Notes from Xtremely Xtreme

I wrote up all my notes from the crazy weekend we shot and edited Xtremely Xtreme.

Development: Samir Kicks Me In the Ass

While chatting with my friend Samir one day he mentioned that he was on a team for the 48 Hour Film Project, and did I want to join? I had heard about this travelling festival before, but had no idea how to apply or when it was. I told him I’d get back to him…. I called Kirby and spoke to ShaC and they were both very interested. By the time I needed to get back to Samir, I ended up forming my own crack team.

I own my own camera and light kit, but I didn’t have a computer to edit on. I usually use the editing suite at the Midpenninsula Community Media Center in Palo Alto, but their machines are only available during the hours the center is open, and MCMC is closed all day Sunday. We could still check out some of their sound gear, but obviously we wouldn’t be able to use their machines. This was the perfect opportunity to blow the entire year’s budget for the studio on a new editing system… a mini-fiasco which was an adventure in itself.

Development: Securing Cast, Crew and Locations

Given the constraints of the 48 Hour Film Project, we wouldn’t have time to be calling actors, people to help with the camera and lights, or location managers- writing the script, shooting the scenes, and editing it all together would be hard enough.

The week before I called the proprietors of a bunch of cool-looking locations and got them to sign releases, even though we could not possibly use all of them in a single day of shooting.

  • Irene Preston, owner of Preston’s Candy & Ice Cream

  • Tim Holmes, owner of Zocalo CoffeeHouse

  • Nancy Shelby, President of the Save the Lorenzo Foundation, for the Lorenzo Theater

  • my friends Anisa & Brian (they have a cool loft in SOMA)
  • We’d also potentially be using Diane & my apartment in San Leandro and Ben & Kirby’s place in Daly City.

A couple of weeks before The Weekend, I was at a party at Brian and Anisa’s and I had met an artist there, Chris Holmes. He was a friend of a friend of theirs, a human interface expert and designer, who was taking a break from the dot-com world and working on his photography. Me mentioned his brother had also quit The Life and was now running his own cafe in San Leandro… Chris was amazed that I had actually heard of it before.

I called his brother Tim:

BRIAN: Hello Tim, I’m a local filmmaker and I’d like to use Zocalo to shoot a short-
TIM: Sure!
BRIAN: Uhm… don’t… don’t you want to know what the movie is?
TIM: Oh… okay!
BRIAN: blah blah 48 hour film project blah etc
TIM: Great! Do you need to be there when it’s closed, or do we need to throw everyone out while you shoot…?
BRIAN: Whoa!

As for the crew, we made a point of only asking people we knew we could count on to show up on time, stay focussed, and not collapse from exhaustion or lack of food during our potentially 30 hour shooting schedule. We asked my friend ShaColby Jackson, who had worked on my documentary Sons of California, and Kirby’s friend Matt Young, who he had known for years.

That left the cast. Ben Hardie knew some actresses in his “movement” class, and Hardie, Kirby, Matt, and Diane had all had acting experience before. Over the week before the shoot, Kirby and I interviewed the actresses at Starbucks and TK Noodle. We decided to use Jennifer, Lauren, and Sarah to fill out our cast. Since Matt, Diane, and Shac said they were willing to act, but didn’t consider themselves actors, and Kirby was going to be co-producing with me, we really only had one full time actor for our shoot- Ben Hardie, who was cowriting with me. Through a series of incredibly lucky circumstamces, we convinced an opera singer we knew, Ben Scott, to fit our production into his schedule.

Tom McClure, my friend who is the keyboardist for Firmé, volunteered to do the music for our production. One of the possible genres was “musical”- I was worried about it until Tom improvised two songs during our phone conversation. I felt a little better. My friend Emily was available to sing as well, even though it is normally next to impossible to get into her busy schedule. And of course we had Mr Scott.

We had an elaborate plan for the production schedule. Some of the genres could require costumes- Western for example, or Sci Fi. But by the time we got the genre all the stores would be closed… Diane was to wait outside the mall with her cell phone until I called her. If necessary, she would buy props to supplement the huge volume of random junk in our garage. The rest we would have to shoot around until Saturday morning when the costume shops opened. I called all the shops in the cities we would be shooting in and found out their hours and what costumes they still had (Halloween was the next weekend).

ShaColby mapped the various events along the penninsula and East Bay during the weekend of the shoot- we were gaurding against the nightmare scenario of having our short completed, but missing the deadline as we got stuck in traffic on the way past Oakland Coliseum. There was some kind of dog show at the Cow Palace and the Red Bull Flugtag on one of the piers, but everything else was clear.

Every member of the cast and crew was required to be reachable by phone during the entire 48 hours. This was to ensure that, in the event of an emergency (for example the loss of footage), we would be able to reassemble the production and piece together a triage. In addition, since everyone had web access from home, I put together a production blog, which everyone was to check at least once a day. All the announcements about our schedule would appear there and in email before phone calls went out.

A final detail- getting actors and crew together is a total nightmare, and we didn’t have the time or the extra producer it would take to wrangle the crew repeatedly. Also, although I had complete faith in the reliability of our cast and crew, I didn’t want to give them the opportunity to get lost or late for any of our schedule. So, the policy was absolute: everyone stays with the production for the entire day. No lunch breaks, no free play time.

Development: The Drawing

On Friday at 7pm all the producers met at the Hotel Utah, a hotel / bar / performance venue.

If you’re a detail-oriented person, you may have noticed our shooting date spanned the end of Daylight Savings Time… which potentially meant we would have forty nine hours for our forty eight hour film. I don’t know about you, but that sounds lame to me. The 48 Hour Film Project is a travelling, national festival, with dozens of teams in each of six cities. It would look bad if we had an hour longer than the other teams…

Fortunately Mark Ruppert was on top of this factoid- the drawing was delayed to make up for the extra time.

Every production had to show a landmark recognisably in San Francisco… and three required elements. What I hadn’t understood beforehand however was that although the elements would be picked randomly, every short on the San Francisco contest would have the same three elements. This is a great idea; it meant that when the audience was watching the amateur films, they would be looking for the three elements, and would be entertained even if a given movie was really bad.

