Adventures in Guerrilla Filmmaking, or Angels in the Editing Room

by Sallie Seltzer (11/13/96 draft) sallie_seltzer@SMTPGW1.PARAMOUNT.COM


The story outline for "THE MAGAZINE" was conceived at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival, after seeing Wayne Wang's "BLUE IN THE FACE" and a wonderful sampling of indie features, many of them from first-time directors. I wanted to write a comedy focusing on the conflicting messages about sex that our society is exposed to from the media, family, friends, and the effect these messages have on our relationships. (I admittedly avoided the "religious institutions" angle altogether -- maybe in the sequel... just kidding). All that was needed was a simple story -- a premise and a prop -- that I could build a low budget film around. I decided to bring a "dirty" magazine into a dysfunctional family home and let it bring out their funniest behaviors and phobias about sex.

Just a few weeks before Toronto, I had seen Ed Burns' "THE BROTHER'S McMULLEN", which proved that a good, entertaining feature film could be shot for $27,000 and reminded me that I had 10 unused credit cards stuffed in a desk drawer for a rainy day. I knew I could scrape together at least $25,000 and pull off the same feat, so I decided to stop talking about making a film and put my credit where my mouth was.

The script was finished at the end of April 1996. Preston Maybank and Deborah Strang were called immediately for the parts of "Jake" and "Linda". I had worked with them, and other members of the talented "A Noise Within" theatre group, on a staged reading of my "EUGENE ONEGIN" script back in 1995. Luckily, both actors were available and eager to participate in the project.

Cricket Peters, a fellow U.S.C. grad, was recommended and brought on as D.P., followed by Lynn Maudlin to line produce and Margaret "Maggie" Danielak to consult and help us on weekends. We only had 6 weeks to prep the film. Lynn juggled the budget and shooting schedule and recruited people to go out and beg for free food and other items for the production, while Cricket and I focused on locations and plotting out the shot list. I kept on polishing the script and casting for the young kids' roles and approached some individuals at Paramount to help us out with some HMI lights, a police car, uniforms and a jail set.

We conducted our own photo shoot for the "PLAY THING" and "HERSELF" magazine covers and the centerfold parody. Lynn and I designed and created the covers using computer-generated lettering on transparencies and laying them over the 8x10 photos. Multiple color copies were then run off and attached to the covers of real magazines.

Heather, my niece whom I wrote the part of "PENNY" for, flew in from Boston on June 4th and we did a read-through of the script with an almost-complete cast present. We managed to sneak in four or five days of rehearsals with the four leads, all this while I was still working my day job and Cricket was putting in 12 to 14 hour days lighting the effects on "THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS". I called in my good friend and fellow U.S.C. alumna, Paula DiSante, to take the helm as second unit director when I had to be in front of the camera as "DENISE".

I strategically planned to take two weeks vacation from Paramount between June 15 and June 30th. It was the only way I could afford to shoot this film. On June 13th, we lucked out and got 10,000 feet of free 7287 filmstock from Kodak on a promotional deal. I left my job on Friday, June 14th and shooting began on the morning of the 15th. Aside from losing 200 feet of footage the first day, because of a pressure-plate problem in the camera, and a horrendously stressful day on a Valencia soundstage, all went pretty much according to plan.

And the director even drove the 3-ton grip truck up to Valencia -- yes, I am probably eligible to join the teamsters. Our longest day was 13 hours and our shortest was 8.

Our editor, Jack Tucker, was hired a week before the shoot started and proved invaluable as a source of ideas and inspiration. And for our two week shoot, he was the only one getting any sleep -- this came in handy when we screened silent dailies almost every night after shooting. We needed at least one coherent person who could still open their eyes to look at the footage and make sure we had an exposure!

After the 14 days of production, the work started again... Now here's a sight you don't often see: three women unloading a grip truck at the Paramount loading dock, 6:30AM on a Monday morning. Not only "three women", but the Director, a Producer and the DP! After this, it was off to unload my car of more equipment, props, costume rentals, etc. I traveled all around Hollywood, up to Sun Valley and back to Paramount. Back at my desk by 10:00AM the same morning. The exciting world of an executive assistant at a studio. No. This wouldn't do anymore -- this definitely would not do! Answering telephones, typing documents? Forget it. I wanted to be writing the script for my next film. It was very difficult to get through my first day back, besides the fact that I was exhausted beyond belief... stumbling around my office, half asleep, trying to figure out where the temp put everything.

Encouraged by Jack, I made the decision to cut on film to save money. Paramount graciously offered (after we pleaded, of course) to transfer our sound onto 35mm mag and provide us with the mag stock as well (the little we needed was the equivalent of what would be discarded by the studio's big features in a day). We were a bit of a "mutant child" in post, editing 16mm picture and 35mm track, but, luckily, Jack had worked this way before and was able to handle the situation and still do a beautiful job cutting the film.

Jack had to train two new assistants since I could not afford to pay anyone with experience: May and Nelson came to work when they could and we had to make do with that. Of course, they did it for the credit and they learned how to edit on FILM from someone who really knows the craft.

