Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Holyman Undercover," Part 1, Pre-Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrea Logan White

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

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

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

And waited.

And waited.

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

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

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

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

Gregg and his son on the set.

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Lyons with America's favorite Fatman

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

Use the forks, Luke....

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

It was time to return to Hollywood.

To be continued....

"Holyman Undercover," Part 2, Good Times

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

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

Monday, December 6, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Butler, Sandye Kaye, Peter Mullett, Rege Becker

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

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

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

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

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

David laughs with Jon Jolles

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

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

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

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

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

Will Success Spoil the 48 Hour Film Project?

And here's the film: