I wiped the wet brow under my sweat-soaked cap and shut my eyes tight against the setting sun. The grips barked calls to one another across the city park parking lot while my D.P. presented me with the very real possibility that we might not get the shot. This was, after all, the most complicated scene in the entire film--a tense "oner" that would see a smoking gun, blood splatter, and a character fall to the ground. We needed, probably, at least an hour of rehearsals to get the timing and the performances right.
We had five minutes. Three after arguing for two over whether or not it was even worth trying.
* * *
For my second short film, I wanted to do something different. My first film, The Shift, was confined to only a handful of locations and fully two-thirds of it was, basically, two guys talking in a diner (but in a COMPELLING way! really!). The Two Hundred Fifth, on the other hand, would require many locations across Fresno and up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. More actors as well. And more crew, more extras, and more money. Thankfully, I was blessed with all of that. Everything I needed to tell my story.
But all the money and crew in the world isn't going to stop the inevitable from happening... and by inevitable I mean that moment(s) when you are absolutely certain the entire production is going to fall apart like my youngest daughter when she doesn't get the purple bowl at breakfast. Disaster is always just around the corner when making a movie. All film productions--from their inception on the blank page to the final sound mix--are true acts of faith. You have to believe that the film will be made. You have to take it as a given. Because otherwise, when problems arise (and they always do), you might go to the dark place, throw yourself on the ground, and thrash about until someone brings you the dang purple bowl like you asked for, puts the red cereal with the strawberries in it, and hands you the pink spoon.
As any parent will tell you, throwing a tantrum doesn't work and pink spoons aren't always readily available. You've got to deal with the reality and the situation--however unfortunate--you are actually in, not the one you planned for and counted on. That might mean wiping your tears and using one of mom and dad's metal spoons. Or, it might mean leaving the city park, reassembling your cast and crew later, and coming back another day.
Or, it might not.
* * *
"We're losing the light," Director of Photography Kyle Gentz told me at Clovis' Bicentennial Park on the evening of our second day of shooting. "Once it's gone, we're done."
"How long?" I asked.
"About 40 minutes. I think we need to call it."
"We're not gonna get it."
"No. We're not gonna get it."
"It" was THE scene of the movie. The pivot for the entire plot. There was no way the film could be called complete without it. But just doing it wasn't enough. This was our showstopper and it had to be done right or there was no point.
"I could do it hand held," Kyle said.
"I mean, will that work?" I didn't want to compromise the shot for the sake of expediency.
I looked out at the crew and the lights and the bounces and the C-stands and the RV and the porta-cool and the hair and makeup on standby and the script in my hand and my actors wilting after twelve long hours. And I looked at the sun disappearing below the unbending horizon. That horizon hated me.
Most complicated shot of the film. No rehearsal. At least five different points of timing manned by seven different people that had to be hit precisely and correctly or the shot was worthless. We'd get, at most, three takes. The next 20 minutes would make or break the film.
I planted my feet and squeezed hard on the rolled up script in my left hand. "Let's do it!"
* * *
The Two Hundred Fifth is the story of a seemingly young woman who repeats her same chronological life over and over again with all the memories of her previous lifetimes intact. A Groundhog Life, if you will. I wanted Ema Horvath to play Maxine Laret, the lead. I'd seen Ema's work up close almost a year earlier on an as-yet-unreleased Tremendum feature film and I knew from that what a temporarily-under-the-radar talent she truly is. The problem was that Ema, as you would expect, is a female. The lead in the story I'd written as a short story and a comic book over ten years ago was a male.
I'm making it sound like more of a struggle than it really was. Gender-flipping the main character was the first and easiest compromise I made on the short road to bringing 205 to life. Also, the best. I pounded out the script in five days and sent it over to Ema with the note that I'd written it just for her. Two days later, she texted me back a simple "I'm in." It felt like half my work was done already. Hire the right actor or actress and they'll make you look better as a director than you really are all day, every day.
The rest of the cast was filled out with Fresno locals like Michael Needham, Paul Pavelski, Greg Wike, Nancy O'Hara, Wyatt Daniels, and Gregory C. Tharpe. In L.A., I found an actress who so perfectly embodied the role of the best friend to whom Maxine reveals her secret that I could hardly believe it. Audrey Neal's was the first photo of hundreds I looked at that I immediately thought "Oh my gosh, that's her." Her chemistry with Ema in the audition was almost supernatural.
For the crew, I reached out to, I'm telling you, the top talents for many, many miles. People like Director of Photography Kyle Gentz, Gaffer Ian Mcaleece, Key Grip/Producer Cody Fletcher, Wardrobe Supervisor Trina Short, Hair Supervisor Jenny Pauline-Mendoza, Makeup Supervisor Amber Medina, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Composers Josh Mendoza and Justin Rosander, Food Master/Producer Richie Mirelez, 1st A.D. Bear Dupras, 1st A.C. Troy Ruff, Production Designers Max Martinez & Renee Mason, Sound Engineer Tyler Smith, and many more. Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff even signed on as Executive Producers. Shooting took place in Fresno, Clovis, and Shaver Lake during the first week of September, 2017. It was an absolute whirlwind of location permits, seventeen (!) script drafts, hot days, crises, laughter, and a diminishing sun always at our backs.
MONDAY, SEPT. 4: We started with what I thought was the hardest day (it wasn't). Fresno Christian High School was good enough to allow us to use their gym, but we had nearly seven pages of material to get through over three scenes. And 50 plus extras to work with. 2nd Assistant Director, Nicole Spate, was a rock star, helping to make sitting on bleachers for hours and hours on end and watching two college girls talk about how one of them was going to marry a twelve year old (!) way more fun than it should have been. I was determined to get every shot I wanted, and I was sure I could. Faith, remember? The first half of the day, we did it. Every shot, done, even if we did go over. The second half of the day wasn't so lucky; I had robbed Peter to pay Paul.
