Saturday, July 05, 2003

Very late.

Happy Independence Day! Thought I’d use this occasion to lay down a few thoughts on the nature of “independence” in the world of film, what it means to me to be an independent, etc. But first – an update:

Hardly had a second to breathe these past few weeks. This is the crunch time – my sound guy is pulling out his goatee. We did ADR earlier this week. We called about half of the cast in to re-record lines. Nearly everybody involved had one line. Literally. An actress came in just to say the words, “Moon pie!”

The one-sheet is done and should be up on the site shortly. Ditto the trailer. Email me and let me know what you think. Had a minor heart attack when I realized that the festival screening is three weeks from tomorrow. It all seemed so far away when we planned this or that for “after the holiday…”

I did find a few hours to relax at the beach today. We spent the Fourth at a friend’s party in Playa del Rey, sitting on his roof for the fireworks. They were enhanced by two localized bits of entertainment: the neighbors next door trying to burn their house down with an elaborate variety of roman candles and bottle rockets; and a video projection of the movie “Yellow Submarine” on a fountain of water. A contraption designed by one of the guests, it didn’t completely work as a projection surface – looked kind of like a lawn sprinkler with currents of water running down the sides of the garage. I wouldn’t watch “The Godfather” on it, but it fared okay with 60s psychedelia. Meanwhile, fireworks erupted all along the coastline from Malibu down to Manhattan Beach – some so distant across the water, you couldn’t really hear them – they bloomed silently like jellyfish over the water. It was definitely a sensory overload. When the Manhattan Beach show peaked at the same time “Lucy in the Sky” started on the sprinkler, I didn’t know where to look – I was truly beside myself.

So, now I’m too tired to write that profound essay. I’ll start it off and you can finish it:
What exactly does the word ‘independent’ mean today? When you need Halle Berry or Jennifer Aniston to


Sun, July 6th, 11:09 PM

Saw Vincent Gallo, of "Brown Bunny" fame, at Ikea today.

For those of you who don't know, "The Brown Bunny" is a feature length film of Vincent driving across country in a car, with practically no other action or dialogue, except an unsimulated blowjob scene courtesy of Chloe Sevigny. Strangely, it was booed at Cannes.

That unmistakable, haunted stare, lurking among the beach furniture...

Is this a good omen, or bad?

Thurs, July 10th, 11:11 PM

Midnight show. LA people tend to be noncommittal, and not always night owls – the town basically shuts down at 1 AM. I hope we don’t have a premiere that’s less than half full – that would suck. Calling everyone I can think of.

Sound mix is scheduled for this weekend. Deadline for the festival is the 18th. Nick (my sound guy) seems a little stressed, but he assures me things are coming together.

Along with postcards, we ordered stickers that say “BUTTLEMAN LIVES” with the web address. I had the idea years ago, when re-reading “Lord of the Rings” – inspired by the “Frodo Lives” graffiti that was spray-painted on walls in the sixties. When the stickers came, they looked perfect, but as soon as you try to peel the back off the black paint chips and flakes away. It’s basically impossible to put the sticker on something without ruining it. So now I have to call them up and complain, and I hope they don’t give me the runaround or some bullshit about not getting a hard copy proof.

Sat, July 12th, 10:25 AM

Last night John asked me to come to the recording studio where his band Space Brothers is mixing a song for the film. Apparently they’re having issues – he scrapped the first mix and this is his second time in the studio.

They were mixing at a very cool place in Hollywood, called the Swing House. The walls are painted indigo red with abstract artwork adorning it. As we entered, John turned to me and whispered: “The Red Hot Chili Peppers are rehearsing here in one of these rooms.” We listened at a few doors but couldn’t locate them.

The mixer was a British guy named Warren. When I walked in, the tension was palpable, somewhat undercut by Warren’s dry wit and John’s gracious manner. Apparently nothing was completely satisfying for John and his band mate, Rodney. I finally asked, just for the record, what Warren would do if we weren’t here, and he politely suggested we have a cigarette break and find out.

Outside we discussed how Warren’s accent lent an air of class to phrases like “dirty sanchez”. Anthony Kiedis and Flea passed by; we tried to get a postcard for our screening to them, but I ended up just passing one to Anthony’s girlfriend. We talked about how cool it would be to get one of the Chili Peppers at our premiere screening.

When we got back to our room, there was another guy sitting there in a corner listening to some music on headphones, connected to a stereo. Apparently he’s one of those people who listens to music really loud, because when he left, music was blasting out of those little headphone speakers.

