Thursday, January 18, 2018

Been “underground” for a bit. Lots of reasons why, and lots has happened since. Some of which we may unpack on future BLTD podcasts (yes, there will be more - Christopher Warren and I are about to head to Kentucky to work on a feature for several weeks, so probably sooner rather than later) but some may just be dealt with via the art, like always. Yeah, that means there’s more art on the way, too.
Here are the major bullet points. Bad news first, as I prefer it (plus that’s a timeless hook):
BAD: Ran into some serious business issues with my LLC last summer. Long story - this is what I might unpack on the podcast as it’s a good learning experience/cautionary tale - but basically it put me (and my company) in a really bad place…and part of it grew out of me being in a pretty bad place to start out with. I mean, I never really fully recovered from all the stuff I detailed in that blog way back when. Still debating how much I want to reveal here…some of it is really raw, but anyway, let’s just say things fell apart and it sent out shockwaves that I’m still dealing with. Also important to note that it all reached a head literally DURING Hurricane Harvey, which, as you may have heard, thrashed Houston. At least we didn’t lose our home…but the hurricane DID lead to flooding at our storage unit where we kept most of our equipment. Most everything there was ruined (except for the big lights, which spent a great deal of time in sewage soup but still fired up later). However, lots of our expensive camera and other gear was lost. So…I was dealing with the figurative and literal destruction of my company at the same time. That was a real eye opener/kick in the balls/shotgun to the face. Let me also add that Harvey happened during what was to be the first week of school. Meaning my daughter’s first week of Kindergarten was also tied up in all of this, and I couldn’t just mentally check out or be pissed off or hate the world all the time – I can’t really do that much anymore period, but you get what I’m saying here. Daddy had to be on the clock even though my last 22 years of work was crumbling (or mildewing) in front of my eyes. Meanwhile, there were a lot of near misses…got tapped for a Weinstein gig which never came to fruition (blessing in disguise?) and then got ghosted by another production..who then called me back during their shoot as soon as the guy they hired ended up not wrking out. Too late. Anyway, these jobs which wouldn’t have completely solved the issues, but would at least have gotten my positive momentum going again. All this going down as I careened towards my 41st birthday.
GOOD: nothing really turned on a dime, I really just took things as they came. I kind of had to. I probably started to feel a little bit better after hanging with Chaka, frontman of NYHC legends BURN, after their show here in October. We started talking about doing a video, etc…and it was just dope to have a meaningful creative conversation with someone who’s music I’ve been enjoying since high school. And to be collaborating on some cool shit. So…that keeps me going for a bit. [Burn, bottom left pic by jcphotomedia, Chaka on the left, and Gavin Van Vlack on the right]. Then Chris and I knock out a video for Century Media artists Oceans of Slumber. Of course, we did this shoot at half power and missing a bunch of our still-not-replaced-gear (f%$k you, insurance company). Of course, the crew is just Chris and I (his concept/direction, me shooting and editing). Brutal, harrowing, hard work - but it comes together well and gets a shit-ton of views and really quickly builds positive word of mouth. [Top left, Oceans Of Slumber, “The Decay Of Disregard”]. That quickly led to the next video for Oceans of Slumber, which I think tops our work on the last one, and should be released in the next few days. [Top right, choir shot]. Chris and I decide to finally officially form our own shingle to represent our longstanding production collaboration (info on that soon, or just check out the credits on that Oceans video when it drops). Next up, the aforementioned video for Burn (side note: I still can’t believe we’re doing a video for one of the stalwarts of my favorite musical scene), which we are working around our Kentucky Fried Cinema Adventure. More on that soon too. Finally, the pic in the lower right is of the release art for BAD APPLES (formerly WICKED TRICKS), which is a movie we worked on almost exactly two years ago out in L.A. It hits VOD in February. Check it out if you can…it’s the project that somewhat birthed the BLTD podcast – mainly because we drove out to L.A. and back twice during the holiday season that year to take part. I can’t wait to see the finished product (Congrats to writer/director Bryan Coyne and everyone else involved).
I literally began my 40’s by getting back behind the camera and shooting/editing/directing (Jeff Caudill’s “Reset The Sun”, as well as the 4 other videos from the EP that followed in the spring - check em out on YouTube, I'm very proud of them all). While the year that followed kicked/is kicking the crap out of me and drained a lot of the gas that the RTS project put back in the tank, I feel like I’m grabbing the ropes and pulling myself back up to take another swing. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
- Regan is currently selling Girl Scout Cookies, so if anyone needs their fix, she's your Houston Heights Cookie Connection.
- X:Men - Grand Design is fantastic. Don't sleep on it.
- On that note, so is Tom King's current Mister Miracle series.
- I finally saw RETRIBUTION, my 80's horror great white whale. Remember the promos vividly, couldn't track it down until recently.
- if anyone has any great culinary recs for Chris and I in the Louisville/Nashville/Bowling Green area let us know. I'm sure the crafty will be great...but we DO have weekends off, so...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Return of the Living the Dream Warriors

Do you wanna party?

Back from the seeming dead with another blog.  The timing is actually kind of working out as now so much happens or changes between posts that I have a ton to write about once I dust off the old password.

This post is gonna be kind of a beast - it's an update on the last three years of Upstart stuff, a cathartic unloading/reveal of a side of my life that I kept hidden from most, and a rundown of how I now make a living as a full-time filmmaker.  A lot of it was sparked by a speaking engagement I did with SWAMP several weeks ago - this elaborates on stuff that was said that night.  Of course, your mileage may vary, but this is how I'm making it work for me.

Fair warning that I'm going to be pretty blunt and straightforward about everything as I feel that's the most powerful way to get things across.  A lot of things I'd been secretive or embarrassed about for a I don't really give a shit who knows...maybe it's because I've come out the other side okay, or maybe it's because I've found some sort of peace within myself...who can say?  At any rate, anyone that would be super-judgy about most of those details is no longer in my life, and I'm much happier for it.  Similarly, the truth (as I see truth if that makes you feel better) may paint some folks in an unflattering light - I mean, you've seen Placeholders, right?  But again, I've parted ways with most of these folks as well, so no big loss.  Better that we present the facts as they are without worrying about hurt feelings.  I always look at this stuff as less "shit talking" and more "informing people of what can happen so that maybe they can head this off at the pass when it looks like it's happening to them".  And don't worry, I'm covering ground not covered by Placeholders, so there's no retreading of that stuff.  Everything here occurred after all the events Placeholders Season 1 pulls inspiration from.  I guess that stuff relates to some of this stuff in a cause/effect kinda way, but things might have gone the same way regardless.  This business is crazy man.  I can say that even now, when things are working out.  (On that note, Spoiler Alert: things do work out.)  Nothing mentioned here is as terrible or criminal as those "Aaron Pulaski"/Placeholders shenanigans were anyhow, most of these issues are just...people not caring.  Sit tight, I'll explain more below.