This would turn into somewhat of a theme for the length of the shoot.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 5: We started the day at my house, in my daughter's bedroom. I had thought that using such a familiar location would make things easier, but that's because sometimes I'm stupid. Multiple issues arose, most stemming from the fact that I was trying to turn a suburban home into a college dorm and, although you can fake a brick wall, that doesn't mean the brick wall has to like it. Or stay up. Shots were abandoned. Producer/Key Grip Cody Fletcher fixed the problems that just kept on coming despite his best efforts. Then, two hours later than we should have, we went to the city park for our big killing.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 6: The first scene was simple enough: Maxine and Cat in a drive-thru, purchasing milkshakes. We never could quite get the cooperation of the fast food place to do it, so instead we just kind of... did it. Guerrilla style, from inside the car. Each take was another trip through the drive thru and another milkshake purchase. By the time we were done everyone in the crew was full of icy, milky goodness. At night, we staged a cop pull-over in downtown Fresno to the attention of not one bystander thanks to the cooperation of the Fresno Police Dept. and the presence of an actual police vehicle, lights flashing and everything.
THURSDAY, SEPT. 7: An hour and a half's drive took us all up to Shaver Lake and the Dinkey Creek Bridge. I knew the bridge from camping with my family as a kid, and as far as I knew no one had ever captured it on film. After enduring 100+ degree heat all Summer long, the bitter, 60- degree cold was a lot to handle. Both for our shivering actresses (who, thankfully, got some quick wardrobe adjustments), and for our generators that put out about half as much power thanks to the altitude. Delays and rethinking of the lights needed to illuminate the bridge properly pushed shooting back by many hours, forcing a focused, amped Audrey and a sick-but-no-less-focused Ema to capture their characters' most emotional moments in a short spurt of shooting at the end of a very long night. I drove Audrey to the train station directly afterwards, finally crashing into my bed at 7:30 in the morning, almost 24 hours after I'd left it.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 8: Thanks to my late morning sleep, I completely missed one of the biggest disasters threatening to derail the entire production. This day, our last, was our big funeral scene. At 8am, our hearse and casket cancelled on us. This was epically bad. Renting a hearse and (especially) a casket isn't something you just do. That we got them at all outside of L.A. was a miracle as it was. Now, we had to repeat the miracle? In a matter of hours? Impossible. Thankfully, these were not my thoughts to think that morning. Instead, Nicole Spate and Propsmaster Rob Vargas stepped up and found a company, Churches of Death, willing to help us out. By the time I woke up, the problem was solved.
The rest of the day went much more smoothly. We ended the shoot with a simple flashback scene at a swanky North Fresno home. The last days of shoots are always fun. Everyone is so much more relaxed and the pressure of the next day of shooting is off. A house shoot turned into more of a house party than anything. When it all wrapped up at about 1am that night, I was... relieved. To say the least. Disaster, for the most part, had been averted.
* * *
Tuesday night, three days before picture wrap, we ran through the shot three times as a rehearsal. Out of the car, around it, past the shooter, to the girl, the blood sprays, and around. Again, out of the car, around it, past the shooter, to the girl, the blood sprays, and around. And again. Not a one of the rehearsals was 100% dialed in, but we were losing the light way too quickly to not start rolling.
We rolled film. Out of the car, around it, past the shooter, to the girl, the blood sprays, and around. The blood wasn't timed right, the actors didn't quite land where they should, and the death was all wrong. Again and again we did it. The blood kept not being right--either it was too much or too little--and the sun kept on setting. Shirts had to be changed, clean ones put on again and again. We were still losing the light. Almost gone now.
And we still had at least five more shots to get after we got our "oner" done.
Finally, on our last chance take, everything clicked into place. The camera went where it should when it should, the blood sprayed just the right amount, and the camera landed perfectly for the reveal.
"Keep rolling!" I shouted.
Now that we had it, we just turned that successful take into the next one and shot the aftermath of the big kill in real-time. Then, lense changes for the close-ups. Quickly. Then, reverse angles. In a blur, we got the shots and our actresses gave such devastating performances. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe we'd done it.
But, we still had one last shot to get.
It was a simple shot--a car driving onto the street--but getting it required a new setup on the other side of the city park parking lot, the traffic to cooperate, and our actors to hear us shouting directions at them as they drove away. We tried a few takes with no luck. The traffic just wouldn't let the car onto the street with the speed we wanted.
Then, finally, with the light absolutely dying on us, the car sped out of the parking lot and into the distance and... we got the shot. We wrapped the day. On our faces you could see all the efforts and stresses that had been poured into that final hour. It was hard to believe we pulled it off. Weeks later, I still can't believe it.
Then, less than two minutes after that, an ice cream truck pulled into the parking lot and barreled its way through our set. We--all of us--burst out laughing. Had that ice cream truck arrived any earlier we'd have been crying.
Someone shouted "GET THE PETTY CASH!" as a joke, but it sounded like a good idea to me. The cast and crew that looked like they'd just been through a war suddenly turned into smiling and laughing children as they swarmed the ice cream truck and picked out whatever they wanted. The vendor charged me $20 flat because he sold it all so quickly he honestly had no idea how many he'd sold or what. I think we got the better end of that deal.
It was the perfect end to our hardest day and it couldn't have gone better if I'd planned it.
Which, of course, I didn't. Something unexpected (and, in this case, delightful) happened and I just steered into the skid, believing it was the thing to do. That's basically film production in a nutshell.
Brock Heasley is an award-winning filmmaker at Tremendum Pictures. His first film, THE SHIFT, is now showing in film festivals across the United States. THE TWO HUNDRED FIFTH is currently in post-production.