  • The character Hugh Simon, bouncer had to appear somewhere
  • Each script had to include the line “I was lied to… and very much deceived.”
  • Every short had to show a vinyl record

I met some interesting people at the kick-off event. The production crew from Tech TV was there as a team, and “Bill” , the one-man production. Bill had been following the 48 Hour Film Project across the country- he was in part doing the circuit as a promotion for the book he was writing on home film production. Sponsored by Sony, Bill was handing out fliers for Sony’s new editing software and their digital film streaming service.

My friend Samir’s team was there of course… although I didn’t recognize them.

Each producer in our screening group got on stage and turned in their producer’s agreement forms, and drew from a hat the genre of their movie. We got “mockumentary.” That we got this genre was a blessing because it fit my jumpy editing style… although I think I could have handled Horror or Noir also. I made the call to Diane letting her off the hook and drove to Daly City to meet Ben Hardie and Kirby.

Development: Story development

By 20:30 I was back in Daly City with Kirby and Hardie. We kicked around a couple of ideas and settled on the one we had the most material for- a story about a failed reality show called Xtremely Xtreme. To keep it interesting I decided we should structure the story around a guy who cuts off his own hand, and added a second layer of abstraction by making the short like an episode of a “E! True Hollywood Story” or “VH1’s Behind The Music” type of show, which in turn would be about Xtremely Xtreme.

We really had very little time in which to decide on a story. In order to maintain our schedule, we had to spend only 40 minutes on the story and write a script in under an hour.

The gist of the script- the viewer is watching a mini documentary series called “TRUE Reality Story,” patterned after “The E! True Hollywood Story” from E! or “Behind the Music” from VH1. Both of these shows focus on a particular celebrity for a single hour and make their story a lot more accessible. Our show, given the name, probably focusses mainly on the behind-the-scenes of reality programs. Since we have only the single episode, who can say for sure!

The program this episode (#106) focusses on is “Xtremely Xtreme,” which ended rather suddenly amid some controversy. We used our recurring character Kirby Doom, master of the sell-out, as the supposed producer of this program. Each episode had Fear-Factor styled “challenges” with the four contestants.

We had four contestants, each of them a caricature:

  • Sarah, played convincingly by Sarah Hoxley, the bubbly and positive blonde who is a complete camera hog and not very bright. The ultimate girly-girl, she constantly preens for the camera and ends up on a spin-off show called “Xtreme Dating.”
  • Tom, played by my co-writer Ben Hardie, was the ever-present “foreign guy” on Real World, and is also not very bright. We changed his name from Ben because of the large number of Bens on our production. Tom goes on to star in his own reality show, “Suckerpunch!” in which he hits random strangers in the stomach.
  • Jennifer, played by Jennifer Atwood, an intense, tough-as-nails activist type who wears a wife beater through the entire show. Initially we had her as the person who is constantly offended by everything, but there wasn’t really space for it in the time we had.
  • Scott, played by Ben Scott (see? another Ben!), is the stupid “frat guy” loser who is the fall-guy of the group.

In addition we had a handful of supporting characters:

  • Lauren, played by Lauren Aubrey, who in retrospect we really underutilized. Lauren’s character we the evil ex-girlfriend of Scott. Kirby told her to come dressed in sort of a Courtney Love look- which she did perfectly. We wrote her lines extra evil and Lauren delivered them better than I could have hoped for!
  • Dyna, the serious corporate lawyer for Kirby Doom, was played by Diane, who constantly complained (justifiably) that we over-lit her and “made her look old.”
  • ShaColby played the incompetent lawyer for Scott
  • Kirby Doom is sort of a super-villain version of my brother. A VJ and egomaniac producer, we see Kirby in only two shots, one where he is introducing some MTVish Japanese game show (“Doom Donut!!!”) and another where he is running from paparazzi.
  • Hugh Simon, Bouncer– can’t forget this guy! Matt Young played him perfectly, the beefy guy with the crossed arms who stands in front of a club all night. Matt was very self-deprecating, so we gave him this small yet crucial role, but he also played-
  • The Clown from “Xtreme Dating.” Sarah slaps a clown she has spent the evening with in the 2 seconds we see of “Xtreme Dating”… and the honor of being a human abuse toy went to Matt. We didn’t quite know what we were getting into with that one…
  • The Narrator who had to sound just like the guy on “Behind the Music” was voiced by my brother Kirby.
  • Since we show a little bit of Suckerpunch there had to be a Suckerpunch contestant. Since Brian and Anisa were giving us the run of their place promising Brian a bit part in the short was the least I could do:

    BRIAN: Do I get to be in your movie?
    ME: Sure! You get to get punched in the stomach!
    BRIAN: Allright!!!

Development: Preproduction

21:00 – Ben, Kirby and I went to Chili’s and hashed out the details of the script over hamburgers. We jointly decided that if the person cutting off his hand was forced to do so, the story is not interesting and just becomes a slapstick horror movie, like Evil Dead. I like Evil Dead, but we agreed it would be too difficult to integrate this into our existing concept in a coherent fashion. Instead, what if the person was so stupid he cut off his own hand willingly, because he thought he “was supposed to”?

When we got back, Kirby called the cast and told them what to wear and what type of character they would be playing. While Hardie and I wrote the script, Kirby also called Irene, who was catering our shoot, the rest of the crew, and our location managers.

We built some production techniques into the script. The names of all the characters were the same as the actors who played them- since we would all be together for only one day, it would be a lot less confusing. Also, we chose an interview-documentary format, which would allow us to isolate each actor, and run through all their lines in one go. This also let us get away from the traditional “scene” dialogue, which would require rehearsal to get a good performance. Instead, we would shoot a single line at a time- the crew would tell the talent their line, then they would say it in character on camera. With fast cuts, we would edit out the off-camera prompts and the “rehearsal.”

By 23:30 the script was completed and emailed out, and announcements about our schedule were posted on the blog. I called Tom to make sure he had the script and worked out with him what the feel of our finished film would be like. He instantly had some ideas he wanted for the music… we arranged to talk again in 20+ hours.

I drove home to get a few hours’ sleep.

