Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Holyman Undercover," Part 1, Pre-Production

Original Mock-Up of the DVD case*
You'll have to forgive me.

It was my intention to talk about the making of my films in the order of their production, but, frankly, there was so much work in such a brief period of time that it's all a blur.  It's hard to figure out what project we wrote in what order.  I do believe "Holyman Undercover" was the first script that Tim and I were commissioned to write after "Hidden Secrets."  However, we might've been commissioned to write a still unproduced Christmas film before this one.  Who knows.

This project began innocently enough.  America's favorite Mennonite, David A.R. White, had been performing his "Holyman Undercover" one-man show in churches around the country for a couple of years.  The show was co-written by David and Jill Gatsby, the daughter of B-movie master Larry Cohen ("It's Alive," "Maniac Cop,") and the niece of the murdered Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen.  The show was loosely based on David's own true life story.  David was born in a Mennonite community in Kansas, and, while attending Moody Bible Institute, decided to move to Los Angeles to become an actor, only to find himself cast a few months later as a regular on the hit TV series "Evening Shade" with Burt Reynolds.  The one-man show exaggerated his story to an absurd extreme.

Sometime while "Hidden Secrets" was still in final post-production, David called and asked if Timothy Ratajczak and I would like to catch his show while he performed it in nearby New Jersey.  We said yes.  Tim thought it was just a friendly invitation, but I knew it was work.  We drove to a small church in an area of New Jersey so far off the beaten track that bears actually feasted in their trash cans.  (Sadly, there were none when we were there.)  The event was organized for the church by fellow Sons of the Desert member Paul Castiglia and his wife Barbara, who have become good friends over the years.  (Read this blog: Sacred Silly)

Sean, David A.R. White and Debbie in New Jersey

David's show surprised me.  Mainly because of how risque it was for an entertainment designed to play in churches or before religious groups.  I was particularly amazed by the amount of drug humor, but, hey, what can you say?  It seemed to be working for him.  Afterwards, David popped the question:  Would we be interested in adapting the one man show to the silver screen?  The answer was, as always, yes.  Fellow scribes, the answer to whether you take a paid assignment is always yes.  That said, I had misgivings from the beginning.

Generally, I have always been considered funny.  Not just looking, either.  Throughout my schooling, My humorous essays and stories have always been appreciated by my teachers and fellow students alike.  It could be said that I moved from the mailroom to the production department of the advertising agency Smith Burke & Azzam as a result of my weekly memos detailing the exploits of the company softball team.  Comedy shouldn't be hard for me, and it isn't.  Audiences laughed at the jokes in "21 Eyes" and "Hidden Secrets."  But neither of them were first and foremost comedies.   Comedies made me uneasy.

Previously, I had only written two out-and-out comedies.  The first one was called "The Premier." It was about the communist leader of a small Eastern European country who sneaks away from his delegation while visiting the UN to taste American-style freedom.  I wrote that script with David Butler, based in part on an idea by former Towson classmate Tom Brandau.  Later I wrote another one with Smith Burke & Azzam art director Andy Stoller called "Superguys."  It was about some Superheroes, forced out of the business by government regulations, who team up again after their nemesis returns.  Yes, folks, it was very much like "The Incredibles," but without all the family stuff.

I thought the scripts were both very funny.  I always strived to make sure we had four laughs per page -- for a total of approximately 440 laughs per script.  Sadly, the readers didn't feel the same way.  I didn't have any representation when we wrote "The Premier," but I had no problem getting it read by production companies.  The Berlin Wall was coming down so communism was very hot.  Unfortunately, the very fact that the Berlin Wall was coming down made the script completely irrelevant.  There was no way anyone would ever make it.  Even if they liked it.  And I don't know if they did.

One of the companies returned the script with a nice rejection letter, but had inadvertently left the readers notes inside.  Readers, for those of you not in the business, are the poor schlubbs that producers and agents hire to go wade through the avalanche of scripts they receive each week.   They summarize the story and tell their bosses what they think of the script.  This reader didn't think much of it.  That didn't bother me.  What bothered me was that he simply didn't get it.  Not at all.  The satire and tone of the film went totally over his head.  He didn't even realize who the good guys and bad guys were until the third act.  Oy vey.

I didn't have much luck with "Superguys" either.  At the time I was represented by Stu Robinson at Robinson Weintraub and Gross.  He didn't care for the script.  He didn't think the marketplace was ready for a superhero parody at the time.  Still, I wanted to give it a try.  I asked Stu if he would send it to companies that requested it if I drummed up some interest.  He said yes, and he did, but it never went anywhere.  It was somewhat disillusioning because I felt it was a very funny script.  That's why I stopped writing comedies.  Humor is too subjective.  You can usually tell on the page whether a drama or an action film will work.

But despite my misgivings, I happily said yes.  After all, this project was an adaptation of an existing property that seemed to being working fine with the target audience.  Plus, I had the mighty Tim Ratajczak on my side -- the Woody Allen of Baltimore.  How could we lose?  (Stay tuned...)

The first question was how to open up the show.   Tim and I felt the key would be turning it into a romance.  A great deal of time was devoted to figuring out who the female character would be -- although not who would be playing her.  The decision was already made that she would be played by David's real life wife, the lovely and talented Andrea Logan White.  Initially Tim and I were leaning toward the concept of letting the woman be a Hollywood newcomer, much like David's naive Amish character Roy Weichbrodt.  The woman would constantly refuse to compromise her values and, while she wouldn't achieve Roy's success, she would be happier and more grounded.  She would be the person who led Roy back to his values.

Andrea Logan White

David didn't like that.  He wanted the woman to be more glamourous.  So Tim and I came up with the idea of making her a producer with a secret.  Her secret was that, although she projected an image of being hard and tough, she was really a sweet, farm girl on the inside.  Innocent Roy would bring out the sweetness in her.  But how would Roy catch the attention of such a power broker?  By saving her life.  That was a trope that worried David throughout the entire process.

The rest was easy.  We changed Roy from Mennonite to Amish if only because the Amish were less likely to get mad since they wouldn't be allowed to watch the movie anyway.  We also changed the wacky Hollywood roommate of the show into a wacky long lost uncle Brian, a self-proclaimed Holyman Undercover, who wanted to spread the gospel subliminally, and we were off to the races.  Tim and I hammered out a very detailed treatment, with whole scenes and snatches of dialogue, over a couple weekends.   The plot was simple:  An innocent Amish man goes to Hollywood to find his long, lost uncle, and ends up falling in love with a beautiful producer and playing Satan on a hit TV show.  During his comic misadventures, Roy would lose sight of his values, but he would come to his senses by the final reel.

When we finished the script, we sent it to David and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The silence was becoming deafening.  Were Tim and I just going to have to take the money and walk away?  (Not such a terrible fate, oh my brothers!)

Then David sent us back a rough draft of the script.  Since the story was based loosely on his life, in addition to directing the film, he wanted to try to write the script himself.  He took it as far as he could.  We were kind of shocked by that revelation, but what the heck!  Now we were back on.  It was a smooth writing experience.  When Tim and I were finished, David gave it to his partners at Pure Flix.

They HATED it.  HATED, HATED, HATED IT.  They felt the Christian audience would be offended by the film.  They wouldn't put a cent into it.  (I must admit I was worried about the drug material, but Tim and I had really watered it down during the writing process.  It was no longer a key issue.)