I recently read that 80% of all short film makers never make another film. That's a pretty terrible statistic. There's probably lots of reasons for people not taking a second dip into the filmmaking pool, but the biggest has to be that making a film is really, really, REALLY difficult. Earlier this year, I finally finished my first short film as a writer/director, The Shift, after an exhausting year and a half of work. There were times I wondered if I still would have made the film if I knew at the beginning how much blood, sweat, late nights, feelings of self doubt, favors, mistakes, computer crashes, and, yes, tears it would eventually require. That 80% statistic resonated with me in a big way.
So, with that statistic in mind, I thought about doing it all again. I weighed the pros (art, the high of creation, furthering a career in something I'm passionate about, the sense of community that grows up around a film, the need to tell a story, etc.) and the cons (see first paragraph), but ultimately I knew: there was no friggin' way I was gonna be part of that 80%. I want to make movies!
So, no, reluctance wasn't gonna stop me. In fact, once I'd made up my mind to do it, the reluctance turned into an overwhelming drive and excitement. I NEEEDED to make movies.
The only problem? Tremendum--and, by extension, my entire team--was already making a movie.
Since the release of our Blumhouse-produced film, The Gallows, back in 2015, Tremendum has not remotely stood still. We created and operated a Gallows-themed haunted attraction; made The Shift and three spec trailers: Slugger, Secondhand, and Flicker; shot an entire second feature film, Challengers (you'll be hearing more about soon); and started consulting on other films. We keep moving forward, no matter what, believing the opportunities will come.
Case in point: Abandoned.
Abandoned is a project that was brought to Tremendum as a completed film that needed some additional work done on it. It came to us from an outside producer who believed we could do something special and you can pretty much tell it didn't originate with us because I doubt very much we would have ever given ourselves what seemed, at first, to be an impossible task: recreate a Malaysian jungle in Fresno, Ca.
That's right, the film was originally shot in Malaysia and our task was to do an additional three weeks of photography without going to Malaysia. Do an exercise with me: Google Image search "Malaysia jungle."
There. Did it? Okay, now imagine the exact opposite of what you're looking at.
I fully admit that when Chris and Travis first brought Abandoned to my attention I was highly skeptical. I mean, c'mon. It's Summer for one. Our fair city's favorite color during these months is best described as "not green." And I wasn't the only one who was concerned; the entire team was wondering how we'd pull this off. The biggest burden fell upon Max Martinez and his Art Department, who had to figure out how to make a studio environment pass for a jungle with zero access to trees and leaves that look anything like what you'd find on the other side of the world. It was a three month effort involving sticking plastic leaves onto stripped eucalyptus tree trunks and making rocks and cave entrances out of nothing more than styrofoam, chicken wire, and paint. Amazingly, it worked:
Shooting began in late July and ran for three weeks. In that time, we turned an indoor studio into a jungle, made an abandoned factory look like a lighthouse, built a church in the middle of a backyard, turned a swimming pool into an ocean, and made a park people drive past everyday into a jungle river. Next, I think we should try our hand at turning a shopping center into the moon. I mean, why not?
If you're a Fresno native and you happen upon a Tremendum set, you're likely to think it looks pretty impressive. You'd see a crew about 30-40 people strong, tons of lights and food; a trailer or two, an expensive camera you do NOT want to drop; people doing hair or makeup or making sure the actors are dressed just right; and tons more cool movie-type activity that would make you go "Wow."
But that's because you live in Fresno. You're not used to seeing film crews and have probably never considered or known the sheer amount of effort that goes into every second of a filmed product. Compared to a lot of L.A. sets (even to, say, your favorite T.V. show), we're small time. Scrappy. What you call "independent cinema," but with big connections. We do what we do and we stay where we are because there's something special about filming in Fresno. There's an excitement here and a thrill local businesses and residents have to be a part of our productions that just doesn't happen anywhere else. Plus, there's real beauty here. I know we're not used to thinking of Fresno that way, but you should see it through Director of Photography Kyle Gentz's lens. It's gorgeous.
So that was our Tremendum Summer. This big, short production that left us all sweating profusely and showering constantly (let's shoot only in the Fall from now on, okay guys?), and me with less and less time to get my own film together...
I used my time during Abandoned wisely. When I'm not directing, my on set responsibilities include DIT (getting all footage we shoot into the computer and organizing it) and On Set Editing. This means I'm a bit away from the action and have some down time now and again to work on other things. I used the time wisely by honing my script, dialing up the people in charge of federal lands, drawing up storyboards, and inviting people to join my team when they were just trying to enjoy the catering.
I worked on both things concurrently because that's the direction Tremendum is headed. We're a studio. A small studio (for now) maybe, but a studio means multiple projects. You can feel it in the air right now: things are moving faster and what started with Chris Lofing & Travis Cluff and their camcorder has grown into a real enterprise that keeps growing and growing. And Hollywood is taking notice.
My short film is called The Two Hundred Fifth. It's about the friendship between two college girls, one of whom is a badass with a dark secret. I'm more of a sci-fi guy, and "205" is what you call "grounded sci-fi" (science fiction that takes place in the real world). Now that Abandoned is over (well, for most of us--post-production is now in full swing!), all my attention is on "205". Casting is complete, with roles filled by people from both L.A. and Fresno. Most of the locations are now secured, including some Fresno area landmarks I'm excited to put on the silver screen for, I think, the first time. I'm determined to make "205" the best little film it can be in the hopes that I can make it into something much, much bigger...
More on that later. Lots, LOTS more from Tremendum to come.
All photos credit: Cody Allred
When you've got a rain scene to shoot the last thing you actually want is rain.
The shoot had been on the books for weeks. Actors and stuntmen were coming up from L.A. Proper arrangements had been made with the city and permits secured. Armed guards were hired to watch our backs as we did our thing in the alleyway in Downtown Fresno. Lots of Monsters and Rock Stars were purchased for when the hours dragged on into the late night and early morning.
