There are some words that are so overworked that they have lost their gravity and grandeur. Think of awesome as in “Man, your shoes are awesome”. Awe is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” Now really, are shoes (save Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz) ever really awesome?
Or think of the word literally. Someone told me, “My headache was so bad that my brain was literally exploding.” I couldn’t help wishing I’d seen that.
Fuck is similarly overworked. These days it is primarily used to emphasize, often with a tinge of anger. And common speech is so sprinkled with it that it has lost much of its cachet of obscenity.
Although I am far from being a prude, I decided early in drafting Revenge In Kind that I didn’t want lazy dialog littered with the word fuck. But could I have dialog that would be realistic without expletives? Answering that took me more time than you’d imagine. First I analyzed the characters to decide if their personalities and mode of speech would be more realistic and true if they said fuck a lot. I decided that indeed there was one character who would be more authentic if he did: a character named Brown.
In particular, there is a scene in a bar in which Brown gets really angry. I absolutely know that if he were to verbalize, he would not only say fuck, he would call someone an asshole, etc. I thought about this a while and decided that I could actually make his anger even more powerful than his voice and those words would convey; I could have him smash a beer bottle and threaten with it.
Writing the screenplay with interesting, realistic dialog—but without the use of obscenities—became a fun challenge. But I promised myself that if I ever felt that authenticity would be enhanced with such usage, I would insert it.
But the screenplay is, of course, not the final determinant of what the dialog is in the film. Although our Director, Roger, had agreed to the locked script and didn’t change the dialog, that did not obviate fucks creeping into the actors’ ad libbing. Although they were fairly good about not doing that, there were two instances that indeed appear in the film, and one which was edited out.
The one I omitted successfully was spoken by a woman being interviewed by the police. In a couple of the takes, the actress had added the word fucking into the sentence, “I wasn’t going to have a fucking conversation with him.” But she was just as convincing in the takes without it. Since her character is a young, well-educated professional who’s supposed to elicit sympathy from the audience, I felt we could do without the expletive.
But there are two that stayed in the film. Actually, the first ad lib of fuck is not totally complete. An actor who plays a villain is set upon by a vigilante. He looks in surprise and says, “What the f….!” Even though he never enunciated the “..uck”, I thought about whether it could be edited out. There simply was no way because his reaction to the vigilante was essential and his mouth was clearly saying what he said. I comforted myself with the fact that the word really wasn’t finished so it didn’t count. However, the English closed captions as well as the subtitles in foreign languages went ahead and finished the word. I had to get back to the titles company and have them change it to just “f…”.
The second ad lib of fuck got by me because of my poor hearing. An actor is departing a room angrily and says “Don’t say another fucking word.” He is off-scene and the sound could easily have been edited the sound to omit it had I known it was there. It is faint and many will not notice it unless they are watching closed captions or subtitles. Still, when I found out about it, I was pretty fucking disappointed.
The vigilante was supposed to walk toward her sleeping victim and stop near him. She would pick up a photograph on the table and gaze at its subjects—him, his wife, and children. She would slowly shake her head and replace the photo. The point, of course, was to show how even rapists can have families and appear to have “normal lives”.
But in reviewing the takes, there were big problems. The vigilante moved exceedingly slowly, more than doubling the time needed for good pacing. And then there was the issue that no close up of the photograph was taken. Without that, the audience would have no clue as to the purpose of her looking at the photo. The message that the rapist had a seemingly ordinary family life could not be conveyed without the image close-up.
I was sad about the lack of film coverage of the photograph, but without it, there was no point in having the vigilante pause for it. So, for the sake of pace and want of message, I cut the entire “photo gazing” part of the scene. I felt miffed that no one had thought to film an up-close of the photograph after all the trouble to manufacture the prop for the scene and to film her picking it up. And I was miffed that the “regular guy” aspect of the rapist wouldn’t be made.
Later, I was going through takes in preparation for editing another related scene: the rapist greeting his intended victim at his door. I almost shouted aloud, “Oh my gosh, there it is, the close up of the photo of the rapist and his family!”
