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Confessions of a Working Director - August 13th, 2009

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On November 3rd, 1988, I met a kid named Tommy Biondo.  

I had just started attending Windsor High School in Imperial, Missouri the year before, and I was finally starting to not feel like "the new kid."  Tom approached me in a study hall period (that, for some reason, was being held in the gym that day).  I was already beginning to attract like-minded classmates who were interested in making little camcorder movies with me, and Tom approached me with that same interest.  We talked about special effects mostly, and Tom's enthusiasm was unbridled, to say the least.

This skinny, awkward kid became one of my most frequent collaborators over the years, as well as one of my closest friends.  We did indeed work together on a handful of terrible student movies - pushing ourselves so hard to do the best work we could, that you woulda thought we were being observed by talent scouts from Paramount.

Tom later acted the part of "Aunt Linda" in a movie I directed called Savage Harvest, and he was in the ensemble cast of Ice From The Sun.  He also contributed to the special effects in these movies - and he completely impressed me as he matured into a very good production designer.

We also worked together on a handful of shorts and music videos.  Tom had a habit of moving around and going on various adventures, so sometimes a long span of time would pass wherein I didn't see Tom at all.  But as soon as I had another project launched that he could work on, I'd send him a letter (yes, on paper - we had no email back then) and a week or so later, Tom would be on my doorstep, ready to participate - with the same unbridled enthusiasm that he had when we first started talking special effects during study hall in November of 1988.

One of my fondest memories of working with Tom was his presence during Ice From The Sun's post-production.  Through that very long process, Tom would often sit at a table behind me while I was editing.  Today, I would be distracted / irritated by an audience watching me edit, but for some reason, having Tom there was comforting.  He didn't really watch me edit.  Instead he would sit back there and write, or work on some art project of his.  Every once in a while he would look up at what I was doing and say something like "That looks cool." ...and then he'd go back to whatever he was working on.  These days, I invite people to come in and look at what I've edited at various stages of post-production, with the intention of getting feedback, making the movie better, and evaluating the product that will soon be released under the Wicked Pixel Cinema name.  This is an artistic process as well as a business process.  But it was different when Tom sat behind me as I edited Ice From The Sun.  He was just there to be supportive.  Period.

The culmination of our years of friendship and collaboration was a movie called Scrapbook.  After Ice From The Sun, Tom pitched Scrapbook to me and Jeremy Wallace as a potential project for Wicked Pixel Cinema.  

We gave SCRAPBOOK the greenlight and the movie was shot in thirteen days during the extremely hot summer of 1998.  Tom played the male lead (opposite newcomer Emily Haack).  Tom had conceived the story, and he had already put five years of research and development into Scrapbook by the time I joined the process.  So there was a mountain of material to assess.  I distilled Tom's gigantic pile of notes and sketches into something that would work for a ninety minute movie - and we were off and running.  Both Tom and Em contributed powerhouse performances.  Tom was also the production designer for this movie, and he did an excellent job with that as well.  I knew we were making something special.  I could feel all my experience directing past movies surfacing and contributing to this one.  On past movies I had been confident - and I had not shied away from taking control as the director.  But I consider Scrapbook the first movie on which I actually earned my director credit.  Just as importantly, working with Tom on this project was an absolute joy, and it is a very cherished experience in my past.

The shooting conditions, however, brought us much less joy.  Cast and crew were submerged in the filth and decay you see on screen.  I called it "method production design" because nothing was fake.  In dressing the set, Tom threw real food all over the house and let it spoil in the summer heat - so that's real rotting food you see in the movie.  There were fruit flies everywhere and the set smelled terrible the entire shoot.  Grime, trash, fake blood, rotting food, urine, and other horrid things combined in the broiling heat to make Scrapbook our most nasty and unpleasant shoot ever.  This was done for realism, to shape the performances, and to keep all of us in sync with the world we were trying to create in the movie.  I don't know if I'd subject my cast and crew to such conditions today (we were younger and more reckless back then)  but we are definitely a tougher bunch, having survived the grueling Scrapbook shoot.

