How To Brew Chai

Okay, not the most compelling of subjects, but better than the “how to potty train your kid” video I did last year. This was shot for a local Chai manufacturer for use as a promotional tool. It’ll be used at trade shows and embedded at their site. I produced and directed. The client wrote it, though also I helped them refine the script.

The Style of No Style

“Wow, that $5,000 slasher horror flick you made sure is a crappy movie.”

“It’s just a slasher flick, that’s the style. It’s about the blood, not the production values.”

“So slasher flicks can be bad movies and still be good?”

“They’re not bad movies. They have a different style.”

“Er… movies are movies, regardless of genre, right? I mean, it still has to be in focus, doesn’t it?”

I’ve had lots of conversations around the issue of “style”, particularly with regard to genre work. It’s often said that for indie filmmakers, certain genres are more forgiving of mediocre production or execution because the “style” of the genre has a different bar than the “style” of other genres. I think it’s an interesting area of conversation in a creative context, because the issue of “style” is used to place value on people’s work. It can be said that work is “servicable”, “technically competent”, but if it lacks “style” it can’t be taken seriously as an art form, nor can it compete on the larger stage (nee Hollywood) outside its small, forgiving, perhaps apologetic genre audience.

Following is an excerpt from a manuscript I wrote about 15 years ago, discussing the “Literary” work of Philip K. Dick and his “style”. Remove P.K. Dick and replace with the filmmaker of your choice. Remove “literature” and replace it with “filmmaking”.

“Freedman wonders about how sf might fit into all that. His focus is on Philip K. Dick, a writer whose enigmatic career seems anomalous. Most folks seem to agree, he says, that with respect to “the most prestigious test of literary significance – style – Dick appears to fail.” Specifically, Dick’s work fails to demonstrate “the evident polish, syntactic elegance, and allusive resonance of incontestably literary prose.” Dick’s Literary Stylistic tradition is rooted in the pulps, those early years of science fiction history characterized by adolescent adventure tales written by vaguely talented penny-a-word armchair authors, whose prose “has rarely been acclaimed as anything more than serviceable.” (SOC 33-34)

Nonetheless, he tells us, lots of folks consider Dick to be serious Literature; that his work is, in fact, the most important and interesting since Faulkner. Could it be, he asks, that Dick attains greatness despite his Style?”

I’ll pose the question(s): Can there be a “style of no style”? And if we can redefine style to include some (otherwise merely competent) work and thus push that previously substandard work to the same level as more traditionally stylistically polished work, does that strengthen or devalue the art form as a whole?

Making Arrangements – Day Six Plus

So it’s all in the can.

The rest is all about editing, sound and music.

Jay Kensinger is our editor. He did a manly job juggling this project, prepping for another film (he’s got one of his own in prepro right now) and launching his new band “Isadora’s Scarf”. Consequently, getting to a final edit was a challenge and took longer in calendar days than we’d hoped, but eventually we got it locked.

Jay’s work on the composited shot of Gina getting hit by the truck is perfect… still makes people jump.

The sound we got on location was great… some balancing of course, but we didn’t have to loop anything, so that’s good.

And the music! Man, did we score on that account. Jay himself is a musician, and created an couple of instrumental themes. Plus, as I’ve mentioned one of our stars Gina Marie is a musician herself, and is married to Greg Camp of Smashmouth fame (All Star and Walkin’ on the Sun, anyone?). Greg is newly solo, and was readying a new album for release, but was able to allow us rights to some of his work, as well as some of Gina’s.

  • Wrong
  • Down With You
  • Right Side, Wrong Bed
  • Pucker

So we’ve got a world class soundtrack for our little film.

Nice work, everyone! It was a great experience. A great crew. We finished on time or early every day. And nobody had a tantrum! The writer is happy, the actors are happy, I’m happy. Wish they all went this way.


Arrangements” was accepted to, and premiered at, the Santa Cruz Film Festival in 2008. Since then its “ownership” is a little shaky as the organization that produced it, Cinemar, has kind of folded its tent. But the film’s been submitted to a few other fests, and we have hopes that it’ll get seen again.

The trailer was completed and is posted on the site. It’s not the trailer I’d outlined, but it works okay. Someday, in all our spare time, maybe we’ll cut a new one.

Making Arrangements – Day Five

Time for pickups. All shot MOS, just a few of us required… here’s what we needed.

It’s important to me to establish “Bill” and “Cassie”‘s marriage as a healthy one… Bill makes some questionable ethical decisions, and it’s important that those are weighed against a good relationship, not mitigated by a troubled one. No time to add more scenes to the story, so I wanted some shots for the opening title sequence… kind of “home movie” looking shots of them walking around a pond, feeding ducks, chatting and laughing. We shot around a local pond, and along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz… ending on a nice shot of them looking off into the sunset.

