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.)