Saturday, March 27, 2010

Our Cast

So Shiloh and I have been acting forever, but in a weird (self-hating?) way, I think I've always internalized the stereotype of actors as a narcissistic, self-indulgent group of people.

The truth is, bad actors are narcissistic and self-indulgent - the superficial, "I want to be an actor without all that...acting" kind of actors.

Good ones are miracle workers. And I know it seems ridiculous, but it's taken directing for me to realize this.

Last night, we shot our first dialogue-heavy scene. When you're directing, you've made so many choices in pre-production, and you're constantly making choices as you go, that you really haven't had time for a while to think about character moments in depth or how you want lines delivered. You're head is spinning with other things - what the frame will be, which lens, which shot should be done first, how those lights in background will pop, if we're catching a boom shadow in the wall, whether you drank too much Red Bull...

And then these people walk in front of the camera and they make a whole series of incredible choices you didn't even know had to be made. They take risks, they commit their literal being to the story. It's a miracle.

In a way, watching these actors was an extension of the writing process for me and Shiloh. When we wrote this thing, we were constantly discussing motivations, characters, jokes, emotional nuance. Then we've had to move on to so many other considerations that I think we almost forgot the root of this story. And watching our cast go back to what is, really, the most important part of filmic storytelling - the human element - was the greatest high.

You can get away with almost anything in filmmaking and make it a stylistic choice. Shoot on your iPhone. Use the sound of your washing machine as a soundtrack. Make cheesy make-up effects "your aesthetic."

But you can't get away with bad actors. It's the one production value you can't sacrifice, and unfortunately, it's the resource least available to student filmmakers and people working outside of LA or NYC.

Shiloh and I are fortunate to have too many choices in this area. And that only comes from living in LA and having worked with a lot of talented folks over the years.

We asked them to help out, and oh my God, are they delivering. This short would be a one-note joke without them.

Our cast of hipsters "slumming it" as geeks:

Chris Wylde

And our band of adventurers:

And I believe you've already met our resident, Orc, John Pfeifer.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Long Day in the Sun

Never underestimate how long it takes to turn a man into a Half-Orc.

Our entire schedule for the day was based on having all our actors camera-ready by 10am. When just unloading gear took until 9, we knew it was going to be a rush.

But we had to start shooting, which meant avoiding any shots that included our Half-Orc, who wasn't done until after lunch. But damn, did he look good.

Rob Prior and Lino Stavole worked from 7am onward, with some toilet paper and rocks (no joke - his chin is made from wadded toilet paper and his teeth from rocks) to craft this gorgeous beast out of John Pfiefer's face.

It's really tough to shoot scenes out of order - we had to shoot our entire day exactly backwards. So as far as our coverage goes, it was pretty haphazard. Our poor editor.

We were saved by steadicam. Our steadicam operator, Wael Shukha, originally jumped on board for only one shot. But when we started getting behind in our day, he threw the camera on and we started making it up as we went. Wael was brilliant at framing and following the action. I've worked with steadicam shots that have to be done over and over again to get right, but I don't think we had one bad take. And good thing, too, because our pace was locked at a no-more-than-three-takes rule.

But the art elements we had going into this thing made us look good no matter where we put the camera.

Jem Elsner and his crew (Conor Byron, Robbie Heart, Alexander Delgado) built a goblin hut from scratch on Sunday. Not only did they build this lovely home for Nigel, they did it sans permit, sweet talking the park ranger and bluffing their way through the day. It was unbelievable.

And as mentioned in a previous post, the wardrobe skills of Jana Bonderman and Johanna Jenkins brought our characters to life.

In the end, it was one of the longest, most stressful, and awesomest days of my life. I don't think I sat down. And I forgot to put on sunblock. I'm still red.

(Thanks to Jem Elsner and Joel Hamilton for letting me post their photos)

Fire in the Hole

We went into the mountains above Santa Barbara to shoot our fantasy sequence. Our entire hard-working crew drove up on Sunday to stay in a cabin on the edge of Los Padres National Forest.

The first disaster struck when Shiloh's van blew up.

Shiloh's treasured Volkswagen Vanagon - after years of dutiful service shuttling him to surf sessions, providing shelter, and inspiring hippie girls to flash him as they drive by - decided to catch on fire leaving LA.

The van was carrying half of our grip gear, our 1st Assistant Camera, Gunnar Mortensen and the actor playing our Orc, John Pfiefer.

No one was hurt, thankfully. But 90% of the rest of us were already up in the cabin getting ready to eat dinner and go to bed early. We had to be shooting by sunrise. Poor Gunnar and John - not to mention some essential gear - were stranded in Encino.

