movies

What It’s Like to Make Your First Short Film

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The biggest, most important scene in the script took place in a diner and I had found the perfect location. It was quirkily retro and dressed with colors you don’t see in modern buildings anymore. This–this diner–popped. In a big way. Every angle was a good one, enough so I knew my DP would be in heaven every minute we shot there.  And the space–oh man, was it spacious! Not a small thing given how many crew and actors and extras would be assembled for the marathon twelve hour shoot.

I approached the management at the diner four weeks out. They were enthusiastic about us taking over the building after hours and the approval came quickly. All smiles. Four days before we started shooting–after weeks of prep and the aligning of schedules and last minute castings and, and, and–the diner pulled out.

We lost our primary location with four days to go… and I didn’t have a backup. I called Tremendum Pictures head honchos Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff in a panic. First thing they said?

“Welcome to Indie filmmaking.”

Read the rest at Tremendum.com…

What’s it Like Going to a Hollywood Movie Premiere?

It was probably sometime between noticing Kathie Lee Gifford was sitting right behind me and the woman in front of me with a tray of chicken and waffles was offering to get me anything I wanted that my wife, Erin, turned to me and said:

“Whose life is this?”

I looked around the room at the afterparty–at the DJ rocking it way too loud, at the black ties and the short skirts dotting the reserved table areas and the free bar, at the pretentious Evian water in front of me (I’m not clear on how or why a bottle of water could earn the label “pretentious,” but I do know it fits). I looked at all of us–at me and Erin and Travis and Amber and Chris and Rich and Steve and Tyler and all of us from, of all the dusty places on the Earth, Fresno–who came down to LA to celebrate a movie we made. There was just one answer to the question.

Whose life is this? This is our life now.

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* * *

The fanciest of evenings started out, as it so often does not, in a McDonald’s parking lot… Click here to read the rest on Tremendum.com!

What It’s Like Behind the Scenes at a Test Screening

I went up to the concessions stand with my pink VIP ticket in hand. I stood in line like everyone else for a few seconds before glancing left to see a roped off register with signs reading “Reserved Entrance.” I made my way over.

“Hi,” the nice girl behind the counter said. “What can I get for you?”

“Um, what can I have?”

“Anything you want.”

I looked up at the LED menu. It stretched for miles. Popcorn. Hot Dogs. Ice cream. Sodas. Candy. Nachos. Pretzels. Too many to choose from.

“I’ll take one of everything.”

* * *

I’ve been working with Tremendum Pictures for a couple of months now and in that time I’ve learned one very important thing: this is what I should have been dreaming about all along. A couple of times a week someone will come up to me and say, “Man, how great is it you get to live your dream?” And I always say, “Actually, I’m not. I never dreamed this. I never dared.” Thank goodness someone else did. Or, rather, two someone elses.

Most of my time lately is spent working on a TV show I’m co-creating with Tremendum founders Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, but I’ve also done some work as a production assistant and set designer on Chris and Travis’ movie, The Gallows, coming out July 10 from Blumhouse, New Line, and Warner Bros. I’m in “lucky to be here” mode and that’s not a bad place to be.

Friday evening, myself, Chris, Travis, and Production Associate Nate Healy piled into a car and drove down from Fresno to Long Beach for the final test screening of The Gallows. Unlike past test screenings, Chris and Travis, the writer-directors, weren’t scrambling at the last minute and staying up all night to make changes. Friday night was a night for relaxing, refusing the free drinks the hotel offered us when they found out what we were in town for (all four of us are Mormon), and playing board games until way too late. I don’t think “relax” has been part of Chris and Travis’ vocabulary lately. It was on that Friday night.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That's me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That’s me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff. Photo by Chris Lofing.

The next morning, we got up, ate a hotel breakfast we probably should have passed on (I understand I did well in refusing the pancakes), and made our way over to the local Edwards 26 where we watched the movie through once to make sure there weren’t any picture or sound glitches. The movie’s sound designer, Brandon Jones, spent the entire test for the test screening jumping around to different seats in the auditorium to make sure everything sounded right from all angles.