And, of course, we'd made rain rigs. Rain would fall. Our rain. Rain we could control.
What is it they say? If you want to make God laugh, try to make a movie? (I'm paraphrasing.) Just as we were setting up our gear and getting the actors and stunt men outfitted, it started to rain. Pretty much exactly as we didn't plan and as the forecast predicted. No, actually, it started to POUR. These weren't angel tears. The angels reached down into hell, hoisted their fallen brethren up high, showed them all they were missing, and watched them weep. This was some heavy freakin' rain; the bitter tears of the damned.
We had 14 hours to shoot a complicated, 45-second fight scene and two homemade, now incredibly dinky lookin' rain rigs to do it with.* Shots need to match from moment-to-moment and our rain rigs couldn't even hope to replicate such a torrential downfall. What if the rain stopped? If the rain held this way for all 14 hours, we'd be golden. If it didn't then the whole project was compromised.
We were in the heart of Downtown Fresno. Drought country. Of course the rain wasn't going to hold.
DP Kyle Gentz freaked. Did the rain coming down in sheets and flooding the alleyway look awesome? Yes, but that wildebeest stampede that killed Mufasa was pretty awesome lookin' too. Not everything that looks awesome is awesome. So many things could go wrong with real rain, not the least of which is some very, very expensive equipment getting very, very ruined. The more likely scenario? Nothing would match shot-to-shot as the rain waxed and waned, making editing a nightmare if not impossible.
We started shooting anyway with more than a little bit of prayer in our hearts. Generally speaking, you shoot all your wide angles first. Actor Brandon Quinn and the "thugs" he was to beat up, all stood out there, soaking wet, and ran through the choreography they'd rehearsed just the day before in sunny L.A. Each hit registered on camera with about a million bucks worth of flair as water splattered every which way. Seven inch deep puddles rose up and enveloped the actors' shoes and ankles and threatened to drown those who had fallen.
Distances were hard to judge with everyone's vision compromised by the water. One heart-stopping hit put Brandon on the ground so quickly those of us watching thought he'd smashed the back of his head on the concrete. Thankfully, there was enough puddle there to break the impact. Punishing as it was, we couldn't have asked for a better looking storm.
And then, it stopped.
Amazingly and fortunately for us, the rain stopped right as we finished all the wide shots. We had rain for exactly as long as we needed it, and then it was over. This meant the closeups could be captured in more controlled conditions, with the rain rigs and a hose with a sprayer at the end proving more than adequate for such tight shots.
Over and over again the actors performed the fight. Over and over again we radioed up to Tina on the 6th level of the parking garage to turn on the rigs and let the rain fall. Every angle of the fight was covered, every hit got its own close up. What looks like improvised chaos on screen is anything but. Every hit, twitch, glance, foot pivot and drop was all choreographed and timed to the second.
At 4:45am we finally wrapped. Later the same day, at 11am, we started up again. The rest of the weekend shoot was a cakewalk by comparison. We snagged small moments at a park, a house, outside a jail, and in a parking garage to fill out Slugger's world a little. Travis' son, Kalos, gave a stellar, heartbreaking performance as Slugger's son. Brandon, clearly a father himself, gave the emotion right back at him.
In another great moment that day, we had a problem with one of our props. We wanted to show how Slugger's Parole Officer was no longer allowed to carry a gun by focusing in on his new weapon--a stun gun. Only problem is, when holstered, a stun gun looks a lot like a regular gun. Some quick on set improvising with some yellow tape gave the stun gun enough accents there was no mistaking it for anything that might fire a bullet.
There's still one more shooting day left to complete the trailer. That day is scheduled for the end of the month and we're gonna need a ton of extras. Keep your eye on our Facebook page for details!
Brock Heasley is a writer with Tremendum Pictures. To save the world, he creates art. Has the world ended yet? No? Then it's working. He just recently wrote and directed his first short film, THE SHIFT.
The biggest, most important scene in the script took place in a diner and I had found the perfect location. It was quirkily retro and dressed with colors you don't see in modern buildings anymore. This--this diner--popped. In a big way. Every angle was a good one, enough so I knew my DP would be in heaven every minute we shot there. And the space--oh man, was it spacious! Not a small thing given how many crew and actors and extras would be assembled for the marathon twelve hour shoot.
I approached the management at the diner four weeks out. They were enthusiastic about us taking over the building after hours and the approval came quickly. All smiles. Four days before we started shooting--after weeks of prep and the aligning of schedules and last minute castings and, and, and--the diner pulled out.
We lost our primary location with four days to go... and I didn't have a backup. I called Tremendum Pictures head honchos Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff in a panic. First thing they said?
"Welcome to Indie filmmaking."
* * *
Late last year, Tremendum turned the Veteran's Memorial Auditorium in Downtown Fresno, CA--the primary location for our first theatrical film, The Gallows--into the best friggin' Haunted House in California. It was incredible. I made a ton of new friends, scared the pants off thousands (not literally, it wasn't THAT kind of Haunted House*), and discovered I have a pretty wicked laugh that sounds like a scream escaped from the bowels of Hell. Who knew?
*I have no idea what I mean by that. There are no Strip Haunted Houses, though I imagine if there were they would be truly frightening. (I really hope I didn't just invent Strip Haunted Houses.)
On Halloween night--the very last night of Tremendum's Nightmare Theater--one of our lead actors, Greg Tharpe, turned to me and said he'd love to work on something with me in the future. He'd heard I'm a writer and his guess was that I was probably a good one. I wondered how bad were the scripts Greg was reading to resort to appealing to me, the manager of a Haunted House. Or did Greg do this with everyone? Did the teenager who bags his groceries receive a similar proposition? His dentist?
Try to imagine a dentist pitching anything other than horror. You can't.
