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Monday, September 27, 2004

One week to shoot, 9/27/04

One week to shooting. This must be why people don’t make low budget feature films very often. This week has been nothing but stress-- fighting our schedule, worrying over locations and putting out fires. And I'm probably only hearing half of the crises since Arma, the producer on the front lines, solves most of them before they get to me. Occasionally, mixed in with the panic attacks, there are moments of sheer glee.

About 10 days ago, the fine actor we had cast as Deputy Tillis became unavailable. Several harried days of calling Amy, our casting director, and pestering our existing cast for recommendations brought us a grand total of two actors to audition. One of them, Frank Roberts, turned out to be a perfect fit for the role. And he's available. And he likes the script. And he's a great actor.

As of this moment, we don't have a doctor's office to shoot 3 interior and one exterior scene. After driving around most of Saturday through every small town off I-75 with in 2 hours of Atlanta, I have one potential location. That scene has to be shot in 10 days.

Our lead actress, Claire Bronson, hasn't ever played guitar. Due to some previous commitments (like planning a wedding, getting married, and going on a honeymoon), she only has two weeks to become the guitar-playing, lead singer of a kick-ass 1966 garage rock band. Luckily, Jennifer Leavey, singer & guitarist for Catfight!, volunteered her Saturday to teach Claire the chords to all the songs she wrote for the Stomp! Shout! Scream! Claire picked it up beautify and has been practicing every day. We'll put her singing voice to the test next.

Rehearsals. Sunday afternoon, Claire, Cynthia Evans, and Mary Kraft-- collectively The Violas-- read with Jonathan Green who plays John Patterson, the scientist called in from out of town to help identify the mysterious debris that washed upon the shores of this quiet beach town. I left one scene in the film unwritten. It’s early in the film and the girls are diving their tour van. (Actually, now it's a station wagon because that what we can get, but for our purpose here, it’s the tour van.) The main function for this scene is to establish the personalities of the 3 girls. My plan is to have the actresses write, improv, and/or ad-lib this scene, based on the characters that are created from my script and their interpretation of it. We played around with this on Sunday, but came to the conclusion that it’s too early for this. Once we get into shooting and get to know each other and the story lines better, we'll know exactly what this scene is about. It'll all just come together. That's the plan. I hope it works.

Frank, Bill Szymanski, and Chris Hines—the police force for the town—read with Jonathan and Nancy Riggs, who is playing the town doctor, on Monday night. We read by candlelight thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Jeanne, which knocked out my electricity. It's very strange hearing my dialog read by actors who can make it sound like a real, natural conversation, even though it's often completely ridiculous. Only truly gifted actors can take lines like, "This creature is the missing link between man and ape. This is what scientists have been looking for, for decades. If we could capture him! Capture him alive!?" and make them sound believable. Right now, my favorite line is from Deputy Bob, who is a monster movie fan and is excited about there being something going on in this sleepy town. I love it not because it's great writing, but because Chris Hines can deliver it so well. "I don't like baloney sandwiches. Now fried baloney’s OK. Hey, that looks like a skunk ape."

This is the sheer glee part.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

pre-production 9/12/04

September 12, 2004
In two weeks, I will be on a feature film set, directing real actors, calling the shots to a real 35mm film crew, and making it all up as I go along. I’ve really never been on a film set. I’m an editor who has made a couple of shorts, been to several film festivals, but really, honestly, I’m more comfortable in a dark room with zeros and ones than out in the bright sunlight with grips, gaffers, best boys, AD’s or PA’s. Actual production has always been a necessary evil to get to post production for me. Maybe that’s how I ended up working in animation where it’s all post production (I edit and produce Aqua Teen Hunger Force for Adult Swim in my day job). I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to leap into my first feature film. Here’s how I got exactly here.

