First let me give you the back story:
Around the turn of the century, I received a rather large royalty payment for my work on “Kung Fu the Legend Continues” in exchange for giving up world rights forever. It was enough to pay off my debts and leave me slightly solvent, but not enough to set me up for retirement. I could see that film was on it’s way out, so I decided to investigate digital production.
At the time, digital movies all seemed to be making excuses for the visual quality. They would pretend to be documentary footage left by college students in the woods (Remember “The Blaire Witch Project”?), or interviews by a psychiatrist. They generally were shot by amateurs with the camera on the head of a trained seal, and their sound quality was horrible. I looked at the technology and was amazed. If this were handled in a proper, professional style, it could actually look like a movie, I thought.
Also, I have never been happy working as an artist in the industrial management style used in television and low budget movies. The focus on schedules and efficiency is anti-art, and there’s never enough money to allow mistakes or experimentation. So I approached a casting director here and suggested we make a cooperative movie, with everybody involved doing whatever was required. We would start with an idea, a theme to explore, shoot a scene, edit that scene, then gather to discuss the scene and decide where to go next. I bought three Canon prosumer cameras and two Mac computers, a Cobra crane, some basic microphones and a carbon fiber boom pole. I absorbed the hard costs, and everybody contributed time.
That turned into one of the best artistic adventures of my life. We had a ball, and the result really does look like a movie. It looks great. Actors who otherwise couldn’t get their faces on the screen had many minutes of screen time. We fitted barn doors on work lights from Home Depot, and used furnace filters for diffusion. One of our cast, with welding skills, converted a fridge dolly into a very versatile camera dolly. We all had fun and I’m very proud of the finished picture, which we put out under the banner of the Volksmovie Group and called “Passion”.
The only problem was my business plan. I had attended every Toronto Film Festival for the past twenty years or so, and I was sure we would blow them away, find a distributor or get some television sales at least. But I hadn’t counted on the glut of digital films being submitted. A producer friend of mine lent his son a camera to make a five minute short of himself French kissing the family dog. He got invitations to three film festivals. The organizers could afford to give him the screen time, because they knew they would have a rowdy teenage audience and it was only for a few minutes. But a full length feature like ours was competing with the latest from Hollywood, with visiting stars to attract press coverage. We had none of that support. We didn’t get a single festival invitation.
In desperation, I set up a private screening at the Pacific Cinemateque in Vancouver. I hired a publicist. We had a great screening with a full audience. Laughs all the way through the picture. But not one opinion maker showed up, and we didn’t get one column inch of copy in the papers. I realized that I could have torn up a thousand dollar bill outside the theater for all the good I’d done my movie.
And then I went really crazy. Our ambition had been to get enough money back from making “Passion” to give everybody something for their time and have enough to do it again. I decided to do it again anyway, with even less money. I had a script that I loved, about tree planters, called “Getting Screefed”. I bought a school bus and a Volkswagen van, water hoses for making rain, a child’s swimming pool for a water reservoir, a generator, lots of tarps, and we assembled a great cast. We set up a tree planter camp in the bush and spent a glorious summer shooting scenes and cutting them together.
I quickly realized that trying to make this movie on miniDV was a mistake. It really needed spectacular images and great lighting. It had many rain scenes, and storm scenes at night, and it needed a dedicated special effects team. It really couldn’t be done on zero budget. The actors, who weren’t being paid even expenses, were hard to assemble and keep in the camp while we shot. We got maybe half the movie shot during that summer. What we shot looks great for performance, but there’s something not quite good enough about just about every scene. Either our special effects don’t cut it, or there’s some other problem.
We intended to edit during the winter of 2001/2002, and return to finish the movie in the Spring of 2002. But as I worked on the editing, the deficiencies of what we shot became more and more apparent. Then somebody vandalized the Volkswagen van we had left in the woods – threw a rock through the windshield and tore the wiring apart trying to hot wire it. Somebody else stole my generator from the school bus I had parked on a local farm. I realized it didn’t matter. I didn’t have money to put gas in the generator anyway.
I was living in Nanaimo, B.C., trying to be a movie maker. That’s a bit like living in the Sahara and trying to be a lumberjack. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, I was the Enfant Terrible of the Canadian film industry with two critically acclaimed feature films to my credit. But after thirty years of television work, to pay the mortgage and raise the kids, I was no longer the hot young artist. I was the old television hack. My previous clients had all aged out of the business, lost their shows, or run afoul of the IRS. I wasn’t getting any work. Nobody saw any reason to hire me.
I knew I could move to Toronto, or Los Angeles, or even Vancouver, hang out and go to industry events and parties, schmooze myself silly, and eventually, with my background and filmography, somebody would give me a job again. But I’d been there and done that. I didn’t have the heart to do it again.
My children were adults and didn’t need me any more. My first marriage was over. I declared bankruptcy and ran away to China. For nine years.
Now I’m back. Tim Johnson, one of the main characters in “Passion”, and I have been reviewing our work on “Getting Screefed”. Looking at the assembled scenes just breaks my heart. We came so close. The performances are so good and the cast is young and beautiful, especially the women. I feel like if I had just been able to push a bit harder, go a bit close to the edge, put it all on the line, I might have been able to get the movie finished. But I know this isn’t realistic. I made the right decision. But now Tim wants to take another run at it, and the project deserves it. So I’m in. But not with no money this time. We are now looking at the script, which we still love, and considering crowd funding and other new methods of raising money.
I think this is something I just have to do.
Here’s the trailer for “Getting Screefed”, slightly reworked to support a crowd funding application.
Like I said, we came so close…