Before I dive in, I highly recommend you check out this piece by Todd Farmer (Jason X, Drive Angry) - it hits a lot of the same points I'll hit, and was also the inspiration behind my including some of the more confessional parts below.  It's my hope that my stuff speaks to someone out there the way Todd's stuff spoke to me when I read it.  

Also, I have to give a shout out to all those I did trust enough to talk to about some of this, either while it was going on or during the recent upswing.  (Or maybe you discovered my "secret identity" and were supportive, understanding, and non-judgmental about it) - Debbie R., Lisa W., Jeremy & Kim H., Lynn M., Justyn B., Rupal M., Nick & Brittany M., Brandon P., Greg V., William B-B & Kevin B-B., Josh V., Timmy Robes - thanks for being there when I needed you - even if you didn't realize it.  Special thanks to Chris Warren who was pretty much the MVP for me the whole Nightwing, if you will.  And of course, to my other half, Melanie who helped me hold it together in ways both literal and metaphorical.

I keep mentioning my "secret other life", so just to head this off at the, I'm not gay.  [Sorry, William. :)]  I'm not a cross-dresser either...I make a TERRIBLY ugly woman.  There is video floating around somewhere to prove this.  Don't try to find it - it would be like looking into the Deadlights. we go.

It pretty much happened exactly like this.

Burning Down The House

Forgive the lengthy run up to the main info, but I think it will all benefit from the addition of context.  I'll start by jumping back to 2012 as that's more or less the year that several things changed drastically  - most not in ways I'd hoped.  By this point I'd produced three films through Upstart Filmworks - Closet Space, Walking Distance/Psychic Experiment, and Imago.  Here's the rundown on the status of those flicks circa mid-2012:

Closet Space - had a decent run, got released here in the US and all over the world, recouped its budget but stalled after that.  None of the controlling producers really cared about pursuing things further, or staying on top of the returns past clearing the budget, so things kinda died in the water.  I did push on my own to get CS aired in syndication in a few markets, but that stalled out relatively quickly as well.  Not much going on here.

Distance/Experiment - Lionsgate released the film in December 2011, and from what I could tell, they peppered the market fairly well with it.  This was at a time that video stores still existed and Best Buy still had a decent disc section...and I would see it everywhere.  Friends would send me pics of it everywhere.  Similarly, our foreign sales reps were doing well with the film, and we quickly got a UK deal, soon followed by Saudi Arabia, and I believe, by then, Japan.  Psychic Experiment (as it was now called) was also airing constantly on VOD/PPV outlets on Comcast, DirectTV, U-Verse, and others I'm probably forgetting.  It also began running fairly regularly on FearNet (R.I.P.) during 2012.  Now, on this film, we got an advance, and had a decent percentage deal...but you've heard the stories.  You're lucky to recoup any if at all.  However, our numbers were looking like that might happen.  We just had to stay on top of it.  Unfortunately, the distribs were not really willing to answer my emails asking for the quarterly reports - they'd only really communicate with my co-producer on the project.  At a certain point, I believe my co-producer stopped caring, or at the very least stopped considering Experiment a he stopped asking for the reports unless prompted.  So of course, this slowly evolved into a constant source of stress in the background for all the reasons you might imagine.

Imago - our main issue here is that our VFX delivery was taking an unusually long time.  To summarize: our initial VFX supe screwed us over, we had to shop around for other folks that would take on the work at the same rate, and we found some guys that did right by us (the same guys that bailed us out for the same reasons on Walking Distance, as a matter of fact), but the new VFX team was running behind schedule.  Suffice to say, we did not have a locked film yet, so obviously we also had no revenue stream on this project either.

So things were a little up in the air film-wise...we weren't making money off of the projects - or I guess, more specifically, I wasn't - but we WERE getting them out there, or in Imago's case, working to get another one out there.  I always knew that the filmmaking deal was a marathon, not a I tried to take it all in stride, learn from my experiences, and adjust future projects accordingly.  Besides, it's not like I had to live off of the movies yet, as I'd always held down a day job, even while shooting stuff.  I'd maintained this symbiosis from the beginning, reasoning that it would be easier to do the movie stuff if I didn't have to worry about the basics of living.  Besides, even if I did decide to be a full-time artiste...most of the people I was collaborating with at the time were either way, it's shoot on nights and weekends no matter what.  Might as well work, right?   In 2012, I'd been working at one particular organization for several years - I won't put them on blast, but most of you probably know already.  Those that don't know, well, let's just say that I got a LOT of free cookies, and my S'mores game couldn't be touched.   Anyway, the pay was good, they were supportive/flexible about the filmmaking, and I spent most of my days shooting or editing, so things could have been worse.

They got worse.  Around mid-2012, I got word that my full-time position was being cut down to part-time as of the end of the year.  A pretty hard hit no matter the circumstances...but did I mention that my wife Melanie and I had our first child on August 10, 2012?  Now seems like a good time to bring that up. 

Yeah, so as you can imagine...I was pretty fucked.  I had to find a way to help support my family, and fast.

Before I dive into that, let me mention what I had been setting up as my next directorial project.  (This is important for several reasons that will come up later.)  I had an old-school moody ghost script that I'd written and was prepping to direct for my next film.  A couple of folks quickly signed on to help me get it made, budgeted at around 1.5 million.  We had several awesome actors attached (which I can't mention, because most of them still are attached, more on that later as well).  A noted member of "Hollywood royalty" signed on as my main co-producer on this one...if I told you his name you might not recognize him right off-hand, but you definitely know his mom (big time actress) and dad (big time producer).  This guy was/is a producer of some note himself, and he loved the script, and had lines on funding.  Things were looking pretty good.

