Saturday, November 23, 2013


Continuing what I started on November 18th, I'll now dig into the abridged version of how all this stuff got started.

Without drawing this bit out too long, I first decided that I wanted to make movies around the age of 10. I did make a lot of them in my youth that only my parents and I ever saw, but things got serious in 1999 when I got out of Highschool and took a "film production" course at the local junior college. THE MATRIX also came out this year, which, say what you will, contributed to a defining coincidence in my life. I loved this movie, which meant I saw it a number of times even before DVD was really a thing. In the process of doing so, I remember watching one of the fight scenes and realizing that, in spite of the overwhelming complexity of the assembled scene, most of the shots averaged  a performance of about 3 martial art moves. This led me to believe that I could recreate the scene myself even though I wasn't really a martial artist. I mean, maybe I couldn't do what the characters were doing, but I could certainly do what the actors were doing.

So the first project I did in my film class was to recreate a fight scene from the Matrix using a Panasonic Omnimovie VHS camcorder that my parents had purchased back in 1990.

I did a simple, but painstaking, assemble edit of the scene using a VCR in my bedroom, then used the camera's audio dubbing feature to add sound effects. I did this by pausing my movie at the exact frame where I wanted a sound effect, pressing record, then playing a movie that had the sound effect I wanted to steal on another machine and hitting the pause button again at the exact moment the sound hit.

The process was completely stupid, but people were impressed with my tenacity and I was even asked what program I used to edit the video. To give you an idea of the time period, the idea of "programs" were still an abstraction to me as my family did not own a computer.

While doing all of this, I met two people, another monstrously important coincidence. Justin Spurlock, who at the time was using the reel to reel machines in the school's studio control room to edit one of the most ambitious and hilarious student films I've ever seen, And Ben Beames, who had come to MJC after a stretch at San Francisco state because, get this, MJC had a better film program. (I even found this film we all worked on together back then. You might recognize some familiar faces.) I think the reason the three of us hit it off so well is that we weren't cynical people. We were genuinely interested in making big, fun, exciting movies, which was a contradiction for most of the students we'd come across. At least 4 of the thesis short films that our class produced ended with their main characters shooting themselves, (Think about how lame this gets when you are watching all of them in one sitting) while the films we produced featured humor and explosions. By this time calling ourselves WESTHAVENBROOK, we made an introduction for the final screening night for which I constructed a guitar case that actually fired a rocket out of it... Justin even made a spectacular musical number which he composed the music and lyrics and choreographed the dance that went with it. WESTHAVENBROOK has survived into the present age as a film group and a commercial enterprise.

Don't let any of that fool you. I was a terrible student and Justin and I were eventually lovingly thrown out of the class by our instructor, Carol Lancaster Mingus. Probably one of the kindest things that's ever been done for us. I have to assume, in retrospect, that she did this because she respected us and thought it was time for us to move on. The fact that she later asked us to return to lecture her classes and offer us use of the school's facilities free of charge seem to attest to that fact.

After all of that, we spent a few years just making stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. I couldn't even tell you how much stuff we made. A hundred little mini short films? All of them were under 5 minutes long. There are tapes upon tapes full of these things somewhere. We even reshot my first film, OASIS, on 16mm film. A chosen few made it to the internet, even more still remain unedited on tapes and hard drives. We have a long history of doing this.
I also made two 45 minute action films that were awful, but had pretty good action sequences in them. Both were made on the computer that Ben Beames gave me complete with PREMIERE 1.5. My first computer. I didn't have a chair, but I had a desk to put the monitor on, so much of the work I produced during this period was accomplished while slouching severely on the floor. I also had to have Justin convert everything I shot from Digital 8 to VHS because it was the only thing I was set up to capture at my house.
Only the luckiest individuals ever got to see these films, and the word "lucky" is subjective here.
Aside from my Grandfather dying, which almost made me want to quit doing everything, this time in my life was important in that I learned everything I know from it. I maintain to this day that you can't get good at making cinema unless you make a lot of small pieces of garbage first. You've got to get the garbage out of your system and you shouldn't invest too much into it. Make something short, do the best you can, then do it again. Do it a thousand times if you have to. Most of it isn't going to be watchable. I've had probably 100 people approach me about acting in their feature length films in the years since SOCKBABY who I've turned down on the merit that they have never attempted to make a 3 minute short film with a budget of 5 dollars or, if they have tried, they didn't do it well and never tried again.
Keep in mind, THE DANGER ELEMENT is the first thing I've ever made that I think comes close to any kind of public viability as a finished product across the board. That's after 10 years and 100 short sketches and 2 terrible 45 minute films you've never even heard of.

Even still, after sending a link on a whim to a trailer for one of those 45 minute films to an artist I liked, I was struck by another life changing experience.

Monday, November 18, 2013

I've learned that when you spend 7 years working on the same project, you are eventually confronted with the fact that the story you are trying to tell has begun to become eclipsed by the story of trying to tell it. The story behind the story somehow starts to mean more to you (I say somehow, but it is kind of obvious when the project has taken more than 20 percent of your lifetime to complete) and you start wanting to share that story.

I've never been totally sure how to do this. I've tried making weekly video reports on the production of THE DANGER ELEMENT, but, between trying to make a living and actually make the series, its become an outlet that I've had to jettison to make room for the project itself to be completed. Making even the simplest and silliest update video and uploading it to youtube can be an all day affair and that's a day I could be spending in post on THE DANGER ELEMENT.  Writing has always been a considerably less time consuming habit for me, so I decided recently that I'd try my hand at promulgating my version of the history of this project through the clumsily written word. I figure maybe I'll do a post once a week about this.

I believe it was around November of 2006. I could be wrong about that, but it was close to that time. I'd recently come off the anomalous global "success" of a web series I'd made with Doug TenNapel called SOCKBABY.
Some friends and I were in San Francisco after a day of scouting out the Sutro Baths and the Abandoned military complexes around the city. One of them comes up to me and asks me this question: "What kind of a film could you make for 25,000 dollars?" I was a little caught off guard by the question, but I was also ignorantly confident of my abilities. From that day forward, I began planning my first feature film.

That's where THE DANGER ELEMENT project began, but that's not the beginning of the story.
More to come.