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.