Saturday, December 01, 2007

NEVER PUT A MOVIE STAR IN THE TOILET

Forced to shoot our movie in the literal “boondocks” of British Columbia -



- one of the biggest problems we’re having is finding locations that don’t look like low end strip malls, cheap housing projects or astonishingly unattractive glass office towers plunked down in the middle of low end strip malls and cheap housing projects. With a story set in Albany, New York, many of our scenes take place in elegant, old money law firms and well heeled development companies, places which barely exist in the city of Vancouver let alone an hour's drive away, out in the reclaimed cow pasture which is our current home.



For example, our private detective’s boyfriend “Tim” ostensibly works for a New York state senator named Platt, whose office in the State Building would, in theory, be a high security, beautifully appointed place full of history and purpose.



In a perfect world, these scenes would take place in, at the very least, a stately old structure accented with dark woods and brass trim, beveled glass windows glistening in the morning sun. With our budget, we are shooting at a recently completed corrugated steel flying saucer which houses a vocational school for future roofers.



Such is the world of B movie making and it only got worse on Day Four.

Twenty four hours before filming here, I had been asked by the transportation department exactly WHERE I planned to shoot, and therefore WHERE the production vehicles – camera trucks, actors’ Winnebagos, etc – could be parked. The head of the department brought me a map, carefully detailed, which I then marked with very clear instructions as to where my cameras would be pointed, the idea being that the trucks would be placed somewhere out of the shots.

So imagine my chagrin to discover, upon arriving at the location to commence filming, that the trucks were parked 180 degrees in the wrong direction, and in the EXACT PLACE where I had planned to shoot. Fingers were pointed, blame was shifted back and forth, but a film crew is truly like a family and while tempers may flare from time to time, nobody really stays mad for very long. And so, after a few minutes of coughing engines and shuffling cars, the set was cleared and ready to use.



This did not, however, make the day any easier.

The schedule had us shooting a scene where “Tim”, holding an envelope filled with 3 million dollars worth of Eurobonds, is approached by a – to quote the script – “dark, threatening figure”. The extras casting department, apparently taking the description literally, brought me a six and a half foot tall Trinidadian actor: yes, a black guy. Given the recent discussions with the studio regarding ethnic stereotyping, I decided it would be prudent to choose a different background performer; not even I, a director who prides himself on being color blind, could support in good conscience a scene in which a tall black man threatens a vertically challenged white “good” guy.

Unfortunately, again due to budgetary restrictions, my alternative choices were limited - which is to say non-existent. There were plenty of ladies available in the extras holding tent, mind you, but not a single other male extra in the bunch.

I was, to say the least, screwed.

But fortunately my steady diet of 1940’s film noir movies comes in handy once in awhile and, using my best Edgar Ulmer riff -



(check IMDB for more on this cinematic genius), I shot the scene with the huge Trinidadian but did it in a way in which we didn’t ever see his face. Lots of over the shoulder shots, feet walking, an imposing, foreboding presence moving toward our hero, closer…closer…

And the punch line? A final close up of our friend from the Caribbean, beaming with the biggest, most beautiful smile you could imagine, as the audience realizes he’s not a threat at all. Not to pat myself on the back or anything (ahem…) but I was rather pleased with this slap in the face to racism; the fact that it forced me into a creative corner for which I will look like a clever visual “stylist” is beside the point.

The vehicular logjam at the beginning of the day forced us to race through the rest of our scenes as quickly as possible. But in spite of the dreadfully generic quality of the place, our location “liason” - the building’s office manager - was as helpful as she could be and giggled with delight when I nicknamed her “Bubbles” and told the crew that we were lucky to have her as she was usually very busy performing her exotic dance act at the local strip bar. The fact that “Bubbles” has probably never even been INSIDE a strip bar only added to the fun and at the end of the day I slipped her a bottle of Belvedere vodka as a “thank you” for putting up with our nonsense. Heaven only knows what deviance occurred “Chez Bubbles” that night…




The final scene of the day had our private eye and his boyfriend making up after a fight, and per the script it was to take place in the Senate Office Men’s Room. But if I know ANYTHING about making movies, it’s this – the only time you put your stars in a toilet is when it’s a gold plated one located at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.



As you may have guessed from my incessant whining, ours was a nasty little porcelain number jammed into the corner of an industrial park in rural Langley, B.C. Thus, I moved the scene to a stairwell and, instead of the scripted gag of a homophobic reaction from some senate employee as the punch line, used our large group of female extras to watch and sigh with romantic delight.

This may ring false to some in the audience and to that I would reply “fair enough”. I am not so Pollyanna as to be unaware that I still live in a world where the sight of two men kissing elicits, at the best, nervous laughter -



- and, at the worst, open hostility.



