An indie filmmaker likes to play the underdog. With her dog. 2,210 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
It was a hot Los Angeles summer day. Annie Grayson, the alleged author and self-proclaimed indie film authority, brought a dog to her set, which was the street in front of the Century Plaza Towers. The mangy dirty mutt with matted hair was very unhappy to be there in the heat. But Annie dragged him around everywhere. “Louie, come here!” she yelled as she pulled his thick rope leash.
Nigel, with his DSLR camera and lugging a Flycam rig, spotted her from across the street and thought, Is that her? With the dog? She looks younger in her picture. Ok, here we go. I can’t believe she brought a dog.
He walked up. “Annie?” The dog starting barking at him.
“Louie!” she yelled. The dog got quiet. “You’re Nigel? Tricia is late. She’s always late. I’m calling her now.”
“That’s typical,” Nigel said, shaking her hand as the dog barked again.
“Louie! Shut up!” Annie said. “She can’t find parking. Here, talk to her.” Annie handed Nigel the phone.
“There are free spaces right off Olympic,” Nigel shrugged. Whatever. Actors are always late. He looked at Annie and the dog and thought, She brought a crazed wild animal to a film set and she’s worried that the actor is late? Looking back, Nigel didn’t think Annie deserved to call the dog hers. But at the time he was hired to film her project.
Annie was raised in Beverly Hills by a producer. She had spent eleven years on the lecture circuit at film schools talking about how to make indie features on a shoestring. So here she was doing it. For the first time. Apparently she didn’t know that making a film is a whole different thing than lecturing about it. Annie was determined to show a thirty minute TV teaser to producers. Nigel tried to explain to her that she didn’t need a teaser. In fact, based on what he’d seen so far, it was detrimental. Though he wouldn’t dare to tell her that. She was hellbent on doing this thing, and it had to be high end.
High end? Nigel thought. Is that why she hired me for $60 a day? She compares her film project to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and That Girl and other shows with lots of assistants, no wild dogs, no crying kids, and a professional crew that would never put up with her. But she wants high end.
Nigel had been knocking around Hollywood for about ten years, doing everything from bit acting parts to cinematography. Nigel loved films so much he could be had cheap, and plenty of people took advantage. He even made a feature doc about health insurance reform. However, his cinematic dissing of the sick industry wasn’t commercially marketable. Financially, it went nowhere. He’d paid himself in sweat equity as a twisted sort of rationalization.
Annie found him on a film crew job board. This was to be her final week of filming. Most of her previous cast and crew had bailed. It was summer. School was out. She needed fresh virgins. She had to do a reshoot with new actors and a new DP, which was Nigel.
Her no-budget project consisted of a handful of actors including Tricia Thompson and Jennifer Stevens, two of Annie’s student followers. Both had major film credits, according to Annie, who was doubling in a supporting role. Then there was the sound guy, Ted, the only one except for a few day players who’d survived from the last cast and crew mutiny.
Nigel knew anyone could easily get actors for little to nothing in this town. He’d done it. He later looked up Tricia and Jennifer and found screenshots of both of them in disgusting horror movie makeup. He thought, I get it. They jumped at the chance to be seen without flesh falling off their faces.
There was little photography direction involved for Nigel. No lighting, no grips, just Nigel with his camera. Which he found actually pretty cool. “I have a Flycam, it’s like a Steadicam. If you like, I can do a floating camera style and you won’t need coverage. Like Birdman.” he suggested to Annie.
“Sure, that sounds good,” Annie replied, without a clue as to what he was talking about. Nigel realized. But he was pumped. He rarely got a chance to practice his camera style with actors.
When Ted arrived, Nigel just had to ask, “She brought a dog to the set?”
It was right then that Cujo went ape shit on someone’s poodle. “Louie!” yelled Annie. “Stop that!” And she pulled the mutt away on his ugly dirty old frayed rope leash at least an inch thick.
Ted laughed, “Yeah. She’s crazy.”
“You never bring a dog to a set, just like you never bring toddlers,” ranted Nigel.
“Unless they’re trained and come with wranglers,” said Ted.
“Right. They’re uncontrollable. They make noise. They react to everything,” Nigel continued.
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me,” replied Ted. “Every time Tricia raises her voice, the dog howls and cries. But if Annie doesn’t care, I don’t care. I just do the sound.”
“I guess that means more ADR for you to book later,” said Nigel, who never met a sound guy that didn’t have a problem with dogs barking over dialog. “Do the actors even get what’s going on here?”
Ted smirked a shrug, “They’re actors.”
Then Annie tasked one of the actresses to take the dog off camera about fifty yards away. To add insult to injury, Jennifer also had to slate the scene by clapping her hands. How demeaning. But Annie couldn’t afford production or camera assistants. “Clap your hands,” Nigel reminded Jennifer with each take.
“I wonder if that breaks her momentum?” he asked Ted later.
“Hey, that’s her job.”
Right, thought Nigel, the slate is the actor’s job. Not.
They were filming the intimate tête-à-tête scenes with Tricia. Of course the dog was there just off camera. Annie always kept him close by. Annie had booked the storefront of a hair salon on the spot. No advance notice or permits, naturally. “I grew up around here and know all the people on this block,” said Annie. “Three of them agreed to let us use their places. And one is closed. So we got that one, too.”