So: mourn the van, deal with the fire trucks, the tow company, try and find a rental truck (which turns out to be impossible on a Sunday night)...

Luckily, we found a friend to save our ass. Paul Jeter came through like superman in a truck. He went from just another Sunday night to loading gear and people, driving three hours into the woods, sleeping five hours and working all the next day as a grip.

Roll with the punches.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wardrobe Fitting

Thanks to our amazing wardrobe team of Jana Bonderman and Johanna Jenkins, Shiloh and I get to go medieval on our cast.

And when our hobbit actor couldn't make it to the fitting, I had to try his stuff on...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

We weren't the only ones...

...inspired by the awkward attempt to recapture our youth.

Our good friend - and kick ass author - Tod Goldberg wrote this article in the LA Times after he joined us.

At the time, I asked him to change the names, but you can probably guess who "Richard and Brian" are...

There's plenty more Goldberg awesomeness over at todgoldberg.typepad.com

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Birth of a Goblin

Shiloh and I need a dead goblin.

We wrote it there in the script, and in order for this short to work, it's got to look good.

Thank God for Rob Prior.

Rob is a great artist, a comic book legend, and a good friend.

We got together with him with a list of the various art elements we'll need. But mostly we were there to talk about the goblin. Over bagels and coffee, right onto the list, he sketched this:

A perfect little, beady-eyed goblin.
Now we just needed him dead, lying on the ground, with a giant cut in his head.

And a few days later, Rob sent us this:

For me, this is the best part of being a writer-director: when you have an abstract idea for something, and you get to watch it become a reality in the hands of someone so talented.

I had an interesting moment when I was getting my head cast for some make-up effects on Borderland. They were coating my entire head with that white, gooey crap, and for some reason, rather than being claustrophobic or uncomfortable - I was downright giddy. Then it occurred to me why: there was a whole segment in The Making of Thriller where they do this to Michael Jackson.

When Shiloh and I were kids, we watched The Making Of more than we watched the actual music video. So in a weird way, by getting my head cast, I was living out a Behind the Scenes childhood dream.

I love all practical FX. Blood, guts, fake limbs, prosthetic ear pieces. You name it (which is probably why I've done so many horror movies). Artistically, this is a world I myself am terrible at - I can't draw, sculpt or paint to save my life - but I love being around it.

In order to make our goblin come alive, we'd have to take Rob's sketch and make a sculpture that could be cast.

So we got the stuff Rob needed and went to his house. Here's a video of him making our little goblin we came to name, Nigel.

Dreams Shmeams

Filmmaking is terrifying.

And the moment that's scariest - at least for Shiloh and I - is the moment when you actually say, "Screw it, we're doing this." Because then...well, you really have to do it.

Spielberg is always quoted for how he "dreams for a living" - hence the uh, clever name, Dreamworks - and while I love him and all, I think he's putting the wrong emphasis (em-PHA-sis) out there for budding filmmakers.

There are plenty of film dreamers in the world - people with really original ideas and visions. I don't think filmmakers talk publicly enough about the more grueling part: convincing yourself, and then other people, that you can actually see a project through. That's not just dreaming. And that's more than work. You have to fight on a daily basis for your random, mushy, little vision; you have to die for it. Spielberg should have called the company DreamWars, because that's what it is - you have a dream and then you go to war for it.

That's why I like reading a book like My First Movie. When you read about the Coen brothers literally trekking door-to-door with a projector, begging strangers for money to make Blood Simple, their struggle is more inspiring than the typical "overnight success" story Hollywood likes to churn out. They were plagued with self doubt every single day from the moment they decided to make a movie.

Being an artist of any kind requires a kind of desperate perseverance and unflagging self-confidence (or masochism). As far as I know, there's no video game where you play an artist: beating the Boss at the end of Level 4 with your Painting Skills - now you've made it!

It just doesn't work like that. There's no right or wrong way, no linear progression - there's just the thing you want to make, and hopefully other people like it, too.

But the tougher aspect of filmmaking, as opposed to most art forms, is that the very process of production requires so many people...and so much money. It's not just about your own commitment to your dream, it's about convincing other people to commit too. Filmmaking is as much a social skill as it is an art form. You gotta spread your self-delusion around.

