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.
The choice of an editor ideally should be made prior to filming so that they can be involved from the start of production. In our case, I didn’t choose anyone until after production was completed. The reason boiled down to two issues: money and the degree of control I’d have over the process.
Angel held out hope that somehow we would have enough money left over after production to afford an editor experienced in feature films produced by studios. The nearest of those that we knew about was in Austin and they cost more than five times the money we had allocated for the editor. Also, Angel wanted to turn over the film to someone with fresh eyes, whereas I wanted to edit the film to the vision of it that I had in my head.
We were in the final week of production when I had a sort of meltdown—a conniption fit with tears and gnashing of teeth. By phone one night, I told Angel I could no longer bear the indecision and I planned to move forward with choosing an editor myself and that I had decided upon Charles Willis. Charles was keen to fulfill my vision of the film, was local so that he could meet with me, and was willing to meet my price. If Charles could handle the editing software professionally, that was all I needed to know.
Angel agreed that he and Zubi would interview Charles in a conference call to make sure that he was up to the job technically. That was followed by an in-person interview which resulted in an “okay, but with reservations” verdict by Angel.
As it turned out, Charles had many good attributes, one of which was patience. I had a very slow, unsure start to the editing process. A key problem was my hesitation in cutting people’s roles and air time, and in deciding to omit scenes. Charles was always ready to try a different approach and never complained when I changed my mind, which was fairly frequently at the beginning.
Although we started the editing in late October, I didn’t feel that we hit our stride until December. By then, we had a routine down in which I would provide notes and Charles would upload edited scenes with which we’d work.
Angel first came to town in late April 2016. As I drove to the airport to pick him up, I thought about how I didn’t even know who he really is. I didn’t know his race, physique, appearance, or personality. Here I was, having a man come and stay with me for a few weeks whom I didn’t know at all. What if he were a thief? A slob? A psychotic? A cat-hater? Too obese to sleep on my air mattress? In fact, all I knew about him was that he liked my screenplay, had a relevant resume, and was a colleague of my cousin’s.
Fortunately, Angel turned out to be a mild-mannered gentleman with a strong sense of fairness. And he had many skills that would be essential to making the film project happen. There is no doubt, RIK would not have been made without Angel.
Already, I mentioned several of the functions Angel performed: drafting the budget, helping find locations, selecting crew, arranging the auditions signup online, and helping me make sure that people I wanted to hire for post production were technically able. But there are a myriad details to making a movie, many of which Angel handled. Some were unanticipated.
We had rented a large truck with a very comprehensive and expensive set of lighting equipment. The company told us that there’d been battery issues with the truck, but that now they were fixed. However, at the end of the first day of filming, the truck wouldn’t start. And it was not in a good part of town. And it was night. I had arranged with the Mesquite Police Department that we’d be able to park the truck during off hours in front of the MPD, where there was not only observation from the office in front, but also cameras on the site. But there was no way to get the truck to the MPD. So, Angel stayed with the truck.
Oddly, a similar thing happened on the next to the last night of filming with our other big truck, one rented from U-Haul and which was filled with other expensive equipment, including the Digital Imaging Technician’s computers and drives. Again, Angel stayed with the truck. The toll on him was pretty severe. He was already perpetually exhausted from the long days, but to have to spend his night hours protecting the truck was a bit much.
But many of Angel’s Producer duties were not unusual. He made sure that we had all of the necessary permits for filming at locations, arranged parking for cast & crew with the city and conveyed it in a map to everyone each night, and notified all residents around where we’d be filming so that there’d be no problems from neighbors. But, perhaps most importantly, he handled a myriad of questions that arose every day, from whom our single driver should be transporting to where, to who should fill out an accident report if they tripped and fell.
Angel was also very, very helpful in a part of post-production; he commented extensively on several of the edits. Even though I knew he was unhappy that I didn’t act on all of his recommendations, he was extremely influential. One of his key roles was to identify cuts that were choppy and make recommendations on fixes. Also, without his hard-nosed criticisms of the action scenes, they would not be good. Angel was the single most important reviewer of the film. He had a very positive and outsized impact on the overall quality.
A piece of advice given to me by the entertainment law professor at SMU was that I should choose key personnel myself so as to ensure not only their loyalty to me, but to help guarantee that I would be satisfied with them. Not following this advice more closely is a sincere regret. And no better example exists than my experience with the first makeup artist.
One of the early requests our Director, Roger, made to me was that he be allowed to select the hair and makeup artist—a friend of his. She had a good resume and I wanted him to have someone in whom he had confidence. However, alarm bells went off during my interview of her. She was glib, wasn’t prepared to answer makeup questions based on a review of the script, and full of early demands such as what meals she would require. When I expressed my reticence to Roger, he assured me that I would be satisfied with her work or he would himself dismiss her.