The movie checked out and we had some downtime before the screening, so we busted out the board game BANG! and played in the open air admist the mall shops while waiting for lunch. The six of us (we were joined by another Tremendum associate, Rich Mirelez, just after the test for the test screening) drew some attention from an old man who stopped, hovered, and stared at the game for a little while in bewilderment before moving on.

At lunch we were joined by Dave Neustadter of New Line Cinemas, one of the producers on The Gallows. He picked up the tab. The big perk of these trips is that once we’re there we don’t pay for a thing. Normally, I’d try to refuse such kindness as I prefer to pay my own way, but this is just part of the deal. Besides, I figure New Line probably has more money than me. The Hobbits have been good to them.

After lunch, we walked over to the theater to see a big crowd out front, waiting to get in. The actual test screening is not managed by the studio itself, but by a third party company who recruits, organizes, and runs the whole show. They did a great job stacking the audience with the under 21 crowd, most of them big horror fans.

Soon, the big brass filed in, including studio heads from both Blumhouse and New Line. Dean Schnider, one of the producers on The Gallows and the guy who discovered Chris and Travis in the first place, introduced me to his boss as the writer of Tremendum’s next project. Not gonna lie, that was pretty cool.

As VIPs, we didn’t get wanded going in (they’re lucky I forgot my bomb at home) and we got our pick of goodies from the concessions stand. I asked for “One of everything” as a joke and quickly backed off of that with a laugh. Instead, I got a small popcorn, milk duds, and a Dasani water. Because I am pretentious and oh-so-Hollywood now. Don’t talk to me.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about actual Hollywood people so far: they’re pretty cool. Rather than the all-black clad, slicked back hair, sunglasses, and blue tooth headset types you might expect, they’re a pretty casual crowd dressed in t-shirts, jeans, and three-day-old scruff for the most part. If they’re feeling really fancy, they might toss on a plain button down shirt, open at the collar. They are excited, thoughtful, and, yeah, they cuss a lot. (Well, a lot for me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said the F Word, so my barometer might be a little different than the average person.) This all squares with my memories of the last time Hollywood invaded my life, back when my family was on Rescue 911. As Nate said as we drove back from the trip: “They’re just people.”

* * *

The Gallows synopsis on IMDB:

20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

* * *

Watching The Gallows with a crowd is the best possible experience. The energy coming off the audience was insane and, even though this was my fourth time seeing it, it was my favorite viewing of the movie without question. People were FREAKED OUT. This movie is intense, suspenseful, funny, emotionally involving, surprising, and just flat out SCARY.

Afterwards, Travis talked to the crew filming the audience with night vision cameras about how it went and was told that they got the best reactions they’d ever seen. Travis asked if this was their first time doing this sort of thing. He was assured it was far, far from the first time.

The theater was dead silent as questionnaires were handed out and the audience put their opinion of the move in writing. This is what were all waiting for. Does the movie work or not? You can’t argue with black and white.

While a bunch of strangers held their fates in their hands, Chris and Travis went from producer to producer, to studio head to studio head, taking in their notes and petitions for last minute changes. In two weeks, The Gallows will be submitted to the MPAA for a rating (going for a PG-13), and that means Chris and Travis only have that long to finalize the picture.

After all the questionnaires were filled out, a select group of people were asked to stick around for a focus group to offer up a more detailed analysis of the movie with questions like “Which scene did you like best?” and “Where would you rate the movie on a 1-to-5 scale?” Chris and Travis were on edge the entire time, just waiting for either worst fears to be realized or to have it confirmed they’d sealed the deal.

When the focus group finished, the numbers on the questionnaires came back. The real test is in the numbers. A movie like this, it’s all about word-of-mouth and if the audience doesn’t go for it, then you’re sunk. If The Gallows could hit a certain benchmark, then it would be in the same league as Blumhouse and New Line’s successful horror films like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and The Conjuring.

The numbers were read off.

The Gallows doubled the benchmark. The focus group didn’t lie and everyone’s instincts about it were validated. People love this movie.

