Sunday, September 4, 2011

How we came to shoot a zombie barber with a straight razor

Yesterday we shot on location at our prop shop in South St. Louis. Our landlady, a supporter of the arts (and paramour of a Poetry Scores contributing artist) is letting us take over her garage as a movie lot.

V. Elly Smith clambered up on the garage for the aerial view. In this scene, the wall of the garage that faces Toni's backyard is transformed into the entrace to the office at Lost Almost, our imaginary Los Alamos, birthplace of the bomb. (Signage by Paul Casey, who also plays the lead Lost Almost scientist.)

We need to shoot a series of intake scenes, where civilians report for duty at the secret scientific military installation. Yesterday we shot the first of these scenes that will appear in the movie. A hapless tramp, the vendor of stuffed animals, has been drafted into the Army and is reporting to duty as a grunt soldier. The vendor is a recurring character in our movies played and (as I recall) invented by Thom Fletcher.

Playing the soldier already on post was Chuck Reinhardt, a musician friend of mine doing his first acting ever. We are making a silent movie about the making of the atomic bomb. In a silent movie, the best way to say "covert heavily guarded scientific military post" is to have a soldier with a gun in almost every scene. This gun is a prop on loan from Andy's Toys.

For most of these, his first-ever scenes, Chuck had nothing to do but stand sentinal and look forbidding and menacing. Doing simple things "naturally" is the essence of good acting, and it turns out Chuck actually is a great actor.

To show the coded secrecy of Lost Almost, we have to shoot a lot of scenes with the issuing, checking and burning of secret papers. On the vintage typewriter loaned to us for the movie shoot by Bill Sawalich, I typed out for the vendor of stuffed animals his draft letter. It read "a beast," a quote from the poem at the basis of our movie, Go South for Animal Index.

This is where having Elly on the roof made a big difference. In most exchanges, you want to get reactions from both sides of the exchange. Elly was the only person in the crew positioned to get the vendor's reactions.

Our options for getting that reaction were otherwise nonexistent. Looking out at the vendor from the sentinel's point of view, you see the backs of houses in a Midwestern city. Those images utterly shatter the illusion we are trying hard to create: the illusion of being in a timeless place, the land of parables and folktales. My approach in conceiving and executing storylines and movie shoots is drawn from world folklore.

Laurent Torno III, our direct of photography on this movie, was very crafty in finding a way to shoot this scene from an extreme side angle. If he went over and primped up those vines on the neighbor's trellis and worked with his focus on a really tight shot, there is nothing behind the vendor on his frame but greenery. That's the primitive look, borrowed from the classic silent films as well as world folklore, that our movies aim for.

This is not Thom saying he nailed the take -- he is modest about his abilities to the point of self-doubt -- though it sure looks that way, and he did nail the takes. Thom is one of my very favorite actors to work with for his talent and his temperament. He'll be back as the vendor of stuffed animals in the next two movies in the production timeline: The Sydney Highrise Variations (no better place for a guy selling stuff on a tall stick than a cityscape in a movie about modernity and vertical space!) and Crossing America (no better place for a wandering merchant than a road movie!).

Then we moved inside the prop shop, to shoot the new recruit's intake from inside the office. I had nothing but obsctales, literally and figuratively, for my crew in shooting this scene. We absolutely must not see the apartment building across the yard in any of our shots, and our prop shop is full of ... props. Worse, among those props I don't yet have the desk I need for the Lost Almost office and I couldn't get the actors playing the office roles on really short notice, so we had to shoot tight from their point of view with most of the room behind the camera, because the room is supposed to be full of office furniture and people.

Also, the fool director (me) had the good sense to pop a flash while shooting stills. Uh, that's a "CUT!" Mr. Scorcese. I couldn't take many stills, though, because my arms were otherwise needed in this scene. I put on the shirt won by General Graves (Ray Brewer) and played his body double. In our movie, those will be my arms extending out from the General's body to hand the new recruit his uniform, rifle, and coded paper with new orders ("he that is lost," another quote from Go South). I have started praying that we will later be able to match this shot back to the scenes we shoot in the properly outfitted and populated office, with Ray Brewer in the General's shirt, not me.

What's the hurry? Why shoot this scene now, and not later, when we have the props and actors we need? Because I wanted to shoot a scene with Thom's soldier character later that day, and he would need to be shaved for that other scene. So we needed to shoot him getting his shave!

Of course, an armed soldier stands sentinel over the new recruit's cut and shave. Armed soldiers are omnipresent in Lost Almost. We even have an armed soldier standing over the confession scene we shot with General Graves and the military chaplain (George Malich). We go in for the absurd and comic like that.

