THE LITTLE RED HEN

Once upon a time, in a small, cozy little house, a little red hen lived with her chicks. The little red hen worked very hard taking care of her house and her family. She was a happy little hen, and she sang cheerful songs as she did her chores.

The little red hen had three friends–a cat, a dog, and a pig–who lived very near her. Every day she watched her three friends playing, but the little red hen didn’t have time to play. She was too busy with her chicks and her house.

The little red hen started each day early in the morning. First she cooked breakfast for all her chicks. Then she made the beds and tended her garden. She cooked the meals, washed the clothes, and scrubbed the floors. She worked hard from morning till night.

But her three lazy friends–the cat, the dog, and the pig–never seemed to work at all. They went for long walks in the sunshine, lay about in the soft grass, and spent their time reading stories and playing games.

One sunny day the little red hen was outside working hard in her garden. She looked down at the ground where she was pulling some weeds, and she noticed some grains of wheat. “Who will plant this wheat?” the little red hen asked her three friends.

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen.

The little red hen planted the grains of wheat. Soon the wheat grew. The little red hen looked at the growing wheat and asked, “Who will help me tend this wheat?”

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen to her three friends.

The days went by, and the little red hen worked very hard farming the wheat. She watered the field and hoed the ground and pulled the weeds. Finally the wheat was ripe and ready to be harvested. The little red hen asked, “Who will help me cut all of this wheat?”

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen.

The little red hen worked from morning to night cutting the golden wheat. When she finished harvesting all of the wheat, she loaded it onto her wagon. The little red hen looked at the wagon filled with wheat and asked, “Who will help me take the wheat to the mill to be ground into flour?”

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen to her three friends.

The little red hen walked a long way into the village. She pulled her wagon of wheat behind her. When she got to the village, she went to see the miller. “Will you grind this wheat into flour for me?” asked the little red hen. “Oh yes,” said the miller. “This wheat will make enough good flour for bread for all your chicks.”

The miller ground the wheat into flour, and the little red hen set out for home. This time, in her wagon, she had a large sack of flour to make bread. When the little red hen came back to her house, her three lazy friends were waiting for her. She showed them the flour. “Now I shall bake some bread with the flour,” said the little red hen. “Who will help me bake the bread?”

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen, and she began to wonder if the three were really friends.

When the bread was baked, the little red hen asked, “Who will help me eat the bread?”

“I will!” said the cat.
“I will!” said the dog.
“I will!” said the pig.

But the little red hen stamped her foot and said angrily to the cat, the dog, and the pig, “Oh no. I found the wheat. I planted the wheat. I tended the wheat. I harvested the wheat. I took the wheat to be ground into flour. And I made the bread.”

Then the little red hen said, “All these things I did by myself. Now my chicks and I will eat this bread all by ourselves!”

And they did.

The End

MUSICIANS ARE FAMOUS, TOO

The film business is one of the most illogical businesses in the world.  Or, rather, the people who operate inside The Industry (executives, let’s say) make some of the most illogical decisions.  If they were working in another business, they’d be fired or out of a job pretty quickly.

And, well, actually, the turnover rate for Industry executives is steadily climbing.  Remember your contact at that company?  Yah, he only worked there for six months, and then he was canned.  Now he works at that other company.  No, wait, that company folded, he’s working as a Producer’s Rep now.

Anyway, when I’m casting a movie, I’ve found that sometimes it makes more sense to cast famous musicians in roles, instead of famous actors.

Famous musicians have global followings and fans who buy whatever they churn out.  I figure tapping into that market place makes sense if my purpose is to have exposure.  To get the movies I make out there, to be seen by an audience.  I don’t make movies so they can sit on the shelves in a dark closet.

Did you know that a musician can have as many, and in some cases, MORE fans than a famous actor?  Famous actors are used to being in movies.  So when I’m putting together a guerrilla style shoot, the chances of attracting someone like Kevin Spacey to that project is pretty slim.  But, famous musicians don’t get approached for movies very often, so for them it’s a fun adventure.

Danny DeVito can attest that Mike Patton has as many fans as he does.  Ask him!  But, most Industry executives don’t know who Mike Patton is.  And, those who do know probably don’t think he has a fan base as big as Danny Devito.  So when you have a film starring Mike Patton, Industry executives won’t be as interested as they would if it starred Danny Devito.

I learned that lesson when peddling my film FIRECRACKER.  I was just stunned by the film Industry’s total disregard for famous musicians.  I was reminded by this while peddling my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  It stars Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson in his acting debut.

The Backstreet Boys are the best-selling boy bands of all time.  They sold over 170 million albums.  They have a global following that is larger than that of Mike Patton.  Which means, Kevin Richardson has more fans than Danny Devito.  It’s almost the equivalent of having someone like George Clooney in the movie.  The tens of millions of Backstreet Boy fans spend money to buy a DVD just as easily as they do a CD.

Yet most film businesses can’t wrap their heads around this idea.

But that’s okay.  You don’t particularly need anyone in the film business to help you market directly to a musician’s fan base.  You can do it on your own.

Filmmakers: think about why you’re making a movie.  Do you want people to see it?  Are you only interested in working with famous actors?  Have you thought about casting a famous musician?  Did you know that there are famous musicians you’ve never heard of who have more fans than Brad Pitt?

Maybe one day the film Industry will recognize the music industry exists, and take advantage of cross-market promotion.  But until they figure it out, my advice is to take advantage it, and be thankful they don’t!

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 4 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE, TWO, and THREE.

The STUCK! shoot was marvelous.

One of the best parts was the food.  See, when the cast and crew are only a handful of people it is possible to go to someone’s home for a dinner party.  You can eat superior food.  Feeding 42 people on a traditional crew likely means scraps and bulk-made meals.  And there is no intimacy about that kind of thing.  With a set like mine we eat homemade slow-cooked masterpieces every night.  We can sit around the same table.  It becomes a far more rewarding experience.

Like WATCH OUT, the STUCK! shooting days were just as efficient.  We’d work from 9 AM and wrap around 5 or 6 PM.  We worked every day with no days off.  It took less than two weeks to complete.

The reviews were amazing:  Film Threat writes, “Balderson just doesn’t make simple films, and this is no exception. It’s not in the words, or the plot or the story; but it’s in the air, it’s in the beat, it’s in the very soul of the work.” The LA Weekly said it was “Revolutionary.”  And UK Critic MJ Simpson writes, “Steve Balderson is the best-kept secret in American independent cinema. He makes his own films – which are unfailingly brilliant – and the rest of the world very, very gradually catches up with him.”

In February, 2010, the American Cinematheque hosted the LA Premiere of STUCK! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The cast was there with me to present the film and do a Q&A after the screening.  One of the people in the audience mentioned that because all the actors were there, talking enthusiastically about this new way of filmmaking, it spoke volumes about the process.

I signed a deal with a sales agent who is selling STUCK! to buyers around the globe.

In the fall of 2010, I put together another top-secret film shoot and produced my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  A couple new stars joined the group for this shoot: namely Kevin Richardson (from the Backstreet Boys), Daniela Sea (from the L Word), and acclaimed stage actress Jennifer Grace.  We made the film in Palm Springs in exactly the same way we made STUCK! and WATCH OUT.  The entire experience is captured in director Anthony Pedone’s documentary CAMP CASSEROLE.

The shoot was a lot like summer film camp.  We rented a few vacation homes that would serve as the locations, and also would house all of us.  Staying together in the same place was magical.  Each day we’d gather to film scenes, and if any actors weren’t working, they would lounge by the pool, read a book, and basically turn their time on the set as a vacation.  This aspect of the shoot was the best.  I made sure that we’re doing the work we need to do, but it’s just as important for me to create an atmosphere that is a rewarding experience personally.