David was not deterred.  If Pure Flix didn't want to do the movie, we would do it ourselves without them.  David, Tim and myself were going to produce this film independently.  David wanted to start shooting immediately, and gathered about himself a cast and crew of friends.  Fortunately, one of those friends included Gregg Binkley, who had played the henpecked husband in "Hidden Secrets."  Tim and I thought he was hilarious.  As a subtle hint to David, we had named the character we wanted Binkley to play Gregg.  David took the hint.

Gregg and his son on the set.

Spending money out of pocket, David shot a number of scenes over the course of a couple of weekends.  They included Roy's audition scene where he tries out for the role of the Devil, his first date with Annie, and his Calm-O commercial.  (The Calm-O commercial is one of the only scenes lifted directly from the one man show.)  Easily twenty-five percent of the film was shot with this skeleton cast and crew.  It was a true tribute to David's vision.

While David was shooting in LA, my accursed Italian restaurant movie was falling apart in Baltimore.  Fortunately, I had gotten to know Matt Richards, one of that projects' rejected investors, and gave him a copy of the "Holyman Undercover" script and some of Pure Flix's marketing materials.  He liked the script and decided to finance the entire film himself.

Suddenly everything changed.  Now that financing was in place, the good folks at Pure Flix very much wanted to do the movie.  They pulled out David's contract with the company which stipulated that he couldn't produce films without them.  And, since Tim and I had never taken the time to formalize a written production deal with David while we were all in the wilderness, we were completely left out in the cold.  It went from being OUR film to a Pure Flix film on which we were simply hired hands with a few measly points.  We were placated in part by the fact that David, although he would share in the profits as a Pure Flix partner, had lost more.  He had lost control of his life story.  Trust me, I would never let that happen again!  At least not until the upcoming gmc television series "Brotha White."  (Don't get me started.)

We could have been bitter, but what would have been the point?  We were making a movie.  And, frankly, a fun one at that.  For the first time, Tim and I were actively involved in the casting.  Aside from Gregg Binkley, some of our favorite actors from "Hidden Secrets" were returning.  We had John Schneider in a cameo as the devil, and the always charming Staci Keanan as Annie's best friend Carmen.  Even Carey Scott, the director of "Hidden Secrets," gave a wonderful turn as a pretentious restaurant owner.  Our enthusiasm grew when Clint Howard and Edie McClurg signed on as Roy's parents.  When it came time to fill some of the smaller roles, David would sent me DVDs of the casting sessions.  Then Tim and I would head out to Xanadau, Matt's palatial pleasure dome, to watch the discs and make our picks.  We were generally in agreement with the folks in Hollywood.  We loved Jeremy Luc who played the amiable drug dealer Pinky, but I always felt sorry for him.  In the original script, his character served as Roy's mentor after his Uncle Brian ends up in jail.  By the time we were shooting, Pinky only had two scenes, and we cut one of them in post.  Sorry Jeremy!  We also really loved Jennifer Lyons as the narcissistic seductress Tiffany Towers.  She absolutely captured the essence of the character, and, in the process, ultimately doomed our film.  But I'll get to that later.

Jennifer Lyons with America's favorite Fatman

Every low budget film needs a name actor for the box.  Originally, Uncle Brian was conceived as a role for a box name, but David's agent felt David should play that role too.  His agent was grooming him to be the next Tyler Perry and he thought Uncle Brian could be his Medea.  There were no objections.  Fortunately, we had another suitable role for the box name:  Richard, the head of the television network.  Tim and I were constantly being asked to rewrite that role to suit the actors to whom the script was being sent.  One week it was Joe Pesci.  One week it was Christopher Walken.  One week it was Luke Skywalker himself:  Mark Hamil.  Before we sent him the script, David said we had to include some Star Wars references.  We changed the location of one of Richard's scenes to a Chinese restaurant so that, when he noticed his assistant was having trouble with the chopsticks, he could say, "Use the forks."  Matt, by the way, came up with that joke, if I am not mistaken.  Mark Hamil was not amused.  Oh well.

Use the forks, Luke....

Ultimately, we got Fred Willard for the role.  It was a dream come true.  I don't think anyone could have done it better!

It was time to return to Hollywood.

To be continued....

"Holyman Undercover," Part 2, Good Times

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Monday, December 6, 2010

"Maestro Percival": A Brief History of A Short Film

Director David Butler, right, and cinematographer
Regis Becker, left, plot a shot.

"Maestro Percival" was shot for the 48 Hour Film Project Panasonic HD Shootout.  It was, in a sense, the championship round of the annual 48 Hour Film Project.

For those unfamiliar with the 48 Hour Film Project, I suggest reading my earlier blog on my film "I Will Not"" which was filmed as part of the international contest.  The contest takes place in 76 cities around the world with over 40,000 participants.  The rules?  Teams of filmmakers have 48 hours to make a film from scratch -- script to final audio mix and color correction.  On Friday, the team leaders meet and a draw a genre out of a hat.  It could be anything:  Crime, comedy, musical, western, martial arts, silent, romance, drama.  You get the picture.  All the teams in that specific weekend in that specific are given certain elements which must be included in the film.  They tend to be a line of dialogue, a prop and a character name and occupation.

The shootout is a little different.  It is an invitation only contest.  Only five teams, each of which won the contest in their native cities, were selected by the 48 Hour Film Project executives to compete in the shootout.  We would be the only team making a film in Baltimore, but the other rules applied.  We still went to Holy Frijoles in Baltimore and drew our genre out of the hat.  It was comedy.  The other elements would be shared with the other teams in the other cities.  The line of dialogue:  "Cut the nonsense, let's get to it."  The prop:  An electric razor.  The character:  A violinist named Edward Percival.  (I think the character could have been Edwina as well, if my memory serves me correctly.)

The team had been assembled weeks in advance.  Pretty much everyone who had participated in the award-winning "I Will Not" had agreed to come back for the encore.  I think director David Butler was a little hesitant to ask everyone to give up another weekend for free.  (Paying people is a no-no in this contest.)  However, everyone was only too happy to step back in the ring for the title bout.

Lynda Meier, left, and David Butler, right,
look concerned, but there was no need to worry.

Once again, the immediate pressure was on me.  We had actors, camera crews, sound crews, location people, prop people and makeup people were already to go, but couldn't do anything without a script.  I am not sure where the idea came from.  I believe David had been talking with someone about a potentially funny idea of a company whose boss was a zombie.  That was all I needed.  We already had a photography studio as a potential location so I quick adjusted the original idea of the zombie boss to the zombie photography subject.  Our plot, what little there was, involved a photographer who gets his shot at the big time when he is asked to shoot a world famous violinist for the cover of his new album.  Complications arise when it is discovered, after his arrival, that he had died the previous day.  It was a playful meditation on what, or should I say, who, people are willing to sacrifice for success.  The script was done in a few hours which allowed me to head home for good night's sleep while David and uber producer Lynda Meier assigned roles to the actors and gave everyone else their assignments.

David Butler, Sandye Kaye, Peter Mullett, Rege Becker

Locations were easier this time.  The entire film would be shot in or immediately around the photography studio in downtown Baltimore.  The cast and crew was ready to go by the time I showed up in the morning with my lovely wife Deborah.  Debbie had been an extra in "I Will Not," but, sadly, this film did not need any extras.  (Still, we managed to give Assistant Director Frank Ferro his customary, Hitchcockian walk-on.)   If you watch both films, you will see mainly the actors and actresses, whom I like to call The Matt Ryb players.  We also added Jon Jolles, who normally works in crew capacities, as the overly-ambitious photographer and Ken Arnold as our zombie violinist.  Another notable addition was Cheryl Donaldson, whom I was working with at the time on the ill-fated Italian Restaurant movie.

