At Larrrrst!

I may be jumping the gun here, but word from the director is that Pirates of the White Sand is finished. What can be fixed, has been fixed. I haven’t seen the result yet, but I’m stoked.

Holy crap. More than five years for a 14-minute-long film. I’m not sure I even want to know how many hours fuego’s put in on the thing, but I suspect it’s a large number. This summer between rounds of croquet in Moravia I got glimpses of progress, and a few more tantalizing looks in Santa Fe this July, and the audio was improving steadily.

For those who don’t know, my brother and I co-wrote a script that won the Fellini Award at a screenplay competition. The seven winners were assembled for a week, given crews of uncertain capability, and after three days of shooting and four of editing the films were judges by a star-studded panel. Ours was easily the best script but was hobbled by technical difficulties. Still, we won the Audience Choice award, and our star took best actor. Several other folks donated time as well; I’ll try to put out a thank-you post when I have time to come up with a list. Everyone loves lists!

For the last several years my brother has used his film expertise and connections to gradually work away at fixing the technical flaws. Now, he says he has run out of things to fix.

If I was smart I’d wait until I talked to him to make this announcement, but I’m just too damn excited. Another step toward world domination complete!

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Pirates of the White Sand Now Shipping!

Well, it’s not everything I had hoped it would be, but it looks like things aren’t going to improve any time soon, so I’ve given up waiting and I’m now proud to send out the Official Director’s Bootleg of Pirates of the White Sand.

For those new to the scene, Pirates is a short film co-written by my brother and me. The script won a competition and the prize was the opportunity to participate in the Duke City Shootout, where the movie was created by a volunteer crew with three days of shooting and four of editing. There were, alas, some technical difficulties, particularly audio problems that cannot be repaired (the czech version sounds much better), but the result is still a bunch of fun. I mean, come on, it’s pirates!

I have now mastered the technology to produce copies of this DVD, and I am ready to send them to those who might want them. The catch is that I need addresses. If you would like a copy, send me an email with your mailing address (I don’t recommend putting it in a comment), and I will burn you a DVD, label it before I’ve had too much caffeine in the morning (my penmanship is not too good even in ideal circumstances) and pop it in the post for you. You can find my email address in the first comment for this episode.

Just to keep things sane and keep my postage costs finite, I think I need to limit the number of copies I send out. Let’s start with the first ten people to request the DVD getting one, and we’ll see how that goes.

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I hear those stunt men are crazy

I don’t want to give too much away (as if anything I’m putting in the script now will make it to the screen anyway), but I just wrote a new Most Dangerous Scene To Film. The old Most Dangerous Scene To Film involved two open cars tied together, speeding down the highway while people clamber all over them. Lots of people, fighting one another with cutlasses. Oh, yeah, there’s a big rig coming the other way. (I figure that part’s just a matter of editing magic.) The new MDTFS requires a convertible overflowing with people to jump over a sheer canyon, while other cars crash and fall in.

I’m sure fuego will wave his hands and say “No problem! We do crazier things all the time in this business!” Still, that seems pretty nuts. The stunt people are definitely going to earn their pay on this one. If, that is, we find a way to pay them.

Immediately after writing the above, I returned to the script and wrote the Most Impossible Scene To Film. Oh, but it would be sweet. The moment after the final credits that would just seal the movie, and reward those who stayed. Let’s hope for editing magic.

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The Mysterious Secret Message

I got a text message from fuego, leaping wide oceans in a single bound. “Pirates script due Jan. 8.”

I assume he is not referring to the script we have already written, as, well, a deadline in the future would not be very noteworthy. Unless it’s a Pirates script that includes the ad-libs and other changes made during the shooting, that are not reflected in the master document. That might be it, but what would the point of such a script be?

No, I’m guessing that for some reason we need a new Pirates script, of unknown length (probably significantly longer), for an unknown audience, for an unknown purpose, and for some reason the window of opportunity closes on January 8th.