Also needed a shot of Kayla’s purse flying into the air, to cut into the car hit shot. Really wanted a close shot, SLOMO, against blue sky… keys and cards flying out. It’s both a stylish impact shot, and a plot point shot… we’ve got a shot of her “organ donor card” lying on the ground splattered with blood. I wanted to see it fly out of the purse to set that up. We stood in the park, surrounded by onlookers, as I threw the purse into the air repeatedly while Matthew hand-held the shot. Took quite a few tries to keep it in frame, but we finally got a usable shot. Not exactly what I wanted, but close enough to work. Next time I’ll put it on a lazy susan against a green screen or something.

We’ve got the party scene in the can: Bill throws himself a “goodbye” party once he gets the news. We had two huge banners that read “SO LONG BILL” but for various reasons they didn’t really read in the wide shots, and we didn’t get inserts. So I wanted a “collage” poster, a “BON VOYAGE BILL” sign with old photos of him through childhood and adulthood. We set it up on a tripod at the park against a backdrop of bushes, and it’ll cut in fine with the party footage.

That was all we needed, I think (as memory serves). That’s it for shooting. Now it’s on to editing. You’ve got the ball, Jay. ūüôā

Making Arrangements – Day Four

Okay, I’m writing this long after the fact, but I’ll try to remember as much as I can…

We’re shooting all the outdoor stuff today, on a cul-de-sac in Live Oak, in front of my friends Brian and Adriana’s place. (Brian is the Production Designer that got me my first real gig, on Fat Rose and Squeaky. They’re wicked cool, as the kids used to say)

We have a long “walking along the sidewalk” conversation between Chad and Gina, and no tracks… just a steadicam. Matthew is pretty adept at the steadicam (he used it at the party scene) but now he’s gotta walk backwards with it, and that’s tough. Nevertheless, we get the shot off in a master, then some OTS singles. Looks pretty good, and we got a couple alternate reads too. I’m happy.

Next is the “accident” scene. Here’s where Gina gets hit by a pickup truck… she steps off the curb, in front of a speeding truck. It’s for the fantasy sequence (oops, spoiler) and needs to be good. We’re not really putting Gina in harm’s way… we’re doing it with a cutaway and some After Effects magic. So she steps out, screams and throws up her hands, then calmly steps out of the road. We leave the camera locked, then cue the truck to roar past. Simple, right? This is where it’s great to have your editor/fx guy on set… Jay Kensinger directed these shots himself, so the editing ended up going great. It’s a shot that still makes people jump when the see it, even if they’ve seen it before.

Next up? The INTERIOR truck shots… Gina and Chad talking in the old panel truck. We had rented a car dolly to tow the panel truck behind my pickup, so we loaded everything up and (given that we were on a cul-de-sac with no traffic) proceeded to stack the camera, DP, Scripty, and reflector grips into the pickup bed. Another reflector grip literally hanging off the fender of the hero truck, and a mic inside the hero truck and wired to the camera in the tow vehicle. Easy Peasy, right?

So we tow the truck down the long block, get two or three takes straight through the windshield (we’re moving slow) and then go for the turnaround at the end of the block. Except there’s not enough room, and the car dolly starts to fold up on us. We can’t damage the panel truck (dammit) so we unload and rethink. Time is flying. Wot to do?

We’ve got six people… how hard can pushing the panel truck be? So Matthew hangs on the open driver’s door with the camera, framed for the single on Chad, and we PUSH that sucker for a hundred yards. No, it ain’t easy. Those old trucks are friggin’ heavy! Then, once more back again to get the shot from the passenger side. We’ve got some stills and video of this whole thing… I’ll get it posted one day. Suffice it to say everybody pulled their weight, and we got what we needed… ultimately some of the best looking shots in the film. Something about getting moving car shots makes your movie look so much more professional!

But we’re not done.

Still need an exterior of the Funeral Home. We’re lucky to have gotten permission from a local funeral home to shoot out front — since it’s a weekend, they’re pretty dead (pun intended). It needn’t have been a funeral home, of course, any practical location could have doubled, but the building looks perfect, and it’s only a ten minute drive away.

But the SUN is SETTING.

So a skeleton location crew takes off. I ask Matthew to ride along in the panel truck, get some traveling interior shots and some engine noise (since we were towing/pushing the truck, we’ve got none) and we all meet at the second location. The sun is setting, we’re scrambling to set up the crane (I want a nice crane establishing shot — it ends up looking great). Then, a two and some singles as they converse under the portico (only a few lines… it goes well) and we’re nearly done.

