Ghost Story, A Film’s Death & Resurrection: Chapter Five: Resurrection

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4749584 By Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

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.

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Ghost Story- A Film’s Death & Resurrection- Chapter 4

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Filming Without a Camera

4749584 By Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

The great film director Samuel Fuller once said, “Save your money for the end.”

The hardest part of making any movie is the climax, and we struggled to find ours. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending we had written, so I was rewriting as we shot. I didn’t know how to end the movie. I knew the good guys were going to have to fight the demon and release the ghost from her captivity, but how? I remember talking to my mother about it, and she asked, “but how do you kill a demon?” I didn’t know how to show the demon, let alone kill it, so I came up with an ending where the group would fight the demon and free the ghost  by way of a ritual. Once she was free, the light would come down and she would finally get to be at peace. Simple, right? Well… not really.

I had a weekend off, so I decided to visit my father in upstate NY.  The next weekend we were scheduled to shoot both days- the big climatic scene where the group confronts the demon. I was on my way home when I get a call from Patrick, my DP, informing me that we couldn’t get the camera we wanted.  The camera we’d been using and were planning to sign out that weekend wasn’t available. It was the only sync-sound camera the school had, but someone else had it signed out for another shoot. I had the location locked, the cast and crew booked, but no camera.

We were shooting  with an old Eclair NPR 16 mm camera. It worked for dialogue scenes because it had a motor and ran at a consistent speed- consistent enough so when you recorded dialogue on a separate recorder, you could sync it in post. Without that camera, I couldn’t shoot and record the dialogue scenes, and we had dialogue scheduled for both days.

Luckily, Patrick just happened to own a K-3, a Russian made camera, the real name of which is unpronounceable by anyone who doesn’t speak Russian. It’s a non-sync sound camera. It didn’t have a motor, and we wouldn’t be able to sync the dialogue. Also, it’s really loud, so even if you could shoot dialogue scenes with it, none of it would be usable because all you’d hear is camera noise.  The only way I can describe the sound of this camera is to say it’s like having a mosquito stuck in your ear, only the mosquito is on crystal meth.

We decided to move forward with the shoot and use the K-3. I cut the dialogue in the scene down to about three lines that we would dub in later. We shot the whole thing without sound and recorded the dialogue on the set that day, so it would match the room tone from the previous days. Brilliant right? Well… Unfortunately, after watching the footage, I realized the scene just didn’t work. Some of it was usable, but ultimately, it wasn’t the movie I wanted.

At this point we had been shooting for months, and I was exhausted. To make matters worse, I lost my job right around the time we were shooting the climatic sequence and we ran out of money. We couldn’t go back and reshoot the ending, so the film would have to be put on hold until we could find a way to resurrect it.

Ghost Story, A Film’s Death & Resurrection: Chapter Three

 

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The Day to End All Days

4749584 By Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

We had two days in which to shoot our ghost character. Chelsea Miller (pictured above), who played our ghost, lived in upstate New York, so she wasn’t readily available. We had a full day planned to shoot her major scenes. These were her scenes in the climax of the story as well as her introduction in the film. The shots were pretty simple, not a lot of set-ups, but essential.

We were shooting on the campus of Brooklyn College, and there was a classroom that we could kind of make look like the cellar where the ghost was being held captive by an evil spirit. On one of the days we arrived on set early in the morning, and we started to get ready to shoot. Just then, a student entered and informed us we didn’t have the room reserved. He had booked the room for that time. So we tried another room, got set to shoot and the same thing happened. Then, because the third time’s the charm, we went to another room, and same thing happened once again. Then one of us got the idea to shoot in the film lab room which looked terrible, but was available.  We decided if we didn’t light the room and just lit Chelsea, we could make it work.

