After my first movie, Misdirected, I directed a number of short films. Mostly comedy. But in 2005 I longed to direct another feature. And this time it would be no laughing matter.
I wanted to explore dark territory; set a tone and go somewhere visually. I had a lot to prove. To myself and others.
The germination of the script was very simple. After the headache and heartbreak of producing my first independent film, a friend warned me, “Don’t shoot another one unless it all takes place in one house.” This seemed like an impossible task. My head was filled with questions.
“Why wouldn’t you leave your house?”
“Someone is keeping your there against your will.”
“For what reason?”
Before long I had a premise for my new script, Victim’s Song.
Two hapless loners try to force a confession from an accused murderer while battling their own inner demons.
The script quickly left the one location idea behind. But multiple locations weren’t the only problematic issue. The script would require blood effects, child actors, guns, police cars, and a much larger cast and crew. Directing it would be hard enough. I didn’t look forward to producing it on my own. I knew I needed help. Russ Lichterman was a trusted friend and my Assistant Director on Misdirected. I knew he had the ability to get things done and we saw eye-to-eye on virtually everything. I was an easy alliance. This was the most important first step in the making of Victim’s Song. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. You need to ally yourself with the best most reliable people if you’re going to survive.
Locations was the first hurdle. Mostly it was a lot of begging. Family was imposed on. A lot. We somehow got a real Police Station. You just keep asking until somebody thinks what you’re doing is cool and wants to help. I mean it’s not like a lot of movies shoot in Philadelphia. Unless of course your name is M. Night.
Filling the crew was next. Mind you we were a no-budget film shooting in the Philadelphia region. People weren’t exactly clambering to join up with us. Luckily I had a few crew members from Misdirected return. Most notably Wesly Varghese became my director of photography and Alex Greenblatt came back as my trusted cameraman. This crew was going to need to be bigger than my last movie and I’d need to hire a number of new people. Luckily the Philadelphia Film Office has a fantastic free online Jobs Board. I was able to fulfill most of the crew positions necessary. Unfortunately, 2 jobs remained unfilled. Production manager and production designer. Russ assumed the PM role and I was forced to wear yet another hat as the production designer. This meant I was now going to be the writer/director/producer/editor/production designer/wardrobe. A few more hats than I had hoped to wear but that’s independent filmmaking.
Casting was fun. Once again the Film Office helped out. We held several open casting calls throughout the city; sometimes in a rented dance studio, sometimes we cajoled a backroom from Whole Foods Supermarket. You heard me right.; we auditioned actors in a supermarket. Thanks to our website, the Film Office, and our completion of one movie already, we had a tremendous turnout of actors. This would be my first experience with most of the actors I hired. Many of them had other gigs between our shoot dates: plays, TV, and other movies. It’s amazing they were able to pull it off.
Equipment. This was just before the explosion of High Definition small cameras so I was forced to shoot standard def. I chose the Canon XL-2 for its interchangeable lens system. Something we took advantage of frequently. Most of our lights were borrowed from my day job. (I worked in a TV news studio). I created a doorway dolly out of a child’s wagon. As we were shooting weekends only over the course of several months it was more cost-efficient to purchase the equipment than to rent it.
There was no money. None. I heard stories of Sam Raimi getting doctors to invest in Evil Dead. Seemed like a brilliant idea. So we called a lawyer. He was quick to explain that what we were doing was illegal. He talked about the SEC, illegal solicitation of funds, and basically scared the shit out of us. There went that idea. Meanwhile, everything was coming together for the actual production. We needed money now or everything was going to fall apart. With my production – and for all I knew, my future – teetering on the brink of destruction I took out a credit card. Did I say a credit card? I meant eight credit cards. You could fan them out like a deck of cards. I knew it was a bad idea but I wasn’t going to stop now. I wanted my movie. And I would not be denied.
I was twenty-seven years old. I had just gone several thousands of dollars into debt. Between my full-time job and shooting the movie on the weekend I would be working every day for the next four months. I felt like I was carrying the Brooklyn bridge on my back.