I enthusiastically shook Greg's hand, brushed aside all thoughts of his dentist toiling away on her bloody opus, Extraction: A Bloody Gums Love Story, and told him I might have just the idea.
Three days later, I had a script.
I know, I suck. That's so friggin' fast. Truth is, I dug a short story I'd written ten years earlier out of mothballs, ignored my family for 72 hours*, and adapted it quick as I could into a script. Greg had lit a fire under me. I realized that through Tremendum and through the Nightmare Theater I knew a lot of actors all of the sudden. And a Directory of Photography. And a Sound Designer. And just about anyone else I would need to make a short film.
*Don't do this. Family is important. Make time for them.
And, dang it, I wanted to direct it.
Everybody wants to direct, right? I'm admittedly a writer first and foremost, but I'm also an illustrator and a graphic designer. Thinking visually is part of my DNA. And, once, for about three years, I listened to nothing but Director's Commentaries while at work. Greg inspired me to be the frickin' Cole Trickle of movie directors. "How'd you get to be so good at being a movie director?" they'd ask.
"Easy," I'd say. "ESPN."
My qualifications impeccable, I set about assembling my team. Kyle Gentz, the best DP in town, agreed to be my Director of Photography. Brandon Jones, Sound Designer for The Gallows and, now, a bunch of other movies you have definitely heard of, came on board to make it all sound good. One of my oldest and dearest friends, Jenny Pauline-Mendoza, just so happens to be the best hairstylist in town. She, along with makeup artist Amber Medina, would make my actors look good. Michael Needham, special effects makeup artist on The Gallows, would make them look terrible.
Greg was already set as my lead actor, so that was easy. There's a minor wife role, and I knew my wife, Erin, knows something about wifey stuff, so I set her up quickly. CeeJay Leonzo and Tina Johnson, both veterans of the Nightmare Theater, rounded out the supporting cast, but there was still one lead part to cast. And it wasn't an easy part. At all.
The Shift is about a man who, at the end of a very bad day, gets recruited by Satan. Yes, that Satan. The Devil. Beelzebub. Trump. Not just anyone can play a part like that.
Finally, I told Chris and Travis what I was up to. Not only did I hope Tremendum would come on board as a producing partner, but I had hoped Travis might agree to be my Satan. I knew he had the chops and could think of no one who could embody true evil better (which, I suppose, is a terrible insult). Amazingly--even with everything going on as we gear up new projects for 2016--Travis agreed.
* * *
I scrambled. It had taken a week just to get the people in charge of my first diner to return my initial phone call. How was I supposed to go from nothing to a total commitment from another diner in four days? Impossible.
I told the cast and crew what was up.* I pleaded with them to think and to think hard about who they knew and how we might get a local diner to let us take over for a day and into a long night of shooting. For no money.
*One of the truly great things I discovered during the Nightmare Theater experience is a tool right under all our noses for organizing large groups of people and disseminating information: secret groups on Facebook. I post and everyone sees. No emails, no phone calls. And anyone who is part of the group can post as well. It's glorious. Tremendum has used secret groups on each and every one of our projects since, including The Shift. They're fantastic.
Oh, did I forget to mention? We had no budget. Strike that, if there's one thing you absolutely cannot do on film set it's not feed people. We had a food budget, and that was it. So, yes, each and every one of 50 or so people involved in the production of The Shift agreed to receive essentially no compensation for the copious amounts of time and talent they would donate to the project. Which is insane, but is a thing that happened. I think I have magic powers.
And yet, despite my supernatural abilities, after a full day of phone calls and emails and even pleading with the first diner to reconsider, I still had nothing. No diner. No location. Nowhere to film our most pivotal scene.
What I did have, now, was three days to go before we rolled film on Scene 6.
* * *
You can't possibly overstate how much thinking and planning goes into a film. The actual shooting may be the sexy part, but the bulk of any film is made in pre- and post-production. Before rolling film on Scene 1, we had multiple pre-production meetings to talk logistics, location scouting expeditions to find the ideal spots to film our scenes, a table read, rehearsals, shopping trips for food and wardrobe, and so much more. I still believe the script is the most crucial part of any good film, but directing and producing my first short film was a swift education in how many pieces need to fit and decisions need to be made to make things actually happen, must less work and be any good. Respect must be given to anyone, anywhere who mounts any sort of film, no matter how bad. There's simply too much effort that goes into each and every one of them to dismiss even the movies you hate.
I'd directed hundreds of short education films, but The Shift would be my first foray into narrative filmmaking. To make things easier on myself, I thought a good first scene would be one that takes place at my house, in my kitchen, with no camera cuts. Just a nice, simple one minute "oner." Makeup and hair took over my daughter's bedroom. Cameras and lights and rigs littered my living room.
The scene required Greg to yell at my wife and throw a spoon at our wall. This made a big dent, for which Greg was truly sorry. I think of it as an awesome, permanent memento.
Nineteen takes later I wondered at the wisdom of this decision. Shooting in my own kitchen? Good idea. Saved time and money. Shooting a oner with complicated dialogue and choreography? I could have been a lot nicer to Greg and Erin by including some cuts. Still, they handled it like champs and gave me exactly what I needed. But nineteen takes put us behind schedule. Not a great start.
We made up for the lost time in the next sequence, set at a parking garage. I had this idea of shooting Greg's simply transition to his character's car in profile, but DP Kyle Gentz thought that idea was terrible. I threw my Big Time First Time Director weight around and insisted we shoot it my way first, then his way. Whichever looked better in the edit would be the one we'd go with.* Then, something interesting happened. Greg started playing the emotion of the scene more and we quickly improvised some shots from an odd angle through a windshield to capture what he was doing. I earned back some respect from Kyle with that angle. It was gorgeous.
*His way, of course.
We finished off the day in a nearby office building, courtesy of businessman and friend of Tremendum, Steve Hrdlicka. The sequence required a large crew of extras, nearly all of them pulled from the Nightmare Theater. This was a fun one. Slightly comedic. CeeJay Leonzo played Greg's boss at work. My idea for his character was that he was a "nerd gone bad" with a personal style stuck about 20 years in the past. His hair was, as you can see, epic:
My first day as a director went off without a single hitch. We finished on time, surprisingly, and I actually enjoyed the process of directing quite a bit. A lot, actually. Directing was fun, exhausting, intense and emotional. I caught my friend Jenny crying she was so happy for me to be doing something I'd dreamed of doing for so, so long. Never really thought I'd get the chance. I felt so incredibly lucky.
This was, of course, mere days before the world fell apart and the Best Diner on the Freakin' Planet pulled out.
* * *
Greg came to the production's rescue by way of his friend Debra Morris who has connections to tons of businesses in the Fresno area. Within a few hours, Debra was able to get an agreement from the man in charge of all the Country Waffles in Fresno that we could use whichever of his locations we desired. Kyle and I quickly scouted the one on Cedar and Herndon as our new diner.
Prayer works, people. It friggin' works.
Admittedly, the Country Waffles was a distant second choice for the production. My heart was so set on the first diner that I just couldn't imagine the scene taking place anywhere else. But, as so often happens in filmmaking, the second choice ended up being perhaps better even than the first. Where the first diner was spacious, plain, and retro, this Country Waffles was intimate, ornate, and timeless. It made for a very different feel than what I thought I was going for, but it ended up being wildly appropriate for the scene. It's almost perverse that Satan would take a recruit to a place as lovely as Country Waffles to make his demented pitch.
Owners John and Sandee Koobatian were more than accommodating. Their cooks set all our extras up with food at their tables and gave the entire cast and crew gift certificates for free meals. We turned their place upside down and they thanked us for it. This is why Tremendum is sticking with Fresno. It's on camera potential is largely untapped and there's good people here who are friendly to filmmakers. It's incredible.
We arrived at 3pm, an hour after Country Waffles closed on Saturday. The scene was overly ambitious. 14 full script pages. Typically, you'd take a full week to tackle something like that. We had one night.
I was consumed by two things on set: performance and angles. The Shift is basically a two-hander, one man's face off with the Devil in the most unlikely of places. If the performances don't work, the whole thing falls apart. Thankfully, I cast well. Travis disturbed everyone with how easily he tapped into a kind of charismatic evil, and Greg ably bore the burden of reacting to his nonsense throughout.
Tina Johnson tore it up as the weeping waitress. The script called for her to eat a massive bite of steak, but Tina hates red meat. Those tears she shed so easily? That terrified look on her face? Yeah, that was all real. As her parents, late additions to the cast Greg Wike and Karen Melrose broke all our hearts with their desperate, tortured reactions to their daughter's plight.
Chris and Travis dug in as much as anyone. Chris ran slate and kept track of take numbers. Dude's a big time Hollywood director and he ran slate. How humbling is that? But that's the Tremendum way. Not one of us is above carrying a box or handing out water bottles. Other people--from on set sound guy Jared Dupras to PA Cody Fletcher to Dude with the Food Rich Mirelez, made this production happen. At the end of the day, my part felt very small. Crucial, but small.
Really, the only way this could all be screwed up was if the direction was crap. I was keenly aware of this throughout the night. This film was my baby. So many people were giving their all (I mean, just look at Greg's face! Michael Needham's detailed SFX makeup work is a wonder!) that literally the one way it could fail was if I didn't do a proper job of leading them. A director bears an awesome weight a writer working alone in his room can only guess at.
At the end of long, long night, we had actually done it. Barely. I had to throw out fully half of my shot wishlist and my actors were so exhausted they could barely get through more than a few lines without forgetting what they were even saying, but we got what we needed and the scene was in the can. My daughter Elora (who played an extra) and I were the last to leave at 4:45am. Three hours later, because I'm a terrible at calendars, I made good on a commitment to speak at church. Three hours after that, I collapsed.
* * *
After a two week break for Christmas, shooting resumed in Downtown Fresno at the first of the new year. We thought about getting permits, but after scouting out the street we realized absolutely no one traveled it on Saturday. We rolled the dice and showed up at 8am ready to go.
The first scene took place in a car and required a lot of setup and the use of a rig for camera placement. What would be a grand total of 20-30 seconds in the final film took about 5 hours to complete, leaving just another five hours to capture the five minute scene that followed it. This is the constant tug-of-war of filmmaking: setup vs. capture. We could setup and capture the five minute scene quickly because of its simple blocking and reliance on dialogue. The car stuff required effects work and safety considerations, so it took longer.
The only hassle we got that day was from the local homeless contingent, one of whom pretended to call the cops on his cell phone when he got angry. Another man wouldn't stay out of the background of the shot, so I invited him to come over behind the monitor next to me to watch things from a better vantage point. He was a nice guy who eventually went his way.
Things got worse the closer we got to sunset. The streets started to fill up and more and more people tried interrupting our shots by yelling at us from a distance. Polite but stern pleas to "Please, be QUIET!" seemed to do the trick, though, if I'd had to, I'd have offered them money. It wasn't in the budget, but with the light fading we were quickly running out of time and I'd have given them whatever was in my wallet to make our most crucial shots.
Welcome to Indie Filmmaking, indeed.
* * *
Nearly two months have passed since we finished shooting and I've just completed a rough cut of the film. There's still lots of work to do--sound, music, color correction, etc.--but The Shift now exists in something resembling a completed form that can be watched and (hopefully) enjoyed.