Warren played us his mix, which was of course ten times better than before. John and Rodney commented, we started tweaking, and suffice to say, I hit a button I shouldn’t have. The other guy came back, and found his music stopped. “Hey – what happened?”

I explained, and his face turned white. “DUDE! That was the Chili’s rehearsal, I was recording that for Anthony Kiedis! He’s waiting outside!”

Fuck. I looked to the others meekly; they were dumbfounded. Of course, the inevitable discussion followed of who to blame. I offered he could blame me; the others offered that sounded like a good plan.

This led to a general musing on what Anthony Kiedis is like when he gets mad, which they’ve all apparently seen. They started performing little imitations: he gets all red-faced and trembly, and clenches his fists and contorts his mouth, like a mini volcano threatening to erupt. I imagined him doing this, in the black muscle tee he was wearing outside the studio, exposing his many tattoos. Then I pictured him in the same posture, trembling with fury, but covered head to toe in silver body paint with long eyelashes and glittery lipstick like in the video for “Give It Away”. It was an ugly thought.

“ Well, guess that’s it for trying to get Anthony Kiedis to come to our screening,” I said.

“Maybe he’ll come just to punch you out,” John volunteered.

Sat, July 12th, 11:04 PM

We recorded foley tonight.

I have a romantic notion of foley from my childhood seeing countless “making of” documentaries about “Star Wars” or some Disney movie. The foley artists in these shows were always recording the same sound effect: the clip-clop of horse hooves. Simulated, naturally, with coconut half-shells on a tray of sand. I don’t actually remember any horses in “Star Wars”, now that I think about it.

Having now recorded foley myself, I can tell you: it’s a bitch. I tip my hat to any experienced foley artist – it’s a coordination game that makes me wish I wasted more hours of my youth playing video games, if that’s possible.

I also learned today that you can tell if a 9 volt battery is good by putting your tongue to it. You get a small shock, which isn’t completely unpleasant. Nick said that some of the guys he works with have been doing it so long they can actually determine how much power the battery has left. Of course, they can’t taste anything but aluminum or feel the inside of their mouths, but hey…

Mon, July 14th, 10:54 AM

Chaos at Cal State Long Beach (where we’re mixing.)

Nick and his assistant Steve didn’t sleep last night. Apparently some of the work Nick farmed out to other sound guys came back a little short of the mark, and now we’re desperately behind.

The room we’re in is a typical college editing room – bare and musty and well-worn by years of student traffic. There are three posters on the wall: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Humphrey Bogart. Somebody put cherry stickers on Marilyn’s nipples and eyeballs, giving her a demonic quality – no matter where you stand in the room, her red cherry eyes seem to stare at you. Punishing you, for looking at her red cherry boobs.
The furniture is eclectic: plastic chairs and a classroom style chair with the desk appendage and some old, dilapidated swivel office chairs. The centerpiece to all this, the piece d' resistance, is an orange cushioned bench about four and a half feet long. It is the most uninviting bench I’ve ever seen: grimy and dirty and covered in cigarette burns. When I first saw it, I couldn’t imagine anyone choosing to sit on it.

Then, around seven last night, when Nick finally had a chance to get a few hours sleep, he just dragged it in the hall and passed out on it. I felt bad for him: bad that he was so sleep-deprived on account of my film, but much worse that he had to resort to sleeping on the orange bench.

I left last night at three in the morning, and had to drive an hour back from Long Beach. I have a feeling I’m gonna be pulling a few late nights this week.

Tue, July 15th, 3:05 PM

Long Beach

Didn’t sleep last night. Pro Tools crashed several times. I’m getting very concerned about pulling it all together for the deadline Friday (the day we have to deliver a screening tape to Dances With Films).

Been staying awake with the help of little blue cans of soda kind of like Red Bull; called Blue Sky or something. I had a headache and I drank one; it obliterated it. The taste is foul – kind of like bubble-gum flavored Gatorade. But, boy-howdy!

Thurs, July 17th, 2:45 PM

All hail the Orange Bench. Bow down to the Orange Bench, for it is our God.

Up for 36 hours, stuck in Long Beach, grappling with Pro Tools. Slept for about three and a half hours on the Bench. Exquisite. The finest slumber I’ve ever experienced.

Still haven’t mixed – I don’t know how we’re going to make the deadline Friday.

Fri, July 18th, 2:17 AM

Threw in the towel tonight. In the morning Shereen is going to call Dances With Films and ask them if we can turn the film in on Monday or Tuesday.