As the sun is setting, we need a few shots of Gina getting zipped into a body bag (again, a fantasy sequence). We’ve got a black vinyl zippable wardrobe bag which we slit open across the bottom… Gina slips it over her head and lies down, we splatter her with some blood (and Turbo pales her up) and then we zip it shut over her face. Looks outstanding. Then we realize the hands zipping shut need to have rubber gloves on, and we don’t have any… they’re back at the first location. However, there is a tattoo parlor a few doors down, and they’re happy to give us a pair, so we’re golden.

A few other little inserts, and NOW we’re done.

Man. What a day. But that’s pretty much the whole shoot. We have a few pickups that a crew of four can get next weekend, but essentially we’re wrapped.

Congratulations, everyone!

Now for some sleep.

Making Arrangements – Day Two

It’s a big day. We’re shooting the party scene where Bill throws himself a going away funeral party… twenty extras in the yard, around the pool, food and drink flowing… outdoor shooting so we deal with wind noise, sun, and…. rain? Last night it rained hard. What’s the location going to be like?

On arrival, it was kind of cloudy and cool… we’re on a 14 acre farm (Glen Alba Gardens), top of the mountain… so we should be above any weather, we hope, but tough to tell what to expect. Our “So Long Bill” banner that we’d set up near the pool yesterday has been ruined by the wet weather overnight… sagging and tearing. It looked good in yesterday’s shots, the post-party scenes… so we’ll just have to shoot away from it today. Art department (Antonia Gunnarson and Summer Lange) can make me another to hang on the house, for the reverse angles… so they set to work getting the set dressed, and another banner made.

We asked everyone to bring hawaiian shirts, and we provided leis, and drink cups with little umbrellas. It’s a festive set, and as the sun breaks, everyone’s in a good mood. Of course our start is late… we waited for the sun and now that it’s broke, it’s almost too sunny. I of course wore a long sleeved black thermal – I’m overheating. No scrims, so we deal with direct sunlight… our PA’s hover around the actors with umbrellas to keep the sun off them and salvage their hair and makeup.

Turbo and his crew, by the way, are an amazing hair and makeup team… what dedication. Everyone looks great.

Once the party scene gets under way, Art Department will retreat to our next location, an indoor lodge room with a very cool stone fireplace, and start work on making it look like Kayla’s apartment.

Meanwhile, the shoot progresses… not nearly as many extras as we expected have shown up, so any crew not working are drafted as party goers… my wife, daughter, hair and makeup, anyone not holding a bounce card or boom is in front of the camera.

We get a great jib shot, rising up off the blue pool water to reveal the party under way… people milling about, chatting, drinking… our new “So Long Bill” banner on the house was too rushed to be completed properly – the letters are just outlines, not solid black, so it’s kind of hard to read in the blasting sunlight. I’m worried about that… the reveal on that banner is what starts this scene off with some humor, so it’s kind of critical that it’s easy to read. Ah well, we’re burning daylight… make it work.

We move in to some mediums and singles as Bill and Cassie chat with Bill’s work buddies, Lou (Linda Pearson) and Sandy (Char Johnston). There’s a little business where Lou hands Bill a beer, and Cassie crosses to grab a bottle of water, and returns to Bill’s side to swap it with the beer (he’s a sick man, she doesn’t want him drinking). It complicates the scene, and comes back to bite us later (in editing), but everyone does a great job, we get the shots off and move to the next scene.

Now it’s time for Bill to chat with his guitar teacher Terry (Carlo Matteucci), who has come to the party with a date (Kayla). Everyone’s standing in full sun, and again, no scrims… a little squinting going on, but everyone toughs it out. Everyone pitches in, and extras who aren’t on camera are holding bounce cards. Again, we’ve got some business with a handshake/bump between Terry and Bill, Terry hands Bill a beer and they clink and toast… lots going on in a short scene. Maybe too much. The shooting style I’ve chosen for the movie demands some long takes with few cutaways, so we don’t spend much time getting inserts on the action… it needs to be choreographed for mostly medium shots. We get through it, pick up some reverses just in case, and one critical single on Kayla. This is really her scene… it’s the first time we see her, and though she has no lines, we have to see that she’s fascinated by Bill’s take on his impending demise… she’s a mystery girl. I hope we got the shots to bring that home. I think we did.

In between shots, while makeup touches people up, Our awesome DP Matthew Galvin works the steadicam, picking up little party scenes, inserts of people chatting and drinking, the blender going.

Finally we’re done outside. Before we retire indoors to shoot the apartment set, we break for lunch… the folks at the location are also providing craft services, and they’ve set up the patio with tables and an array of truly awesome food. Everyone is well fed, and we just relax and hang out for an hour. Many thanks go out to all the extras and volunteers… it was a good morning.