Behind the camera we had Baltimore's cream of the crop.  Caprice Ericson, who went to Towson (State) University with David and myself, located.  Stewart Stack gaffed.  Ryan Gallo gripped.   Sandye Kaye made up.  Paul Flinton listened while Mark Mariaca boomed.  Regis Becker shot the film backed up by Peter Mullett, whose previous career as a Swinging London fashion photography should be made into a book.

Frank Ferro, Caprice Ericson, Stewart Stack, 
Rege Becker, David Butler and Matt Ryb

The wintry shoot proceeded smoothly despite the fact that it seemed like every other person on the set was sick.  That's just as well since we had a reporter on set watching the shoot.  Before long we were back at the Butler Films nerve center for the edit.  David and I edited the film.  I started at the beginning and he started at the end.  I can't remember when we finished but it was late.  I did manage to weave my way home on the highway in the pre-dawn.

We reconvened the next morning at Clean Cuts where Andrew Eppig was doing his magic.  I do credit the success of "I Will Not" to our sound team, both on location and in post-production.  There were so many clever films in the competition.  Sadly, although most of the other films looked fine, their dialogue was often inaudible.  Never underestimate the value of good sound, fellow filmmakers.

David laughs with Jon Jolles

We had the final film back at Holy Frijoles with a half-an-hour to spare.  Now we had to wait.  The final five films would be screened at the 48 Film Project's first annual film festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  David and Regis decided to attend.  The rest of us stayed by the phones.  After all five of the films were screened, Dave and Rege weren't too optimistic.  The New York team had a really good 9-11 film.  They didn't think our goofy zombie film had a chance against it.  Fortunately, Dave and Rege are better filmmakers than prognosticators.  We ended up winning.  Go figure.  I guess sometimes all the world needs is a goofy zombie film.

David Butler and Regis Becker, right, accept the grand prize

After that, we had a Baltimore cast and crew screening.  Laughs were had.  Alcohol was consumed.    The film subsequently played in a number of film festivals around the country, but I don't think we exploited as well as we should have.  After "21 Eyes" and the other shorts, we had spent a lot of time at film festivals.  One could argue too much.  Still, it was nice when the Frederick Film Festival had a mini-David Butler showcase with all three of the shorts we made together:  "I Will Not," "Untitled Film, No. 9," and "Maestro Percival."  (The festival also featured Peter Mullett's dramatic short "Parting Ways.")

Matt Ryb, Sean Paul Murphy, Ken Arnold
at the Frederick Film Festival.

Here's a click to the story about the film:

Will Success Spoil the 48 Hour Film Project?

And here's the film:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"The Encounter" Premiere Video Blog

Here's Jamie Nieto's video blog from the Greater Boston Film Festival.*  Jamie is one of the stars of "The Encounter," and "Jerusalem Countdown," which was also premiering at the festival.  Aside from being an actor, and a genuinely nice guy, Jamie is also an Olympic high jumper, who was recently ranked fourth in the world.

Jamie is also up for the role of Roberto Clemente in an upcoming biopic of the baseball player.  Soon I'll be able to say I knew him when.

*Remember folks, the best way to get me to link to your video blog is to say something nice about me in it.  Works every time.

"The Encounter" Premieres

Trust me, there was just a huge line of
people waiting to see the film.

It takes a lot of work by a lot of people to make a feature-length motion picture.  Oftentimes, there are passionate disputes concerning various creative decisions.  However, at least for myself, all that noise melts away when you finally see the film play in the theater for the first time.

"The Encounter" premiered at the Greater Boston Film Festival.  It was a friendly audience that happily received each screening of the film with a great deal of enthusiasm.  They laughed and cried at all the right places, and pretended not to notice the continuity errors -- which will be corrected.  It was a blast, particularly since five of the six leads came to Boston for the premiere.  Since neither my co-writer, Timothy Ratajczak, or myself could attend the shoot in California, this was my first chance to meet the members of the cast in person whom I felt I already got to know during the long months of post-production and the now ubiquitous Facebook.  (Now I joke that I only attend premieres to get pictures with the actors for Facebook.  Then again, maybe that isn't a joke.)

In the months to come, I will probably devote a few blogs to the various joys and sorrows I endured during the making of "The Encounter," but right now I will simply remember the premiere with warmth, and the great time I had with everyone.  My only regret was that neither Timothy or my lovely wife Deborah could come along.

If you want to see my pictures, better sign up on Facebook.

"The Encounter" will be officially released in 2011.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Money, Money, Money, Money.... MONEY!

Well, folks, I wish I could say that the success of your film is dependent upon your brilliant script, your daring direction, your stunning cinematography or your heartfelt performances.  Of course, your shot at success is much greater if all those things are true, but, in the end, it comes down to money.

Money for two things:

A name actor.

And advertising.

You need the money for a name actor to attract the interest of a distributor who will actually spend money promoting your film.  Without that, you're dead.

It is much easier to get a film distributed than it is to actually make money on a film.

I know what you're thinking.  What about "Paranormal Activity?"  What about "The Blair Witch Project?"  They didn't have name actors and they each made a fortune.  True, but those films were anomalies.  For each low-budget film that sees the inside of a commercial theater, there are literally thousands of others that failed.  And, keep in mind that PA and TBWP both made their millions after the studios spent millions on advertising and promotion.  Yeah, you say, but I can get on the internet and get a buzz going.  Really?  I don't think so.  Everyday, the internet gets bigger and bigger.  There's so much to see.  There's so many distractions.  What's going to point people to your movie's webpage?  Plastering links to your trailer all over the place simply isn't going to cut it.  If someone has managed to return a profit on a film with a six-figure budget using only the internet for promotion and sales, please contact me and teach me how you did it. 

It takes money to go viral.

The major studios don't spend tens of millions of dollars promoting films because they have money to burn.  They spend the money because if they don't, people won't show up at the theaters or buy the DVDs.

And most independent filmmakers don't include any marketing money in their budgets.  Most of them don't even allocate enough money to go on the festival circuit.

My thoughts on the value of advertising have evolved over the years.

Initially, it frightened me when a distributor promised (or threatened) to spend x-amount of money promoting your film.  My first thought was:  The film is going to have to earn all of that additional money back before I get a penny in royalties.  Plus, it is definitely true that some distributors shamelessly pad those expenses in order to cheat filmmakers out of their profits.  Time and time again, I have heard filmmaker friends complain how they feel they will never reach that constantly rising break-even point.  And they probably never will. 

However, unless a distributor spends money on advertising you will not sell enough copies to warrant any royalties anyway.  As a filmmaker, you are caught between a rock and a hard place.  If you don't spend the money, you never make any money.  If you do spend the money, you go deeper and deeper into the hole.  So what do you do?  You've got to hope your distributor spends the money.

Discretion prevents me from discussing any details, but I've seen the facts in black and white.  I've seen quarterly reports that clearly revealed that relationship between sales and promotion money spend.    One quarter a film sells 40,000 DVDs.  (Those are good numbers for a low-budget indy.)  The next quarter they pull the advertising and it sells 4,000.  That's the difference between being a full-time filmmaker and staying with your day job.

Do you think Walmart or Kmart or Best Buy are going to stock your film if you don't have any advertising dollars behind you?  You'll be lucky to get in the discount bin.

And, trust me, Blockbuster and NetFlix will want to know how many ad dollars you have allocated per unit they purchase.  If you don't have any, bye, bye.

When a distributor expresses interest in your film, let one of your first questions be:  How much money are you going to spend promoting it?

