DarWest
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Director's Diary
Sunday, April 16, 2000

God Bless the Digital Era

When I was a little kid, basking in the glow of Star Wars and E.T., making movies seemed like an impossible dream.  The more I learned about filmmaking, the more impossible it seemed.   Film itself is a very expensive medium, not just to buy, but also to have developed.  Film cameras and film editing equipment were also elusive.    

Books on how to make films were of little comfort.  According to most books, the majority of a filmmaker's time and energy was spent on fundraising.  And what are the principle costs?  Film and film developing.

How could a kid ever become a filmmaker? 

Sometime in elementary school or junior high, my aunt Lisa bought a camcorder.  Sure, video doesn't look like film -- but technology finally advanced to the point where a kid could control the moving image.  Anyone could

Video cameras came down in price, and then so did computers.  Out with the archaic moviola editing machine, and in with Adobe Premiere!   An entire motion picture production company was forming under the fingertips of anyone who chose to utilize it. 

People of my generation have more a chance of making it in the movie business than any previous generation, and this is proven year after year by the growing popularity of independent films.  Last year, The Blair Witch Project was released -- it was phenomenally successful.  It was also a video transferred to film.  It cost nothing, could have been made by anyone with the ingenuity and imagination of those filmmakers, and it competed at the box office with major Hollywood films.  A similar hit, made nearly 20 years earlier, was The Evil Dead.  Sam Raimi and his film crew toiled on The Evil Dead for years, always running out of funds, having to raise money, reunite the cast and crew -- in a nutshell, it was nearly impossible to make, and it's to their credit that they were able to pull it off.  The Blair Witch crew dropped some actors off in the woods with a camcorder and voila -- a movie made in far less time and for far less money.

For the first time in movie history, aspiring filmmakers don't have to have tons of money and inside connections to make a movie.   All we need is a video recorder and a computer with the right software. 

So, if you want to make a movie, you don't have as many excuses not to these days.  You don't have to be Steven Spielberg in Hollywood, California.  You can be in Bloomington, Indiana or anywhere.  You can get your education from the more recent filmmaking books, the internet, and the many filmmaker commentaries found on laser discs and DVDs.  And when you've made your movie, you don't really need a deal with a studio to distribute it.  You can do it yourself -- on the internet. 

The world of filmmaking is changing faster than it ever has before.  I count it as a blessing that I was born at a time when a few ingenious people looked at the whole process and said,
"There has got to be a better way..."

 

Saturday, October 30, 1999

Making It

You'll have to pardon me.  This diary entry is being written after I've been bed-ridden for most of three days and I feel like pulling out the soap box.  Hopefully I'll feel better after writing this, and maybe someone out there will heed my advice regarding "making it".

Whenever one says they want to make movies, people are curious to know how one intends to "make it".  The most important thing I learned during the Media Workshops, thanks to professor Marde Gregory at UCLA, was this: No two people make it the same way.  Hence, there is no single answer to the question of "making it" -- not even a handful of answers, but rather a multitude of answers and endless combinations within.  Something else Prof. Gregory said, which I have taken to heart:  You can't want to be successful.  You just have to want to do it. 

That last statement took me a while to understand.  But on the flight home from the workshops, I sat next to a man who also had some advice for me.  He said, "You can't spend your whole life doing something you don't want to do."  He was very happy with his job, which was -- get this:  international plumber.  Yes -- he loved plumbing and was so successful at it that he had climbed the ranks of a corporation and was now in the position to fly around the world on behalf of his company.

I think my parents flew me to the workshops to discourage me from movies.  Perhaps they felt I had "romanticized" the job.   Well, I'm thankful they sent me.  I'm also thankful they have always been cautious in encouraging me to make movies.  Movies aren't easy to make, and the job is one of the most insecure in the world.  But one thing I've learned is this:   There are two qualities a filmmaker must have, and if they don't have them, they're probably not going to make it.  Humility and Perseverence.

Humility is essential because you can't be good at everything.  You're not perfect.  You make mistakes, and it's quite possible that you can make a piece of crap movie no one will like.  I'd like to think I learned humility at my tenth grade talent show.  My partner and I recruited several of our friends and put on this very serious little space opera.  It went terribly wrong, and the audience ended up laughing hysterically at our mistakes.  At one point, the sound went out, and no one could hear the dialogue.  One of the actors slipped, fell and started laughing uncontrollably.  A remote control prop failed.   Aaah.  It's embarrassing to this day.  Yet everyone laughed -- and that's not a terrible reaction is it?  I still went to school the next day to see which skit in the show won the audience's vote.  I didn't get first, or second... or third.   But I lived.  And it gave everyone something to talk about for a while.