Although the cast were genial and inclined not to complain, there were some early grumblings that the makeup artist was requiring them to put on their own foundation and basic makeup before coming to work. I let it be known to the makeup artist that this was unprofessional, but she ignored me. More importantly, I repeatedly had to intervene to try to tone down the heavy black eye makeup on the lead actress and the stringy, vampy look to her hairstyle. And I was unhappy that actors some days had product on their hair and other days, not. It needed to be consistent or it could be noticeable in the film that the hair had changed from one scene to the next.
Although these problems made me think about firing the makeup artist before the end of the first week, I hesitated. I was worried about offending Roger. This is the very point about why I should not have agreed to let someone bring on a friend. My indecision was costly.
It was day 4 of filming when a makeup problem occurred that I didn’t learn about until the following day. An actor had to be made up to be a dead, decaying body. But his makeup didn’t make him look like an authentically decayed body. And, the makeup used on him was unprofessional; it was a black material that would not wash off. The actor had to shower for over a half hour, scrubbing until his skin was raw, and still he had residue on him.
We were on the sixth day of filming, just having had a weekend during which I got most things caught up, when I concluded firmly that the makeup artist needed to go. That morning, she was holding up the filming process because she was talking rather than doing makeup, and decided she needed a break when it was clear that it would put us further behind. When I quietly informed her that she needed to keep working, she replied loudly in front of cast and crew that she didn’t need me telling her how or when to do her job.
Because we were on day one of the second film week, I couldn’t dismiss her immediately. I told Angel and Zubi to get a replacement in for weeks 3 and 4. She was going, soon to be gone.
I was extremely happy with the replacement hair and makeup artists. Not only did they take the job very seriously, they were exceptionally good at it.
To me, a measure of a person should not be taken by their mistakes, but by the effort and success of their recovery from mistakes. With that in mind, I shall tell you about the wardrobe mishap.
It was evening on the third day of filming. We had been at it for 7 hours and it was time for me to leave to do Pono’s (my cat) insulin. So I was not there to see the wardrobe of the character Chris Coxon.
The following day, I reviewed the takes from the previous night and became upset. Coxon is a character who prides himself on his attire and prefers to wear jacket and tie. He isn’t in the least sloppy. Despite this being clear throughout the script and in all discussion about wardrobe and everything else, Coxon was dressed in a shirt that was several sizes too large. You could put your entire hand between his neck and shirt collar. There were apologies all around, but that didn’t change the takes. I wanted the scene reshot.
Angel talked me out of a re-shoot. He pointed out that the entire schedule would slip dramatically and that we would mess up the logistics for all the locations. It was a convincing argument; we could not mess up production for a single wardrobe error.
While I accepted that we had to live with the wardrobe glitch, I wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so I called our wardrobe director. She explained that we were using the actor’s own shirts to save money. Here we were again at a money problem that would continually recur: either spend more and get it right, or keep the budget lower and accept quality reduction. In this case, I opted to spend.
Our wardrobe director recovered well once she had the authority and money to do it right. She went out and purchased some shirts, ties, and jackets that would look appropriate and fit properly.
But the wardrobe problems were not confined to ill-fitting shirts. Later, when I reviewed the takes of the film for the edit, there were problems that resulted in editing decisions that I would not otherwise have made. Two stick out in my mind.
There was a scene where the two lead detectives walk down a hallway talking about relationships. The lighting was magnificent and the architecture of the hallway had great production value. And the cinematographer did a great job of starting the scene with their feet, then working up their bodies as they walked. The problem was that Coxon’s pants were about 4 inches too long, bunched up at his ankles, looking ridiculous. I don’t think anyone anticipated that the shot would include their feet and thus they didn’t think about the pants. I had to cut the scene.
Another example was the costume and makeup of the Woman in Black. On this, there was a total miscommunication by me with the staff. I wanted her to be in a ski mask because this character would be trying to keep her hair from leaving forensic evidence. When I said that her attire must include a ski mask, I never envisioned her being made up with heavy black makeup, looking like a raccoon. But when I saw the takes the next day, there she was in in a hoodie that made her look like a Darth-Vader wannabee and ridiculously black eyes. It was one of the several reasons that the scene is almost non-existent in the film. Only parts required for the integrity of the story were left in, and with cuts that minimize the view of the Woman in Black.
It was August and I had created dozens of now-signed contracts with crew and cast. I had been so very busy with 18-hour work days that I’d had no time to worry again about whether I had got them right. Then I had a conversation with my attorney in LA, the one who was doing the script clearance. She suggested that she review at least one of the contract to make sure it was complete. I quickly sent her an example, regretting that I’d waited so long. I would not like to have to re-do all those contracts.