The cinematographer had filmed the photograph in the foreground, with the rapist greeting his intended victim in the background. What an artful way of conveying my “regular family guy” notion! My original objective for having the photograph had been achieved in an entirely different way, and one which was more subtle than the original plan. Rather than hitting the audience squarely with the message, it is delivered obliquely. This was a lovely instance of having another artist on the film come up with a creative idea to do something that I liked much better than my own preconceived idea.
The original version of the screenplay didn’t feature Nyx. The idea for including her came when I’d at last settled on the lead detective, Coxon, being a clay sculptor. When I tried to think of what he might be sculpting, it occurred to me that it should be something relevant to night and the dark side of humankind. I started doing a bit of research and soon it became clear that the goddess of night was a perfect fit.
Once I’d settled on using Nyx, I needed to develop the relationship between her and Coxon. Why did he sculpt her? What does she mean to him? What will he do with her? Answering these questions helped me to know how to interweave her into the script, both in terms of dialog and action.
One of the first ideas I had was to have Coxon actually fire the sculpture of Nyx. I wasn’t too keen of his just placing her in a commercial kiln, so I spoke to my consulting artist, Rebecca Boatman, about using actual fire. She said it was possible to use flame, but that it wouldn’t reach the required temperature to sufficiently alter the clay to make it lastingly hard. That was okay with me; I liked the idea of using fire. I had it in mind to use the firing scene as the opener to the movie.
As I was developing the relationship between Nyx and Coxon, I wrote a poem that I imagined he composed to Nyx. I even thought about adding it to the film somehow, but it didn’t really fit. Nevertheless, I’d like to share it with you here:
Nyx, Daughter of Chaos,
Goddess of the Night.
Your children give us Grief,
Death, Deceit, and Strife.
You bring upon us Sleep,
And our crimes you can conceal;
Yet it’s only due to you
Stars of Heaven are revealed.
Your power is so great
Even Zeus is sore afraid.
You’re the only goddess
Whose word he must obey.
Ultimately, I decided that opening the film with the firing of Nyx was too much of a visual non-sequitur to follow with the violence that needed to occur early. So instead I placed it elsewhere in the movie, but used it as the background of the languages-selection menu.
To his credit, Angel said soon after production ended that we didn’t have either enough B roll or the right shots. He said it would be best if we could hire Sparky Sorenson and his drone for one more day. Specifically, we knew we needed: more daytime shots of the exterior of the police building and of the Mesquite Arts Center (aka our “college”); the boathouse on the lake; and nighttime overhead shots of traffic.
We spent more time than anticipated getting the college, so we were in a bit of a hurry when we got to the police department. I already had permission to shoot the exterior of the building, although I hadn’t specified any shots being taken from a drone. Since I didn’t think we would be very close to the building, I decided not to bother anyone inside with a notice that we’d be doing drone shots that day.
In the parking lot, we discussed with Sparky that we’d like to have film going from one end of the curved building to the other, filming in an arc, at about the level of the top of the building looking down. We didn’t want to get any directly overhead shots or to get close at all. So, Sparky programmed the drone to go from point A, to point B, to point C, then back again to achieve the rounded shot of the Department.
It was the first shot of the police building from the drone that day. And the last.
Sparky programmed A, B, C, A instead of A, B, C, B, A. That meant that the drone would cut across the building rather than following the same arc on the return. And, because the drone was not too high up, it clipped the edge of the roof, which was flat in that section, and crashed onto it.
Part of the police department roof was flat, where the drone crashed. But part of the building was actually higher than the flat portion and had office windows overlooking that part of the roof. As you can imagine, there was a flurry of response as police officials inside witnessed a drone crashing onto their roof.
Those who know what true dread feels like will understand when I say that my adrenaline kicked in and my heart raced as I realized what happened. It was a mixture of concern about the poor drone, a bit of “oh no, we won’t get the shots now”, but mostly a fear of what the police would say and do. Would there be a fine? Would they give us the drone back? What on earth will I say to them?
I told Sparky we had to go in right away and try to claim the drone. Angel said he didn’t want to be any part of it all and walked away. So into the building I went and talked to the Sergeant on duty. “Yes,” he said, “we already know about the drone. Stay right here. Someone will be down shortly.”
I thought to myself how quickly he’d been notified, as it had been only a matter of a couple of minutes since the disaster. And the scowl that accompanied that “stay right here” made me very apprehensive.
