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Confessions of a Working Director - 6/17/2009


Because Ratline was a "Plan C" project for 2008, our pre-production time was extremely short.  Usually, 6 to 12 months of pre-production is the norm for us, but Ratline only had 3 months of prep.  And that included writing the screenplay!

Everyone involved in the production deserves a medal for helping me pull this project together in triple-speed time.  It would have been easier if Ratline only needed a few actors and maybe four or five simple locations - the typical order for low-budget indie films.  Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I usually make things much more of a challenge.

Another movie I directed called Scrapbook is an excellent example of what you should do when you have a limited budget.  Scrapbook had two lead actors and four supporting actors.  Scrapbook is set in one primary location.  The total number of locations we traveled to for Scrapbook was four.  The crew numbered around fifteen.  This "small" movie is a rather rare exception for me.

My brain-bending hallucinatory horror movie Ice From The Sun was shot on over 70 sets, which required us to travel to 27 different locations.  When we completed Ice From The Sun , we hyped it to potential distributors as "the most logistically complex movie ever made at its budget level" ...which still may be true.  Another movie of mine, Deadwood Park, had similar logistical complexities, and a bigger cast and crew (over 110 people, not including extras). 

There must be something wrong in my brain, as I routinely set out to make these "big indie" movies, armed only with tens of thousands of dollars.  I intentionally dive into these projects, knowing all the odds are against me, especially on a budgetary level.  Maybe I get a rush out of enduring great physical, mental, and emotional stress as I smash through numerous roadblocks to accomplish great tasks.  Or maybe I'm just a masochist.

On every movie, the primary thing that has saved me and brought me across the finish line with a completed movie is my team.  A great cast and crew, willing to share your perseverance, will always get you through the most treacherous production waters.  Jeremy Wallace, for example, was my producer on Ice From The Sun, Scrapbook, Deadwood Park, Ratline, and numerous side projects.  A very skilled producer, he helps me solve problems as they come up, as well as spot problems before they come up.

Like most of my other projects, Ratline was a much more complex production than its tiny budget would indicate.  There were numerous locations - around 25.  The cast was not small - 4 leads, 12 supporting, about 12 bit parts, and a couple o' crowds of extras.  We asked for and received permission to shoot anywhere in the streets of Hermann, Missouri for a couple of months, turning the small town into our own personal back-lot.  There are flashback sequences that take place in the early 1940s.  There are numerous scenes involving action and special effects. 

Ratline is not my most epic production to date.  And nothing on the shoot matched the task of finding and shooting in an abandoned amusement park (one of the greatest uphill battles of Deadwood Park's production). 

However, Ratline's shoot was plagued with problems, usually descending in the form of locations we'd secured in Alton, Illinois being yanked away from us just before or during the shoot.  Other problems stemmed from the short pre-production phase - for example, a couple of locations were not secured at all until two or three days before we shot there, because the overworked staff simply didn't have the time to get it done more in advance.

The stress and exhaustion levels were higher on this shoot compared to the Deadwood Park production.  On Deadwood Park , we had a 55 day shoot, and our days averaged around 10 hours.  On Ratline, we had a 30 day shoot, and our days averaged around 17 hours.  One day on the shooting schedule, we went for 22 hours. 

I think there was only one rather short day on the Ratline shoot.  We were shooting in a film warehouse and we could only shoot until the warehouse closed for the day.  If memory serves, we only worked for about 7 hours that day.  When we wrapped, our brains could hardly process it.  It seemed like we'd barely shot anything at all!

On Ratline, there were two individuals who probably had the most pressure and the worst prep-time that I've ever put on anyone.  Three months of pre-production was an intimidating scenario for everybody on the Ratline team.  But the two people hit the hardest were Jim Wayer and Trevor Williams.  During my pre-production span, I lost both my special effects department head and my production designer at about the same time.  Jeremy Wallace and I had long discussions about this, knowing whoever we asked to take over these departments would be taking on an overwhelming amount of stress.

Jim Wayer took over the special effects department and Trevor Williams took over production design... three weeks before shooting began.

After their initial waves of panic passed, both of these gentlemen got to work and started kicking ass.  They did not disappoint me.  Both Jim and Trevor did an amazing job on the movie.  You'd never know by their contributions to Ratline that they were thrown into their responsibilities at the last second.

That's what I mean about a quality cast and crew...  Ratline would have crashed and burned without Jim, Trevor, Jeremy, and everyone else on the team.

Thanks for reading.

Eric Stanze