Location Zero: Daly City

We met at Kirby and Ben Hardie’s place at 07:00… I drove myself with all the gear:

  • miniDV Camera (JVC GY-DV500)
  • Anton-Bauer power gear for camera
  • Bogen tripod
  • Lowell light kit- 2 DPs and 1 VIP
  • 2 100ft extention cords on reels
  • 25 blank miniDV tapes

I was also carrying our rented sound gear, courtesy of MCMC and Elliot Hibbs:

  • 2 shotgun microphones
  • vibration isolator collars (what are those things called anyway?)
  • handheld boom
  • pistol-grip
  • tripod with boom
  • 5-channel audio mixer
  • XLR cables

ShaColby drove over with a Durango he had borrowed from his uncle, and Matt met us there. Kirby picked up our actresses from the dorms where they lived as Irene brought us bagels, milk, juice and coffee. ShaColby and Matt and I set up our gear. Emily, true to form, got completely lost on the way to Kirby’s place… so while Kirby was driving and trying to find Lauren’s place in the Sunset, he was giving directions to Emily over the phone. According to Kirby the conversation was maddening, and went something like

EMILY: I’m lost!
KIRBY: Where are you?
EMILY: I’m on a street. Off the freeway.
KIRBY: Where??! What do you see near you? Give me a landmark!
EMILY: There’s a traffic light… and an intersection…
KIRBY: Grrrr…

Emily somehow got to the house so we could do her shots. While the other actresses put on their makeup and “costumed” (really just themed clothes they already owned) ShaColby and Matt and I took Emily to the bus stop on Mission to do some “interview on the street” takes. This also gave the rest of the production time to eat their donuts and coffee, provided by Irene Preston and Preston’s Candy & Ice Cream, and to highlight all their lines in their scripts. Someone also had to highlight the lines for the supporting characters played by crew members who were helping with Emily’s shots- Kirby, ShaColby, and Matt.

Emily’s shots were mainly for “coverage,” potentially being shown in the very beginning to introduce the show- for example various people on the street wondering aloud about the show and what happened to it. But doing this shot served a different purpose- because none of us had worked with the gear we had, we needed to practice our guerilla film production techniques.

The backbone of this construct was the three man crew:

  • a cameraman, who has the camera on his shoulder and frames the shot (usually Kirby or ShaC)
  • a boom mic holder (usually Matt), who points the shotgun mic towards the action, and keeps it out of the shot. The mic has a cable which plugs directly into the camera.
  • the sound man (ShaC and occaisionally Kirby), who monitors the sound with headphones and the levels display on the side of the camera (remember this is digital). A wire connects the headphones to the camera.

The director (me), who in our case was also the producer, would direct the cast, monitor the script, and keep the shoot on schedule. Also, I could monitor the shot with our portable editor, so I could see the final shot in color. A cable connected the editor and the camera.

So if you were paying attention you’ll notice that all three people (four if you count the director with the monitor) had to move as a unit- they are all tethered together. It’s a “three-legged race” with four people!

Emily’s shoot was great. She improvised extremely well, even without having read the entire script. Remember, we needed a San Francisco landmark in the finished film- we had planned to get to the Golden Gate Bridge, but we had no idea what the weather would be like once we got there, or even if we would be able to get there before sunset.

So, for insurance, we shot Emily in front of the MUNI stop where Mission meets John Daly in Daly City. There are spaces for four busses on the street there, and there are always at least two of them waiting to start the route. The idea was to shoot Emily emoting in front of one of the big MUNI symbols and thus establish the setting as San Francisco.

Every forty seconds or so, our background would move away- and the four-person camera monster would have to move and get Emily to a new location. It wasn’t exactly a precision operation, but we got the footage we needed and shuttled everyone back to the house.

Time’s up! It was time to meet Brian and Anisa at their loft. We loaded everything into the Durango and Irene left to take care of something candy-related.

Location 1: Brian & Anisa’s Loft

Brian and Anisa live in a three story SOMA loft that we used for one of the interviews with a cast member (Sarah) and both of the lawyer interviews, and the shot from “Suckerpunch!”, one of the “where are they now?” shows. So, four scenes.

The loft was huge. The first story (on the second floor) had just a bathroom and space they were using as a bedroom, and space used as a study… the second story had another bathroom, the kitchen space, the living room space, and the “loft,” which was the office and yes, another bathroom.

5 rooms, 3 of which are bathrooms, and the other two aren’t really rooms so much as entire floors. Brian and Anisa gave us full run of the place, and let us move furniture wherever we wanted.

The only problem with the loft was actually caused by its large space- the sound was a little echoey. We had to cover it with constant background music during Sarah’s interviews.

Sarah’s interview was first. The routine for each of these is we would set up the shot and frame and light the actor. We would do a quick sound check, setting up our boom tripod with the directional microphone. Then the cameraman would start and stop the tape and keep the shot framed… each light stand had its own crew member to move it quickly on demand, and a sound man would monitor the levels while sitting next to the camera. The director monitored the shot from the monitor. Since this was a very short production and most of the lines had a lot of room for improvisation to keep the lines sounding natural, we rarely stopped the tape.

We set up Sarah’s shot on Anisa’s couch, against their white wall. This was to prove the only problem with the shot later on… since the shot was so high-contrast, Sarah’s face sort of floated above her dark turtleneck. I think if I did it again we would plan the lighting and her wardrobe to be a little more muted. Fortunately, Sarah is thin and has good skin, so our clumsy composition wasn’t too distracting.

Sarah Hoxley is brilliant as “Sarah.” As everyone provided their own wardrobe, she came dressed in a stylish turteneck, and a skintight belly shirt for the outdoor scenes. The character of “Sarah” is fairly stereotypical… We borrowed the basic flavor of her character from Julie Brown’s “I’m a Blonde” and almost every one of her lines is self-contradictory.

SARAH: We worked as a team… but in a competitive way.

Sarah delivered all her lines with the kind of thoughtful look that really stupid people get when they are saying something that makes no sense. We got a rhythm going and even reworked some of the lines on the set because they didn’t match the character very

For some reason, people kept misplacing their scripts. The lines highlighted would belong to someone else… Keep ahold of your scripts dammit!! Is it really so difficult?

One of the lines for Sarah is a confused answer to a question about the “naked cake” episode on Xtremely Xtreme… When we got to the line, Sarah couldn’t remember the phrasing:

SARAH: oh the naked cake? Sorry… I don’t remember the line.
KIRBY: That was it!
BRIAN: Yep, you nailed it!
SARAH: Oh… ok!

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were so self-congratulatory that we missed her next line! Whoops. This was a real problem because her line had to do with a description of the format of Xtremely Xtreme, where there were physical challenges worth points. We would end up having to cover for this gaffe later in post.

We were still figuring out our routine… next time we really need to have someone on the production (in this case it should have been Lauren or Jennifer) following the script and making sure we hit every line we needed to.