Each evening we would have a meal sponsored by one of the cast or crew, or friends and family.  Imagine being at summer camp and coming together over a meal and singing Kumbaya.  That’s exactly what it was like!  Only instead of singing Kumbaya, per se, several people would pull out their guitars and do an impromptu acoustic concert; or, there would be fun short films being made; or, night swimming and gazing up at the stars with a great conversation.

One of my favorite moments filming THE CASSEROLE CLUB came whenever we needed to do some exterior shots around the Palm Springs area.  We’d just jump in my car and drive around until we’d find the greatest place, jump out, film it, then rush back to the car and speed away as if nothing ever happened.  This is the kind of freedom I love work in.  It’s exhilarating.

THE CASSEROLE CLUB premiered at Visionfest`11 in New York City where we were nominated for 9 Independent Vision Awards and won 5: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kevin Richardson, Best Actress for Susan Traylor, Best Production Design.  And the most overwhelming compliment came in 2012 when the U.S. Library of Congress invited the film to be a part of its permanent collection.

Making films in today’s distribution landscape is drastically different than it was even a few years ago.  It is very important to spend as little money possible to make your films.  If your film cost $200,000 that’s fine.  But maybe you could try to find a way to make two movies for $100,000 instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Be realistic when you’re planning your expenses.  Regardless of the storyline, regardless of the actors, stars or location, if you think your project will make $100,000 in sales, your best bet at sustainability is to make sure that project costs less than that.

These are just some of the ways the distribution landscape has changed the way films are made.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 3 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE and TWO.

We began doing research on the best equipment to invest in, best sound package, and best HD camera (we judged each camera based on the level of color captured, best sound captured, and overall user experience).  Months later, we had the whole set up.

I was ready to make my next narrative feature.  And I wouldn’t need so much money after all.  By owning my own equipment, omitting unnecessary personnel and expenses, and keeping costs as low as possible, it would be possible to make a feature film for little more than the price of a used Toyota.

This also appealed to investors.  Distribution has changed significantly since the glory days of the million-dollar buys at Film Festivals.  That simply wasn’t happening any more.  A top sales rep told me, “no company is buying low-budget independently made films for more than $50,000 up front.  And if you get that much you’d be one of the lucky ones.”

The first project to test if my new renegade style of filmmaking would even work or not, was an adaptation of Joseph Suglia’s dazzling novel WATCH OUT.  Could I really make a feature-length movie using only two people on my crew, with me doing all the camerawork, and still make it high-quality art?

The answer was a big loud YES.

WATCH OUT, which became my third feature film, was shot in two weeks.  Our working days were incredibly light.  We’d start shooting at 9 AM and on a few days we were done by 4 PM.  It felt like summer camp and everyone had a ball.

The film was highly praised by critics as “One of the great cult films of all time, (MJ Simpson).”  WATCH OUT also premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London to sold-out crowds, where it was nominated for Best International Feature.

A review in Film Threat wrote, “(Balderson) makes movies that are so gorgeous that it’s not unreasonable to say that, cinematographically at least; he’s the equal of an Argento or Kubrick in their prime. Some people have perfect vocal pitch, Steve has perfect visual composition.”

I repeated the road-show tour concept we did for FIRECRACKER and released WATCH OUT theatrically in 2008 to sold-out audiences in the “Stop Turning Me On” world tour, to promote the self-distributed DVD release several months later, where it debuted at #24 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

The third and final installment of the WAMEGO TRILOGY on DIY Filmmaking (WAMEGO: ULTIMATUM) chronicles how we did it.

Once I knew we could do it, I decided to raise the bar a bit more and experiment with a cast of all well-known actors.  The production would cost and be the same = the film would be shot in my new renegade style, without permits and in a secretive manner.  There would be no equipment trucks lining the street, no craft service table, no excessive lighting or camera gear, no substantial crews, or anything to attract attention.  The cast and crew would resemble tourists, which would give the production the freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

With no make-up or costume person the cast would be required to do their own make-up, take care of their own costumes.  We’d all be staying in people’s homes, not hotels, and would have to accept there would be no cash per diem.

