Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Killing of Everybody

When I was in college, my major was called Radio/TV/Film.  My main concentration was in radio, but one had to take classes in all three disciplines.  That’s how I came to take a filmmaking class.

Back then; the medium was 8mm or Super-8 film.  Oh, things would have been so much easier with video tape recorders or digital camcorders or cell phone video…  But we had to learn the entire film production process.  Then we had to rent video cameras, shoot movies, get our film developed (and pay for it), and cut it together in an editing bay.

There is absolutely no use for this know-how in 2011.  (As if I still knew how.)  None.  But I did have a hell of a lot of fun shooting our movie.

Just for the hell of it, I had an idea for a horror movie spoof centered on our Barn and I had some script notes jotted down long before I ever took this class.  In class I was paired up with this frat guy, Dave, and when we were trolling for ideas, I mentioned my horror spoof idea.

I was a junior so it must have been around 1982, so movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street were all the rage.  It seemed like fertile ground to play with.  But rather than use our Barn, we decided to shoot the movie up at this state park on Lake Erie, somewhere near Sandusky OH. 

I wrote up a script for it… well, more like a detailed outline… and I named it “The Killing of Everybody!”  He got a handful of his friends to “act” in it.  It wouldn’t take much.  After all, there is no sound on Super-8 movies.  To get sound, you need a special camera setup, and even so, as we learned in class, the sound doesn’t sync up directly with the visuals.  It lags a few frames behind what is seen on screen.  That would make editing a nightmare.  We decided that if we wanted audio, we could do a narration separately on cassette.  (This turned out to be a horrible idea.  We should have shot some subtitles instead.)

So six us set out for the park, with our homemade props and a case of generic beer.  (We were broke-ass college students; that’s all we could afford.)

The fun part was that as we began shooting, we saw how much room there was in the “script” to play with, so a great deal of our movie was improvised on the spot, including an entire overriding plot point.  All I really had in the script was that a psycho killer kills of a bunch of campers one by one, in ever more ridiculous ways.  I had some notes on the “methods,” but it’s hard to write a detailed script when you’ve never seen your “set.”  We found that the terrain was perfect for us, with woods, bluffs and a nice beach and waterline. 

Dave would play the detective, his friends would be the campers and I got to play the psycho killer.

I wish to hell I had a copy of our finished product.  You know I would have put it on You Tube long ago.  Dave ended up with the only copy of the film and I never saw his ass again once our class ended.  So instead, let me describe the movie as I remember it.  (Which is shaky, I’ll admit.)  I’ll tell you what you see on the screen, and then in my usual Director’s DVD Commentary, which I usually use to talk about how I wrote a post, I’ll talk about how we filmed the movie.  Annnnnd… go.

Four college kids, 2 boys and 2 girls, are seen striding into a forest, carrying blankets, coolers and a tent.  They find a clearing and begin setting up their tent.  Then the kids are seen from a viewpoint a ways back, behind a tree.  The camera pulls back to show a hooded figure from behind, peering around a tree trunk. 

Then you see the hooded person’s feet.  They’re in green rubber boots, which are on the wrong feet.  The camera pans up and you see the business end of a double-bladed ax.  The hooded figure is holding the ax with big, rough, nappy gloves.

Again, the camera is behind the hooded man, who is still peering around the tree trunk at the kids.  The camera comes up close behind, and slowly the hooded figure turns to reveal his face, which is wearing a Groucho nose and glasses.

Director’s DVD Commentary: I had a specific idea about how to reveal the killer and that was it.  I was wearing a big maroon hoodie and my gumby boots.  (You know, those waterproof boots with the black latches that go up the front?)  I also had this awesome pair of glass handler’s gloves, which are used to handle molten glass from a glass factory.

Back to the camp… one of the girls has changed into a tracksuit and goes off to go for a run.  Groucho notices and leaves his peeping tree.

