Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Breathing Life into The Death of Alice Blue

How to make a vampire movie on a relative shoe-string? This is a big question, one that many articles and even books have been devoted to. Well maybe not so much on the vampire part, but I bet there’s a horror how-to for low-budget filmmaking. And you probably know or can guess the main contents: struggle for resources, impose on friends, encourage investors (apparently dentists are good) and get lots and lots of credit cards.

It makes sense that if you’re going to make a cake (your movie) you should have a good recipe. This is your blueprint on which all else is based, and it’s your script. I read what felt like a million script writing books and all of them said that it takes a minimum of six months to write a solid script. I don’t know how these books came up with this magic number, but that was exactly how long it took me to write The Death of Alice Blue. Of course the concept had been floating around my brain for quite awhile prior to my sitting down and writing, in fact since I had been a junior copywriter at an advertising agency, just like Alice Blue. And there’s no way around it, it’s work. I found sipping red wine helped to conjure the mood for me, and it is also perhaps why red wine became a plot device in The Death of Alice Blue.

Now that you have your recipe, you want the very best ingredients you can get - you’re not going to have a second chance. This means production values. With all your hard work in securing resources you are going to need luck. Or opportunities. Somehow you are going to have to find opportunities which may lurk in the most unsuspecting of places. We were very “lucky”. One great find was our location (and note that I did not write locations). Robert McKee in his book Story states that, movies been visual, the eye will become tired if a scene is set too long in a single location (generally speaking). He suggests you try to never have a scene last longer than one and a half minutes, or a page and a half of script. This is a huge hurdle for low-budget filmmaking. We really “lucked” out in discovering an old building with few tenants which had managers seeking to enter the film location rental business. So for them it made sense to give us a great deal so they could see what it was like and to have pictures for future clients of what could be done with the building. Consequently we were able to dress each floor as a different location, e.g. the Goth dance club, the living room, the crypts, cubicle land, offices, etc. There was also plenty of room for the different departments to setup camp. In other words we avoided a lot of expense and time in not having to travel all over town.

We were also very lucky in having relationships with extremely talented key crew members who were willing to go sleepless nights and cajole their friends into working. We were able to take advantage of a program offered by the actors’ union which meant we could afford good actors in return for giving them something of the (anticipated) take on the end. Acting is like your icing, and some would say presentation is everything.

Finally I’ll just mention shooting a film is like running a marathon, the demands on your body are extreme. You need to ensure you get sleep, eat and drink. If you don’t, not only will you be weak, but this will compound your stress levels and impair your decision making ability. I think this is easily forgotten.

Of peculiar incidents I remember, two come to mind. First, it seemed the building was haunted. I don’t think anyone saw anything concrete, but word got around, rumors spread. People were a little wary. One day some coffee was delivered. The coffee people had written “Thank you” in marker on the tops of the cups, but somehow the letters had gotten jumbled up. People getting coffee began puzzling over this. Someone suggested it was an evil spell. I still remember their wide-eyed looks of fear as they hesitantly took their coffee.

The second occasion was for our final fight scene. Many goths had been recruited for this. They were the real deal. As I supervised the choreography for a fight scene one of the goths looked at me eagerly and said something. I wasn’t sure what he said so he repeated himself, “are you real?” Ah, he was asking me if I was a real vampire. I hesitated how to reply, thinking it a very odd situation. The goth casting director started motioning at me with a very worried look in his eyes. I turned to the goth and said no, I wasn’t a vampire. But sometimes I wonder, with that fellow being so concerned, what would have happened if I said I was a vampire?

Best of opportunities with your filmmaking.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

WorldFest Houston: A Real Bang-up

WorldFest Houston (or alternatively The Houston International Film and Video Festival) was exactly as its poster might have you think it was.  It was rather surreal.  It was also a lot of fun and a very generous festival.  And it went out with a real bang.
Alex and I flew down to Houston from Atlanta to attend the screening of The Death of Alice Blue and the closing night awards ceremony at WorldFest Houston.   The festival was generous in providing for our accommodation, inviting us (no strings attached) to the closing night gala, and reimbursing us for a good chunk of the price of airfare.  

