Working with Murphy on Movies 3: Grants and Bigger Stakes

Back in 1999 there had been a pitch event run at the time by the Worldwide Shorts festival.  Sometimes taking a plunge into the most nerve-wracking exercise can reap benefits that were unexpected.  Had I been smart, I would have made that principle more standard operating procedure in my creative life rather than mere flashes of bravery.  Each of us participating had to pitch a short to a panel of representatives from the various television platforms of the day.  I was pitching “Klepto the Clown” and one of the panelists thought my physicality acting it out was suitably sleazy.  I think I got the best response from CBC, Vision, and Judy Gladstone of Bravo!  Michael O’Hara was also there pitching his own short called The Tackle Box.  A pair of ladies who were also filmmakers and may not want to be name dropped here went with us afterward for coffee and to absorb the experience of pitching.  Michael offered to produce Klepto the Clown.  Sounded good.  And ultimately, it all turned out well.  One of the better experiences and with no serious battle stories.  Michael put in the application with my initial storyboard thumbnails and script as well as the idea of setting it to music by his sister Mary Margaret O’Hara.  We got the grant, which was that stamp of credibility because it was FOR someone.  It officially paid for half of a short’s budget in those days. We coasted expecting funds or a loan to come from the money fairy, but ended up getting an extension for the deadline and by then I had a couple of thousand to loan the production from personal savings renting a room and working in security.   This got the wheels going.  My friend Deborah Bojman allowed me to use her mother’s house as a location, and we had to get a permit from the city for shooting on the street out front for one shot but that worked out. Initially my storyboarded rendering of Klepto looked like a friend of mine who I had in mind for the character.  But he had become union and we were looking at non-union because Michael’s daughter Maddie was not yet in the union and was likely going to be the co-lead who foils the plot of Klepto the Clown.  Michael had seen an article in Toronto Life magazine about Gino Empry, so he arranged for us to visit Gino’s place.  That might be a story Michael will want to tell some day.  Gino showed us a tape from his episode of Made in Canada, the Rick Mercer series he was on.  Quite fun. Worthy of note is that Gino answered the door in housecoat and red trunks like briefs. Michael asked me to design how Klepto should look if Gino plays the role and I drew something up that utilized Gino’s qualities.  But when I showed up to shoot, the hair and make-up looked kind of like many traditional clowns and I didn’t push the issue.  Gino’s maybe real, maybe fake hair might have been a sensitive issue.  During the shoot I remember being taken aside by the AD and the DPs and reminded to just roughly show the blocking with the actors and then leave so it can be lit.  But the shoot went smoothly due to it being heavily storyboarded and easily scheduled for moves downstairs and upstairs. Michael had posted for kids to come to Klepto’s party, and we were fortunate to have a wall of parents present during the birthday scene that required children.  I had to get used to working with an audience.   I shot more than I needed and could have trimmed more just for running time. I was lucky to have a friend who could access a CBC off-line system so the movie could be delivered on broadcast quality tape format. But I should have let the editor be more ruthless.  I also failed to put a time code onto that tape or a copy for the composer Rusty McCarthy to synchronize the score. I had done off-line straight-cut editing in community TV back home, but did not know this aspect of the process and didn’t ask my intrepid editor about it or the control likely would have been added to an additional copy.  Rusty did a good job matching the visuals regardless of me making the job harder.

Since it is a purely visual short it is not fall-down funny.  Nobody has commented, “Hey, that opening shot seems to be a reference to the Hitchcock movie Marnie starting on the “baggage” toted around by the kleptomaniac.”  Our short played well with an audience at the National Film Board John Spotten theater, but when I first saw it it was on a TV in a coffee shop where I was the only crew member to show up.  At least I witnessed it airing on Bravo! for the first time.  Ironically, I had to make the tough choice to use only Rusty’s score as audio and not include the vocals of the great Mary Margaret whose name likely helped get us the grant.  The soundtrack had to be all about punctuating the visuals, and Mary’s experimental vocals were occurring at random intervals that were a distraction.  She did however fit well into the verbal theme Rusty created for the end credits on some versions of the movie.  The more detailed account of the project can be heard in the commentary track video.

Shortly after Klepto had been completed, I had submitted another short around that I had carried and refined for years.  This was not part of the whack of short scripts I had written in 2000 or so.  It had taken many forms.  Big Babies was a musical satire.  Initially I wanted to submit it to the Ontario Media Development Corporation Calling Card program.  The first hitch was that it was producer-driven and the producer could not also be the director.  So I put the word out for producers, and presented the script to a more than I might remember.  One lady who read it and heard the CD of songs turned me down and a year or so later got nominated for an Oscar for her own short.

The demo CD of songs had been produced by Rusty again who had bee given a short window of time to set my crazy lyrics to music.  I had been focused on the Calling Card deadline. It had become the Al Waxman Calling Card program.  But it ended right after I missed what appeared to be the last deadline.  I was still getting response from potential producers and going through with interviews.

