Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

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.

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