We see the girl running along the park’s access road, which is long and straight (in this scene).  Cut to Groucho behind the wheel of a car.  The girl is running along the left berm.  From in front of her, you see a car swerve into the left lane.  Inside the car, you see Groucho put his hand on the door handle.  From in front of the girl, you see the car door swing open.  From across the street, you see the car pass between the camera and the girl, then the girl is on the ground after the car has passed.  From behind, you see the car driving away and a hand reaches out to close the door.

Director’s DVD Commentary: This whole scene was based on an old joke, with the punchline, “Yeah, but I got him with the door.”  The setup details vary.  I was especially happy with how we figured out how to film it, making the audience infer what happened, even if we couldn’t show the girl getting clonked by the door.

A detective wearing a trench coat and fedora drives up, checks the pulse on the girl, sadly shakes his head, pulls a sheet out of his coat and places it carefully over the body.

Director’s DVD Commentary: The detective is a Columbo ripoff.   Like any of us had suits that we’d wear out in the woods?

Back at camp, one of the guys has gone for a walk, up on top of a steep bluff.  He drains one of the generic beers and tosses the can along that path.  He continues on before turning and reacting in alarm.  He recoils up against the trunk of a large tree at the top of the bluff.  A swinging ax glints in the sunlight, then there’s a close-up of the blade biting into the bark of the tree, while a body falls away underneath. 

View from the bottom of the bluff of what is obviously a basketball flies over the edge and bounces through the woods.  There are several angles of the bouncing head/ball.

The detective happens by the scene.  He examines the body, (which is obviously just clothes stuffed with newspaper), pulls a folded sheet from his trench coat and covers the body.  Next he is at the foot of the bluff, looking at the “head,” which is out of camera view.  He covers it with a much smaller piece of sheet.

Director’s DVD Commentary: The idea was to make the body to look as obviously fake as possible.  I wanted multiple angles of the ball/head flying over the edge of the bluff and bouncing away, but I wanted it to look like it was following a single progression.  Unfortunately it was edited to show a full shot of the fall and bouncing away again and again.  This is where I learned that I needed to be much more specific when talking about an idea.

And OK, I lied.  The detective never used a second smaller sheet for the head.  I just thought of it now and I totally wish I’d thought of it then.  Would have been hilarious.  The sheet gets more play later.

It was up on the bluff that we decided to make dropping the generic beer cans a theme, and that the killer didn’t like littering.  It doesn’t explain the first killing, but we didn’t have time to set up by the road again and work in the beer cans.

Now we’re back at the tent, where the other two campers remain.  They are sitting together, holding hands and drinking the generic beer.  They kiss, look at each other randily, put down their beers and dive into the tent.   Various articles of clothing are tossed out the tent door before the whole tent begins to shake like there’s a great commotion going on inside.  Occasionally, a leg appears sticking out of the doorway before it’s pulled back in.

Director’s DVD Commentary: We had 4 of us in the tent punching and slapping the tent fabric simultaneously.  It looked like there was a rugby scrum going on in there.  It was a terrific sight gag.  But you know what happens to anyone that dares to have sex in a horror movie…

While the commotion was going on, the Killer sneaks over to where the couple left their beers.  He picks up one of the beers; in his other hand, he has a large bottle, simply marked, DRUGS.  He drops a couple pills into the beer can and swishes it around before tiptoeing off.

Boy and girl come back out of their tent she picks up her beer, takes a swig, then goes into an elaborate death scene, with much arm flailing and swooning before spinning around and dropping to the ground.  The boy runs off to find help.

Director’s DVD Commentary: Perhaps they were generic DRUGS.

From the opposite direction from which the boy had run, in walks the detective.  Again he examines the body; again he pulls out a folded sheet to cover the body. 

Back in the woods, the boy is seen stumbling along the trail.  The Killer lurks behind a tree, eating a banana.  As he finishes, he tosses the banana peel onto the trail.  As the boy goes by, he slips on the banana peel and conks his head on a rock.  Pleased with his day’s work, the Killer comes out from behind his tree and slips away.

