So, you wanna hear a story about making a movie? You’re in luck because I feel like telling one.
It all began around 1999. We began filming short films together. Joe and Derek had already filmed some horrible comedy art together with other friends. And by before, I mean before over-the-counter editing software. You know, back when fledgeling film makers pressed pause at the end of a good take on a VHS camcorder, then set up the next scene, yelled “action” and un-paused to record the next shot in progression. On a larger scale, this is the way Spielberg creates his films… editing as he films. He doesn’t always care about continuity, as long as the shot is just right. For those of you who don’t know what film continuity is, think of when you are watching a film and from one shot to the next an actor might be facing the wrong way, or have his hand up in one shot and then down in the next. It’s called breaking continuity and takes one out of the suspension of disbelief (end rant).
After borrowing my bands video camera for our first shorts, Joe got a new 1-chip Sony digital camcorder, which would be technologically defunct in a few years. We were off to the races. We filmed some real rotten clams, including: “Where’s Terry,” “Kung Fu Tennis,” “Gutter Sluts,” (or was it “Gutter Balls,” I can’t remember) “The Art Teacher,” and finally “Dax Hunter.” All of them were a blast to make. Some friends get together to watch sports, but we spent most of our time coming up with stories, then planning and filming them. Our friends would watch these “pieces of art” obligingly, like parents watching a first grade choir trying to sing Mozart; doesn’t sound good, but it sure is cute. We also wrote a couple of full-length screenplays that were 5% decent and 95% indecent.
It was also around this time that our friend Brad became a card-carrying member of our ragtag band of miscreants. We’d known him for years, as he used to come see my band play, but we suddenly became much closer to him as he started pitching in to help with our shorts. He was just starting to work in the business, filming local commercials and news spots for a hack outfit. He was doing everything from lighting to camera work to editing, but his real passion finally ended up being lighting, which has become a career for him and a blessing for us. He has since flourished and has worked for some of Hollywood’s largest productions, including blockbuster features and many popular television series. He is definitely the most seasoned out of all of us.
Getting one over on your buddies is a favorite past time of ours, so around Christmas, 2004, Derek and I were thinking of what kind of terrible present we could make for our friends. Just like making our own movies, we’ve all enjoyed making our own gifts for each other. Not that we’re snobs or anything; if you saw these gifts lying in the road you’d probably swerve in order to make sure you ran over them. My then girlfriend (now my wife) had finally upgraded to Mac’s OS X and I had just gotten into using Garage Band, so Derek and I came up with the gift – we’d record a Christmas album. The “best Christmas album ever.” My wife is a graphic designer and put together the “best album cover ever.” We wrapped up a copy and gave it to each friend. Everyone loved the idiocy of it, but Joe took it a little too far. At his families Christmas festivities he opened the gift and quickly popped it into the cd player. The looks on his family’s faces were glazed mortification and after about three listens and many pleading voices calling for a stop to the audible harassment, he called me and said “Beastie, this is our next movie.” Damn him, he was right and our little joke just became unforeseeable years of toil.
We decided that we were done filming shorts. We’d become proficient at it, or at least our version of it. Our shorts were always too long and festivals seemed to shy away from them. We were always trying to wrap a feature into a short, which most times doesn’t work quite right. It just doesn’t play well when you have an 18 minute short sandwiched into a program with three other shorts that are between three and eight minutes long. It was always a dream of ours to create a feature and we were determined to write and film our first one. It would be called: The Karaoke Brothers (angels sing here).
The first script draft was done in the summer of 2005. We went through months of rewrites and edits, which is usually the correct thing to do. After all, I think I’ve heard some sort of maxim that says something like “all writing is rewriting.” It took a lot of “kill your darlings” (thank you Steven King for the advice) style script editing to shape the screenplay into something that was remotely within our ability to shoot. I am long winded and love the written word while Joe thinks very visually, so our writing complemented each other well. We passed the final draft by the others and off we went.
Since all of us had full-time jobs, it took a long time before we were able to shoot it. In the days of our short films, we never had to go out of our tent to find actors; we limited speaking rolls to four or five. But for this beast, we had a lot of actors to find who were capable of actually acting, not just speaking. We also needed multiple locations that we could spend a lot of time at. Oh, and we had no fucking money to spend. A rough go all around.
So it took a lot of begging and cajoling of anyone who would listen and participate, but we pressed on with our plans and began shooting in July of 2007. It sounds like a long time just to start filming, but for us it went by so quickly and we never lost interest in our passion. All of us took a week off of work that July, and we filmed the bulk of the movie on a small ranch in Jamul, just east of San Diego (thanks to Brant Beauchamp and his wonderful family). It was about 100 degrees every day and felt like an adult summer camp from minute to minute; I’m sure you will read more stories of the on-set antics in future blog articles.