The screening went well.  Things began to seem a little surreal as I descended the hotel escalator to the gala and was greeted by the festival's Executive Director, Hunter Todd.  For some reason Mr. Todd was dressed in full regalia as a boat Captain.  Mr. Todd is a very friendly and personable man.   
Mr. Todd and another man were co-MCs of the evening.  Here I might add we were provided with a wonderful dinner which consisted of many courses and different wines for each course. The festival participants were different from the participants at other festivals I had attended.  They weren't scruffy like the indie filmmakers in Atlanta, nor as chic and polished as participants of the Toronto or Berlin film festivals.  I had the fleeting impression of being on the Love Boat. 

The guests sat in tension as they ate through their many courses, waiting for the awards to be announced.  Alex and I were delighted to receive two gold awards for The Death of Alice Blue, one for Best Fantasy Feature and one for Best Special Effects.

One person at our table was a Texan who suggested it might be fun to show the Canadians what a "real" Texas bar was like.  The suggestion was taken up by all and off we went into the night.

One thing a "real" Texas bar apparently is not, is a faux British pub like so many we have in Toronto.  Instead it must go in the other direction, it must have a lot of rough hewn wood about - wood benches, wood picnic tables and wood planks on the wall.   In this environment I asked the Texan (a fireman by trade) if it was true that a lot of people in Texas had concealed guns.  I was assured that quite a lot of people had them, but I wasn't to worry, there was a law prohibiting guns in government buildings and in bars.   Furthermore, I was told, this was a good thing, for example if someone had a gun and was threatening your girlfriend you could...   

On the way back to the hotel we were nearly killed.  All of us.  A young man was driving his car at a terrific speed.  I have a clear memory of his suddenly awoken face as we crossed the street.  He was heading right for us.  Fortunately he had the good sense to swerve into a pole.  He missed us by about five feet.  There was considerable confusion.  He was pulled from his car unconscious.  He started muttering and appeared intoxicated.  The fireman assured us he would be alright.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Exotics Down South - The Atlanta Fim Festival

In April of 2009 The Death of Alice Blue travelled down south to participate in the 32nd  Atlanta Film Festival.  Right off the top it was put forward that The Death of Alice Blue and its filmmakers were exotics from the far far North.  This is what the Atlanta Film Festival guide had in part to say about The Death of Alice Blue: "There is something about The Death of Alice Blue that has a quintessential Canadian feel to it... filled with dark dry humor and a pleasant quirkiness that is evident from the acting to the costumes to the set design.." 

For our part, Alex and I found Atlanta to be exactly as you might a Southern city to be.  It was very laid back, warm (though the locals didn't think so), fragrant, and manifest of the legendary Southern Hospitality.  One example of this last point was the festival's main representative, Executive Director Gabriel "Gabe" Wardell.  Gabe was young, approachable, and extremely helpful.  He was concerned with how everything was going for everyone, ensured we had rides everywhere we needed, and even offered festival and post-festival advice.  

The hub of The Atlanta Film Festival seemed to be "Filmmaker's Lounge", really a popular artsy bar.   Here between film screenings scruffy filmmakers would sip free beer and exchange war stories and advice about the DIY world of indie filmmaking.

The Atlanta Film Festival held nightly events.  One such was themed on a game called "Beer Pong", the subject of a participating documentary.  This game was a variation on Ping Pong which included plastic cups of beer and much drinking of said beer.  Referees kept order.

We really knew we were in the south after the screening of a documentary about the conviction Edgar Killin, a preacher and reputed KKK member, for involvement in the murders of several civil rights workers in the sixties.  As the Q and A started, the filmmaker called upon an audience member who stood up and said to the effect "while we may not be in Tennessee, Georgia has five hundred outstanding lynchings to this day".

The screenings for The Death of Alice Blue went well.  The film got good houses, particularly considering these were matinees.  Alex and I were more prepared and calm so our Q and A was more open, honest, and funny.  Once again a comparison to Terry Gilliam was brought up.  This happened also outside.  Since then I've refreshed my memory as to what is distinct about Gilliam's work, and I can now see why these comparisons come up.  I think it is a good thing.

Unfortunately we could not attend our second Q and A as we had a plane to catch to the next festival.

Of the many great people we met there two stand out, Miracole and Chris Burns.   Miracole is a Comic Book model and a model for genre conventions.  Chris is an actor and filmmaker. Miracole's car is a sedan which has had all logos removed and its window's tinted.  It resembles some FBI/CIA/secret agency vehicle.  Alex and I quite enjoyed the spirit of this couple.  They were another example that Southern Hospitality is alive and well in Atlanta, Georgia.