A good guess is that we need something for a feature-length movie or a television pilot. I hadn’t considered how different those two things can be until tonight as I sat down and started thinking through an outline of the plot. For a TV pilot you need to establish the style that the series will adopt, which limits you to styles that work in smaller chunks and won’t confuse first-time viewers. That means you can’t get too carried away with nonlinear structures and other devices that take time to build. Also, a pilot defines the main issues the characters will face, whereas a movie resolves them.

Getting a polished work of that size done in a month will be a big, big, challenge. We’re with Unlikely on Impossible’s front porch, and we’re ringing the doorbell.

Hopefully by the time I can get this posted I will already have the answers, but right now I’m anxious to start working. If only I knew what to work on.

Post Script: It’s all cool now. I’m a little rusty with english, apparently – I didn’t recognize “jan” as an abbreviation for “June”

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Gotta be there

It’s the little things – the timing that could be a wee bit better, the fill-in radio chatter that needs to be written, the F-117 keychain hanging on my wall that’s needed for a shot. The way they are afraid to push the music forward when atmosphere is more important than realism. Not to mention, Charles the Second needs his Becherovka.

I spent two months on the production of Pirates of the White Sand, and it would be difficult to point to any one thing and say, “Dang! Jerry kicked ass right there.” (Aside from my part of the writing, of course, but that happened long before.) I was (so I tell myself), a general lift to the entire production, leaving very small marks everywhere. There was the general good feeling on the set. I provided pure pie-in-the-sky American Dream. Pirates was not a goal but a vehicle, a stepping stone to something grander. The film was itself theCrusader, a pirate ship ready to storm pop culture. I painted a vision so grand that no one else could be embarrassed for dreaming big. I did that. And honestly, I’m a little bummed that that didn’t show up more in the raw footage. There was sloppiness there that didn’t echo the belief that we were building a new pop-culture franchise.

The last day when, after my incessant whining, we set things up so the pirates could do some serious shouting, it was golden. (Credit must also be given to a crew who gave us a day to go back and do stuff like that.)

Also, I brought an enormous number of breakfast burritos for the crew. And a machine gun.

The part where Moab says “lay a course for the Sierra Madres”? I happened to be paying attention just then, made a comment, and then C-2 used that to change the cut by a fraction of a second, and it was better. So most of the credit goes to Chuck II, because he had the skill and immediately knew what I was talking about. Dude knows his shit. Not to take away from fuego, he was there too, and it was actually a pretty tough cut. They worked together on it for quite a while. I really came to appreciate how many hours of post production go into each second of film you see.

But I made the comment. They probably don’t need me for that so much now that they have time to be picky, but I bet there are places in the flow of things that they are just used to, places where they understand more than the audience, that could be better. I know that’s the way with my writing.

And there are the relationships. I was on the ground for the Duke City Shootout longer than they were, and I just got comfortable with people. It doesn’t sound like they are having any trouble in that regard, but they are dealing with people I would like to see again, whether or not my participation would be helpful. If you’ve been paying attention, you know who I’m talking about.

When it comes right down to it, while intellectually I have surrendered the vision of the story to people with the skills to make it happen, emotionally I am still wrapped up in the thing. I hear reports from far away, encouraging noises, and I know things are in good hands. Skilled hands. Passionate hands.

Just not my hands.

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Back to the bay

The festival over, the parties past, fuego and I took refuge up in Los Alamos for a few days. fuego took care of some personal stuff and we didn’t start fretting about getting back to the editing bay for several hours.

We were caught in the space-warping effects of the Black Hole – days slipped by, but there was no word when we would be able to start editing Pirates. I got some writing done (mostly editing existing works in progress) and fuego started a draft of the pilot/feature version of our movie. I found it difficult to collaborate, though, for two reasons: I had other stories on my mind and we needed a place we could drop into an insulated cocoon and just throw ideas around. Towards the end I was getting back into the mood, and started being more helpful.

Friday we finally got word. There would be facilities available off and on, and we could get started on Saturday. There is one editing station, shared by all the teams, so access may be sporadic. Honestly, though, most of the other films don’t need it as much as we do. Simpler ideas, simpler shots, no disasters in editing, the other movies were closer to being presentable. fuego and I hopped in the car and swept back in the Duke City Saturday morning.

Somewhere along the Santa Fe bypass, about halfway to the big city, fuego said, “I forgot the keys to the Hotelsmobile.” That meant until we got back to Los Alamos we would only have one car, and the giant Olds would remain stationed outside the the Byrne’s house, props we need to return securely locked within. Oh, well.

The editing facilities we found were really nice. Charles the First and fuego set to work, making sure all the bits were there and getting a general feel for what needed to be done. I was simply there to provide an occasional opinion: “We need the sound of the engine roaring there.” “The timing feels a little off.” That kind of thing.

In only a few minutes they had gone over the first part and were busily making changes. I watched as the things gradually improved, from more consistent background sound, better balance of exposure and color between shots, to improved timing of lines. (Note to self – there’s still one pause that bothers me.) Still not perfect, but much better. As the intro improved, so did my spirits. We were going to have something to show people. Eventually.

Next came the opening credits. They needed work for a variety of reasons, from confusing cuts in the map sequence to misspelled names. Misspelled names. My hair stood up when I found out about those. I had created a list of names, and every cast member had checked off on the spelling of their name. I had delivered that list to the guys doing the credits. “Do NOT use the spreadsheet. Use this list.” I said. “The spreadsheet has errors and is not complete.” I said this more than once, to more than one person. They had used the spreadsheet initially because the list was not available yet, but then they never went back and checked their work.

While C-1 and fuego tackled the animated sequence (with lots of more-or-less welcome input from me), I set to work trying to repair the credit graphics. The only catch: I don’t have the list anymore. I had given it to those guys. I hope I can track it down, or people may be left out. Also, I don’t have the original layered file they used to create the credit graphics, so I spent much of the afternoon trying to reconstruct the original background graphic using bits and pieces of various credit screens. So, I was a bit grumpy as I worked away trying to fix mistakes I felt were unnecessary. Also, I was getting hungry.

The good news for the credits is, now that we are not so strictly bound to the 1-minutes for credits rule, names will stay on the screen long enough for people to read them.

Progress on the credits was slow. We were trying to put all the transitions to the beats of the drum, and use the music as a guide. For one drum roll we created a stop-action animation feel, zooming in and sweeping north along the treasure path. (Note to self – I think we tried to travel too far on those beats). We were not done with the credits when the guys who own the place said they had to go. They had given up a large chunk of their Saturday to be there. They made sure all our stuff was squared away so they could transfer the project to another machine, then gently kicked us out. That was fine with me, I was starving by then.

The first step now is to make the slightly longer, more polished version of the flick that showed at the shootout. The next step, which may take weeks, is to beg, borrow, and steal time to recut the movie the way it should be. Big Byte, a data storage company here in town that hosted the original editing for the shootout, will have one station available for crews to use. They are very generous to make that available, but we had wanted to edit on our own gear on our own schedule. Unfortunately this is impossible as we are not allowed to copy any media from the original shoot. (Not to self: I bet Coppola has copies of his original footage.)

I will probably not wait here for the full version to be completed. I have places to go, people to see, and a language to unforget. It’s summer in Prague. I need an agent. I need a bar with cheap beer within walking distance of the place I’m sleeping. I need to write something.

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The Cast and Crew

the whole crew

I will not list them all here – my apologies to those not mentioned. Not being listed here is in no way in indication that someone was unimportant. This blog is all about me, and the people here are the ones who had the largest effect on me. Note that, except where I am given permission to use a person’s real name, I am using pseudonyms. People are listed in the order I think of them.

fuego
My brother, co-writer of Pirates, and director. If you’ve been paying attention, you know all about him. Before writing Pirates, I never knew collaboration could be so fun.

Rudolph
I also refer to him as Rudy fairly often. Although he had experience on a few films he had never been a producer before. Soon after we were notified of our winning the Fellini award, fuego and I began to get emails from Rudy. He had gone through the script and was already putting together the team to make the movie work. He notified us of potential problem areas and what he was doing about them. “I like this guy!” I wrote to fuego. I still do. He worked hard, long hours, juggled dozens of priorities, and when the tide changed he went with the flow, bending without breaking. He embodies one of the key lessons of this whole adventure: You don’t get what you want if you don’t ask. From the Crusader to the Director of Photography to the helicopter, Rudy got what he wanted.

Bonnie
She can build furniture and charm a car dealer out of a couple of SUV’s. I’ve already written about her, so I won’t go into detail here. I do wonder, though, if she’s read that other bit. Kinda makes me nervous.

Seldom Seen Smith
As the name implies, Seldom is most notable for his absence. Every crew was assigned a mentor, an industry veteran to guide them through the moviemaking process. Seldom has directed a couple of major motion pictures, and although we felt we had things under control it would have been nice to at least hear from him. Finally I heard through the grapevine that he was working on a different project and the schedule had been stretched. You can’t blame a guy for that, but it would have been nice to get at least an email from the guy explaining the situation. In the end, he was a bad example of how the business works.

Moab
The actor who eventually came to play Moab was critical for the casting of not just pirates, but for all the movies. It was he that guided (or misguided in a couple of cases) the actors during auditions. I was the only writer to participate directly in casting, so Moab was left to interpret the other scripts on his own. Moab is Pirate through and through. During casting he said he was not available on the first days of shooting because he had a big pirate ho-down to attend. He is a member of The Society for Creative Anachronism, in a section specializing in pre-flintlock pirates. He had all the gear, and even before we cast him had loaned us a bunch of swords and other props. Aye, maties, Moab be a pirate, and his leadership skills showed as the pirates came together as a unit.

Louie
Louie is a big guy, friendly and enthusiastic, and had been taking courses in film production. He had some camera experience, but on our film was assigned to the sound crew, where he had no experience at all. He was there to help, no doubt about it, and didn’t want to miss any part of the production. I was a little worried during casting, when he would make noise while people were reading for parts in other movies. It wasn’t that he was impolite, far from it. He was one of the nicest guys around. He just wasn’t quite aware of all the things expected of him. He would require careful guidance on set, with lots of feedback, in order to perform well during production. He didn’t get it.

Smithers
Smithers was not directly part of our crew. He had the unenviable job of getting seven movie productions going simultaneously. He is an intense, just-so hardass who will repeat himself many many times after the matter has been decided. He can be frustrating to work with, and made it difficult to get the resources we needed. A festival like Duke City Shootout would not work without someone like him.

Seldom Seen Smith Jr.
Perhaps an unfair monniker. SSS Jr. was assigned to us as Assistant Director after our first one had to quit before we even got started. Seldom Jr. was working on Wildfire, some sort of TV series filmed in New Mexico, but he had never been an AD before. He arranged to take the days we would be shooting off of work so he could help us. The thing is, much of the AD’s work comes before the shooting starts. AD is a vital planning and communications role. No one had explained the role of an AD to him, and the people who assigned him that role this time made no effort to fill him in, or even to see if he was available to do it. fuego ended up doing much of the AD work himself, with some support from Rudolph.

Giovanni
Our Director of Photography was one of the most respected camera guys in the state, the guy who taught many of the other camera people participating in the festival. He came with a whole truckload of equipment as a bonus. An easygoing, funny guy, he had the knowhow to get things done, and had plenty of good suggestions for improving shots. He brought along with him several other key people.

Pablo
We were burning through mentors faster than Joan Collins through husbands. When would it end? Would we have a mentor when the shooting started? Other teams had established actors (Adrian from Rocky, for instance) or Hollywood producers. We were doing all right on our own, but feeling kind of left out. One night, with shooting immanent, we get word that our latest mentor had flaked, but the home office had lined up another. Enter Pablo. He’s not some hollywood big shot, but he is a grizzled veteran of Shootouts past, and he knows what it takes to get things done. He strength is editing, which fit beautifully with our needs. He and Charles the First had worked together before, and knew how to move as a team.