Of course "things looking good" does jack shit until "checks start clearing".  I had to do something in the meantime to make ends meet.  Even if the ghost movie got greenlit immediately, there were a lot of moving parts to get in order, so there would definitely be some lag time before I could pay my bills from my intended writer/director/producer salary.  A salary, which, if you're wondering, was roughly equal to what I'd make in a year at the previously full-time position - which is a fair estimate, seeing as how I'd be working on the picture for about a year give or take, based on past experience and then-current post production relationships.  Furthermore, if you break up that salary weekly and compare it to guild rates, it's a pittance.  I mention all this info just in case any of you think that the reason my film had trouble getting started was that it was a get-rich-quick scheme for my benefit.  It wasn't.  The budget was all based on practical numbers and pretty congruent to the market at the time.  Lower than that, probably.

At any rate, I needed a solution.

Yes, that is the same Lisa W. that I mentioned earlier on.  My life is crazy.

And Here My Troubles Began...

(apologies to Spiegelman/Maus)

The first thing I did was try to look for something in the job market close to what I was currently doing.  Strikeout after strikeout on that front.  While there were video production options here and there with oil companies, sports teams, and boutique production houses, I never ever got a hit on my resume or the slightest inkling of interest.  Next, I actually tried to find some opportunities on the West Coast, thinking that maybe that would be the answer to several questions at once - "what's the next step/when are we making the move/how am I going to support my family" chief among them.  No luck there.  Finally, I took on a gig as a Media Arts Educator for the Aurora Picture Show - which is a great job (I still do it from time to time when schedule allows) - but the unfortunate truth is that this was another part-time gig via a non-profit, so while the money helped a little, it really didn't change the bottom line all that much.  I was still struggling.  We were still struggling.

I started to get desperate.  No matter how bad things got, I always told myself that I'd never go back to waiting tables again.  I had tried that for a spell as a second job way back in 2004-2005 (right before Witchcraft actually) and, well...let's just say that certain things we definitely do grow out of.  I'm not saying that waiting tables is a "kid" job or anything, I'm saying that it takes a particular set of mental tools to make it work for you.  That said, my outlook changed a lot between college - when I waited tables for years - and 2004.  Things had rewired in my brain, and I definitely was no longer cut out for that kind of work...mentally at least.  I could definitely "Ted Bundy" my way through faking it if need be.  However, I promised myself I wouldn't go back to that, because I'd be miserable.  I managed to keep that promise for several months.

My internal logic went something like this:  I needed a job.  I was cool with getting a "job type job", but I didn't want to have to deal with people too much - I knew I was spiraling into depression and anger, and when that happens my already short fuse gets very very short.  If I was going to get a job, I wanted to shoot for one that I likely wouldn't get myself canned from for cursing someone out while on said job.  Know thyself.  

One day while perusing Craigslist for the umpteenth time, I lingered on an ad that I had seen several times before:


Why not?  

Initially I went just out of curiosity.  The establishment was not yet open, so I met the two managers-to-be at a restaurant downtown (owned by the same family company).  I'll redact the names because for the most part the owners were great - but I'm skipping ahead.  Long story short, I got hired on the spot.  Mainly because I had a pulse and a car that was relatively dependable.  It's funny...I felt like I almost didn't get the job because of my resume that at this point was....heavily skewed in the direction of video and film.  The General Manager all but asked "what the fuck are you doing here" to open the interview.  I pretty much told him straight up everything that you read in the paragraphs above.  So he hired me, and I began my career as Pizza Guy.

I won't dig deep into the minutia of this stretch of time - aside from the fact that while it did allow me to make just enough money to scrape by (especially when stacked with other part time gigs like teaching for the Aurora, or occasional IATSE union work), it also led to what was probably the second nervous breakdown of my adult life.  It was rough.  A lot of that first wave of hires were burnouts or dumb kids looking for their first job, so that made things tough when you had to work alongside them or depend on others.  Fortunately, my first few film sets had uniquely prepared me for such a situation.  I managed to grind my teeth and power through, and soon enough I'd gotten pegged as "one of the good ones".  Beyond that, the location and clientele were such that the neighborhood was pretty affluent....and pretty full of some terrible, terrible human beings.  Lots and LOTS of being talked down to because of my "station".  Finally, a couple of the "apathetic producers" that I mentioned earlier managed to find their way in for dinner on a couple of occasions.  The looks on their faces, man.  Disgust, pity....and also a weird "we told you so" smugness.  I could almost hear my mind crack in two.

Here's the really nutty part, the part that I believe captures the dichotomy of working in the entertainment biz pretty well, at least at this level.  During this time, I'm still fielding phone calls and deals for a couple things, usually ones having to do with that ghost movie I mentioned earlier.  Things were moving, albeit very very slowly.  So there was a weird sort of hope/dread at play in the background the whole time.  I mean, I can't really express the surreality of some of the contrasts I experienced, so I'll just give you the most glaring examples.  The aforementioned Son of Hollywood Royalty Producer was working pretty hard to get a certain level of talent attached to this project.  Because of who he is, and who his family is and what films they've made, it was fairly easy for him to get my ghost script in front of a LOT of mind-blowing eyes.  Several near-misses and near-attachments came and went...most bummed me out on one level, but excited me on another since these folks were reading my script....and for the most part, even though they didn't want to do this film for various reasons (money, time, content), they were still digging what I wrote and expressing a desire to possibly work with me in the future.  I even got to whip up a couple of custom treatments on spec as a result.  I'm talking for folks that won Oscars recently, people in Marvel films, huge movies, big stars.  Crazy.  Surreal.

Of course, I'd always get these crazy, surreal, mind blowing emails/phone calls while either bagging up a huge catering order or while out on a pizza delivering run.  Seriously, almost without fail.  The craziest of the crazy was when a huge, world famous, multitalented pop star sent me a couple of emails politely declining our offer for a role in the ghost script (they were looking for a bigger part), but praising my writing style and expressing a desire to possibly work on a couple of other things the star and their people had optioned.  I got this email - no bullshit - as I was sitting out the pizza spread for a girl's 14th birthday party at the neighborhood pool.  Her mom was kinda bitching about the pizza not being piping hot or something, but all I could do was run my eyes over this email 50 times.  I still have it.  "The Pop Star" and I have touched base a few times since - sporadically - but lines remain open.  But seriously...can you imagine the weird, confused, roiling emotions I felt right then?  Is this really...?  Awesome...but not yet.  But still!  I mean....yeah, I gotta pay the bills.  But this might be it!  I should just walk out of here now.  Screw Camryn and her not boiling pizza, I'm outie!  That's stupid, rent is due in a week.  Did this person really just email me?  And so on and so forth.  

