Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Hidden Secrets" Revealed, Part 1, Pre-History

Hidden Secrets, the original DVD artwork

It's not too far of a stretch to say that "Hidden Secrets," my second produced feature, was born partially out of my frustration with the independent film business as experienced through "21 Eyes."  At least as far as I am concerned.

If you've been following this blog, you know that I feel that, financially-speaking, the film business is hopelessly skewed in favor of the distributors.  It was frustrating to know that if we could only sell 5000 or so DVDs of "21 Eyes" ourselves online at the suggested retail price of $19.95 our investors would be made whole.  And that should be the goal, kiddies:  Making the investors whole.  A happy investor will help you make more movies.  An unhappy investor will have you checking your caller ID every time before you answer the phone.  You don't want that.  Life's too short.

But how do you sell 5000 copies of your DVD?

Sounds like it should be easy.  You set up a webpage.  Easy enough.  You set up a purchase fulfillment mechanism.  Easy enough.  You get tens of thousands of potential buyers to your website.  Not so easy.

Once, I remember talking to a producer who told me you always had to ask yourself:  "Who will want to watch your movie?"  I have rarely heard wiser words in this business.  If you don't know who will want to watch your movie, maybe you shouldn't make it.

Who would want to watch "21 Eyes?"

We designed the film for young, hip filmgoers.  The people who went to independent film festivals.  People who wanted to see something new.  Something that would challenge them.  These people, however, were not the people who would line up to buy the film at Walmart.  That's a problem if you want to make money.  In fact, I can say, based on the comments from viewers on various webpages, that the average filmgoer who is simply looking for ninety minutes of escapism has had little patience for our film.  People love it or hate it.  There's no middle ground on "21 Eyes."

So how do we find our audience?  Where do they gather?  Where can we hand out a few copies to get word of mouth going?

If you know, tell us.  Even if you're the "Gone With The Wind" of voyeuristic, security-camera tape whodunit mysteries, you'll have a hard time getting potential buyers to your site.  It takes a great deal of work or an unbelievable amount of luck to get something to go "viral."  It takes more than a little word of mouth unless your website contains footage you took with your cellphone of a drunken Lindsey Lohan stripping at a nightclub.  Come to think of it, you need more than that today.  We've all seen that.  What you need is advertising.  And, if you have an indie mystery, where do you advertise your film to get the ball rolling?  It's not like there's a natural constituency for such films.

If we had a low-budget horror film, we could put banner ads on websites like Fangoria.  We could buy tables at horror conventions and sell copies directly to the fans.  Of course, if we had a horror film, we would also be competing with 9000 other films that were made on a shoestring.  So, despite having a more easily-defined market, it is incredibly difficult for a horror film to gain any real attention.  It is even more difficult for an oddball, non-linear mystery.

Now, if Rebecca Mader had gotten the "Lost" gig just as we were finishing post-production, we might've been able to pull something off, but, sadly, timing didn't work in our favor.

We weren't going to be able to sell 5000 copies of the film off our webpage.  We had to put ourselves in the hands of a distributor.  And I'm not sure he had washed them.

This left me at a career crossroads.  My agent was dead.  Should I write a new mainstream script and use it to get a new agent and try for the conventional brass ring again?  Or should I try to write and produce another low budget independent movie?  Having learned that it was more fun to write movies than scripts, I decided to continue playing around in the independent world.  But before I did, I wanted to answer the question:  "Who will want to watch your movie?"

One thing was certain.  I wasn't going to self-produce and promote a horror film, as much as I enjoy the genre.   Too much competition.  Too many desperate filmmakers giving their films away essentially for nothing.  Even the local success stories didn't hold up to scrutiny.

Here's about as good as it gets.  You find an investor who gives you $30,000.  You spend the money responsibly and actually make a good film.  So good that Lion's Gate or The Asylum gives you an advance of $30,000 for it.  Yippee.  You can pay back your investor in full.  You can hold your head up high.  You don't have to spend the next five years ducking his phone calls.  You are a success.  Except for one problem:  You don't have any money.  The investor rightfully got all of the advance.  You're hoping to get paid on a percentage of the sales, but, guess what, you never see those percentages.  Why?  Because the distributor will keep increasing his costs so that the film never becomes profitable.  Or he simply won't pay you.  So, in the end, you've worked a year or two or three for free.  Even if you got to pocket the whole advance, it's probably less than what you're making at your day job.

Plus, unless the film gets you a financed-production deal with a distributor, chances are you are going to be starting at zero again when it comes time to make your next film.

Depressed yet?  I was.

I wanted to write a film I could believe in with a built-in market that could readily and inexpensively be reached via advertising.  The answer:  The faith-based market.

Starting with the success of 1999's "The Omega Code," the Christian film market began to expand.  However, the mainstream media didn't start to notice the trend until the phenomenal success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."  Still, they were able to dismiss the genre's viability.  After all, Mel Gibson was a big star.  His presence, even behind the camera, made The Passion a success.  Then came the little independent film "Facing The Giants."  No stars.  No production values.  Just high school football and Jesus, and not particularly in that order.

That was the answer.  I would write and produce a quality, low-budget faith-based film.

I would write a script that I could produce for about $100,000 with an additional $50,000 for advertising and promotion.  I would set up a booth at the Christian Booksellers convention and follow-up with direct marketing, both internet and mail.  I would buy banner ads on various webpages and hold some money back for spots on Christian radio stations in key markets.

I could do this.  And without any cynicism.

I was a believer since high school, albeit as a Roman Catholic.  (Oh no, I've accidently outed myself.  I might never be able to work in the faith-based field again!)  I had the faith.  I had the heart.  I had the language.  I could easily write a faith-affirming film that would entertain as well as enlighten.  In fact, I already had.

Yours truly in his First Communion gear.

The first scripts I sent to Hollywood had strong Biblical themes.  And, oddly enough, they were well-received.  Back then, there was no real faith-based genre.  The agents looked at the scripts as stories, and they thought the stories worked.  The second script I wrote was an Apocalyptic thriller called "The Mark."  At the time, I was working with an agent who didn't represent writers.  He did, however, represent directors, and he wanted to try to set the script up somewhere with one of his clients.  The agent, now a television and feature producer, was Jewish.  He wasn't put off by the Christian material at all.  He took the script as a powerful Rod Serling-ish metaphor about The Holocaust.  If anything, he thought it was too Jewish and he didn't want to be perceived as being too pushy about his faith.

Nothing happened, and I didn't care.  Back then I was writing a new script every couple of months so I didn't place much of an attachment on any particular one.  However, in retrospect, I wish I would have pursued that script.  I would have hit the "Left Behind" market years before those books.  Drat.  (Then again, it was an early effort.  Too sloppy and too long.  But I would be happy to revisit it if anyone was interested!)

My third script, a horror film called "Then The Judgement," was even more Christian than the previous one.  In fact, it has a stronger evangelical message than some of the straightforward faith-based films I have subsequently written.  And you know what?  Nobody complained.  Why?  Because it wasn't propaganda.  The spiritual themes of the story were essential to this tale of good and evil and the possibility of redemption.  People often raise their eyebrows when I say I really want to write horror films, but, think about it, horror is the only "mainstream" genre where it is acceptable to delve into supernatural and spiritual themes.

(Pardon me if I don't give you the log-lines of these films but they are very high-concept and still viable.  I don't want them stolen.  That happens.  And its happened to me.)