But if the religious kooks out there get to believe in the sheer lunacy of virgin births, walking on water-



- and the resurrection of a zombie who is the son of The Giant Fairy In The Sky who controls the world -



- all without even a shred of physical evidence, then I get to believe that love is love…no matter where you find it.



It’s my movie, baby. You people are just living in it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

ALL BLACK PEOPLE ARE CRIMINALS

The voice on the phone was unmistakable.

“You sound so young,” she said, instantly making her my favorite actress in the world. “And I think this script is really great, I’d love to play Dorothy.”

And just like that, we had Lois Lane in our movie.



Granted, Margot Kidder has had more than her fair share of bad press over the years, but if one was to refuse to work with every actor who had demons to fight, one would be left with nothing but Osmonds and Muppets. Besides, she’s a Canadian girl and with our miniscule budget needing all the help it can get, her status gives us a couple extra tax breaks that we sorely need to get to the finish line.



Speaking of which, our dire financial situation has forced us to use only Canadian actors in these movies and while I am certainly not philosophically opposed to a bit of nationalistic nepotism, it is a significant challenge to find skilled AND attractive actors up here. Goodness knows there are plenty of solid performers, many of whom could hold their own against any other country’s finest thespians, but most of them have a great deal of “theater” on their resumes and while the stage is certainly an admirable pursuit, the distance between audience and performer tends to allow for quite a bit of latitude in terms of looks. The fact that one has received raves for the makeup-free portrayal of a witch in Macbeth, for example, does not necessarily translate into a motion picture career, especially one that involves significant close-ups.



And when I am asked, as I often am, for advice by actors both young and old, I always give the same advice. Dental whitening strips. Any brand will do, although I tend to hand out the Crest brand at script read-throughs.



Perhaps it’s a holdover from the British empire, but one can always tell the citizenship of actors in a film when they smile: dingy and grey means Canadian, probably Shakespearean trained; sparkling white means an American unless they are actually a Los Angeles based “Canuck” which then indicates that they have their green card.

Another difficulty in casting up here is the dearth of talented “ethnically diverse” performers in the country. While I don’t want to come across as some sort of cinematic Schindler, I do try very hard to make my cast lists reflect the reality of the world in which I live. As far as I’m concerned, “HOT” comes in lots of different colors.

So it was a bit distressing on this film to have to argue with my producers about placing actors of “color” in roles that weren’t tiny, token parts like Cop 1 or Woman At Bar, the usual remedy for an all-white cast. Given that the movie is a “thriller”, and our heroes are on the run from any number of people trying to kill them, the only way to avoid “tokenism” was to have a non-white actor play a “bad guy” role. But of course, the classic “white guilt” syndrome usually prevents said actor from being cast in a role which shows him or her in a negative light, the conventional thinking being that this would therefore reflect badly on said actor’s entire ethnic community.

This is, of course, bullshit.

Especially when I have a movie where there are nothing BUT evildoers. If I followed the rule of “no non-white bad guys” my movie would have looked like the road company of “The KKK Follies”. So it took a bit of convincing to get the Powers That Be to let me put the best actor I could find in the major role of “Somerville”, especially when that actor turned out to be a guy named Adrian Holmes.



He came into the audition and blew me away with his elegant portrayal of our Evil Porn Producer’s right hand man, so when I started to hear even a whisper of concern about his skin color I decided to nip it in the bud the only way I know how – I confronted it head on by saying “yes, I know he’s black, that’s why I’m casting him as the bad guy. All black people are criminals, aren’t they?”

That rather arid bit of sarcasm seemed to work, and if today’s performance is any indication it was well worth the fight. He was fabulous, from his first appearance on camera through to the big fight scene where he beats the crap out of our hero and then ends up dead in the pool, and when I asked him his opinion about the politics of his playing a “bad guy” he laughed and told me he was an actor – he didn’t care what the role was as long as it was interesting and a challenge.



I was reminded of Miss Hattie McDaniel’s comment when asked how she felt having forged a career playing housekeepers and cleaning ladies.



“Honey,” said the Academy Award Winning actress. “I would rather play a maid than BE one!”

I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since then, but really is there all that much difference between conscious racism or conscious political correctness? I’m not sure, and better minds than mine have argued that point for years.

We finished our third night of filming on Ice Blues:A Donald Strachey mystery on the run, racing to complete the final scene where our “Kenny Kwon” played by Nelson Wong spies on the house as the Bad Guys drag “Timmy” inside to meet his fate. As originally planned, Nelson was to be watching from outside the gates of the estate, but with twelve minutes left in our woefully underbudgeted day there simply wasn’t time to move the “elephant” which is a Film Crew the extra hundred feet to the bottom of the driveway. And so, taking advantage of Mr. Wong’s rather compact frame, we chucked him into a nearby cement planter box amongst some late blooming perennials and grabbed the shot.

As we drove home that night, Nelson commented that working in theater and taking acting classes hadn’t really prepared him for the rigorous realities of life on an actual film set. This, I sincerely believe, is the problem with schools of dramatic art; they spend far too much time instructing their students about finding their “inner child” and exploring their “sense memories” and not nearly enough on how to deliver dialogue from inside a flower bed.

LYCRA SAVES LIVES

Another early morning start for Day Two of the “Ice Blues” shoot, but this one was enlivened somewhat by the presence of Nelson Wong-



who plays the Eve Arden-esque



- sidekick to private eye Donald Strachey.



After a quick stop at the local Starbucks, to ingest some of their crappy but readily available coffee – and after a peculiar exchange with the mid-op transgender barista who asked us “did you guys party last night?”, obviously confusing our 5 a.m. grogginess for some kind of drug hangover –



- it was smooth sailing on the highway out to Langley for a change since we were able to travel in the HOV or “high occupancy vehicle” lane. I’m not sure how having TWO people in a car makes it qualify for “high occupancy” – if they were really serious about saving the environment by cutting vehicle emissions around here, every car on the road would be the equivalent of a Yugo filled with Circus Clowns – but at the crack of dawn I am not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.



We have a lot of work to accomplish in the short time we can afford at this location; the homeowners have graciously given us a deal – ten thousand dollars to take over their house for three days – but it’s still about three times what had been budgeted so we can’t afford a single moment of overtime. Upon arriving at the house, and seeing my tech team already in action getting things ready for the day’s work, I was feeling pretty confident – until, that is, one of my assistant directors took me aside and mentioned that the two young male extras, both under 18 and both accompanied by their moms, had not been informed by their agents about the content of the scene in which they were about to appear. And since the scene in question revolved around our Evil Kiddie Porn Producer and his Minions preparing to make one of their vile sex films, there was the distinct possibility that we would lose both of them and – ergo – the day.

This continuous problem with “Agents” not communicating with their clients seems to be endemic up here. I am currently hosting a young Canadian Actor at the hotel who is represented by arguably the best agency in the country and even after having starring roles in no less than three major feature films in the past year still can’t get them to take him seriously.



But in a nation whose film industry is almost entirely dependent upon the scraps thrown to it by the mammoth American entertainment conglomerates, having a “Canadian” agent is rather like having a seeing-eye dog with no legs; it will bark once in awhile but it’s certainly not going to get you anywhere.



So it fell upon me, as The Director, to have to explain to these nice young men that they were playing “street kids” who had to lounge around a living room in bathrobes and look as if they were about to have sex…with each other…for money.



To my relief – not to mention complete surprise - it went off without a hitch, especially when I kept referring to them as “dirty, filthy boys”, much to the delight of their respective moms who couldn’t have been more supportive. Of course the fact that they were playing their scenes with the inordinately talented Brittney Wilson –



- a young Canuck actress who will be a huge star one day soon – didn’t hurt either. Brittney and Chad’s big scene, where she discovers that the man who had promised to her get out of the kiddie porn business had been murdered took a little longer than I’d planned, mostly because I was enjoying filming it so much, but the plaintive look from my Line Producer -



- triggered my fiscal guilt reflex and I decided it was time to move outside.

The house has a full security system, including hidden cameras and motion sensor gates, and the script calls for Nelson’s character – Kenny Kwon – to slip unnoticed through those gates as the Evil Porn Producer roars past in his SUV, with young Brittney held hostage inside. Naturally, as we were running out of time, the gates refused to work properly and opened and closed seemingly on their own accord. This, combined with the fact that our “Porn Producer” actor insisted on staying “in character” as a repulsive, arrogant slimeball between takes, driving everybody on set crazy -



- and Nelson, giving his all in the scene, kept slipping on the wet pavement and falling flat on his face when the camera rolled ate up the last few moments of our night but somehow we still managed to finish the day on time.

However this minor triumph was short lived as, while I slogged through the mud pit which was the parking area on my way to my rental car, I was informed by our locations manager that the homeowners were upset about the naked actors from the night before being in their hot tub. They had kept their security cameras rolling during our shooting hours in order to “keep an eye on things” and the Lady Of The House was shocked to see an unfettered penis swinging in the night air. This, apparently, is against house rules and now, in the name of hygiene, the production has to pay to have the entire pool drained.

I must remember to make a note of this when I get home to my own pool in the desert; I’ve always outlawed swimming costumes at 801 just on principle –



- they were, after all, created by the same religious fanatics who believed bathing more than once a week was a sinful pleasure - but evidently that thin layer of lycra/spandex offers more protection from the defilement of chlorinated water than I had previously thought.



One truly does learn something new every day.