In one part, the script calls for Sarah to be more of a bimbo-

SARAH: I wanted an experience that challenged my soul

…and on “soul” she was to clutch her chest. There is a take where she does this, but it wasn’t as good as the take we used, which doesn’t have that part… whatcha gonna do.

One of her lines just didn’t sound right- we shot it again and again (hooray for tape!) but it never quite sounded right. Sarah and I decided that it wasn’t something her character would really say, so we rewrote it. Another strength of having a fairly loose script, and a screenwriting team that is also the director and one of the actors.

Sarah has another line, this one about Scott, which she read in a way that was very friendly and enthusiastic- so much so that it seemed she was pretty happy that he ended up cutting off his hand.

SARAH: It was all over when he found the tools
BRIAN: Okay… you’re talking about someone you lived with for a month, who ended up cutting off his own hand… so you may want to sound a little less happy about it!

Next was Diane’s interview. Diane played Dyna Doom, corporate attorney for Kirby Doom and part of the Doom empire. She had to look credible as a kick-ass, cold-blooded corporate lawyer. So we shot her in Anisa’s office, which is literally lined with books. Since Anisa is a real-life lawyer, we used her actual legal reference books in the background.

We had a few problems lighting Diane, which was odd because the lower level (where the office was) has light that is pretty easily controlled- the scene looked great, but on the monitor it showed one part as being a little bright. Kirby and ShaColby were going crazy- where is that damn light coming from? They turned every light we had on and off over and over again. As it turned out, it was a desk lamp that Anisa uses to study- it was impossible to tell the lamp was on from the top, because of the way the head was designed, but the indirect light was bouncing off the desk onto Diane’s face!

Diane was great… it’s a little harder to direct someone you’re dating, because the way you communicate with the actor is influenced by your other relationship. Diane just wasn’t as cold as she needed to be- she’s a very personable person and was empathizing with the camera, but her character is very corporate and needed to convey her complete lack of empathy for any of the people involved in the production.

When describing the pending lawsuit filed by Scott against the production company, she succinctly says-

DYNA: He did it to himself. Plus, he did sign a release.

That is, we the corporation have a good case… and anyway it doesn’t matter if we are morally justified or not, because he signed all his rights away anyway. Sucker!

Eventually of course, Diane did get the lines right. Anisa was watching in the wings… her contribution? “She looks like she’s working too hard to be a real lawyer.”

While we were down in the office, the actors not in the shoot were upstairs taking a break. Which was probably a good thing- the loft’s large spaces communicated noise really a little too well and we could hear every scuff on the nice microphones we were using.

In addition, there was a glass table downstairs that for some reason people kept trying to sit on! The table was really only for holding a few books… Every time one of the actors got close to the table they would eye it and move towards it, and someone would have to shriek “DON’T SIT ON THE TABLE!!”

Irene showed up with our sandwiches and we stuffed our fat little faces. We had arranged with her to do our dinner also, but since we were running way off schedule and we were just getting pizza anyway, Diane decided to take care of our dinner plans, and Irene was released for the day. Diane left for our secondary “base camp” in San Leandro, to start work on the computer graphics we would need for the titles of “TRUE Reality Story” and “Xtremely Xtreme.”

Next was ShaColby’s shot. We moved all the gear back up the stairs to the second floor, and at Anisa and Brian’s insistence brought down their desk from the loft. Shac’s character is a sleazy ambulance chaser. He has an office in a mini-mall somewhere and is sort of reminiscent of Lionel Hutz from “The Simpsons.”

We had a lot of problems with the unwieldy phrase, “corporate malefactors.” It’s a bit of a tongue twister, and since no one had memorized their lines, let alone ShaC who was basically producing, every time he came to that line he messed it up. However we couldn’t change it as we had Sarah’s because it’s exactly the way our ambulance chaser would talk. Ah well, we got it eventually.

We put Shac in a giant wool suit that was a combination of things he brought and an old suit that Brian had handy. Shac was sweating like a pig… What was funny was I told him he would be doing minimal acting, and really only had a couple of lines… so in the morning he just highlighted his first one. Now that he was on, he had to cram his other ones, but fortunately there were not that many… however they were all long and filled with tongue-twister legalese like “corporate malfactors.”

We put him in front of their balcony to get a washed-out tone that looked like his office overlooked a parking lot. We grabbed every stack of paper we could find and piled them high around his desk- his office was a mess. Slightly behind him we put a disposable styrofoam cooler – in one of the improvisational takes he reaches behind him and takes out a bottled water, as if offering it to a client or the viewer. “Want one?”

As Shac did his lines, the actresses were getting changed for the Golden Gate Park shots- they were to be wearing a different outfit, something more active. Sarah was miming clutching her chest as she did in her take, and I don’t know what the rest of them were doing over there, but it was very distracting!

All that was left was the segment of “Suckerpunch!” We had a slight problem because Mr Hardie had forgotten to bring a change of clothes… we didn’t want him to always have the same outfit on in every shot. Brian provided a leather jacket he had and we combined it with a T-Shirt for a retro punk look.

We went out on the street in front of the loft.

Next up was Brian’s cameo as “that guy who gets hit in the stomach.” The idea is we see some guy coming out of a loft, and Ben just slugs him, turns around, and mugs the camera. Brian thought it would be extra funny if it was more obviously a loft, and he was talking loudly on a cell phone as he left the building… so that is exactly what he did.

Something about the shot just wasn’t really working. The camera was looking into the lobby, and we could see Brian walking out. Suddenly Ben swoops in from the left, hits him, and then runs.

We tried a different shot- Kirby would follow Ben as he kind of jogged along the sidewalk. Just as he got to the front door, Brian would come out… Ben hits him, grins at the camera, and breaks into a run. Kirby and the camera sprint after him, giving the shot a more guerilla look.

There was a small problem. Brian couldn’t see any of them coming from the lobby. So I stood in the middle of the street on Bryant, a fairly major street near highway 80, and signalled Brian when to come out the door. Muni busses were passing us all the time, and their drivers aren’t exactly known for their safety record, so that was exciting for me anyway.