My attorney called me with some bad news. She said that I had neglected to include three key elements, one of which was a remedies clause. This clause says that even if a cast or crew member seeks legal remedy to a problem, they can’t enjoin or restrain the exhibition, advertisement, distribution, or other use of the motion picture as relief. In other words, someone could sue me, but they couldn’t kill the project in the process. This clause, she said, was so important that no distribution company would touch the film without it. I had to re-do all the contracts. Then I had to explain to everyone the reason they needed to sign all over again.
Now let’s jump ahead 10 months in time so I can tell you why I was so glad that I got the legal advice and acted on it. The movie had been through post-production and had premiered to cast and crew in early June 2017. I was now fully engaged in doing preparations for marketing, including a poster, for which I had hired a professional trailer house, Wheelhouse Creative in New York. I posted the draft poster on the private Facebook page I shared with interested cast and crew.
Shortly after posting the draft, I got a call from one of the lesser-role actors who informed me that I had promised him that his name would be on any movie poster for the film and demanded that I follow through. I told him that I had no recollection of such a promise and that I didn’t think it would be appropriate for such, given the level of his role. He persisted, saying that I would soon hear from his lawyer.
Indeed, shortly thereafter I got an email from his lawyer threatening that if I did not put the actor’s name on all posters, he would seek to enjoin any distribution of the movie. He cited the first contract signed by that actor, which didn’t have the remedies clause.
Rather than interact with the actor’s attorney myself, I asked my attorney to address the problem and sent her a copy of the contract signed by the actor. She did so and the case was closed. But I shudder to think what would have happened had I not followed legal advice about the contracts.
In July, I put together a list of the actors we needed for all of the roles, specifying desired age range, gender, race(s), and physique. Angel set up an audition sign-up sheet online for the people we’d choose to audition, and proceeded to advertise the casting call. Roger and I decided what parts of the script to use for readings and he prepared sides.
We received scores of resumes, fully half of which were from people with no or inadequate qualifications. I put together a form letter to send to these applicants that offered them an opportunity to be an extra in the film.
For the applicants with qualifications, I set up a shared folder on Google Drive for resumes and photos. I contacted some candidates of interest to ask for video samples and put these into the folder as well. Then Roger and I ranked them. When we both chose someone, they were an automatic invite. For others, Roger and I went back and forth a bit, leaning toward including people in the auditions if either of us had strong preference.
We’d scheduled a few days of auditions and had a lot of people coming in. For those out of town or unable to come on the days we were auditioning, we set up a process either to audition them via Skype, or to receive video.
A couple of days before we were to start auditions, Angel asked me who was going to be the reader for the actors—the one who’d say the lines in the script not being spoken by the person auditioning. Well, I hadn’t thought of that. I scrambled to find some young people who wanted to participate, but who had limited or no credentials. I found 5 who were excited to help with low pay. They were the readers as well as assistants in the process. I was happy that later one actually had a role in the film, another was a set decoration assistant, and another was an extra. Their willingness to take on a limited, small job led to some experience in film.
Another thing that I was glad I did was to make a rating sheet to record our evaluations of the actors. With so many people each day, it was difficult to keep them sorted in our minds. Even more important, however, was that Roger videoed each audition. We ended up relying very heavily on reviews of those, especially later when our first-choice actor was unavailable and we had to go to back-up candidates.
I was not expecting the wide range of capabilities. Some were so awful that it was hard not to laugh. Some were so superb that selection was open-and-shut. Overall, we found actors who were either very good or exceptional for all of the key roles and most of the auditions went smoothly, with us filling the roles fairly rapidly. I won’t report on all of the casting experience, but will cite two examples.
Two of the roles about which I was most worried were the leading man, and the really evil bad guy. For the former, I wanted someone not overly young, who fit my definition of handsome, and who could masterfully portray the range of emotions that his character would encounter. For the latter, we needed a tough guy who could project craziness coupled with craftiness, and who was versatile with a range of emotions.
We were well into the auditions and I was getting worried. Not only had we not found anyone for those roles whom I thought met Roger’s or my criteria, there had not been anyone who would even do in a pinch. I resolved that I was going to have to think about coming up with money to fly in someone from LA and put them up at significant expense.
In walked Chad Halbrook—handsome and young, but not too young; he was definitely a fit with what I had in mind. “Please let this guy be good,” I said to myself. As Roger proceeded to put him through his paces, it was hard to stop from grinning. Not only was he good, he was exceptional. I thought to myself, “This guy can carry the movie if he has to.” I liked him so much that I was constantly afraid we’d lose him and have to go to a distant, distant back up until the film was finally in the can.