Sparky and I were put into a small room to wait, where I began to rehearse what I would say to try to get the drone back. We stewed for about 20 minutes before a plain-clothes officer came. He said, “Well, you certainly caused some excitement.” I explained how the mishap occurred and he told us that they were not yet sure how to retrieve the drone because the roof was sealed and they hadn’t yet found anyone who had the ability to access it. He told us to wait while they tried to locate someone.
At last we were taken to go onto the roof. We had to climb a very narrow set of stairs that were unlit and whose risers were so high that I struggled in absence of a handrail. At the top of the stairs was a very heavy hatch that had to be pushed upward.
While the policeman waited, Sparky and I went across the roof to retrieve the crippled drone. It was sad to see Sparky examine it. But I was very, very grateful that they allowed us to have it back.
It took some time before Sparky could get replacement parts and we could go back out. Although I wished we could get more shots of the police department, I decided not to try. Instead, we concentrated on getting some shots of the boathouse at White Rock Lake and traffic at night.
As I’ve mentioned, I had a vision of the film and the scenes within it from the time I wrote the script. But, the way some scenes were directed and filmed so exceeded my vision and expectations. I was delighted, as if I were given a surprise gift. I would like to mention a few here and more later.
The script has it that Lehman, a villain, shaves his body to assure that he leaves no hair at the scene of his crimes. Now you can envision a man shaving his body in many ways, all with different lighting, angles, and atmosphere. Roger told me he was going to strive for “creepy” and I think he more than excelled at his objective. Roger had Lehman use a straight razor. And the dim lighting on his body as he drags it across his skin is an image that lingers with the viewer—just what you want.
The shaving scene was so well done that I assured that it played fairly long. Angel told me that I gave it too much time. But it is so full of evil, so ominous, that I really believed it could even have been made a bit longer. But it is an appropriate medium length.
I had some trouble placing the scene in the movie. Obviously, it had to be early, but where was unclear. Then, well into the middle of the editing process, I was talking to Johnny Marshall one day, telling him that I was not pleased with the way that the movie started. He suggested beginning with the shaving scene. It was a stroke of genius not only because it set the creepiness factor at the outset, but also because it allowed featuring the marionette as the opening frame.
Let me step back to a little history to comment on the marionettes. When Angel and I visited an Air BNB I’d found, we spoke to the lady who rented it out and told her we’d like to film at her place. (Immediately, she quadrupled the price, which made it out of our range.) The small bedroom had two marionettes in it. They were what made the place “Lehman’s lair” to me. His character is manipulative, crazy, and sees humans as not quite human, but some inanimate objects as anthropomorphic. I made her a written offer to buy or rent the two antique marionettes. She refused. So, it was one of the first requests I submitted to our Designer and Property Master: get marionettes for Lehman’s place.
Back to the extraordinary scenes. Another of Roger’s brilliant scenes was Coxon, the detective, at his favorite lake wharf. He is agonized and angry. Not one word is spoken in the scene. The acting and direction are superb, as is the filming. If it had been filmed even longer than it was, I would have included every second of it. To me, it is that powerful.
Truthfully, I didn’t appreciate the importance of relevant B roll (film that is not the actual scenes of the movie, but is used to transition between or add to scenes) until I got well into the process of editing. To help you understand what B roll would have been helpful, let me give you some examples.
In some cases, a daytime scene is followed by a nighttime scene. Going between the two would be confusing unless there were some visual clue to help the audience make the leap. For example, the transition might be traffic at dusk filmed at one place followed by traffic at night filmed at the same spot. It would be best if the two shots were at the same spot because evening traffic in one place followed by night traffic at another place might set up the audience to focus on locations switching rather than the lighting change.
Although almost all of the B roll for RIK is traffic, it was mostly either day or night, not evening or transitional taken from one spot. So it had to be used for transitions of scenes that were day-day, or night-night. We had only two really good day-night transitions, neither of them shot by the “red” camera as straight B roll. One was a drone shot that was done of the skyline. Our drone pilot, Sparky Sorenson, shot the scene both in the evening and at night, which makes for a beautiful passage in time. Another transition was shot by Angel from the balcony of my apartment. He did a time lapse with my SLR camera on a tripod from afternoon to after dusk. It is the only other spot-on day-to-night transition.