Director’s DVD Commentary: This scene was my biggest disappointment.  Obviously, we were going for “ridiculous” with the banana thing.  But we had a true moment of ridiculousness drop fall right into our hands and we let it get away.

As I came out from behind the tree to scoot away, I slipped on wet leaves and took a perfect pratfall.  I mean, feet up, butt down, ass over elbows.  Knowing this was gold, I stayed in character, got up, and limped away.  I thought it would be the scene of the movie.

Dave had other ideas though.  When he edited it, he cut the whole fall.  The film showed me coming out from behind the tree, then suddenly I was far away from the camera, limping up the trail.  I couldn’t believe he cut it.  Perhaps he forgot we were filming a comedy.  More on that later.

The detective now discovers this body, and he’s about had it.  This time, he pulls a wadded up sheet from his coat and just flings it across the boy’s head before stalking off.

Director’s DVD Commentary: I totally loved that bit.  The detective ad libbed it, probably because we got sick of folding the damned sheet, plus we were losing light and we had to get this film “in the can.”  It was probably my favorite bit in the movie.

Now the scene is down on the beach.  The detective walks thoughtfully along the waterline, trying to piece together the day’s events.  Walking the other way, strolls the killer, wearing the big hoodie, fat gloves, gumby boots, a Groucho nose, with an ax slung over his shoulder.  The two pass, giving nods to each other. 

Suddenly the detective grabs his head in realization.  He might have just seen the Killer!!  He whirls around to go after the hooded figure but stops, puts his hands on his hips and sadly shakes his head.

From his point of view, you see the killer standing beside the film crew.  There is a camera on a tripod, someone sitting in a Director’s Chair.  Someone has big bulky headphones on.  Everyone is holding a generic beer.  Even the headphones are plugged into a beer can.  Enraged, the detective runs at the film crew, and the chase is on.  The detective chases the crew back along the waterline zigzagging away from the camera, in fast-motion/Benny Hill style.

The moral of the story is: Don’t Drink Generic Beer.  The end.

Director’s DVD Commentary:  I loved the crazy, 4th wall-shattering ending.  I’m aware that Mel Brooks has done gags like that before, (I know he did in Robin Hood-Men in Tights) but I swear, I hadn’t seen them yet when we did this.  I think we did a number of things that turned up in later horror spoofs.  Perhaps the professor was selling his student’s ideas to Hollywood, I don’t know.  The only thing we knowingly stole was the Benny Hill chase finale.

So with the filming complete, we finished our beer, cleaned up our “campsite,” and then got the hell back to Bowling Green.  I was going to work on editing as soon as we got our film developed, but I probably dilly-dallied about getting started, because I was really nervous about the editing process.  It looked so confusing.  Remember, you basically had to physically cut your film apart and tape it back together in the order you wanted.

So when I finally called Dave to schedule a time to go to the editing bay, he told me he’d already done it.  (Also, he had the advantage of living on campus.  I commuted from 40 minutes away.)  I was so relieved, but only until I saw the final cut.  While I was slightly annoyed at the “basketball” scene, I was really pissed about the Killer’s face-plant.  That was gold, right there.  I never even had a chance to see how it looked.  And there was no way to re-do it… I mean, our only copy of the film had already been cut apart and put back together.  Whatever was cut was long gone.

But I really shouldn’t bitch.  He did the work that I put off.  I never thought to ask for “final cut.”

We played our film to the class and received decent laughter and a modicum of applause.  It was really rough, but we had a ball doing it.  I wish I had the opportunity to try it again.  I could call it: The Killing of Everybody Else!  Filming and editing is so much easier now, with PCs and digital technology.  Hell, I could film it with my freakin’ everyday camera.

It’s tough when technology has to catch up with your vision.  Now I know how James Cameron felt.