The second role that I thought would be hard to cast was the bad guy. In particular, there is a scene where the character gets off on watching a video of violence. I asked Roger to have those who auditioned for the role do this scene, which entailed no dialog, just pure acting.
There was a guy from Austin who’d had a hard time reserving an audition spot online and he called me, irate about it. He was ready to give up, but I tried to be even-keeled about it and help him get in. I was ever so glad we persisted. When he walked in, I noted he had “the look” I was envisioning, but did he have the talent? I sat quietly, as I did with all the auditions, and watched Roger work with him. But at the end of the audition, when Roger hadn’t yet asked him to do the “getting off” scene, I spoke up and asked for him to do it.
When Tom Heard finished that part of the audition, I couldn’t restrain myself. I jumped up from behind my table at the back and rushed up to hug him. “Fantastic,” I said. He was sweaty and still breathing hard from the exertion of the scene, but I had to hug him one more time. Roger said, “Hmm, I never saw anyone hug an actor for his performance before.” But I could tell that he agreed with my sentiment.
I wanted to get started on selecting crew in early May, but Angel first wanted to have an LA attorney review the contract between us. That review took a very long time. When Angel finally signed the contract, it was late June, at which point we had to enter into a hurry-up mode. We were about two months away from the start of pre-production—the week when staff would assemble to prepare for actual shooting.
I feel that the late start was a negative in two related ways. First, it limited the choices to people who had not yet committed themselves to other jobs during our production period (September 18 – October 13), which restricted our pool of talent. Second, it forced us to make decisions quickly without sufficient time for references check or thought about how people would work together.
It wasn’t until the beginning of July that we really got moving. Angel identified all of the crew positions that were required and posted a crew call online. I had set up an email account on the Pono Productions Google Drive to receive all the incoming applications and made folders for each job title and filtered every applicant. As emails came in, I placed them into a job folder along with a ranking of their qualifications. It required reading, categorizing, and responding to hundreds of emails, a process that took me several hours a day for over a month.
One of the first positions filled was to bring on Zubi Mohammed as Production Manager. He worked closely with Angel to decide whom to interview for the crew and how much to offer for each position. Once someone accepted our job offer, Angel gave me their information and I drew up a contract.
On positions like gaffer or grip, I was not qualified to weigh in, so didn’t. Other jobs—Production Designer, Cinematographer, Production Manager, and so on—were very important to me, so I took an active role.
But there were four positions that were extremely important to me and I filled based almost entirely on my own preferences: Editor, Colorist, Composer, and Sound Designer. I will discuss these later. First let me describe casting.
It was late May when I got an email from cousin Fred that outlined extensive changes he wanted to make to the script. And they were very, very substantive, involving not only revision of dialog, but plot and character as well.
I wanted to keep Fred as director because I was comfortable with him and trusted his experience. To lose him would be a setback to the film as well as to my psychology at this point.
With his notes, I went through the script, making those changes I felt would not impact negatively on the film. In the end, there were too few of his suggestions that I could accept. I sent the script back to him with a reminder that he’d come on as director with the understanding that the script was locked.
Then I got a call from him that broke my heart. He said his suggested changes were imperative, was adamant that the script was horribly deficient, and said it had taken him until now to realize it. If I were unwilling to accept his changes, he was no longer interested in directing it. And so we parted ways.
This event was seminal. I realized that I was so confident in the screenplay that I was willing to part with Fred rather than change it. Also, losing him was so sorrowful to me that it would inure me to losing any other staff on the film at any later point. My commitment to the script had been sorely tested by his challenge and criticism, and my conviction was reinforced.
Angel was a big help to me in coping with my loss of Fred. His attitude was that “these things happen on a film” and you have to just keep moving onward. He immediately set to finding another director. He had several resumes and talked to me about some of the prospects. One that interested us a lot was Roger Lindley.
Roger lived in Amarillo and had some interesting directing experience. We decided to have him read the script. Then we had a telephone conference call in mid June. When I told Roger that the script was locked, he said he was not interested. Angel and I went back to the prospects list.
Unexpectedly, Roger called me with a proposal. He would make revisions he’d like to make to the script, I would review them to see what I could accept, then we’d talk. Neither of us would be under any obligation. It was a no-lose proposition.
Roger’s suggestions were mostly acceptable to me. I liked his approach and his enthusiasm for the project. And I had a good feeling about him as a person; I simply liked him. It was wonderful to have found such a promising director within only a few weeks of losing Fred.
We three decided to hold auditions starting in mid July. In the interim, Roger and I would trade a number of thoughts on the script as we tweaked and reached a closer understanding with one another on the project.