Had I appreciated the importance of B roll more, I would have assured that a number of shots of scenes without actors were filmed. I already mentioned in Part One that it would have been wonderful to have footage of the two professional kilns at the artist’s studio. Similarly, it would have been helpful to have film of the length of the bar in the bar scene (where we had extras that are not in the movie as a result of not shooting it), several close ups of the marionettes in the villain’s apartment, footage of the outsides of buildings that were used for interior filming, and so on.
One case in which there was an excellent example of B roll that we did have was the outside of the “college”. It shows the exterior of the building and several of the crew members are milling about as extras. You can see this film used as the lead in to the scene where there is a lecture at the college. We needed more footage of the building, however. So one day well after production had ended, Angel and I got Sparky the drone operator to do a few shot of the same building from above. I chose not to use much of this, however, because the season had already begun to change the trees’ leaves’ color. This limited how far we could photograph from the building and how widely, so as not to show the trees being different from the way they were when production was shot. This is why it is so important to get B roll at the same time as you film production.
Another way I got B roll is by cribbing some bits from scenes I decided not to use in the movie. For example, one unused scene was filmed at the villain’s house. I used a very eerie view of the house at night as the lead in for a short scene with the villain, and another of a marionette from the same unused scene when the villain is lying on his bed.
My advice to anyone contemplating making a film is that they go through the script in advance and mark where it is likely to require B roll and to specify what type of shots and lighting would be ideal. This is certainly what I’d do if I could do it all over again.
One of my least favorite activities was paying bills and doing payroll. Early on, I thought I would tough it out and do the accounting alone and without software, but discarded that notion as soon as bills started piling up before pre-production even began. And, as I pored over the IRS reporting requirements and things like state taxes and 1099s for vendors, I knew that I needed an accountant’s help as well.
I interviewed about 5 or 6 local accountants to see if they could fill the job. None were experienced with movies, which was not good because the the accountant should categorize expenses in a standard way as done in the film industry.
Eventually we found a person who was willing to do part of the job on a part-time basis remotely from Austin, Texas. I was unhappy about having him not be present, not least because I didn’t like paying the hefty auto expenses for him to come up once a week. But I also felt that the production would have been less expensive if we’d had an on-site accountant overseeing expenses. As it was, there were some expenses that shouldn’t have been allowed, some cheating on timesheets, problems with data entry to the accounting software, and errors in record-keeping. I think those would have been avoided with an accountant present.
My role in the accounting process was threefold. Every week I would write payroll checks by hand (another thing that should have been automated, but I didn’t have the time to learn), a process that took an entire afternoon. Then I would pay bills and keep records. Then, after production was over and our accountant was off the job, I took over all accounting activities including filings with the IRS and state tax agencies, printing and mailing 1099s, reconciling bank and credit card statements, records-keeping, and filing income tax. Even as I write this, the accounting obligations go on and on, as today I spent reconciling expenditures. Ugh.
Angel asked me soon after we met what I wanted to do with the movie once it was made. I said wanted to enter it into film festivals because I hoped that would result in a movie distributor acquiring it and showing it in theaters everywhere. He explained that festivals were not a merit-based process and that I would probably need to know someone on the inside to get an invitation. He also said that distributors would generally take your film and give you little for it—maybe even less than it cost me to make it.
I will tell you more below about my decisions on what to do with the movie, but first let me say that Angel was right on both counts. After I paid hefty entry fees to several festivals (and was rejected by all), I spoke with a woman involved in one New York festival who explained the process. She said there was an initial selection panel, usually comprised of young people with little or no film training, who viewed the first 5 minutes or so of a film to decided whether it would go on to the next stage to be viewed more thoroughly. This first panel would receive instructions such as: “No violence against women.” Or “No kinky sex.” Or whatever.
In the case of RIK, the New York woman told me, there is violence against a woman in the first few minutes of the movie. This, in our current times, is not something most festivals want, she said. And, she continued, even if RIK had made it through the panel selection process, it would be competing with scores of films for one of about 5-10 slots because most of the movies for the festival would have already been chosen by prior arrangement with a studio, a friend, or other inside connection.
