Match Frame

Thoughts from an American editor and filmmaker in New Zealand about film and video production and post-production. Plus whatever else I feel like talking about.

Location: Balmoral, Auckland, New Zealand

A work in progress.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

the legend of Ghost Shark. 2.

Pictured above: Alan Bagh (male lead of BIRDEMIC), Juliette Danielle (female lead of THE ROOM), and George Hardy (star of TROLL 2). And, improbably, me.

For those of you who don't know, the three referenced movies have become three of the most famous cult movies of incredibly strange cinema, making the above meeting on a par with the meeting of actors in THE EXPENDABLES. (Admittedly, for a very, very small - but also very, very passionate - group of fans.)

I never thought I would have the privilege to have my photo collectively taken with the three other people above - much less direct them in a scene for a movie. But life is strange and beautiful and sometimes fortune shines upon you.

Here's how it happened, in possibly more detail than anyone wants to know.

A couple months ago, I booked a trip to the States. Around the same time, two of my friends, Christchurch-based filmmakers Andrew Todd and Johnny Hall came to Auckland for two reasons: to see ENTER THE VOID at the Auckland film festival, and to shoot a trailer for the fictitious GHOST SHARK 2: URBAN JAWS. My involvement at the time was minimal - they slept on our couches, and I get drowned by Ghost Shark in a tub. (Weirdly enough, while acting out dialogue from a scene from THE ROOM.)

With the incredible response to the GHOST SHARK 2 trailer, Andrew and Johnny committed to making the feature the same way they made the trailer - pretty much the two of them with a camera and audio recorder, no money, and incredible creativity, and locked in an end of October shoot in Auckland (to coincide with their trip for the 24 Hour Movie Marathon). They set straightaway to writing. Having been a longtime supporter of both their work (Andrew's 48 HOURS team deservedly won Christchurch in 2009 with the musical NEW FISH, while Johnny's deadpan surreal shorts include the remarkable "Drinko" series), I told them I'd help out any way I can.

As the time approached, I looked over things to do in my one day in Los Angeles before I moved on with my American adventure. And I noticed TROLL 2 and BEST WORST MOVIE were playing at the New Beverly.

Now, I had met Michael Paul Stephenson (director of BEST WORST MOVIE and childhood star of TROLL 2) previously when he was in Auckland to present his film. I tried to corral him for a brief cameo in the feature I wrote and directed, JAKE, but failed, but nonetheless had a good time chatting with him and stayed in Twitter-contact with him.

So I contacted Andrew 10 days or so before I left, figuring that between that connection and George's general personality (as anyone who's seen BEST WORST MOVIE can attest, George is a very positive and gregarious guy), I just possibly might be able to swing the briefest of cameos for GHOST SHARK 2 while I was in LA.

I imagined one shot outside of the New Beverly with George saying a line about Ghost Sharks into the camera. Andrew, however, imagined a bit more.

To make a long story short, 8 days later, I stepped on a plane with a three-day old Canon 550D DSLR HD camera that I would learn how to use on the plane, a Zoom H4 audio recorder I also would learn to use on the plane so that I could train someone else how to use it, a 2 page dialogue script for the aforementioned 3 actors, and plans to shoot said script four hours after I landed on the ground in LA.

Assuming the plane landed on time.

Now, I was incredibly busy with my day job (editing the travel/music show Making Tracks before I left, so I hadn't had a chance to speak to any of the actors. From what Andrew told me, in the end, George was actually the most difficult to get to commit, because of the level of profanity in the trailer and in the original pages sent to him. They had a long talk, Andrew agreed to write out the profanity from his scene, and George agreed to do the film. Alan and Juliette, by contrast, both signed on rather quickly - Alan had just moved to LA a couple weeks prior to pursue acting further, while Juliette had lived there for years and was currently working outside the industry.