On the upside, we now have three more days to finish, which will be essential. The plan is to work with Nick at Weddington Studios (his day job; great facility) while Steve works down in Long Beach, and we finalize the mix on Sunday night.

Slept a grand total of about twelve hours this week. Mostly on the Orange Bench.

Weddington is an interesting place – several legends in the sound world work here. The guy who did “Gremlins” is here, and has a real Gremlin from the movie in his office. Even cooler, one of the dudes who did “Raiders” is here.

I feel good about this decision. It sucks to miss the deadline, but the important thing is that we’re not sitting there in the theatre next Saturday embarrassed by what we’re hearing.

Sun, July 20th, 1:28 AM

Very late.

“This is the sound of a man being eaten by an alligator… WAAAAAHHHHOOEEE!... WAAAHHHAALLEEEOOO!...”

Sound effects rock. Tonight we had a lengthy sequence to edit, and it was awesome. We had access to Weddington’s sound effects library – a catalog of thirty years worth of effects. As a film geek, there’s something inspiring about having sounds from famous films, that we grew up with, that are a part of film history, incorporated into my movie. Same feeling I had driving Karen Black to the set and hearing her tell stories of working with “Hitch” on “Family Plot”.

From Gremlins: we use some gremlin voices (sped up and modified). From “Goonies”: a window rattling and an egg crack. “This is the sound of Chunk trying to escape from the basement window… (rattle rattle).”

I desperately tried to work an effect from “Raiders”, but nothing really made any sense. The banshee howl when the mummies assault Karen Allen wouldn’t really fit into my film. Nor the numerous “Arab walla” tracks (basically, Arab voices shouting).

We did used some “bed movement” from “Tomcats”. But anyway.

It was fun, and things seem to be looking up. Can’t wait for the mix.

Sun, July 20th, 11:50 PM

“This is the worst thing that could happen to us.”

That’s how Nick greeted me this morning. Apparently, the drive, with all our work over the past three days at Weddington, crashed. Gone.

On the way to Fry’s to buy a new external drive, I freaked out. Kept thinking, I don’t know how much more of this I can take. The screening is less than a week away, and everything is going to shit. But it has to come together somehow. We can’t be sitting there with an audience of paying customers and possible distributors and possible critics from major publications like Variety and screen the rough cut.

Fortunately we were able to scrounge together most of what we lost from various places – a backup drive here, an old session there. In the end, it set us back about half a day, but we recovered.

When I got down to Long Beach, eight hours later than planned, we managed to edit for about a half hour before the system crashed.

Mon, July 21st, 2:30 PM

Pro-Tools was down all night. We defragged, switched drives, ran Norton’s, defragged again… I basically sat in our editing room staring at the screen and doing nothing.

The AC only runs during the day (when students are normally in class), so it’s sort of frigid during the day and gets very hot at night. In our cramped little editing room, after a full night with the door closed, the air grows a bit stale. Rank, even.

It was in this toxic atmosphere, after about 28 hours without sleep, God knows how long without a shower, staring bug-eyed at the screen, that we were jarred this morning by a knock at the door. Steve opened it, and through the blinding, piercing light of the hallway I could make out a human.

A teacher. “Hi, we’re just showing these folks the facilities here, do you mind if we come in?”

They’ve been doing these tours for prospective students, and occasionally during the past week we’ve been interrupted so they can show off the Pro Tools system. Now, I admit it openly: I was not my normally personable self for this poor family. It’s not that I’m ungrateful for the ability to use the school equipment, I’m extremely appreciative, especially since it’s the only choice we have. But the mounting desperation of the past night, the past week, had pretty much eliminated any normal social graces.

The teacher led in a very meek teenager, followed by his broadly grinning parents. So, this unsuspecting family strolls happily into our dark, foul-smelling lair and stands shyly against the back wall. Steve’s eyes were completely bloodshot; I kept mine fixed on the computer screen the entire time.

“Um…” attempted the teacher, “this is our Pro Tools room. Could you guys show us a little of what it does?”

“Nope.” I stared at the screen, watching the Norton’s window as it scanned the disk.

“Oh, uh” – weak laugh – “why not?”


The teacher mumbled something about Norton’s and the father cheerfully offered some bit of advice about memory. We just stared at the computer, and then the teacher quickly ushered them out. The poor kid never said a syllable. I apologize, Future Cal State Long Beach Hopeful Film Student, wherever you are. Don’t give up your dreams. We couldn’t have dissuaded him more, short of chasing after him nibbling our detached limbs and wailing “JOOOOOOOIIIIIIIN US!”