The first person to represent Then The Judgement was an East Coast entertainment lawyer.  Well, technically-speaking, she didn't represent me or the script.  There is a legal distinction between what a lawyer is supposed to do and what an agent is supposed to do.  Lawyers are not supposed to hawk scripts.  She told me she could only represent me in negotiations if someone wanted to buy the script.  That said, she did, inadvertently I suppose, send the script around to a few places to see if someone wanted to be on the other side of these projected negotiations.  She was the first person to get me a really cool rejection letter.  From Paramount.  On their stationary!  I had it hanging on my wall for years.

After a while, my lawyer said her firm wouldn't let her send scripts around anymore.  I had to find a real agent. By then, of course, I had a new script I wanted to sell too.  It was a secular light drama which will remain nameless here.  I decided to simultaneously pitch "Then The Judgement" and The Light Drama.  I sent out ten letters per script to agents every two weeks.  I got interest in both scripts almost immediately.  (Little did I know it at the time, but this was the height of the spec script market.)

A major agent at CAA, through his assistant, requested to read "Then The Judgement."  I'd tell you who the agent was, but you wouldn't believe me.  And, perhaps more importantly, if you did believe me, you'd think I was a total idiot.  (He's still there and very powerful.)    Stu Robinson, from the boutique, writer-oriented agency, Robinson, Weintraub and Gross, requested The Light Drama.  I heard back from both of them in about a week.  I got a letter from the CAA agent's assistant.  He liked "Then The Judgement," but he requested three changes.  Those changes seemed large at the time, but they were nothing compared to the changes I make on commissioned scripts nowadays.  The next day I got a call from Stu Robinson at 9am EST.  Yes.  He was calling me at 6am his time!  I was impressed.  I mean, I wasn't even awake.  He woke me up!  He liked The Light Drama very much.  He wanted to represent it.  And he was the guy who sold "E.T".  And he represented John Sayles.  You can't go wrong with that!

I told Stu my dilemma.  How CAA was interested in "Then The Judgement."  He asked me to send him the script.  He read it.  He liked it.  However, he said it would be a mistake to make my first sale a horror film.  I would be typecast as a horror writer.  He said I would be much better off selling The Light Drama first.  That was the kind of script that would get me commissioned work, and that's where the money is.  He made a good case, and I decided to go with him.  And, anyway, CAA wanted changes.  Forget them!  (Ah, the cockiness of youth.)

I'll leave it to another blog to examine whether that was the right choice!

Seanie Goes To Hollywood

Hidden Secrets, Revealed, Part 2, First Contact

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.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"21 Eyes" - Now About That Nude Scene....

Another promotional piece from the distributor hunt.

"Nude scene?" those of you who have actually seen the movie may be asking yourselves, "What nude scene?"

There was some light nudity in the original script.  We even shot it.

The nudity wasn't a marketing decision.  Personally, I don't think nudity buys you anything anymore.  Perhaps it helped back in the 'sixties and 'seventies when nudity was a relatively new phenomenon, but now I think it just limits what cable networks can show your film.  In fact, market research clearly indicates that nudity and excessive language hurt films.  However, this was a film about voyeurism, and it's hard to have a film on that theme without some nudity.  Also, since we established that Blu felt really insulted by this thankless assignment, we needed a strong hook to get him to stay and watch the tapes.  We felt the prospect of seeing a naked woman would motivate him to do so.  The first bedroom scene was just a tease.  The real nudity came halfway through the film when they got to the second angle in the bedroom.

As I said in an earlier blog, Rebecca Mader wasn't overjoyed about doing any nudity, but she was a true professional and did what the script demanded.  However, it was all spelled out very precisely in her contract.  She would remove her top, but she wasn't to be seen in that state of undress for more than three-and-a-half seconds.  Now that should have been seen as a problem from the very start.  In the script, when the Belinda Brown character starts stripping, the off-camera television room quickly fills up with guys very interested in the show.  Not only do they hit to slo-mo button on the VCR, they back up the scene and watch it again with much commentary.  Three-and-a-half seconds suddenly turned into twenty-eight seconds.

So Lee calls Rebecca's agent.  He says, "We have a problem.  The contract says Rebecca can only be seen topless for three-and-a-half seconds, but it took her six seconds to remove her top and exit frame."  "No problem," says the agent, "if it took her six seconds to do it, you got six seconds."  "Thanks," says Lee, "but we have another problem."  "Really?"  "Yeah," Lee explains, "You've got to remember the context of the scene.  It's late at night.  The detectives are guys.  And here's this beautiful woman.  So, you know, they'd watch it more than once, and probably hit the slo-mo button too."  Silence.  Then...  "How much time are we talking?"  "Twenty-eight seconds...."  "Twenty-eight seconds!" the agent exclaimed, "No way.  You get your six seconds and that's it."

Then Lee, the true artist, emerged.  "Look, it would be completely out of character for these detectives to see a naked woman without backing it up and watching it again," he reasoned.  "If they can't back it up and play it again, we're not going to use the nudity at all!"

How about that for artistic integrity!

Without missing a beat, the agent said, "Okay."  He was fine with that.

Hence, no nudity.

Personally, I'm fine with that too.  Rebecca didn't really want to do it, so I'm glad we didn't use it.  Plus, even if she did want to do it, I would have had a problem.   There's always a price to pay for things like that.

I took my sainted Grandmother Murphy to see the film during its limited theatrical run.  Every time my grandmother heard a word she didn't like, I'd get a bony elbow in my side.  Granted, I didn't write most of the things my grandmother objected to, but try telling that to her!  Lord only knows what would have happened if Rebecca took off her top in the film.  My grandmother probably would have hit me with her umbrella.  And she didn't even have it with her.  That's right.  She would have gone home, gotten her umbrella, then came back and hit me with it.

So thank you Mr. Agent, where ever you are!

Me with my sainted grandmother 
Margaret Angie Robertson Murphy
Be sure to check out my book "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God."

Monday, May 24, 2010

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 4

Here's a flier we would fax to potential distributors.

Post production of "21 Eyes" actually began before the shoot.

We had designed our film to be shot on videotape, but we were worried about what would happen if we won the lottery and got a real, genuine theatrical film release?  (We did actually have an extremely limited theatrical release, but we used a tape copy.)  To address that possibility, Lee and David did some tests.  They shot footage with a variety of miniDV cameras to gauge which ones would give us the best image.  Then we sent the footage to Technicolor in New York and had the footage transferred to 35mm using their then state-of-the-art process.  Aside from some focus issues which were not obvious in the viewfinder, we were actually quite impressed with the result and made all the expected comments about the coming death of film.

You'd probably be surprised by how much time we spent deciding how to handle all of the rewinds and fast-forwards that we would be using throughout the film.  We studied how each video and dvd deck at our collective disposal handled the images in those modes.  We even went into the machine rooms at post-production facilities to check out how more expensive decks handled those functions.  We decided, even then, that tape was essentially dead so we went for a digital step-frame fast forward and reverse.  However, since we established that Scotty and Blu, our hero detectives, would be watching tapes, we wanted their tape deck to act like a normal tape deck when they went into full rewind.  On most video decks, the image disappears in full rewind.  You either get a blue image or the television channel you had been watching previously.  We thought it would be fun for the screen to show programming.  I was sent to find suitable public domain material to use in those segments, but we never included it in any edit.  Ultimately, we thought it would be more fun and bolder just to let the screen go blue.

