America it might help guard a Telefilm tax credit from the current scar by the Harper government that if a movie’s content did not meet a “community standard” that was family friendly it could be denied its tax credit after the fact.  That spooked a lot of home grown producers.  Having this person tied to production was wise, I thought, and even necessary.  But I was wrong.  I’d like to think it was not just a ruse to get my actor tied to the project in case it blew up and I was tempted to get Danny DeVito to star instead.

There were several months in which I would write a four page outline and then sit with jay and producer 1 to read at the kitchen table and discuss, and sometimes more than one prospective outline.  There was a variation Producer 1 suggested which did not resonate for me and which did not originate with me so it would have been toiling in someone else’s factory and trying to get his “vision” right.  Another iteration I came up with was too scandalous, and so there was a stalemate for a while.  Then we met at Hooters for a beer (only time I had been in there but it seemed apt) and I had an approach that seemed to be accepted.  It still felt organic to what had come before.  Meanwhile Jay said he had met a financier who might fund or buy a series of Porno the Clown shorts.  I still had the energy and can-do attitude that I outlined and drafted about ten shorts, give or take.  Eventually a few would be shot but the deal never materialized. The producer moved and eventually disengaged likely in part because as time went on he had hypothesized about how the project could grow as celebrity cameos were brought in (something Jay wanted and I did not, since it was a distraction and my first feature) and that as the budget might get to a certain size investors might insist on someone else directing.  That, I had to say, would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. Whether or not I am the most experienced director and whether or not I am part of the Director’s Guild of Canada (I am sadly not), I still have to jump the hurdle of first feature.  I also will have had the whole thing storyboarded, which is the outward measure of direction as an art form.  I don’t factor in how a given director behaves on set, or his/her influence over a script.  How the director directs the audience, positioning them shot for shot or displacing them cut for cut, is how I evaluate a director’s work.  If I learn later that it was all delegated to the cinematographer or the editor, then I am less impressed.  I know the process I need to go through to feel good about my directing credit.

Time passed.  Porno the Clown Goes to Town was submitted to the Canadian Film Center Feature Film project a couple of times and finally to CineCoup as The Adventures of Porno the Clown.  In hindsight, the premise was already an uphill battle.  So if anyone said they got it and they were in and wanted to be involved I would just be relieved.

On April Fools day of 2014, there was a table reading of the draft at Jay’s place. Others might have been still en route and trying to find the place so Jay still had his cell phone on and might have gotten into texting during the read and missing a few cues.   The rhythm of the piece is almost as important as the dialogue.  The story itself is just a container for the stuff I really care about – specific lines and specific shots.  That contravenes what most people say about screenwriting, but I don’t care.  The skeleton just holds people together; it is the flesh and something ethereal that you actually like about them.   There was useful discussion afterward.  My friend Morgonn was reading and very helpful, though I’m not sure she would especially like the movie.  Two major local clown actors, Dave and Adam, participated.  Dave brought beer.    Adam took over much of the reading because I had not brought my glasses and he had the most energy. He gave the most dramaturgical input, suggesting that I place the backstory into the story proper and delay the introduction of the character Porno the Clown.  That was applied in the next draft.  Unfortunately a storyboard illustrator I had paid to re-draw my thumbnail storyboards had only done the beginning of the movie and most of that work was now unusable because I had changed the beginning and truncated other things to accommodate the change.  But the script had been improved in any case and I was still able to solve those problems myself.  What is noteworthy for the future is that there was not one peep of protest of concern about a character called Homo the Clown or jokes at his expense.  He was conceived as a self-styled snob who makes fun of the clothes or weight of others and kind of deserves a couple of zingers.  In the original short there was a character called Lesbo the Clown who was popular with the audience and ended up humiliating Porno the Clown so it was reasonable that yet another stereotype be represented as a clown persona.  There were any number of things that a given cast member or crew member might if they had their druthers pluck like a quill from a porcupine if I placated them enough to allow it.  Then I would end up with a sickly looking porcupine.  Better to say here is the script and use that as a litmus test for whether actors are appropriate for it, rather than amend the script to appease the politics and sensitivities of each person involved.