Perseverence is the BIG one.  I've met so many people who at the onset seemed so enthusiastic and so eager to get started.  And then I've watched that energy dissipate into nothing.  I've seen crew members fall off the face of the earth, tasks go undone, procrastination, etc.  I think it's easy to get excited about the "idea" of making movies.  But very few waiters in Los Angeles realize what it's actually like to "make" movies.  It can take years of work, fundraising, a lot of communication, and most of all (at least for me), a ton of planning and problem-solving.

That's not to say it isn't fun, but anything worth having is worth working for.  Committment is essential.  Wishy-washies and hopeless dreamers need not apply.  Practical, hardworking and talented people are the ones who bring these things to life.

Okay.  I'm putting the soap box back in the closet and going back to bed.  Goodnight.

 

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Janell Cox, Ken Elliott and Jon Kieffner

 

Thursday, July 15, 1999

Actor-People

I didn't know what to expect from the auditions. Dan and I put up flyers around Indiana University and simply hoped for the best. The first audition was rather quiet -- it was a Wednesday evening (not a good night for these things), and we later learned that there was another audition going on downstairs (and those people were paying the actors).

We were fortunate enough to meet four actors who would be cast: David Berman (Ti'Chet Agonni), Christopher Mills (Linaat Antoor and Gant Haverstick), Ben Cohen (Ren Canerday) and Claire Engle (Shangon).

David was the first to audition. I remember thinking this guy would be willing to go crazy with us -- so we cast him as a nasty creature who shouts a lot. I remember David screaming at the top of his lungs during the first recording session. I'm notorious for doing multiple takes, and David almost busted a gut before the night was over. He's a trooper.

Chris Mills is one of the most enthusiastic people I've ever met in the theatre/film world. From the beginning, Chris was eager to sink his teeth into multiple roles. He has also offered help with our website and with advertising. He has complete control of his voice -- words are weapons and diction can kill. He's capable of performing dozens of different voices -- a one man radio drama of psychotic proportions. If he doesn't start producing movies himself, his commitment is sure to end up boosting some young filmmaker's career (if not my own).

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Ben Cohen and Janell Cox

Ben Cohen was one of two people who were instantly cast upon my first meeting them ( I never told these people as much, but sometimes you know these things right away.) Ben gave Ren the slight "punk" quality I was looking for. He even fit Ren's physical description. We fondly credit Ben with the position of "cheese patrol". This name came from our first rehearsal, during which Ben was reluctant to point out dialogue he didn't like. When he finally mentioned it, I let all the actors know that all the dialogue was theirs to manipulate. (I think it's a great way to make the characters more realistic; dialogue is not my forte anyway.) From then on, Ben spoke up more often -- so hopefully there's no more cheezy dialogue in DarWest.

Claire Engle is a blessing. A staple in IU theatrical productions, we were lucky enough to catch Claire right as she graduated. In fact, our recording session with Claire was her last day in Indiana. For a young director in front of a horde of eager actors, she was full of good advice and encouragement. A genuine pro.

The second audition was on a Sunday evening, and it was a big one. I think it lasted four hours, and approximately 35 or 40 people showed up -- ages 8 to 60! We hit paydirt!

But there was a new problem: There were so many good actors and too few roles to fill. It's a great problem to have, but still something to contend with.

David Walter (Ty Bardsley) showed up. I'd directed David in a short radio drama several years earlier (something for school). It was nice to see he was still pursuing his dream (he's currently planning to shoot a horror movie, too!).

There was also Eric Engleman, whom I'd never met personally, but I'd seen him in Picasso at the Lapin Agile. He was the second person who was cast instantly in my mind. Eric sounded and looked like Basil Marquan. He also ended up being the most entertaining line-flubber at the studio. I could probably put together a five-minute reel of wacky Engleman addlibs and line flubs. Though he may have taken it personally, I enjoyed all of them.

Janell Cox is a tremendous talent. So much so, that at the recording studio, the engineer (Dave Weber) asked her to audition for a musical he was involved in. Janell can take a performance in a million different directions and she knows exactly what questions to ask in order to get it there. She made my job easy, and she brought a tremendous amount of subtlety to the most brief and quiet moments. You can look for her name on marquees in Chicago now.

Thomas Holicky is a chameleon. I'd heard of Thom from Richard Fish, our audio consultant who owns and operates Lodestone Media here in Bloomington. Thom's done numberous radio dramas with Richard, and he was true gem to have on DarWest. We gave him a handful of small but colorful roles and he ran the gamut of vocal expression in bringing them to life. I swear that no one in the audience will be able to identify all of Thom's characters. He's just that good.