I have TONS more stories like that.  It was a confusing time, to say the least.

I soldiered on because I had to.  The bills had to be paid.  Production stuff took a backseat for a good while - with the exception of the surreal attempts at deal-making mentioned above and a stretch where we finally took Imago into sound post.  Pizza was still the main god I had to pray to.  Somehow, I stuck around long enough to have the company approach me for management.  Cool...but I hated being there.  Hated it so goddamn much.  And honestly, the money wasn't anything close to what I needed to be making.  Anything would be better for me at that point, I thought.  

So I went back to waiting tables.  Things had gotten bad enough to push me into reliving that particular personal nightmare of mine.  Actually, I'd moved slowly back into waiting tables at the pizza place because they needed decent people to do so, and I had the experience...but the money wasn't that great.  I figured, well, clearly I can be okay with this again, but I need to wait tables somewhere where I can do well financially.  Recalling past service industry windfalls, I returned to a certain "factory of confections" where I'd worked years previously - a seeming lifetime ago - and, hey, imagine that, the general manager was a guy I'd worked on the floor with way back when.  After a little more "what the fuck are you doing here" song and dance, I got hired on.  Here we go again.

Once set up as a waiter at the new/old restaurant, I breezed through training, certified on my first follow shift, ran the hell out of my stations, and got certified as a trainer (re-certified actually, as I had been one previously) within a month.  The money was pretty good - I clawed myself out of a great deal of debt during that first month - which included Valentine's Day (cue PTSD shudders).  However....I still felt like I was dying from the inside out.  The vibe at this place was one reason...I felt like I was working with a bunch of adversaries instead of co-workers.  Getting a bullet of Honey Dijon should not be akin to traversing a Legend of Zelda labyrinth and then receiving a pedantic lecture from either a manager or a cook or both...but I digress.  That's just one example, but I can count many others where I straight up almost slugged someone. It would get so bad that my arm would get sore from tensing my muscles to NOT hit someone.  Either that, or it was a sign of my impending heart attack.  Regardless, I knew this place was bad for me.  I haven't even mentioned that I rarely ever got the chance to see my daughter because of the crazy hours.  I was in a seriously bad place mentally and physically.

So bad that I quit waiting tables (again) and returned to the pizza place.  After that ordeal, the grass was definitely greener on the pizza side of the fence.  Or so I thought.

(I promise I'm wrapping this section up soon.  Stick with me.  This is as much for myself as for you.)  

So I went back to the pizza place full time, and they were glad to have me back.  Somewhere in there we also shot Spavine and Clinger, which was a nice re-activation of my dormant filmmaking brain.  Both were tough experiences however -  having to run to set, then to work, then back to set, then hopefully home to see Regan and Melanie for a bit, then back to set, etc. etc.  But I figured that out because it was working for me, it made me happy, and I stopped dying inside.  And fortunately, with those two projects (and a couple of the other things moving forward however slowly) I'd planted the seeds for my eventual victory and ability to reach escape velocity from the situation.  Of course, I didn't see that then - I was just happy to be making films again.

And then...I made the mistake of becoming a Manager.

It's Always Darkest...

Things were still tough financially - delivering pizzas only goes so far.  With no luck on other fronts of the job search (I continued to look this whole time), the manager offer at the pizza place was still on the table, and actually seemed pretty good by this point.  Again, the money wasn't really that great, but it seemed like my only choice since my life was falling apart around me.  I'm obviously leaving some details out here, but trust me when I say that things were getting to a pretty dark place in my world.  What little time I could enjoy at home was devoid of almost any actual enjoyment because of the stress of making ends meet, the stress of me being gone all the time to do that, the stress of STILL trying to do movie stuff when it seemed like a hopeless endeavor to all but me....I felt pretty trapped, to be honest.  Like I had a pepperoni gun pointed right at my temple.  

So I became a manager.  I ended up becoming the Assistant Manager of the restaurant's new location.  This "promotion" brought with it the backbreaking labor of setting up the entire restaurant from the ground up - including assembling tables and booths, carrying in coolers, freezers, pizza lines, you name it.  It was pretty much me and the General Manager against the world.  Sucked major balls, but at least I was making more money, right?  Yeah, not much.  Definitely not a positive correlation on the x-axis of pay vs the y-axis of time spent at work.  Whatever, I was determined to try and turn it to my advantage.  

However...this particular experiment was doomed from the start.  I don't want to get all off into the rabbit hole of the why/who/whats - but it was apparent from the first week we were open that I was on a sinking ship, set up to fail.  The GM and I slowly unraveled.  The clientele was even more entitled, aggressive, and rude than at the other location, the staff was even more felonious and lazy (not hyperbole - you would think substance abuse was a mandatory checkbox for the hiring process)....let's just say that it was a very toxic situation.  I knew that I had an expiration date.  I told my wife as much.  "Look, let's try and figure out a contingency plan because I can tell you that when I leave this place, it's not gonna be planned or pretty."  Sometimes you just know.

And sure enough, that's what happened.  I was about to beat a homeless dishwasher senseless (this statement is 100% embarrassingly true) one night when finally I said to myself:  "Seriously, for 10 bucks an hour...fuck this."  So I put in my 2 week notice, as much as I wanted to walk out of there immediately.  The weight off my shoulders, the sense of relief...even when I had no backup plan...I can't describe it.  I actually ended up staying a couple days longer than my notice to cover for someone just to make sure I "made it right" in my head (all those Superman comics as a kid really hammered home a strict sense of morality.  I blame the Batman ones for the narrowly-averted dishwasher beating.  I'll avoid a Man of Steel neck breaking joke here, just know that it's tough for me to do so).

So I left.  With no plan, no idea, no clue as to what was going to happen.

You know...all that stuff you hear about not having a Plan B so that Plan A has to work ...might actually have some truth to it.

Comics.  Providing pretty great metaphors for me to couch my experiences in.  It's a sanity-maintaining mechanism.