By October of 2016, there was a trend of scary clown videos distracting from the US election-driven discourse.  I suggested to Dave making a PSA about clowns not being so scary.  We ended up shooting it by the skin of our teeth as simple as it was.  We were doing it guerrilla style in the building of a local clown friend of Dave. We did get busted for shooting in one particular room I spotted, and then moved on with footage intact. I had the wrong data card for my camera, and thought it was just the battery.  But photographer Paul was there and let me use his camera.  At one point Dave referred to me as “the videographer” and I stifled the impulse to let out an Elephant Man declarative statement like, “I am not a videographer, I am a director!”

Before that short, we had a meeting.  One of the people with Dave and I was Tony who had been sent drafts of the script for some time since he was to play the Police Officer. But that idea was nixed.  I decided to press for an answer as to what he thought of the script for the Porno the Clown feature.  He said, “I did start reading a draft but I ran into a couple of jokes I considered punching down so I stopped reading.” I summoned the most polite reply I could think of, “Well, you have to follow your own gut.  No hard feelings if you don’t want to be in that one.”  With that he walked off and it wasn’t mentioned during the PSA shoot.     I thought now I have to put a police uniform onto someone else.  Maybe four months later in early 2017 I had a meeting at Jay’s and I know everyone of the small group (me and four people) had a copy of the latest draft of the script but I was doubtful it had been read.  Dave brought up having heard from someone unnamed that there is a scene where Homo the Clown is “beaten up on.”  We wasted some time with my interpretation that it meant physical assault.  Which did not occur in the script and would be out of place.  Also discussed in dribbles and drabs was the topic of improvisation.  I had attended many improv shows run by Dave and though I have most of the Christopher Guest movies and hear the commentaries I have never wanted to do an improvised feature, let alone trade out my hard-written and ten-years fine-tuned screenplay for random shtick and paraphrasing just so people don’t have to learn lines and rehearse.   For me, this live action cartoon is a chance to express very specific stylistic elements. I would be robbing myself of that follow-through if I didn’t give my writing a chance to be vindicated by following the script and give my direction a chance to be vindicated by following my storyboards.  I did not want to ride the horse in the direction it wanted to go, especially because what was the horse?

Producer 2 had been a guy who had told Jay he would like to produce the movie, and that was all I knew. imdb showed him as art department. I was to add him on facebook and then arrange to meet, which took a while.  When we met for coffee he showed up with a friend.  That didn’t help focus the meeting.  He then said that he also wanted to be production designer or art department, and that was where his head was at.  I mentioned that I already had spoken to a guy for art department. But he said both could work on it. He also admitted he hadn’t read the script because he is, “visual.” I regret that I didn’t do a full vetting and press for what aspects of producing he felt confident in because with this sort of small movie the producer doesn’t have a production manager and line producer and locations manager to delegate to.  Such a producer has to be all- purpose.  And with limited resources it may not be so stellar to point to the finished product and say, “I produced that.”  This is also the person I would have to rely on for the business end of things and to even ensure that the movie is listed on imdb. I remember talking schedule and targeting May and working around my niece’s wedding.  But I also feel that short meeting was not exploited enough by me and I have a habit of putting off difficult conversations. I have to change that in the future.

The police officer was no longer cast.  That meant about three roles had been cast, Porno the Clown was Jay, Dave was to play this written version of his persona Sketchy (which he had remarked in the past I had gotten right), and Amy who I had seen in a couple of plays was going to play Reverend Beth.  There was a mostly unspoken idea that we would reach out to some members of the local clown community, including a couple of women who had appeared in the short films for the sake of continuity.  But at the same time, ten years can change people.  Even three years might make a difference. Tony may have been the person who expressed concern about Homo the Clown, and he was not to be in the movie after backing out, and yet he was close to Dave.  Others in that circle could be influenced but there was no way the script would be influenced.  If that character or other non-PC elements were a deal breaker, the deal must be considered broken.  Dave had also been dating someone who had some sharp views in arguments on Facebook, strong enough that I expect she would be unlikely to like the movie I intended to make.  I would be naive to think that might not be a factor.  At the end of out meeting Producer 2 said that he could give us a few days for free but there would have to be some sort of payment and Dave then talked about some leads he might have on people within his circle who might have money to invest.  I was reticent about letting someone else pitch the movie to people, especially since the tone of the meeting seemed to indicate we might not want to make the same movie.

Here is a video recording I made from the Comedy bar when Jay and Dave took a skit and monologue I had written called Orgy Etiquette and adapted it into a two-hander for a live audience.  It is fun, but also not the process that I would want to follow for the feature.  It did however convince me to make Dave’s clown persona the side-kick or associate of Porno the Clown in the feature.