After lunch, we’re inside. The room is long… maybe twenty five feet, and twelve feet wide. At one end is the fireplace – very cool, rustic stone. We need the room to feel smaller… it’s supposed to be Kayla’s apartment. We start with the set (couch, side tables, coffee table) at the far end, away from¬† but facing the fireplace, and set up equipment facing the couch. We get all those shots, then slide all the furniture toward the fireplace and shoot the reverses over their shoulders, toward the fireplace… makes the room look much smaller and intimate, leaves plenty of room for crew and equipment.

Again, we’ve got business… coffee cups, binders and brochures to leaf through… It’s a romantic, intimate scene… the proprietors started a nice fire in the fireplace, our lighting is moody (we depended largely on practicals here) and again, very subtle stuff going on. It’s the moment Bill decides where to take his relationshiop with Kayla… If I tell you too much more I’ll be spoiling some plot points, but trust me, the scene looked great. Art Department did a great job creating a home in the room, and our actors really worked it out.

Again, we wrapped ahead of schedule – even with our late start waiting for the clouds to clear. Everyone stayed after to help break down the set, load up all the equipment, props and set dressing (including furniture), and we left Glen Alba Gardens looking just as it had when we arrived (I hope… at least, we haven’t had any complaints).

Tomorrow, we’re on location in downtown Santa Cruz, where we’re using some empty offices in¬†“The Mill” – the¬†building where Turbo runs his cosmetology school.

Time for some sleep.

Making Arrangements – Day One

Day one of shooting Arrangements.

Today we’re on location at Glen Alba Gardens. Figgered we’d keep it pretty simple, and do all the interiors… They’re pretty easy setups, only a few actors, and¬†we can control light and sound so it’s¬†an easy way for the crew to find its mojo since we haven’t all worked together before. Besides,¬†it’s threatening to rain.

We started with the scene at the front door… Kayla comes to visit Bill. Gina (as Kayla) rocks the performance with some very subtle stuff, Chad¬†(as Bill)¬†is great too. It’s kinda complicated, since the reverse on Bill from outside shoots all the way through the living room and out a picture window¬†to the backyard, where we can see his wife Cassie cleaning up after the party. So I’m directing action at the door, as well as action fifty feet and two walls away simultaneously. We got some funny outtakes, where on “action” the folks in the backyard didn’t know we’d started and were gesticulating a “when do we start” signal during the scene – ah, my kingdom for a set of walkies. But we got the scene off, both setups, including a nice subtle jib shot as the huge moving guy shows up to pick up the tables…¬† makes a truly huge guy look even huger. Huger? Is that a word? Ah, it is now…

Anyways, the rain is threatening, it’s getting cloudy, cold and moist… we’re done with all the stuff¬†at the door, and¬†manage to get to the kitchen scenes. Bill is sitting at the table, alone, while outside the window we can see Cassie cleaning the yard… again, directing two locations at once with no walkies, but it worked.¬†A simple scene, no dialog, but lots of subtlety in Chad’s performance.

Then, on to the conversation (different story day, different wardrobe) that Bill and Cassie have at the same table. It’s a tough scene to get right… again, very little dialog, but it’s the early scene that sets up everything we need to know about Cassie as a character, and their relationship – against which the audience will measure all their other actions through the rest of the movie. So it’s gotta be on point.

We had shots we needed to get pointing at the window, and reverses pointing away from the window into the kitchen hallway. We made the mistake of starting with the shots away from the window… so, at the end of the shoot, we were pointing toward the window, and racing the light as it got darker and darker outside. The darker it was outside, the more of a mirror the big window became, so of course we struggled with avoiding reflections of the crew standing around watching… but we managed it. The outdoor angles are darker than I might have liked, but in the end it adds to the mood, so it works. Both Chad and Kimberly (as Cassie)¬†gave us great performances, and I think it’s really touching.

Believe it or not, we finish ahead of schedule and get everything we wanted. Damn! What a great crew.

It’s ready to rain – in fact it’s starting – and tomorrow we’ve got a big exterior shoot…. 20 extras, a pool party, barbecue… shows it’s clearing, so fingers are crossed.

Fat Rose and Squeaky on Showtime – trailer

The film I worked on last year (Jeeze, 18 months ago now) as Art Director will be on Showtime in April – and then run on their various channels for the next year. It hits the DVD stores in June (Wal Mart, Target, Best Buy) and they’re working on foreign distribution right now with a broker in L.A..

The aspect ratio’s a bit squashed, so check out the official Fat Rose and Squeaky site for a better version.