So it was in the American South that The Death of Alice Blue with its "pleasant quirkiness" represented the exotic world of the far far north.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Gothic Talk

After the Sunday MoMA screening of The Death of Alice Blue, Alex Appel (producer/star) and myself (director/writer) were interviewed by gothic centric webcastor Twilight Vision. In the interview we discuss the making of The Death of Alice Blue and I reveal the origins of my name. Two audience members make an unexpected appearance.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The MoMA, NYC, and the World Premiere

The Museum of Modern Art.  New York City.  What an auspicious rollout for The Death of Alice Blue.  We were very honored and elated.  Needless to say we were also pretty nervous.

The World Premiere of The Death of Alice Blue had finally arrived, late March 2009.  We were part of the Canadian Front programme at the Museum of Modern Art.  We were programed with seven other Canadian films, including ones by Bruce MacDonald and Denys Arcand.  It was the MoMA's opinion of what was happening in Canadian film this year.  After all the hard work and time, it was hard to believe we were finally going to have an audience, and at what a venue.

One of the actresses from the movie, Laura Thorne, was going to make the trek down along with some friends.  As it turned out, she and her friends had friends in New York, so we had our own cheering section.  Which was excellent.  

We had no way of knowing how the audience would react.  I've learned that audiences can be quite different.  They'll laugh at something another audience wept through.  And I've learned that different venues attract different audiences.  

The theatre was packed, some four hundred heads were poking above their seat backs as we entered.  Larry Kardish, senior curator, introduced The Death of Alice Blue by saying it was a post-modern deconstructionist vampire tale.  I had a feeling he was joking and it made me smile.  He then called Alex and myself up to the front.   I mumbled something about having spent some time in advertising and having spent some time as a vampire, a joke Alex gave me, and that seemed to go over well.  Alex and I headed to the far back so tense we could hardly walk.

It's different than when it's a live performance, you can't react and modulate for the crowd, you just sit and hope they're going to get into the swing of things, or else all fails and there's nothing you can do.  Fortunately this crowd was receptive, in fact they amazed me with just how well they got certain bits, bits I had even forgotten about.  They totally got the "quirky" humor, they reminded me of just why I had been so excited and amused in the beginning.  I noticed something of a polarizing effect, there were those who were literally slapping their knees with merriment, and there were those who sat bemused.  Anyway, I was thrilled with the reaction, and I told myself polarization was a good thing.

Then Alex and I were called up to answer some questions, we called up Laura Thorne.  We were still nervous but we did our best.   And the questions were good ones.  There was repeated interest in our theatre backgrounds and how that had affected what had just been seen.  This was something I had never thought about, and right there I began to realize our theatre background (and I might add experimental theatre background) had affected The Death of Alice Blue.  I had thought there was a feeling akin to Jim Jarmusch or Hal Hartley films, of awkwardness, futility, and absurdity - that out of futile attempts to communicate or connect came this great hilarity.  This was something in our plays anyway, but there was more.  The audience noticed the physicality of some of the acting which at times is Chaplinesque, or silent screen era, and then can be completely deadpan.  And we had used both stage and screen actors, and their styles could be differentiated.  All this is a good thing and and is a means to achieving the humor of despair I have described above.  There is also this sense of fun and experimentation in everything.  It is whimsical and has a child-like delight.  Narrative is not the be all and end all, it is the hangar on which we drape our coat.  So a lot of our sensibility in creating theatre transported over to The Death of Alice Blue.  This may seem natural, but it was never a conscious thought.

One lady made a comparison to another director which would happen again.  She cited Terry Gilliam and in particular Brazil.  This surprised me as while I have seen some of his films I hadn't thought of him for a long time.  From what I remember this makes sense and is a nice compliment.  Clearly I've got to check him out again.  

She also made mention of the feral animals in the movie.  This took me back a bit, but it is true that they are there, and are there to illustrate Alice's growing powers.  It was interesting she picked this out as one of our more obvious scenes involving feral animals, wild dogs, we had not been able to get.  I was pleased this story line was evident, and that in being evident it harkened to what a vampire is about.  There were other quite erudite questions, some about music and art direction, but these seem to have stuck out for me.

So feeling quite elated, with our heads in the clouds, we and our posse went off to celebrate at a discotheque high in the sky (the name of which I forget).