(if you simply must know)  

So here is where we get to the current real-deal "making a living making movies" stuff.  I kid you not, once I made myself available to be a full-time filmmaker, several things fell into place very quickly.  Some things had the groundwork laid much earlier, some things were sort of idling in the background, some things were totally out of left field.  Here they all are, and while I can't give you actual numbers (sorry, I have to hold back SOME info), I'll try and put in realistic milemarkers so that you can keep track.  Obviously, a HUGE part of the equation was not having a strict schedule or obligations (besides my wife and kid) so that I could feasibly, for example, go work on a film in Los Angeles for a month (which I absolutely did, I'll get to that in a minute).

So, first, the "lifestyle basics" aka the "nut" to be covered:  we are a family of three - the kid is 2 and a half right now - and we live in a 2 bedroom condo in the Heights - I know what you're thinking...but I grew up in this neighborhood, it means a lot to me, gentrification and resulting high rent be damned.  Let me have this one thing.  Anyway, Upstart Filmworks has no external office right now for the business, but I think that's about to change in the next few months.  My wife and I each have our own car (2006 and 2008 models).  We eat out as much as we cook at home (probably more), we spend "fun money" here and there but not crazily.  We have health insurance, but I have expensive meds that I'm on (asthma, HBP).  I tell you all this just to give you an idea of the "lay of the land" when I say we're "paying our bills".  And then layer the cost of caring for a 2.5 year old girl (now including daycare) over all of that.  Not the most spartan existence, by any means...but also not the most extravagant.  When I left the pizza place, I still had a small amount of debt (still owed on my car, student loans, minor credit card debt).  I say "small" but it was big to me.  Probably about $5000 all told.  Actually, I was behind on other bills pretty badly then as well because of my lowered income - some things like our business accounting fees and my car note/insurance were WAY past due.  So I was a little bit upside down money wise at the outset.  I'd say to the tune of another $2-$3000 to catch up.

Okay, back to the timeline.  I quit my job at the pizza place.  Right around this time the initial syndication deal that we had set up for Placeholders fell through as well.  Actually, to be totally honest, I pulled the plug on it.  Seemed to me like the first set of syndicators were making money, and we weren't.  That sure sounded familiar enough for me to be uncomfortable with it.  Nope, not again.

Immediately after that, like within one week, another more reputable syndicator became interested in Placeholders.  I had dealt with this company before, and they were good people, with (most importantly) very very transparent financials.  We talked. I voiced my concerns.  At this point I was obviously ready to bury it forever rather than have yet another person profit off of my hard work and us see nothing, so I was pretty up front about my needs for this particular project.  The deal they offered was pretty good, and the market saturation was GREAT.  The splits were very fair.  More than fair, actually.  We quickly had a new deal for the show.  No bills paid yet, but a light at the end of the tunnel for that one.  Small victory, right?

So now Placeholders is a going concern again.  I began working on that (delivery for this deal was a little more complicated, as it is wider reaching, so I had to remaster some of the shows, censor different things, and get everything closed captioned), and though I hadn't seen a check yet, there was a real value attached that I can actually depend on and keep track of.  So that might be a way out.  Might be the answer...hopefully it is, because it was all I had at this point.

Or was it?  While I worked on Placeholders, I got a left-field offer to draft a couple of treatments for people that I met via the Son of Hollywood Royalty's attempts to get my ghost picture made.  They liked my writing, and wanted me to brainstorm on a couple of ideas for them.  And guess what - they paid.  This enabled me to catch up on about half of my delinquent bills and pay rent for that first month of "living the dream".

Next, not pure filmmaking per se, but definitely fulfilling in more than a monetary way - remember that non-profit that I worked for previously?  Turns out they still needed video work done.  Guess who then got added to the contract labor pool at full rate card rates?  Yeah, it was me, and Upstart Filmworks as a whole, actually.  Oddly enough, they spent way more paying me/us as contract laborers (of course) than they would have had they just kept me on full-time.  Womp womp womp wooooommmmp.  This enabled me to catch up on the second half of late bills, get current, and pay two more months rent.  I also paid decent wages to several crew that I had to hire on for this project.

Man, that turned around quick, didn't it?  So now we're about 3 months out on the journey of me working for myself and things definitely seemed less hopeless.  I then receive a call from a friend who's producing his first film with an actual budget.  Would I be willing to sign on immediately as Unit Production Manager?  Damn right I would.  And while I didn't get paid "union" rates, it was the largest amount of money I'd made on films up to that a long shot.  Definitely more than I'd made on my own stuff.  This allowed me to catch up completely on bills, pay off my accountant, pay off my student loans, pay off my car (!), and pay rent for 4 months.

That definitely was the tipping point.  I was officially making a living doing this.  Not exactly the way I thought it would happen, and not necessarily the ways I'd hoped, but like I'm going to complain at this point.  After a long period - too long - of marginalizing my self-worth, or having others marginalize my talents, or you know, just flat out steal or withhold money from me, I was finally getting paid.  I was finally okay with setting rates that were fair for me.  And in increasing numbers, people began lining up to give me work.  It started to come rapid-fire:

Booked a producing gig on a horror film.  Paid rent for a couple more months, enabled me to pay bills early (!!!)

(There is no greater marker for wealth than paying your cell phone bill early.  Well, maybe doing the lump sum car insurance payment.)

Brought on as a budgetary consultant/Line Producer to help secure feature funding (x3).  This has happened three times now, and it's awesome because these are skills I didn't even realize I had until recently.  Totally my version of "wax on wax off paint the fence". PRO TIP (I'm starting to hate that saying, but it's apropos here): Don't overlook all the skillsets you're building when you are wearing several hats on a set...or ALL the hats, as I did a lot in the beginning.  It's like cinematic jiu-jitsu - you are cultivating muscle memory to put out fires in a natural, free flowing way without thinking.  Anyway, these gigs fully paid half a year's rent, paid for Xmas gifts, paid for some unforeseen car repairs, paid a few more bills early.  These jobs are also nice because they can run concurrently with other things.

Got hired on to Line Produce a genre film in Los Angeles - directly a result of the Clinger relationships, and this has quickly spun off and multiplied into other jobs.  At this point, I'm making a living at this, paying bills easily, have actual surplus money, etc.  This, along with a couple other UPM/AD/Post Production gigs, carried me well into 2015.