On about the second take, the timing was perfect- Brian takes the punch and goes down with an audible “oof!” As Ben sprints away, a Muni is passing… seeing the guy getting beaten up, the driver screeches on the brakes, bringing the bus to a halt. He opened the door and asked if Brian was alright… all the while Brian was waving to them to shut up. Since sometimes Muni will pass us when we are waiting at the stop, we all decided that is a better way to catch the bus- stage a big fight on the sidewalk next to the stop. We ended up using that take; you can hear the squeal of the bus as it stops.

We packed up to leave. Ben Scott and Lauren sat in the Durango while we loaded up, listening to Alice (a pop rock radio station). They were sitting on the same side of the car, in the same pose, each in their own window- and singing the lyrics together with the same chilled-out expression. Very entertaining.

Just before we left I called Tom McClure to check on his effort. Emily had gotten there and they were recording her in the bathroom. She was expecting a home studio or something… that must have been a surprise.

Location 2: Golden Gate Park

We were back on the road for our most “guerilla” stage of the shoot- a drive through Golden Gate Park on the way to the bridge. There is a “bison paddock” in the middle of the park, which is totally crazy if you find it without knowing about it- Golden Gate Park is a big swath of green in the middle of two strips of dense housing, and full of picnickers and people playing ultimate frisbee. And then, in the middle of the park, is a big meadow… with giant brown hairballs slowly lumbering around their own meadow.

Note these are not buffalo- they are bison. The buffalo are extinct. These bison are fenced in during the night and sleep in a sort of stable. Kind of like a single-animal zoo. A zoo you don’t have to pay admission to see. Unless you count property taxes.

I’m thinking there aren’t many places that have a bison paddock just open like this. So we decided to use it as a landmark of sorts… in our clip the four cast members of Xtremely Xtreme are trying to jump the fence for whatever reason. That shot actually was pretty easy, that’s all I have to say about it.

On the way to the bridge, we took the “scenic route.” There is a road that snakes from the park to the Golden Gate Bridge. Along the way there are a bunch of great places for tourists to take photos of themselves with the bridge in the background. It’s a great location… however it’s also pretty well known location and parking is tricky.

This is where our guerilla filmmaking experience came in handy- while Shac was parking, we grabbed the cast and the camera. By the time he had found a spot, we had already finished the shot! The shot was pretty simple; it was just the cast lounging and posing in front of the bridge. My direction: “Scott, be more fat!”

Location 3: Golden Gate Bridge

Finally, our centerpiece shot- the Bridge. Of course, this is the the photography Mecca for tourists in San Francisco, and parking is totally impossible. There was a line of cars waiting to poach newly-vacated parking spaces from each other. We unloaded everyone and Shac and I tried to park for about 30 minutes.

On the positive side, the weather was great! It was so sunny on the bridge we were pretty hot in our T-shirts. We shot our scene- the traffic was so loud the actors had to shout their lines. In post we mostly covered this sound with music from Tom. Lauren helped us carry gear and was a full-fledged part of the production- I started to realize our production schedule was pretty boring for her for the first half of the shoot.

Next stop, San Leandro. We drove along Van Ness- the street was basically another parking lot, but we needed the mental break.

Location 4: Zocalo CoffeeHouse

Around the time the sun was setting (17:30 or so) our caravan finally arrived at Zocalo Coffeehouse. It was close to their closing time and the only people there were a couple of students. So, we just started shooting around them.

As I mentioned before, owner Tim Holmes was very helpful for our production. Tim and Zocalo are very friendly to the arts, and there are art exhibits and sales there pretty often.

At this point, people on the crew were starting to get distracted. Some of the guys were starting to spend a lot of time socializing with the actresses. I support people having a good time… but on a shoot, we have to stay focussed, especially when we have the crazy time constraints of the 48 hour limit.

Jennifer was ready for her interview. She was wearing the wife-beater she had used for the outdoor shots, but she still didn’t look quite “Gritty” enough. So we put goo (pomade) in her hair and slicked it back for a oily “alternative” look. Jennifer said “This is so gross” and looked like a wet cat- kind of feeling yucky but not complaining or acting on it.

There was a small problem: Jennifer didn’t personally know any angry activist types… the type of people who will get you into a political discussion in every conversation, who will accuse you of being complacent or oppressive regardless of what you say… that was the kind of person we meet so often in San Francisco, and who I wanted the character of “Jennifer” to be like.

We told her to be kind of man-hating. Ambiguously gay. Jennifer didn’t know any lesbians. Wow.

So, we told Jennifer to play an angry beat poet. Unfortunately she didn’t know what beat poetry was…

Spoken word? no, never heard of it. ShaC said to think of Mike Myers in “So I Married An Axe Murderer.” She hadn’t even seen that movie! Oh, man… the crew started reciting the beat poetry pieces from the movie, independently at first, and then in unison.

Zocalo is what a cafe should be; filled with ways to wile away the time on a rainy day, with giant couches and reams of magazines right next to the picture windows looking out onto the street. So to shoot Jennifer’s interview, we had her on one of the giant leather couches next to the big table of magazines.

Jennifer is a small person already, so to make her look extra small I had her sit in the far corner and pulled way out so she is a tiny speck in an ocean of black leather. As the interview continues, we zoom in farther and farther to suggest a growing intimacy.

Since Jennifer is the only really competent person on the “Cast” of the reality show, she is the voice (if slightly abrasive voice) of reason. When no one can remember the clue that costs Scott his hand, she is the one to tell the audience exactly what it was.

In the next scene, Jennifer stands in front of the counter and talks about “her” cafe… we found an apron for her. She delivered her “where are they now” lines with an intense deadpan which still cracks me up every time I see it.

JENNIFER: I also do spoken-word poetry!

At the screening the next week, the San Francisco audience loved this bit- I think a lot of them recognized people they knew in Jennifer.

It was time for Jennifer’s funniest act: the beat poetry. We hadn’t written any for her, but I was prepared to come up with something if we needed to… I had her stand on a hay bale in the corner next to the ubiquitous bulletin board covered with ads for community events.

Jennifer’s ability to improvise was impressive- inspired, I had her stand up there with her fist in the air and told her to free associate. We gave her a beat and she spat out words to the rhythm… We did this for about ten minutes, and by the end she really got something going, and sounded like a real “spoken word artist.”

Midway through her routine, some regulars arrived, got their coffee, and sat down to listen to her. When she finished each piece, they applauded. This was great! When she finished I made sure we had gotten everything…

BRIAN: That was great. Was that all original?
JENNIFER: Yeah… feels like I was pulling things out of my ass…
BRIAN: Welcome to Spoken Word!