In the fall of 2002, I had my first good idea for Stomp! Shout! Scream!. I’d been watching every ‘60s beach party movie I could find, along with trying (unsuccessfully) to start my own garage rock band (we learned "Louie Louie" and played it over and over). In every one of those movies, Annette would get angry at Frankie and walk the beach singing a lonesome lament. My friends in the Atlanta all-girl rock band Catfight! had written a song several years ago about a girl who has a summer romance that leaves her with more than a broken heart. The song was the perfect marriage of 1960s nostalgia and twisted humor. Place that song into a beach party movie and not only did I have a terrific movie moment-- the kind that makes you giggle and snort with the joy of film making-- I also had a great back story for my main character. In January 2003, I started writing early Saturday mornings, fueled by gallons of black tea.

Certain ideas started to come together: Set the film in 1966 and have it revolve around an all-girl garage rock band. Try to get Catfight! to write the songs for the band in the film to perform. Make it a monster movie because 1) that’s what I know and B) the plot and humor of the actual beach party movies are downright awful. Use the legend of the Florida Skunk Ape (the Everglades' version of Bigfoot). Add a scientist, a Latino mechanic love interest and an insecure Sheriff. After 4 months, I had 60 pages. After 9 months and lots of advice from film making and script writing friends, I had close to 90 pages.

I contacted Arma Benoit, a friend who produces commercials and music videos and who had been involved with the making of my monster movie short films, The Monster Trilogy. She committed to the project in the first minute of our phone call. After she read my script, she admitted that she would do the project based on our friendship regardless of the quality of the script. Turns out, she loved the script and said that we could really have something great on our hands. She said the if I can raise $100,000, we could shoot this on film with a professional cast and crew. Arma’s enthusiasm provided a great boost of confidence that was waning after almost a year of work on the script.

I immediately started researching the financing and marketing of indie genre films. I read all I could about creating a business plan and finding investors. Eventually, the plan was to find 20 people who would invest $5,000 each. At Thanksgiving of 2003 with a 30-page business plan in hand, I pitched my immediate and extended family. I received lots of encouragement, but no actual checks. In February of 2004, I had my first investor meeting with friends of my parents and got my first financial commitment for $5,000. My mom, dad and grandmother soon followed with investment commitments. Over the next 6 months, I solicited advice from anyone that would listen, while working overtime on every project available at Cartoon Network, saving as much of my own money as I could for the film. By August, I miraculously had my entire budget in place. Stomp! Shout! Scream! would be produced this fall.

Jennifer Leavey, Catfight!’s singer and songwriter, was also very enthusiastic about the script and being a part of the film. In March 2004, Jennifer, Katy Graves, and Susanne Gibboney recorded 4 amazing garage rock anthems for fictional band ‘The Violas’ to perform in the movie. Rob Gal, at his Snack ‘n’ Shack Studios, added his recording expertise and Farfisa organ playing to the proceedings.

Arma introduced me to Evan Lieberman, indie film director, cinematographer, PhD of Film Studies and lecturer at Emory University. We immediately clicked and a partnership formed from a love of B-movies, garage rock, and a dedication to well-crafted independent films. Evan lead me to Amy Barratt, a film maker who has worked with virtually every theater group in Atlanta. Amy joined our production team as Casting Director and lead us to the casting of an amazing group of local talent. The actresses who have been cast as the band are currently learning their instruments and the Catfight! songs. There was a considerable amount of debate over weather we should start casting before we had our financing in place. The chicken-and-egg question was: Can you get investments without a cast in place or can you get a cast of sought-after theater actors to commit without financing (or a shooting schedule) in place. We chose to cast first and willed ourselves into production no matter what finances I came up with. So far, so good.

Arma, Evan and I just returned from a weekend in Bradenton & St. Petersburg, Florida finding beaches, motels and an old fort to use as locations. More locations around Atlanta are being scouted. Costumes, props, and someone to make our Skunk Ape costume are in the works. Principal Photography starts October 4. I'll keep posting these reports as we go through production and post.