Just for point of reference, I did the math not long ago, and I'm making on average 4-5 times what I'd be making at a "day job"....with considerably more freedom, as you can imagine.

So here I am now, having been a "full-time filmmaker" for quite a while at this point.  Just wrapped up a trailer edit and asset delivery for another film (paid very well, thank you very much), and currently in the works for the rest of the year are:

Line producing gig on a 1M-ish horror feature - have already done the budget workup and rough schedule - already got paid for that of course.  The film itself is pretty massive, with a great script, and some great folks attached.  It involves people from my favorite bands, my favorite films, my favorite aside from it being a great "job" it will be a great experience.

Placeholders has been delivered.  It will soon begin airing, and that means it will soon start making us money.  Real money - the projections on this are pretty decent.  We are launching across several platforms, and the profit return on each is impressive.  There are still the standard old-school "barter deals" here and there, but that works out okay too if you have a decent product - just ask Byron Allen.  We have 3 to 4 more television shows following behind it to maximize this business model and pipeline.  There's a Placeholders spinoff, and two other comedies that we are co-producing with friends/long time collaborators.  Hoping to have them all on the air and monetized by the end of the year.

Clinger has signed a distribution deal and is getting a limited theatrical release in October.  I have a feeling it will do well.  Of course, I look forward to it doing REALLY well, since I'm a co-producer on the film.  I was treated very well on paper for Clinger - I have a better percentage on it than I do on some of the previous projects I wrote and directed!  Live and learn.  Handle your business as they say.  Of course, I might not know how to make good deals for myself if I hadn't been saddled with so many bad I guess those were definitely "learning experiences".

Just got contacted last week to write a script - again via Son of Hollywood Royalty connections.  And get paid for it, of course.  I'll start on that in the next couple weeks.

Also, two days ago, just got tapped for another Line Producing gig.  Paid.

Last week, started laying the final groundwork to shoot some music videos for a few of my favorite bands.  I'd been working on this for a while, but apparently it's finally coming together.  Looking forward to that, since it completes the paid/fun/travel trifecta.

Imago is actually getting a fresh coat of paint (new VFX) thanks to our friends at Skull Tree VFX (Hatchet, Frozen).  We could have released it last year, but we want it to be the best film possible.  And now we have connections to make that happen, whereas we didn't a year or two ago.  Super excited about that.  We are also giving the film a new title...likely something like "Rodimus Prime", "Galvatron", or "Goldbug".  You probably thought you'd get through this whole thing without any Transformers jokes.  Ha!  Silly you.  Stay tuned for further Imago info...we hope to be able to make some announcements toward the end of summer.  But back to the bottom line - much like Placeholders, I control all the sales and monetary decisions on (the movie formerly known as) Imago.  I'm sure by now you can figure out my reasons.  With Imago, I run everything by Chris Warren (director, co-writer, producer) but I have controlling interest.  Remember what I said about "learning experiences".  Business handled.

Finally, yes, I have some projects of my own brewing.  The oft-mentioned ghost script has taken on new life - again in ways I'd never anticipated - and I really hope to have something happen with that this year.  Also, I've written a dark comedy based on...well pretty much all the stuff you just read (come on, you know you saw that coming), and I hope to make that this year as well.  That one will feature one of my heroes in a very interesting yeah, that should be fun.  Actually...the dark comedy is looking more and more like it might be shooting in late summer or early fall, as it seems to be coming together pretty quickly. Just waiting on a couple more confirmations (locations, actors, schedules) and then we can begin planning things for real.  The script is called 30-45 - I'll leave it to you to figure out what that means, since I've given you ALL the clues you need. 

So basically - I'm making money doing what I love, am laying the groundwork to have constant, consistent streams of income feeding the coffers, and am sort of working my way back around into making my own stuff again.  There's always the outside chance that one of the older projects like Closet Space or Walking Distance/Psychic Experiment might turn over and send some money my way - I actually get CS fan emails fairly regularly (which means people are still watching/buying/seeking) and the WD/PE release in Thailand was only about 6 months ago.  That would be great, but I'm treating that option like winning the lottery rather than a vital part of my current business model.  And then, even if it were to occur on those films....I've already touched on the obstacle course I'd have to run to see my share of things.  So, like I mentioned earlier - this current iteration of "living the dream" is definitely not the way I pictured this happening, but I guess all that matters is that it finally happened.  And it only took 17 years!

"You know, my life is really complex.  You know how a normal person...gets up...eats breakfast..."

Post Script

Well, there it is.  The honest truth about how I got to where I am right now.  I realize that this started off with the intent to be focused on the money making, and it ended up being 75% confessional purge about the events leading up to my "freedom", but I feel like leaving all the real stuff out would be a disservice.  Your mileage may vary.  Take what works and throw the rest away.  Etcetera etcetera.

Also, there's the cathartic aspect.  Most people I associate with didn't know specifics about that part of my life, and by the time I got around to being Pizza Restaurant Manager, only Chris knew what was going on (and Melanie, of course).  Debbie Rochon totally Tim Drake-d her way into the Bat Family too.  Trust me, we made a lot of Batman jokes.  I think I even made one earlier in the prologue.  It was my way of normalizing everything as best I could.  Thanks, comics!

At any rate, it feels good to put everything out in the open.  More to the point, it feels good not to care what people think.  I obviously might think differently if things hadn't worked out as well as they have, but I won't dwell on that.  Everything happens for a reason, and all roads led to this point.  Creatively and professionally (and monetarily), I'm in the best space that I've ever been.  I think about some of the relationships I've formed with cast and crew over the last few years and feel honored to have such a slew of heavy hitters ready to help me make my crazy moving pictures.

Final thoughts:  

Regarding the ghost movie I keep mentioning, I haven't really brought up the fact that one of our main obstacles with it has been casting.  Not finding people per se, but getting someone to back a film that has mostly ethnic leads, and two female supporting leads that are 35 and over.  That has been the real challenge with this one, and you can't imagine some of the conversations that I've had with potential backers.  Can you make them White?  Can you make them younger and in college?  Do the slaves really have to be in the story? (part of it is set in 1800's Louisiana).  Anyway, that's mainly been our battle.  I'm not really willing to budge on this one because my main goal is to make a moody, adult horror film like The Changeling (the George C. Scott one).  It's very frustrating for a lot of reasons, but one major one would definitely be the great actors we've missed out on because we couldn't see eye to eye on this with potential financiers.  However, now I have some options in play that will hopefully enable us to make the film on our own terms.  Again, a benefit of all the connections I've made over the last couple years. 