“Did you get location releases? Should we avoid the salon logo?” Nigel asked her.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get it later,” and she set up on the patio in front of the hair salon. But their door was open.
The scene went fine until Ted had a problem with a screaming toddler getting a haircut. Everything stopped. Are you kidding me? thought Nigel. The dog barks in every scene and now Ted has a problem with a kid? Maybe I should get a cutaway of the kid. Who needs a photo release, right? Nigel spotted the kid’s dad, with arms folded, watching the crew. Nah, better not.
In the world of first-time indie filmmakers, this first location shoot was a resounding success. Because no one got arrested or punched. So Annie moved on to location two. Throughout the scene, they had to deal with yelping, whining and crying from the dog, not the actors.
“How about we put the dog into the scene? Have him jump up on Tricia?” suggested Nigel.
“You think that will work?” wondered Annie.
“Sure, and it explains the dog barking in the other scenes too.”
Ted laughed. “Did you know the dog bites? Tried to take a chunk out of an actor’s leg. But the actor kept going, like it was nothing. Then he quit.”
Nigel watched Tricia react to the dog with repulsion. It wasn’t the typical scene where the dog laps the actor’s face and the actor loves every second of it. There was no way Tricia would let this dog within two feet of her.
Annie had Nigel and Tricia walk into the Century Plaza Towers. No sound was needed for the tower scenes so Ted was at lunch. Obviously Annie hadn’t been to a corporate skyscraper lately. Nigel knew they were guarded up, down, and sideways. Indie filmmakers walking into a lobby with a DSLR on a Flycam would be a threat. See the logic there? Nigel didn’t either. Annie sure didn’t. Neither did the guards. They just followed orders.
When the security people confronted Annie, she said, “We’re just making a short film. It will only take ten minutes.”
“Get off the property now or we’ll call the police,” said one of the guards.
“What do they think we have, machine guns?” Annie asked.
“Let’s go,” Tricia said because of the growing number of guards watching them. One was on a phone. “They’re calling the cops!”
Then there were sirens. Fuck! Annie moved them to the building next door. “They can’t touch us if we stay on the sidewalk,” she said. But that building guard confronted them, too. In spite of everything, they ended up getting all the scenes that Annie wanted, except inside the lobby.
“I could follow her in with my cell phone to get those,” said Nigel.
“No. This has to be the very best quality. It has to be high end, or producers won’t like it,” Annie insisted.
OK, thought Nigel, I won’t bother trying to explain to Annie that my cell phone can record HD nearly as well as the DSLR in this situation. "People make feature films with phones. There are even movie theater resolution 4K phones." But it was hard enough to explain to Annie how to download files from a cloud share.
He told Ted when he returned from lunch, “Annie had to have establishing scenes of Tricia striding down the street into the Tower. Then I panned up the building face to the floors above. No one does establishing scenes anymore. She’s living thirty years in the past.”
Ted replied, “It’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Retro, right?”
“Right. What do you care? You record dialog with a dog stepping on it.”
Ted just laughed.
But the elephant on Century Plaza that day wasn’t the establishing scenes, or the dog, or the bad retro. “It’s the whole film,” complained Nigel. “Does she really need to even do this film to get it produced?”
“Or rejected,” said Ted.
“Exactly. All she needs is the script, some concept poster art, proposals for A- or B-list actor names, a budget, a business plan. Take that to a film market, show it to sales agents, and they tell you if it’s marketable or not. Hell, all they want to hear is the logline. They don’t have time to look at a film. And what producer has the time if you can’t get sales agents interested? Not a one. Am I right?”
Ted shrugged. “Hey, I just record the sound.”
“She could have developed this with crowdfunding. Do a two minute promo for the campaign with Tricia showing some leg. But doing a thirty minute film with no backing and especially with no money is a formula for disaster.”
“Yeah. I like disaster movies,” quipped Ted. “But you should do it. You could make it work.”
“I don’t know. I could try. But I’d need something exceptional, like Blair Witch.”
“Yeah, that made millions.”
“And with a $65K budget and a marketing campaign that invented found footage. But that was a onetime trick pony. Everyone is onto it now. Annie has to come up with something that’s never been done.”
“Or maybe a retro That Girl reboot,” said Ted.
“Take Tangerine. It’s unusual, like Blair Witch, except it’s the story of two transgender women in a sex worker district of Hollywood. Shot on a cell phone, it’s so unobtrusive it was done on the fly in the streets and restaurants.“
“No one cares much about indie stories anyway,” Ted added. “All that mumble-core bullshit. No, it’s more about how films are made that makes them marketable, especially Indies.”
“So what do we have here? A woman down on her luck with a dog, trying to start a new career as a director with no budget? That is typical of about 50,000 indie films that go absolutely nowhere. Reminds me of Wendy And Lucy, an indie film with Michelle Williams and a dog. Pretty good actually. But yeah mumble-core gross.”
”I’m just the sound guy,” said Ted, “But there is something about Annie that’s like a dog scratching and clawing her way up the ladder of success, risking it all, in hopes of breaking through.”
“You mean like an underdog.”
“Yeah, an underdog, and Annie is a relentless powerhouse. I just love her. Nothing gets in her way. Not a failed crowdfunding campaign, not permits, not lack of funds…”
“Not barking dog, or screaming child,” said Nigel. “Maybe I’m too negative. I should shut up.”
“Just do the camera,” Ted agreed.