Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

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.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

"Hidden Secrets" The Trailer

By the way, since we're discussing it, here's the trailer for "Hidden Secrets":