If it's a lot, you might be in trouble.

If it's not a lot, you're definitely in trouble.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Untitled Film, No. 9

Mark Redfield as Humanity
I have always been amused by people who trot out the lyrics to a rock song when trying to make sense of the imponderables of life.  Other people probably feel the same way about people who have a Bible quote for every occasion, but, personally, I think the Bible carries a little more weight than David Coverdale of Whitesnake.

Back in the early 'nineties, after seeing a particularly pretentious short film at the Charles (the title of which eludes me), I decided I had to respond.  So I jumbled together a bunch of lines from a wide variety of rock songs from the 'sixties, 'seventies and 'eighties and combined them into a script.  Then I put the script in my drawer and that was that.

Flash forward ten years.  While on the festival circuit with "21 Eyes," I saw quite a few ridiculously pretentious short films.  Now was the time to make the short, which I soon dubbed "Untitled Film, No. 9" because that was the most pretentious title I could think of.  (Of course, the No. 9 comes from the Beatles track -- I dare not call it a song -- Revolution No. 9. )

The hard part would be finding a director willing to devote time to such a patently absurd project.  Actually, I didn't have to look far.  David Butler and I had just had tremendous success with our first short film, so he jumped onto the project.  However, we both knew the success of this film would depend entirely on the performance of the actor reading the lines.  Fortunately, Baltimore was home to the perfect actor:  Mark Redfield.

Mark had gone to Towson University around the same time David and I did.  He was a theater major and I don't remember running into him at the time, but we did have some common friends.  He was originally slated to do a feature length adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's "Tell Tale Heart" with my Towson University classmate and fellow Redcoat re-enactor M. Christopher New.  That project didn't materialize.  However, Mark did eventually produce and star in fellow classmate Tom Brandau's autobiographical feature "Cold Harbor." I did a little cutting on that picture, and I soon began working on a number of films in Mr. Redfield's oeuvre.

Mark was in on the joke and grooved to the script and before long we were setting up cameras in Mark's studio in Glen Burnie, Maryland, during a break in the production of his feature film "The Death of Poe."  The crew was very small.  Mark Redfield was the only actor.  Jennifer Rouse, one of the stars of "The Death of Poe," provided makeup and wardrobe.  Lynda Meier, David Butler's staff uber-producer, acted as unit production manager and did pretty much everything else.  David shot the proceedings on his own Panasonic P2 camera against his own green screen.  I think David's only direction to Mark was to give the lines as much or as little meaning as he felt they deserved.  Our budget was small.  I think the only cash expense was for pizza.  I think David paid for that.  If I'm not mistaken, I think I conveniently hid in the bathroom when the delivery man arrived.

We did have to make Mark some cue cards.  I was surprised.  I knew Mark had performed Shakespeare on the stage and, as a result, had to memorize huge speeches.  He said that was easy compared to this short, because, in Shakespeare, the lines moved from one to another in a logical manner.  This was a just a series of unrelated lines.  Or were they?

The original script had four chapters, each named after a song title from John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album ("God," "Remember," "Love," and "I Found Out.")  However, before the shoot, I had added another chapter and some more recent song references.  Strangely, during the edit, I found myself abandoning all of the new material except the last line of the film.  Why?  Because, although I intended the lines to be random and meaningless, obviously they had some oblique personal meaning.  None of the references were accidental.  Each line of music used in the piece was chosen because it reminded me of a person or a place or a time or something.  And during the edit, like it or not, it returned to its natural form.

The background images were picked somewhat randomly.  We went with what we could get for free.  I am an avid genealogist and cemetery junkie so I had plenty of shots of cemeteries for the "God" segment.  (During that process I immortalized the graves of a few of my relatives.)  Since we were at the height of the Iraqi War, David and I thought it would add some gravitas to the production to use stills from the conflict during the "Remember" segment.  Fortunately, our United States Army has a vast library of public domain images to choose from.  (Your tax dollars at work!)  We gathered the flowers for the "Love" segment from Shutterstock images, and we looted the Federal Government once again, this time NASA, for the space images in the final "I Found Out" segment.  Had we used the fifth chapter, it would have been called "Mother" and would have used some family photos of mine dating back between 1866 and 1911.  David, an accomplished musician, scored the film using the program Soundtrack.

The only dispute David and I had during the edit involved the credits.  Initially, I hadn't even considered including any credits.  However, David had the bright idea of shooting a couple stationary shots of Mark, including various close-ups.  Seeing those shots, I thought we could put titles over them.  David's only problem was that he thought I let the credits run too long.  He lived by the dictum of our former film instructor, Barry Moore, that a five minute film should not have three minutes of credits.  I told David not to worry.  The credits are part of the entertainment.  And that turned out to be true.  People tend to laugh all the way through them.  I did, however, honor my director and shorten the sequence.

Now what would people think of the film.  Dave and I thought it was hilarious.  Mark was nervous that people would think he was a bad actor rather than a good actor playing a bad actor.  We all had our fingers crossed on the night of our public premiere which occurred at the cast and crew screening our Dave and my next short "Maestro Percival."  After all the expected back-slapping after the screening of that short, we threw "Untitled Film, No. 9" into the DVD player.

The reaction of the audience was identical to the reaction of every audience I saw the film with.  The film initially plays to dead, confused silence.   The first laugh didn't happen until the end of the first chapter when Mark quotes the Melanie lyric:  "I've got a brand new pair of roller skates.  You have a brand new key."  That got a laugh, and then, once people realized they could laugh, they laughed all the rest of the way through the film.  This film got more laughs than anything else I have done.

Now what to do with it.  Festivals, of course.

I don't remember our acceptance ratio with festivals but it was pretty high.  Being a short film with no real commercial prospects, we didn't go overboard with entries.  That said, we got into some nice big city festivals like The New York Underground Film Festival and The Chicago Underground Film Festival.  I went to the New York film festival.  After all, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.  The one festival my wife and I wish we could have seen the film at was The Bahamas International Film Festival.  Unfortunately, we were busy that weekend.  Dave and I always entered the film in the Experimental Short category because we didn't want to tip our hats as to whether the film was serious or a joke.

It did win an award on a website.  I forgot what it was.

More importantly, it made money.  The website Jaman picked it up and eventually paid us a royalty check of $21.00.  We split it three ways.  Seven dollars a piece to David, Mark and myself.

Man, oh, man.  Think about it.  For the cost of a pizza and a couple hours of work we managed to get into a few cool film festivals, make some people laugh, and pocket seven whole dollars.

Life is sweet.

Here's the film on Funny or Die.  Please give it a funny vote.  (The widescreen is squished, though.  Sorry.)

