As of eight am on Thursday, December 1st, HOTCAKES wrapped, to the amazement of even those who were more or less in the loop on how production was going. This is the story of how a ~ $3700 film was pulled together in one month, or at least the first part:
A little over a year ago, I sat down and wrote a five page script, the final assignment of a screenwriting class I was taking as a first year film production MFA candidate. Known as a “5:3:2,” it was five pages of a complete story set only between three speaking characters and on two separate locations and was meant to be shot this fall for a directing class. After writing perhaps a paragraph about each of the three characters and four drafts of a script, I set it aside and let it stew. Then spring came and with it, a stalled production.
Film schools impose many rules on their students, none of which makes much sense. The earlier “3:2:1″ exercises (three pages, two speaking characters, one location) had already been sabotaged by the arbitrary restrictions of twenty minutes total footage and the denial of certain crucial pieces of production equipment — really basic stuff like a monitor, so that the DP and the director don’t have to pretend they can see what they’re filming for large screen projection on a 2.7 ” LCD. Or bounce material, which any student with the money was allowed to buy, but not use. Not exactly the Robert Rodriguez method.
My first 3:2:1, TOLL ROAD, suffered from all of that plus the lack of any collaboration in pre-production. My second, the more ambitious Spanish language film FUERA DE BALANCE, never get off the ground. Not being able to find an SFX person to make sure we shot it correctly was the first blow, but the death knell sounded when I couldn’t find any fellow grad students to crew for it. I had to scrounge. When we didn’t get all of our basic, non-special effects shots in on the one production day we had, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had a DP who was really just a grip and had been alone in setting up his shots most of the day in addition to operating the camera and a sound guy who had to leave one third of the way through production. The only consistent people on set were my two patient, professional actresses and the garrulous owner of the location house.
From then on, each time I peered at the original HOTCAKES script, I vowed to defend it from all this chicanery. This was not the kind of filmmaking I set out to do one late winter night back in ’02. I left film school and focused on writing for the summer. Prose, mostly: One short story, a novella idea and one locally interviewed and published article. But I kept returning to HOTCAKES and told at least a dozen people about it to gauge their reactions, which were overwhelmingly positive. It had flaws. In its one in-class reading, it had gained laughs mainly from the Mexican accent the guy reading for Chico employed. Everyone agreed that it worked without anyone really being able to put their finger on why.
In early summer, I ran it by a producer who said she didn’t really like it. Then she said that most of the scripts she read and liked were thirty pages long or more. I took another look at the story. Maybe Chico was a bit too one-dimensional. Maybe Frank could be more of an asshole and more likable at the same time. Maybe, after all, I had a larger story. I started to think about the characters almost every day. I set up a Twitter account with the film name (@Hotcakes_Movie) to help keep the idea in the fore of my thoughts. About a month ago, after getting dissed by a guy who appeared to be trying to make a film in Denver, I decided to pool the extra energy and drive I was feeling and make it live.
I started where I always start: talking to actors. Daniel Schubert-Skelly, a guy from Mass I had met on TREME and who later tapped me to be a camera operator/actor for a truly terrible play, threw his hat in the ring for one of two main roles and suggested that I talk to Burton Tedesco, who had also been lucky enough to be in the terrible play, for the same. I like Burton a lot, so the conversation began. They read the five page script and were intrigued enough to stick around until I hammered out 15 pages which included two whole, new characters and gave an existing character in the script, a waitress, actual lines. Then Dan recommended Cassie Giveans as a production designer and I found an art gallery that could provide what many a diner I’d scouted could not: room to really make it ours.
The art gallery comprises the other half of a coffee shop and pottery studio and still had its October installation of sheep paintings up when I threw this by the proprietor of Byrdie’s, Heather Lane: “So hey, I have this crazy idea of building a diner in your art gallery and filming it. What do you think?” Seeing as November’s installation had been sacrificed to Fringe Fest (she hosted not one but two small shows), she thought it might be doable. Fringe ended for her on November 21, so we could pull in materials and begin building on November 22, as long as we were out by December 1st for the new installation and the set didn’t disrupt the natural flow of business. I figured we would need four production nights for the 13 pages of interior: three for sure and one for safety and/or pickups.
We had our primary location, we had our production designer, and we had one or two leads on where to go to build the damn thing — Strike it Green, in Elmwood and The Green Project, only a couple of blocks from Byrdie’s. Cassie and I started pricing and window shopping at both places, along with our two assistants. The first physical item I bought for the set, after a $25 Green Project membership, was a set of kitchen pantry doors that are shaped a bit like old Western saloon doors. They were $24 and white, which fit our B&W Western motif and our budget. We also spotted a vaguely Western style white bar at Strike it Green, a 14 foot long monster. We were on our way. That really only left the two exterior pages to worry about, the part of the story set outside a prison.
Someone — I can’t remember who — suggested the St. Bernard parish jail just down the road from me a few miles and I contacted the one guy I’m Facebook friends with who works in the St. Bernard Film Office, Chris Brown. He suggested I come in, and so I did. Chris was super nice. He told me all about how it worked. The prison would charge $2500 per day for use of their interior, in addition to $35/hour for each detail worker. He drove me over to the prison and showed me all around the grounds. I would have to tweak the script but it would work, I told him. As long as interior didn’t include the jail yard just inside the gate we would want to film in and around. And as long as they didn’t require a certain number of detail workers. And as long as the million dollar insurance policy wasn’t priced too high. I kept hearing different numbers falling anywhere between $400 and $1000.
What I had hoped would be a $3500 budget film was more and more looking like it was going to be a $6000 budget film — a lot of money for a short which doesn’t make returns, traditionally, and by someone who still finds herself with a significant amount left to learn. This was my first set build, my first managed crew, my first paid set, my first budgeted film.
That’s a lot of fucking firsts — a lot of cracks into which failure could creep and divide us. And it’s entirely probable that the combination of all those firsts amounted to the reasons why we lost a few members of our crew in the communication shuffle that followed…
…to be continued.