Everybody went nuts. Dave Neustadter turned around, cocked his arm back, and gave me the single hardest high five I’ve ever received in my life. He did the same with Brandon and Rich. No exaggeration, a full ten minutes later, Brandon turned to me and asked if my hand was still hurting like his. It absolutely was.

Everyone gathered around Chris and Travis to congratulate them. I got a little fanboy thrill as, at one point, I was in a circle of people that included Couper Samuelson, one of the producers on the Oscar-winning Whiplash; the head of Blumhouse, Jason Blum; and the head of New Line (and writer of one of my favorite films, Frequency), Toby Emmerich. I was basically invisible, but it was a pleasure to be there and hear these guys express their excitement for something my friends had created.

After everybody slapped backs, a few of the producers and the rest of us stuck around for some dinner. Again, New Line paid, but by then I was so full of popcorn and candy that would have been better eaten by a much, much younger version of myself that all I had was a cup of soup.

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Photo by Travis Cluff

This might have been my favorite part of the day. Everyone was in a great mood and just reveled in the fun that comes from seeing years of hard work come to fruition and paying off in spectacular fashion. These people really celebrate success, and that’s just not something I think we do enough of in the 9-to-5 world. I loved it. I loved that even though a lot of these guys have been doing this for a while, they still couldn’t help but be as giddy as those of us for whom this is all new.

Travis teared up a little at the table as he reflected on going from losing everything after being taken advantage of in a bad business deal, to winning on an episode of Wipeout in a desperate attempt to make some money, to meeting Chris, filming The Gallows, and then selling the movie. Theirs is the ultimate underdog story. Chris and Travis are a couple of nobodies from Fresno who have been scraping pennies together and working all hours of the day for the past four years to live this insane dream. If any two guys deserve success, it’s these guys.

I can’t help but be grateful that I get to be a part of any of this. I feel like I’ve been scooped up from the muck of unemployment, set high on the table, and asked to just partake of blessings I’m not totally sure I deserve. The time is coming fast for me to prove my worth in a more substantial way, and that’s great. That’s fantastic. I want that. I’m all in.

And I can’t friggin’ wait for July 10th.

Congrats, Chris and Travis. It’s not much longer now.

Travis and Chris

Travis and Chris. Photo by Nate Healy.

Update on the New Job (Plus, “The Shooting”)

Things have a been a little crazy lately.

Now that I’m all in at Tremendum, I’m seeing what it is to fully dedicate myself to those things I enjoy and I’m best at. And I love it.

Last week, we headed down to Hollywood for a small screening of The Gallows and to work on sound design. I was more in tagalong mode as I learn more about the process, but I was able to offer some input here and there. I’ve never been to a test screening and I found the entire process completely fascinating, especially the conversation afterwards with the focus group and the studio heads. There’s far, far more that goes into the creation of every single second of a movie than you could even guess at.

After the test screening. From L-R: 'Gallows' Writer-Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Production Associate Nate Healy, and me.

After the test screening. From L-R: ‘Gallows’ Writer-Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Production Associate Nate Healy, and me.

Most of my work at the moment for Tremendum is in developing and writing a post-Gallows project. More on that when I can share it, but I hit a real milestone this week by finishing a first draft. I didn’t expect to get it done as quickly as I have, but I guess I’ve got the fire in me right now.

In an odd way, moving so completely forward and quickly on a new project has caused me to reflect on old projects, particularly one I put away years ago.

Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming of Age Story Between Two Shootings is the first memoir I wrote and the one that allowed me to form a relationship with my literary agent, Bonnie Solow. For a variety of reasons, few having to do with the quality of the story or even the way I wrote it, it didn’t sell. But it’s still a book and a story I feel passionate about. I’ve already posted the prologue on this site, but, just for kicks, this week I’m going to serialize the first few chapters of RBDM.

I welcome your feedback. If response is good, maybe I’ll post more than a few chapters. In any case, I hope you enjoy it.