I approached several stars, some I’d worked with before, and others I hadn’t, and to my astonishment, they all agreed.

That project, my fourth film, became STUCK!

When I called SAG to ask them if they had special deals for projects under $50,000 they laughed at me and said, “It’s impossible to make a feature-length film for less than $50,000.”  They also said I “needed to seek professional help.”  Actual words.

But, they were wrong.  I had just proven it was possible with WATCH OUT.  I thought about telling them, but decided that they were just like those insecure filmmakers who needed all that phony “stuff” for passers-by.  Trying to educate SAG on the reality of the world was going to be a waste of time.

(To be continued next week)

CASTING: JUST LIKE COOKING

Casting and crewing a movie is the most challenging aspect of making a movie, and one that many directors and producers should reevaluate.  By casting and crewing your movie correctly, you can avoid having conflicts on the set, maintain a healthy atmosphere, and construct a positive environment in which everyone can thrive.

When I’m casting or crewing a movie, I think of it like cooking.  The movie is the dish we’re about to make, and each element that goes into making that dish becomes an ingredient.  Different locations, props, costumes, and people, each have their own unique color, flavor, energy, and thus each has a unique ingredient.  Like saffron, ginger, or cucumber.

I think it’s very important to make sure that all the ingredients work well together, both on screen and off.  If everyone enjoys being around each other, the atmosphere will be free of conflict.  And if any conflict arises, people who enjoy each other tend to handle conflict in a healthy, mature way.

So, think of people like food.  Try it.  Go on.

Pick someone you know and imagine what kind of ingredient would they be.  Are they volatile, or spicy, like, say, cayenne?  Are they sweet and rounded, and ordinary, like, say, a Granny Smith apple?  Would you pair them up together in the same recipe?  And if so, how would you do it?  Or, what other ingredients would be needed in order for the right balance to happen?  Or, if you picked the Granny Smith apple person, is there another contender who embodies an ingredient that might work better?

Sometimes this is very difficult to explain to other producers, actors, and directors.  Especially those who have been programmed into doing it the traditional way.  But, I’m telling you, this works.  It’s about understanding chemistry and really understanding a person.  It’s possible even to understand it, and use this information, without ever being in the same room with the person.  It’s also very handy tool to use when casting people together that need certain chemistry.

Some people use astrology in a similar way.  I understand that for the most part, people might not like this because it’s stereotyping.  Fitting everyone else into a box.  But, so long as it keeps working, I don’t care.  The goal is to cast and crew a movie, and to end up with a group of people who get along and shine on screen.

Even if a person is the best in their field, or the greatest performer, they might not be right for the particular dish we’re assembling.  It’s incredibly important to select the right combination of people to create the ideal environment off screen as much as on screen.  When people are living together in such close proximity to each other, and work and play morph together, it is imperative that each personality work well together—like creating the perfect recipe—each ingredient matters or could throw off the whole thing.

Would you rather be working for three weeks with a bunch of talented people who hate each other, or a bunch of talented people who enjoy each other?

In addition to taking a look at someone’s skills and talent, it’s also a good idea to look at how they see the world; interact with others, and how their unique ingredient might give flavor to the ultimate dish.

Ponder your own combinations.

Figs go well on their own, with fresh crisp foods, and even meat but I wouldn’t eat a bulb of garlic at the same time.  Some might, though.  That’s fine.

Got a fresh peach, or a plum, and a bossy steak?  Try them together, the fruit works surprisingly well on top of the steak.

Roasted beets taste like sweet corn, which is also great with arugula.  But I’d avoid pairing them up with gummy worms.

The Wamego Trilogy

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

CASTING: A NEW WAY TO AUDITION

Traditionally, when casting a movie, there are a few standard approaches to how to do it.  One is to have a cattle call, where actors come in, perform a monologue, give you their headshot and resume, and leave.  Another is a process where actors come in and read pages of the script (called “sides”), by themselves, or maybe with a second actor also reading sides.