Which is probably why there are so many brother filmmaker teams. I mean, it's a little weird, isn't it? More bros than husband-wife teams. I think the key ingredient is that brotherly balance between unconditional support and inter-team scrutiny. If my girlfriend tells me that something I did sucks, I kind of fall to pieces. If Shiloh tells me the same thing, I can tell him to go fuck himself and simultaneously know he's right. The way that brothers are internally critical of one another and yet socially unified is pretty unique. Has there ever been a father-son directing team? Mother-daughter? Sisters?

Shiloh and I sit around and dream a lot (I've even called Shiloh after waking up because I thought an actual dream would make a perfect film: he listened to me, very respectfully, and then was like, "Dude, I'm sure it made sense when you were sleeping, but that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard"). The real work begins after we've attacked one of our ideas from every angle, and it survives. When we've been over and over something, criticizing, revising, arguing. Then we put it out to our community - either in conversation or by actually sending our friends the script. And after all those opinions swirl a bit, we inevitably reach the moment where it's one way or the other. We either say, "Yeah, this one's dead," or "I don't care anymore, I just love this one too much."

And I imagine making that decision by yourself is really hard. Not because you'd want it any less or because your idea is any worse, but because you don't say it aloud and make it a pact between you and another person. A family member, at that. After you've made the decision to make a film, if you don't stick to it no matter what happens - weather changes, actors dropping out, budgets skyrocketing, people telling you it's such a stupid project to begin with you must be an idiot to like it - you'll never get it done.

Shiloh and I get to decide aloud, and together, that a dream is worth it. Then - as our very tiny Band of Brothers - we go to war.

5 days till we shoot.

Monday, March 15, 2010

So Cool

The Strong Brothers were geeks back in the teenage days.
Not nerds. There's a difference there for those of you who don't know....
Nerds know about important shit like how to change the world and make it better. They’ve taken the time and brain power to dedicate their skills to the world's problems and fix them, to find solutions. A Nerd is a politician, scientist and world changer.
But a Geek?
Well, a Geek can tell you how much damage a level 4 Magic User could deal if he cast a Fireball Spell at range 20 towards a horde of Hobgoblins...
It’s 4D6, assuming the Hobgoblins don’t make a Reflex Save. Of course. 
Oh lord.
I looked that up, just so you know.
But, yeah, we played Dungeons and Dragons back in the day.

I was a Cleric named Whiploh (creative, I know) who had a war hammer of destruction - Rider was a Thief named Javock who could melt into the shadows and become invisible. We kicked ass. As much as a pair of brothers who played D and D could I guess...
But, as happens...we moved on.
We discovered much cooler things to embrace, like playing “grown up games” poker, jobs...relationships.
But about a year ago found that D&D was brought back into our lives and we tried to play again, to rekindle the imagination and adventure that we experienced when we were 10. Should be a blast.
We gathered some other closeted Geek friends and had a night of playing D&D, this time with real beer instead of the root kind.

Because none of us could remember how to play, we invited a “friend of a friend,” who was a serious Gamer, to come over and to teach us the rules as well as be a part of our group.
Now, this “friend of a friend,” who shall remain nameless, was a really nice guy, and he REALLY got into it. I mean he had different voices for his character and was genuinely  upset when his Elf girlfriend got killed, or maybe it was his sister....not sure.

But regardless -  I mean, he would REALLY ROLE PLAY his character. He was INTO IT.
It made us a little uncomfortable...
We just couldn’t do it.
We wanted to make fun of him. I mean, we didn’t, not to his face at least...
So, after a painful night of trying to play, Rider and I sat around after everyone had left and tried to discover what the reason was that we couldn’t get into it like back in our youngster years. 

And why we wanted to poke fun at this “friend of a friend” gamer who was just trying to have a good time, doing it, making a fool of himself but having a better time then all of us!
We came to the conclusion: it was because we were too cool.
Now, I need to stop you there - I don’t mean that we ARE too cool. I mean to say that we THOUGHT we were too cool. See we were not able to let ourselves go and embrace that Geek mentality to say with a straight face in front of our friends: “I am Olsigan The Powerful, if you dare not let our party brave adventurers pass you shall feel the wrath of my Warhammer!” 

Yeah....we couldn’t let go that much. We thought we were too cool. Really we were too insecure. Afraid that people would make fun of us. 

Like we were making fun of this “friend of a friend.”

See, he showed up and played his heart out, and I respect him for it - even though I want to make fun of him...
So we decided to make a short film about it!
This blog is the story of the making of that short film and all other things Strong Brother related.
This short - Working title: “The Dungeon Master.” Or maybe, “Maximus, The Dungeon Master.”
First day of production is in 6 days and counting.
More to come soon. Just wanted to get the ball rolling on this blog.

Hope you enjoy!