I called Diane as we did a strike, to ask her to get pizza started. Everyone was dog tired and I knew we still had about a third of the shoot to go! Although it was about 19:30, it felt like it was long past midnight- we had been actively shooting since 07:00. I was hoping filling everyone with pizza would get some of our energy back.

Location 5: Casa Diane

By the time we got to Diane and my apartment, she had hot pizzas just out of the oven ready for us. Mmmm…. the actors and crew stuffed themselves while the producers (Shac, Kirby and I) had a quick meeting out on the balcony. Slowly people gathered their second wind.

We set up the DP lights to focus on our art-deco-ish couch- this is where Lauren’s interview would be shot. Lauren came back from retouching her makeup in all her rockergirl glory. The room was getting hotter than hell, with the ovens for the pizza and all the exhausted bodies, so we turned on two giant fans to circulate air.

We set up the camera and started the take- when we turned on the DPs, the fans slowed and all the lights dimmed. Diane and Shac lunged for the switches and within the space of two seconds had turned off everything they could, to avoid blowing every fuse and breaker in the building! The actors had no idea why we freaked out so quickly. We had to cut the shot down to one light and turn off our fans.

Lauren had been reading her lines all day, and working on her character. When we had written Lauren’s part, I was thinking of my old roommate Richele, who is the ass-kickingest woman I have ever met. She partied like a rock star and swore like a sailor, and sometimes for lack of a better word she was just mean. A lot of people in our co-op were really afraid of her.

So even though we didn’t tell Lauren any of this, she ended up being like Richele, if Richele was a girl on MTV. At one point when it is revealed that Scott has cut off his right hand, she says

“I don’t know what the big deal is- I mean, isn’t he left-handed anyways?”

When I was editing her clips I kept wincing and saying “Ouch! That’s just cold!!” and “Oh my god- it’s totally Richele!”

Lauren was really into the line “naked cake!” and did a bunch of “recreational takes,” including one where she does an air-guitar riff.

Location 6: Lorenzo Theater

There is a vintage movie theater in San Lorenzo called The Lorenzo Theater. It is decorated in an Art Deco style, and has 3 story Deco murals of panthers on the walls of the auditorium. The Lorenzo was the center of that community for decades, but when the commuter ferry from San Francisco stopped running in the 1950’s, San Lorenzo became a lot less popular. The theater fell on hard times, its neon going unfixed, and finally being abandoned in the late 1970s.

My fiance Diane has been trying to save this theater since her childhood. Recently she was elected to the board of the Save the Lorenzo Foundation. Since we had an “in,” we thought using the theater as a location would be pretty cool. Of all the productions, we had by far the best locations available to us- a cafe, a candy store, and a ruined theater.

Kirby declared that he would handle our required shot, the one including the character of Hugh Simon, Bouncer, starring Matt Young as Mr. Simon. Since it was the first shot at that location, all the gear had to be unloaded… so Kirby, ShaC, Matt and Lauren dealt with that while I grabbed the other four members of the cast.

Without telling them what we were doing, we walked into the alley next to the theater.

BRIAN: OK, are you guys ready?
SCOTT (BEN): What are we doing?
BRIAN: We’re going to simulate the show. Ready? O K, GET IN THE DUMPSTER! JUMP IN THE DUMPSTER! GO GO GO! HURRY FASTER! OK!

Without knowing what was in it, everyone scrambled into the dumpster. Since I knew this particular dumpster rarely had anything but cardboard in it, I wasn’t too worried about them getting tetanus or anything. Everyone was in, and they could barely hear me.


While the cast brushed themselves off, Kirby did Matt’s shot- he covered the only light we had set up with a red gel to make the alley look extra “clubby.”

Matt was really inspired as Hugh Simon. He wore a tight black T Shirt and didn’t uncross his arms for the entire interview. It was while I was editing this shot that I wished we had higher resolution gear for the first time. In one of his takes, Matt improvised a line-

HUGH SIMON: Yeah, they do some crazy stuff on that show. The kind of things you’d do after smoking a couple of bowls.

After saying this he eyes the camera, as if suddenly realizing he’s said something incriminating.

In person, it’s really funny. On miniDV, you can barely make out his eyes moving… I think HD would have caught it. Or film. I guess since they were projecting with a NTSC projector it wouldn’t have made a difference for our primary venue (the Roxy).

For Kirby’s only moment on screen, which we knew would be included without sound and edited down to only a few seconds, the idea was to have it a high-tech MTV shot with the fog machine running full blast, soft blue lights in the background.

We had our industrial-strength fog machine (usually used by DJs), and some blue gels for our lights. The problem was, our gels were photography filters, so they didn’t really make the light “blue,” so much as give the light a clean, daylight quality. They worked great when we needed to make daylight in our previous production… but now we really wanted a scene that was actually blue.

Sooo…. that wasn’t going to happen. And we were running out of time. So we decided to cut bait and just shoot Kirby ranting at the camera in a overly-peppy VeeJay style (think Jenny McCarthy on “Singled Out”).

It took a while for Kirby to get going. We had written him no lines, just what the heck was he supposed to say? I got him screaming about Fred Durst. That got some good action.

Next was “The Room Where Scott Cuts Off His Hand.”

Originally a storage room, it’s under the sloped floor of the seats in the auditorium. Like the rest of the theater, it hasn’t been used in over 20 years, but unlike the rest of the theater, it’s small enough for transients to sleep in and until a recent cleanup effort really looked like someone had been killed there. Yikes.

While we set up, we put Jennifer in the room. These shots were meant to look like they were shot using a light-intensifier, that green glow popularized by “Silence of the Lambs”… however, once again our filters we just light gels, and were not up to the task. I wanted to overlight the center of the shot, and so simulate the flat look with the overexposed center you see with those “night cams” (have you seen Paris Hilton’s sex tape? like that). We tried to get it with a spot DP, but it still wasn’t really working. Whatever.

Also, the hand- how was this going to work? I had envisioned a key resting in a plastic hand, to make the clue given to the contestants make sense. The clue:

In the darkness you must stand,
Until you find a helping hand

The implication being, look for a hand. Scott interprets this as “cut off your hand and we’ll let you out.”