After we wrapped production, Scrapbook was shelved for almost a year before editing could commence.  This was simply due to my increasingly busy schedule.  In 1999, I edited the movie in record time, and it was released that same year.  But Tom did not get to enjoy all the glowing reviews that came rolling in.  He did not get to see Scrapbook named Best Independent Film Of The Year buy Rue Morgue Magazine.  He did not get to receive any of the praise that the rest of us received for making a movie that was genuinely shocking, emotionally powerful, well-acted, and well-made.  

A few days after I finished editing the movie, Tom passed away.

He sustained a head injury while on a shoot.  He was brain dead immediately, and his life was prolonged only a few additional days by life support machines.

Two days before his accident, I had finished editing Scrapbook.  When I received the phone call, informing me of Tom's injury, I was staring at a package on my desk that I had recently prepared.  The package was addressed to Tom, and in it was a copy of our freshly-completed movie, which now he would never see.

My experiences with Tom as a friend and collaborator could fill up this blog for a year or two...  I could tell so many stories that are funny, so many stories of how Tom and I improved the course of each other's lives, and so many stories of how, since his death, Tom continues to influence how I live my life.  I won't tell the story right here and now (FEARnet has asked me to blog for them, not write novels for them) but Tom is the reason for one of the most meaningful and significant moments of my life.

Tom died ten years ago this month.  He is often on my mind, but this milestone of passing time brings thoughts of Tommy Biondo closer to the surface.  The majority of you reading this never had the pleasure of meeting Tom in person.  So why should I take up valuable FEARnet real estate talking about him?  Because, even if you never knew the guy, you can still be inspired by him...

By the time Tom died at the young age of 26 years, he had already lived more of a life than most of us.  He worked on a multitude of shorts, music videos, and features, he held a wide variety of interesting jobs, traveled to a lot of places, got to know a lot of people, went on some truly crazy adventures, and was always - constantly - creating.  Tom understood that the number of years one has on this planet is trivial compared to what you do with those years.  He demanded a lot, because he wanted as many experiences as possible.  But he never demanded anything he had not earned.  He did what he wanted with his life, but he did not stomp anyone else down or stab anyone in the back in the process.  In fact, Tom was very generous with his time and talent, donating his abilities to numerous film projects outside of the work he did with me.  

Today, I often think about Tom when I make difficult decisions.  My memories of Tom remind me to do what I want - to not back down, to instead fight for what I've earned, and to get the most out of life - because we do not live forever.  So I take what life has to offer, even if it means accepting risks and navigating scary waters.  

I've always had these attitudes - which is probably one reason why Tom and I got along so well.  But my memories of Tom routinely reinforce these attitudes and give me courage when my resolve is tested.  

So here is a small lesson you can learn from Tommy Biondo, a full ten years after his death.  First and foremost: Collaborate.  Work with the people around you to create something or to experience something together.  Combine your talents, resources, and determination to achieve mutually satisfying goals.  Don't use up or knock down people around you to get what you want, or to trick yourself into thinking you've actually accomplished something.

Second: You are not going to live your life to the fullest if you are intimidated by, and imprisoned by your own life.  Don't be imprisoned by that job you hate or that boss who talks down to you.  Don't be imprisoned by car, home, life, health, and ten other forms of insurance.  Don't be imprisoned by the pressure to exhibit status by purchasing more and more expensive consumer goods.  Don't be imprisoned by your credit rating.

I'm not saying these are unimportant aspects of adult life - but most Americans have been brainwashed into fearfully believing they must scramble madly to keep all these fires lit at all costs, and that all other endeavors are not just secondary, they are wrong to pursue.

Don't be brainwashed and don't be afraid.  You've got a lot of things ahead of you to accomplish, and a lot of satisfaction to gain from the fight.  Even if you don't reach your goals, you'll look back on the journey with fondness, and you will have enhanced the most important part of being a human: quality of character.

If your goals seem difficult to reach, well, all the more reason to reach for them.  You've got a finite number of years on this planet.  Make the most of them.  It will be good for you - and you may even end up encouraging and supporting others around you, the same way Tommy Biondo did.

Thanks for reading.

Eric Stanze
(P.S. There will be more Tommy Biondo photos in the next blog.)

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