(That actually led to an amusing incident.  The Milwaukee Film Festival arranged for a live interview with me during their festival on a local morning television news talk show.  I was being interviewed in a theater, but a monitor showed us what was appearing live on television.  At some point during the interview they cut to a scene from the movie back at the station.  It was going along nicely until the image went blue as we intended.  Whoever was running the switcher must've thought it was a mistake and panicked.  He didn't know where to switch.  First he went to the anchor desk, where the anchors were preoccupied, then the screen went black, then it cut to us.  The guy, obviously, should have previewed the clip!)

Then the edit began.  We essentially cut the picture together in a day or two.  A number of reviewers complimented the editing, and I thank them, but it was actually my easiest feature edit.  In fact, you could say that it was edited at the script stage.  We had very little leeway with the visuals, although many of them were treated or masked for various reasons.  We decided at the beginning that all of the footage in the living quarters would be in color and all of the footage in the workroom would be in black and white.  We did this for two reasons.  First, it broke up the film visually, which we felt was important.  Secondly, we knew we were going to have to add many special effects to the workroom scene, i.e., blood splats, gun barrel flares, and masking other little things we felt we had to hide.  Having all the footage in black and white made the process easier.   I had forgotten how much we had manipulated the workroom footage until about two months ago when I found an unlabeled DVD.  I put it into my player and I discovered it was an initial edit of the film before we changed anything.  I was so used to the final product that I had forgotten how far we had come.

We did farm out a few things on our special effects list, but David Butler did a great deal of the work himself.

The film was edited at the office of Butler Films in Annapolis, Maryland.  Lee and I worked at the big computer.  David worked his magic in another office while Lynda Meier, our unit production manager and assistant editor, organized materials in another room.  The initial cut was made before we recorded the voice over talent.  That was essential because things never quite work out exactly on the screen as they do in the script.  This allowed us to cut lines that didn't work anymore, and take advantage of new things to comment on.  For example, the character Morty makes a lame turtle soup joke that my wife had thrown into the script that we hear repeated ad nauseam throughout the film.  Once, while screening the pre-voiced rough cut at my home, my former brother-in-law said, sarcastically, "That gets funnier every time I hear it."  Guess what?  Scotty had a new line.  We added many and subtracted many lines during that process.

Once we were reasonably-satisfied with the picture, the time came to record the voice over talent.  Here's where I believe we made a crucial mistake, although we didn't have an option if we wanted to get the talent we wanted.  Ideally, you'd want to have all of the actors in the room together so that they could play off each other and build a natural sense of banter.  Unfortunately, Fisher was getting ready to go to Canada on another project.  We couldn't wait until he finished that project because we were hurrying to enter the Sundance Film Festival.  Therefore, we were limited to recording Fisher over a two hour period.  We couldn't go through the script with two actors in that amount of time so we had to record Fisher alone.  Then, obviously, we would have to record Michael Buscemi alone.  As a result, the banter between the two of them never quite felt 100% real in places.  And this led to problems, between Lee and myself.

I had previously edited dozens of projects for Lee and we never disagreed.  We were the very embodiment of congeniality during the writing of the script and during production.  However, during the edit, Sean the editor became too protective of Sean the writer, and I would fight for every little word in the script.  Lee, on the other hand, wanted to get rid of everything that did not sound natural to his ear.   We became The Bickersons during this period, which lasted for months.  (We would often stop to work on other projects since none of us were being paid by this production.)  David Butler would occasionally come in and mediate.  In retrospect, I can see that Lee was 100% correct, well, maybe 90% correct.  The script was the script and the movie was the movie.  It didn't matter how ingenious and awe-inspiring a line was on the page.  If the delivery didn't feel natural on the screen, it had to go.  Sorry.  That was a very important lesson to learn and it took me a while to learn it.  I have subsequently edited other feature films I have written and I now find it much easier to "kill my darlings" as William Faulkner might say.

By the way, or BTW, as a more internet savvy person would write, these problems with the delivery were not the fault of the actors.  Fisher and Michael both did a fantastic job.  It's just that sometimes their instincts went in different directions that didn't become obvious until we got into the editing.

Michael Buscemi

(One of the funniest things about the recording process was watching Michael Buscemi work.  He had not seen any of the footage and, frankly, he did not always know what lines were serious and which ones were sarcastic.  That was just the way we wanted it.  It gave everything the deadpanned attitude we were looking for.  Lee sat in the booth with him.  David and I sat outside and would often find ourselves cracking up at Michael's performance.  Later, Michael told us that we were unnerving him because we were laughing at things he didn't realize were supposed to be funny.  We assured him that he was doing a great job.  As I said earlier, we had a chance to get a much bigger star for the role, but, after hearing Michael, we knew we would never replace him.  Kudos!)

As we neared the end of the edit, the time came to consider the score.  Lee, David and myself had always worked with our friend Jack Heyrman at Clean Cuts for sound and scoring.  Jack assigned us his chief composer Wall Matthews.  We sent Wall the film.  He watched it.  We asked about what kind of score he imagined.  He said he didn't see any music in it.  He though since we were going for a cinema verite approach, he thought a score might be intrusive.  That's not what you usually hear from a composer, but it made us think.  What kind of score would work?  We wanted to test some things.

I contacted a copywriter friend of ours named Chris Scharpf -- also known as the king of soundtracks.  No one in the Mid-Atlantic knows more about soundtracks than him or has a broader collections.  (I always try to get his opinion before my yearly Oscar poll.)  We gave him a copy of the film and asked him to think what would work.  He gave us back the film with a stack of CDs that took the music in various directions.  We actually liked some music from the film "Marathon Man" against it.  And we liked the way that score sometimes grew out of live sounds in the film.  We went back to Wall, who put together some very nice, understated themes and built other cues out of the sounds in the film.  He hit all the right marks, and I am very happy that he became involved in some of the other films I worked on later.

But, as conceptionally complicated as the soundtrack was, it was nowhere near as complicated as the sound mix itself.

Most films work to create an aural environment.  We needed two environments.  We needed the environment of the action on the tapes, but we always needed to create the environment of the police station where the tapes were being viewed.  To accomplish this, Lee actually had to sketch out how he saw the room.  Where the television was sitting.  Where the detectives were sitting.  Where the doors and windows were located.  Where Ellie would be standing when she came into the room for an extended visit.  We considered this situation prior to recording the voice over talent.  We recorded them speaking into the normal microphone one would find in a recording booth, but also with a film microphone hanging from a boom on the other side of the booth.  By dialing back and forth between the two microphones, we hoped we would be able to find the right "distance."  Victor Giordano did an excellent job designing this environment.

Picture was done.  Sound was done.  We had a movie, but something wasn't quite right.

Most people look at film festivals as a place to publicize and sell their films.  We also used the festivals as a means to hone our film.

Audiences know.  You can tell when an audience is getting into something and when they are not.  Our problem was that people enjoyed the film once they understood what they were watching.  However, it took them about ten minutes to really understand what was going on.  It was smooth sailing after that.   We just needed to bring that point earlier.

The first thing we did was write and shoot the newscaster open.  For a while, the film opened with a television turned to the newscast which explained the robbery.  It was a cheat, to be sure, but, hey, we were a little independent film and we needed all the help we could get.  That really helped a lot, but there was still something missing.