For me, the traditional casting process is useless.

I don’t have actors audition in the traditional sense.  When I do a cattle call, I simply visit with people and take a look at their reels, or resumes, and that’s about it.  If I decide to have them audition, I will have them put themselves on tape later on.  But there is no reason to make actors do random monologues that have nothing to do with your movie.  Unless your character is exactly like Hamlet, do you really care if Actor Carl the best Hamlet in the world?

Doing cold readings from “sides” are totally unfair to the actor and also to the director.  I can’t expect an actor to walk in off the street without any previous discussion with me and nail it.  Sure, sometimes magic happens.  But, it’s unfair to ask the actor to do that.  It would be most beneficial to everyone involved if the actor and the director could speak about the character in question.  Actors act.  That’s what they do.  Most of the good ones can play any part you throw at them.

If an actor does a reading that isn’t a match with the director’s idea of the role, it is totally unfair for the director to judge that actor.  How could that actor know what the director is thinking unless the director says so?  Actors can be talented, but most are not psychic.  They need some “direction” which—oh wait—that’s why they call it a Director.

Yet, most often, bad directors hold cold reads and casting calls and will judge an actor based on their ability to perform without any direction.  Those are the directors who want actors who can direct themselves so he/she doesn’t have to do any work.

When I’m casting a movie, I like to meet performers and match their personalities with their co-stars.  If I think someone has the right energy for the part, I ask them to do a private video audition.  We visit a bit about the character, and then they record a short video in character introducing themselves to me.

They don’t work off the script, they just work off the energy inside the character and it’s totally improvisational.  I explain to each performer that there is no right or wrong way to interpret the character.  Part of the exercise is just so I can see how they look and move on screen.  Videos also convey if the actor has a deeper understanding of the character in question, or if they’ll need some additional guidance.

Sometimes I’ll ask an actor to do two videos, each with a different character.  This is a great idea if you’ve never worked with the individual before.  Because, they will show you what kind of an actor they are and you won’t have to guess.  If the actor shows you two totally different performances, it is clear they have a range and can do a variety of roles.  But, sometimes, if they perform both parts with pretty much the same style, it sends the signal they deliver one type of performance.  Which isn’t bad.

One time I had a gal do two video auditions for two roles, and she was pretty much the same in both.  Even though they were vastly different characters.  But, she was great at doing the thing she did.  So I cast her in a part totally suited for that kind of performance.  And, she nailed it.

Doing video auditions is also very valuable when you’re shooting a film across the globe.  When I shot my film CULTURE SHOCK in London and Paris, the only way for me to audition people was via Skype and video.  There was no money to fly me overseas to do the traditional casting process.

Traditionalists scoff at my concepts, but I think they work wonders and save lots of time and money.  So next time you prepare a casting or audition, think about what it is you want to achieve from it.  And do whatever you can to reach the goal.

MAKE IT REWARDING

There are only two reasons an actor will want to work for deferred pay.  One is about whom they’re working with—who are their co-stars, who is directing, or maybe who is creating the costumes or effects make-up.  The second reason is the type of role—is it a character that would showcase their talent or range, or is it a challenging type of role they’ve never tried before.

When I’m asking someone to work for deferred, I know what I’m asking.  I put myself in their shoes and ask, “Would I want to do this project under these circumstances?”  I have to be able to answer YES to that question, and if I can’t, I won’t ask it of someone else.

For $1,000 a day I can tolerate crappy food, miserable conditions, so I know most everyone else can, too.  But, what if there isn’t any money?  If we can’t afford to pay people, how else can we shape the experience to be worth it?  What kinds of things would I need in exchange for money?  How can I make it enjoyable, with good food, and a good working environment?  These are the kinds of special cares I think about when putting a movie together.

