Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Adventures in Filmmaking Part 2: From Script to Screen

Some say that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, with everyone from grips to lighting technicians to actors to the director all bringing something to the table. Others say that the director (or in some cases the producer) is the author, or “auteur” as the French like to call it, of a movie in much the same way that a writer is the author of a book. My experiences with ‘The Spookshow’ showed me that both viewpoints are true to some extent.

First, let’s talk about film as a collaborative medium. To do that, I’ll use the opening credits of ‘The Spookshow’ as an example. The credits feature a performance artist named Jimmy Coffin doing various sideshow routines, like pounding a nail into his nose and walking on broken glass. This is intercut with a burlesque routine by Cleveland’s Pussyfoot Girls and footage from the finished film, and behind it all is a song by Cult of the Psychic Fetus. All this was assembled and edited together by the film’s director of photography Dustin Austen. None of this was in my screenplay, but it does a great job of setting the right mood for the movie.

Further backing up the “collaborative medium” point of view is the performance of Bryan Jalovec as “Dave”, the asshole boyfriend of the main character. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I wrote this character with Bryan in mind. And although I wrote the character more or less completely, I also knew that Bryan is the kind of actor who likes to improvise. And indeed, that’s exactly what he does in the film. Bryan may not say every line of dialogue the way I wrote it, but he stays true to the core of what I wanted to get across. I had written the character as a little more sympathetic than Bryan plays him, but in the end what he does with the role works for the film.

Both director of photography Dustin Austen and editor/special effects man Ricky Lee Leonard also made considerable contributions to the finished product. Dustin had ideas for lighting certain scenes to recall the films of Dario Argento and Don Coscarelli, and once he points those moments out in the commentary it’s obvious. And Ricky Lee’s special effects take what, on the page, were fairly simple “so and so gets killed” scenes and makes them into memorable set pieces. Thanks to the talents of these two, the movie looks like it cost a lot more to make than it actually did.

But at the end of the day, none of these things would have made it into the film if Joe Ostrica, in his dual role as producer and director, didn’t want them there. From the very start, Joe was the guiding force behind ‘The Spookshow’. He organized the concert from which the band performance footage was taken. He was the one who hired me to write the screenplay, and once filming started, he was the one who decided which scenes would be shot and which would be left unfilmed. Joe also came up with a few scenes of his own, notably the bits where Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival are protesting outside the club and the scenes with Ricky Lee Leonard as an on-stage emcee at the concert. And since Joe was acting as his own producer, he had final cut on the film, so regardless of who came up with what, Joe was the one who ultimately decided what worked for the film and what didn’t.

Of course, there’s one other force that shapes a film, especially a low budget film like this one, and that’s circumstance. A good example of this is the one scene I wrote that didn’t make the film that I really miss. I had written a scene with Cult of the Psychic Fetus on their tour bus partying with drugs and groupies. In the scene, the groupies were portrayed as way smarter and more in control than the band members, which I thought was a fun reversal of the usual stereotypes. Unfortunately, the band felt the scene would be bad for their image, and since they were playing themselves I can respect that. Joe talked about doing the scene with The Corpse Fuckers, a fake band we created for the movie that allowed me to have some screen time as their singer, but in my opinion it just didn’t work since these guys were supposed to be just a crappy local band that nobody liked. No way would groupies be hanging with these losers.

Another thing that was changed due to circumstance was the death of Cyndi, the girl whose spirit possesses the main character. I had written the scene to have her falling down a flight of stairs. Seems fairly easy and straight forward when you’re writing it, but to shoot a scene like that requires a stunt person who can do that without hurting themselves. That’s no problem on even a low budget Hollywood film, but with the budget Joe had, stunt people just weren’t in the cards. So the scene was changed to have the character falling head first onto a stool that had been left lying around. It was a good work-around that doesn’t change anything substantial to the plot, and I’m fine with it.

Finally, I want to give a huge thanks to James L. Edwards for his performance as Marshall Stanton, the washed up rock star the whole story revolves around. In contrast to Bryan, James stuck to my script almost word for word, even when my words may not have been all that great. But because he’s such a good actor, he managed to really sell the lines and the character. I also want to thank everyone involved in the movie. For such a low budget film, there were a lot of actors with speaking roles and a fairly sizeable crew, and everyone did a great job. I’m under no illusions that ‘The Spookshow’ is some modern day horror classic, but I think it’s a fun film that delivers the goods. If you happen to see it, I hope you enjoy it.

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