At some point, the Baltimore-born, Academy-Award winning writer/director Barry Levinson saw the film.  He liked it, but felt it needed to start with more of a bang.  Something gripping and scary to propell the viewer into the film and give weight to everything that followed.  He recommended using the opening credit sequence of the remake of "Dawn of the Dead" as a guide.  Personally, I was impressed that an important filmmaker like Barry Levinson took the time to watch a horror movie.  I had, of course, already seen it and liked it.  I actually also thought that the credit sequence was the best thing in the movie.  (The eerie Johnny Cash gospel song certainly helps!)  Well, we didn't have Johnny Cash, but we had time.  Lee edited the opening robbery sequence, treating it like a traditional narrative feature, using the best shots we had from the various angles.  He also shot some additional footage like close-ups of shells hitting the ground, etc.  It was just what the doctor ordered.Now we had the film you see now.

Have you seen it yet?   If not, what are you waiting for?  Get it on Amazon.

Throw us a bone.  Buy one.  We make, I believe, fifty cents for each copy we sell.  That sad reality, oddly-enough, led me to Jesus, or, should I say the faith-based film industry.  But I'll talk more about that later.


(Actually, I think we do make more than fifty cents per copy sold, but you'll have to take that up with Mr. Butler.)

21 Eyes, Now About That Nude Scene....

Read about the making of my other features:

Hidden Secrets
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.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"21 Eyes" Trailer

Here's the trailer of the film to better understand what I've been blogging about:

Isn't YouTube wonderful?

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 3

The original poster for "21 Eyes," originally known as "Replay."

With casting nearly completed, we turned our attention to the shoot itself.

I say nearly completed because as we talked with our stunt coordinator, Doug Crosby, we knew we had to get him in the movie.  Doug had more motion picture experience than the rest of the cast and crew combined.  When we happened upon him, he had recently gotten off the long and grueling shoot for "Gangs of New York."  He didn't want to work on another big Hollywood product again right away.  He wanted to work on a film that the people involved in really believed in, and he appreciated that we really believed in this film and that we wanted to do something unique.  As a result, he brought a great deal of enthusiasm to the production and, since we enjoyed his manner of speech and some of the ad-libs he threw in, we decided to make him one of the robbers.  It was an excellent decision.

Back to the production.

Most directors shoot the script.  The unique, nonlinear structure of "21 Eyes" made that impossible.  The film consists of two detectives watching a series of events from a variety of different angles.  Obviously, we weren't going to stage the events for each camera individually.  We were going to have to shoot a massive master scenes which were useable from all angles.  To do that, we had to generate a shooting script.  The original script was approximately 119 pages long.  The shooting script, which only dealt with what was seen on screen in the final movie was only 22 pages long.  The mighty David Butler planned a five day shoot -- with the understanding that there would be a few pickups later.

(One thing about the script length.  A few days before the shoot, I got a little paranoid.  I told Lee that, based on the length of the shooting script, our film might end up much shorter than we intended.  That it might not even be an acceptable feature length when we were done.  I wanted to act the whole thing out with him.  "What are we going to do if we find out it's too short, not shoot it?" he laughed.  "Let's just shoot the movie."  So we did.  And it was short, but, fortunately, not too short.)

Our biggest challenge was the workroom sequence.  I believe it ran twelve pages and it had to be filmed in a single take.  Most real films shoot about three script pages a day.  Those pages are further broken down into a series of small shots.  That makes it easier for everyone.  Who wants to remember twelve pages of dialogue and have to hit all their marks at just the right time?  The answer:  No one.  We couldn't shoot the workroom sequence like a film.  It had to be shot like a stage play.

To make matters worse, much worse in fact, we could only afford to shoot the sequence four times.  That's all the costume changes, squibs and pyrotechnics we had.  (Not to mention time.)  And, remember, the final take had to be perfect from all angles because there was no way we would be able to cheat and use different takes from different angles.  Additionally, since every corner of the room was visible at some time, there was no place for the director to stand and guide them.  The actors were going to be entirely on their own.

Lee and I knew we couldn't count on them all to remember all the right dialogue.  We didn't necessarily care about that.  The most important thing was that they hit their marks, i.e., their position in front of certain cameras when important clues were revealed.  It was asking a lot of the actors, and we had little to no time for rehearsal.

The walkthru was fine.  (How can you blow a walkthru?)  However, during the rehearsal it became clear to Lee that we couldn't do the entire sequence in one take.  We huddled together and he decided that we would shoot it in two parts.  The first part would be all of the pre-robbery activity through the arrival of the bandits.  We would cut after the main bad guy, Quinn, left to get the owner, Seth Collison, from his adjacent home.  Then we would shoot the more challenging part, with all of the gunplay, the next day starting with Quinn returning with Seth Collison.  Lee reasoned that our unseen detectives were always going to fast forward through the wait for Collison anyway.  So why shoot it in one take?  That was a good point.  The scene was broken into two parts.  And there was much rejoicing.  Except from me.  I'm always paranoid on the set about last minute changes.  That's why I'm usually best left at the craft services table with the bagels and power bars.

(Nowadays I mainly go to the set to get pictures with the actors for my FaceBook page, but that's another story.)

The first part of the sequence was relatively uneventful.  The actors played the scene on the first floor of the building and the rest of us were watching them on six different monitors on the second floor which showed what was being seen by each different camera.  (I don't think we had a monitor hooked up to the camera over the desk where the finger is chopped off.  We already knew we were going to have to fake that one angle for that gag.)  After each take, Lee would head downstairs and give the actors some direction.  I would go outside and eat a bagel.  Then there would be another take.  We got it.  Perfect, no, but plenty good enough.

Then came the big scene with the pistols, machine guns and a severed finger.  We only had four takes.  One of them had to be good or we'd have no movie.  The first take was a disaster.  Completely unusable.  Human errors.  Equipment errors.  Squibs misfired.  People weren't in the right place.  Yuck.  The second take wasn't much better.  There was a huddle upstairs.  What if we never got the squibs right?  David assured us that he would be able to add the blood via special effects in post-production.  And he did.

One problem solved.  But there was another problem:  Performance.

Lee and I had always imagined that the heist in the film would unfold in a cool, professional manner until the secretary turned the tables on the bad guys.  Unfortunately, bereft of the director's immediate influence, a weird group dynamic would always take over.  One person or another would begin to amp up their performance and the others would naturally rise up to that level.  With only four opportunities, Lee was unable to get exactly what he wanted.  Me, I'm just thankful that we got something we could use!  After the second take, I was beginning to feel my paranoia might be justified.  This is not to say that anyone was to blame.  It was just a complicated scene and the budget didn't allow enough rehearsal.

And this is where Doug Crosby came in handy.  Doug knew exactly what he was doing.  Since Lee couldn't be physically in the room, he instructed Doug to act as sort of an assistant director.  Whenever possible, Doug was to make sure that everyone was in position and that we saw what we needed to see and didn't see what we weren't supposed to see.  And he did.

Thanks, Doug!

Take Three begins.

Now, you should have seen us upstairs.  Lee, David and myself knew exactly what camera was most important at each moment of the action and our heads were swinging back and forth in unison between the six monitors, one of which was upside down for some reason.  We must've looked crazy.  Take Three started off well enough, but then the performance started amping up again.  Then Lee did something brilliant.  He yelled, "Cut," right before the gunplay started.  I don't know why no one thought of that before.  We had as many opportunities we needed as long as we stopped before the shooting started.

Lee went down and talked to the actors individually then we started again.   Everyone went through it, if not flawlessly, in an acceptable manner.  We used that take in the movie.