After that, we would shoot on weekends here and there. If you’ve ever filmed a movie of your own, no matter the length of the film, you know how challenging it is, especially if you are trying to do things right; lighting, sound, proper shots, etc. We got lucky a million times, and unlucky two million times. We had friends donate their time and energy in ways that went beyond generosity. We met shady and non-shady characters alike who let us film at their businesses and homes just to be nice. It was incredible and by October 2008 we were done filming. We had to be, because I had bought a house in Michigan and was moving away. I spent the last few months in town getting all of my ADR (additional dialogue recording) done before I left. Any shot we were missing would have to be cut from the movie, because nothing else was going to be done. And, interestingly enough, nothing else got done for a long time.
At the same time that I was packing up and leaving my friends, Joe, who is our unelected and undeniable leader, was running into some problems. Joe has always bared the brunt of our adventures, technologically speaking. He had never had much of a problem with this before as it was always a deep passion of his. Our roles were determined early, and one of his became that of director. Also, he had always been our editor. He’s a web designer by day and can make the website for the movie. He’s the one who can design dvd covers. He was the one with a house where we could throw a party and show our movies. He had directed this project for two years and we’d reached the point where he was going to have to spend countless hours in his home office editing this movie and all without me, since I had left dodge. So just when things were gonna be tough as hell for him, he and his old lady at the time split up. He’s the kind of guy that has some Charles Bronson in the soul, so when the split happened, it was kind of mandatory to spend some time in a a dark place with his friend James – not Spader, Beam. He had some drinking to do and a lady to wash off of his soul.
The movie languished like a drunk in a dry county. Every once in a while Joe found some room for the movie. He spent a few months in 2009 getting all of the actors back in the “studio” (a room he rented from a friend in her condo) to record all of their ADR. And then…the movie languished. It became something uncomfortable for all of us. None of us were mad, and none of us were to blame. We floated ideas on finishing the thing. We were so close. It was in the can, for crying out loud. Joe had the thing 85% done. Could we hire someone to finish it; each of us kicking in a quarter of the cost for an editor? Could I do it? We tried that. Joe sent me the whole project in 2012. I thought I could pull it off, but the end of Final Cut Software’s linear version bit me in the ass and I couldn’t come up with the dough for the right computer. We were sunk. The movie would never be finished.
We talked about it here and there in uncomfortable tones. Since Joe’s divorce in 2008, we had done an annual retreat on my property – swamp hiking, shooting guns, swimming in my pond, fishing, way too much liquor – pretty much everything a red blooded American needs to get back on track.
Joe’s soul being cleansed and refreshed, when he got home he started working on the movie again. By now he was living in San Francisco and was happily married to a woman that fit him like a gold lamé sleeping bag. Shortly after our 2013 summer gathering, he called me and said that he and one of our friends Johnny (who plays the character “Johnny” in the movie – big stretch, I know) were working on the film again and making crazy, rapid progress. Johnny has the worst full-blown case of A.D.D. you can imagine, but the kid has heart. After a few sittings with Joe, Johnny fancied himself a master editor, started becoming a plague on Joe, and through thusly, at mind blowing speed, they re-worked the old lemon. I’m sure some of it was so that Joe could get Johnny out of the editing room. Nonetheless, it was working. The movie was treating us less like a cross schoolmarm and more like a fast girl on prom night. We were gonna go all the way! Could it be true? Would we finish a zero-budget feature film in only 9 years?
Now, I know that some people might think that we’re a group of losers who took nine fucking years to finish a hobby project. Maybe those people would be right, but how many people have finished their great American novel? How many people have completed the restoration of that vintage car they bought in 2001? Or what about fulfilling that dream to get out from under the man’s thumb? A labor of love is just that – a love of the labor. The opus would see light.
In hindsight, I’m sure Joe knew when he unwrapped that Christmas cd that he loved the way his mind began creating and shaping a new story. I knew as I wrote the first draft that I loved the story of The Karaoke Brothers beyond the words on the page. Not only did we all act in the movie, but the characters that each of us portrayed really borrowed from our real-life personalities. And we all knew as we filmed that we loved working together under the gun. And someday soon, you my dear reader, may see this movie and love it too. Or you may ask for your money back and watch us scuttle out the back of the crumbling theatre. Either way, we did it and we’re proud parents to a 5 headed beast that is crowning and may just show in a little unknown theater in your town.