Plenty of absurdity in a new recruit being shaved by someone far hairier than he us, and a woman on top of that. Joyce Pillow came to us through Elly. She has all sorts of skills on movie projects, including the boring managerial ones, but in Go South for Animal Index she is a "debased cog" (yet anmother phrase from the poem); a nameless, faceless zombie. The zombies in this movie are conceptual zombies with no gore; the zombie is all in the acting -- they are method zombies. The zombie actors play the miners and millers who produce and trundle the uranium and plutonium needed for the atomic bomb effort. Looks like they also cut heads!

I'll let the zombie scholars tell me for sure, but I'm going to suggest Poetry Scores is breaking new terrain here by casting the first-ever zombie barber. And if you wonder, how do you act undead while shaving a total stranger with a straight razor? Very carefully! Not one nick was put in Thom Fletcher's face in the making of this movie.

Why a zombie barber? I probably would have cast a soldier in this scene, had I been able to get another soldier actor on such short notice. And that probably would have been less cool, so in the end, I am happy that Thomas Crone -- whose soldier character has done most of the other harrowing things in the movie -- was busy working on his own digital cinema project yesterday.

Why a zombie at all? The first movie we made, Blind Cat Black, incorporated zombies to match the surrealist technique of the poem we were working from (written by Ece Ayhan, translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat). I noticed an enormous difference in people's reaction to being told "we make silent movies based on long poems" (which make most people flee for their lives, for fear they'll be forced to watch one) compared to being told "we make silent zombie movies" -- which makes people buy a round of drinks and offer to act in our next movie!

The movie we are making now will be edited to our score of the poem Go South for Animal Index by Stefene Russell, a genius of Salt Lake City who lives and works in St. Louis. That is her pretty hair to the left of this frame. Stefene also acts in our movies and co-produces our projects as an integral part of Poetry Scores. In fact, we owe her producer connections for Thom Fletcher, the man in the zombie barber chair: he's her spouse!

Like so many greatly talented artists who gravitate to a lower-keyed city like St. Louis, Stefene is humble and working-class. The poet herself chipped in on this shoot as a production assistant, reflecting light onto the scene to improve the shot Dan Cross was getting.

Dan Cross is new to the Poetry Scores movie unit. He is an experienced moviemaker and instructor of cinematic arts. He has taught a course on zombie movies, and in fact came to us first as a zombie actor. Dan tells me he is enjoying the improvisatory freedom of our approach to making movies. We don't work from shotlists we prepare in advance. I tend to know the outcome I want from a scene, with a general sense of where in the score (that is, in the movie) it will fit, and then encourage the crew to get the shots that look good to them as we go.

The zombie barber scene, for example, was completely transformed by the existence of this ashpit right outside our prop shop (behind Elly there). I loved this little dump when I first saw it, but didn't remember it was there when I pulled together this shoot. I expected we'd be shooting the shave tight up against the old Army green wooden doors on our prop shop, but when we pulled up to the location the ashpit immediately presented itself as the perfect zombie hair salon.

Laurent was way into the zombie hair salon. He tells me he likes working on our movies because I keep coming up with cool, unexpected places to shoot. Laurent enjoys stretching out in a more artistic direction, compared to all the public television and commercial video he shoots to feed his family.

Our shoot yesterday drew a crowd of our prop shop's neighbors, like these twittering birds, who greatly entertained Stefene while she was pointing the reflector at the zombie salon. One neighbor -- oddly, no longer a neighbor, as he was moving that exact day, yesterday! -- really soaked it in from across the alley. Volunteer movie crews scavenge to stay alive, so I invited this guy over. Turns out he loves zombie movies, makes very realistic gore makeup, is a carpenter and electician who'd like to help build sets, and would love to play a zombie! See what I am saying about the zombie movie thing?

The zombie barber scene was improvised because we needed to shave the vendor of stuffed animals and transform him into Thom's soldier character, Pfc. Sack, for some scenes I planned to shoot later that afternoon in a thatch of woods. At the very end of the movie, as the scientists are readying for the first real nucleur bomb test, Pfc. Sack goes AWOL. He melts into the woods, lays down his rifle, digs up his old hat and bindlestick, and saunters off to go sell some stuffed animals (before presumably getting incinerated, along with his inventory, by the Trinity Test's nucleur blast).

As these things happen in the amateur moviemaking business, we were delayed by a flash thunderstorm (that we rode out in the sturdy prop shop) and never got to that second location. We never shot the shaved soldier scenes. So we rushed the vendor's intake/shave scenes with Thom for nothing!


Straight razor on loan from the actor, guitarist and barber Roy Gokenbach. Roy has an important role in the great ensemble cast directed by Daniel Bowers in A: Anonymous, the high-water mark in St. Louis indie cinama, never to be crested.

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