That just left the teensy details of location and crew. While I was used to working with a much larger crew on JAKE, seeing Andrew and Johnny shoot the trailer entirely by themselves emboldened me to direct and operate camera at the same time. My good friend, actress/comedian/director Marisol Medina, agreed to both provide her apartment as a location and run sound. That would have to be enough. The actors would provide their own wardrobe and makeup (as needed). That's everything, right? What else could go wrong?

I asked my flatmate, who helpfully replied: "Well, if you think about it, EVERYthing could go wrong."

Fortunately, that didn't happen. My plane arrived on time, and I managed to arrive at the apartment about an hour before the actors - just enough time to generally block the scene, set dress, and generally work out camera angles. (Andrew, Johnny and I had agreed to keep the coverage, for the most part, as simple as possible: a wide and singles on each actor, shot in tasteful handheld.)

Did I mention that, because of George's commitment to the BEST WORST MOVIE screening that night, we only had about three hours to shoot the scene? And record additional dialogue as well?

Deep breaths, quick lunch, and 15 minutes early, Alan and Juliette arrived.

Now, I had never seen any of the actors in anything besides the films they are most famous for. I'm not even sure if any of them have appeared in anything else that's commercially available in any way. And the films in question are all black holes of talent. Everything is so bad about them, no good quality can escape, except for the individual aesthetic of something gloriously singular, something incomprehensible that it becomes ludicrously captivating.

All of which is a sideways way of saying that I didn't know what to expect from any of the actors, other than the personal (albeit unproven) conviction that all those films represented said actors at their very worst). The goal of all of us - Andrew, Johnny, and I - was not to have a badly acted scene but to have a well acted one, and to give all three actors a chance to step outside the films that they'd made their reputations with, and we believed it was possible.

Thankfully, everyone involved had a sense of humor about said films. (Just about the first thing that Alan said to me was "So are you going to direct me? Because I didn't get that on my last film.") One of the things I had never connected before but quickly discovered as I talked with Alan and Juliette is that all three actors had worked with directors who were from foreign countries (in the case of Tommy Wiseau, director of THE ROOM, his true origin has never been verified; Juliette said that he was referred to as a Cajun on set), all of whom were very controlling on set and refused to allow the actors to change dialogue, no matter how absurd or unnatural it was.

So after some quick wardrobe decisions, we ran dialogue together, me reading George's part as we waited for him, talking out the character details and relationships and as much of the backstory as I knew. (I hadn't directed another person's script since film school, and had certainly never been in the position of directing a scene for a feature that a. I hadn't written b. I hadn't read and c. wasn't even completely written. Challenging!) Thankfully, both Juliette and Alan picked up the flavor of the script very quickly, understanding that the absurdity of the script shouldn't translate into absurdity in performance. A nearby shark toy, coincidentally already a feature in the room, entered in as a prop. After a few read throughs, I left them to run lines while I looked at shots, double-checked all my tech gear, had Marisol test sound, and wondered ...

... where was George?

After a nerve-wracking twenty five minutes of waiting, I decided to abandon my plan of shooting a 3-person master first and to shoot singles of Juliette and Alan. Since Juliette's lines had the broadest emotional range, which is the sort of thing that can fall flat if you wait to shoot until having shot every other angle, I decided to get Juliette's angle first.

And ... just as the shot was set up, George showed up, with BEST WORST MOVIE producers Michael and Brad in tow. I never asked what happened, but LA being LA, I just assumed traffic or directional mix-ups or something. No worries - plenty of time, and we can go back to getting the master first.

Except: through a series of complications, George hadn't got his lines til the night before, and was still getting familiar with them. And, although I hadn't realized it, it was his first time acting in twenty years, since the filming of TROLL 2. Meanwhile, Alan and Juliette had already had plenty of time to get the lines down.

The usual plan of shooting a wide, then closes, was thusly abandoned, and I decided to return to plan B: get Juliette and Alan's angles first, then George's, then the wide.

