In 1999, toward the end of production, I lost my $9/hour job, and we had to stop. I had a half-assed climax/ending, no money, and no means to edit the film. We shot on Kodak Double X Negative 16mm film stock, and back then to get film processed you had to take it to a film lab. They developed the film and gave you a work print. This is the print you’d edit on a Steenbeck or a Moviola. They would also transfer the film to video. I didn’t have access to a Steenbeck or a Movieola or a film projector, so I had my dailies made on VHS.
Therein lies another lesson in filmmaking: Always have a plan for post-production. Don’t even think about starting a film unless you have a plan for post. The hardest part of making anything is finishing. The worst regrets I have as a filmmaker are the projects I’ve left unfinished. Ghost Story would go unfinished for five years before we were able to resurrect it.
Cut to 2004. I got a call from Patrick Reis, my DP, saying he was working at an equipment rental house and could get us a digital video camera and audio equipment. At this point, I hadn’t worked on any film at all in five years, so I was perplexed as to what we would do. He said, “Why don’t we finish Ghost Story?” After a pause, I finally responded, “Okay, but how?”
I hadn’t seen the footage in a while, so the first step was to look at what we had and figure out what we could do with it. I still had the VHS tapes, so I used VCRs to assemble a rough cut of the film, keeping what I thought was usable and discarding the rest. It was a tedious process. As it turned out, I had something of a beginning, a good chunk of the middle, but no climax and no ending.
We had another problem. By this point, all but one of our principal actors had moved away. We still had our lead actor, PJ King, but none of the others. We went back and forth brainstorming as to what we could do. I called up my friend and co-writer, Joseph Bongiorno, who had written the original script with me. The idea was to write new scenes with a new character who could listen to PJ’s story. We would shoot new scenes and use the black & white 16mm footage as flashback. We could have him say “five years ago” and dissolve to a shot of him five years younger. As for the other characters, we’d have to kill them off. We decided to have the evil demon entity somehow get to them and kill them off one by one.
Reverse-engineering a movie is not easy. You have some of the story, but now you have to make it into a completely different one. We wrote new scenes to set up the flashback. We started with a post-funeral gathering of the friends and family of one of the victims. From there we set the scene with Father Mike (played by John Kwiakowski pictured above), the new character we invented, and Sophy, the main character. Sophy would tell the story of what happened five years earlier.
Next we had to figure out the climax. Our first thought was to try to create some embodiment of this demon and have our heroes fight it. We experimented with a number of different designs. I even cast an actor to play the demon, but we couldn’t make it work. So how do you have the good guys fight a bad guy you can’t see? Then after much debate, PJ came up with a great idea. “What if it’s in me?” He would be possessed by the demon, and Father Mike would have to perform an exorcism. Brilliant! Well maybe. We’d have to see if we could pull it off.
This may be a good time to point out that doing a movie like this with no special effects budget isn’t really a good idea, considering we didn’t even have After Effects back then. We had to figure out a practical in-camera effect that could work. The solution we came up with was to use a really bright light and reaction shots. In the scene Father Mike recites a passage from the bible to draw out the demon. The demon then becomes a bright light. Father Mike yells at the light some more, and we have the music come to a crescendo. He falls down, light goes away- boom! No more demon and Sophy is safe. When in doubt, forget visual effects or a guy in suit, just have your protagonist stare at a really bright light and fall down. That’s cinema. Right? Well, it worked.
With the new scenes in the can, we had a new challenge, post-production. When you talk about filmmaking, most people have a picture in their head of cameras, lights, boom mics, actors on a set etc., but the truth is, that’s only a third of the process. In the editing room is where you really make the movie.
Editing Ghost Story was a huge lesson for Patrick and me. It was our first foray into digital editing. Final Cut Pro was still pretty new at the time, and there was a lot to learn. The post-production of Ghost Story would take another two years. “Why so long?” you might ask. Well, it was a big puzzle to put together, and we had to start from scratch. The other huge challenge was creating the sound design and score. We had to build a library of sound effects, do all the foley, and I took on the task of composing the score, not an easy one especially since I had no means to record it.
I’m a musician, but I’d never composed a score. I had a cheap Casio keyboard and some music composition paper, so I plunked out the notes and wrote them down as best I could. This was before we had GarageBand or LogicPro, so I went to my friend George Henik, who is an exceptional musician and had a program that allowed us to hook up a keyboard and record score into the computer. George then arranged the music and created the orchestrations.
One of the reasons the process of putting the movie together took so long was that I didn’t have the means to do everything I needed. I had to rely on technical people and work when they were available. It was quite a frustrating process at times, but we got our end result which was a pretty good movie. We submitted Ghost Story to various festivals, and it was accepted by the Gulf Coast Film and Video Festival in Houston, TX.
So what I did I get out of the experience? We didn’t win any prizes or awards. My dream of winning Best Short Film at that year’s Oscars wasn’t realized. I spent close to $10,000 in total, and I will never make that money back, but I learned 16mm and digital filmmaking on the same project and went to my first film festival. I learned so much about what to do and what not to do. I learned by doing, and nothing is more valuable than that. Ghost Story was my film school.