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Confessions of a Working Director - Sept 10th, 2009


From August 24th through September 7th, I worked on the set of STAKE LAND, directed by Jim Mickle (MULBERRY STREET) and produced by Larry Fessenden (HABIT, THE LAST WINTER) and his company, Glass Eye Pix.

A big fan of MULBERRY STREET, I enthusiastically jumped at the chance to be involved in Jim's follow-up film, when friend and STAKE LAND 1st assistant director Aaron Crozier put me in touch with the film's producers.  At the beginning of this venture, I had no idea that Glass Eye Pix was producing the project.  I am a huge fan of Larry Fessenden, and I really respect what Glass Eye does, so when I later found out that STAKE LAND was a Glass Eye project, my enthusiasm for participating skyrocketed.

Shooting long days and nights on STAKE LAND - about an hour northwest of Philadelphia - I was quick to note the professionalism and skill of every person involved in the shoot.  The camera, grip, and electric teams were top-notch, the special effects and art department people were amazing, and even the small army of production assistants were efficient and very hard-working. 

The two stars of the movie, Connor Paolo (MYSTIC RIVER, ALEXANDER, and TV's "Gossip Girl") and Nick Damici (IN THE CUT, MULBERRY STREET,  WORLD TRADE CENTER) were both very nice, easy to talk to, and completely dedicated to their roles.  Even though both are successful in their careers, they displayed none of that "actor ego" one might expect from such experienced performers.  In fact, not only was there no pampering required by these two, both Nick and Connor routinely put themselves in uncomfortable or even painful circumstances to execute their very physical roles in the movie.

The cast also features Kelly McGillis (TOP GUN, WITNESS) and Danielle Harris (various HALLOWEEN films).  I had the chance to chat with both ladies for a bit, and they were very pleasant, enthusiastic about the movie, and eager to kill some vampires. 

For one scene, it was scripted that one of the male cast members rudely grab Kelly McGillis's breast.  Rehearsing the scene before cameras rolled, the other actor was, understandably, hesitant to reach out and grope star McGillis.  Finally, Kelly broke the tension by saying "Are you gonna grab my tit, or what?"

STAKE LAND is about a vampire plague that crumbles society and leaves only the fittest to survive.  "Mister" (Damici) and "Martin" (Paolo) pair up in this new, gritty, hostile world.  After Mister takes Martin under his wing, the two discover that vampires are not the only thing to fear in this blood-soaked landscape.  The Brotherhood, a troupe of Christian fanatics who use the vicious vampires as something of a grand-scale weapon, cross paths with Mister and Martin.  Mister and the Brotherhood don't exactly see eye-to-eye, so tensions begin to rise immediately, as all around them the threat of the bloodsuckers lurks in every dark shadow.

Yeah, I know Kelly McGillis and Danielle Harris are Hollywood stars and all, but the person on this shoot I was most eager to meet was Larry Fessenden.  His producer resume is impressive (TRIGGER MAN, THE ROOST, etc.), he has nearly three decades of acting experience under his belt (SESSION 9, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, etc.) and he is one of my favorite directors - HABIT being my favorite film of his.  I was lucky to not just share small talk over the craft services table with him, but actually have a lengthy conversation with the man.  We talked about his films, my films, and his working relationship with the studio and Guillermo del Toro concerning the U.S. remake of THE ORPHANAGE, which Larry will be directing.  Like the lead actors in STAKE LAND, there was no abrasive ego on display with Larry Fessenden.  He showed genuine interest in my filmmaking career, he displayed a great passion for filmmaking in general, and he shared insider anecdotes about how he came to be selected for THE ORPHANAGE.  He didn't treat me like a low-level guest on his set.  He spoke to me, and shared his enthusiasm for what we do, as if I were his peer.  The best thing about the STAKE LAND shoot is that I came home with even more respect for a filmmaker who I already greatly admired.

I did not get to speak much with director Jim Mickle, as he was always on the move the entire two weeks I was on his set.  However, on the rare occasion I did get to chat with him, he was always very cool, relaxed, and appreciative of my (and everyone's) involvement in his movie.  I actually spent much more time talking to Jim's star, Nick Damici.  Nick gave me great insight into Jim's approach to making MULBERRY STREET compared to the tactics employed on the much bigger budgeted film, STAKE LAND.

The producers of STAKE LAND were generous enough to offer me a tiny part in the movie, which I was eager to accept.  Unfortunately, the scene I was to be in got bumped because of some issue in the wardrobe department.  A couple of days later, a big scene involving numerous Brotherhood jerks was shot, and they threw me in as one of the extras.  I may or may not actually see any screen time, but it was a whole lot of fun regardless.  Still, I was disappointed that I'd lost my chance at being a bit more featured in the film.  Then, on the last day of shooting, I learned that the production had not yet cast an actor for a pivotal voice-over role.  The part is of a radio news announcer.  The beginning of one scene revolves around a family listening to his radio report.  (Think NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its doom-filled radio / television reports.)  I jumped at the opportunity and asked if I could play the part.  Jim and the producers were quite enthusiastic about me voicing the role.  The v.o. won't be recorded until post-production, so there is plenty of time for scheduling issues or other problems to pop up and ruin my fun (again).  However, if nothing derails the plan, I'll get to do the voice over.  Pretty cool!

I did have to step away from RATLINE to make this trip and take part in Glass Eye's STAKE LAND.  But maybe I needed that break.  More importantly, the great people I got to meet and network with definitely made the trip a positive thing.  I've got a few days set aside this month to recover from the (rather exhausting) experience.  And I've got a lot of business to catch up on that piled up on my desk while I was gone for two weeks.  Other than that, it is back to work on RATLINE.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze