Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, September 13, 2010

Untitled Film, No. 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Life is sweet.

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





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

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