Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Bag": A short history of yet another short film

Kathy Norland and Micki Quance in "Bag."

Like two of my previous shorts I Will Not and Maestro Percival, Bag was written for a timed contest.  The previous films were written for The 48 Hour Film Project.  Bag was written specifically for the much more leisurely-paced 168 Hour Film Project, which is also a showcase for budding faith-based filmmakers.  All of the films were based on Bible quotes drawn at random.  Here's how Tim and I got involved.

Tim and I had finished the "Holyman Undercover" script.  Since that film would supplant actor/director David A.R. White's one man show of the same name, Tim and I were commissioned to write him another one man show.  David imagined the show on a larger scale and wanted to include some musical numbers with singers and dancers.  One of the potential dancers was an actress named Micki Quance.  She mentioned to David that she was involved with a team that wanted to make a film for the 2007 contest.  The team, spearheaded by Jim & Kathy Choiniere of Excellent Journey Pictures, had previously participated in the contest which was actually judged by some legitimate notables in the business.  They wanted to win.  And, just to make the task almost impossible, they wanted to win with a comedy.

During the course of their endeavors, Micki asked David A.R. White if he knew any comedy writers.  David recommended us.  Micki called us and we happily agreed to do it.  However, at the time, we were under the impression that the film would also star David's wife, Andrea Logan White.  That was good.  We always enjoyed working with ALW, as we call her.

Andrea Logan White with yours truly.

Being a gimmick festival, there was nothing for Tim and I but await the Bible verse which rollicking comedy short would be based.  It came during a horrible ice storm in Baltimore.  We sat around Tim's phone waiting, while I wondered how I was ever going to be able to get home later!  Finally, the call came from the production team.  We had our verse:    Proverbs 1:18-19.

For those unfamiliar with the verse, it reads:  "These men lie in wait for their blood; they waylay only themselves!  Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it."

Let the hilarity begin.

Seriously, folks, you'd be hard pressed to find a Bible verse less conducive to comedy, but this is exactly what separates professional writers from amateurs.  (Pay does, too.)  We took stock of what we had:  Two desperate actresses in the leads, and decided to write a film about two desperate actresses.  They are both broke and ready to give up when they find a Louis Vuitton handbag in the ladies' room of restaurant filled with cocaine.  Trying to find a way to profit from this find, they bring more and more people into the deal and eventually lives are ruined or lost (depending on what version you see.)

We finished up the script in a couple hours and emailed to the team.  Now I don't pretend to know the politics of what was happening out in California, but we soon found out that Andrea Logan White was no longer one of the leads.  Now Kathy Norland, who appeared in other Excellent Journey Pictures, was playing opposite Micki.  Andrea was relegated to playing the mother of another character.  Then she was out.  Don't know how.  Don't know why.  She was certainly a good enough actress to play any of the roles.

All I know is one thing:  You do short films to get feature film work.  Therefore, I don't see the benefit of firing the wife of a partner in a production company that produces as many as four or five feature films a year and distributes many others.  Pure Flix is definitely a mover and shaker in the genre they all wanted to be involved in.  I'm not saying that Andrea deserved the role simply because she was David's wife, although her presence on the film was one of the reasons Tim and I agreed to become involved.  But, as I said, I don't know what happened in LA, but, it seems to me that firing the wife of the head of development of a very active production company is exactly the kind of self-inflicted wound you should try to avoid in the film business.  But that's just me.

Enter the director:  Micah Costanza.  He is a thoughtful and intelligent filmmaker, but, like so many other directors his age, a little overly-influenced by a certain Quentin Tarantino.  He wanted to change the end of the film into a Tarantino-esque bloodbath where the participants shoot it out and most of them die.  He thought it would be hilarious -- like the scene in "Pulp Fiction" where they drive the adrenaline needle into Uma Thurman's heart.  Well, let me tell you something about "Pulp Fiction."  I saw it in the theaters twice the week it came out.  The first time was at a theater a couple blocks away from my old university.  The audience roared with laughter during the adrenaline needle scene.  I later saw it at a theater in a small suburban town twenty miles or so outside of Baltimore.  That same scene played to horrified silence.  Somehow, I felt the audience for this particular film festival would fall into the latter category.

Tim and I already had Christian comedy experience.  We felt we were already pushing the envelope dangerously far with the drugs.  We felt murder for laughs would kill the film.  I always felt that the script should have been filmed like a lost episode of "I Love Lucy" -- with Lucy and Ethel getting dangerously in over their heads.  I felt that would help take the sting off the drug material.  The director disagreed.  The production company hedged its bets.  It allowed Micah to shoot his ending after he had shot the script.  They edited the version without the shootings for the contest, but later edited the Tarantino version for other film festivals.

Micah actually did a great job directing the film.  It looked great.  It had great production values and was very well-acted.  I particularly enjoyed Nathan Kress as Albert -- the juvenile drug mastermind.  (He later starred as Freddie Benson in the Nickelodeon series iCarly.)

The film was completed and submitted and it actually won in a number of categories.  It won the overall Audience Award, it won Best Comedy, and Nathan Kress won a special acting award for his performance as Albert.  But, just in case you think the gatekeepers had relaxed their standards on what was acceptable in a faith-based film, "Bag" was not included in the DVD they released every year of the winners.  They obviously felt that the audience in the theater was intelligent enough to understand the film, but they did not have the same confidence in the folks at home.

Gosh, didn't see that coming....

This film was an interesting experience.  I had been very lucky up to now.  This was the first time I had a truly basic and fundamental disagreement with the director about how to handle a script.  Fortunately, it worked out fine, but it definitely illustrated the plight every screenwriter will face one day.  How you handle it will decide whether you have what it takes to be a professional screenwriter.

Here's the film:

Here's the alternate ending.