Working with Murphy 4: Digital and Collaboration Atrophy

Murphy’s Law comes into play even with the most idealistic intentions.

A friend of a friend initiated a collective that eventually was called Group Therapy, the stated objective being that each weekend we could all be working on a new short and keep up our crafts for the sake of keeping active and having something to show.  It was to be a democracy where anyone interested would submit short scripts that could reasonably be shot with limited locations over a weekend and these would be voted on so that we might have four to do over a cycle of a month.

A script I had written four years before in a batch of other scripts, Support Group, now had a dated resolution but it was one location and a lot of characters so I modified it a bit and at the last minute slapped on a new title page, “Stereotypes Anonymous.”  It was one of the four scripts that got enough votes to get the go-ahead.  Maybe because some of our group were actors and there were a number of roles.  Chris, another member of the team, was initially supposed to direct it.  I thought I would detach from it and see what someone else does.  The Chris got a paid opportunity that made a conflict so it fell to me. Once I had worked out a seating plan and storyboarded it, I was then more committed. I modified the script to allow a couple of gimmicks that were new, and ultimately the only things people liked about the finished movie.  We were the last project slated to be shot, with fewer resources. But a lot of people came through with combined connections.  Somebody got us a karate dojo to shoot in, which reads basically as a room.  Somebody got us a real handgun for a character to wear.  Even though I wanted a gold charm SHAPED like a gun.  Instead it was a black weapon against a black t-shirt.  Someone got a Samuri sword which also allowed us to have an amusing scene people did not know how to react to.  I won’t link to this video, because it didn’t really set the world on fire.  But I enjoyed most of the people working on it.

A 360 degree pan of the circle of participants did not have the impact intended in the storyboard.  Instead of literally being in the center and panning around it needed to have the impact of floating past people, wide angle, with the camera close to the actors and maybe on a jib arm of some sort.  The short has a number of image ideas that I may try again in another project.  There is one soft focus shot that bothers me.  The owner of the camera was shooting and I may have stopped pestering him to check the focus by zooming to sharpen before each shot.  By not risking offense, I ended up with a soft shot.

There is bold content in “Stereotypes Anonymous” and I have to own the fact that it is very much my voice, dark and politically incorrect.  The intention was to cast people from the written categories and have them demonstrate the absurdity of their associated stereotypes.  The Asian girl wears a kimono and likes to take photos of the group and when outraged pulls a sword.  There is a gay man who likes to smoke and make snobbish remarks.  We shot it under the gun in one day, with actors needing to leave early.  Because I had storyboarded it we got away with moving from the few establishing shots to smaller groups within the circle. But the energy and sense of reaction or tension that might have existed earlier in the day of the shoot – which is hard to quantify – was lost. The upside was that when an actor had a rough time with his lines we could be patient and he didn’t have as many eyes on him.

Ultimately the editor of the group was busy with someone else’s project so I had to outsource and pay for that out of my own pocket. Had this project come together a year later, I would have had my own editing software.  Had it come together five years later, I would have also had a better camera than the one being used.  But it is the human resources that are the real value.  Which brings us to the next controversy.

After choosing the scripts we were going to produce that month, a fundraising event was organized.  I don’t know how much went into the pot but it would be a meaningless figure here.  Next came the ramp up for the following series of shorts.  One of the group founders decided that this time we would begin with fundraising and then choose the scripts.  Many had been read for the next session so we had an idea what might be the options but no voting had been done.  The plan was to canvas local businesses and ask them to buy an ad in the program for the screenings of the last batch of films at the National Film Board John Spotten theater.  A few of us questioned it without being especially articulate as to what might go wrong.  We could not anticipate what Murphy’s law had in store.  That is often the case.  The founder was one of the best canvassers and raised more than a  thousand dollars.  Then he thought why should he just put that into the pot for the group and subject his own script to a vote and possibly not have it chosen strictly on merit.  The movie he wanted to make was more arty and the narrative complicated and it also had many scenes and locations, so it was not following the perimeters of low budget and single location.  He convened meetings in which he advised those who could attend that he and the co-founder had decided the money raised (ostensibly for movies yet to be voted for, and by screening films everybody worked on) would be allocated first to his own film and after that any other films would be voted on. This caused me and others to protest and ultimately many of us left.  A bunch that stayed and continued with the founder called themselves Splinter Group and a couple of them may still have animosity to me or others for not playing along with the new paradigm.  Had we anticipated this and articulated the danger early on, I do not know if it would averted the problem but it would have posed the question:  Should money determine which movie gets produced?  Should fundraising determine which script is chosen?  In the end, all of the funds were used up on the art film and its director never screened it or uploaded.  I have never seen it.  He had a nice chat with me years later while I was working as a guard outside of a bank (exactly how you want to meet previous creative collaborators). He said people had copies of it but it didn’t turn out the way he wanted.

Here are some odds and ends from the next project under discussion:

The next year I set out to shoot a feature on Super 8 Film.  I spent about $600 on rolls of stock, thinking that the developing would just be a matter of dropping it at Shopper’s Drug Mart and that it was covered in the purchase price as it had been for decades (or at least since the days I was in film school).  But that policy ended.  I fit the main shoot into a week off from work.  I did shoot some of the with about 10 rolls of the stock and used a video camera to record sound and some of that came together in an edit but it just wasn’t as presentable as I had hoped.  An actor fell out at the last minute and I had to step into a role and had not memorized my own writing.  I also realized that I was excessively tired; later in the year I would be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  I was not the only one feeling tired either.  At the outset I had asked each prospective actor if they actually have the time to do a film and that I didn’t want it interfering with their work or school.  Once filming was well under way, I discovered the actors – especially our lead – showing up dead tired.  They were both doing their night jobs and going to school and then showing up without sleep.  On a certain level it seemed to work in some footage because it was about mind-reading. But it is not something I would have I was asked well into the film by a friend of a friend who had volunteered to be “producer” whether I would then allow him to be credited as co-director so that he could have a feature credit on his directing CV.  I had to say no.  He claimed that the lead actress had told him if he is not allowed to co-direct she will leave the project.  I called her up and asked if this is what she said.  She said no.  The whole point was for me to break into a feature.  Some of my scheduling was reasonable but racing against the clock was not always working.  Because of the producer presenting his hidden agenda, I decided to contact everyone and cancel the rest of the film.  Once it had been stopped, I had more time to look over my script and storyboard sketches and reassess.  Off and on, the reassessment has taken 13 years and counting.  Different movies have come along with a similar emphasis, so I have taken the material I cared about and had to graft it onto a different paradigm each time.

The above describes the second time I tried to initiate that feature.  The first scene shot was with an actor I have since used for several other projects but who ghosted me after the first shoot.  I might still use the footage.  It was just an attack scene in a part of the old LIFT building that was then under renovation.

The third time I tried to shoot, the third time I had cast the lead, was with an actor I had met when I was asked last minute to act in someone’s short.  The actor across from me was talented and gave an emotional performance that likely was not well served by my own lack of learned lines, the filmmaker’s lack of costume for me as a priest, and the lack of a confessional book. . . frankly the overriding sense that these two young guys had a camera that had fallen off of a truck and it was just being held off the shoulder because they didn’t have a tripod and there were “no rules” about filmmaking.  None of that inspired confidence.  They took none of my advice and so there was way too much recorded of me flubbing lines and likely no way to cut around it.  In hindsight, I should have taken the director aside and given him an ultimatum.  Some actors will definitely cram for a shoot and meet that challenge.  I didn’t.  I thought I had, but my memory let me down.  Still, it could have worked with specific camera decisions. Would have been nice to have that young actor’s performance.  Maybe when it became clear that the scene would not cut and had to be scrapped, that guy abandoned my project.  I shot with this guy on the Toronto subway, in the elevator of the CN Tower, and at a workplace of mine when the building was empty.  We got some good shots in.  I SHOULD HAVE had some sort of meeting with at least my villain and a couple of other actors, so he would have a sense of the team and community making the film so it is not just me.  He went with his girlfriend on a holiday to Prague and a couple of other places, so I tweaked the script a bit for the remainder of the shoots but when he returned even though he agreed to meet to pick up a hard copy of the revised screenplay he never showed up.  And returned no voice-mails.  I have imagined either he thought the script was just too many mini-shoots or he might have been angry that my unprepared acting ruined the other guy’s movie.

I finished shooting some rolls of Super 8 film in my home town on holiday that year, just burning through it thinking it was wasted on images of my parents and other family members but years later that is the footage that had value, especially after my dad passed away.  I had a similar experience with rolls of 35mm still film in college.  I would think I’ll shoot out the roll on kids and family and then I’m thankful to have those images when the project itself was otherwise rote and meaningless.

Both of the projects mentioned in this entry of the blog are having elements combined for one of my next projects.  Even though I am writing this from the most gun shy phase of my life, knowing how so many things can collapse. And this is only some of it.