Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Adventures in the Screen Trade

From somewhere around 1996 to 2001 I worked on a low budget horror movie called Frost: Portrait of a Vampire. The material was from a comic book created by a high school friend of mine named Kevin Vanhook. Most of the cast and crew had been friends for years, either having met in college or connected in southern California as a result of a shared interest in film making. I was cast in the role of Nat Mckenzie who is the vampire. Another college friend of mine was cast in the lead as Frost. I don't think any of us knew when we all agreed to work on that film just what we were in for.

It took the better part of five years to complete the movie as there was all kinds of trouble getting money for a project starring unknowns. We would get a bit of money and people would quit their day jobs, run off to shoot, and the money would run out... Then it was back to the salt mines of whatever a person was doing to keep the wolf away from the door. In my case it was working as a security guard. This is all pretty much par for the course for the movie industry, especially the acting side of it. If you are uncomfortable with that sort of uncertainty it's best to get the hell out and go do something else. I found I was not cut out for it.

There were a number of things I hated about it but probably nothing more than the worry about when the next check will come in. I also felt completely estranged from anything remotely creative. Movie making seemed to me to be an overwhelmingly logistical process. Not much different than the mobilization of armies. Such endeavors by their very nature tend to be Fascist. You can't seek advice from every guy involved on how to get something done when you're doing movies or else nothing ever gets done. It's for this reason that directors tend to wield so much power on set. I think it was the megalomaniac Coppola who once said, "I love directing, it's the last truly dictatorial post in an increasingly democratic world." If it's true that the director has great power and is the guy who brings his vision to the screen then I think it's also true that the actor is the last person in the world to have anything to offer. They show up, try to remember their lines, and do what they are ordered to do. Creative input...just about zero. I'm told that the difference between a star and an actor is that the star actually has the power to have creative input. I wouldn't know, I've never had the opportunity to work beside a star and see the dynamic.

In the end, the experience of making Frost proved to be fairly heartbreaking for me. I spent quite a number of years feeling I was in a sort of limbo. Working dead end jobs for low pay and waiting for the phone to ring in the hopes that we were shooting again. All that sort of thing is understandable, that's the deal with movie making. But after pinning your hopes on something its nice to see results. And here we come to the rub of motion picture making. You have no control over whether or not a project is good or bad. I even think that the director has little or no control over whether or not the film is bad. The extraordinary things that have to happen to make a film that is worth seeing are so numerous that it boggles the mind. Even the director is at the mercy of changing attitudes toward subject matter at the time of a projects release, or the whims of the producer who is writing the check.

Understanding these things are of little comfort when you work hard on something for years and see a finished product that your ashamed to show anyone. In the five years that it took to make that picture my weight ranged anywhere from 150 to 200lbs. There are scenes in the movie where the vampire is anything but svelte. It's embarrassing, and there is no one to blame but myself. I will say the same of my performance. I remember watching that movie for the first time edited together and thinking, "Shit man, that's some bad acting." I really was crushed.

There is an upside to this story and I'll leave this post on that note. I was dreading showing this film to my father more than anything in the world. I had talked a lot of smack over those five years about how this was gonna be a great movie once it got made. I'm gonna be great...a big hairy deal...blah, blah, blah.

It was almost a year after I had relocated back to Kentucky that the movie was released on video. I remember sitting with my Dad at his place and he turned to me and asked, "Hey, when is that movie you did gonna be out anyway?" I winced because I knew that it had been out for a week or so and the reviews were not good. I swallowed hard and said, "Well Pop, the truth is it came out last week. " He wanted to know why I hadn't said anything and I told him it was because it wasn't worth watching and I was somewhat embarrassed by it all. Dad began putting on his shoes and grabbed his car keys. I asked where he was going and he said, "Get in the car, I wanna go to Blockbuster and rent my son's movie."

When we got it home my Dad watched every frame of that picture including the credits. He watched it all leaning forward in his chair, looking at the screen like a tree full of young owls. He never spoke the whole time he was watching and I sat in the other living room chair squirming. As the last credit rolled he turned and asked, "Well, what do people say about this movie? Do the critics like it?" I laughed out loud and said, "You wanna see what people think of it just check out some of the reviews on Amazon." To my shock Dad proceeded to do just that. He went to his PC and read everything he could find on the movie.

After about half an hour he tuned, looked right at me, and said, " You know what all these people have in common? Not one of them has ever done anything in their whole lives but lay on the couch and WATCH movies. You and your friends on the other hand, got up off your asses and made something. I am very proud of you son, I don't give a damn what these people think. You and your friends really did something, and I know it couldn't of been easy or else a hell of a lot more people would be doing it."

I don't think I ever loved my father more than I did in that moment. I'm just damned lucky to be his son and now that I'm a Dad I hope I can be as good a father as he is to me...

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