The relief was palatable.  Joy was unconfined.  There was dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor.  As Groucho might say.

After a meal break, the newly-energized cast and crew returned for the final take.  And it was great.  Actually much better than the take we used in the film.  Overall, the performances were much, much better.  So why didn't we use it?  Because of a small mistake.  In the script, when Quinn is shot, he drops the diamond to the floor, but in this take, the diamond hit the desk instead of the floor which threw off all the subsequent clues.  That one mistake meant we couldn't use the take.  Oh well.  We still had Take Three, or, should I say, Take Three and a Half.

Wanna see the multi-camera view of the heist?  Here it is:

After the stress of that scene, the rest of the shoot was a dream.  The shoot at Vince Peranio's house went very smoothly.  I remember two things in particular.  One was using a gun to guard the steps up to the bedroom where Rebecca Mader was doing her nude scene in front of a skeleton crew.  I doubt I would have shot anyone if they charged the stairs, but I did enjoy playing with the gun.  I mean, I'm no Phil Spector, but, hey, what's not to enjoy.  The cold power of the metal.  The teasing ease of the trigger.  I could fondle it all night, knowing that it gave me the power to.....

Uh, excuse me.  Back to the story.

The second thing I really enjoyed was the shooting of the behind the scenes video.  That was my job.  We couldn't shoot any footage during the day of the robbery scene because every camera at our disposal was already committed to the shoot.  Therefore, I had to shoot the video at the other locations.

 I needed interviews with all of the principal actors.  However, every time I approached Rebecca Mader, she'd say, "Not now, wait until I'm in my nightgown."  Needless to say, I was getting a bit worried.  My past experience with women taught me that when one of them said, "Wait until I'm in my nightgown," what she was really saying was, "Dream on, loser!"  I thought she was blowing me off, but, as soon as she finished shooting her scene in the nightgown, she shouted, "Sean, let's do the interview now."  And we did.

Did I tell you what a pleasure it was to work with Rebecca?  It was.  She later moved onto films like "The Devil Wore Prada," and became a regular on the television series "Lost."  I am so delighted for her.  It couldn't've happened to a nicer, more talented person.

And I knew her when.  If this film is ever remembered for anything, it will be because it was Rebecca Mader's first starring role in a feature.  (Mimic 3 was released first, but we shot first.)

What did I regret missing most during the shoot?  Nestor Serrano doing his Humphrey Bogart impression.  We quote a few lines from "The Maltese Falcon," and before one of the takes Nestor did a riff on Bogart that impressed everyone who heard it.  Sadly, I wasn't one of them.  I was, not unexpectedly, at the craft service table.

It was a great shoot.  Five days.

Who'd think the post production would take five months?  But that's another story you'll hear in Part 4.

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 4

(I know what you're thinking.  Isn't it a little self-indulgent writing blog after blog about a film no one has ever seen?  True, but isn't blogging inherently self-indulgent?)

Read about the making of my other features:

Hidden Secrets
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.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"The Lunch," or, How I Became A Professional Filmmaker

My Towson State ID photo featuring my college hair.

Let me take a little break from the history of my first feature and tell the story of "The Lunch" -- and how it made me a professional filmmaker.  Whether I liked it or not.

I always wanted to be a writer.  But who could actually make a living writing?  Journalists, of course.  And, after Watergate, everybody wanted to be a journalist.  So, when I arrived at Towson State University, which the previous year had been named by Playboy as one of the Top Ten Universities for Hot Girls (not that it did me any good), I began a Mass Communications major with a concentration in journalism.

That didn't last long.

What soured me on journalism?  Two things.  First, one of my instructors, Professor Kim, brought in a bunch of his success stories -- his former students who were now professional journalists.  I was appalled by how little money they were making.  One of them was actually making less money working for a major daily newspaper than I did as a busboy at Thompson's Sea Girt House.  If those were the success stories, I was afraid to hear about the failures.  I was an idealist, but one of my ideals was to be able to eat.

Secondly, I took a course on Persuasion which literally changed my life.  It turned me from a idealist to a skeptic in one short semester.  It taught me to think critically and doubt everything and everyone.  Particularly psychiatrists and journalists.  The course taught me to read newspaper stories and discern between fact and opinion.  I found very little fact.  It revealed that the whole concept of Objectivity was BS.

No more journalism for Sean.  So now what?  Hmmm.  I always loved movies.  So I changed my concentration to filmmaking.  I started hanging out at the film lab and learned that "Film is truth at 24fps."  Or so I was lead to believe!

However, I knew there was no way you could make a living as a filmmaker in Baltimore, so I decided to get a minor in Computer Science.  I started taking a ton of computer courses.  Most of them, quite frankly, were easy, but they got progressively harder the higher I went.

I had a pretty high grade point average heading into my senior year.  I was on the dean's list quite a few times, but, since I never actually got to meet him, I put an end to that.  Now it was crunch time.  I piled up a number of high level computer courses with my high level film courses.

Now let me tell you something.  My wife and I have gotten into heated discussions about our respective college GPAs.  I like to point out that mine was higher.  She likes to point out that I was merely a film major while she was taking incredibly difficult chemistry and biology courses.  Big deal.  She wouldn't talk that way if she had to sit through as many Godard films as I did.  Chemistry would start to look pretty inviting after that!

So there I was.  Senior year.  Tons of high level computer and film courses.  On top of that, I decided to break up with my longtime girlfriend.  (Okay, okay, actually, she broke up with me, but let me hold onto at least a semblance of pride in my own blog.  Plus, if you don't think she had a good reason, look at the hair in the photo above again.)  My life was starting to look like a train wreck.  And that brings me to "The Lunch."

I was partnered with my friend David Butler during the advanced 16mm filmmaking class.  The final project was to be a finished 16mm sound film with a sync audio track.  I thought I was going to ace the class right from the beginning.  The first week, our instructor David Berger, gave us each a 16mm camera and told us to experiment.  I made a short film with a friend Jim Jackson.  It was about an auto mechanic who has a run-in with a serial killer and was called, naturally, "The Maniac and The Mechanic."  Jim was the only actor I had so he had to play both roles.

I was editing the film on the Steenbeck the day before the next class when David Berger came in.  He asked to see the film.  I showed it to him.  He was very complimentary, telling me how he liked this framing, and that shot, and that lighting.  Fabulous.  And it got even better.  The next day at class we had to show our films.  One by one the students projected their films and one by one David Berger tore them apart.  Mercilessly.  I couldn't wait to show my film, because I already knew he liked it.  Dream on.  When I finally showed it, he tore it apart without saying any of the nice things he had said the day before.  I couldn't believe it.  After class, I asked him why he didn't point out any of the good things.  He said I already knew the good things.  I wouldn't learn unless he pointed out the mistakes.   Thanks.

(Actually, Mr. Berger was a great guy who soon left Academia for Advertising.  We managed to work on quite a few projects together over the years.  He remains one of the true characters in the local film business.)

Back to "The Lunch."

David and I were talking about what to do for a final project.  I believe I was the one who said we should do a spoof of the film "My Dinner With Andre."  Neither of us had seen the film, but I had seen Siskel and Ebert talking about it on "At The Movies."  I would write the script and David would direct.  Ultimately, I don't know how much of the script I wrote.  David probably wrote as much as I did.  If not more.  Plus, every actor in the film threw in some dialogue and got credited as a writer.  Somehow I ended up being one of the two leads.  Timothy Ratajczak, who would later write many movies with me, was also cast as the other lead.  David Butler himself made an appearance as the Rod Serling-esque narrator.  (BTW, I have written some screenplays with David Butler as well, but none of them have been produced.  Yet.)

