A director is a seed collector. Once all the seeds are gathered, the director must closely attend to keep them in place and yet deeply trust in order to let them grow.
Nathaniel and I got our first laurels this season.
A story idea struck Nathaniel while he sat in a gas station this July . In August we put out calls for a team. In September, we filmed. And in October, the rough cut premiered in Bleedingham Festival at our local Pickford Cinema. Now we’re basking in the joy of finishing a project that we ourselves wholeheartedly enjoyed, process to product….
If you’re curious to explore that process with me, read further. If you want to see the product, I’m sorry to say we’re keeping it under wraps till we have the chance to show the film in a few more festivals, but you can check out the trailer here.
We are grateful for the team who joined us on this project. Visit Ghoul Station's IMDb for credits.
Workshopping the Story
Nathaniel wrote the story on a wind of inspiration. He had to swallow doubts that a spooky little short is not what the world needs most these days. (Did Charles Dickens worry about that when he wrote Christmas Carol?) I helped him edit and encouraged him forward.
What emerged was an ‘80s/‘90s Ghostbusters-style adventure horror including three characters who come together to rid a gas station of a flesh-eating ghoul. It differs from a lot of other shorts on the web and in festivals these days in a few ways:
It’s fun. Really fun. I’m talking holy water in super soakers and prosthetic gore.
It’s diverse. Three equal characters include a powerful mid-30s Latina punk, a nerdy, research-driven, mid-20s black man, and a crusty, trouble-making, early 60s white man. These characters sidestep a few unfortunate Hollywood stereotypes, including: 1) Latina women tend to play overly sexy or subservient women, 2) black men tend to play violent or non-heroic characters, 3) white men tend to play upstanding saviors. Oh, also, the villain was played by a petite, young white woman.
It’s active. The story includes minor fight sequences and splashy special effects, including flying the ghoul across the room and vanishing her in a puff of smoke. (Sorry about the spoiler.)
In short, the story is not art-house or bleak, yet it’s still making a much-needed statement for today. Or rather, it’s casting a vision of hope. There is a world where any type of person can be the hero of a story and work with any other type of hero to fight for good.
Finding the Team
We cast our net on the web, reaching out through Bellingham Film, Northwest Film Forum, Backstage, Craigslist and social media. We also hung up posters and passed business cards to interesting strangers. People trickled in from all the sources, from as far as Seattle. We carefully interviewed and auditioned. This was the most difficult stage – one that we’d love to outsource one day.
There are trends here in the Pacific Northwest. One, for example, is a great passion to help create something special. We were stunned by the level of love and investment demonstrated by people who connected with us simply via the internet. Fewer people replied to our posts out here than we’d had in New York, but the quality was there. Another trend, though, is a professional laziness, a lack of hustle. We turned away some very talented people who seemed to be phoning in their auditions or interviews. In the end, the team was made up of half-locals and half-transplants, including a producer originally from the Bay Area and one currently living in New York.
I’d like to tell myself there’s an easier, faster way to gather a team than our month-long, many-interviewed slog, but I honestly cannot. The more carefully we vetted each individual involved, the better we were able to place them in the team and work with them throughout the whole project.
Looking back, I can say I’m happy we stayed true to our goals. A couple of times the project seemed like it might compromise for lack of the perfect professional fit. But we waited. God and the universe provided – just as Steven Pressfield promised they would (War of Art).
Pre-production with a Baby
As the team solidified, the work intensified. We had to find, negotiate and book a filming location, food catering, rehearsal space, lodging, actor preparation space, equipment storage, extra bathrooms, off-set hangout space and insurance. (Props to Ebony.)
We had to choose and track down the precise equipment to rent or borrow in order to capture the vision: camera; lighting; dollies and stabilizers and jibs; special effects tools, a steam machine, leaf blowers, power generators and prosthetics (roughly $27,000 worth for a fraction of that cost). (Props to Sid and Chris.)
The design team built and shopped for the characters and space, including costumes, makeup, hair and set decoration. (Props to Elsbeth – and her children.)
Of course, throughout, we had to repeatedly communicate with every person to ensure they remained committed, excited, on budget and prepared for the schedule. (Props to Noah Schneider.)
We figure all projects include a balance of time, quality and cost. Usually, to succeed in two of those the other has to be sacrificed. We were also paying for project solely on our own money. We’ve always invested heavily in our own projects, but sometimes we also solicited help from our community of art patrons, and that helps us pay our artists a bit more, but this project we had no time for that.
Most important, we had to do our own job. That is, we had to prepare ourselves to capture the story:
We rehearsed with the actors.
We made image boards, walked the space and planned the vision with the DP.
Nathaniel drew and animated a scene for the storyboard.
We built a shot list.
We scheduled each shot and person involved to capture a 12-page script in two 6-hour night shoots. (Most film crews would take twice as long.)
Finally, we trusted.
In all this, a key player was also our beautiful three-month-old child. In short, there was no time for distractions. Good enough is good enough. He encouraged us to rest and focus on what’s important – perhaps he actually forced us to do that, since I was nursing every two to four hours around the clock. So we also made a lot of lists to combat the forgetfulness of sleep deprivation, held many meetings in our own home and chose to prioritize a certain amount of sleep. We also hired a life assistant, a life-saving move.
With great focus and teamwork, we got to film day.
Filming ‘Ghoul Station’
Everything went wrong. At least that’s how it seemed at first.