By now, it was mid-day, and we were way behind schedule, so we headed across campus to see if we could get something on film before we broke for lunch. To move the equipment, we had a large bin with wheels, so we loaded it up and rolled it across campus. The way the campus was set up, we had to cross the street to get to the film lab room. As we got to the curb, we were stopped by a campus security guard who asked to see our manifest, the list of equipment list we had from the school. We told him we were just crossing the street to get to another part of campus, but he told us, “As soon as you wheel that bin into the street, technically you’re off campus, so I need to see your manifest for this equipment. You can’t take equipment off campus without it.” So we looked for the manifest, and it was nowhere to be found. We realized we didn’t have it–it was back at the DP’s apartment. Now we had to send someone to get the list. At this point, I’d already lost my location three times in one morning, so I gave up and I sent Patrick, our DP, back to his place to get the list.

Once he returned, we were able to cross the street and get to the room in the other building. It looked terrible, and it didn’t match the room we had previously shot for the cellar, but whatever. I needed to get the shots, so we proceeded.

This was the climactic scene of the movie, where the ghost, having been freed from her imprisonment, goes into the light. I wanted the light to be directly over her head as if coming from heaven, but we didn’t have a C stand to hang the light from, so I got the brilliant idea to have one of the crew members hold the light like a boom mic over the actress’s head. We were using a 1,000 watt light which got quite hot, so for safety, we tested the technique by using our gaffer as a stand-in. We held the light directly over his head for a bit when he said, “I think it’s too hot…. I think my hair is burning.” Lo and behold, his hair was starting to smoke, so we vetoed that idea.  Finally we were able to achieve the effect I wanted by lighting her from a high angle without burning her wig off.

We made it through the day. Chelsea was wrapped, and we got some good stuff on film. We decided to go back to the DP’s apartment for a dear-God-what-a-long-day beer.  As I pulled up to his house, I got out of my car and immediately stepped in a pile of dog shit. The perfect ending to a perfect day, right? Our gaffer remarked that he’s seen quite a few student film shoots, but nothing quite compared to that day. When I was ready to head home, I went downstairs to find a parking ticket on my windshield at ONE MINUTE after midnight. Ugh…

At that point in my life, I thought filmmaking was horrible, and after that day I  seriously considered whether or not I ever wanted to make another movie. It felt like I had a “kick me” sign on my back. I felt like I was cursed. Every lost location, missing paperwork, singed hair, pile of dog shit, and no parking sign had become a bad omen sent to me from the almighty film gods telling me not to continue.

Samuel Fuller once said “Film is a battleground.” Some days you have to fight. The good news is it gets better.  I’ve found that even thought I still have tough days on set, when I’m fighting my way through the day, I have confidence I’ll get through it because of my past experience. The more experience you have, the better prepared you are, and the better your days will be.

Ghost Story- A Film’s Death & Resurrection: Chapter Two

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It’s Hailing Dolly Shots

4749584 By Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

In the days before smaller lightweight digital cameras and sliders, you needed a dolly if you wanted to move the camera. Dolly shots are never easy, and they usually take a while to set up. Tracks need to be laid, and a dolly grip is needed to move the camera. The shot usually needs to be rehearsed several times to get the move to work and  to set the focus.

On one of our shoot days, we planned to shoot two dolly shots in two locations, one interior and one exterior. The plan was to get the interior shot that morning, and then move outdoors to get the second shot right around magic hour when the light was great. We didn’t have a lot of money for rentals, so it was imperative we get as many of these types of shots done in the same day or the same weekend. Little did I know this was much easier said than done.

The first scene took place in a bedroom. Our main character is lying in bed, the camera moves up his body, and at the end of the shot, his face is revealed. It was a pretty simple shot to set up. We were shooting in the Director of Photography’s apartment, so he was able to light the scene the night before which saved a lot of time.  Getting the shot, however, did not prove to be simple.

We had a skateboard dolly which is basically a piece of rectangular plywood with wheels attached to it that fit on the dolly tracks. The morning of the shoot we attempted to put the wheels on the board. There were holes pre-drilled in the board that were supposed to fit the wheels, but they didn’t. We tried every which way to attach them, but to no avail. Finally we called the rental house which was thankfully open on a Sunday. We’re thinking we have to go back and get the a new skateboard or new wheels. Instead, they told us to simply drill new holes in the board. “Are you sure?” “Yeah go ahead.” It was lucky our DP had a drill. Otherwise we would have been screwed.

We spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon putting the dolly together until we got the shot of the actor in bed.  A small triumph, and the day is going well. To this day, I still feel it’s the best shot in the movie.

Then we proceeded to move to the next location, the house we were using for the exterior. I wanted a circular dolly shot of my actor standing in front of the house. The actor walks into frame and the camera moves around him 180 degrees revealing the house over his shoulder.  It was one of the first shots in the film and would set the tone, so it was very important to get it right.

After a short drive, we  arrived at the house, and out of nowhere, it started pouring rain.  We got back in the cars hoping it would pass, but it didn’t. Instead of stopping, the rain turned to hail. The weather had been sunny all day, but now it was biblical outside. So we called it. As good as the first half of the day was, the second half was terrible. The film gods did not want us to make this movie. It was the agony and the ecstasy of filmmaking both in one day.

We went back another day and got the shot in front of the house, and it came out well. We were supposed to use the dolly for another shot later that day, but the 180 degree shot ended up taking too long.  We were losing the light, so in order to get second dolly shot we had the cameraman sit in the back of a truck with the lens out the window as the actors ran behind. The set up wasn’t ideal, but we got the shot.

Making movies is a series of compromises. You start out with a vision and end up with a compromised version of that vision. You have to shoot around weather, equipment failure, location availability etc.. These compromises aren’t always bad. They force you to be creative, and sometimes the result is better than what you thought you wanted.

As far as controlling the weather, it’s like John Ford said “You have luck in pictures. Most of the the time it’s bad luck,” so was the case for us. One thing I take comfort in is the fact that no matter how big of a name a director has, no matter what the budget of a film, no one can control the weather, not even John Ford.

Ghost Story- A Film’s Death and Resurrection: Chapter One

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Script Dreams and Film Reality

4749584 By Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

In  late 1998, my friend Joseph Bongiorno and I wrote our first short film.  It was a rather ambitious script. The working title: Ghost Story. It was about a group of friends reuniting. One of them, the new owner of a house, tells her friends that she’s discovered a ghost in her cellar. Her friends investigate, our main character sees the ghost that night, and learns that it’s being held there by a dark entity.

We originally wanted the house to be somewhere in the country or the suburbs. We ended up filming in Brooklyn. When you’re young and ambitious and writing up a storm, you never think of the reality of shooting. We came up with scenes and shot lists. We wrote scenes with action and excitement that would have taken 12-13 camera set-ups, and we were happy with it. It was cool, a real page turner. We thought, “yes, we have a good script, and we’re gonna make it!”

I had never made a movie on film before. My background from high school and college was making shorts on a video camera. None of them had a budget. None of them required getting any location beyond my hometown or my backyard. This movie would be bigger and more expensive than I could handle. When I showed the shot list to Patrick Reis, my DP, he would say “We can’t do all this. You’re never going to get that many shots done in one day.” He also explained that while we were going to be able to borrow all the equipment, I would still have to pay for film stock and processing, which isn’t cheap. Because I had no experience on working with film or creating budgets, I hadn’t realized that this movie would end up costing me thousands of dollars that I didn’t have.

We began principal photography in 1999, shooting mainly on weekends. I had a nine-to-five job during the week where I made nine dollars an hour. Even in the 90s, no one could afford to make a movie on film on such a low salary. During the course of the filming of Ghost Story, I was downsized from that job, so I went from a low salary to no salary. How I expected to afford this movie, I don’t know, but I tried anyway.

If I could go back and give my young self advice, I’d probably say, “this script is too ambitious! Write something simpler! Go back and assess what you have to work with and write within your means! Also, DO YOU KNOW EXPENSIVE FILM IS?? Write a six minute movie with a simple plot and three characters in a single location. This way you won’t be buried in credit card debt. Maybe price things out before you do fifteen takes of a guy walking downstairs. You make nine bucks an hour! You’re not Francis Ford Coppola!”

I’d say that and more, but you get the point. Write within your means.  Start small and write something you can actually make. The making of Ghost Story, the death and resurrection, is a cautionary tale of what not to do when you’re making your first film.