BTW, for the trivial buffs.  Here's the songs used in order:

"Band on the Run" - Paul McCartney and Wings
"At Seventeen"  - Janis Ian
"Love Me" - Elvis Presley
"American Tune" - Paul Simon
"American Pie" - Don McLean
"Every Grain of Sand" - Bob Dylan
"Old Fashioned Love Song" - Three Dog Night
"Brand New Key" - Melanie
"America" - Simon & Garfunkel
"Boys of Summer" - Don Henley
"So Far Away" - Carole King
"Mr. Tambourine Man" - Bob Dylan
"Make It With You" - Bread
"Dandelion" - The Rolling Stones
"Talking In Your Sleep" - The Romantics
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" - U2
"I Want You To Want Me" - Cheap Trick
"Hello, Goodbye" - The Beatles
"Downtown" - Petulia Clark
"Nothing But Flowers" - The Talking Heads
"The Things We Do For Love" - 10cc
"Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me" - Elton John
"Dancing Queen" - Abba
"Fast Car" - Tracy Chapman
"Summer of '69" - Bryan Adams
"Jack and Diane" - John Cougar Mellencamp
I Found Out
"Manic Depression" - Jimi Hendrix
"Everybody's Talkin" - Harry Nilsson
"Across The Universe" - The Beatles
"Tangled Up In Blue" - Bob Dylan
"Badlands" - Bruce Springsteen
"Save The Last Dance For Me" - The Drifters
"White Wedding" - Billy Idol
"Rapper's Delight" - Sugarhill Gang
"Who Let The Dogs Out" - Baha Men

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"An Italian Restaurant Tragedy"

Baltimore's Little Italy

Did you ever have a project where everything went wrong?  I did.  And I call it "The Italian Restaurant Tragedy."


I have decided to pull the original text of this blog because word reached me through the grapevine that one of the producers on this project, a romantic comedy about the founding of one of the most famous restaurants in Little Italy, who I had no desire to offend was very displeased by it.  My apologies.

And, sadly, I don't know if the people I wanted to offend had even bothered to read it.

Oh well.

Prior to publishing the original blog, I sent it to director Lee Bonner, who, aside from co-writing the script, was slated to direct the ill-fated project.  He strongly advised me against publishing it.  I also sent it Matt Richards, who, had the stars aligned properly, would have produced the film.  He said he laughed out loud reading it.  That was all I needed to hear.   But it was a mistake.  The blog was simply too bitter and mean-spirited even by my standards.

I included the story because my blog had been taking on a rather rosy tone, as if everything I touched turned to gold.  I was hoping this tale, about a film that had three excellent chances of being made, would act as a counter balance.  I also wanted to use it as a cautionary tale for my fellow screenwriters.  I made a number of mistakes while I was working on this project.  I have learned from them. I was hoping others would as well.

Here are a few of them:

1).  Don't get involved on a project on spec unless you will own your script outright when you walk away.  I was screwed in this case because the script was based on a self-published book and a true life story.  I could, of course, change the names and some of the details but why bother?

2).  Don't get involved with a true story unless the real people have signed away their life rights.  Run, don't walk, to the nearest exit if one of real people insists on maintaining script approval.  I have talked to other writers who have gotten into the same mess.  It never ends well.  You soon discover that, frankly, most of these real people will ultimately be unable to surrender their lives.  They will keep endlessly revising, and, in this case, turning down deals, until things are perfect. And they never will be.  In the end, most of them would rather talk about making a movie than actually make one.

3).  Make sure everyone is in the small ballpark expectation wise.  I think one of the reasons this film failed was because the real person saw herself as the heroine of a $60,000,000 Paramount picture.  The director had a more realistic attitude.  He saw it as a smallish indy film that would have to kill at the film festivals in order to have a shot.  I, the eternal optimist, hoped for the best but I knew ultimately its best shot was on cable.

4).  Don't stake your professional reputation on the actions of amateurs.  If you want to make movies for a living, work with people who make movies for a living.  I have no doubt in my mind that this film would have been made if Lee and I, or Matt, were allowed I to call the shots.  I have subsequently made a number of films.  I have found funding for a number of films.  I could have found a home for this film too.

5).  Finally, and most importantly:  Don't ever work for a producer for free -- no matter how "real" the project seems to be.  If it were a real project, they could afford to pay you.  Remember, if a producer pays nothing for a script, it is worth nothing.  Period.  End of story.  If you don't believe me, listen to the famous sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"I Will Not"

Director David Butler with Cinematographer Regis Becker

Ever have a project where everything went perfectly?  I did.  It was called "I Will Not."

Here's how it happened.

For years, David Butler and I have been considering the possibility of entering the 48 Hour Film Festival.

The premise of the festival is that each team has to write, shoot, edit and mix, a short film within forty-eight hours.  The contest begins at 5pm Friday and the films have to be delivered by 5pm Sunday.  The best film wins.  To make sure you don't cheat, you have to draw a genre out of a hat and include a common prop and line of dialogue into your film.  It was intriguing.  We considered it twice before, but we were too busy with pay work to do it.  Finally, in 2006, we decided we had to do it.

David had all the resources:  lights, cameras, editing equipment and the good will of Baltimore's talented cast and crew.  He also had that powerhouse Lynda Meier on staff as a producer.  When the decision was made to enter the film festival. David and Lynda got on the ball immediately.  First, they assembled a kind crew that would be willing to give up a Saturday for free.  (The rules state that you can't pay anyone to work on the film.)  They also assembled a cast.  That was a little more difficult since we had no idea what kind of movie we were going to make:  drama, comedy, musical, western, martial arts, action, horror, etc.  So, working with actor Matt Ryb, they assembled a varied team of actors and actresses which they hoped would fill any need.  David and Lynda also acquired a number of locations, homes, offices, etc., that they felt should fulfill any need.

The weekend before the shoot, David and I tried to cheat.  We tried to think of a few scenarios that would work across genre lines, but we quickly gave up.  There were too many genres and variables.  We would have to play it straight and a week later we found ourselves at the starting line with representatives of all the participating teams in the Baltimore area at a bar of the Cafe Hon in Hampden waiting to receive our genres.  Between the two of us,  Dave and I knew a number of the participants.  The mood was one of equal excitement and dread.  There was much fear among teams about being the poor SOB who drew the western genre out of the hat.  Baltimore really doesn't lend itself to westerns.  And it was little comfort to hear that, if you drew western, you could do a musical instead.

David and I were nervous too.  Or, at least I was.  I felt we had to win.  We were both professional filmmakers.  It would look really bad if we lost to some high school kids from Parkville.  Lynda kept saying that it was all about the challenge and the fun, but I felt there was more on the line than that.  I am not really competitive by nature.  I don't always have to win.  However, I do not like to lose.

The time for the drawing came.  David put his hand into the hat and pulled out Detective/Cop film.  I didn't have a cop film in mind, but at least it wasn't the dreaded western genre.  (I don't think the team that drew the western genre finished their film in time.)

Three items also needed to be included in the film:  a character named Joe or Joanne Murphy, who was a Phys-Ed Instructor; a prop, medicine; and the line of dialogue, "Just give her some time to figure it out."   Immediately. David was on the phone with Lynda rallying the troops.  Now all we needed was a script.  One thing was for sure.  Our hero was going to be a detective, not a beat cop.  Where were we going to come up with all those police uniforms by the time we had to shoot the next morning!

David and I brainstormed some ideas on the way from Baltimore back to Butler Films' base camp in Annapolis, MD.  Nothing stuck until I remembered something the lovely star of my second feature, Tracy Melchior, had told me about her SWAT team husband.  She could never bring him to Hollywood parties because if he saw someone do something illegal, i.e., take drugs, he would arrest him.  Aha!  That was our story.  It would be about a detective who was unlucky in love because he would end arresting each girl he dated for some minor offense.  His reputation becomes so notorious that some of his co-workers bet him that he will arrest the girl he is about to go out with on a blind date.  Our detective takes the bet, not realizing how difficult it would be not to arrest this girl!

By around ten or eleven, the script was done and David and Lynda were casting the film and lining up the locations.  There couldn't be many.  We had a large crew and couldn't waste much time making company moves.  The talented Matt Ryb got the role of the hapless detective, and, in a surprise move, David and Lynda cast Sarah Brandes, as the inappropriate blind date.  I say surprising because Sarah is primarily known as a crew person in the props and sets department.  Everyone was buzzing with activity.  Locations were being secured.  Equipment obtained.  Wardrobe acquired.    

