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Surviving Cinema - 'China White Serpentine - Pt. 1'

Several years ago I had a strange, frenzied, but extremely enjoyable filmmaking experience co-directing a feature film with Robin Garrels.  We had from the first day of August to the last day of August, 2003, to start and wrap production.  Our task was to make the best movie we could make under the less-than-ideal circumstances of a very short shooting schedule (and a lower than low budget).

In 2003, I was at the tail end of a business venture that had sparked to life in 2000.  By 2001 this venture had consumed my professional life almost entirely.  My own production company, Wicked Pixel Cinema was put in standby mode so that I could pursue the more profitable agenda of producing (and in a couple of cases, also directing) a series of films for co-producers in New York, the UK, France, and Germany.  I was also usually the editor on these movies.  The majority of these one dozen micro-budget, rapidly shot features were made in the years 2001 through 2003. 

By Summer of 2003, my workload producing these movies - at some points juggling 4 overlapping productions at one time - had very much ground me down.  (During this time I was also a producer on and a leading actor in Jason Christ's feature Savage Harvest 2: October Blood.)  

Not only was my professional life consumed by these films, my personal life had eroded away, as I found myself working 12-to-16 hour days, 7 days a week, for months on end without a break.  It was pretty insane.  Also, by mid-2003 the profitability of these productions was starting to decline, the budgets were getting lower, and the expectations were getting higher. 

I had been warned / scolded / educated back in 2000 that in order to make this series of low-budget exploitation and horror films successful, I must lower my standards.  This series of films was about quantity, not quality.  Everyone was making money, but by 2003, as my budgets kept getting lower, I started to hear that my overseas producers were disappointed that this series of movies was "not up to Eric's usual standards."  A surprising complaint, as I'd been told that was the plan from the start!

Though I was having no problems paying my bills, the income was dropping while my workload was increasing.  I already felt great anxiety about the fact that I had to slash my creative ambitions as a filmmaker, and intentionally turn in product that creatively I found sub-standard to satisfy the producers who were writing the checks.  Now they seemed unappreciative of all the work I'd done.  I was exhausted, stressed to my limit, and everything seemed very out of sync, so I decided to get out before I lost the last remaining shreds of my sanity.  While being very careful to fulfill all obligations I'd already agreed to, I started to apply the breaks by launching no new productions.

In 2003, a backup feature was added to the slate at the last second to replace another production that had fallen apart.  This new production was China White Serpentine.  I was entering a "let's just get this over with" phase in my attitudes toward this film series, but this new addition, China White Serpentine, was oddly intriguing to me.  I had no intention of directing any of 2003's lineup, but I started to feel connected to this particular project. 

Friend Robin Garrels helped me write the screenplay, and I originally wanted her to direct it herself.  Robin had written and acted in one of the earliest features in this series, a movie called Insaniac, and she had many years of directing live theater on her resume.  She was enthusiastic about China White Serpentine, but around the time she was deciding that her own workload was too intense to direct it, I was wondering if I really wanted to let the director reigns go. 

I too felt like my workload was too intense to direct this, but I also had the idea that I could use China White Serpentine to go out with a bang.  I felt connected to the material and creatively driven to direct the movie - and I knew that China White Serpentine would be the last major production of this series.  More titles would follow, letting the series gradually trail off instead of abruptly ending, but those would be even smaller productions, and I'd be more hands-off with them.  For me, China White Serpentine represented the end.  I ditched my "let's just get this over with" attitude, Robin and I solved our workload and schedule concerns by co-directing, and I worked my ass off to make China White Serpentine not just another flick meeting its nudity, blood, and run time requirements, but a truly engaging, creative, visually interesting and well executed filmmaking achievement.

We had a lower budget than we'd had in the past on this series of films, and we were boxed into a single month for production.  Due to my obligations on the other films being produced that year, I had from August 1st to the last day of the month to shoot China White Serpentine.  Within that month, I estimate we were able to shoot about 8 full days, plus approximately ten half days.  So, essentially, Robin and I had 13 days to shoot this movie.  Working with almost no money, and a much-too-short shooting schedule, making this movie shine was going to be a major uphill battle.

Check out next week's blog to see how it all shook down.  In the meantime, if you'd like to actually put your eyeballs on the film, you can pick up the DVD here.

The disc is chock full of bonus features that detail how this very strange film got made under the very unusual circumstances.  The two commentary tracks and the 35-minute documentary offer a wealth of information - you'll feel like you were right there on set for the making of this unique, and very, very independent film.  There's much more to discover on the DVD too, so check it out!

Thanks for reading.

 

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