I did finally get an Emerging Artists Grant from the Ontario Arts Council.  I figured if I follow through maybe it can be submitted to CBC’s Canadian Reflections.  In hindsight, that might have been naive considering the outlandish nature of my project.  I still felt I should have a woman as producer considering the heat I would receive tackling a topic like the abortion debate with satire. So I did end up going that way and making a leap of faith, careful to state outright what I expected to spend in total but withing I had put a lot more on paper besides a script and storyboards.  A formal before-the-fact budget should have been worked up ahead of production.  There is too much to say about Big Babies.

When I was gearing up to shoot, I was a volunteer stuffing envelopes at LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) when then coordinator Roberto Ariganello asked what I was up to.  He then told me that he had been on the OAC committee choosing projects and had fought for Big Babies because he was the only male and everyone else was against a male dealing with the sensitive topic.  He pointed out the storyboards and song demo CD and believed in it.  He asked why I was just stuffing envelopes to make up my volunteer hours.  He suggested that I take over the Directing Actors for the Camera workshop that the usual instructor Bruce LeBruce had taken leave from.  That was a mostly positive experience, but when you state that there will be a camera to work with you had better make sure one is available and that you are talking to the right people about whether it can be moved from one room to another.

Before shooting Big Babies, I could confidently prepare a class and spend a weekend playing teacher.  Even if it meant arranging a bonus session a week or so later to actually give hands-on experience. After shooting Big Babies, it cleared my head and energized me to write several feature screenplays I had been noodling with.  But there was also a downside resulting from the principle that all must be made to understand the idea of a FINITE figure when it comes to the cost of a movie.

And, no matter how burned out I was after filming I should have been more demonstrative and make triple sure everyone hears each other.  The producer on this film felt like she was my stooge and I hadn’t realized that.  Communicating between the lines on a film crew is not communicating at all.  I have to remember to tell everybody that.  Anything that MUST be known must be said directly and with full attention.  Also, I’ll just say that when an actress said she was allergic to sesame seeds I was LUCKY to notice that the individual who had been told as much delivered an assorted bag of bagels to the craft services table, which included a couple with the dangerous seeds.  I had to warn the actress off of eating bagels. Personality conflicts shouldn’t lead to a medical emergency.  Also, maybe find a way to ask whether any key crew might be on medication or hormones or anything that might cause unusual behavior.     Even though they don’t legally have to disclose.

If someone arrives on set to take photos officially, five that person the film rolls or data chip necessary and ensure that you receive it personally before they leave.  You do not want to be hounding a middle person for copies of photos you have paid for. Especially under the time crunch of sending out your film to festivals.

Here is a short that was inspired by nutty things that were said in e-mails.  I put them into the mouth of a parking valet to generate the script for this sketch:

My grant was $4000.  I expected to match that out of my own guard job savings, making a total budget of $8000. This was agreed verbally twice. Also, the plan had been that actors, the sound recordist, the Cinematographer, and second assistant camera would be paid positions but I would do my own continuity and have no First Assistant Director and the rest would be volunteer positions. By increments, this formulation was compromised and I failed to clamp down.  The producer on a low to no budget project would be expected to not be the head of a producing department but instead to be production manager, line producer, and location but next thing you know I’m being told the producer’s condo/office has production assistants for co-op and that they were being delegated tasks like phone calls and call lists and so on and their hours would be charged to the production.  Apart from some contact numbers that didn’t work when I tried them (and may have been wrong only on my copy of the list, since the producer refused to give any information citing “ways and means of doing business”), the production assistants were capable young women and were just caught in the middle.  But ultimately, there was budget overage beyond $12000 and then $500 for a lawyer and $500 for a website it turned out I had no control over.  That and whatever incredible stress and abuse is worth.  Here is a video where I read an old issue of the LIFT newsletter I wrote based on this experience.  The day it was published and sent out to members I got a silent hang-up call from an unknown number.  May be unrelated, maybe not.

After a series of e-mails requesting production stills and the removal of the website, for example, you don’t want to get a voice-mail from a police constable ostensibly giving friendly advice to stop. Even if it is a distinct yet lyrical name that had been dropped months later by his acquaintance during a less contentious time.  This meant going down the rabbit hole of finding out the term for Canada’s version of internal affairs.  It all represented a tremendous drain on the spirit and the hours of my one life.  And ultimately, attending a Legal and Business Affairs For Filmmakers and Producers workshop at LIFT only resulted in more stress.  The instructor before class said it sounded like I was in the right. Then just before class my nemesis shows up and I neglected to address the proverbial elephant in the room, so the instructor (now an annoyingly successful filmmaker himself) thought I should have advised him right away, which in hindsight is right.  Even though it might have created immediate drama.  He didn’t return my call when I through about engaging him. But when I did find someone to send a registered letter, guess which lawyer responded on behalf of my nemesis.

For the next fifteen years or so, there would be trollish little internet shenanigans that were supposed to be of unknown origin but were not.

This is another case where it might be more informative to listen to the commentary video below.  Even if it is the more polite version: