Friday, July 8, 2011

4 Years Ago Today - Film School: A Retrospective

A lot has happened to me in my 23 years in this world.. but none of the years have been more exciting than the last 4. You see, 4 years ago-- I moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Los Angeles Film School. At that point in my life I had never lived anywhere in the world but Russellville, AR and Clarksville, TN. I had only visited LA a couple of times-- both of which were my only times on an airplane. Those of you who know me best will know my disdain for heights at the time.

With my then-girlfriend. My first time in an airport.. waiting on my first flight. I was scared shitless.

Until coming to LA, the biggest cities I had ever been to included Dallas, TX and Louisville, KY. To say I was green was an understatement. In high school I was a bit of a redneck (still am to some). I hung out with roughnecks who had kind hearts and farmer's tans. We drove big trucks, drank on the weekends and all except me dipped "snuff". All good guys and all people I wish I was able to keep more in contact with today. If anyone of you are reading this, I'm sorry for being a shitty friend, but I still think about you often.

My redneck truck and I.

In July 2007 I was 19 years old and had been living in LA for about a month. I moved out in June with my then girlfriend to get acclimated to the city (boy did that take a lot longer than a month). I look back and laugh when I think about how much I thought I knew about LA. I would always say "I'm glad I moved out a month early and got used to the place". But the truth is, I don't think you ever REALLY get used to LA-- you just sort of tolerate it. I had gotten used to the traffic. Used to the people. Used to some of the food.. but not used to myself.

Living room in my first apartment.

When I first moved to LA, I was scared. I was nervous, excited, vulnerable and optimistic.. but most of all scared. LA wasn't "home". I knew it was where I HAD to be, NEEDED to be, WANTED to be.. but for some reason it wasn't home. I tried to make the best of it with my girlfriend. We tried to play family and pretend we fit in.. but the truth was, we stood out like sore thumbs. Everything from our funky accents to the way we dressed said we weren't from around here. Not to mention, I was a pretty big guy when I first moved out here-- and LA is the land of skin and bones. People start shedding weight the moment they see an "over weight" person.

At the Transformers premiere with my school in the background. Yes, that's a strap attached to my glasses.
I thought when I got to film school, it would help.. and it did, to an extent. I remember my first REAL day of film school.. we were sat in the LAFS theater (the one they sell you on so hard to come to the school and check out) and the dean asked us "what two films would you recommend to your fellow students?". To this day, I still don't know why I didn't say SCREAM-- but I said the original Halloween and Texas Chain Saw Massacre. From that moment on I was branded the "horror guy" of my class.

Now, in my particular film school a class of people was around 30-40 people. We literally had people drop out of our class the first day-- the moment we put a camera in their hands. They saw all the buttons and menus and freaked. I laughed and thought "glad I didn't learn I wasn't cut out for this that way". But the truth is-- they were some of the lucky ones. They learned they weren't cut out for the movie industry on the first day.. which saved them a lot of money and a lot of time.

My school preached about how "hands on" they were. They put a camera in your hands the first day.. literally. From there, we began shooting little films.. more like assignments. The first assignment was to shoot an entire short, in less than a minute, in one shot that was about something lost.. and something found. Of course, mine was horror themed and quickly helped cement my status. I wish I still had the short. I was on YouTube for a while, but it was nothing special-- I assure you.

A behind the scenes still from one of my shorts. This is about as exciting as it got. My buddy Adam was my actor. Sara is in the background.

As film school rolled along, I kind of kept to myself. My first group of actual friends at film school were two girls named Sara and Sandy and a guy named Cole. When everyone first walks into film school, more often than not most of the class want to be directors. Sara, I think wanted to be a writer from the very beginning (which we would find out she was kickass at) and I forget what Sandy and Cole wanted to do-- but they ended up doing sound and producing.

We were grouped together the first day of school and while I knew nothing about this ragtag group of folks, I would grow to love them over the course of the next year. I look back and laugh, remembering that I actually WANTED to be in a group with someone who looked driven, motivated and like they knew what they were doing-- but I ended up being taken away to my eventual group and ended up greatly disliking that "driven/motivated" person. So I guess it was for the best.

Growing up as a kid, even when I was confident in something, I would tend to see who looked more confident than me.. especially in school. I was ALWAYS a great sidekick at things I didn't wanna be the leader in.. but if I wanted to be a leader, I was a fucking leader. Making movies was something I didn't know a lot about at the time.. but damnit, I was going to be a leader. So looking for "motivated" people was only to build a network around myself.

During my time at film school, I was always involved with whatever was going on with movies and school. I tried to shoot something as often as possible and learn as much as I could. I quickly learned that I knew more of the "business" side than most of my peers (thank you special features on my favorite DVDs). The technical side was not my forte-- but that's why I went to school. I never became a big techy.. I was always an artist. And that's the biggest thing I learned in film school-- if you don't know how to do something, surround yourself with people who do. I've always know the value of a solid support system and that includes the team you work with. You guys are just as responsible for any success I've ever had or ever will have.

Nick to my right and Daniel right below me.

Zach in the yellow and Matt (Sound designer of Clown Town and Hostile Encounter) in between us.

The first half of film school was a big blur to me. It went by so fast. My network of friends grew greatly to friends that I still have to this day like Nick, Zach, Jon, Matt, Levi, Daniel, Omar, Scott and several other folks. Great people that I really enjoyed hanging out with. We drank a lot. We ate a lot. I gained a lot.. of weight. That didn't help me fit into my skin. I ballooned like a freshman in college.. who ate a freshman in college. That helped fuel my depression and ruin my confidence.. but somehow, I managed to keep my productivity at school up.

At about the halfway mark of school, you have to make a midterm. Now a midterm in film school is much different from a normal midterm. For our midterm, we had to take a scene from an oscar nominated script and direct it. Me being me, I picked THE EXORCIST. I wanted to do one of the scenes with Regan in the bedroom (now that I look back, I should've had her fucking herself with a cross and puking all over the place), but was scared to get too heavy on the FX bc I didn't know how to pull them off. At this point in my abilities, all I wanted to do was make "horror stuff". I didn't know the different levels and sub-genres the way I should-- I just wanted to make scary shit.

Apparently this is where I developed "Director Hands".
Me being the artistic asshole that I am, I decided to have a black priest and a white demon. I wanted it to take place in her bedroom-- but have her bedroom look like a nightmare. Like a black void. Not only that, but I re-wrote some of the dialogue and wanted to change the end (you'll notice that if you watch the short below). How ironic is that.. me, a 19 year old film student re-wrote dialogue on an oscar nominated script. Wow.

My Priest and his Demon
Cole produced it, Sandy starred in it (we were able to cast real actors but I wanted to work with someone I new personally so I could pull more of a performance out of them), Daniel (my producing partner on Madison and Roadside) was my 1st AD and Levi edited it (he would go on to edit Madison County and Roadside as well).

Sara doing Sandy's make-up
Below is the final product.

After The Exorcist, I began kicking around ideas for my thesis film.. Thesis films were the big thing in film school. It was all about who was doing what and what you could pull off. The rules for your thesis film were as follows: You must participate in the major you wish to graduate me (for instance, I had to DIRECT at least 1 film), you had to keep it under 15 pages, I believe and you had to have all your paperwork filed to make it an official thesis film.

I remember this process being the end of the world. The paperwork was a pain in the ass and the entire finale of film school was like one big game of dodge ball. Who was going to pick who to do what on their film? I was approached by a couple of people to DP their shorts, I was asked to camera operate, I was asked to direct a couple, I was asked to write one. I did all of the above with the exception of DPing one. I ended up writing 2 thesis films (Double Walker and Clown Town) and directing 3 (Clown Town, Drunk Dialing and Valentine). Sara actually wrote my second thesis film, Drunk Dialing. I really loved the script she pitched in class and was honored when she asked me to direct it. We had a blast making it. Valentine was more of a last minute production that involved me, Zach and our producer Mario. We also had a blast and I loved the character. Zach has a feature in mind for the character that I would love to be a part of in the future.

Shooting Double Walker, a script I wrote for a buddy.. on film (what is that?).

The main character from Double Walker
One of the gangsters in my story
Arkansas jersey and U of A camo hat.. still a redneck.

Filming the thesis projects was the biggest nightmare, but some of the most fun. Clown Town was a huge undertaking that was doomed from the start. I made the film for a little under $4,500 in 5 days. Some students were spending in upwards of $40,000-$100,000 on their films. My producer, Levi, left the country to film another thesis film in another country (on the $50k+ film) right before we started shooting and the school fucked me in so many ways, I wished they would have at least taken me out to dinner first. Needless to say, I got my film made-- and met my future star and producer ACE MARRERO!

My good buddy, Ben Watts the killer clown killing my other good buddy, Anthony.
My lead actors.. including my good friend Banks Boutte!
Daniel Dunn on the set of Clown Town
What's a good horror film without stoners in a hippie van?
We shot the entire film in this tiny ass room.. it's amazing what we did with it.
Directing pick-up shots

Here's the trailer for CLOWN TOWN

Finished film can be viewed here: CLOWN TOWN

Drunk Dialing was a bit of a different story. We shot the entire film for less than $1000 and over the course of about 5 days as well. We shot in a bar in LA, the bathroom at the film school -- no one knew we were there, which would mark the beginning of my fuck permit style of filmmaking -- and then at our DP/Editors apartment. Everyone in the film is a film student, friend except for the three girls. It was a crazy time and a lot of fun. I think we ended up getting drunk soon after the shoot.

Drunk Dialing can be viewed here: DRUNK DIALING

Valentine was something Zach had been talking to me about but we didn't make it official until a couple of days before filming. I didn't know what to expect when I showed up on set and when the mic wouldn't work (notice the shitty sound), I knew it was gonna be a bit of a task to make the film good-- but I think for $50 and shot in 4 hours, we made a pretty funny little movie. It's one that's gotten a lot of laughs and quotable moments over the years.

Full Valentine short can be viewed here: VALENTINE

Throughout most of my time in film school I was always telling people about how I was going to make a movie in Arkansas-- I was always saying "I'm gonna go back to Arkansas and make a horror film!". I don't know if anyone ever believed me.. but I was always preaching about how I was going to do it and try to include as many people in the process as I could. When graduation rolled around, I graduated as the only person in my class to direct 3 thesis films-- which wasn't saying much, but I was proud nonetheless. Having my family (and my girlfriends family) there to support me meant the world. One of my mother's proudest moments that she loves to recall is being in the Women's restroom at intermission and over hearing someone's parents saying how professional looking the "Clown Movie" was and how much they enjoyed it. At that stage, I'd take any compliment I could get.

The day of graduation

It was the first time my films had been shown on the big screen in front of an actual audience. It was scary and exciting all at the same time. I'll never forget the feeling when the title of my film popped up and the music started in the dark theater.. I froze and everyone was instantly in the middle of my story and laughing and gasping-- even though the movie is far from great, people took it for what it was.. a schlocky film student's attempt at a campy horror film. I was fine with that. Drunk Dialing and Valentine played to a lot of laughs, which made me and the writers quite happy. After the screening we went to grab refreshments with our folks, where I met most of my peers families and that night we grabbed drinks at our favorite local bar to make it official. In June 2008, I was a graduate of the LA Film School.

Sara and I at graduation
Matt and I at graduation
The guys
It meant the world to have my family there
I won't go too much into what happened after film school, because most of you have heard it or can find it spread out over these blogs-- but it took me a while to get my sea legs under me and find my path. It was over a year before I would shoot my first feature, Hostile Encounter. But until this day, I am proud that I kept my promise.. I shot a feature film in Arkansas. With my buddies Nick, Daniel, Levi and Ace. Jon edited the movie  and whether or not it was a "horror film" is questionable, but I did shoot a movie.. and then after that came Madison County. So from Clown Town to Madison County, I had maybe been behind a camera about 4-5 times before I took on my first feature. And in the last 4 years, I've directed 3 feature films. Hostile Encounter, Madison County and Roadside. And when I think about that.. I'm proud.

Directing Hostile Encounter
Directing the Madison County promo trailer (notice the director hands again)
Directing Madison County
With Ace and Daniel after wrapping the last night of Roadside

4 years ago today was the start of a crazy ride.. but it's a ride that I'm glad to be on and I hope never ever stops.


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