Mari Marroquin received enormous joy in shouting "Fire!" (as Lillyth DeVries). She was also a real ham in the studio. She gave Lillyth a commanding presence, but also a great deal of sensitivity.

Gretchen Hall was so happy to get the part of Tia Cavner, that we couldn't help falling in love with her. She worked hard at the role and the performance is wonderful -- she gave Tia Cavner the right mixture of charm and mystery. Gretchen also hosted our "behind-the-scenes video" for us. While many actors would have done this, we chose Gretchen after learning she once modeled for Seventeen magazine.

Finding someone to do the voice of 60-year-old Ian Brenneman was a challenge. John McGuire, a sports announcer for a local radio station, nailed it. We started with John's impersonation of Sean Connery and took it from there. Sometimes in the studio my direction was "more" or "less Connery". I'm sure Mr. Bond would be flattered.

Michael David proved to be a great character actor. His uniquely deep voice breathed life into the Ranine Councilman, Sidig Nash and Graeme Griffin. His voice for the Ranine amazed me because I'd always thought it would have to be digitally manipulated to sound alien enough. I was wrong. No computer manipulation required. I liked the voice so much, that when we went back to the studio for pickups, I added a few more lines for the Ranine.

Juliet Eichberg plays supporting characters with leading lady flare. She was the first person to formally accept a role in the voice cast. I remember being afraid she wouldn't take it (since it's not one of the leading roles). But she embraced the part, and the whole experience, and I think her character, Kiran Mirojnick, is sure to be one of the most colorful characters in the movie.

Our child actors were another fortunate find. Dan drove DeJohn and Hele Rose home from school until their parents arrived home, so we immediately thought of DeJohn and Hele when casting came along. Both of them had taken acting class at the John Waldron Arts Center here in Bloomington.

Nile Arena is someone I’d heard about for over a year. Someone was always telling me about how great this ten-year old was in such-and-such play. Chris Mills happened to be cast in a play with Nile just as we were gearing up for the pickup session, so we approached Nile and his parents about joining the cast. They were delighted to join us, though the pleasure was all ours.

Emily Zoss was crazy, so we had to cast her. Unfortunately, she’s underutilized in the movie. She plays four small roles. For her part as Rachel Marquan, she had to sound as though she were prying open a jammed door. To get the sound, we had her pushing against things in the studio. I don’t think anything was funnier than the sounds of constipation we got from Emily that day.

Have I forgotten anyone? Oh, yeah. The lead.

I suppose it’s classic that Nik Wayland was the last character to cast. All other male cast members were considered, but there was a raw, vocal quality that I was searching for with Nik. Of course the actor had to be talented, but that wasn’t a problem with the group we’d assembled in callbacks. Dan and I both sat for hours determining who would play which part, and, for whatever reason, we never seriously thought of Jon Kieffner for the lead character. In fact, we only had him read the character once during the two callbacks. He’s such a great improvisational actor, capable of multiple voices, that we’d been storing him aside for several smaller parts. I remember listening to the tape we made of the callbacks, and how surprised Dan and I were when we heard Jon’s cold reading of Nik. It smacked us upside the head – this is the guy. I don’t think this is the time to go into my feelings toward the character of Nik, so I’ll just say this: Jon’s voice has all the complex dichotomy I was looking for in the character – soft and hard, strong but vulnerable. He was perfect.

Rounding out the principle cast at the last moment, was Taryn Chaifetz, another friend of Chris Mills who was in town for just one weekend. She was cast on the spot as Nik’s mother, Isabeua. She has one scene with Nile and I’m very pleased with her brief, yet significant contribution to the movie.

All these actors attended numerous rehearsals, and some of them attended all four recording sessions. They did this without payment and on their own time. I commend them for their generosity and commitment to the project. My only regret is that the experience was so fleeting. You can certainly look for some of their names on my next project.

 

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Friday, June 25th, 1999

His name sounds like a sneeze...

Before DarWest became the ambitious project it is, things were much simpler.   It was originally going to be nothing more than (basically) a filmstrip -- with no more than a hundred or so different pictures.  I was going to do the whole thing with only one other person, Matt Hightshoe.

I met Matt at Indiana University and was instantly amazed by his drawing abilities.   I'd met several people who could draw something original, but Matt could give you front, back, side and aerial views of it!  He was interested in DarWest from my first mention of it, and he's still working on it.  He's one of the most committed artists I know, and I think everyone involved with this project is aware of how significant his contribution is.  Don't think for a moment that I knew what everything in this movie looked like.  It's easy to write, "There's a city on the sea."  But Matt designed that city and made it exist beyond the page.  In terms of appearance, DarWest is Matt's city.