Or at least Benny Hill.

12 comments:

  1. I took a tv/film class in highschool and had a blast making music videos with my fellow students for projects. We did something similar in a multimedia class in college. Maybe we should both break out the video camera again for fun.

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  2. Jessica,
    It's funny that you mentioned the music videos. MTV wasn't up and running yet when I was in college, but began shortly after I was done. I had a killer idea for a music video... several, actually. Had it all blocked out in my head. Of course, I doubt I could have gotten the band out to the boonies of NW Ohio for filming. Not even if I had a camera...

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  3. I never learned how to edit movies until Windows Movie Maker. I can't imagine splicing the real stuff. We still split and join, but it's too simple for words. I still do lots of voice-over on my movies because I like clean audio.

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  4. Fred,
    I've played around a bit with Movie Maker and I tell you this, it's tons easier to deal with than cutting film. And obviously, it's more flexible and the results are better.

    Best of all, you don't need a clunky movie projector. I haven't done much with audio, but the principle is the same.

    Fun toy... but slow... at least on my PC. It took about 25 minutes to save the last 6-minute video I made.

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  5. Sounds like you have a good start to a zombie film, which is all the go these days...

    I majored in intensive communications and had to write, produce and direct a video for my TV production class. I still have it on VHS (or maybe Beta), and it's a hoot. I need to find a way to digitally copy it and share it.

    Since my youngest son is a video production major in college, I'm guessing he can facilitate that.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    No one dies in my video, although it would probably be for the best if they did.

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  6. Sherry,
    My best work for TV production class wasn't even my own. I helped a buddy from the radio station with his Twilight Zone spoof by impersonating Rod Serling being eaten by clothes hangers.

    I'm sure your son can help you out with the tape transfer... either him or your nearest WalMart photo department.

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  7. Too bad you didn't pursue a degree in horror films. The world would be a much better, and funnier place. You certainly are a man of many talents.

    Your Hot Arizona Auntie

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  8. We all need a lot more Benny Hill chases in our lives. Hell, my wife is too young to even know who Benny Hill is. And before you ask, no, I'm not 40 and she's not 18, I'm just an old soul.

    Also, Youtube weeps a silent tear on this day, for the gem you may never get to post on it...

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  9. Hey, they always say that knowing how to use film cameras makes for better digital camera pictures, so maybe it wasn't a waste of time, after all.

    I mean, not that I would ever call this a waste of time.

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  10. Judie
    It would have been pretty impractical for me to study film, unless I was prepared to move to the west coast. (Even more impractical than radio!) But boy, I would have totally enjoyed it. I love the filmmaking process.

    Am I the only one all pissed off about how DVDs are now shortchanging us with the behind the scenes extras? I love all the bonus features about how they made the movies. That was one of the big draws to DVDs, but now you have to buy the deluxe packages to get the good stuff.

    Bryan (Beer)
    When I was a teenager, Benny Hill had a brief heyday in syndication here in the States, coming on at 7:00 every night. I loved the sketches with the little bald man that was always getting smacked in the head. (I used to do that to my little brother constantly. I’m sure he was glad when it stopped coming on.) But I loved how they ended most every show with a fast motion chase, to the song Yackity Sax. The whole show was kind of a bawdier, dumbed down version of Monty Python.

    But man, I wish I had a copy of our movie… Or even better, a chance to re-do it. It cries out for a sequel.

    Mundane
    Thanks for the support, Katie. I knew you’d understand. I bet you never knew that Ohio had such a burgeoning indie film scene.

    You’re kind to suggest that I can even remember anything I learned in film class. Even when I’m taking my nature pictures, I just shoot things that look interesting or colorful. I have no idea what I’m doing, in any technical sense.

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  11. Clearly, your film-making career ended all too early, Bluz.

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  12. MBG,
    If only I could have made a living doing this, I surely would have. You know... withOUT having to have 3 other jobs at the same time.

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