Back at Steve’s house to sleep on his Futon for about two and a half hours. I called Shereen and let her know the status report. We need someone with a working Pro Tools system, someone who can bail us out, or we’ll never finish. We’re screwed.

Tue, July 22nd, 10:31 AM

Shereen came through for us: she managed, somehow, to dig up a guy who was a mixer on the film “Gigli”. His name is Erik and he mostly works in music instead of film, but he very generously offered to drive down to Long Beach, commenting that it’ll get him out of the house, and check out our system. I couldn’t believe it.

I showered at Steve’s and borrowed a fresh shirt. He offered me a Def Leppard T-shirt or a shirt for some company called SISCO with the slogan “Our employees make the difference.” I took the SISCO shirt.

Back in the mixing room, Erik arrived and did a quick diagnostic, sat with it for about a half hour clicking this and switching that, and then it ran smooth as silk. A miracle. If Erik owns a big gleaming white cowboy hat with gold trim, this was the night to wear it. I thanked him profusely and he went on his way. We edited for a solid hour without mishap...

…and then the drive crashed. The brand new drive, the one I bought at Fry’s on Sunday. Crashed. We rebooted, and the computer politely informed us that there was no media on the disk, and would you like me to format it at this time?

We took it back to Weddington Studios and resurrected it pretty quickly using Disk Warrior, but this was the final straw. Three days left to mix. We need help.

Fri, July 25th, 12:32 PM

Didn’t sleep again last night. Got about three hours this morning on the Orange Bench, using a roll of paper towels as a pillow. This schedule of no sleep and vending machine meals is starting to take its toll on me. Nick commented earlier in the week that his joints are constantly popping – apparently a sign of sleep deprivation. My neck is cracking whenever I move my head, and I got TMJ eating crackers yesterday. Nick told us ghost stories of sleep deprived sound guys he works with – one guy who claims he fell asleep on a sofa during an extremely tense work period and woke up paralyzed on the left side of his face, for nine months.

A quick update: Erik, the heroic mixer from “Gigli”, has joined the fray to help finish our sound mix. He came down to Long Beach and installed his own version of Pro-Tools, so all problems disappeared. Then we fell into a tag-team routine: Erik mixes days, Nick mixes after he gets off work nights, Steve mixes early to late morning. I pretty much go without sleep for as long as I can stand it.

I think Nick is sleeping the least, though. He goes from work straight to the sound mix and back. When he showed up at 1:30 AM last night, it was straight out of a horror movie: I was sitting in the room mixing with Erik, in the dead calm of the empty school, and I heard the slightest scuffle behind us. I turn and see this zombie towering over us in the doorway, eyes glazed over, wobbling slightly.

“Hey, guys… got any soda?”

He helped for about an hour and left, answering Erik’s questions about our mix and making some crucial changes to the session, and left with just a few hours before his work day begins. I don’t know if he slept or not.

Erik passed the baton to Steve around 5 AM, who mixed while I slept this morning. I woke up around 9 in the crisp AC air, with a sudden sense of dread:

One day left. Tomorrow night is the premiere.

I dragged myself into the mixing room, groggy and dazed. On screen Harold announced,

“ After tomorrow night, everyone will take the name Harold Buttleman seriously. We’ll be the kings of this town.”

Steve and I looked at each other and just started laughing.

Sat, July 26th, 5:25 PM

The big day.

Last night, waiting for the audio to output, was possibly the most desperate, nail-biting period I’ve ever been through. Due to a whole series of circumstances, mostly unavoidable, we ended up without a single second to spare.

Our layback to video was scheduled for 9 PM. So, I needed to leave with an audio tape of the entire movie soundtrack by 8 PM at the very latest, because the drive to Los Angeles from Long Beach takes an hour (if there’s no traffic).

One problem after another pushed us until we were outputting at about 6:15 – meaning, if anything went wrong, if the system crashed once, for any reason, we were out of time. On top of this, we were using a tape that got chewed up at the head because it’s the only one we had.

So, Shereen, Steve and I paced the empty halls of the school for an hour and a half. Steve said to me, “It’s like waiting for a baby to be born.”

“Yes,” I said. “And there’s complications.”

The tape finished, miraculously, at 7:46 PM. I literally ran to my car, which was to hell and gone because of the parking laws (I still ended up with a ticket). I raced up the 405 Freeway and got to the dub house at about 8:50 PM.

At this point, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It never occurred to me that we might actually have problems in the layback – not after everything else we went through. But sure enough: almost immediately we noticed huge audio problems with the first scene, because the tape was thrashed.