So, in addition to making sure my cast connects, and giving each juicy roles to showcase their talent, I make the entire experience a cross between a vacation and summer camp.  If you can make it so they never want to leave, it’s possible that when the opportunity comes up again, they’d pay you for the privilege to experience it all over again.

It doesn’t have to be the ideal vacation spot like Hawaii.  It could be an adventure in other ways.  My film CULTURE SHOCK, which was shot in London, had a day-trip to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower.  Filming a movie in London was more than enough, but that added day trip to Paris for a scene that only took an hour to film, was the cherry on top.

You don’t have to take your cast and crew to Hong Kong (like I did), or Italy (I’m working on that one), or Hawaii (wouldn’t that be lovely?), but please take the time to think about what kinds of things can be added to boost the whole experience during working hours—and after.

Even if I’m shooting in my backyard in Kansas (which is exotic for people on the coasts who don’t know what it’s like being in full-on, down-home “Americana”), the experience must be rewarding.  I must create something special.

The days must be light and enjoyable.  People must be allowed to get plenty of sleep.  There cannot be anyone negative on the set.  All actors and crew people are carefully hand picked based on more than their abilities (their personality and behavior is also considered).  The meals must be delicious, activities enjoyable and camaraderie wonderful.

If you can deliver these kinds of things, and make your film shoots a totally rewarding experience for everyone involved, you’ll have no problems finding people to work for next to nothing.  And you’ll probably have them coming back for more.

DENNIS HOPPER’S HOUSE

Pulling up to his compound on a side-street in Venice Beach, California, not far from the beach, I was struck by the surreal corrugated metal façade.  If I hadn’t known he lived there, it would make sense that someone offbeat did.  And the white picket fence out front, planted firmly with tongue in cheek, was the perfect touch.

My dad, Clark, was with me.  We were ushered in the front door and navigated a seemingly endless row of classic cars, luxury cars and more cars.  At the end of the parking area we climbed a flight of stairs that was open to the second floor, with an enormous ceiling probably 20 feet high.  As we climbed it became brighter and brighter, and I took notice of the original Warhols, Basquiats, and other incredible pieces of modern art.  (Later I would learn that his collection was vast, valued at $10 million.)

My favorite lesson was finding out Dennis shot two bullet holes through an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong.  And, instead of Warhol freaking out about it, he called Hopper “a collaborator.”

At the top of the staircase I was surprised at how plain his house was.  Just one big space with dining area on one side and sitting area on the next, kitchen beyond, and a doorway to the bedrooms.  Hopper’s then wife Victoria was in the kitchen and greeted us as Hopper came in from the back wearing sweats and a hoodie.

I’d brought him a gift.  A coffee table book of photographs called BACKYARD VISIONARIES.  Dennis grew up in Kansas, down the street from my grandmother’s home in Dodge City.  He loved the book.

The first thing he told us was that he thought FIRECRACKER was one of the best scripts he’d ever read.  I presented him with my storyboards of every shot of the entire film.  He carefully read it, commenting how amazing this film would be.

He proposed coming to Kansas for five days to play the character FRANK, and then we settled back and spoke about life and other interests.  Dennis had been in negotiations with Lehman Brothers (the former global financial services firm) to produce 10 feature films for $10 million each.  Lehman would bankroll the venture for $100 million and Hopper would be in charge of the slate.  Hopper asked if we could use FIRECRACKER as the first of these projects.  I was over the moon.  “Of course we could,” I said.  And we shook hands.

(Eventually the Lehman deal fell through.  Lehman changed their offer to Hopper and said they only wanted to put up $50 million, telling Hopper he had to come up with the other $50 million.  He told them to forget it.)

At some point during the discussion Victoria turned on the television and we watched in horror as reports came in that the Concorde had crashed on take off in France.  My sister and I had flown the Concorde back from the Cannes Film festival when my film PEP SQUAD had premiered.  We talked about how incredibly small it was inside and how anyone over six feet tall couldn’t stand up straight walking down the aisle.