I don't remember much about the shoot.  I was too preoccupied with my computer classes and mourning the tactical retreat of my girlfriend from my life.  However, I will happily report that practically everyone who worked on that little film is still involved in the film or communications business in some way.  We had a really strong class.  Quite a few talented people.  It may not show in the film but it's true.

The film did, however, have the obligatory men's room scene.  Some how for some reason, every film I shot on campus had a scene set in the men's room.  (Usually, fourth floor, Cook Library.)

I didn't become fully engaged with "The Lunch" until post-production.  That was when I learned how much I loved editing.  And, kids, editing was a tad more difficult when you worked with film itself and not just digital files.  I loved the edit, but it was taking a lot of time.  More time than I had.  I had to make a decision:  The film or the computer courses.  I chose the film -- essentially dropping out of the computer classes.  Since I had been such a "good" student up to that time, I never realized you could simply withdraw from a course!  Instead, I failed three of them.  And, because of that, I became a professional filmmaker.

How?  Let me tell you.

My late father was a brilliant computer programmer who worked for the Social Security Administration.  Six months had passed since college and there was no prospect of a real job on the horizon.  He recommended that I take the computer programmer test at Social Security.  It was essentially a logic test to see if you had the proper mindset to become a computer programmer for the United States of America.  I took the test and aced it.  I think I scored a 98.  Unfortunately, the government was in the middle of a hiring freeze.  They could only hire people who had a 3.0 GPA or better.  I would have been an instant hire if I had a 3.0.  But I didn't.  Because of the failed classes, I had a 2.98 GPA.  As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by that much."

My father, Douglas Ernest Murphy, Sr.

My father told me not to worry.  I could take the test again in a couple months and he would put the fix in for me.  Before that happened, I ended up in the mailroom of Smith Burke & Azzam.  I was on the road to filmmaking.

If it hadn't been for "The Lunch," I would probably be working for the Federal Government now.  My 401K would have benefited, but I'm not so sure I would have.

It's been a pretty good ride so far!

Here's "The Lunch."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 2

An email sales pitch for the film for potential distributors

After our heartbreaking near-miss with Michael Caine, Lee and I took some time off.  Lee's final words were that we had to come up with an idea that would be low budget enough that we wouldn't be dependent on outside financing and interesting enough that it could gain notoriety without having a star.

We both thought about it.

Sometime late January or early February Lee and I reconvened at the palatial Bonner estate.  He had an idea about an obsessed business man who sets up secret video cameras to spy on his attractive secretary.  My idea dovetailed nicely with his idea.  In mine, a seemingly open and shut robbery proves to be something else entirely when the security camera footage was viewed.  The hook was that we only see what the detectives see on the video monitor.  Our heroes would be entirely voice over.  Those ideas satisfied our criterion.  The concept called for a small cast and a very limited number of locations.  Both good for the budget.  And, we hoped the narrative device would be suitably unique to get us into film festivals without a big name attached, but, if we needed one, we could hire him at a fraction of his normal rate as one of the voice over detectives.

We began work on a script immediately.

Lee is a true master of the mystery.  All he reads are mystery novels.  Practically everything we worked on together was a mystery.  "21 Eyes," or as it was then called, "Replay," was no exception.

The way we wrote the script was somewhat odd.  Usually, you start with characters and a plot.  In this case, we started with a perfect crime and reverse engineered it to figure out what clues could give it away.  We decided it would be a jewel heist.  We didn't know anything about the high-end jewelry business, but we would research that later.  First, we decided on a number of characters working at the business.  Lee sketched out The Workroom, where the bulk of the film takes place, first.  We designed the room, decided where our on camera characters would sit and work, and where to place the hidden security cameras.  Then we figured out which clue would be revealed in which camera.

Next we learned about the jewelry business.  At first, we thought that the company should be involved in diamond cutting, but our industry source, Mark Coleman, gave us the idea of making our obsessed jeweler a dealer in antique jewels and gems.  The story of the lost gem we used in the movie is based on a real incident in New York where an elderly woman, fearing there was a burglar in her apartment, hid her gigantic diamond in a trash can.  After the police left, the woman went to bed without retrieving it.  When she awoke the next morning, her maid had already thrown out the trash.  The diamond was never recovered. Our expert also told us how many people a business like that would employ and what their duties would be.  Our on-camera characters were coming to life.  But what about our off-camera detectives?

Lee and I had enjoyed the repartee between our two detectives in our previous script "The 4 Sided Triangle" so we just lifted those two characters out of that script and placed them directly into this film -- although for some reason we changed the name of the younger more ambitious detective from Jimmy to Scotty.  It proved to be a perfect fit.  These guys had just the right attitude to sit back and watch these security tapes.

The plot was simple.  Detectives Scotty and Blu are secondary detectives on the case, and somewhat envious and resentful of the the unseen primary detectives.  At first they are upset that they have been given the thankless assignment of watching hours of footage of an open and shut, albeit violent, robbery.  However, as they watch the tapes, they begin to notice a series of small inconsistencies which hint that the case isn't as open and shut as it appears.  They happily begin chasing down the clues to prove their superiority to the primary detectives, who missed everything.  Granted, it wasn't the most emotionally involving storyline in the world, but we hoped the mystery would be engaging enough to involve the audience.

More about that later.

Lee brought David Butler in immediately as a producer.  Discretion prevents me from discussing the budget or the financing, but, let us say the money was essentially raised internally.  David immediately killed the most expensive moment in the film.  Originally, rather than having the villains simply enter the property by climbing over a wall, they were to drive through a wall in a vehicle.  David found that idea dangerous to both the crew and the budget.  Plus, it would necessitate building a set for the office area, and we really wanted to use real locations.

One location in particular:  The home of Vince Peranio and Delores Deluxe.

Vince was the dean of Baltimore production design, having worked with John Waters, Barry Levinson and on television series including "Homicide:  Life on the Streets" and "The Wire."  Vince and his wife Delores had joined together numerous row houses into a unique maze of rooms decorated in a style befitting their personalities.  Lee wanted it to be the home of our obsessed jeweler Seth Collison.  Interestingly enough, Lee had planned to use their house as the home of the obsessed college professor in "The 4 Sided Triangle."  We were completely cannibalizing that script!  The key to getting the house was getting Vince to sign on as Production Designer.  Fortunately, Lee and Vince had a long, ongoing relationship and Vince signed on -- provided we shot during a break on "The Wire."  We agreed, and, as a result, managed to get a few props from that show, including Collison's large office safe.  Don't tell anybody.

With Collison's home locked in, all we needed was Collison's office.  Peter Mullett, another Baltimore director and photographer, donated his office.  Knowing there would be much bloodshed in the office scenes, the always-meticulous David Butler did tests on Peter's walls and floors to make sure the blood would come off.  It did.  From the walls and floors.  Of course, at the time, no one realized how much blood would end up on the ceiling!  That did not come off as easily.

With the script completed, casting began.  We used two casting agencies.  We used Liz Lewis to cast the major roles out of New York City, and local legend Pat Moran in Baltimore for the rest of the cast.  In New York, the always fabulous Danny Roth handled things for Liz.  Danny was and remains hip.  He always had a matching head and wrist band. He put out word of the film and we were offered an amazing array of actors -- especially for the less-demanding voice over roles.  Oscar Winners.  Emmy Winners.  People I spent my whole life watching in movies and on TV.  It was great going through the list.  But who was actually willing to come in and read?