Then I enjoyed a rare luxury.  I got to go home and sleep.  The rest of the production team would be working through the night before catching a few winks on the floors and sofas of Butler Films.  However, I would soon return to duty.  In addition to writing the film, I would also be editing it.

The next morning I reported to duty in Baltimore at the advertising agency GKV, which kindly offered their offices to us for use in the film.  We used their accounting department as our detectives' office, and we used their lobby as our restaurant.  The props and sets people did a great job.  If you pay close attention you might find yours truly on one of the wanted posters hanging on the walls.

Keep in mind everything had been done the night before.

Another fun thing about the job was that I had the opportunity to get my wife and her friend Xuan in the act as extras during the restaurant scene.  Unfortunately, they left the building during a break and couldn't re-enter since the doors were locked.  After about an hour or so I began to wonder what happened to my lovely bride and began to search for her.  (Neither she or Xuan had a cellphone on them.)  I eventually found them, and, although they did not enjoy being locked out, the experience did not sour them on the motion picture business.

I didn't have much opportunity to watch the shoot.  I was assigned to a cubicle to transfer the high-definition footage from the P2 cards from our two Panasonic cameras to our hard drives, and, if possible, begin editing on location.  I didn't get the opportunity to start the edit on the set.  By the time I transferred one card, the next one was ready.  I actually stayed at GKV working while David and the crew went and shot the exteriors at a nearby location.  When they left to shoot the home footage, I went to Annapolis to begin the edit

The clock was definitely clicking loudly by the time we began editing in earnest around 7pm.  We had two cameras rolling on every shot so we had a ton of footage to work our way through.  There wasn't much time for soul-searching.  If a take worked, we didn't second guess it.  Once a large chunk of the film was completed, David began color correcting it on another computer.  I think the picture edit ended around 4am Sunday morning.   Rather than crash on the floor, I opted to drive back to my home.  That was probably a mistake.  I know I was weaving a bit.  But I survived.  So did the car.

After a couple brief hours of sleep, I was up and ready for the sound mix.  Andrew Eppig at Clean Cuts had volunteered to mix our film.  Dave, Lynda and our cinematographer Regis Becker were already at Clean Cuts when I arrived.  I was unsure whether Dave and Lynda had slept at all, but I know Rege caught a catnap or two during the edit.  I'm not putting him down.  His willingness to stay through the edit and the sound mix proved his devotion to the project!  Andrew did a great job with the mix, helped in no small part by the wonderful location sound provided by Rick Angelella, the dean of Baltimore soundmen.  The film kept getting better and better, but the clock kept ticking and ticking.  Before long, we had to stop work and rush the film back to Hampden to turn it in.

The mood was somewhat euphoric.  Not just for us but for all the teams that gathered to turn in their films.  It is quite an accomplishment to write, shoot, edit and mix a coherent film in forty-eight hours.  I, for one,  no longer cared if we won or lost.  However, I thought we had a good chance!

The films were screened a couple days later at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  The audience was filled with filmmakers and their friends.  Practically all of our cast and crew came to the screening.  Then the lights went down.  I was frankly quite surprised how good most of the films were.  However, I believe it was the work of Andrew Eppig and Rick Angelella which gave us the edge.  Most of the other films looked good, but suffered from poor audio.  Often times I could not even make out the dialogue in some films.  That was a pity.

Then the results came in.  We won quite a few of the awards:

Audience Award.

Best Film.

Best Directing.

Best Writing.

Best Acting.

Best Sound Design.

Wow.  I couldn't believe it.  Not only that.  As a result of our win, we were invited to participate in the International 48 Hour Film Festival HD Filmmaker Showdown.  But that's another blog!

Here's the film:

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Films Worth Seeing: Primer (2004)

(This is the second in a series of recommendations of worthy but little seen films.)

A group of four friends, who all work soul-deadening jobs during the week, work together on high-tech inventions at nights and on weekends hoping to find fame and fortune.  The lives of two of them change forever when they, quite inadvertently, invent a device that allows them to travel in time.

This is what independent film is all about, baby.  It was shot in Super 16mm for a budget of $5000.  Apparently, the filmmakers could only afford to do one take per shot and had to live with the results.  However, rather than hurting the film, the primitive production values give the film a semi-documentary feel.  Is there any scientific plausibility to the scenario?  I don't know.  I didn't understand the science behind it.  However, the characters did, and their informed conversations, which didn't dumb things down for the audience, lent credibility.

I always enjoy time travel films because of the inherent paradoxes.  The two friends in this film are both very aware of the paradoxes too.  They know they can't let their invention falling into the wrong hands, and each of them slowly grows paranoid that their partner might be the one with the wrong hands.  Events soon grow out of control.

That said, I defy anyone to explain exactly what happens in this film.  This film has been frequently shown on Murphy family movie nights and led to lively discussions about the film and the nature of time itself.  However, I doubt even the filmmakers themselves can explain everything they portray adequately within the universe they invented.  That is not a knock against the film.  It is refreshing to find a film every once and while that gives you enough wiggle room to supply your own explanations.

Here is one hint:  The first time Abe tells Aaron about the machine's capabilities, he is wearing headphones.  They are already in the time loop.

You take it from there.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Hidden Secrets," Revealed, Part 5: Aftermath

I had less to do with the post-production of "Hidden Secrets" than any other feature film I have been involved with.  When the rough cut was completed, Tim and I were emailed a link to the film.  We watched it and contributed some notes.

I was generally happy with the rough cut.  The film had the feel and look of a made-for-cable Hallmark film, which was not altogether a bad thing.  I had also noticed that, as the various subplots and characters were trimmed to focus on the romantic plot, the film had become a chick flick.  I called David A.R. White had told him that.  He laughed.  He felt the same way.

I had two major problems with the edit.  The first problem was that they had cut a scene out of the first act at the cemetery where Tim and I had set up the major conflict:  That Jeremy and Sherry had dated for years and everyone expected them to get married before they mysteriously broke up.  Now, at her brother's funeral, Jeremy was seeing Sherry again for the first time in years, and bringing his new almost-fiance Rachel.  As I have lectured endlessly on this blog, I feel it is crucial to hook the audience early in the first act.  You have to let them know what they are watching.  Therefore, I felt this scene was incredibly important.  I knew they shot it, because they used flashbacks from it later in the film.  I asked A.R., as I like to call him, why they didn't use it.  He said they cut it to keep the movie moving.  I think it was a mistake.

Here they are at the cemetery (Hollywood Forever)
I have seen the film with many audiences -- at festivals and during its limited theatrical release.  You could see that audience really doesn't settle in and understand what the movie is all about until much later -- during the scene when Rachel and Sherry talk.  That's a pity.  Now, the significance of a lot of the nuanced conversation between the major characters during the wake sequence is lost.  Oh well.  You can't always get what you want....

My other problem was that the director, Carey Scott, a well-known acting teacher, seemed to be pushing the actors toward bigger emotional moments.  He wanted tears, from the actors if not the audience.  As a writer, I had always aimed toward smaller dramatic moments.  I felt smaller moments were more naturalistic.  However, this time and on this project, I might have been wrong.  Our audience seemed more than happy to go with the characters emotionally.  People cried right along with them.  It was the first produced script I had written that provoked tears from an audience -- in a good way.  (I do have an unproduced horror script that a couple of my readers said made them cry.)  I'll never forget the look on the face of one of my cynical, college-aged nieces who I took to see the film at a festival outside Pittsburgh.  During one of the emotional scenes, she glanced around the auditorium then turned to me and said, "They're sobbing, people are actually sobbing."  Indeed they were.  Thanks, Carey and company.  As a result, I am not as afraid to reach for emotion in a script anymore.

