Austin Filmmakers’ Waking Nightmares
They’re just making a movie. What could possibly go wrong?
No one but an idiot thinks making movies is easy.
Some might say, considering the levels of complexity involved and the sheer number of things that can go wrong with people, places, and properties, that no one but an idiot would try to make a movie in the first place. Unless they stand to make a lot of money from that movie. Or unless making movies is, after all, what they love beyond anything else.
Even then, you know that fuck-ups, some kind of fuck-ups, are bound to happen. And sometimes those fuck-ups are disastrous – or horrifying – or hilarious. And sometimes they're a combination of all three. Well worth sharing, in other words. Which is why we've got Austin-based filmmakers Macon Blair, Karen Skloss, Owen Egerton, and Emma Rappold here to relate a small array of production snafus toward provoking your empathy, sparking your schadenfreude-laced laughter, and reminding you that, yeah, it's not all smooth sailing in the protean seas of indie filmsville.
Macon Blair, whose excellent directorial debut I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore is available via Netflix, is perhaps better known – so far – as an actor, having galvanized the big screen in the films Blue Ruin and Green Room. And here he lets us in on a rather big, uh, misstep that occurred during the shooting of that thrilling revenge-drama of a Ruin ...
"In 2012, I was working on a movie called Blue Ruin that my friend Jeremy Saulnier was directing. It was extremely low budget, financed by credit cards, a new mortgage on Jeremy's house, and a Kickstarter campaign. Everyone wore many hats and locations were catch-as-catch-can.
"For the opening scene, in which the main character breaks into an empty beach cottage, we had rented a place in Rehoboth, Del., where we were going to shoot a sequence of exteriors as well. Let's say the address was 215 Beach Street. Not being as internet savvy as we should have been, we rented the place on Craigslist. I know, I know.
"We pull in to town with our eight-person crew all stuffed into one van the day before Production Day One and swing by Beach Street to check out our first location. There's 212, there's 214, there's 216 ... but no 215. It literally does not exist.
"Surely there's some kind of mistake or miscommunication here, but when we try to contact the rental agent (again, from Craigslist), their phone doesn't seem to work. And the IP address of their email, we soon learn, is located in Jamaica.
"As we're standing around this empty lot, looking befuddled and increasingly freaked out (because, movie, but no location), one of the neighbors walked by and saw us there and kind of chuckled. 'Craigslist, right?' he said.
"Apparently this kind of rental scam had been pulled several times before, hapless suckers paying via a Western Union wire for a property that didn't exist. To say that we felt like dummies would be correct.
"Luckily, an old friend of Jeremy's parents' lived nearby and she very graciously let us shoot in her cottage and, not only that, let the crew crash there, too. It ended up being perfect for the movie so all's well that ends well, but lesson learned: Don't pay Western Union for rentals over Craigslist, no matter how cool the pictures look."
Karen Skloss is an editor and director, known for The Honor Farm, Support the Girls, and Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt. You might expect a woman who did her master's thesis on George Romero to shoot a film that's a little spooky. You might not expect her to be, at least for one production, the weather's personal enemy ...
"When I set out to make a film about ritual, drugs, and teenage self-discovery, little did I know that I might be put through paces of my own. For starters, we were making an ensemble film (eight teenagers and a baby goat) with mainly outdoor night shoots (meaning reversed sleeping schedules and lots of lighting required) on a shoestring, during what became the wettest Texas summer on record. That means crews placing cables and sometimes lighting in the pouring rain. This faith-based activity was guided by the not always perfect app-based meteorology of Dark Skies. For instance, one wide landscape shot that included our picture hearse and a light hoisted in a cherry picker (which in the industry is known as a condor) had to be done in one take or bust, lest our lighting team be fried by the passing electrical storm. We got the shot, by pure miracle, and our valiant crew lived to see another wet day.
"Damp, underslept, covered in bug bites and poison ivy, we soldiered through. The crew took to drinking at dawn as each day 'ended,' and I heard the mutterings – at first hopeful, of Wet Hot American Summer (which was shot primarily in the rain), and later, wryly, of Lost in La Mancha. I kept the faith as shooting days rained out, and on certain days I revised the script on my laptop in the middle of a field, cutting pages while the sun came up and the crew packed up another truckload of wet gear. On two different days, in the rushes I came across footage of our world-class cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, curled up in a fetal position. (Very funny, Matthias.) Producers, A.D.s, and I were all driven to tears at varying points by the sheer brutality of the weather, our shooting schedule, and extremely tight funding.
