Sunday 28 November 2010

Frank Henenlotter

I may have touched on this before but my favourite ever film is Brain Damage, a film written and directed by Frank Henenlotter. I can remember exactly when I first came across this film. It was in the summer holidays of 2001, really late at night and I was just flicking through all the channels on Sky as I did most nights, never really finding anything of interest. And as I flicked across the channels, this film was starting (I watch no TV these days but when I did, if something had already started, I wouldn't watch it). It was on the Sc-Fi channel (I don't know about now but it used to be a very good source of 80s horror despite being called Sci-Fi) and I was just drawn in straight away.

I immediately ordered it (it only had a UK DVD release in recent years and I have no idea about the quality of the release) and watched it millions of times.

It was/is a film that truly spoke to me. It told me that films don't have to play by convention but also don't need to take that ideal to the extreme. And that's the thing that permeates all Frank's films and the one thing that's informed scAIRcrows and no doubt anything else I ever make. He creates worlds and characters that are 100% real but then throws in some sort of off kilter aspect. Brain Damage is a very hard hitting film about drug addiction - there's a very tough segment of the film involving the lead trying (and failing) to rid himself of this addiction. It is played deadly serious and you can feel it. At the same time, it is a film where the other lead is a talking slug/worm thing. It sounds completely stupid but because everything else around the worm (and the worm itself) is played straight, you accept this thing as a reality.

scAIRcrows definitely follows this line of thought. We have a bunch of real people with real concerns and lives that are simply playing out. And then flying scarecrows appear. I will happily admit that scAIRcrows is a much less intelligent film but I'm not trying to remake or even copy Brain Damage. I cite Henenlotter and Brain Damage as an inspiration but they're only such because they agree with something that was already within me. They said to me that there's other people that see things just slightly off reality. They match the way that I think.

Basket Case is Frank's first film and I'm guessing the one he probably loves and hates in equal doses. Loves because it got him noticed, hates because instead of giving him money to make original projects, producers just wanted more sequels to this.

It's about Siamese twins who are separated. One brother is little more than a head and two arms attached to the torso of the other brother. Upon separation, the deformed brother (Belial) is thrown away but surprisingly, isn't dead. It picks up a few years later when both brothers head to Manhattan and seek out those doctors involved in the operation with Belial exacting revenge in a savage manner.

It clearly has the sensibilities that all of Henenlotter's films share but this one takes itself more seriously than the rest and, as much as it can be, is the most conventional of Henenlotter's films. It's a brilliant film that you can tell was crafted with a true love - it feels like a truly independent film but in a good way.

Henenlotter followed up Basket Case 6 years later with Brain Damage. Unfortunately the cover there gives away the very last shot of the film which isn't particularly clever. I have a French poster for this film (signed by Henenlotter when he attended Frightfest 2008 with Bad Biology) which is a similar image but is much cooler as it also features the worm, Aylmer, and a brain with a cocktail cherry and a straw sticking out of it.

I've probably said as much as I should say about this film. I totally worship this film and something very special would have to come along to knock it off my top spot. Check it out, it's available on UK DVD (as I believe all of his films are now).
Basket Case 2 was a film that was made purely so that the film Henenlotter really wanted to make (Frankenhooker) could be funded. He entered into a deal with a company that enabled him to make Frankenhooker if he delivered a Basket Case sequel first (that's an important thing to remember).

He never wanted to make this film and the cynics may call him a hack for making these sequels but his intentions for making them were honorable but more importantly, he didn't hash these films out. With Basket Case, Henenlotter had made a film with a certain tone and a definitive, inevitable ending. You could imagine how easily it could have been to cook up a sequel if forced. But Henenlotter actually gave it some thought and approached it with a tone that was far removed from the first and creating a world which is hard to imagine co-existing in the same timeline that the original happened.

Basically, Belial and his brother Duane are kidnapped from the hospital and taken to their aunt's (Granny Ruth) mansion where they discover she is caring for numerous deformed people - all exaggerated to comical degree. It turns the story of the original upside down (where Belial was the odd brother, Duane is now the one that doesn't fit in). There is a plot line of reporters tracking down Belial and Duane after the events of part one but this is secondary to the conflicts occurring between the brothers in Granny Ruth's mansion. The characters have little similarity between the two films but again, it just speaks of Henenlotter trying to make something of a situation that wasn't ideal.

