This weekend, like the parting of the Red Sea, the weather here in Cincinnati quit it with that whole winter business and pretended it was Spring long enough for us to finish getting some pickup shots of Steve Grothaus as meth addicted barn owner, Tom. Steve is our lighting guy and had no intention of being in the film, yet somehow he ended up sitting in a pile of logs, with a camera and shotgun mic pointed at him and me directing him to be the best meth-addicted barn owner he could in a scene that we began shooting in July of 2011
Back in summer 2011, we had just done our first shoot with one of those professional name actresses, Lynn Lowry, and I kind of dug the whole experience and wanted to do it again. On one hand, there was this pure awesomeness of working with an actress who was a master of her craft, and on the other hand, there was some kind of weird producer rush I got from setting everything up and making it happen – a feeling that can only be compared to finding out you have X-Men powers. I felt like I learned a great deal during the that shoot and I wanted to do experience this again and see what else I could learn.
About that time, I had spit out a rough cut of Grassman to DVD and it occurred to me that the first third of the film was a little slow to get moving. Now, I experienced a tremendous amount of guilt about this, because the whole time Dennis and I were outlining the script we talked a lot about creating a streamlined narrative that didn’t mess around and got straight to the point, and his final draft delivered on that. But I tend to like construct my films in a very intuitive way and the current cut had changed quite a bit from the original script.
We had added a new opening sequence with totally new characters, and some additional non-killing stuff in the first act, so it seemed that the insertion of a new scene with some new characters could help balance things out and also help tie the opening scene more into the larger story. Dennis wrote up a scene about the mother of one of the characters from the opening and we set out to cast it with another actress that horror fans would know in an attempt to raise our visibility – a slightly whorish plan, but other than Lynn, our film at this point only featured my family members and 3 friends as actors.
I had been aware of Jessica Cameron from Facebook. At some point in the previous year or two, she was living about and hour and a half away in Columbus and decided to become an actress. Then she connected with a bunch of us local filmmaker-types with the social media and started promoting the hell out of herself and getting a lot of work. I hadn’t met her yet, but watching her going out and getting what she wanted was pretty impressive – She didn’t merely take the bull by horns – she tackled the bull and beat it into submission. When it came time to cast this part, I thought of her first.
I wanted a scream queen-type, and though she had since relocated to LA, she was planning on coming back to Ohio for a couple weeks, so I wouldn’t have fly her in (turns out that costs money). Jessica didn’t look old enough to play the character, but after a lot of thought about how hold she was when she had these kids and how old she is now and that sort of thing, we were able to rationalize our choice of actress by saying “Hell with it. Maybe no one will notice.” (She is supposed to be mother to two girls. We eventually solved this problem by making her the step-mother of the older girl and the birth mother of the younger girl. It still doesn’t really add up, but maybe no one will notice.)
I had a half hour car ride to the location to try to get to know her a little before the shoot, and immediately liked her. She was very enthusiastic and funny and easy to get along with, and she seemed to have an understanding and an interest in film-making that went beyond just acting. She’s an expert on “that’s what she said” jokes and, perhaps most importantly, she liked the Photoshopped “storyboard” I sent of the scene. (I can’t draw so I do them in Photoshop.)
The shoot itself was a blast. One of her scenes was opposite the meth addicted barn owner, Tom, who hadn’t been cast yet. (I had big plans for the role, but I’ll go into that next week when I explain how our lighting director got stuck with it.) We shot around the character and it went very well. I had her running and tripping and falling and getting smacked in the head and all sorts of shenanigans, and she was a real trooper. She offered to do a horror movie scream for us (which we normal humans are incapable of doing, so I kinda didn’t expect to even have one in the film). It was glorious. We’re supposed to do a new trailer soon and we’ll have to use it that.
While shooting one particularly emotional scene, she asked me if I wanted her to break down and cry. I’m not sure if I’ve ever described the emotional deadspace in my heart, but it’s something I’ve struggled with since our short The Projection Booth, which I thought didn’t work as well as it could have because it was emotionally sterile. I tended to focus on events rather than what the characters were feeling and experiencing and it ended up as a horror film with some killing, but no actual horror in it. Using a cast mostly made up of my family doesn’t help this situation, as being emotionally dead inside runs in the family, and hell, I’d rather not stand around directing while that kind of thing is taking place anyway. But I know the film will be crap without the emotion stuff.
So I was all like, “You can do that? Uh…. Yeah… Ok. Let’s do that.” And then she said she needed a minute to get ready. And me and my brother Stephan, who was reading Tom’s lines, just stood there like “Whaaaat’s haaappeenning……” It was like when E.T. makes the little clay balls that represent the planets fly up in the air and the kids realize for the first time that he’s got magical powers. It turns out he was just using a visual aid to convey to them that he had come from another galaxy, but I bet for a moment there, because those kids had never seen magical powers before, at least one of them suspected that they were all about to die.
So she did her emotion things and I just kind of stood behind the camera thinking about the fact that our film now had some emotional content that I could take credit for as director. And then, when she was done, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to call “cut” or something, or if that’s frowned upon in the world of emotional filmmaking. Later, I looked it up. Turns out you just say “cut.”
So it was a great experience, and when I put the scenes into the rough cut, they looked great and accomplished the anti-boredom purpose they were intended for. Since we had no Tom yet, the rough cut featured Jessica talking to a graphic that said “Tom” with Stephan’s voice. From a strictly cinematic perspective, this sucked. But how were we possibly going to fix it?
Normally, you just cast someone and finish the scene. But that’s not really how we do it. We’re idiots. Stop by next week for the thrilling next chapter in this incredible filmmaking odyssey – Right here on the one and only Grassman Movie Production Blog.
[You can see more of Jessica as one of the regular cast members on TLC's Brides of Beverly Hills, or in one of the many films she's done, including last year's Silent Night with Malcolm McDowell. Check out her IMDb page.]