However, there was one big surprise with the film:  The attempted suicide opening.  When the film started, I was, like, "What the heck?"  Actually, I didn't use the work heck.  Apparently, someone at PureFlix decided we needed a stronger opening so there it was.  Okay.  If that's what they wanted....  Still, I wish they would have asked Tim and I to incorporate that into the film.  As it is now, the audience is supposed to assume Christopher Hayden, Sherry's unseen brother, committed suicide, only to shockingly reveal in the third act that it was instead Michael attempting to commit suicide.  The only problem is now that the audience wants know how Christopher died, and whoever made the changes didn't think to include that information.  And that's the biggest problem when producers or actors start making changes with a script.  They think of something to address an immediate need, but they do not take into account how that "little" change will affect other things.  After screenings of the film, invariably the first question I am asked is:  "How did Christopher die?"  The answer, for the record, an aneurysm.  Not that you'd be able to tell from the movie!

Speaking of screenings, the film played at a number of Christian-themed film festivals around the country where it was extremely well-received.  It was gratifying to see the film connect so emotionally with its intended audience.  Despite that, I was still happily surprised when "Hidden Secrets" got an limited release in 200+ theaters across the country.  Here's how it happened.  If you've been to the movies in the last couple of years, you've probably been bored senseless or irritated by all of the commercials they play before the trailers.  Well, the company that creates those commercial packages, NCM Fathom, also does special events like live opera from the Met, documentaries about dead Nascar drivers, and quirky Christian films.  They played the film in 23 markets on February 28th and March 1st.   Tim and I went to see it both nights.  Once in Washington, DC, and the next night in Bowie, Maryland.  Our theaters were rather sparsely populated, but apparently the film did much, much better in the Bible belt.

Discretion prevents me from telling how much the film grossed and netted during those screenings -- although it was more than Brian DePalma's heavily-publicized Iraq War film "Redacted."  However, between those two nights and a lucrative television deal, I am sure the investors were very happy campers indeed.  Now it was time for the DVD release.  The question remained:  Who was going to release it?

PureFlix produced the film, and they were also distributors, but they were in the process of looking for a distribution partner.  This was at the beginning of the faith-based film craze where Hollywood was looking for a way to capitalize on all the people who went out to see "The Passion of the Christ."  I have to be very discreet here, but it seemed that practically all the majors expressed interest in distributing PureFlix's upcoming slate of films of which "Hidden Secrets" was the first one to be produced.  (But ultimately not the first one to be released.)

These discussions were all very exciting until someone mentioned The Weinstein Company.  Whenever that happened, I wanted to shout, "No, No, NO!!!!" 

I had just read "Down and Dirty Motion Pictures" by Peter Biskin.  The lesson of this book on the independent film industry was that the Weinsteins stayed up late at night and woke up early every morning to find new ways to cheat filmmakers out of their profits.  Every time someone mentioned the Weinsteins.  I would recommend that they read Biskind's book before it was too late.  They said not to worry, they had an iron-clad contract.  Unfortunately, I already knew that mathematical equation:

(Ironclad Contract) + (The Weinstein Company) =  (No profits to filmmakers)*

How did the deal actually work out?  All discretion allows me to say is that the film seems to have sold a boatload of DVDs.  A very respectable seven-figure gross.  Overall, to date, the film is, in theory, the most financially successful one of my career.  My wife also thinks it is the best one.

Overall, the making of "Hidden Secrets" was a fabulous experience and opened the door to making more films with the mighty David A.R. White and company.

*BTW, PureFlix films are no longer distributed by The Weinstein Company.

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Hidden Secrets" Revealed, Part 4, Production

Signed Title Page of the Script which was 
then called "A Simple Twist of Faith."

Despite the occasional hair-pulling craziness during the writing, the production itself was a delight.  At least as far as Tim and I were concerned.

Why?  Because if you're a writer on a real movie set, your work is done.  You get to sit back and enjoy and watch your words take human form.  If you are allowed on the set, that is.

Some directors and producers don't like to have the writer(s) on the set.  Why?  Because an unwitting writer can easily get himself into trouble.  Say, for example, that the director wants the beautiful starlet to play a scene one way, and she wants to play it another way.  An impasse is reached.  Production is halted.  Money is burning up.  She spots the writer.  She pulls him into the corner.  She strokes his hair.  She says, "When you wrote this scene, you imagined me playing it this way...."  It doesn't matter what she says.  You're a writer.  You spend eighteen hours a day in front of a computer screen.  She's a starlet.  She's beautiful.  She's famous.  Of course you're going to agree with her.  And you do.  She immediately goes to the director and tells him that you wrote it the way she pictured it.  The director comes over and hits you with a hammer.

I wish that happened to me.  Well, everything but the hammer part.

However, on the set of "21 Eyes," one of the actors asked me about a line in the script.  I innocently told him what I thought.  He agreed and did it that way every time -- despite the fact that the director Lee Bonner came over after every take and asked him to do it another way.  Fortunately, Lee never found out that I was partly responsible for the problem, and, hopefully, he never will.  Unless he's reading this now.  If so:  "Sorry, Lee."

So, as we were flying west, I kept telling Tim that we had to keep our mouths shut and speak only when spoken too.  I kept verbalizing it to Tim, but, I think I was mainly warning myself.  If you have been reading my blog, you might have noticed that I tend to say too much.

Most of the film was shot in Calabasas, California.  We checked into a scary hotel.  When I say scary, I mean it looked nice enough until we saw this sign:


Ah, who cares.  Who wouldn't risk a little reproductive harm!   We were in Hollywood making a movie.  (Well, north of Hollywood, actually.)

Oh.  By the way.  Something interesting happened between first contact and the shoot.  Originally, this had been an Eagle Rock Production to star David A.R. White and Kevin Downes.  However, during the writing, the two producing partners had parted ways.  David was granted custody of Tim and myself during the divorce.  Now the film was slated to be the first production of a new company called Pure Flix.

We arrived a few days into the shoot.  We were only present for a few days of the shooting at the McMansion where most of the film took place.  One of the interesting things about the shoot was that, although, technically-speaking, this was a local LA job, a number of the actors and crew chose to live at the house during the shoot rather than drive into Calabasas every day for the early call.

The mood at the house was good by the time Tim and I arrived.  The cast and crew had grown into a well-oiled machine.  Everybody talked about how much better everything was now.  That made me wonder about what had happened before....  Well, apparently, they had shot the nightclub scenes first -- including all the three bands in one long stressful night.  After hearing the stories, I was glad Tim and I had gotten there afterwards.  Who needs the stress?  However, I must admit that I wanted to see the fictional band consisting of our characters because we had given the band the same name as a band I had played in with a group of friends:  The Atomic Enema.  Here's the real band:

Real Rock 'n' Roll with the Real Atomic Enema
Nick Mazziott, Mike Mazziott, Sean Murphy, Jim Jackson

An interesting thing apparently happened at the nightclub.  At the club, Jeremy and Sherry, the former high school sweethearts, find themselves slow dancing to a song a band is playing.  The dance brings back a flood of memories to Sherry about their prom.  That's the way it was written.  Unfortunately, the same forces that caused so many changes in the script were also present on the set.  Someone decided that it might offend the Baptists if our two leads danced.  So, instead, they had the conversation while sitting at a table.  Sadly, that change effectively eliminated the motivation for the whole conversation.  I know the actress playing Sherry, the inimitable Tracy Melchior, really wanted to play the scene while dancing.  I'm glad I wasn't there, because if I were, and she would have asked me, I would have completely agreed with her and someone would have hit me with a hammer.

