Confessions from the Writer/Director

This is a re-post of a “filmmaker’s confessional” that is available on the Ember Days film site. I wanted to post it here for your reading pleasure. 

 

Ember Days: A “Pagan Epic” On The Cheap

In the summer of 2010, I was riding through the misty mountains of the Olympic Peninsula with SJ Tucker. We were on our way to explore the driftwood beaches of La Push. I was already overwhelmed with the beauty of the landscape, and then the song “Come Down”, by Ginger Doss, started playing through the speakers. I found myself daydreaming-in-cinema about a group of faeries called The Wild Hunt chasing a lone warrior through these primordial forests. Then as the song continued, I started to wonder why they would chase one of their own, and it came to me that he was possessed by the spirit of a fallen angel. The song finished and our adventure continued, but the daydream images stayed in my mind. The seeds of a story had been planted, and over the next several months I articulated the story as the shooting script for the film ‘Ember Days’. I then was fortunate enough to be offered $30,000 of private financing to create the film.

For most people, $30,000 is a significant amount of money. You can do lots of things with 30K, but you might be surprised to learn how dramatically the power of that money changes when it is translated into a film production budget. (For example, 30K is basically the “toilet paper budget” of most Hollywood movies you’ve seen. Or, to think of it differently, the salary of a single crew member.) If I had made the attempt to shoot a small commercial, a music video, or perhaps a short film, employing only working professionals for the cast & crew, then the $30,000 would have been an appropriate budget. However, I wanted to make a feature film, and I wanted to make it without creative compromises (even if that meant that I’d have to make a great many technical & financial compromises). If I were to take the script to Hollywood and attempt to arrange financing through distribution & production companies, they would have rejected the project due to its complex story, presentation of a multi-layered reality, and the blending of myths from a variety of cultures. Hollywood wants “point A to point B” sorts of films, that are easy to understand in any language, and that are easy to sell through the use of buzz words, celebrity actors, and parroting existing film trends. If grindhouse action movies and teen sex comedies are IN this year, then don’t bother bringing anything that doesn’t fit perfectly into one of those two genres.

There are positive elements and negative ones when you strike out on your own to make a micro-budget film. I don’t mean “indie film” or “low budget”, since low budget films (according to the Screen Actors Guild) still have budgets ranging from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000. Most people who even attempt feature films with budgets under $250,000 (what Hollywood calls micro-budget) do not typically attempt to create myth-blending fantasy/action films like Ember Days, much less with only $30,000. They stay within the comfort zone of things like spoofs, or comedy, or single-location-thrillers. As such, I get that it was crazy for me to think that I could pull off this kind of movie on such a tremendously, laughably, abyssmally micro-budget. The truth of it is that I am a storyteller, and this was the story I needed to tell at that time, so I would have attempted to make this movie with two dollars, a flashlight, and a cellphone camera if that’s all that was available. Crazy or not, this movie was going to happen.

Enter Sherry Kirk. She was a retired non-commissioned officer (first sergeant) who had created an intentional community space called ‘Sidhehaven’ in the small town of Yelm, Washington. I had stayed there over the summer and fallen in love with the place, and we had talked at length about my filmmaking plans for Ember Days. Sherry was intrigued and offered the use of the property for the film. Let me just say it was the key reason we ever completed the shoot. The house is a 3bd/2ba building, with a cozy front porch, hot-tub, woodshop (we converted it into sleeping quarters w/cots for the more hardy cast & crew), and a canvas & wood dome dwelling called a yome. There are forests, train tracks, and even Mt. Rainier all within easy driving distance. It was perfect. Did I mention that it was called Sidhehaven? For those of you who don’t know the word ‘sidhe’ is another word for faerie, which is a big part of the Ember Days story, so I was feeling the touch of fate I think.

Because we did not have a professional grade budget for shooting a feature film, we had to do things very differently than most professional films, in fact we had to throw the “professional film” book out the window and invent our own filmmaking process. That’s what happens when you don’t have enough money to pay for a cool movie, you have to get creative and find other ways to get the story created. This film was made possible by the Washington community, primarily artists, pagans, and performers. The majority of our cast were non-professional actors who put their hearts & souls into the movie, and the few professional actors on the cast brought just as much heart to the project, as they certainly weren’t being paid professional wages. We had help from not only the local pagan & arts community, but also the Seattle Film Commission, the Thurston County Film Commission, and the City of Olympia for our locations (lots of love for the WA film commissions, who despite our tiny budget, treated us with enthusiasm and respect), and believe me we had some cool locations that we never could have afforded to just ‘rent’ on our own. This epic-on-the-cheap tells a story that spans from pristine forests to swanky condos to immaculate offices to gritty urban decay. By the gods, it even snowed on the exact shooting day in which the scene would have been made all the better for it.