Our second screening went equally well.  As it was a Sunday matinee I noticed quite a lot of white haired heads in the audience.  I thought they might be put off, but this was not the case.  One kind lady smiled at me at the end and said since she had sat down her headache had gone and it had not returned.

Afterwards we did an interview with the vampire centric web show Twilight Vision.  You should be able to see it on the net soon.

Ah, New York, New York, you didn't disappoint.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Building and The Blue Thing - Making The Death of Alice Blue

With blueprint in hand, it was now necessary that we begin the process of building this movie.  I say we as Alex Appel, producer and title character, was the other main instigator in the creation of The Death of Alice Blue.  Fortunately we had some collaborators ready to come on board.  These included Steve Thorne, Cinematographer,  Anthony Morassutti, Production Designer and Mike Stewart, Editor.  Together we had created several shorter format works which had gone on to win awards, screen at festivals and fill us with some sense of confidence.  These works were Elevator, a P.S.A., Everything Kills Me and I'm In, two independently made music videos, and a short called Good Stuff.  Through our working together we had developed a visual style and a sensibility.  We had also learned how to communicate effectively, in fact we had almost developed a whole new language.  We were lucky to find our line producer in Hartley Gorenstein, who had worked on I'm In.

We budgeted the movie at $300,000 Canadian.  A large sum for your average person, and we held no pretension that a government or other funding body was going to step forward.  Fortunately I had done well doing voice overs for commercials, and with savings from that, and a huge amount of credit cards, we had our first good chunk of change to go towards the movie.  Also fortunately several private investors came on board.  As is often the case with indie films, you think "if I can just get it into the can, I'll worry about post later".

Our location was key to making The Death of Alice Blue.  We had stumbled upon it during the making of I'm In, and it turned out the people in charge of this place were looking to get into the locations business.  They offered us a very good deal.  It was a beautiful old building at 100 Adelaide St. W.  in Toronto.  It didn't have too many tenants.  This may have been due to the fact that it was old: the elevators were slow and the decor was out of date.  It was perfect for our needs.  Furthermore we could occupy 4 floors.  This would save us money and time in not having to travel to various locations.  Each floor was dressed as a different location.  As an incredible bonus the building had an eerie and crypt-like basement, a location specified in the script, but one which would have proved hard to come by.  Within the basement was the oddest machine.  It looked like something out of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.  I was told it was a "mercury refractor" from 1929 and it was meant to generate electricity.   Amazingly it was still operational, it powered one of the slow moving elevators.  The mercury refractor was a glass octopus contraption that held a blue jelly which would glow in bursts.  As soon as I saw this thing I knew we had to incorporate it, and we did.

We were not always lucky in finding ways to fulfill the script's demands.  As Alice's preternatural powers grow she unconsciously gains control over animals.  The script had it that after leaving a Goth club she is chased by vampires and local dogs come to her rescue.  This was quite a requirement for our tiny budget and timeline.  We found someone who had three dogs and asked the person to come to set with the dogs.  The dogs were never used, but the person was good spirited about it.  We covered Alice's control over animals using smaller and sometimes stuffed animals.  This is a reference to Dracula's control over feral beasts.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Script and the First Alice Blue

The script took six months.  This, I have been told, is the least amount of time it takes to write a script, however I had been concocting the idea for sometime in my mind.  Like Alice Blue I had been a junior copywriter at an ad agency, I thought the advertising world might be something the average person would find interesting.  As for vampires, I don't believe anything need be said.  Writing a narrative feature length movie script was something new to me.  Previously I had written experimental, anti-narrative plays.   In the end it was interesting to see how my sensibility, affected as it was by theatre, came through in the movie.  The combination of theatre with cinema and the irreverent sense of the experimental are to me some of the best aspects of The Death of Alice Blue, which I never saw until it began screening for live audiences.  

I found it curious when I came across an old review for a play I had written.  I thought the reviewer's sentiment might equally be applied to The Death of Alice Blue.  The play was called (misspelling intended) Lanquisht and Pale and featured a young woman named Alice Blue (I had completely forgotten I had used the name before).  The reviewer, from Toronto's Eye Weekly summed up her thoughts with: "though stuffier folks might be put off by Bench's seductively silly artistic sensibility".

For further info on Toothin Theatre and our exploits, check out park-bench.info.