We had the hand of “Annie,” our mannequin named after Annie Lennox… Because I knew I would be doing a lot of jump-cuts for this shot, the hand had to stay perfectly stationary. The shot was not compelling if the hand was easily seen in the frame- besides which, wouldn’t the actors easily see it? I decided to put the hand directly below the lens, with the fingers protruding into the frame.

To complicate this, the camera had to be behind the hand, so there was no way to attach the hand to a wall. We ended up wrapping the hand in duct-tape and attaching it to the end of the mic stand. Yay duct tape!

The acting challenge for both Jennifer and Ben: they had to act like they couldn’t see anything in a well-lit room.

Now came the big scene with Scott.
In real life, Ben Scott is a system administrator, a “computer guy” who also does theater and opera singing. To cast him as someone really stupid was a bit of a stretch… but he did a great job. This turned out to be quite the windfall for us, because almost all of the footage we used for him was improvisational.

We had the camera rolling and kind of gave him vague directions around the room- “Go to the corner! Now do something! Be bored! More bored! More!” Some of the time we just watched him sit and do random things- at one point he licked the hacksaw. I think we told him to do that but honestly I can’t remember.

If I ever make a horror movie, Ben Scott is totally going to be in it. He has a great range and I was very pleasantly surprised. Every time I see him trip over the toolbox, which is out of frame, I start laughing. That was truly inspired and was a great way to have him “find” the toolbox. Scott’s slightly frantic look when he’s looking at the camera was really unsettling… We wet his head a little to give him a more sweaty impression.

Then came the sawing scene. We had no special effects (unless you count our green light) so he would have to saw his hand off slightly out of frame. This was actually my original plan- taking a page from all the (hopefully!) fake snuff films I’ve seen, I felt it would be more realistic if the framing was bad and it just happened that we couldn’t see the hand. If I had to do it again with a higher budget and more time (ha!) I would spatter just a hint of blood, barely seen in the green light of the “night cam.”

We had him scream… and scream. It was just me, ShaC, and Ben in the room there- everyone else was in the lobby or outside. The screams echoed through the abandoned theater… I later heard that the cast was all either laughing or creeped out. Dy was a little edgy, wondering what we were doing to her poor theater…

When we were finally finished with Ben’s performance, the crew and I put away the gear while Diane treated the cast to a brief tour of the Lorenzo’s murals and showed them under black light.

In the 1940’s, when the theater was constructed, the artist Anthony T Heinsbergen painted a three-story mural of Art Deco panthers in a surreal jungle landscape. The mural is beautiful on its own, and forms one of the major reasons to preserve the theater- but in its prime the theater had black lights installed in the eves. The mural glows under ultraviolet lights! There are pictures of what this looks like on the Lorenzo Theater Foundation site.

Kirby and ShaC got everyone to start packing up while Ben Scott and I went out to shoot some footage of Scott wandering around the streets at night. It’s a good thing we did, because when I was editing later, I realized we had almost no footage of Scott to introduce him!

Location 7: Back to Daly City

At this point we were so tired I was almost falling asleep at the wheel. We didn’t realize it then, but we were all coming down with a cold that ShaC’s fiance had. All that was keeping me going now was a commitment to our schedule and an unwillingness to let the cast and crew down by flaking on our movie. We had only a single “location” left- even though we still had three shots to go.

First we did Scott’s main interview and the miscellaneous snippets. A number of important things had to happen here: not only did we need his actual interview, we also needed our required element of an appearance of a vinyl record.

Kirby happened to have a corner of his garage that is outfitted as a 1950’s diner- complete with a red leather-covered booth, metal-rimmed table, and a milkshake machine that can do 4 malteds at the same time. The garage is also a storage area for all the random stuff he and his roommates have accumulated (ok, and mine too), so in the background of Scott’s interview you can see one of those paintings street artists make with spray-paint, and a boar’s head wearing sunglasses.

As I mentioned previously, Ben Scott is a great improvisor. His fumbling with the record still cracks me up; Scott is really believable as a truly inept fool in this story. For our prop, Diane had given us the Meatloaf “Bat out of Hell” album, which I think she chose for its cheeseyness, mainstream appeal, and its relatively low position in preference in her personal collection. For whatever reason, every time Ben held it up, we started giggling. Meatloaf!! At several points, someone holding a lightstand or unloading the Durango would start singing in a fulcetto

I would do , anything for love

While we were filming, Kirby worked on Matt’s makeup for the next shot. We happened to have a few spare clown costumes, complete with red noses and wigs, and some makeup, just lying around… the problem is they are sort of “one size fits all” and Matt is a pretty big guy- the only way he could fit into the costume was to get into it naked, and even then the zipper wouldn’t close in the back, creating a kind of hospital-gown-on-mescaline effect. Kirby gave him a bedsheet or something to drape over his shoulders, so he wouldn’t be exposing himself every time he showed someone his back.

Once we were done with Scott’s interview, we moved all the gear from inside the garage to the front of the house – but if Kirby’s poor neighbors were wondering why there was a 1000 Watt lamp pointed into their windows at 11 pm at night, they didn’t ask us. We ran the tons of extension cords outside, and started the painful process of levelling the microphones. While we worked on setting up, Sarah and Matt started improvising.

The idea of this shot was sort of involved – we were doing “where are they now” segments for each of the characters – Tom’s was hitting Brian in the stomach outside a loft, and Sarah’s was a guest appearance on yet another fake show called Xtreme Dating.

Are you keeping track? The fake shows we invented for this one ten minute short are:

  1. TRUE reality Stories
  2. Xtremely Xtreme
  4. Suckerpunch!
  5. Xtreme Dating

So all the viewer gets to see of Xtreme Dating is Sarah outside a house at night, presumably her house, slapping a clown, presumably because he just said something fresh.

So to work up to this we had them improvise a little bit… actually they were just screwing around, because they didn’t hear us when we said the sound was ok and to get ready for the real thing. Since they couldn’t see us behind the lights, they couldn’t see us rolling around on the street, silently doubled up from laughing so hard.

Have I mentioned their improv was really funny? Sarah was trying to let this clown down, and he was trying to justify how their relationship wasn’t doomed just because he was a clown. This entire 10-minute outtake ended up on the DVD; it’s almost longer than the feature!