We started getting tapes.  I can't remember if Fisher Stevens actually came in and read, but he was in the wish list from the beginning.  Lee had worked with Fisher on the show "Early Edition" and thought he would be great.  Danny was all for Fisher too.  Fisher was extremely hot in New York at the time both as an actor and a producer.  His company, Greenstreet Films, had produced Oscar-bait films like "In The Bedroom" and popcorn movies like "Swimfan."  Everyone wanted to get in Fisher's game.  So did we.

(I will say that we did reach out, through who I don't know, to Billy Bob Thornton for that role.  Apparently, Billy Bob was interested, but he simply didn't have the time.)

Now for Scotty -- the younger detective.

We first heard Michael Buscemi on a CD Danny sent us.  He was great.  Cynics might think we hired him because he sounded just like his more famous brother Steve Buscemi.  Okay, okay, that might have been a factor, but, in all honesty, he was simply the best person who read for the role.  We were cracking up as we listened to him.  He did everything right.

(I will say that we reached out for Jason Lee for the role.  This was after "Almost Famous," which we all loved, but before "My Name Is Earl."  We came very close to getting him.  The problem was scheduling.  We had to move immediately in order to make the Sundance deadline and we couldn't close the deal in time.  His agent was actually very helpful.  He said we should feel free to use someone else for the Sundance rough cut, then come back and get Jason for the real thing.  However, after recording Michael, there was no chance of us going elsewhere.)

Now it was time to cast our three principal on-camera actors for the roles of Seth Collison, the obsessed jeweler;  Belinda Brown, the sexy secretary who foils the robbery; and Chester Robb, the security guard who was either a hapless buffoon or a criminal mastermind.

We walked into the production hoping to get the established character actor Nestor Serrano as Seth Collison.  Once again, it was a Lee thing.  Lee had worked with Nestor on the Peter Strauss series "Moloney."  (Don't try to remember it.  You never saw it.  It was up against "Seinfeld.")  Nestor came in and read.  He was a lock.  That isn't to say we weren't tempted by another actor.  There was another well-established character actor who had worked on another series with Lee, who had, more importantly, starred in one of my favorite films from 1979.  I liked the film so much that I even bought a 16mm print of it and I have been known to invite people over to my house and watch it in the backyard on summer evenings.  This actor wouldn't read for the role.  However, he was willing to discuss the role.  Discuss it we did, but Nestor ended up in the film.  And I am thankful he did!

Rebecca Mader as Belinda Brown

It was love at first sight with Rebecca Mader and Chance Kelly, who played Belinda Brown and Chester Robb, respectively.  Frankly, Rebecca was the only woman, out of the many dozen we saw, that I even liked.  Lee and Dave liked her too.  Lee, in particular, because she played the role cool.  The other actors, despite instructions, got too emotional.  Too involved.  Lee and I didn't want that.  We wanted the actors on camera to be as blase and "real" was possible.  We didn't want any acting.  Any flourishes.  We wanted what you could expect to see on a typical security tape from your local 7-11.  In reality, it didn't work out that way.  But that's what we wanted.

Rebecca was great as our femme fatale Belinda Brown.  Beautiful.  Beguiling.  With enough of an accent to add a sense of mystery.  And cool.  We only called in other actresses for the call backs out of courtesy.  I can't imagine us going with anyone else.  And she wanted to do it.  Or, at least her agent wanted her to do it.  She told me her agent read the script and said she had to do it -- though she confessed that she felt some unease when she saw a nude scene on page two.  What nude scene, you few people who have seen the film, may ask?  I'll get to that later.  All I can say is that we were lucky to have her.  I am proud to say that we gave her her first starring role in a feature film.

Chance Kelly as Chester Robb

Chance was great too.  He had the perfect look and the perfect attitude for the overly-serious former cop and security guard Chester Robb.  I remember a moment in the casting tape when he's doing the scene where he's out smoking in the garden with the Dunbar character when he turns and looks at the security camera recording their conversation.  His expression was classic.  Chance had the character down.  In many ways, Chance had the most difficult role in the film.  The character had to appear to be a buffoon yet remain credible enough to be a serious suspect as the potential criminal mastermind.  And, although the off-camera detectives riff endlessly throughout almost the entire film on the character, Chance never makes him a joke.  Chester Robb maintains his honor and dignity throughout.  Chance did an excellent job.

I can't go on about every actor, but I do want to recall one incident from the Baltimore casting for the role of Talbert, the actor/salesman.  The character was based on one of my former employers named, oddly enough, Ted Talbert.  Ted was an actor but he had various day jobs too.  One of them was as a costume jewelry salesperson.  He worked for a company that sold its own line inside other stores.  They would have a drawing to gather a crowd then he would give his pitch for their line.  I worked for Ted in two ways, depending on the venue.  Sometimes I would hand out the tickets and help get the crowd.  Other times I would be his shill and excitedly buy the first set.  The interesting thing about the company was that they hired actors as representatives because they thought actors made the best salespeople.  Hence the character Talbert, who was preparing for an audition for a role in Shakespeare's MacBeth before the robbery.

In the casting, the local Baltimore actors had to read a scene with Talbert reading MacBeth.  Many of the actors were surprisingly good.  One was too good.  After he read the scene, he explained that he had repeatedly played MacBeth and directed some productions of the play.  Then he chided Lee and I for leaving out a word from the speech which he knew from memory.

Now, Lee and I could have admitted our honest mistake, but, instead we said that we took that word out on purpose because we felt the speech flowed better without it.  That's right, baby, we were improving Shakespeare.

Of course, we didn't hire the actor.

We did, however, fix the speech that night.

The lesson:  Actors, don't make your writer and director look like idiots.  At least not until they hire you.

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 3

Read about the making of my other features:

Hidden Secrets
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, May 2, 2010

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 1

"21 Eyes" happened overnight.  After years of work.

Every film is a miracle.  Every film is a labor of love.  "21 Eyes" is no exception.

This is the tale of the three people who loved it most:  Lee Bonner, David Butler and, your humble narrator, Sean Paul Murphy.

David Butler and I go way back.  We were both Mass Communication Majors at Towson State University -- as it was then called.  We met in the film lab and took some classes together.  We ended up as partners on a few projects.  I think David picked me because he didn't think I'd get in his way.  He was right.  At the time I was more concerned about my thesis concerning interpersonal communications within The Three Stooges comedy team than I was about actual production itself.  (My professor threatened to fail me if I did a paper on that subject.  In the end, he gave me an A-.)   Therefore, I must grant David most of the credit and blame for whatever we produced back in the day.

Our class was somewhat magical.  Practically everyone I can remember from those heady days ended up working professionally in the film or communications business as either a writer, director, crew member or even film school faculty member.  Most of them are still employed in the field today.  That's no small feat when one considers the inconsistencies and general madness of this industry.   (BTW, that group also included Timothy Ratajczak, my co-writer on so many screenplays.)

David and I parted ways after school never to meet again.  Well, not until a few months later.  Due to the influence of my office manager mother, I got a job in the mail room of an advertising agency called Smith Burke & Azzam.  One day I was carrying the mail through the lobby to find David sitting there.  And he had a tie on.  He was waiting to talk to one of the partners, Gene Azzam.  Gene hired David, who ended up in the broadcast department.  After stints in accounting and media, I ended up in the broadcast department as well.

