by Nicholas Johnson
Making a movie where each scene is the perfect length and contributes to the piece as a whole, leaving echoes of images that stay in the brain like aroma, is a colossal pain in the ass. I tried to make that movie once, and it was not only painful for myself but for my friends as well. I had a pool of about eight friends whom I begged mercilessly each week, trying to get at least three of them to show up to film. I thrust liquor at them to keep them patient while I futzed with my camera to assure perfect shots. Inevitably problems would arise: a wind would kick up and wobble the camera on its spindly tripod, a cloud would pass over and change the tone of the daylight, or I would fuck up the pan. I duplicated shots just to be safe, I took a thousand close-ups in case I needed them during editing, and few of the actors escaped without injury — in one case a knee injury requiring medical treatment, the result of quite unnecessary horseplay.
There are many things I could have done to improve the movie, but neither a better camera nor a more precise storyboard would have made the movie less of a pain in the ass. It may seem like I’m stating the obvious, but a quality movie generally requires quality attention, and quality attention usually means more time rather than less time. If making a decent movie, then, requires effort and discipline and time and attention, then shouldn’t one wait until one has the time to make that effort, buckle down, and throw all one’s attention at that movie to assure a quality final product?
This is the steel trap that has apprehended thousands who have confused “making a really good movie when I have the time” with not making a movie at all. Nine out of ten movies that exist on the face of the planet are plain awful, and there’s no reason one shouldn’t muscle in on the excitement. The time to make movies is now. While poor quality and sloppiness are not a desirable end product, there is no reason the end product should always be pampered like a spoiled child in the first place.
While your standard 90-minute bad video takes 90 minutes to watch, it took hundreds, even thousands, of hours to make. What was the result? A bad movie. If the end product was 90 minutes of bad movie, then what happened to all those thousands of hours they spent making the movie? Were they fun? Were they instructive? Were they miserable hours full of dismal tedium that would be unbearable but for the paychecks? The plight of the sweatshop key grip is not our present concern, but it becomes obvious on a quick hike through the aisles of your average video store that our holy reverence for the End Product is not all it’s cracked up to be.
There are two opposing ways to approach the discrepancy between the time spent on movies and the quality of the final product. One way is to take every necessary step and as much time as needed to make a quality movie. Another way is to get rid of all the hours it takes to make a bad movie. As Jim put it, “instead of interminably long drawn out projects with huge flaws you get short and quick projects with huge flaws.” It does not follow that huge flaws are something to shoot for, but that flaws are a trivial concern if you decide to do the occasional project where the means justify the end.
For years friends and I have made bad videos. Though we worked together differently depending on who was around, here are some methods the loosely organized, multi-celled, and not officially named Fast and Trashy Film Group has found useful in the past:
At first I tried to set dates, and round people up by the survey-and-remind method, which involved scheduling random dates like Thursday the 28th and Saturday the 12th scrawled and handed out on the back of bank receipts, but once we got more than two people involved it became an unspeakable nightmare of logistics, so we finally decided to make movies every Wednesday night at my place. After a month or so, Wednesday movie nights became an automatic occurrence where people just began showing up. One of the benefits of this was that there was no pressure on anyone to show up, because they had not scheduled two weeks ago that they would be there on Monday the 6th, and everyone was free to decide at the last minute whether they wanted to come. It was easy to remember Wednesdays. Every week. Tell your friends. Sometimes the neighbor would drop by on Wednesday to hang out and play a cameo as Evil Ivan the Drunken Proletariat before returning home. Most people didn’t show up every week, but every week people showed up. One problem was that if I had to cancel for some reason, there were too many people to contact. In that case I would put a note on the door or something.
Once a jovial bunch of movie enthusiasts were congregated, the hardest part had been accomplished and the rest was easy. At this point we generally faced two scenarios:
1) We either had a story already prepared from all our gabbing at work, or 2) We didn’t have a story yet.
In either case, we began drinking from a half-case of beer and running over ideas until we were fairly certain that anyone who was going to show had shown. The ideas were either very general (“Elves.”) or very specific scenes (“A guy gets upset that his shoe comes untied.”) that were not necessarily exclusive, and often if we liked someone’s very specific scene, we would devise a story just to accommodate that scene.
Sometimes we would decide on a genre such as detective, sci-fi, or horror, but seldom did the pictures follow their intended conventions for more than a few scenes. For example, The Extractor—about an agency that sends a robot-monster to steal people’s wisdom teeth—started with overtones of Terminator and Dune but gradually drew more from He-Man cartoons and Fitzcarraldo as the picture progressed.
As often as not, the stories were determined by props. Cape Hades was the result of a devil mask. Fun Times with Robby Happysnapper was made after I found a stuffed alligator in the garbage. Dying to Be Born was the result of having a shriveled rubber fetus lying around the apartment. Etc.
People are props too. One night Dylan and I saw a local newscaster in the grocery store. Dylan asked the newscaster, whom we had seen on TV since we were children, to autograph the baguette he had just purchased, and I asked him for his thoughts on North Korea. He signed the baguette and said things were getting pretty bad over there and waved to us when he walked away and said, “All right, take it easy guys.” Our next couple pictures had the newscaster as the hero or the villain. Because he was famous, it was easy to find pictures of him, and we blew up photos of his face and made masks. During this time, a baseball stadium was being constructed across the street from my apartment. We used the construction site to shoot the Tower of Babel story from the bible, but in our picture everyone working on the tower was a newscaster working together to build a mighty transmitter that would broadcast to heaven, until God thwarted the media upstarts by turning some of the newscasters into producers and others into television viewers, which confused everyone and halted the progress of the Tower.