Here we go. The following is a true story:

* * *

Chapter One

Shooting

No one makes a living retailing junk food. Not one good enough to support a wife and four sons, anyway. The guns were what fed us. The bullets and the barrels sold right alongside the soda bottles and the Slim Jims put food on the table and gave us a home. Us, and Dad’s employees—both of whom had gone home early that night from the dirty little shop on the outskirts of Fresno. Bill’s Bait and Tackle closed at 5:00pm. Dad was alone for everything that happened afterwards.

A small business owner never clocks out. Not really. Once home, Dad could look forward to adding receipts and counting money long into the night. Might take even longer if his sons bristled once again at helping him or, even better, tempted him into a rubber band war. Closing time wasn’t particularly restful, but it didn’t require him to be a husband or a handy man or a father or a disciplinarian. All he had to do between the flipping of the “CLOSED” sign and the pulling of the car into his driveway—which probably needed to be cleared of bikes and toys—was to perform the routine.

Close out the register. Lock the freezer. Put away the inventory. Shut off the lights and secure the store with deadbolt and lock on the way out.

It took Dad a good fifteen minutes to pack up the dozens guns by himself. They were housed in two display cases doubling as the store’s front counters; Now and Laters and trucker hats making a pit stop on top of the .45’s and Thirty Ought Sixes on their way out the door. Dangling yellow tags attached to the guns on tiny, white strings shouted the sale price from behind the clean, always clear glass.

Dad removed the guns quickly, one by one, and placed them with great care into two long, black, clam shell cases for storage during the night. This was the puzzle to which only he had the picture. Without markers or leftover impressions on the foam pad lining the inside, he still knew the precise placement of each handgun and rifle inside their carriages. Once packed, he would transport the guns into the iron safe in the storage room just behind the freezers.

It was something Dad did night after night with little incident—with the exception of that night. On that night, he never made it to the safe.

Neither did the guns.

The two men kicked in the front door with a shout.

“YOU’RE DEAD, SUCKER!”

Their semi-automatics lit up only fifteen feet away from the fat man behind the counter, ejecting bullet after bullet directly at him. The first bullet rocketed towards Dad’s chest, but missed. The next went straight into his stomach, forcing him to double over from the impact. Not from the pain. That hadn’t registered yet.

Dad made a grab for his own gun stuck between the waistband of his pants and his hip. He got the weapon up and out, but didn’t have enough time to do anything productive with it as more bullets tore with great speed through his muscle and flesh, his body jerking with the impact of each one as it burst into him. His gun fell to the floor as he did, with a thud behind the open, sliding wooden doors of the display cases still filled with all the firearms he hadn’t had a chance to pack up yet.

The glass on the front of the cases exploded into twinkling, falling stars as the two men fired into them. Quickly, one of them collected the store’s most valuable merchandise into a bag while the other shooter fired even more bullets, this time at point-blank range, up and down my father’s body as he lay on the floor. Satisfied the store’s owner could not survive such a barrage, the men worked together to gather up the rest of their spoils as quickly as possible. When they were done, the only thing left on the carpeted shelves lining the now-broken cases was broken glass.

Dad, his pants and shirt already soaked red, had just enough of his wits remaining to grab his gun up off the floor to fight back. On his back and without much mobility, his mind ignored the swell of intense pain in his lower body while his hand searched, doing its best to find his metal piece before the shooters saw what he was doing. Frantic and fading, he grabbed one of the display guns that had fallen out of the cases instead. The yellow tag dangled.

click.

Display guns are never loaded.

The shooters gave Dad’s body one last sweep of bullets. His body jerked up and down on the hard, uncaring floor of the store. More blood exited from fresh wounds to make room for their hot new guests. Some bullets exited just as quickly as they entered. Others dug into Dad’s flesh and took residence.

Finally, the shooting stopped. Dad went still.

The two men, with bags full of black treasures, turned around and left in a hurry, slamming the door behind them.

* * *

Next: “The Call”

My Wife and I Lost Our Jobs. Six Months Later, We Discover the Next Step.

Towards the lightI couldn’t figure out how to title this post, so I decided to go with the stupidest one possible.