Oh well.

Let's talk about the cast.

David A.R. White and Sean A.R. Murphy

The mighty David A.R. White was a given from the start.  This was his movie.  Aside from being the lead, he was also one of the producers.  And, since he was the producer that signed my checks, he was the main producer in my eyes.  I was glad that Tim and I were given the chance to give him a real, romantic lead.  Although there had been romantic subplots in some of his earlier faith-based pictures, this was the first one where the romantic story was the main plot.  I knew he could pull it off and he did.

Prior to our arrival on the set, all of our exchanges with David had taken place on the phone or via email.  We found him quite warm and friendly in person.  He welcomed us onto the set and made us feel at home.  He would even occasionally ask our opinion.  Watching him between takes, Tim and I both noticed he had a talent for comedy which heretofore had not been evident in his previous films.  We immediately thought we would like to write a comedy for him. That was before we discovered that Christians and comedies don't mix.  (Or should I say Christian gatekeepers!)

Tracy Melchior
Breaking The Perfect 10

I believe Tracy was one of the last actors cast in the film.  Some well known actresses were apparently interested in the role, but the pro-life theme scared them off.  (Interestingly, they didn't mind appearing in a Christian film, but a pro-life sentiment is taboo.)  Thank goodness for Tracy!  She was a soap opera star appearing on "The Bold and The Beautiful."  The producers became aware of her after she appeared on the Larry King Show talking about her memoir "Breaking The Perfect 10."  In the book, she revealed how she had broken all ten of the commandments, including Thou Shall Not Kill.  She had broken that commandment when she had an abortion.  As a result, they sent her the script and she was very happy to appear in the film because it spoke to her feelings about the subject abortion.

Tracy is a very thoughtful and committed actress.  I was really impressed with her.  One thing that constantly amazed me was how the actors and actresses were able to do so many script pages a day.  "This is nothing," she said to me once.  "On the soap operas, we do sixty pages a day."

You should buy her book.  It's great.  Breaking the Perfect 10

By the way, Tracy inspired an award-winning short film I later wrote.  I'll tell you about that later.

Staci Keanan and Tim Ratajczak

Little did Tim and I know when they cast Staci for this film that she would be in practically every film we wrote afterwards.  Our only problem is that she hasn't appeared in all of them.  Staci, of course, was the veteran of two successful television series "My Two Dads" and "Step By Step."  She is a very sweet and talented woman.  If she isn't working every day, it must be because she doesn't want to.  She has now been in three of our films in three very different roles.  The problem is that in our films she's always the bridesmaid, she's never the bride.  She's always the best friend or the sister of the lead, and she shines in those roles, but it would be interesting to see her as the female lead.  I must confess that when I wrote my screenplay "Judy," I always pictured Staci in the lead.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. John Schneider

I hear we got John Schneider because he specifically asked if agent to seek out a faith-based script.  Fortunately, he found ours and liked it.  I think his appeal could be summed up by something I heard seconds after I first met him.  I was standing in the corner as he was walking to the set.  As he passed by, one of our youthful female PAs turned to another youthful PA and whispered, "I know he's old enough to be my father, but, omigod, he is sooo cute."  But he is actually more than just cute.  He is a consummate professional and very easy-going.  And, unlike a lot of stars who rose to fame in a high-profile role, he doesn't run away from his past.  He embraces his inner Bo Duke.  My biggest regret of the trip was that Tim and I chose to do some sight-seeing the day John drove up in the General Lee, his car from "The Dukes of Hazard."  He took pictures in it with anyone who wanted one.

John also ad-libbed a few great lines during the shoot.  Unfortunately, they didn't make it to the final film because someone thought they were too glib for a funeral.  (That person had never been to a Murphy funeral!)  There was something else that I didn't know about John that I learned later.  He is a tireless promoter of his work.  Every where he went, and on every interview he gave, he talked up the movie.  And he goes a lot of places and gives a lot of interviews.  I thanked him for it later when we met again on the next movie.  He said what he didn't understand was why actors would take the time to make a movie and not promote it!

A class act.

Parker Lewis Still Can't Lose.

I didn't chat much with Corin Nemec.  He seemed quiet and contemplative.  Some actors are very chatty on the set. Other actors seem to need a quiet space to find what they want in the next scene.  Corin seemed to be the latter.  Not that he wasn't a very nice guy when you talked to him.  He was.   But I never wanted to interfere with his craft and preparations.  There was one thing I found very amusing.  There is a scene at the wake where the nosy, judgmental Rhonda interrogates him.  Eventually, she starts talking about his relationship with women, of which he expresses a certain purity -- which isn't surprising since he's been struggling with homosexuality.  In the original script, the encounter ends with Rhonda saying "I wish there were more men like you," and Michael responding, "So do I."  Unfortunately, Michael's line was cut out long before the script got to the actors.  However, since the scene naturally builds to that moment, Corin actually ad-libbed that line.  It got the biggest laugh on the set.  I talked to one of the producers and said we gotta use it.  He said yeah, but it didn't make it to the film.

I feel sorry for Corin.  He had a much more interesting and fun character to play in the original script.  Now he's simply serves as a matchmaker between Jeremy and Sherry with no real character arc.  Oh well.  Those things happen.

I wish I had a picture with him for Facebook.

Greg Binkley

Gregg Binkley may not be as well known as the other actors listed above -- unless you live on the West Coast where he was the "Del Taco Guy" -- but he is just as talented.  We loved him.  He took the role of Rhonda's henpecked husband Harold and ran with it.  Gregg has great comic timing.  He got huge laughs out of the audiences with the smallest looks and gestures.  This man should be a star!  Tim and I are doing all we can.  We always try to write him into every script.  Sometimes we'll give the producer subtle hints by giving these characters names like "Gregg Hinckley."  As it is, I am always happy to see him showing up in big Hollywood films like "State of Play" and "The Changling."  We knew him when.

John Schneider, Autumn Paul, Greg Binkley

A lot of actors judge the importance of a role by the number of lines or the screen time, but Autumn practically stole the film with the small but shrewish role of Rhonda.  People love to hate her, but, trust me, she was much sweeter in real life!

Sean Sedgwick

Back in the day, when I was a boy producer for an advertising agency, a lot of headshots crossed by desk.  You'd look at the photo then flip it over and look at the attached resume.  At the bottom, actors would always list activities they did like scuba diving, horse backing riding, cooking, etc.  I always found it kind of ridiculous.  However, all you actors out there, be sure to put down all those activities.  I asked David how he found and cast Sean as the ne'er-do-well friend Anthony.  He said they cast him because listed drumming as one of his activities.  And he really could drum!  Watch the film.  He's in time.   We've subsequently worked with Sean on other projects and look forward to working with him again.

We Seans have to stick together.

Yours truly, director Carey Scott and scripty Marcella Bremond

I believed I managed to accomplish my primary role of keeping out of the hard-working cast and crew of "Hidden Secrets."  Sadly, Tim and I never got the opportunity to meet Rachael Lampa or the band Building 429.  They were shooting any of the days we were there.  I was grateful that we managed to get as many Rachael Lampa as we did in the soundtrack.  They hit the mood perfectly.

Overall, the production was a dream come true.

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.