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Confessions of a Working Director - 2/1/2010

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It's an old rule of thumb for indie film screenplay writing:  Include in your screenplay what you already have access to.  This saves you money and streamlines your shoot.  Robert Rodriguez cites this decree as a major contributing factor in his pulling off the micro-budget El Mariachi.

I think S.F. Brownrigg, director of Don't Look In The Basement, explained it best when he spoke of his "three legged dog" low budget filmmaking tactic:  If you discover a three legged dog on set, put it in your movie because that's production value.  But never, in pre-production, write a three legged dog into your script, because then you'll never find one. 

To this day, when producer Jeremy Wallace and I find something of significant production value that is cheap or free for us to use, we call it a three legged dog.

The biggest three legged dog we found for Ratline was the town of Hermann, Missouri.  Essentially, Jeremy arranged for the entire town to be handed over to us for production of Ratline.  We scouted the town for a few days in early pre-production to choose our locations, then came back in the Fall to shoot.  While shooting in public locations, we wore production badges that Hermann police were informed of, and anywhere we went in town, the officers either stayed out of our way or asked if we needed any help.  It was an ideal shooting experience.

I only had the basic seeds of the Ratline story in my head when I was informed that we'd have all-access authorization to shoot in Hermann.  So as Jason Christ and I wrote the script, we were able to keep in mind all of the opportunities the town of Hermann offered us, and write them into our screenplay.

I very much love to do research when I write.  In my early years as a filmmaker, I never did much research, but with each new script I write, research becomes more and more important to me.  Obviously, research lets you inject more realism into the movie, but it also adds a lot of texture to the story and characters by inspiring little bits and pieces that otherwise would not have emerged.  A touch of character depth, a minor story point, a contribution to the environment, a line of dialog... these small contributions, resulting from research, make the movie greater than the sum of its parts.

Knowing we were going to make the town of Hermann a character in Ratline, I immediately started combining my location scouting with my research.  One of the locations we scouted and used was the most bizarre looking cemetery I've ever been in.  Most of the gravestones were old, weather-worn, chipped, cracked, and erupting from the earth at extreme angles, creating quite dramatic visuals.  Jeremy said "It looks like everyone buried in this grave yard is trying to get out."

Next, I researched this cemetery...  and discovered a fascinating story.  One of the grave stones is so old the lettering is illegible, and no records exist that indicate who is buried there.  This is the only grave in the entire grave yard that contains the remains of an unknown person. 

Adding another layer to this grave's sinister charm is the fact that a skull and crossbones is the primary feature carved into the weather-worn granite.  Urban legends circulate through town about this grave.  Some say a witch is buried there.  Some say the grave is cursed and touching the grave stone will bring you great tragedy.  The police have even had to run off late-night trespassers engaged in candlelit "satanic ceremonies" on this grave. 

I found all of this fascinating, so I decided to work it into the movie.  The grave stone fit right in, as its skull and crossbones eerily connected to the Totenkopf or Death's Head symbol of the Nazi SS, already a big part of the plot.

The cemetery and the mystery grave were written into the screenplay.  We shot a scene surrounding the actual mystery grave (in which Jason Christ touches the grave stone - sorry, friend) and I wove the fact that the grave's occupant is unknown into the movie, making it a fairly prominent plot point.  I love doing this - blending fact with my fiction.  As I've stated, I think this gives the movie a unique texture that simply would not be there if I had not done the research, and had not decided to blend in elements from it.

It's also weird to think about someone passing away, being buried there, and having a grave stone placed over them - only to have their grave site featured in a movie 150 years or so later.

In the plot of Ratline, we never explain who is buried in the grave, or even what significance this grave has to Jason's character.  I have a theory about how this all works in the back-story - but explaining that back-story in this movie did not seem appropriate.  I figured that the grave's real-life mystery exists to this day, so leaving this a dangling loose end in our movie was okay too.  Plus, like actor / screenwriter Hampton Fancher said about writing: "It's the questions that are interesting - the answers are stupid."

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze

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