At one point, the clown tells Sarah, “It’s just like I said at dinner- it’s just like taking a big dump.” Implying, he was trying to get her to agree to have anal sex with him. However, Sarah kept on going through their scene! Once we stopped, we asked her “Why didn’t you hit him?” If she didn’t slap him then, what could he possibly have said to make her slap him? If she didn’t object to that, I don’t know how this date couldn’t have gone well! As it turned out, Sarah couldn’t quite bring herself to believe he had said something so disgusting at the time. We spent about half an hour on that one 5 second shot, and we had to do a bunch of takes to get a good solid slap.

By this time it was around 11:30.
Not too late for a normal night, but since we had all been very active all day,
and we were all getting sick, everyone was really wiped, and it was showing-
while we shot the “Xtreme Dating” scene, what we thought would be a 5 second clip, we were all so slap-happy
that we tried hard not to giggle during the shoot.

Most of the cast was asleep upstairs. Tom’s interview was on the couch.
So we got to kick everyone awake, and they all went into Ben Hardie’s room, which was ok, since he was playing Tom…

Tom’s interview was interesting… Ben Hardie is a skilled improvisor and has actually worked in theater before, so I wasn’t worried about doing his segment, which is part of the reason I scheduled it last: I knew we could do it short-handed and dead tired.

As my co-writer, Ben had written all his own lines, which I thought were pretty funny when we wrote them down 24 hours earlier. I hadn’t quite imagined how he was to deliver them though- Mr. Hardie has a warped sense of humor that really adds to the seemingly benign lines of his character “Tom.”

The best example: Tom describes a new show he’s on, called “Suckerpunch!”

TOM: Watch for me this season on “Suckerpunch!” – lodged between “Will & Grace” and “ER” every Thursday night.

It sounds like just a normal promotion- but when Ben does it, Tom becomes this smug weirdo, creepily delusional about how great his show is.
After we watch the brief clip of Tom hitting a total stranger in the stomach, and then running away- we then cut back to Tom in the interview, where he smugly nods, acknowledging what he assumes will be the positive and enthusiastic reaction of the audience.

When we shot it, everyone (who was still awake) was laughing, and I was just floored with this really bizarre innovation on the character. Okay, enough gushing.

After that shot we kicked everyone awake to take them home. Jennifer was barely able to walk down the stairs.

I drove home to get a few hours of sleep before I started editing.
I was still so amped that I couldn’t rest until all my gear was put away and the batteries were safely in their charging cradles. About 30 hours of our 48 had elapsed and I could feel the time running out.

Post: Get up!

After getting to sleep around 2:30 am, I woke up around 5 am. Obviously not fully rested, I realized I was going to sit in bed awake if I stayed there, and that at this point, the success or failure of the short would be on just me and Tom McClure. Well, and Kirby- we had still yet to record the Narrator’s lines, and he was the man.

I hadn’t wanted to put Tom out, and so I had planned on him simply emailing me his digitized music. This was already a compromise from my earlier, stupider plan, of me going over there to retrieve the music myself, and to sync it with the video. That earlier plan would have been absolute suicide as it turns out, because we would have been unable to make tweaks in the edit after we brought it over, and also I would be losing two hours in transit time alone.

Instead, Tom decided to come over and join the effort in person. He brought over his keyboard and its stand; a mixer of some sort, and his laptop with a screen. I was impressed; this was a lot of gear and he set it up very quickly, getting to work immediately. He had themes for all our segments already and did a quick demonstration.

It may sound like we didn’t really need Tom there, which is what I thought at first… however, him being with me while I edited actually saved us several times.

Post: Get over here!

Sampling all the takes into the computer was mind-numbing. Since I am a fast editor, the transfer process probably took 20%-30% of the entire editing time. Next time I need someone to take a night shift and do that part for me!

Suddenly, around 10 am, a moment of panic: I realized that we didn’t have releases for all the cast and crew. This is important paperwork that must be turned into the contest organizers.

While I was editing, I also realized we did something stupid- on Friday, we had printed an earlier version of the script, and the instance of The Line (“I was lied to, and very much deceived!”) was missing. It should have been in Scott’s interview- we had shot it later in the day, so we had gotten our system down cold, checking every line to make sure it was covered. However since the version of the script we were using didn’t even have the missing Line… it was around this time I also realized we had missed an important line of Sarah’s where she describes the mechanics of the game show.

I called up ShaC. He answered his phone groggily with a single statement and before I even said anything –

SHAC: “I hate you.”

No one else would call him this early! In addition he was now sick with a very bad cold. In a few days everyone on the cast would also be sick. He agreed to come over and sign his release, and help with the coverage we would have to put together.

I called up Kirby and told him we would have to do some coverage shots. He wrangled Ben Hardie and Matt Young for a small, reliable hit squad, and I called Ben Scott out of church to come over to shoot some of his Scott scenes.

The editing was mostly done, but for those shots. While I was waiting I pulled out the camera and went next door to ask a favor of our neighbors Chris and Larry. I needed some more “man on the street” interviews for the opening of the short. In the original version of the short, we are introduced to Xtremely Xtreme through a series of interviews , one of which was the one we shot with Emily in front of Muni about 24 hours earlier.

I did a quick few takes with Larry- he had no idea what we were doing, but he did great- I basically told him what to say, and he rephrased it a little and repeated it back to me.

As it turned out, we didn’t use any of the street footage, due to time constraints – at 10 minutes and 20-odd seconds, the short was a little too long already, and it was already noon. Rememeber, we had to turn this in at 7 pm at the latest.

Post: Coverage

We were running out of time and there were some problems with our graphics slates.
Diane was doing them in Maya, an animation package, and had whipped together two great animations for us- one that was sort of a watery, blobby field, for “Xtremely Xtreme”, and the other which was a red, firey mass, for the background of “TRUE Reality Story.” The first problem was the format of the Maya export – it wasn’t something we could use on the Mac.

The second problem was getting the data from Diane’s machine to my editing machine. Neither machine had a floppy drive, so every time we wanted to transfer a file, we had to either burn a new CD, or upload to a remote machine and then download again. These are high-resolution video files, so every transfer would take a very long time! In addition, the network wasn’t very fast that day.

Tom swooped in to our rescue: he set up a FTP server on one of the machines, and reduced our transfer to a simple Ethernet connection. Yay!

Kirby, Matt, and Ben Hardie arrived and set up the camera in the living room to record the Narrator’s lines. We would just be using the audio off the tape, but we were keeping the video to synch up (I ended up using the same technique for the Commentary trac

I wrote up all my notes from the crazy weekend we shot and edited Xtremely Xtreme.