Frankenhooker was the film that Henenlotter made Basket Case 2 to produce. I'd say that this and Basket Case 3 are more comedy than anything else. It's a lot more tongue in cheek and the furthest Henenlotter got in tone to Brain Damage. It tells the story of a man whose girlfriend/fiance is accidentally killed by a lawnmower. Said man also happens to be an underground scientist (with a brain for a pet and feeling a constant need to drill holes in his head to help him overcome problems). He decides that he will bring her back to life but doesn't have enough parts after the lawnmower incident. So he develops a drug he calls Supercrack, distributes it to prostitutes who consequently explode upon taking this drug. He then goes around, collecting the parts and reconstructs his girlfriend. The only side effect is that she resurrects with the memories of these hookers and heads straight to their haunts looking for business.

It is every bit as good as it sounds. You could clearly see that Henenlotter was not content doing the same thing over and over and it's a shame his career effectively ended after this film.
So, Basket Case 3 followed Frankenhooker. This, like Basket Case 2, was made as part of a two film deal. If Henenlotter made this, he would get to shoot the film he actually wanted to do. Only this time around, the company supposedly had no money left over to make his original film. So he basically dropped out of the business. Fed up with being asked to just make more sequels to Basket Case he went on to be a curator of old cult films, working with Something Weird (they're a bigger company in the US, they've released some films in the UK but they're very basic versions of their US releases).

Basket Case 3 is a more straightforward sequel to Basket Case 2 than 2 was to 1. Only just though. It continues the story of 2 and takes a lot of the silliness that's in Frankenhooker. It does deal with some real world themes though, culminating in what I think is an amazingly messed up ending where the 'freaks' led by Granny Ruth finally rise up against the world that shuns them. I think it was clear that Henenlotter really didn't want to make any more of these films and so ended it in such a way that any continuation would have been so far removed from the original film that no-one would even recognise it. I think that's where he was slowly taking the Basket Case series in part 2 - delivering films that fans of the original probably wouldn't really appreciate.

We then skip forward sixteen years when Henenlotter came out of a self imposed retirement to co-write and direct Bad Biology. There's been a few false starts as far as new Henenlotter films go. A film, Sick In The Head, was announced in partnership just a couple of years before Bad Biology that seemed to just fizzle out. There's been many other titles that Henenlotter has discussed that get mentioned and never appear again. This time, a rap star in the US, R A The Rugged Man, put money up for Henenlotter to direct this film that he would co-write with R A. R A seems to be a massive fan of Henenlotter's, one with enough money to enable Henenlotter to make whatever the hell he wanted with absolutely no interference.

As the tag line says, A God Awful Love Story. It's about two people with glaring sexual abnormalities who eventually meet, producing the strangest looking baby you'll ever see. This film feels like it could've followed Brain Damage, the silliness of the later films is mostly dropped but still lacking the harder edge of his first two films. It was amazing to see Henenlotter return so effortlessly after so many years but slightly marred for me in that a few years prior to this being made, I'd written a feature script that now seems fairly similar (that observation has been made by someone else too). Not in content but in theme and it's something I've wanted to make one day but would just feel like I was aping this film (despite the fact that it'd been written before Bad Biology was at least announced).

And as of now, that's all that he's made. I'm unsure as to whether we'll ever see another film from him, despite claims to the contrary. But I think that after making a film 16 years after his last one, he's proven to be a wild card and the next one may just appear out of the blue one day.

So, as far as influential directors go - Henenlotter is the one director I admire above all else and the one that made me realise that films like the ones I would like to make are out there, so why not give it a shot. I should also note that each of these films he has written or co-written.

* One very general comment about all of these blogs - I don't reread them. I spell check but that's it. So if there's weird instances where words appear where they shouldn't and sentences run on, I apologise. I could spend all my time making each sentence sparkle but then I would never get any of these out there and to me, it's more important that I get the content out there than how it is presented!