Regarding distributors, I learned that their main ploy is to promise a return of a goodly profit minus specified marketing costs. And it is the marketing costs that guarantee that you’ll never see any money. This warning about the never-ending marketing is widely documented on the Internet, but I also learned about it from those who’d experienced it. And, in the one interaction I had with a potential distributor, it was the marketing costs clauses that deterred me from undertaking the deal.
So what did I decide to do with the film? As noted, I entered festivals. This ended up being a negative not only in terms of the financial cost, but also in terms of time lost. I entered the festivals in the spring of 2017 and then had to wait an average of 3 months to hear the result. In the interim, most festivals disallow the film to be shown in theaters to the public or to be otherwise publicly available, such as on a streaming platform like iTunes, or via online DVD/Blu-Ray sales. This meant that I had to wait until mid-October to pursue online streaming and sales. If I had it to do over, knowing what I now know about festivals, I would definitely skip the festival process and go straight to sales.
In October 2016, during the film production, I made the decision not only to enter festivals, but also to do online streaming afterward if no distribution deal were forthcoming. I researched companies that prepare films for online platforms and found Distribber.
The guy who marketed Distribber by phone to me was really good at it. He promised that not only would the company place RIK on 3 platforms of my choice (ITunes, Google, and Amazon), it would do a quick and thorough quality control check first and arrange for both closed captions and subtitles in whatever foreign languages I chose. I would be assigned a manager, who would be available to me whenever I needed to make any technical adjustments or answer any questions. I signed up eagerly after Angel and I had a telephone conference call with him, just to make sure that Angel thought it was a good deal too.
The first signs of problems were when I tried to order subtitles. I kept getting put off, with my Distribber “personal manager” telling me that there were some glitches in getting a bid. Well, those glitches lasted from the day I signed up with Distribber in November 2016 until the day I terminated my contract with them in August 2017. More importantly, I grew weary of trying to get in touch with my manager and not getting clear or prompt answers. I was sorry that I had selected Distribber.
After my experience with Distribber, I started looking for another company to perform the same services. After looking at costs and promises from a few, I chose Juice Worldwide. As soon as I had signed, there were problems. I uploaded the film and audio assets, then began waiting. The quality control check was repeatedly delayed and I was unable to get responses when I tried to contact my project manager. Rather than waste months as I had with Distribber, I terminated with Juice before I even signed the contract.
In late September, 2017 I chose Mojo to get my film onto the streaming platforms. The sales representative was excellent. And, like the other two companies, the follow through by non-sales staff was spotty and slow. Even though the film was supposed to take only 3 to 4 weeks to upload if there were no quality control issues (there weren’t), it took until late November to complete the process.
My assessment is that Mojo was better than the other two because the marketing representative didn’t abandon me. He kept answering emails and addressing issues even though it was not his job. Nevertheless, had I not had the experiences with Distribber and Juice already, I am sure that I would have thrown in the towel with Mojo too. The upshot is that I think the field is wide open for a company that has the experience to upload to platforms efficiently and the managerial capability to exercise good customer care.
One of my early discussions with Kays was about source music. Although it was clear to me that certain types of music fit some scenes, there was also a lot of leeway in what to choose. Kays helped narrow the selection criteria. For example, we agreed that there be country music playing in the gun shop scene. When I told him I preferred a female singer there, he said, “Look for a female Hank Williams,” so I did.
I scoured the Internet looking for Texan female country singers with a perfect, polished voice and style. I finally found her—Kayla Ray. I loved her from the start. I sent a sample to Kays and he was equally impressed. But how to find her? I sent an email to her website contact form, to which there was no response.
As I waited to hear from Kayla, I tried to figure out how could I narrow the huge number of musicians down to those who’d be interested in trading inclusion in the movie for use of their music. In a huge stroke of good fortune, the answer was provided by our drone pilot.
Sparky Sorenson, drone pilot extraordinaire (about whom more later), used to be a country music artist. As a result, he was familiar with a wide range of Texas bands and solo artists. He offered to send out an email to his contacts asking for interested people to send me some of their audio files. The response was amazing. I had dozens and dozens of wonderful musicians to choose from, all of whom were interested in the trade I’d offered.