Under normal circumstances, we would have had a rough cut by the end of July, but cutting on film without trained assistants, things went much slower. The sound transfer process going, the special coding system to match the 16mm picture and 35mm track (courtesy of Frank Didomenico at Itech) and synching up the dailies all took extra time to coordinate and complete. Though I did not do any "physical" cutting of the film myself, I feel I understand the process at a completely different level now. After our two weeks of production, everyone on my crew went onto other projects, or back to regular jobs and I was essentially left to do the rest -- and there is still a long way to go! In the long run, jumping into this project and taking on so much responsibility, financial and otherwise, will only make me a better writer, director and producer in the end. (That's what I keep telling myself in order to stop myself from beating my head against the wall in frustration!). Though I do not regret the years I spent in film school or the projects I worked on there, this has been by far a more worthwhile investment in my future. I am glad that I served as a production manager on one of the "480's" in the graduate program -- it was the only crew position that involved negotiating deals with people in the REAL world. And surprisingly enough, many are very willing to give out freebies -- you just have to find the right person to ask and let them know how much you appreciate their help. It also means future business for them if you are successful, so why shouldn't they help?

The rooms were going full blast six days a week -- Monday through Saturday. What a strange feeling, knowing that while I was at work in my little office "box", there were two, sometimes three people working on my dream, putting all of the pieces together in the editing rooms, just three buildings away. It's like living two lives.

On top of everything else, Heather stayed with me until August 21st. It was quite a lot of responsibility and exhausting sometimes, driving her back and forth from Beverly Hills everyday, where she had a temp secretarial job. The two of us were stuffed into my little one bedroom apartment with my cat, and only the one car to get around in for three months.

In August, Jack brought in his friend and colleague, Fred Burke, to help edit the film faster. Fred is a sound editor, but Jack discovered Fred had quite a flair for picture editing on another project they were on together. It was change of pace for him and good to have a fresh eye and opinion available. There were now FIVE "angels" in the editing room, working on my dream. That's the only thing that kept me going through the summer and fall. On the studio paper-pushing front, the Copyright Administrator left his position in the beginning of August and I got "volunteered" to do the job -- in addition to the one I already have -- until they figured out how and if they would keep the position. It's November and they are still deciding. I have had play "nice" since entering the "indentured servant" plan here at Paramount. It could be worse -- I could be waitressing again or something....

This film has been the ultimate lesson in "Zen filmmaking". It is amazing the miracles that can happen when you are willing to put yourself at the mercy of everyone else working on your project. I think every director and producer should be REQUIRED to experience this state of helplessness at least once before magically becoming Hollywood assholes! All I can control now are my attitude and the creative decisions I am making -- which takes are best, how to cut around the "problem" areas and make the scenes work better, etc. Much of the film is too dark in places it shouldn't be, and there's not enough light on actor's faces -- the framing is off in crucial shots.

None of this was part of the plan discussed with my DP, but what's done is done and I have to live with it now. I enjoy trusting people to do their jobs so that I can have more time to devote to mine.

Unfortunately, as a first-time director and a first-time feature DP with a crew working for deferred pay, there's only so much you can accomplish.

We had our pick up weekend in the beginning of September and were able to reshoot several scenes that were unacceptably lit the first time, along with some establishing exterior shots and other pick ups.

We finally got it right and the footage looked great and cut in beautifully with what we already had.

Paramount was able to loan us an 8-plate KEM flatbed to continue to a fine cut of the film. And it's not just ANY 8-plate KEM -- it's the same one that Jack cut "The Winds of War" on! Again, no one uses this equipment much anymore because of the digital boom. Steve Quick from Atomic Films came over with a mixing box and rigged it up to the KEM so that we can do our own temp mixes -- three tracks to one (dialogue, music & effects). The mag stock we were given would be the amount discarded on a regular day at Paramount.

We had the challenge of finding a screening room somewhere in L.A. that could run our 16/35 workprint with changeovers. Lee Tucker immediately recommended Warner Bros., screening room 4. We discovered this room had been Jack Warner's personal room for screening prints before they were released. It was quite a thrill to see our workprint and track on the BIG screen in this and it helped us to see where we needed better transitions from scene to scene and reel to reel.

In the meantime, my good friend, Linda Gordon agreed to help me get in to see Paul Haggar regarding a telecine session. I wrote a short and very precise letter stating who I was and what I was asking for. She baked a pie and brought it in to Paul with my letter. He was on the phone immediately, setting up a session for us. I am convinced that Hollywood really runs on sugar, not hard currency and that the age old "art" of bartering still works. Paramount did not have the ability to transfer 16 picture and 35 track, so he set me up with the people over at Deluxe. The telecine only took three and a half hours and I was overjoyed (and relieved) to hear the technician, Kim, laughing at my movie as it played on the monitor.

I hand delivered our tape to the Sundance office on October 11th. They don't let you know anything until December. In the meantime, we are continuing to make trims on the film and lock down reels. I am determined to finish this project or at least take it as far as I can with the money I have left. With the responsibilities have come the rewards, and the chance to recognize people in the credits. This may be the only time in my career that I am able to experience such complete autonomy and so I want to enjoy it and give credit where credit is due.

I have lost track of how many batches of brownies and cookies I've baked so far, and I know there have been plenty of lemon bars coming out of Jack Tucker's kitchen, too -- starting with all of the people I wanted to thank for donations during our two weeks of production.

Is this "guerrilla filmmaking" or what?!


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