During the second half of the 1980's, Smith Burke & Azzam was one of the best advertising agencies in the country until a flood of cocaine and a triple homicide ended the dream.  (Just kidding about the flood of cocaine and the triple homicide.)  We were competing with the big boys and winning.  I loved it.  I would lie, cheat and steal for that agency  In fact, I remember doing all three on a single corporate espionage trip to Miami while we were pitching a cruise line.  It was a great place to learn first hand about all of the disciplines of film making:  writing, producing, directing and editing.  Kids, if you're looking for a temporary career until you hit it big in Hollywood, you can't go wrong with advertising.  It was a paid masters degree.  The agency was creating one award-winning commercial after another.  And many of them were directed by Mr. Lee Bonner.

The Lafayettes, circa 1962

Lee Bonner is a rather amazing fellow.  He began life as a musician.  Actually, he began life as a baby, but soon became a musician.  He was the bass player and songwriter for a Baltimore group called The Lafayettes.  The group was signed by RCA Records and released a few singles.  Their first single, "Life's Too Short," was a major regional hit but never hit the national charts in this country.  However, it topped the charts in a number of other countries.  I remember reading an interview with Led Zepplin's Robert Plant where he discussed one of The Lafayettes' singles.  I excitedly called Lee to tell him about it.  I think his response was:  "Who's Robert Plant?"

Everybody loved working with Lee.  From the agency folks down to the crew people.  David liked working with Lee so much that he left the agency and took a job as the producer for Bonner Films.  I soon left the agency myself to pursue the life of a freelance film editor and budding screenwriter.  And guess what?  Lee Bonner was one of the first directors to hire me as an editor.

But he also had interest in me as a screenwriter.

At the time, I had just signed with Stu Robinson at Robinson, Weintraub and Gross -- which would soon fold into Paradigm.  Stu had sent one of my early screenplays to Baltimore's own Barry Levinson, who, although he rejected the script, wrote some kind things about me.  Lee knew Barry.  So I brought the letter over to him to see if indeed The Great Man had signed it himself.  Lee vouched for the signature.  Now I officially had the imprimatur of the Oscar-winning auteur.

Lee, like everyone else in the business, wanted to make a feature.  Or should I say:  Another feature.  He had made a fun, little adventure thriller called "Two For The Money."  He directed it in the hard-hitting style that won him so many awards, or so the misleading trailer said.  Troma picked up the film and released it under the title:   "Adventure of the Action Hunters."  I know it got some television airplay because once, when I was in Nashville with David Butler, director and former Towson State instructor Brian Keller and the amazing Randy Aitken, it was playing on cable.  Sadly, I was too tired to watch it.  (What were we doing in Nashville, you ask?  We wanted to see if we could leave Baltimore after work, drive twelve hours to Memphis, pay homage to Elvis, then drive back to Baltimore without sleeping.  The answer was no.  We crashed in Nashville.  Though not literally.)

Lee wanted to do another film, and he wanted to know if I was interested in pursuing it with him.

Lee handed me a few of his scripts and I liked them.  Lee has an interesting way of working.  When he gets an idea for a film, he works the idea into the existing structure of a film that he admires.  For example, he wrote a wonderful script called "One Summer Night" about a musician who loses his guitar right before a crucial gig at a beach resort.  The script lovingly recalled Lee's youthful days as a musician.  It was fresh and original.  And it rigidly followed the structure of Howard Hawk's "Bringing Up Baby."  And, despite seeing that film dozens of times over the years, I didn't realize it until he told me.  Fascinating.

Lee wanted to write a script.  He had a great character in mind named West Rhodes.  West Rhodes was, like the bulk of the heroes in the screenplays we wrote together, a consummate slacker.  He was a police officer for the Department of Natural Resources.  Not because he had any affinity for law enforcement, but, rather, because he liked working on the water.  He was very quick witted and intelligent, but only rarely devoted his full resources to his job.

Lee, aside from being a director and musician, is also a sailor.  He had a great sailboat and invited me out on a cruise to talk about West.  I'm not much of a drinker, but Lee immediately set me up with an immense martini, about the size of a Big Gulp, that I nursed throughout the entire cruise.  The other guest on the cruise was none other than David Butler.  By that time, David had left Lee's employ and now worked as a rival commercial director.  They were often bid against each other on the same jobs, but they remained friends.  Then again, by this time, Lee was working more as an episodic television director on series like "Homicide:  Life on the Streets" and "The Practice," than as a commercial director.  Lee and David handled the sails while I read about West Rhodes and began my continuing tradition of losing something valuable every time I get on a boat.  I think it was my prescription sunglasses that time.

Lee and I wrote "West Rhodes."  Here's the pitch:  "Meet West Rhodes, a marine policeman patrolling the waterfront of fashionable Annapolis.  He's a cop who gives warning tickets to girls so that he can ask them out on dates and confiscates beer from teenagers so he can drink it.  He has wit and intelligence but a total lack of ambition until one day he finds himself up to his neck in a multiple homicide.  The motive for the killings date back twenty years and touches on West's own past.  It turns out to be a case that will change his life forever."

Never made the movie.  Although Lee and I both probably consider it the best of the scripts we wrote together, it was too expensive to produce independently and perhaps too quirky to be picked up by a studio.  So we wrote another mystery designed with a lower budget in mind.  It was set in a college for arts and called The Four Sided Triangle.  Here's the pitch:  "The 4 Sided Triangle is a sexy thriller involving Bobby, the naughty professor with an insatiable itch for his female students; Libby, the teacher's latest pet; Dylan, the talented male dancer overlooked once too often; and, Jimmy, the homicide detective who falls for Libby while investigating the brutal slaying of Bobby's previous protege."

The script featured our trademarked slacker cops more interested in their hobbies than their job.  Jimmy was the junior partner in the team.  This was his first homicide as a primary detective and he very unprofessionally gets romantically involved with a witness who becomes the next target.  His partner was an older detective named Blu, who was more interested in dog breeding than dead bodies.

The key to making this film was finding just the right actor to play Bobby, the egotistical professor of dance at the college.  The perfect person to play him was Christopher Walken.  So, somehow, we got the script to him.  And, strangely enough, he said he wanted to do it.

Can you freaking believe it?

We had Christopher Walken.  But we had to move fast.  The actors were about to go on strike, and we had to shoot the film before they did.  We didn't have money, but with Walken, at a reasonable rate, and this script, we could have gotten it.

But we didn't.

Even I don't know what happened, but, for some reason, we changed gears.

We abandoned "The Four Sided Triangle" and decided to write a spy thriller in the style of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer character -- but older.  In fact, Michael Caine's age.

In other words, we decided to write a script with a character that ONLY Michael Caine could play.

That's crazy.  Insane.  Stupid.  But, believe it or not, it almost worked.

Somehow we got it to Michael Caine's agent.  He approved it.  We got it to Michael Caine's manager.  He approved it.  We got it to Michael Caine.  He would read it over the Christmas Holiday.

We waited.  Word came early in January.  He didn't respond to the material.

To quote Bill Murray in Stripes:  "Then depression set in."

It was back to the drawing board, but "21 Eyes" was just beyond the horizon.

Maybe next time, Mr. Caine

21 Eyes, A History, Part 2

Read about the making of my other features:

Hidden Secrets
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.