But, yes, it’s true, after six months and many, many more blog posts, my wife and I finally know what to do next. And, for us, it’s kind of insane.

First, a little background:

The day I was let go from my job just 24 hours after Erin lost hers has got to be one of worst–and best–days of my life. “Worst” for the obvious reasons, and “best” because even in the midst of being completely, utterly freaked out, I couldn’t help but be at least a little excited about whatever potential new opportunities lie ahead. It’s rare an epoch of our lives ends so definitively that we can recognize it in the moment. Usually, it’s only by looking back we see accurately just when one phase ended and the next one began.

And yet, looking back, there is more that I can see clearly now that I couldn’t even then. I believe life, if we are in tune with the curve of it, is always preparing us for the next thing. God is in the machine.

One of the difficult things about blogging every day during the first half of our unemployment was that sometimes I would have thoughts and feelings that I didn’t know what to do with, and, consequently, didn’t know how or if I should express them to the public. How could I express to you what I could barely understand myself?

The one consistent thought and emotion I’ve had since this all began is this: everything is going to be okay. The one constant inconsistency has been this: the how. For a long while we both assumed we were to walk the paths we and so many others had before: apply for jobs, then interview, then get a job.

Only that last part never happened. Time and again we’d both have these amazing interviews and then, for one reason or another, the job would not materialize. Worse, often the potential employers would just vanish (once, literally).

The longer it all went on, the more a thought kept coming back to me that I dared not express. If I did, then how could anyone do anything but conclude that I was a lazy bum? This thought was not a reasonable thought, and it would make what was an already tense situation even worse because behind the thought was nothing. It was a vaporous idea, signifying much and meaning nothing because it begged all sorts of questions for which I had no answers.

But the thought was there. And it was this: That the 9-to-5 is no longer for me.

For a time, I imagined the thought might mean that the book I was working on was the beginning of a new career for me. But I knew that was stupid. Unless you’re writing trilogies about starving kids killing each other* or the weird sex escapades of a woman who bites her lip a lot, it’s tough to make a living as a writer. I believe in both of the books I’ve written and I know one day they’ll find their audience, but it will likely be a niche audience.

Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a living.

Alongside this thought was this nagging idea–a feeling, really–that I needed to patient. I felt like the answers would present themselves and that I need not worry. This is a great, comforting feeling to have unless you have a wife and kids who are used to things like money to pay for food and housing. But I trust such feelings to put me in tune with the curve, and I couldn’t just ignore it. I could only not share it.

So, I didn’t.

Which brings us to the decision. When Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing at Tremendum Pictures first asked to meet with me back in December, they told me straight up they were interested in me coming on board as a creative talent to help them with their various endeavors: feature films, marketing videos, viral videos, commercials, etc. Their first movie, The Gallows, comes out July 10 from New Line Cinema. Worldwide release, and it was made right here in Fresno. That’s a big deal. And they see Tremendum Pictures being an even bigger deal in the future, but for that they need talented people at their side. It was a flattering offer.

Two months later, and after much prayer and fasting and deliberation and barraging Travis and Chris with a million questions, Erin and I have decided to go all in with Tremendum. All in. This will be my every day.

But what does that mean?

Well, for right now, that means our financial situation doesn’t change very much. The entertainment business is a very different thing from what we’re used to and, for now, the money we receive is going to depend on what jobs come in and what deals can be made. We’re taking a true leap of faith here, confident that the money will come because that’s the promise we’ve received. Not from Travis and Chris, but from Someone a little higher up.

Make no mistake, for us, this is insane.

When we first got married, Erin and I had the mutual philosophy of not caring about making big money so long as we had stability. We valued that above all. As such, we’ve never had credit card debt and each time we’ve bought a home we’ve purposely gotten something that was way, way under what we could afford.  This is just who we are.We’re not big spenders. We’re not risk-takers.

But even more than being frugal people, we are people who consult the Lord on our decisions and don’t make big moves until we know it’s right. Signing on with Tremendum reminds me a lot of the decision we made to have our first child. At the time, we were in college, had no health insurance, and jobs that paid barely above minimum wage. And no prospects. After not being able to get rid of the idea that it was time to start our family and praying incessantly about it, it became clear to us that we were being asked to make a leap of faith. Only then would reap the blessing of being able to actually afford the child we were being prompted to bring into the world.