"And then it happened, because as they say, when it rains, it pours. We were shooting in an abandoned building in San Antonio. Thankfully, it was spooky as hell, and (so I'm told) it had already been the setting for much real-world San Antonian ghosty lore. I'd noticed some strange behavior, but it wasn't until we were shooting a key scene that was completely derailed by unscripted and uncontrollable vomiting, that I figured we'd really crossed a threshold. We shot the alternate angles for that scene, cut our losses, and revised the schedule yet again. Turns out someone was getting a bit method with the drugs. Things snowballed from there as this young adult (who surely must have been deep in character) ended up in jail for shoplifting from the nearby H-E-B on the day of one of the biggest ensemble scenes. Our producer, David Hartstein, found himself off-set at juvie, getting the aforementioned actor back into the free world. We were at the point of meltdown.
"This is where this coming-of-age story turns on the director herself. In the middle of the night (at 4pm) and at a very dark hour in crew morale, I found myself on the phone with one of our executives, the Chronicle's own Louis Black. Eyes closed, I listened as he said, 'Karen, at the end of the world there will only be three things left: Keith Richards, cockroaches, and producers. Find a way to finish the shoot.' Ultimately, with the help of second unit (thank you, Jason Wehling/Arts+Labor) we did. And now we have a movie we can be proud of. Many festivals and a distribution deal later, I'll call it magic."
Owen Egerton is the local author-performer-director-etc Renaissance Man who’s published the novels Hollow and The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, who frequently co-stars in the onstage antics of Master Pancake Theater, and who (in partnership with Austin's Rooster Teeth) recently released the horror-comedy Blood Fest. You know that, when cinematic killers come a-hunting, it's either every-person-for-themselves or it's teamwork-makes-the-dream-work, right? And what happens on the set of a genre send-up when circumstances conspire to ruin everything? Egerton tells us that story ...
"Making movies is about capturing moments of magic. But one of the most magical moments of Blood Fest happened just off camera.
"Toward the end of our shoot we got news that Hurricane Harvey was rolling in. We rescheduled as best we could, but due to budget and schedule, there was no way we could stop filming. On the day the winds hit Austin we were filming all night in a large hangar off of East 51st Street. It was one of the quietest scenes of the film – and one of the most emotional for the actors. But as the night rolled on, the winds buffeted the building and rattled the giant metal hangar door. It was like the room was filled with thunder. We tried to wait for the wind to die down so we could film. I was growing more and more worried that we wouldn't get the scene, and I knew if we didn't get it that night, we never would. Eventually there was slight let-up in the weather and we went for it.
"As soon as I yelled, 'Action!' the wind hit again and the doors started to rattle and clang. But something else happened, too. Every person in that hangar who wasn't holding a microphone, light, or camera placed their bodies against the hangar door and pushed. Dozens of us – P.A.s to executive producers – everyone lined up, shoulder to shoulder, holding that door against the wind to save the scene. Of course, in comparison to the tragedies and acts of courage during Harvey, this is nothing. But it did demonstrate to me the wild power of collaboration. When you see a scene on a screen – two people performing – it's easy to forget that just out of frame is an entire community working and giving, that every moment of movie magic has the talents and passions of so many people making it happen. All of us storytellers, all of us filmmakers, all of us willing to hold back the wind to catch one magic moment."
The youngest of these filmmakers, Emma Rappold, is an RTF undergraduate student at the University of Texas – and this year's Harrison McClure Award recipient – who's working on a feature-length film, Dear Leo, for her program degree. Her experiences up to this point are nowhere near the neighborhood of Herzogian (we're looking at you, Aguirre, the Wrath of God), but nonetheless daunting for someone just starting out in the industry ...
"For the feature film I just shot this summer – Dear Leo – we really had to embrace what 'shooting in the Texas summer' meant. Myself and my crew got at least 80 mosquito bites each when shooting at a park – luckily our actors were spared! It's been almost four months, and my legs still have scars.
"The camera we were shooting on kept overheating, as well. Many cameras have protective mechanisms that shut them down in the event of extreme heat, but in our case, extreme heat was almost all the time. We had no idea that would happen, and had to send cast and crew home early from a pool scene that proved impossible to get midday. We began to switch around our shooting schedule to try and be outside only at dusk so we could actually shoot, but that wasn't the end all, be all. We still had three or four times where all available hands had to grab a script, folder, slate, or fanlike surface to create wind around the camera to cool it down.
"Like many other students and low-budget independent filmmakers, we shot most of our house scenes at local Airbnbs. Usually it's really nice, because the locations are affordable and come with a starting place for P.D. However, one morning I drove up to set, and the fence around our Airbnb had been completely blown down in a storm the previous night. Our producer and I were nervous that the homeowner might try and blame us, but luckily, he was very understanding. We just had to film the scenes planned in the backyard somewhere else.
"Beyond those things, I've had a crew member show up drunk, removed a closet door to fit a dolly and then spent an hour trying to fit the closet door back inside, and squeezed the smallest crew member available into the backseat of a car just to capture sound. And one time when I was about 13, my friends and I had the cops called on us for making a short film in a parking lot; nothing happened, but it made us feel way cooler than we were."