But Kayla Ray was not among them. I asked Sparky to try to locate her, so he did. And she said, “Yes.” I was overjoyed! I decided to push my luck and ask if I could use two of her songs, not knowing where the other would fit, but knowing I would find a place because I liked her so much. She agreed.
Then I began my review of the musicians who’d emailed me per Sparky’s request. I tried to match songs and instrumentals to individual scenes in my mind, and then would email Kays my suggestions. In some cases it was easy. The opening notes of Shaun Outen’s Señoritas and Tequila were an instant match to the bar scene with one of the villains. In other cases, I agonized and took weeks to decide which song would fit where. And, ultimately, there were some source-music needs for which I had no musicians yet.
One example was the scene in the apartment of the detective who was from Hawai’i. From the 13 years I’d lived on Kaua’i, I knew there were some fabulous ukulele players and I really wanted to showcase ukulele music, which can be so much more complex than the simple chords most people associate with it. So I returned to the Internet to look for just the right instrumental.
The first one I found was ideal, but the musician had the lackadaisical attitude of “I’ll do it tomorrow” that used to drive me crazy when I lived in Hawai’i. It would take him days to answer an email. I decided to keep looking.
The second musician I found was a young man who was willing for me to use his music, but told me that I had to go through his dad, who would handle everything. That turned out to be great because his father was business-minded and we soon had agreement to use two of Andrew Molina’s instrumentals.
One of the most unusual pieces we used as source music was by Fredrick Chopin. Kays came up with the idea for it in the art gallery scene. He arranged it and it suits the scene very well.
The final example of source music that required more time than I’d expected was the song for the taco shop. Kays suggested we get an upbeat, Mariachi sort of song. When I kept running into obstacles finding someone local and who could speak English, I finally asked one of our Spanish-speaking cast members for help. He sent me some songs from a couple of his friends and one was perfect.
Selecting the source music took many, many hours of work that was mostly fun. The parts that were not so enjoyable was preparing a template for the License Agreement, sending it to my attorney for comment, getting it signed by everyone, and obtaining information about royalties. Through it all, I was lucky to have an interested and helpful partner, Kays.
I’ve already told you a bit about my preoccupation with the music for RIK. I had listened to a huge amount of music and had made some selections of pieces I’d like in the movie. And I wanted to write the lyrics for the theme song, for which I would need a composer.
In August, I emailed a few composers whose music I’d found on the Internet and liked, to ask what their prices would be to use their work. The composer I’d tentatively chosen as my favorite wanted $800 per minute of music, which was out the realm of my budget, so I began to look at less expensive licensed music. But I kept running into the problem of congruity. I didn’t want the music to be choppy; there needed to be a thread of similarity throughout, with dramatic differences restricted to source music—the music that would be coming from radios or over speakers in bars and restaurants. I decided to take a closer look at composers who’d sent in emails asking to do RIK’s score.
I focused on two composers whose music I liked and asked if they’d read the script and send me a sample of what they envisioned. Also, I asked a very talented musician friend of mine to help me evaluate the music they sent in. Even though either of them would have been acceptable, I was not truly happy and put off the decision repeatedly. Then a new option presented itself.
Zubi had a friend who is a composer in LA, Kays Al-Atrakchi. He sent me some samples that I liked. Unbeknownst to me, Zubi also shared them with Roger and Angel, who took the initiative to call Kays before I was ready for such a step. I called Zubi and told him that, as music supervisor, I was still in the process of evaluating Kays’ work and that no one else was to become engaged in the decision.
I then got a call from Angel, who was shocked that I had taken on the role of music supervisor. Admittedly, I’d never conveyed my intent to him. He and Zubi had apparently thought that they would select a composer, who would then be responsible for all music—composed as well as source. I told him two things: I alone would select the composer and I would select all source music. This was not only something I wanted to do, but also we couldn’t afford to pay someone else to find free source music, as it would be very time-consuming.
When I finally called Kays, I was delighted with his take on the script and his proposed direction for music. I liked his professionalism, his experience, and his attitude. Although his price was higher than I’d intended to spend—well above the other front-runner—I chose him. Never once was I sorry and repeatedly I was glad.