As a kid, Matt's greatest fascination was with architecture.  When he first showed me his portfolio, I saw dozens of finely detailed illustrations of buildings -- houses, skyscrapers, anything that struck Matt's eye.  The attention to detail amazed me.   I would never have had the patience to draw so many little lines.  I thought the pictures were done within the past few years, but Matt told me he'd done most of them before he was in high school.

I later found out that Matt's parents sometimes grounded him from the house.  Yes, from the house.  He spent so much time sitting in his room drawing that they worried about his social development.  He usually just sat outside the front door until they'd let him inside again.

I'd met a kindred spirit.

Matt's a perfectionist.  Even after I'd given designs my "stamp of approval", he'd redesign them and show them to me later.  They were always better every time he tinkered with them.  If we hadn't given him deadlines, he'd still be tinkering.

The biggest surprise to me in my experiences with Matt on DarWest, was when I realized how practical his designs were.  I remember telling him I wanted a certain room to have a window.  He told me it couldn't have a window and proceeded to tell me why.   I also learned that walls, pillars and beams were positioned so that the ceilings wouldn't cave in.  Matt took the designing process very seriously and I'm positive the movie will only benefit from it.

In addition to serving as production designer for DarWest, Matt also storyboarded the finale sequence.  If you're not familiar with storyboarding, let me put it to you this way:  The screenplay says, "And then they invade."   The storyboard artist has to show you what the invasion looks like.  In the process, one sentence in the script becomes dozens of sketches.  When followed in chronological order these sketches visually describe the different shots in the scene.  Matt has delivered quite an exciting sequence.

There's no doubt in my mind that Matt Hightshoe could get a job today as either a storyboard artist or production designer in Hollywood.  But I hope he never gets there, because I'll never be able to replace him.

Eventually, Matt and I decided to approach Dan Dixon about being the sound designer for our little project.  Dan seemed interested in the movie from the get-go, and more importantly, Dan had a computer.  Neither Matt nor myself had ever owned a computer and we had no idea what computers could do for us.  Dan's plans to take DarWest into the digital era instantly made it a much more elaborate production, with the opportunity of attracting a much bigger audience.

I was completely ignorant of digital technology and computers in general, but I was excited by Dan's ideas.  After much conversation, I asked Dan if he would be DarWest's producer.  He agreed.  And things haven't been the same since...

 

Sunday, May 30th, 1999

How It All Began...

To say I wrote DarWest doesn't do the experience justice.

Let's just say DarWest had its way with me.

Usually there are little ideas that swim around inside my head for a while, and eventually I mold them into stories and put them down on paper. DarWest wasn't like that. DarWest was the result of myriad ideas forming an alliance, unionizing and demanding immediate physical birth.

I was in labor for five years.

DarWest first entered my head during Christmas of 1992. From the very beginning the project was overly ambitious. I wanted to incorporate so many thematic elements, so many different characters, so many cinematic set pieces -- I wanted to do it all! But trying to do it all in a way that audiences could follow and find entertaining would be a challenge.

Coming up with the story was the longest, most agonizing creative experience of my young life. Over five years elapsed from the time I first started writing notes to the time the first draft of the script was printed. I spent many nights pacing furiously back and forth, trying to figure out how to get from point "a" to point "b", trying to figure out characters' motivations -- trying to make sense of it all.

Why did I endure the frustration? All I can say is that something told me it would be wonderful. I still feel this way, and I'm continually reassured with each new design sketch, each vocal performance, each storyboard -- each step we take closer to completion.

The experience is the most rewarding I've ever had. I can't help but liken the project to a child. One day a baby speaks. Ours spoke 19 different voices in a recording studio last December. Everybody says a baby looks like its parents. Our project looks a little like each of the dozens of people working on it. Eventually, a baby must learn to walk on its own. Ours will be sent on its own before audiences a year from now... all grown up.

As much work as it is, as much time as it consumes -- I know I'll miss it. And I'll hardly be able to wait for the next project to begin.

This diary is intended as a way to gain extra insight into the making of DarWest. As the project progresses I plan to make regular entries covering all aspects of production, from voice acting to storyboarding, computer modeling to music scoring. Along the way I hope to introduce you to the many talented people with whom I've had the pleasure to work. We'll also be giving you sneak peaks at design work and glimpses of the final movie as they are completed.

So stay tuned! I promise the best is yet to come...

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2000 Dan Dixon, Scott Schirmer, & the DarWest Team.