Saturday 27 November 2010

On Writing and Directing

A good question to ask me would be, why did you decide to make this film?

It's a good question because you'd probably expect me to say that I had a passion for film or to make money or raise a profile. The profile thing, partially. Money, nope. Passion, maybe.

I mean I am an absolute die hard horror fan - I can talk to you about Saw and Scream but also about Blood Car, Bad Biology and Flesh Eating Mothers. I like Orca as much as Jaws and also think The Last Shark is nearly a contender for its brazenness (if you're interested - read up on it. It's a film that's banned not because of content but because it came out alongside Jaws 2 (I think) and was deemed a carbon copy of Jaws to the extent that Universal managed to get an injunction against it). I watch it all - good, bad and ugly. And there's usually something that I can take away from each experience.

So an element of that obviously informed the decision to jump into scAIRcrows but I have to say, it wasn't the ultimate decider.

The driving reason to get scAIRcrows made was my writing. Writing's always been my love and talent (if I have one). My creative writing was always awarded top marks at school and also in external exams. All my English teachers said the same thing about it. And I loved doing it so it worked out.

I have pages and pages of short stories written but there's nowhere to really go with them. I considered pursuing small press and fiction magazines and maybe if I was fully committed to it, I would have done that. But that side of it, the 'business' side, just wasn't interesting to me. Whilst it might have been a necessary evil, I really had no desire to scour books on publishers and send out millions of submissions. I could've done it and still could I suppose but I feel the need to create more than I desire going through the arduous process of getting it out there. And weirdly, it doesn't really bother me that hardly anyone will ever read this stuff. For me, the second I'd finished the last draft, I was satisfied and moved on.

Also, I did research this and getting short stuff published is a lot harder than full length work. I guess much in the same way as film is.

You may see where I'm going with this. Making scAIRcrows was effectively a way of self publishing my writing. scAIRcrows was a new story - not based on any of the short stories I've already written (though I have considered resurrecting some of them for future projects). Making it into a film myself ensured that I didn't have to endure countless rejection letters from publishers etc.

Also, the allure of being able to make something my way obviously factored into it but primarily, it's about the writing. It always has been. For example, amongst other things, I'm about halfway through a feature length script of scAIRcrows that takes place the second after the short finishes. I am not writing this to make it, I have no desire to make another scAIRcrows film independently (if someone wanted to fund it - sure) but whilst I really have no immediate urge to produce another scAIRcrows film - I had this niggle at the back of my head that was telling me that I weren't finished with the story. And so, again, I'm writing something simply for the love of it. It's there if people want to read it and, again, put money into doing it justice but right now - I'm just writing it because I want to bring a definitive resolution to the storyline. And I'm just having a great time putting it together - it takes place in several locales and primarily deals with how people who have survived the scAIRcrow attacks (it's established that whatever happened in the short isn't an isolated incident) cope with the aftermath. It's a completely different beast to the short and that is what is, creatively, keeping me interested.

The thing about writing for me is that once you find that seed of an idea, you put it on the page and let it grow. I can honestly say that when I'm writing something, once I get past the fifth or so page, the thing starts writing itself. I'll bring the scAIRcrows feature back as an example here. For a few months I've had this idea as to how a feature would play out and it isn't what I'm currently writing. Once I'd written the first two scenes I realised that there were much more interesting things going on so I gave the blank page over to the characters and just let them speak. And they're taking me on a much different journey than the one I'd planned but it's absolutely the right way for this story to go.

Which brings me to directing. Directing is the anti thesis to the above. Maybe it's because it's a craft that I'm less familiar with but I find in film making that you're very bound. When I'm writing, if I want a character that dies to suddenly live, I go back and rewrite their fate. When I'm there on the day with actors, that character is doomed because there is no way I could change the entire film whilst in progress. I'm sure it has been done to great expense on bigger productions but are changes that late in the game dangerous to the rest of the story? I think once you get to the stage at which you're shooting - you surrender a lot of your creativity (remember, I speak as a writer who can do whatever he pleases at any point).