Additionally, I've had a lot of people ask me recently when we are "making the move" out West.  Actually, that question has been coming up ever since I began making movies. When Chris and I were out there working on Cold Descent earlier this year, we were getting peer pressured into it every damn day.  Here's the thing - several "film industry" people I worked with on that same set (and off the set, like the caterers, the payroll folks, etc) were looking outside of California for their next gig or gigs.  I would say at least 50% of them.  Sure a lot of stuff still gets shot in L.A., but things are WAY more decentralized now.  Louisiana, Atlanta, Vancouver...the work is spreading out all over the place.  Having recently done detailed budget breakdowns for the same few projects across all those locations, I can definitely see why.  If I'm going to likely have to travel anyway, well, I might as well continue to live where it's comparatively cheap.  

That said, I'm getting to the point where I'm going to have to at least get a car to leave out in Los Angeles...and probably after that, a small apartment or office.  It's just getting too insane trying to make trips out there a few times a year and cramming EVERYTHING into the space of a week or so.  There are things in motion where I might soon find myself there for several weekends in a row.  Or, for stuff like Cold Descent, where I'm there for an extended period on a shoot, which also might happen a couple more times this year.  Who knows, we might have to do that in NOLA next.  And of course, if this continues to be my reality, I'd like to be able to have my wife and kid be able to comfortably come and stay in whatever city I'm working in.  So now that Pinocchio is finally a "real boy", these are the things I'm sorta figuring out over the next year or so.

There strings...on me.

And there you have it.  I'm "living the dream" - my version of it at least.  It is absolutely supporting my family and I at the moment, and we are enjoying a level of freedom and happiness that probably hasn't existed since, honestly, pre-Closet Space.  It bums me out to think that perhaps Regan has only recently gotten the best "mommy and daddy" experience that we have to offer, but it is what it is.  At least I finally found a way to make it work, and make it all work together.

As I mentioned, I'm slowly correcting my course back to doing my own stuff again, with the added bonus of making a living off of it - but I might be available if you're looking for a 2nd unit Director/AD/UPM/Line Producer/Co-Producer/Key Grip etcetera.  Just know that you're going to pay me what I'm worth - and you don't necessarily have to take my word for it...I'm more than happy to provide you with references.  In return, I assure you that you'll get what you pay for.

Honestly, probably even more than you pay for.  That part I blame on the X-men comics. Classic mutant martyrdom.

Insert "Jump To Conclusions" Joke Here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Placeholders Ep 2, top 10 lists, and some Zacuto gear reviewed!

A three-parter today. I'm apparently going from zero to sixty in the blogging world again. I'll shoot by the first couple rather quickly.

First off, Placeholders - Episode 2 is up over at! Go check it's where the foundation REALLY starts to get poured down for the wackiness we'll be building over the course of the rest of the episodes. Really like how this one came together, and think all the gags still work. And of course, it's great to see Debbie fully inhabit the Carla role. Can't wait for that arc to play out...bwa ha ha. Also, Fangoria did a nice write up on Placeholders, which you can read here. Thanks, Fango!

Secondly, quite a few folks recently (for whatever reason, independently of one another) have asked me what my favorite horror films are. I've also been revisiting Stephen King's Danse Macabre I'm in that "list your personal faves" kind of mood. Here's my top 10:

A Nightmare on Elm Street
From Beyond
The Shining
The Fly (Cronenberg)
Fright Night
Night Of The Creeps
Return of the Living Dead

Psycho, Scanners, Videodrome, and Ghost Story get honorable mentions as they can creep in there depending on my mood. All hold a special place in my heart.

I guess since I'm doing that for horror, I should probably do the same for comedy, what with Placeholders and all.'s the personal fave comedy list.

This Is Spinal Tap
Beverly Hills Cop (though I actually consider it more an action film w/funny moments, still...banana in the tailpipe, laymon tweest, etc.)
The Blues Brothers
The Jerk
Animal House
The 40 Year Old Virgin (trust me, I was as surprised then as you are now)
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
Shaun of the Dead

Honorable mentions this time are Better off Dead, Grosse Pointe Blank (again, that's a BH Cop situation), Airplane!, and The Naked Gun.

So there you have it. All my inner cinematic workings laid bare. Now I can just get lazy and hand folks a business card with a link when they ask me these questions.


Now that Episode 2 of Placeholders is up (see above), I feel like the time is right to go ahead and post these revi
ews and pics of the Zacuto gear that we used on that part of the shoot. Mostly used during the shoots for Placeholders episodes 2, 3, and 4, the Cross Fire, Z-Finder, and EVF Flip are all camera support elements geared toward making "film-style" DSLR shooting easier.

Let me backtrack a little first to give some context. I'm 35, and went through film school in the late 90's/early 00's. As a result, the first several projects I worked on for other folks were shot on film. The first few things I did personally were shot on film. My shoulder has been home to quite a few Arri 16-BL's and even a 35-BL a time or two (it might have actually been a 35-3, I don't remember. Ah, youth. :) At any rate, coming up through film school, commercial production, a few feature film and music video sets, I was used to lugging those big bastards around on my body. Even when I began working at the public access station and using THAT equipment, it didn't stray far from the the paradigm, as things back then were still shot using heavy, unwieldy 3/4" ENG kits. Obviously, my point here is that during my formative cameraman/DP/operator years, I got used to the weight, the eyeline, and the grip stature that came from handling those monstrous cameras.

Of course, the digital revolution happened, and I've since done or produced projects that were shot on everything from the Canon GL1 to the RED, and everything in between. But - it is important to note that about 80 percent of those times, I wasn't the one shooting the thing. On the off chance that I personally had to operate camera on second unit or pickups, I would rarely shoot handheld. If I tried it (mostly with a DVX, XH-A1, or HVX), I would instantly become uncomfortable with the "feel" and I was never terribly happy with my results afterward. Usually I'd lock things off on a tripod and shoot that way, unless the handheld approach absolutely HAD to happen for the shot. Long story short...I really didn't (still don't) like shooting things that way with small cameras.