Day 1 started off nice and simple. An easy day for the cast and crew to build a rhythm. Then Day 2 arrived, and our makeup artist did not. No call. No email. She just didn’t show up. And she didn’t answer our phone calls either. We got the hint pretty quick. Fuck! Luckily I had bought a small amount of makeup for just such a problem. Our production assistant suddenly became our makeup person by virtue of simply being a girl. Fortunately, this only lasted a day. Russ was later able to hire several makeup artists including Katie Arcand and Stacey Carpenter. Stacey was a godsend. Not only was she a kick-ass makeup artist but she was all about blood effects. Until this point, I had intended to do that myself – though I had no experience. Stacey had tricks I couldn’t even dream of. And there would be blood.
We shot a lot of indoor scenes early in the schedule as it was August and the movie was supposed to take place around Thanksgiving. This meant shooting in the dreaded basement. (which was actually my parents’ basement) The place where things get particularly tense and violent in the movie. It wasn’t much fun for us either. On one of the days, we showed up to find the basement was flooding due to a rainstorm. In between takes, we soaked up the rainwater with towels.
One sequence required a very young boy to be pursued by a bloody attacker in a very threatening manner. Not wanting to scar the kid for life I shot the scene in a very specific way. First I shot all of the young boy’s side of the scenes. Then we released him, bloodied up the attacker, and shot his side of those same scenes.
Production ran me ragged. I never sat. Ever. I was constantly on the go. By the end of the movie I was thinner, my hair had grown out, and I grew a beard. I looked like a near-sighted Jesus. I was exhausted. I was relieved. It was the greatest feeling.
Years later actors and crew would still comment on what a fun and well-managed production we had. We just did the best we could with what we had.
After shooting wrapped I took two weeks off. Call it a coma. I slept a lot. I drank a lot of Turkey Hill Iced Tea.
I also sold off as much of the equipment as I could in an attempt to lessen my movie debt. (Final cost of the movie was approximately $25,000)
After my brief hiatus, I quickly made a short trailer. Just something basic to keep everyone excited and show some of the actors what the movie will look like. I learned this trick from Robert Rodriguez’s book.
Editing a movie is hard. Trust me. It starts off fun, “Oh it’s so fun to build scenes and create performances.” and then degrades into tedium. Editing sound in particular is about as much fun as watching a loved one die. Every day consisted of the same routine; wake up, edit, go to my day job, come home, edit, go to bed; repeat. Day after day. Until the weekend, in which case I’d just edit all weekend. At one point we were hit with the largest snowstorm in a decade. Several feet of snow blocked my doorway. I never noticed. I spent an entire three-day weekend inside, editing. But by the time I had to get to work my front door had been cleared.
And then there was ADR. Oh, how I love dialogue replacement. Months after shooting a scene you get to jam your actor in a booth and try to force a quality-sounding performance out of him/her. We spent a twenty-hour day recording ADR for Victim’s Song. The very next day I packed my Subaru Forester with everything I could and headed for Los Angeles.
In L.A. my room consisted of my editing computer (propped up on a plank of wood and two sawhorses – I had no desk) and my leaky air mattress. The rough cut of the movie ran an insanely long two hours and forty minutes. Considering my target TRT was ninety minutes I knew some serious cutting was in order. Scenes were slaughtered and trimmed until I had a very sleek eighty-eight minute run time.
The film festival circuit has changed over the years. Sundance and all the ones that wish they were Sundance (which is all of them) have become a little more commercial. Don’t get me wrong, they still love independent films… staring big-name stars… made for millions of dollars. It was time to present my movie and have it judged. Hopefully, it wouldn’t fall flat on its face.
At first, the major festivals did nothing more than accept our entrance fee. But soon were accepted to, and won film festivals. Then came positive reviews from websites like KillerFilm.com and Microfilmmaker Magazine. We gained a sales agent who ventured into the murky world of distribution looking for a deal.
I didn’t get rich off of Victim’s Song. In fact, I’m still in debt. But that wasn’t the point. I made a movie that I’m very proud of. A movie people enjoy. To this day I’m still shocked and humbled by the number of people that dedicated their time and talent to my movie; from the cast and crew to those that donated locations and food, to the web designer who built us a brand new website for free simply because he liked the movie and wanted to help. I am eternally grateful to everyone for their help. It was both the hardest thing I’ve done and the most gratifying experience of my life.