And I think that's maybe why I find directing a lot more difficult than writing. Don't get me wrong, there is still a lot of room for creativity and certain scenes in scAIRcrows are testament to that. I really enjoyed talking to the actors about how they, as the characters, would react in these situations. I don't know if everyone expected that and if I even came across as someone who knew what they were doing because of this constant discussion. As the director, should I have been asking the actors if they were happy with the takes when I was? I think so. I know it might have given the impression that I didn't have a feel for what I wanted but - and this is the biggest thing I learnt on scAIRcrows - actors can have as much as a feel for the characters as you do. I will keep saying it but I was amazed at how the actors in the auditions nailed the characters that I'd written. I valued their input and trusted it. And the worst thing that I think you can do as a director is deny them the creativity simply for the sake of looking like you're directing. There were two scenes in particular that I had to very mechanically direct and that was the right approach to take as they really work because of the precision but everything else - I wanted this creativity that, as a writer, is the only thing I understand.

And sometimes that backfired. People coming up with things and playing things certain ways worked a  lot of the time. But then, it also didn't. And I think this comes back to film making being more of a technical exercise than writing. When I'm writing, I don't have to worry about where a prop is. I don't need to worry about where the character's hands are at any given point. I don't need to worry about where they're looking. Don't need to worry about another character moving their hair or adjusting their clothing.

But I do when I'm making a film. Now, I know that on a massive film production, there will be people there for continuity and the like but that's not what scAIRcrows is. Nor will anything else I do for the foreseeable future. So I have to pay attention to how much freedom we exercise whilst shooting. I have to constantly question how things factor into the bigger picture. Will the way something happens in one scene, contradict the next? I've hit certain points in editing where I can only use half of the takes that we shot as something changes that means the rest can't be used.

At the same time, I do like directing. It's the collaboration and the process that I enjoy. I love seeing other people connect with my writing and then bring it to life. And then to see these characters travel the path that I've put them on. But it was always primarily a means for me to get my writing out there and making a film that I would actually enjoy watching.

Writing is something that I may still improve at but I don't think there's much else for me to actually learn there. Directing is something I look forward to giving another go (little tease - in the next few months!) and learning more about the process and craft and getting a feel for how far I can take the approach I have in writing to directing and how much I have to surrender to the technical aspect.

I'm sure this is just the beginning of a long journey.

Still Alive

Okay, so it's been fairly quiet recently but that's because there hasn't been a great deal to report. We're at a stage now where the only activity at the moment is editing. We've watched through all the footage - we've got an edit list for every line of dialogue and all I'm doing is mechanically following this list.

However, if it was that easy - the film'd be done by now. Picking takes for each line of dialogue works great when you're just paying attention to those lines but it needs to be a cohesive product and the edit list fails me on a fairly regular basis because of this. Shots can't be used because of glaring continuity (there's some continuity problems that won't be picked up on - some, I'm only noticing after watching a scene for the 500th - probably not far off - time), the tone in which the line's said may be slightly off with the rest of the conversation and just silly little things like that which force me to reassess what we thought we wanted.

And that's why it's taking forever. For example, right now - I've half cut a scene and just realised that an actor stumbles over a word, again, it's not too noticeable but everyone wants it looking its best so I'll have to go in and swap that one out. A consequence of that is the following stuff may not sit with the new take and then I have to reevaluate that too. And before you know it, half of what I spent ages editing has to be replaced.

It happened a couple of weeks back - I'd cut a 30 second sequence together only to realise something didn't work and the chain reaction was so great that I just deleted the entire sequence to start from scratch. Not the best way to spend 3/4 hours.

And this is what I'm up against with editing. It seems to be this snowballing monster that just eats more and more of my time the deeper that I get with it.

I do need to stress though that I am totally enjoying the experience. It's a mess of frustration but that only makes it much more sweeter when I eventually export the edited scene and view it away from the editing software. There is such a sense of satisfaction when you watch this product that you've pieced together from multiple sources and see it work as a single piece rather than the Frankenstein's monster that it technically is.