Our sound guy quit. The weather turned rainy. The hotel wouldn’t let the actors into their rooms without my ID. The crew underwent financial, personal and even legal upsets. Actors got body pain. Our baby had a crying fit while we were away. The call time got posted wrong in one email, and our actors showed up an hour late for the second night. Some equipment turned tricky and set us back another hour. Three crew members left after the first night for unfortunate personal reasons. We ran out of time to film the whole script. A key prop broke just before filming the final scene….
And yet, we pressed on. We made a movie. And we had fun!
Speed was the key. The actors and crew knew ahead of time that we’d film each scene with only one or two takes, and we held true to that. The effect was a level of gritty imperfection – but also an intensity and an ambition to the whole story that totally fulfills our artistic vision.
Sid, the DP, moved his camera through the space, riding dollies and rigging jibs, racking focus to catch different characters. There’s a flow to the story that one rarely sees in other indie shorts.
Meanwhile the actors escalated from an initial state of hostile cooperation to an ardent fight to save each other’s lives. Nathaniel and I believe in treating our actors well, in quietly encouraging, pointing out what’s working, allowing them to practice together and improvise to improve. We abhor the common tactics of manipulating or pressuring actors to drive up their inner emotion. So it was the intensity of the story itself and the schedule, as well as our ever progressing rehearsals between shots, that ensured the actors played with conviction and heart.
When we reached the end of the first night, we had 14 minutes to capture a scene with a tricky setup through a car window, and it started to rain.
“Look it’s over,” a crew member said. Missing that scene that night meant not only filming an extra on the over-full second night but also a costume and makeup change for three characters.
“No it’s not,” I said. Just watch. By the time the crew and actors were in place, the rain had moved on, and an atmospheric wind gusted across the pages of an open prop book. We shot one take and finished one-minute from our final-final call time.
The next night started off with the already-mentioned hurdles, but we took our full 45-minute dinner break, eating tacos and watching magic tricks from our special effects supervisor/filming wizard Chris Waltner. We finished the meal with a group dance. I can’t say for sure because I was dancing pretty hard, but I believe that by the end of the song, the whole cast and crew got up and cut loose.
There is a life outside of the work, and in that life our family underwent some real pain. Grandpa Soria had a stroke between our nights of filming, went into hospice and died a few days later. The family gathered, mourned and connected through revelations of a painful but healing past.
Nathaniel stayed home. He stayed in contact with his relatives by phone and took a day off to mourn, but he chose not to leave his tired wife and newborn, as well as this project. “Roses for the living,” his grandfather used to say. Our goal from the start had been to film and edit a rough cut in time to submit to the local Bleedingham Film Festival, and in such a moment he had to make a sacrifice – family wellbeing, the film work or the funeral. It was a hard choice, but he believed it was the choice his grandfather would have wanted. He edited a rough but rollicking cut of the film, complete with a creative-commons Nine Inch Nails soundtrack, and submitted it to the festival.
After that, we rested a little and pressed in again. Post production no joke. I don’t think I’ll try comprehensive listing of the tasks again, but the work, in short, went as follows: We edited the footage and with the help and initial special effects animation of Chris Waltner (like I said, wizard, and also a family man). We also edited and redubbed some of the sound (again with his help). (A PA, Raul Sanchez, had stepped in for the MIA sound guy and done brilliant work, but we needed a few louder takes.) We workshopped with our animating friend Kenez in Romania to fully design and animate the ghoul’s look and effect. He masked her body in every single frame and presented a couple of looks, while we pushed him toward a soft, glowing pink (hard to explain, but it worked).
Meanwhile, our DP Sid, who’s also juggling his last year of college, worked on coloration for every shot, including fudging some lighting in post to cover the variety of skin shades among our actors.
We made it into the festival and worked on hyperdrive to deliver a final edit to premiere in the festival.
Again, because baby, we chose not to work through the night, but we hired babysitters and rose as early as 5 a.m. to work on it together. On the final day of our post production efforts, I puked from exhaustion (yes, still nursing around the clock), and we took that cue to call it good.
Once we handed off our final cut to Bleedingham, we also started submitting it to other festivals around the country. Fingers still crossed.
The cast and crew gathered before the festival for a wrap party and private screening and proverbial victory dance. It was a ball. Our friends at Best Buds Gaming Lounge hosted.
The festival was exciting: Talented peers, charismatic hosts and prestigious judges gathered at our honorable local theater, the Pickford Cinema. I still remember gala showings there when I was a teen, and to get my own work shown their seemed like a triumph indeed. What’s more, the context of the showing was a combined screening of 17 other mini horror films, exciting and high in quality, but also too many of which propelled painful Hollywood tropes: all-white casts or racial minorities playing flat, minor roles, and women starring in violent, sexual dramas.
Then, low and behold, our film started to play, and what came onto screen was not our final film in all its glory but only the rough cut.
How the rough cut got on the screen is a bit of a tragic mystery. Let’s just say, as much as it was honoring to have our film selected and shown, it was also a shame to see our less then professional work displayed on the big screen.
But we are not those who shrink back. The purpose of making art is not merely to get a set of laurels and the accompanying accolades. The purpose is so much deeper and richer and sometimes unexpected. I do believe we are only beginning to taste the full goodness of this project.
A small evidence of that happened after the screening when a passionate, brown-skinned young audience member approached and said she loved the story and especially the female actress – “What was her name?”
Sometimes art is for the audience of one.