We found out Erin was pregnant the day before I started the job from which I was let go six months ago.

So, here we are again, on the precipice of something new and great. How great, we don’t yet know. For me, it’s going to mean working on lots of local projects and developing a TV Show that has already sparked some serious interest. I feel uniquely prepared for this. All my talents and skills will be poured into this job, and, though I have a lot to learn, I know I can do it. I simply, unequivocally, know it.

For Erin, this means going back to school. If she works now as well then I won’t have the flexibility in my schedule to pull this off, so she’s applied to get a Masters in Communication. She wants to teach at the college level and anyone who knows her knows exactly how flat out incredible she’ll bet at it. I’m thrilled for her.

How are we going to pull all this off? I don’t honestly know yet. I only know that we will. And that’s crazy.

Thank you, everyone, for following along with us through this journey. Thank you for your encouragement and words of wisdom. Thank you to those who supported us with gifts and babysitting and other assistance. We’re not quite out of the woods yet, but we’ve gotten this far in large part thanks to you.

This blog isn’t going away, but the focus will be shifting a bit. I’ll try to let you in as much as I can on the frankly awesome things I’ll be doing in the future. I’ll also be continuing my work on my books, and I might even serialize a few chapters or so in this space. I’d love to share more of what I’ve been doing the past few years.

Thanks again. See you soon.

*Yes, I know that’s not what the Hunger Games books are about. I’ve read them. They’re about vampires in love in a world where everyone is put into one of five factions based on their talents and forced to run in a maze to get to Hogwarts, the space school orbiting the Earth.

Why Being a Grown Man and Excited About Men in Tights is Okay

My wife has no use whatsoever for superheroes. Despite that, she’s agreed to attend the Marvel Movie Marathon with me and a couple of our friends on May 3rd. Six movies. Fourteen hours. The last movie we’ll be seeing? The Avengers, at midnight. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow and Nick Fury, all in one movie. With my wife. I wish I could go back in time and tell 8-year-old me that this was actually happening.

Or 16-year-old me.

Or 20-year-old me.

Or 28-year-old me.

Or me from last fall.

Once I got into the comic book buying habit, I never really grew out of it. Sure, there have been hard financial times when I’ve had to set the habit aside for a bit, or times, like now, when the price of a single comic book is not justified by the amount and quality of content inside (I prefer to purchase collected editions or “graphic novels”), but I’m always reading comics. And, yeah, I’m usually reading about superheroes.

I am not an overgrown child trapped in a child’s body. The stereotype of the 30-year-old arrested adolescent living in his mother’s basement, picking Cheetos out of the beard he thinks makes him look older and playing video games while debating disembodied mouth breathers over a headset during online Halo games about whether or not Batman’s 1950’s adventures with their sci-fi trappings can be squared with the persona of the “Dark Knight” is, unfortunately, based on some all-too-real individuals. But they’re not as numerous as most people think.

Most geeks or superhero fans have a steady job, a spouse and kids. Or they at least aspire to some combination of the three. Many are college-educated and can hold real conversations. You may be tempted to stare at their chests and wonder at the magnificent shield of Captain America screenprinted upon it, but–hey now–their eyes are up here.

A grown man with a love for men in primary-colored tights is ridiculous on its face, but only if you reductively describe the passion as such. What it’s really all about, at least for me, is the simple power of great imagination in the service of telling a story of good triumphing over evil.

My worldview is reinforced and stuff gets smashed. That is never not going to be entertaining.

So, in a couple of weeks, I’ll put my love to the test and plant my butt in a seat for 14 hours and see just how much awesome I can take. I’ll also put my other love to the test. I hope she likes Thor as much as I do.*

Like superheroes? Hate ’em? Love to hear your reasons why or why not.

 

*I seem to be the only person on Earth who understands that Thor is the best of the Marvel movies. So far, anyway.