Honestly, I'm astonished this thing exists. Making movies is so much more difficult than you can possibly imagine. There are so many moving parts, so many ways things can--and often do--go wrong. And there's so much to consider. The role of Director could accurately be retitled "The Decider" because from moment-to-moment that's what you have to do--make decisions both big and small. Decisions about what mood you're trying to strike, decisions about advice to give an actor, decisions about the best angle for the camera, about which food will be most appealing for actors on their breaks, about lighting and locations and what color clothes should be and, and, and... It doesn't end. In fact, it's still going on. Even while writing this, I took a short break to take three frames off a cut to a cell phone in the car scene. Three frames!
I can't even express how excited I am to finish this thing and put it out into the world. I think it has something interesting to say and there's not anything out there quite like it. Travis was trying to describe it to someone the other day and finally settled on "It's new." It is. It's a collision of genres that don't typically go together. We'll find out together whether it works or not.
When and where can you see it? I don't know. I'll be having a screening for cast and crew, for sure. I'm also planning on submitting to film festivals and we'll see what happens from there. Is YouTube in The Shift's future? I dunno. I do know I want to get some attention on this thing in honor of hard work and dedication of so many who have received nothing else in return. They deserve that.
Whatever happens, I'm pleased that The Shift was done the Tremendum way--economically, beautifully, and with an eye towards making an audience go "Wow..."
I made a short film, but that's a lie. A lot of people made my short film. A lot of people believed in it. That's amazing. Thanks, you guys. (You know who you are.)
It was probably sometime between noticing Kathie Lee Gifford was sitting right behind me and the woman in front of me with a tray of chicken and waffles was offering to get me anything I wanted that my wife, Erin, turned to me and said:
"Whose life is this?"
I looked around the room at the afterparty--at the DJ rocking it way too loud, at the black ties and the short skirts dotting the reserved table areas and the free bar, at the pretentious Evian water in front of me (I'm not clear on how or why a bottle of water could earn the label "pretentious," but I do know it fits). I looked at all of us--at me and Erin and Travis and Amber and Chris and Rich and Steve and Tyler and all of us from, of all the dusty places on the Earth, Fresno--who came down to LA to celebrate a movie we made. There was just one answer to the question.
Whose life is this? This is our life now.
* * *
The fanciest of evenings started out, as it so often does not, in a McDonald's parking lot. The plan was to find a hotel bathroom to duck into so Erin could put on her new dress and shoes. She says my work with Tremendum is going to do great things for her shoe collection. That, of course, was always my primary goal. Happy feet, happy wife.*
*Not an actual saying, but already I can hear thousands of women across the country shouting "BUT IT SHOULD BE!"
The problem was we weren't in Fresno anymore. "Ducking into" a hotel in Hollywood is not something a person actually does unless they want to pay an exorbitant parking fee. Which we did not.
So, while a man a couple cars away sang a duet with Whitney Houston from the not-so-private space of his rolled-down-windowed car, Erin contorted herself all sorts of ways to apply her hair and makeup and then made a hasty retreat to the McDonald's bathroom and whatever state it was in to change into her stunning white dress and crisp new red shoes.
While she did that, I hopped onto Instagram to check the buzz. I discovered a shot of Amber getting ready at the Hotel Roosevelt with the help of a personal stylist. These are the perks of being the wife of one of the Directors.
In a clever move, Warner Bros. Marketing held the Hollywood Premiere in the auditorium at Hollywood High School, just down the street from the Roosevelt. Erin and I rolled into the parking lot at the same time as Sound Designer Brandon Jones and his lovely wife, Emily. This was nice because they are cool and we now had someone to hang out with. When you're lost in Hollywood (where everyone's just a little lost, I don't care how well you know Sunset Blvd.), you want someone to hang with. More on that later.
Brandon was more than a bit worried about how his perfectly calibrated sound design would hold up in a venue not designed at all for exhibiting a movie, but he needn't have. Warner Bros. knows what they're doing. When doors creaked, they dug into my spine and twisted it, and when doors slammed they straight up stopped my heart.
As with any Premiere worth the limos Warner Bros. paid to cart the cast around, there was free candy, soda, and popcorn waiting for us in the lobby. We--Erin, Brandon, Emily and I--skipped the Black Carpet entirely, having never seen it. I'm told it was on the other side of the building and we were conspicuously led away from it. Something to do with us not being "stars" or "able to reach millions of Twitter followers" or "known, like, at all." I dunno. Haters gonna hate, I guess.
Inside the auditorium we took our seats in the Tremendum Guest area. This identified us as both important and very much not very Hollywood at all. Tremendum is Fresno, through and through. We wear that badge with honor and pride. Behind us were the true Hollywood folk, with seats designated for New Line Cinema, Warner Bros., Blumhouse, and, to our surprise, some of the Kardashian clan just two rows back.
We expected Kathie Lee to be there as her daughter Cassidy plays one of the leads in The Gallows, but Kris and Kylie Jenner were a nice addition. However it's distributed, a small movie like this is still a small movie that needs the support of word-of-mouth to be successful. Kris and Kylie have millions and millions of followers. They were on their phones in the lead up to the start of the movie, and then on their phones again afterwards, telling people all about what they saw. That's pretty cool of them.
The movie started without ceremony, with only the dimming of the lights to indicate the shutting of the up we all needed to do right quick. Luckily, The Gallows grabs your attention in a hurry with a sustained, VHS shot of the original, 1993 production of the play, The Gallows (Hey! That's the same name as the movie!). It... doesn't end well. A student is killed and so you're on the hook for the rest of the story before you've even opened your Milk Duds.*
*Anybody else pour their Milk Duds into their popcorn? I'm convinced that's the only way to eat Milk Duds.
Hands down, this was the best audience I've seen the film with. Better than the test screenings, better even than the Fresno Black Carpet Even last week. They were so, so into it. They laughed at every single joke, they were quiet during the quiet parts, they screamed during the scary parts, and they exhaled with relief during those few moments when the characters avoided danger (not that they stay out of it for very long). People were into it.
One of my favorite moments of the screening came about halfway through, during a particularly tense moment, when Dean Schnider, one of the producers on The Gallows, moved to the seat next to my wife to better creep up on his mom from behind. He didn't do much--just whispered in her ear--but it was enough to make his mom jump 10 feet and scream at a moment when the rest of the audience was completely enthralled and waiting for the next horrible thing to happen. They all probably wondered why the rest of us were laughing so hard.
The audience was with the picture right up to the end. There's a moment before the finale that puts you in the main character's shoes and makes you fear for them in a big way. The audience reacted so strongly to what was happening and the choice that character makes (you'll know it when you see it) that they overwhelmed the soundtrack. Important stuff was happening in the sound mix and you just couldn't hear anything because people were THERE, shouting and screaming and exhaling and inhaling with the maximum amount of drama. It was a great synthesis of audience and film that you can ONLY get in a theater. It was awesome.
I looked over at Chris and Travis and they were practically falling-out-of-their-chairs giddy.
The Premiere sealed it: The Gallows is a great time at the movies and it's an audience picture, through and through. If you're on the fence about seeing it at all, you're crazy. Not only is one of the most frightening movies in years, but it just plain ol' delivers the goods. How often does that happen?
* * *
I have never been to a Hollywood Afterparty, but my wife and I had been to the Roosevelt Hotel before. It was years ago and we had a Groupon. A Groupon. This is the place where the very first Academy Awards ceremonies were held and where many celebrities stay when they're in town (that first time, we waited for the valet to bring back our car while standing side-by-side with Kirsten Dunst and Forrest Whitaker), and somehow they were doing a Groupon promotion. We enjoyed our stay at the time, but we felt wildly out of place and intimidated.
Not so this night when we were escorted behind velvet ropes* to an exclusive party adorned by cafeteria lunch plates. That's not a joke. That's honestly what we ate on:
*Okay, I don't know if the ropes were velvet or not--but they were ropes and, thematically-speaking, that was appropriate in a way all other previous velvet-roped events have only ever pretended.
Watching Chris and Travis work the room was extremely satisfying. They were wanted commodities and could hardly walk two feet without getting stopped by this manager or that YouTuber. Besides the actors (sorry, guys, their faces are just prettier), they were the most popular people in the room.
Erin and I made our way with Brandon and Emily to the back corner of the room with PA Rich Mirelez and Gallows Investor Steve Hrdlicka to find the Chris and Travis booth/enclave right next to Cassidy and her mom and their entourage. At first, the staff at the Roosevelt tried to steer us away because Chris and Travis were nowhere in sight. Rich set them straight.
From our privileged position I enjoyed just taking in the scene, eating all the food that would not stop coming, and not trying too hard to mingle. Alcohol was free and free-flowing (though Warner Bros. saved some serious coin at our table as my wife and I, and Chris, Travis, and Amber are all Mormons). The lights were dim, the servers dressed all fancy, and the DJ rocked. The chandelier above the bar was insane, for some reason.
I know why Erin and I were intimidated all those years ago--this is a different world of movers, shakers, and entertainment bakers, and it's easy to think it's the top of the world. This is Hollywood. It's chief export isn't entertainment but culture. The Western World (and, increasingly, the Eastern World) defines itself--either in emulating or in response to--by what comes from Hollywood's glittery shores.* And there we were, young, unknowing, and among them, not knowing quite how to behave or even if we could sit in the chairs in the lobby for fear of intrusively overhearing some dealmaking nearby.
*Note: There are no shores in Hollywood. But there is no small amount of artifice, so let's pretend together there are shores because it makes the sentence sound better.
But sitting there the night of the Premiere, watching the supertanned and the cell phone addicted, the morning show hosts and the actors and actresses nearby, I saw clearly how they were all just people at a party. People who were just a little lost as I was, trying to secure the next person to talk to and find their place among so many.
One minute the white-haired guy with the nice shirt and the $1,000 dollar teeth would be slapping palms with some Executive whosit-whatsit, and the next minute he'd be sitting and nursing a drink in the corner, wondering where he should go. To find his place. Just like the rest of us. It was all very human and reassuring.
I'm new to all this, so forgive me for the boneheaded realization, but Hollywood people? They're just people.
I wanted to talk more to the actors--Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford, and Pfeifer Brown--than I did, but I did get to have a great conversation with Reese Mishler, the fourth lead of The Gallows. Reese has probably met a million people (rough estimate) in the past few months, but somehow within all of that he's managed to remember my name and be pretty cool to me and my wife each time we've talked with him. I told him I'd love to work with him in the future at some point. Instead of brushing me off, Reese got in my face and made me promise that I 'd do my darndest to make sure that happens. He may have even threatened me bodily harm if I don't.
He and all of of the actors seem profoundly grateful for the opportunities Chris and Travis have given them through this tiny little movie. I get the sense that if Tremendum came calling for just about anything that they'd come running. People in Hollywood brag often about how everyone on set was "like a family" to them, but in this case I know it to be true. With a crew and cast this small, how could it be anything but? We've all been through the fire together.
I was impressed that, amidst all of this partying and schmoozing, Travis and Chris still made serious time for their Tremendum crew. Erin and I spent a good portion of the evening with Travis and Amber in particular, eating food and just sitting back and being amazed by it all.
But still, the biggest takeaway of the night, for me, was just how enthusiastic that crowd at the Premiere really was. Horror films are an intensely tricky business. Found footage films even more so. But having now seen The Gallows so very many times, I'm confident in saying that this sucker delivers. The backslapping and the congratulations and the celebrating that took place this night were all well-deserved and well-earned.
Ultimately, the audience will decide. As Chris and Travis said on Facebook, The Gallows is now "handed over to the world." We can't friggin' wait for you all to see it.
Brock Heasley is a writer with Tremendum Pictures and could not be more excited about our upcoming projects. Maybe one day he'll even tell you about them.