Charles the First
Our lead editor lost his day job just in time to give us his all. Chuck 1 is skilled, abrasive and outspoken. “I know Chuck is not for everyone,” he told me one night. After one meeting where he told Smithers he thought a particular policy was stupid, we forbade Charles I from speaking to Smithers ever again. Alas, this policy was impractical and he went on to piss off Smithers on more than one occasion. In the editing bay he was often the first one to find a problem with the equipment, and he had no problem being the squeaky wheel. C-One gets it done, and he’s not afraid to tell you that. He is also a master of barbecue ribs.

Charles the Second
C-2 is another old friend of fuego’s, and a long-time veteran of the film biz. When he learned of our impending production, he managed to hollow out a tiny space in his schedule, rented a car, and drove out from Los Angeles to operate our second camera. Smithers really didn’t want us to have a second camera. I never heard the end of it. Giovanni was OK with it, so long as it was clear the he was the Director of Photography. So we had a second camera. It was a tough job; one day he was forced to drive around the southern half of the state in a car with two of our prettiest crew members. He had to leave as soon as shooting was done, much to the disappointment of Cynthia.

Corky
Corky, our innovative makeup guy, was also responsible for making the alien fetus in a jar. Not only was he makeup, he was our set Emergency Medical Technician, and overall mother hen. No one was going to get sunburn when he was around, by damn! He made our pirates into ugly SOB’s, concentrating most of his uglification on Kentucky Jack, giving him as misshapen nose and covering him with scars. One of his best moves was to bring Cynthia on as his assistant.

Cynthia
Well, what’s to say? Nothing, if you’re Cynthia. No worries about her making noise on the set. By the end of the week we heard complete sentences from her, and I even had a conversation or two. She was part of the makeup team. It’s easy to overlook the contribution of people like her on set – when you don’t have to delay shots because the actor has gotten too shiny, all you know is that things are going well. She’s probably going to be pissed that I spilled the beans about Charles the Second, although Corky spilled them to me.

Archie
I started breathing easier when Archie volunteered and was assigned to our team. Need a boat wheel that fits on the steering wheel of a car? “When can I see the car?” On and on like that. Archie knows tools, and knows how to weld up an anchor out of spare staircase parts. Archie knows tools, and he has tools, but he can’t use them at home; he lives in a teepee and has no electricity.

Morgan
Giovanni has taken this young lady under his wing, convinced she has talent as a camera operator. I’m not one to judge that stuff, but she is a vivacious, outgoing, and totally hot film student. She was dreafted onto the set by Giovanni and did a good job making herself useful. Hot she may be, but she’s also nice to have around.

Dog Bone
Biker, actor, and general hell-raiser. The organizers knew him, and asked us to make him a pirate. At the same time, they were asking him if he wanted to be a pirate. We each thought we were doing a favor for the other. It was cool, though. He was a great pirate, but the stories he had to tell were even better. How many Asian prostitutes was that again, Bone?

Kentucky Jack
A lawyer in a former life, the actor who played Kentucky Jack was actually part of the legal battles surrounding the treasure story we based Pirates on. Our X on the treasure map in the credits is reasonably accurate, thanks to him. We have footage of him becoming Kentucky Jack: First one of his eyes pops open, then the other, this his mouth one bit at a time, until he is transformed into the craziest of the pirate crew. It’s awesome. Kentucky Jack was also the source of some excellent ideas which found their way into the production. On the last day he came up to me and said, “I know what we need! A midget!”

Ruthie
Compared to the rowdy boisterousness of the pirate, our Ruthie was a down-to-earth actress. Her performances were not always consistent, but she steadily improved during the shoot. Chemistry between Ruthie and Moab was, well, not smooth, but they put that aside when the camera was rolling.

Izzy
We almost lost Izzy to another film in the Shootout, but luckily for us he decided to go with this role, despite having almost no lines. He is a terrific physical actor, and the chemistry between him and Moab was tremendous. His quirky, odd character was a show-stealer.

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