Dennis Hopper was a fascinating man and a super nice guy.  He was complimentary of my work and gave me some damn good advice.  It’s a shame we didn’t have the chance to work together before he became ill.  When I learned of his passing, I took a moment to remember the Backyard Visionary he was when he started out making art and movies, and I smiled.

Dennis Hopper's house

Dennis Hopper’s house

KAREN BLACK

I first met the actress Karen Black in 2001 when I stopped by her house to try and persuade her to star in my film FIRECRACKER.  She knew I was coming, so she let me in.  I was instantly hooked on watching her body movements and facial expressions.  There was something about her entire being that reminded me of a wild cat… like a panther or a jaguar.

She seemed to float on the air, feet never touching the ground.  I would later remember this and encourage the Oscar-winning sound designer Paul N. J. Ottosson to remove Karen Black’s foley from one of her characters in FIRECRACKER so she would appear to subconsciously float, otherworldly through the film.

Karen eventually agreed to star in FIRECRACKER and we went about making the film.  She was an incredible trooper on set.  One of my favorite scenes is when her character Sandra leans out of her gypsy wagon to talk to the young boy.  During filming, when it was time to reverse the camera and get the kid’s shot, it was nearly 5 AM and we’d been filming since long before sunset.  Several people on the crew were worried about getting Karen back to her room so she could sleep but she stood firm, and refused to go.  She wanted to stay and be there to act with the kid who was being filmed.  She was a total pro.

In the years after FIRECRACKER came out, Karen and I remained good friends and I’d look her up every time I was in Los Angeles.  We always daydreamed of another project and when we would be able to work together again.

In 2008, Karen was being honored at the Macon Film Festival and they were to show my film FIRECRACKER, so I was flown in to present it with her.  It was such a lovely town, we decided to make a movie there.  Screenwriter Frankie Krainz had just finished his ode to film noir women in prison movies, and Karen said, “I’ve always wanted to be in a women’s prison movie and no one’s ever asked me to be in one.  Isn’t that peculiar?”  So we decided to make STUCK! together.

At first I’d thought of casting John Waters’ muse Mink Stole as the part of the Next Door Neighbor Lady, and Karen as the bible-beating shooter on death row for gunning down an entire fleet of tax collectors.  Karen really wanted the part I had in mind for Mink, and eventually I convinced Mink to take the part I’d originally had in mind for Karen.  It ended up being a great switch, and both women were perfect in their roles.

One of my favorite moments during the filming of STUCK! came when we were shooting a scene near the end of the film, where Karen’s character is riddled with guilt.  In that room, on the set, we turned to each other after a take and looked around.  It was just the three of us.  Karen, me, and my sound guy.  I made the comment about how amazing this was, this experience.  How intimate and real and honest.  She smiled and said, “THIS is filmmaking.”

I am so very lucky to have been able to work with her and to be her friend.

Last week Karen Black passed away after a long battle with ampullary cancer, a rare form similar to pancreatic cancer.

The days leading up to her death were filled with lovely texts and email exchanges.  One night, I sent her this text:

“I had a cry for you today.  In your honor.  I was sitting in my editing room, which is the same room you loved, on the second floor, with the North facing windows.  And I smiled.  And felt your love and support.  And I hope you can feel mine for you.  You are a treasure.  After work I like to go outside in my yard and look up at trees, see the leaves and the branches.  All those shapes and lines.  You once taught me its important to do that after sitting at a computer.  You also have taught me the gift of collaboration.  I shall never forget those incredible moments creating with you.  I love you with all my heart.  Now.  Next.  And then some.  Cheers, my dear.  To YOU!”

She replied with kisses and was eager to hear about what I was working on next.  It was such a blessing to have had the chance to say farewell to her personally.  And it was so lovely to just keep on going.

Please, everyone.  Take a moment and watch this clip of Karen’s most memorable films.

Our film FIRECRACKER is now streaming on demand.

Dear Karen:  Know that you are loved and will be missed.  Thank you for being one of my collaborators, one of my cohorts and my friend.