Overall the experience on set was different than most ‘professional’ shoots, in that people were working on Ember Days for the love of the story and the love of making art. We crammed dozens of people into the house, the woodshop, into travel trailers, the yome, and some even stayed home and commuted to our set every day. Most people were unpaid volunteers on the project (I certainly was), and those few who were paid only received a pittance. On a professional set, everyone shows up for the paycheck. Even if they love their jobs, they’d walk off the project the first time a check bounced. On our film, people were there because they wanted to help create the story, to share in the glory of its telling, and see something truly unique enter the world.

Even though this film suffered some blows in technical quality due to its micro-micro budget (primarily audio), it is still extremely cool to know that we, as a community of people who just didn’t give a damn about the limitations, made it happen. Every single time you make a movie, you learn a tremendous amount of new stuff. And employing all I learned from the making this movie, my pagan epic on the cheap, I would totally, impossibly, do it again.

Sticks & Stones

I played with sticks when I was a kid, and I’ll even admit to playing with sticks when I was a teenager, and yes I’ll go you one further and say I still like to play with sticks. Growing up in rural Arkansas meant that I was surrounded by woods, and though my brother and I had plenty of the usual kinds of “boy’s toys” like GI Joe action figures, Star Wars, and those wooden musket cap guns, we loved to make our own toys with sticks. We’d head out into the forest and find a handful of awesome sticks of various sizes and weights, though we’d always be sure to get sturdy ones. Then we’d take them back home, get out the duct tape, and start crafting some seriously wicked stuff. When we’d visit New Mexico my grandfather would take us into the woodshop and help us build extra-sturdy wooden swords, axes, and whatever other bizzare weapons our imaginations could come up with.

As I got older this fascination with “sticks” was tempered by the desire to create things that had a more real-life functionality to them. This was right about the time I met Ryan Loyd, a fellow stick lover and maker-of-things. Nothing like a full workshop and the desire to create legitimate weapons to give rise to some of the more wicked ‘murder sticks’ that I think have ever been hefted by folks in the modern world.

This leads me to my current fascination with the video game “Dead Island”… now I know that its a game that has been around for awhile. I’m usually late to the party when it comes to video games, having grown up without them (beyond Aztec Challenge on the Commodore 64) and going straight into Playstation 3 ownership. I know its an older game, but I’m loving it. Not only is Dead Island a ‘zombie survival’ video game, which means is perfect for my tastes in media, but the use of firearms in the game is extremely limited.

The characters are on the island of Banoi in Papa New Guinea, so there just aren’t guns readily available for average people, so the game focuses on hand-to-hand and melee combat. Since we (sadly) do not live in a world where people carrying swords is a normal thing, the characters have to scrounge for whatever they can find and make their own weapons. Characters can find lead pipes, pool sticks, boat paddles, baseball bats, diving knives, hammers, wrenches, machetes, and yes (since its a video game) the occasional mace (but at least they make them look like the cheap versions you can buy at BudK). Then there are ‘workbenches’ where you can customize your weapons.

That’s my favorite part. You can start with a baseball bat, then drive nails through it, then wrap it in barbed wire, then dip it in gasoline… and now you’ve got a flaming bat of DOOM. Or you can take a machete, a large battery, some wires, and duct tape it all together to create a ‘shock machete’. Considering that I’ve been customizing ‘found weapons’ since I was a kid… this game is perfectly tailored to suit my particular tastes.

I am positive that both playing as a child, tinkering as a young man, and now gaming as an adult (all with this custom murder stick enjoyment) has something to do with a deeply buried instinct. When you look at ancient Polynesian cultures (I’m singling them out for having the most awesome customized murder sticks) they did pretty much the same thing that I’ve been doing in play (and in the game) by taking objects in their environment and working them into deadly combinations (turtle shell stabbing gauntlets? yep, they’ve got em). So maybe I’m just staying in touch with a more primitive side of my human self, nothing wrong with that.

Besides, its fun, and I’ll never get caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse without some kind of way to defend myself.

Back in the Saddle

Met a girl in St. Louis and fell in love. Her name is Bekah Kelso. With lots of help from Sherry Kirk and SJ Tucker I directed the feature film Ember Days in Washington followed by Sineaters in Arkansas. Worked a few military jobs doing art department for culture/combat immersion training. Wrote a book called As Above So Below which is full of old & new film scripts and tales of failure & glory in the movie business, finished several others (though I’m already planning some re-writes). Moved to Tacoma, WA. Worked as a craft service grunt for the web-series Journey Quest. Moved out of Tacoma and back to Arkansas upon finding out that Bekah was pregnant. She is back in Texas with family and I’m shipping out to another military job on monday in Washington. Oh, and post-production for Cthulhu Blues Productions and sales/marketing for Dark Roast Releasing never stopped for a second. August 2010 through May 2012 has been one wild time.

