GOING GLOBAL

I grew up in a small Kansas town, and when I returned home from film school it seemed the most logical place to begin making films.  Of course, people on the coasts thought I was nuts, but where else can you close down an entire street without having to worry about the police or any passers-by bothering you?

My first three features were filmed in Kansas.  It was only when I traveled to Macon, Georgia, for a film festival there, that I felt so comfortable in the town, I could see how easily it would be to make a film there.  So I did.  It felt like I’d graduated to the next level somehow.

After shooting in Macon, I decided to venture even further from the roost and shoot something in Palm Springs.  It was an exhilarating shoot.  Partly because it’s allegedly against the law to film anything inside Palm Springs city limits without having permission from the Powers That Be, permits, insurance, and all that.  So we just didn’t tell anyone, and made our movie anyway.

The next year, when we were headed to the Raindance Film Festival in London, I thought, well, if we’re all going to be there we might as well make a movie at the same time.  It was an absolute thrill.  Much like with the California shoot, London is beyond strict when it comes to permits, insurance, and permission from the Powers That Be, and so forth.  And, like our prior escapade, I decided to do it stealth and not say a word to anyone.  We got away with it.

I don’t do drugs.  And the rush that came with filming guerrilla style, essentially illegally, became so addictive I couldn’t stop!  After stealing London and Paris (for a quick scene at the Eiffel Tower), I set my sights on Hong Kong.  We filmed a week in LA and then flew to Hong Kong where we filmed an additional three weeks.  Hong Kong was more relaxed, and filmmaker-friendly than all the other cities, but it was still under-the-radar and more than once we filmed someplace we weren’t supposed to be.

How does one accomplish these things?  Well, it’s pretty easy, actually.  Google Earth and Google Maps makes it possible to “walk around” the streets and find locations, restaurants to eat in for lunch, alleyways to hold a staging area, and directions for subway travel times and so forth.  We didn’t need to hire any location scout or send someone to take pictures.  Google had already done all that for us!

It was pretty easy to post casting calls in both the UK and in Hong Kong, and all auditions were held via Skype, or on password protected YouTube or Vimeo pages.

In both places I had great help “on the ground” from the actors who would appear in the film.  We took advantage of shooting in areas they knew about, or perhaps places they lived.  In Hong Kong, our local producer even arranged for us to film the climactic fight sequence in a penthouse with terraces and more!

It might seem daunting at first to go to a far flung destination and shoot a movie without ever having been there before, but I’m here to say it can be done.  And, it is highly recommended.  The pure joy you’ll have coming home, knowing you made a movie in a foreign land… It’s something you can treasure forever.

FILM WEATHER

Unless I’m on a beach wading in perfectly clear seawater, the ideal temperature for me to exist in is 65 degrees F (that’s 18C for everyone else on the planet except the USA).  I keep interior temps at 65F all year long.  I sleep better, think better, and create better.  But, there are times when I can’t control the climate.  So before scheduling a movie shoot, it’s always best to consider where you’re going to shoot and what the temperature will be.

Dennis Hopper once told me it’s better to shoot in sweltering heat than it is to shoot in bitterly cold.  He was right.  It wasn’t until my first winter shoot that I realized how debilitating it is to shoot a movie in cold weather.

When the temps get cold enough, and the wind chill kicks in, it can be beyond miserable.  In addition it can be dangerous.  Frostbite is a concern.  It’s really hard to operate cameras and things with huge padded gloves.  Imagine being an actor, trying to compose yourself and stay in character when your body starts involuntarily shaking.  Or what about the blood draining from your face and leaving your nose bright red and cheeks pale?  These are problems that one must deal with when shooting in the cold.

There are some dangers when shooting a movie in the heat.  People are at risk for heat stroke and the sort.  But, tolerating the temperature impact on your body is manageable.  It’s easier to provide water to people, make sure everyone stays in the shade whenever possible, and avoid heat exhaustion.  Sometimes it happens, of course, and usually when the heat index is higher than normal (this is like a wind chill but reverse).

I’ve filmed many movies in warm temps.  My first film PEP SQUAD was produced in the humid Kansas July and August.  It was disgusting.  Actors make-up sliding down faces, and several people on the crew just smelled bad.

STUCK! was even worse.  Filmed during early summer in Macon, Georgia, where the humidity is so thick you can cut it and put it on a piece of toast.  The place we filmed the jail cells was on the second floor of a building with no air conditioning.  The owners refused to open the windows at night to cool it down for us.  So we had to work in miserable conditions.  Visually it looked great: everyone a little shiny with sweat and the contrast in B&W worked out in our favor.

During CASSEROLE CLUB we filmed in Palm Springs, and I made sure the air conditioning ran throughout the shoot.  Some people have the belief you should shut all the appliances off, or turn off the AC when you shoot.  That makes no sense to me, because you’ll just add room noise back in later.  It’s super easy to match the frequency of the room noise and air nowadays.  Maybe back in the day this was harder.  Anyway, I’ve never worried about shutting off the AC or Heat.  Or unplugging the fridge.

Likewise, think about other factors such as: is it hurricane season?  Tornado season?  Rainy season?  Dry season?  Allergy season?  How many hours of daylight versus night will you have?  In real life, it would always be ideal to live and work in an environment steady at 65F.  So think about that when you get ready to shoot your next movie.

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.