I Hate Filmmaking, It’s Awesome: a Cautionary(?) Tale
by Ryan Ellington
It’s four in the morning, and we’re driving around downtown Shawnee in my roommate’s Dodge Avenger. We arrive out front our actress’s house. There are no lights on and her car is gone. We’re making an indie film.
“I think we’ve been stood up,” I mumble. From behind us, an engine sputters. Her van rolls half-heartedly into the driveway and she stumbles out.
“What do I need to wear?” she asks.
“Everything you’ve got on is just fine,” Jesse, the director, replies. We headed toward the set, a dilapidated church in the heart of the city.
“We have to pick up Donny on the way,” I inform her.
“Have I met Donny?” she asks. She probably has. He lives in the retirement home next to City Hall, and it’s a long story. He moseys out the double doors in a tank top and Hawaiian shirt, and we couldn’t have dressed him any better. But now we’re an hour-and-half behind schedule, so we speed through the alleyways and arrive as two extras are packing up their things.
“We’re so sorry to keep you waiting,” Jesse says.
“We’ve got church in the morning,” they frown.
“You’re at a church right now,” I chime in. “Think of this as religious art. You’re practically at a worship service.” They agree to stay, and the shoot goes on. We’ll all go to church the next morning, satisfied for having shot Ghost Cop.
Turning a Script Into a Movie
I don’t know what it’s like to be on a professional set, to draft a script on commission and watch it come to life. Perhaps it’s more predictable. What experience I do have is in “guerilla filmmaking,” which is exactly as turbulent as it sounds. I highly recommend it. You spend however long working on a spec script – in our case, about one night, after watching through a series of old cop movies – without much sense of whether it’ll ever become a reality. We’d spent a month hammering out a tongue-in-cheek Batman script, in which James Gordon becomes a Paul Kersey-esque vigilante, gunning down mobsters; Victor Zsasz kidnaps and murders women, as one does, until Selina Kyle overpowers him and forces him to cut his genitals off; The Joker, from inside Arkham Asylum, convinces Bruce Wayne that his nocturnal crime-fighting has only worsened the plight of Gothamites, et cetera. The script ended with Batman hurling himself from the top of the tallest building in Gotham, presumably ruling out any sequels. Meanwhile, I was drafting a cult-horror film with our friend Abby. But the Batman script was never going to happen, and pre-production – if you can call it that – on our horror film fell through. Dismayed but hardly surprised, we hammered out Ghost Cop as catharsis. But the problem with “catharsis filmmaking” is that it rarely involves sufficient planning. The closest thing we had to a “Director of Photography” was myself and Trae Brown, from the
Homegrown Filmmaking podcast, and I don’t know anything about how to frame a shot. In the end, Deborah Webber – the music supervisor – was responsible for all the best shots, and Trae’s 35mm camera was doused in soda by an overzealous extra while I was coaching Donny through some dialogue and Trae was setting up a stage light, or something.
Turning Your Footage Into an Actual Movie That Exists
After we wrapped, the editing phase began, during which time we realized that we hadn’t shot sufficient coverage. This is a common enough issue even on studio productions – remember The Snowman (2017)? – but it’s especially problematic when your production budget ceilings at $1000(ish) and half the crew lives out of state.
That was the least of our editorial problems: We’d cut together a handful of sketches for Youtube, and a few of them were funny, but that hardly translates over to long-form storytelling – or even to a short film. In the end, it took six or seven tries before Ghost Cop played half as well as it was written (and it wasn’t written that well).
We premiered the film at City Hall – next to Donny’s retirement home – on October 13th. Unfortunately, it was a surprise screening – most of the audience was there, fittingly, to watch Shawnee’s perennial screening of Friday the 13th – and half the auditorium used the interlude as a last-minute restroom break. But the occasion technically qualified Ghost Cop for entry into most film festivals, and we submitted to as many as we could afford. We were accepted by the First Nations Film and Video Festival, where at least one person enjoyed it. He tracked Jesse down on social media and invited him for a beer.
Doing it All Again, for Some Reason
About the time Ghost Cop was playing at First Nations in Chicago, I had finished up the second draft of our next project, The Woods Off Slover Street. Technically a shortened iteration of our aborted horror film, it centered on two police officers responding to a domestic disturbance and – surprise! – encountering an unexpected slew of spookiness. We raised (very little) money and aimed at shooting in July of this year, this time with better preparation.
We lurked around the college theater department and recruited a handful of students. The cast of Ghost Cop was paid in fast food, but this time around the principal actors were paid $150 for each night of shooting.
But the production, like Ghost Cop, seemed cursed: The cabin Jesse rented deep in the Oklahoma woods and the gravel roads punctured four different tires on four different vehicles; Perhaps inevitably, three separated actresses backed out of the same role because, I guess, the script had too much cannibalism. In the end, Jesse’s wife, Rachel, had to play the role; Because the layout of the cabin was different than expected, Jesse had to rewrite a significant portion of the script and find ways to work around the problems it created.
Cursed Productions are the Only Productions
Adversity builds character, or something (that’s in the Bible): Our lead actress, Lara Gatton, was also the “make-up department,” so at one point a blood-soaked and mostly-naked Gabe Gordon
had to bite and rip raw flank steak from a human dummy that she’d rigged, and the resulting footage is reminiscent of something out of Cellar Dweller, or The Toxic Avenger; A two minute tracking-shot through a dimly-lit hallway took seven crew members and three camera operators to pull off, and looks like it came from a far more expensive film than our own; We ran out of sunlight during one scene in a police station, so we hoisted a 1000 watt Fresnel light to the second story and blasted it through the window to simulate the sunset – the jury’s still out on whether it’s noticeable in the final product.
Okay, You Made Your Indie Film. Go Make Another One
Abel Ferrara says that success means getting your movie in the can, in whatever form. That’s probably true. It didn’t much matter that our productions were cursed, because they always are. Ferrara’s certainly are, though of course he’d probably scoff at Slover Street. You never really know what you’re doing, though, because nobody does, except those folks who do. Turning script into film is chaos – euphoric chaos – which, I assume, is why everyone else does it, too.
After three nights of shooting, Tyler Hill (the executive producer) bought $200 worth of McDonald’s for the cast and crew. Principal photography wrapped around two o’clock and the whole crew stuck around ‘till five.We ate and drank and were merry. We’d made an indie film.
Ryan Ellington is a contributor at Grindhouse Theology, which is dedicated to analyzing the intersections of Christian theology and the horror genre.