The movie seemed to be normal after that, so I called Shereen and had her bring up a new tape of the first scene for us. Shereen drives like a bat out of hell – she assured me, “it will be there as fast as is humanly possible.”

Then, about halfway through, the next bomb: sync problems. For no apparent reason, the sync just started floating. I called Nick and told him and his nose spontaneously started bleeding.

In the end, we had to scrutinize each scene and make several small adjustments, but we finished it. At midnight.

I delivered the tape to Dances With Films this afternoon at 3 PM – nine hours before we screen. Michael gave me a look which was a mixture of amusement and relief.

Now, I get to do something I’ve been longing to do for three weeks: take a nap. In a few short hours, the movie will premiere. People have asked me if I’m nervous, and I tell them: I was so nervous that we wouldn’t even have a movie to show, we came so close to pure disaster, that I never even thought about it. Honestly, I’ll be happy if there’s only ten people there.

Maybe twenty.

Sun, July 27th, 1:00 PM

Got to the British pub down the street from the theatre, where friends, cast and crew were gathering, around 9 PM. There was a point, around 11:15, when we ordered a really delicious dessert – I mean insanely good, this custard/caramel/bread pudding thing – and I wondered for a fleeting second if this wouldn’t be the highlight of the evening. If this insanely good bread pudding was the high point, and it was all downhill from here.

Ten minutes later, with a half hour til showtime, Shereen called me on my cell from the box office:

“Gather all the extra tickets you can find. We’re sold out.”

At 11:30 PM.

By the time midnight rolled around, the theatre was a madhouse. Hundreds of people running around. People from the film, people I know, and so many people I’ve never seen before. A friend I haven’t seen in years would come up to me and I’d say, “Did you get a ticket?” and they’d say, “No.”

I gave away all the tickets I could scrounge together, which was about three. My friend’s agent got shut out, several cast and crew members... But the worst irony of all:

Nick. He was so distracted with trying to get the movie done in time, he never phoned up and bought tickets. I offered him the one ticket I had left, but he was there with his wife and another couple (including our boom operator), and he didn’t want to see it without them. Of all people, Nick, who nearly killed himself to keep this night from sheer disaster, missed the premiere screening. I looked at him, and we both just shook our heads and laughed. It was too perfect.

By showtime the standby line was thirty or forty strong. They dragged in plastic chairs and made another row, and crammed in twenty or thirty more people standing against the back wall. Standing, for the entire movie. Not to mention all the people that were turned away. It was completely overwhelming.

The screening itself went well. The crowd laughed, etc. It was so great to see the movie with the complete soundtrack – for months I have been watching the rough cut, with temporary music and rough sound. It’s amazing how much all those little details really make the movie. It was also a wonderful experience to see it up on the big screen for the first time; to see how well it plays with a full audience.

I was terribly ill-equipped for the 2 AM Q&A afterwards. Michael from Dances With Films conducted the interview, standing in a somewhat aggressive stance with his legs spread and brandishing the mic, grinning broadly. I stood there with these unusually large lights in my face and squinted at the crowd, stammering my responses.

But all in all, it was truly amazing. Couldn’t have been a better evening. That is, unless Nick got in.

Wed, July 30th, 2:34 PM

Vegas. In our room at Bally’s. Three friends of mine from back home in Chicago came out for the screening, and I’m here with two of them so we can spend a couple days playing the slots and trying to avoid the 115 degree weather.
The pops in my neck are becoming less frequent. Relaxation. There’s so much to do here, but I can’t seem to get myself out of the room, watching some Chinese music video on TV where a girl is singing while people with SARS masks walk by her on the street.
Reflecting a lot on the screening – it was such a blur. Talking to people afterwards was the best part – hearing what people thought of the movie. Talking to people who really connected with it. Can’t wait to see if we get some reviews.

If I had my wits about me during the 2 AM Q&A, I would have said something in the nature of an acknowledgement of those who were pivotal in making this movie. After all, it was my premiere screening, so it would certainly have been appropriate. There are so many people whom I could refer to as “making it all possible”: my parents, the executive producers Steve and Julie Langley, Kevin and Maile Baird and their family, Shereen Hariri, John Hawkes, and – most recently – Nick Shaffer and Steve Stuhr. Not to mention the enormous help and support from other people, such as Stephanie Markham and my uncle Benji Hill, and the many people on the cast and crew who were sorely underpaid for their wonderful contributions.
Suffice to say, independent filmmaking makes you indebted to a lot of people. Is it worth it? I don’t know. It is to me. I love movies.
That’s it for now – gonna go swim in the pool.

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