Location is a good jumpstart for story. One Mayday some of us went to a faux-Bavarian tourist town where even the gas station had a shoddy German facade. Since Mayday is an important socialist holiday, we made a picture about Kim Il Sung, the great North Korean dictator, coming to Germany to check up on the workers. Over the course of the day we became hated by tourists who were hated by waitresses who brought us free beer because we jeered at our fellow tourists. We made friends with the kids who were working in their parents’ shops and invited them to play bit parts. For one particular scene we needed a flower, so I tried to purchase one flower from a flower shop, but the nice couple at the flower shop gave me a whole bouquet when the woman asked what the flower was for and I told her I needed it for a movie. By the time I rejoined the group, Nathan had recruited a few dozen cheerleaders who were in town for a pep jamboree, and they played the role of the applauding proletariat as I smashed the flowers with a hammer in the town square. One can hardly make heads or tails of the movie that we made in one afternoon, but neither does that concern us.
Once we had the story or a theme or something to get us started, the rest was cake. All we had to do was work out the particular scenes themselves. For example, The Temple of the Unholy Nest is about a cabal of dark sorcerers who pride themselves on the sinister acts they perpetrate on the unwary from their omnipotent computer bank (played by a wall). This might not sound like a good story. It isn’t. But their first act of evil treachery is making a guy’s shoe come untied, so it served our purposes well enough.
Before we shot a scene we determined what basic requirements the scene needed in order to move the story along, stated them as simply as possible, then turned on the camera and improvised. The camera would be cut when the basic requirements had been met, or when the scene ran too long, or was far too terrible for the camera hand to suffer through any longer. A basic requirement in a scene might be that Honolulu Harry must convince an innocent lackey to join him at the luau so the lackey can get murdered, or it might be simply that the insurance salesman must convince Angry Bunny to let him in the house.
We did not have time to get fancy, so by instinct we culled from our collective saturation by Hollywood and put its cheap hack devices back in their proper low-budget place.
We always shot the scenes in order from beginning to end. We never procrastinated a difficulty by saying we would edit it later, because we knew we would never get around to it. So we either excised the difficulty and thought of something simpler, or we took the time to shoot it immediately. For example, there were times when we wanted to shoot a scene on the street, go back up to the 4th floor apartment to shoot a scene, go back down to the street, back up to the apartment, etc. It was amazing how quickly we came up with a new technique to progress the story when we became sick of walking up and down the stairs.
Sometimes we backed up and reshot a scene if it wasn’t too much trouble.
Once we began ripping through scenes, the worst was behind us. No matter what happened, the picture had to be finished by the end of the evening. This formality was the most useful one we devised. We tried several times to shoot the first half of a picture one week, and finish it the next week, but what happened was this: no one showed up the next week. Why? Starting a picture is fun and full of possibilities, finishing a picture is like sweeping up a garage. The first week we didn’t know what was going to happen, but by the second week the outcome was more or less inevitable, the potential had been depleted, and we were then grinding away once again at The Product. People seemed to be more enthusiastic about playing than working. The swift process of applying ideas to immediate action was desirable (as indicated by attendance), and the rote cleaning up of previous ideas was undesirable (as indicated by attendance.) We liked to go from idea to end in one evening and have fun doing it, without worrying about making it better with editing or extending the shooting time. Because we knew we would get tired of shooting, and that the picture had to be finished that night, there was an urgency during times we didn’t know what to do with a plot or character. So we ripped off stagnant Hollywood devices to get back up to speed. If one of our directors needed to be somewhere, we killed off his character. If we got tired and everyone was fed up with making movies, we just threw an ending on it. If we had four minutes of tape left, we did what we needed to do to conclude the story in four minutes. We often found that catastrophic violence was an appropriate ending for this quality of movie, or some vague evil uncertainty that would allow a sequel at a later date.
We generally collaborated as a group of dictators, with each participant a director. Indecision was settled by the persistence of one director’s will. We certainly did not take consensus votes on each and every decision that was brought up. We mashed together flavors of ego, so to speak, rather than diluting the flavors by coaxing unanimity. If someone had an idea, they said so, and unless someone else protested that’s what we did. In general, the results of dynamic conflict seemed to fare better than those of chronic compromise. At some point we all agreed that if we needed a quick resolution, the person who was presently running the camera had the final say. That worked well, but was only necessary a few times.
Most of our arguments lasted less time than it took to read this paragraph. The clock was ticking. We had to finish the picture before we got tired of making it which was usually between 3-5 hours. At the rate we made these shitty pictures, there was plenty of room for everyone at some point to dictate their pet scenes with their own flourishes and inside jokes. We have all managed to get irrationally persistent at different times about different things and it has been rare that any of us has felt strongly enough about something at the same time to argue for too long about it. Though arguing is fun, we were more interested in plowing through a movie.
Here are some of the things we were not interested in doing: We did not worry whether inside jokes or local references would make our movies watchable by some remote audience. We did not write down lines or plot out anything on paper. We did not spend a lot of money. We did not promise to mail a copy to every cameo player. We did not suggest our methods would remain the same tomorrow. We did not confuse our passionately made bad movies with precious gems.
Our movies are terrible. There are dozens of shots of mistiming, camera-learning errors, questionable sound, scenes that don’t make any sense, and scenes that one of us demanded vehemently due to some fleeting personal mirth. Our rapid production does not fare well for producing a controlled end product. But there are brief moments of brilliance, and we like to watch the movies because we liked making them. Whatever their crippling flaws, making movies this way does foster rapid-fire experimentation, flexibility, improvisation, and a tendency to strive for simplicity and clarity. These are not the right traits for every situation, but they are traits nonetheless, and they can be useful if one decides to later put some time in on a movie.
Nicholas Johnson wrote a book concerning his years in Antarctica.