Rootless

What a journey its been. I haven’t been on my blog in awhile, so there are a goodly number of updates to be had. 

I have been in Buffalo for 2 months working as a director, producer, writer, and actor on the film “Binary Samurai” with Aaron Kondziela, Alex McBryde, and Katy Saul. A post-apocalypse cyberpunk film about wasteland warriors, hackers, and a ghost in the machine. It was hot, muggy, and pretty darn uncomfortable in my character’s huge fur coat, but we survived. There should be  a trailer and promo photos up soon. 

After wrapping, in fact the day after wrapping, we got on the road and went to Toronto for the Festival of Fear. It was a brutal show, with no money, very little sleep, and a ton of pressure to make sales. We only pulled in about $1,200, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t a bad haul, but as we’d dropped nearly $3,000 on the show, it was tough at the time. We smuggled about 500 units back across the border, and left the rest with the always amazing Melantha Blackthorne, who is keeping the rest at her place and using them as inventory for sales generated by her own website. The unit recovery made the show much less of a blow to our finances, as we’ve still got the units (paid $1,500 for them) and the show only cost $1,500, so with our sales of $1,200 we didn’t lose too much. Plus it was lots of exposure, and sales are trickling in from all the cards and promotion we did. 

After Toronto we had one last night in Buffalo, then I was on a plane to Atlanta. While there I was able to reconnect with an old friend I hadn’t seen since college, and though I had some business planned that all fell through, so it became an unexpected and amazing week of forced vacation in a kickass city with the best of company. Not long after I hit the road again to St. Louis. 

St. Louis was a blast. We had another show, the StrowlerFest, put on by the musician SJ Tucker, which was 3 days of pagan music and being surrounded by interesting people. I had a vendor table for Dark Roast Releasing, though only ended up selling maybe 10 copies of Fable. Kay Wiley and SJ Tucker are really helping me work to establish the whole ‘mythpunk’ film genre, using their music and some other authors to help get this going. The show was cheap, so we didn’t lose much, but again, the exposure and connections more than made up for it. I was able to meet and cast Bekah Kelso for the role of Hecate of the Crossroads for my upcoming movie Ember Days (also a mythpunk movie), so its a win. 

Now I’m in Seattle in prep on Ember Days and can’t wait to see what’s next.

Ronin

One of my close friends and I have taken to calling ourselves Ronin, and it came up again today, so I thought I would post the definition (wiki style) of the word. We use it in our own way, in that instead of katana wielding warriors we use our cameras, editing systems, and interpersonal prowess. Though I believe that in spirit, we share much with these men of old. We are not the bound servants of a single master, and yet we are not total mercenaries either, but somewhere in between. Driven by a desire for Beauty, Variety, and Conflict. Who needs a real job when you can do this?

First Shot is Always the Hardest

I suppose that this is the best place to start, with some background on myself, and my journey to this particular stage of my life, with regards to the entertainment industry. So strap in, here’s a history lesson. 

I started out in 2004 doing publicity for a film called ACID RAIN while I was living in Washington, DC. Following that I worked for the distribution company Hannover House in Fayetteville, AR. At that point I was hooked on filmmaking, so pulled together a few investors and produced the films WINTER WOOD and SUGAR CREEK. At the end of the day, those were living & breathing film schools for most of us. I then went up to St. Louis and worked as a production coordinator on GHOST IMAGE, and shortly after went on to produce THE LEAF MAID in Arizona. I then returned to Fayetteville and partnered up with Dissolve Pictures, and produced JOHNNY SUNSHINE and ARKANE, and nearly back to back I was an actor in RED SCREAM VAMPYRES and writer/actor in TERMINAL DESCENT, both in Buffalo, NY. Following that I moved to Tempe, AZ. While there I worked for Maxim Media International as a film sales rep, and had the chance to work the Cannes Film Festival and attend the sales market there in 2008. Then I was off to Buffalo, NY to shoot my first film as a director, FABLE: TEETH OF BEASTS, and while there ended up being an actor in THE DARKNESS. Following that I moved to North Hollywood, CA and began working in distribution again, this time for Quantum Releasing in Burbank. Eventually I ended up heading back to Buffalo, NY to make another film, CLERIC, this time as a lead actor and writer. Shortly after I lived in New Zealand for 2 months while co-directing and starring in ICONOCLAST, which was a dark fantasy sort of movie, and had the help of WETA Workshop for our weapons and armor. I then formed a distribution company with a partner called DARK ROAST RELEASING, which will sell all of our films. I followed that up with VOODOO COWBOYS in Arkansas, shot back in my hometown of DeValls Bluff. Now I’m back in Buffalo, preparing to shoot BINARY SAMURAI with my old friends in the area. Next month I’ll be in Los Angeles directing DOG FIGHT with another gathering of friends and new faces. It has certainly been an adventure.