Dave said on Facebook twice in the same message that he was having second thoughts about being involved in the movie.  So I took away some pressure (or that was my intent) and said I guess in the book version of the script I could change the name of Sketchy to Sloshy.  In hindsight, he might have seen that as me not caring about his involvement, which is not the case.  He had been in a previous film of mine years before, Big Babies, and was an excellent presence.  But the years building his base in improv and clown may have also made him someone that might overshadow the movie and it might have been a popularity contest that I would absolutely lose.  Mutiny would not be good for a movie in mid-production.  There is the saying that a battle is won or lost before anyone arrives at the battlefield. And besides being a movie where I have to protect it from censors on the extreme right who may not like Reverend Beth and those on the extreme left who may not like jokes at the expense of Homo the Clown I also have to be on guard against the movie turning from the carefully storyboarded live action cartoon that is fun to direct into banal coverage (recording) of improvisation and then “finding” the movie in the edit when for years I knew exactly where the movie was.  No matter who you want to work with, it should be dictated by the material and the vision.  Also, none of us were getting any younger and the clown community was predominantly people pushing fifty or sixty trying to feel youthful dressing as naughty clowns.  The median age of the movie had to change if the factor of Dave was no longer part of it.  Sentimentally, I would always prefer to bring back actors I have worked with for continuity in life.  But we have to want to make the same movie. We did meet for lunch when I needed to get back my DVD of the It mini-series from him, which I thought I had written off when he lost interest in the project.  I’ve kept cordial enough over it, even though one particular clown has given me the stink eye when I showed up for a pirate ship improv show as one of two people in the audience.

Discussing my back-up plan of just making it a novel, I was told by Dave that all my characters sound the same.  This I find untrue.  In a movie or play, each actor will have his or her own vocal characteristics to distinguish them and on the page I have simply kept most lines short for the sake of the rhythm of certain runs of dialogue where lines play off of each other in rapid succession.  It is not practical to say that a comment one character needs a few words to make another needs half a page of rambling to get across. In improvisation or live theater, that kind of thing can be indulged and it may be true to real life, but in the verisimilitude of a live action cartoon, it is more stylized.  And that is indeed a leap of faith considering that so many comedy directors today get rid of anything heightened. There are grounded elements to the film and I don’t want it to be joke, joke, joke.  But as Dave observed about Pee Wee’s Holiday the support cast should not be trying to compete on the same energy level as the crazy lead. The same principle would apply to Porno the Clown.  Actors might rather be the “wavy line” element and have the text be bland, rather than have to ground the film with straight-line, stable performances and have what they say be the wavy line factor.  But it is a quirk of my own voice as a writer that I do like playing with words.

The fall of Harvey Weinstein and the resulting boost of the PoundMeToo movement also meant that if I did get Porno the Clown made as a feature the way I wanted and if there was a screening to promote and if I got into a festival and had to speak on a panel I would have additional factors to discuss which I would rather not.  Porno the Clown would still be about an older straight white guy lusting after mostly younger women. People get that for free on the news.  I had also seen Maren Ade’s film Toni Erdmann about a professional young woman who has to cope with having an embarrassing father from whom she is estranged.  That had been – and still is – a thematic thread of this movie, but some of the air was taken out of my enthusiasm when this one redeeming element has now been taken.  So I focused my energy on completing the novelization, which might be the only thing that sees the light of day at the time of this writing.  No doubt that I should have pushed and arranged more table readings in 2014 to maybe stir up more juice for the movie.  I have a tenancy to coast. I don’t know how much of the ten years was coasting.  A draft would be done, sent out for someone to read and comment on or a contest to reject it and then I would have another look.  Maybe I imagine I could have done more.  The work of writing and then sketching storyboards can be tedious but I can do it when I am punchy or obsessive and it is natural to me.  The rest is only worthwhile if it is in the service of that.  And yet there are people covering topical stories in the most pedestrian way and being praised for it, just jumping in there and making it less about authorship and more about just getting something done.  Good for them. I just have a different itch. So I don’t know of there is a lesson as to how to have avoided the breakdown of collaborations except to have been more careful about the the reason they are initiated.  They say success is to be like water willing to take the shape of any glass or container.  I don’t have that.  Once my idea becomes specific, a lot of agreement and even tedium is needed to bring that to life.