Of course, once the decision was made to shoot Placeholders on a Canon 7D, I got even more sketched out about going handheld for the episodes I directed (I served as camera op/DP on those as well). Add to this the fact that I was still pretty resistant to DSLR shooting overall (insert whatever archaic, inflexible motives you wish to honestly probably aren't too far off-base), and...well, let's just say I was somewhat worried going into the shoot.

The Zacuto gear assuaged my fear in literally a manner of minutes. First up was the Cross Fire apparatus alone, as a few of the shots we had planned required the use of an on-camera light (as shown in the pic above). Once we got the camera set up and ready to rock on the Cross Fire...I honestly didn't want to put the damn thing back on the tripod. The weight, functionality, grip placement and adjustable points of articulation were all where they needed to be and easy
to tweak to my frame. After I had my setup "dialed in", I found myself being able to go for pretty long stretches of shooting without any issues or fatigue. In the past, I've had shoulder and ba
ck pain set in pretty quick with similar rigs...not so with the Cross Fire. As a result, we were able to positively blaze through our second and fourth episodes (which, thanks to Zacuto, now included about 90% handheld footage). I strongly believe that those aforementioned extra points of adjustment make all the can really micromanage the architecture of the Cross Fire to fit your exact personal comfort level, rather than just maybe getting in the ballpark.

I must admit to some level of skepticism when setting up the strap-on follow focus portion of the Cross Fire (I felt like there was too much slack in the Zip Gear...admittedly, this was probably due to a fair amount of "operator error" on my part), but when everything was set up and ready to issues whatsoever. Actually, the rig worked so well that I came up with a few complicated multi-focus-pull shots on the fly...and knocked them out with no issues. Bottom line: the Zacuto Cross Fire very quickly became an integral part of our production strategy. A highly recommended piece of gear.

I found myself using the Zacuto EVF Flip and Z-Finder a little less frequently - again, the blame lies all on me and my bad habits - but I absolutely made a point to bring them both into the game whenever I found myself fairly awash in light (due to the lighting design, it happened a lot - especially in Episode 4 where operating production lights were actually part of the set dressing). The difference was as drastic as you can imagine...they really took the guesswork out of exposure and focusing. Color and tonal representation were extremely true (to these tired eyes, at least), and the ability to offset the apparatus in nearly any position (thanks to that lovely Zacuto articulation) and the oversized eyecup really added to the comfort factor. Also, did I mention that the EVF Flip uses a standard DLSR battery? Freaking awesome.
During the shoots for Episode 3 (which I didn't direct), I noted that my colleague, Chris Warren (pictured above) almost exclusively went with the "Z-Finder on camera body" configuration, since most of Ep 3 was shot on sticks. He apparently loved it, and I noticed that the Z-Finder aided considerably in the composition and execution of the shots that day. Of course, being in the role of "Producer" as I was for E3, my senses were heightened for such things.

In summation - Zacuto makes really, really good stuff. I'd actually go so far as to call it an indispensable part of the DSLR shooter's repertoire...especially if you're looking to step your game up to more professional, cinematic levels. Speaking of stepping up the game...check out the Scorpion rig that Zacuto has recently unleashed. Gives me chills.

Well...that's it for now. I'm sure I'll be back soon as there's a TON of stuff going on right now (Soon, Imago, Placeholders, some others). And for those wondering, Placeholders Episode 3 will hit the web the second week of February! In the meantime, show your friends Episode 1 and 2 all over again!

- Mel

Sunday, January 15, 2012


If you missed it, the first episode of Placeholders is up over at Comedy Central's So far the response has been quite much so that I decided to put up Episode 2 early if we could get E1 up to 500 views. Looks like we'll hit that mark tonight (Sunday) or get ready for Placeholders Episode 2 to hit the net soon. Additionally, this week we're starting our press push to get the word out on a wider scale, so look for some Placeholders related news items, some new poster art, and maybe a cast interview or two. I'll put up links here and on the Upstart site as they come in.

Thanks for your support, everyone! This crazy comedy "experiment" is turning out to be a whole lot of fun. Looking forward to playing in this sandbox a little more.

Oh, and if you don't already, please follow Placeholders' own Stephanie Stone on Twitter!

Sunday, January 08, 2012


Here we are again, at probably the weirdest, most surreal personal timeframe since I started this blog. Lots of reasons why that is, all of which will probably become clear over the next few months. Chief among them is the small human growing within my wife's womb.

Crazy. So yeah, that particular project has a release date of 8/5/12. [pauses for nervous puking].

Meanwhile, in addition to the various movie things (Soon (pre-pro), Experiment (foreign), Imago (post-pro)) we've been busy working to finish our comedy webseries, Placeholders. Yes, you read that correctly. Comedy. With minimal horror incursions (though they are indeed there). For those that haven't heard of it yet, Placeholders focuses on the producers providing content to Channel 19, the (fictional) local public access station. We've got an everyman, a preacher, a racist, a gun nut, an animal rights activist, a wannabe actress/model, a sexually aggressive administrator, a porn guy, some Russian mobsters, a guy with half a face...suffice to say, it's pretty wacky. It also provides me a chance to gain some catharsis by using a lot of my crappy film experiences (and the crappy people I've met during same) as comedic fodder. What, me use autobiographical stuff in a script? Yeah, I guess it's to be expected at this point.

Placeholders is also a pretty fun project in that we had several guest directors join us for the run. Besides myself, Robert Luke, Jerry Ochoa, Carlos Tovar, James LaMarr, Cliff Holverson, and Chris Warren each took the reins for an episode at one point or another. I've seen most of them all, and yeah...I can't wait. The cast (comprised of TONS of folks we'd worked with already in some form or another, plus some awesome new discoveries) really knocks it out of the park in the hilarity department. Enough talking...why don't I just show you? Here's a playlist of a bunch of teaser clips from the series.

Stay tuned for info on the Placeholders series premiere, which is going live this week. And keep checking back for more blogs as we release the episodes...we had a few generous production equipment vendors hook us up with some gear during the Placeholders shoot. Now I have to review it :). Shouldn't be hard, as it all made my on-set life much simpler.

More news on the other projects coming up soon, but in short: we're working on closing a couple foreign Experiment deals, we're doing a bunch of Imago ADR/sound mix stuff on the Left Coast soon, and we've got some stuff happening with Soon/Light that we just can't wait to share. Busy over here, as always. Back shortly with more!