So where are we then? I would hope to be done with the rough edit by midnight Sunday. Hope. It can be done. I guess it comes down to what gets thrown my way in the edit. It's definitely a case of the finishing line being just out of reach. Once we have this rough edit, we're about 70% done with the film. I want to show the film to a few people that are completely alien to it and just gauge reactions. Not that I could or would change it if something thought it was rubbish but just to get an idea of how it plays - is there an issue with playing certain scenes out a certain way, should there be greater gaps between things or shorter ones? Are there things that aren't so clear that I'm able to sort? All these little things. That'll happen before we colour grade and master the audio.

I'm aware of the film's limitations - we aren't going to change the face of cinema with this but I want to put out the best possible version of the film. I've seen way too many films, commercially available where no care's been given to the film in post. Things like the audio not being smoothed out so where there's a cut to a different angle, the audio changes too. It's one thing that I refuse to let happen with scAIRcrows because your eyes follow your ears and it makes each cut as subtle as a sledgehammer. I will get this film right as far as I possibly can as I have a responsibility not only to myself but the producers, the cast and the audience to put out something that at the very least is technically competent.

At the same time, I'm not going to be forever tweaking it - there's some battles I've already lost and I've accepted that it's better to go with them than fight them as I won't win. A line will be drawn but I have to reach that point where I realise there's nothing else that can be done.

I'll try and get a few more blogs up in the next week or so about things somewhat related to the film - it's actually nice to get this all out there so everyone knows where we are - I don't feel as though I'm suffering alone this way!

Sunday 14 November 2010


Okay, so there hasn't been one of these in a while but with good reason - I'm now just madly trying to get the film cut in rough so we can move on to the next steps - slotting in the effects, mastering the audio, grading the image etc.

And it's taking a long time. Well, hopefully it won't be like this for the rest of the edit but I blocked out last weekend with the express intent of getting three whole scenes cut. I just about managed one. There's a very good reason for that which I won't go into just yet but it harks back to scAIRcrows being an educational experience. Something happened during one of the shoot days that I should have seen would turn out to be a problem but didn't and my weekend suffered for it.

I'm happy to say though that I cut around the problem - the scene was so well covered that if I never told you what was the problem with it, you would never guess. And, it's even turned out to be my favourite of the four scenes that we have in a cut form. But it was the most painful to put together.

It got me thinking though that once the film's finished I'll write quite a detailed post mortem on the film. What went wrong, what went right and all of that. I think it's a useful exercise and anyone that was involved in the production may take something from it. For example, I can now tell actors exactly why sometimes their best takes aren't used in the finished film. It never made sense to me that directors/editors would choose instances where the performance weren't as good as in other takes. I now understand why that happens because I've had to do it myself (anyone that's in the film, don't worry - I haven't put anything in the film that I'm unhappy with, I've just sometimes lost my preferred shots). I now realise more than I did just how collaborative film is to the point that everything everyone does is reliant on the next person doing everything that they're supposed to do. It's actually a real eye opening experience.

I also think another thing that I need to do for the next film is not stand behind the camera. I think I was too focused in making sure that the image looked okay that in some cases, I didn't notice things in the scene that I should have done. I think next time around, I set the cameras up how I want them but let someone else actually stand behind them to make sure nothing happens. I need to be watching the scene, not the shot.

If all of this sounds overly negative, it isn't. I'm more than happy with what we have but as we get deeper into the cut I'm just noticing tiny little things that if I had a second chance, I would change.

And, as I mentioned earlier, the thing that's caused me the most bother so far - I challenge anyone (Jenny and Wayne - not you because you know what it is!) to actually tell me what it is. You won't notice it and that's a cast iron guarantee. As I say, once the film's out there and people have seen it, I'll go into detail into these little quirks but right now - I don't want them to distract from the film.

Another attempt at editing the film is happening today - this time my focus is just on getting the two scenes that I was also supposed to cut last week done. I think it's achievable as I recall them being a lot simpler in setup. I hope.

It's coming together though and quite nicely too, I've now created a 'workprint' project - as I cut the scenes chronologically, each finished scene gets dropped into this project so we're now getting a feel for the film playing in sequence rather than in isolated scenes. So we have the first 7 minutes running and there are changes to make within those 7 minutes but at the moment, it's just about getting the skeleton built as quickly as possible and then returning to make the refinements rather than getting caught up in relatively minor details.

Back to the edit I go.