Drafting the BWM production team to help out - Michael grabbed a table top covered with aluminum foil to act as a flecce (a reflective surface that helps fill in light on shadowy sides of actor's faces), while Brad ran continuity (checking the script to make sure the actors were hitting the lines as written) - we set up, and did several takes of Juliette's performance. To be honest, I was happy after the second, but I wanted to get some performance options for Andrew and Johnny. As her character hits emotional peaks of both anger and sorrow, I wanted to make sure that the directors had the option of overplaying or underplaying that emotion as much as they felt was appropriate. And Juliette gave plenty of good takes with different performance textures, despite some interruptions from nearby construction equipment. (Marisol eventually managed to convince them to take a short hiatus to let us finish. If it's not clear by now, this wouldn't have been possible without her on many, many levels.)

Alan's character, by contrast, was the simplest (both in terms of intelligence and emotional arc), and having rehearsed it fairly thoroughly by this point (both other actors were running their lines off camera during each single), it was pretty straightforward to record - maybe 3 or 4 takes, mostly to experiment with some different use of props.

So then it was time for George's angle.

The first take didn't feel right, and I got nervous inside. Even though I had only met George in person that day, thanks to BEST WORST MOVIE I felt incredibly fond of and protective of him, and I didn't want to have him look bad on screen next to the other actors. We talked through things, and went into a second take, and a third, each improving incrementally, but only marginally.

And then we got to the fourth take.

There's a magic moment that happens when you're directing sometimes. You're watching a take, and your skin suddenly tingles all over because everything is working, and suddenly you don't see the take at all, you see it as the film that you've envisioned, and imagine it working in a theater. I got it, maybe, three times on JAKE.

And somehow between the third and the fourth take everything clicked for George, and I got that feeling, once again, on that take. And I know it wasn't just me: at the end I looked around, and everybody was smiling. I did a fifth take for an alternate line reading on a single line, but for the most part, I'll be shocked if that fourth take isn't the one that's used.

By that time, everyone was warmed in and having a good time, so I shot wides from two different angles, did a take just for shooting stills, got some alternate options for closing shots, and even a new intro to the scene that Juliette suggested, testing my ability to pull focus and operate camera at the same time.

Then it was all over except for some additional dialogue recording for subsequent scenes with the cameras, some group photos, and a quick Skype to New Zealand. Sadly, Johnny was home sick with food poisoning, but it was great to get to introduce everybody to Andrew face to face, albeit electronically.

And then, all too suddenly, everything was done and everyone was gone, and Marisol and I were left to contemplate how strange and wonderful life could be, back up footage, get a beer, and properly catch up after 2 1/2 years of not seeing each other.

Except for this bit. Between takes, George, Alan, and Juliette all talked a bit, as you do, and George did his best job convincing Alan and Juliette to come out and see the BEST WORST MOVIE/TROLL 2 double feature that night. And so Alan and Juliette came, as did I, and I got to see all three of them again, and I met Juliette's family, and George and I talked before the show about New Zealand (where he lived for a time, as it happens) and the potential for GHOST SHARK 2 to be huge if Andrew and Johnny would just cut down on the profanity. And between the movies, George announced to a packed house at the New Beverly how he had spent his day in Los Angeles acting for the first time in 20 years, with Alan and Juliette, to great cheers. And when it came time for the TROLL 2 Blu-Ray giveaway, I got onstage, and with Michael Paul Stephenson's help acted George's immortal "You can't piss on hospitality" monologue in front of George.

And after a big hug from George, I sat down, trying to trace the bizarre spider-web of coincidence that had led to this moment, and then gave up, and just hoped that Andrew and Johnny were as happy with the footage as I was, and that Alan, Juliette, and George would all be happy with the final product.

And, of course, that the rest of the shoot for GHOST SHARK 2 would go as well.

GHOST SHARK 2: URBAN JAWS begins principal photography in Auckland on Saturday, October 22. Keep up with the latest news here:
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