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Surviving Cinema - 'China White Serpentine - Pt. 2'

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In my last blog, I talked about the odd events leading up to a feature I co-directed with Robin Garrels called China White Serpentine.  Read the story here.

Working with Robin, under these unusual and hectic conditions, was awesome.  Zero director egos came to set.  We functioned like a team, enhancing each other's strengths and becoming safety nets to each other's weaknesses.  We didn't divide up our duties and direct separate aspects of the movie.  We were usually both on set, creatively mapping things out together, both of us directing actors, both of us designing camera angles and determining coverage.  Occasionally, one of us would be unable to be on set, and we trusted the other to take the helm solo.  It was definitely a unique experience - one I'm grateful to have gone through.

Helping make the production efficient, productive, and fun was our awesome cast and my co-cinematographer Jason Christ.  Jason brought a lot of fresh, creative options to the visuals of China White Serpentine, and it was a blast working with him.  Following China White Serpentine, Jason was an actor and producer for Deadwood Park.  We again collaborated on Ratline, for which he was a producer, actor, and my co-writer on the screenplay.

The China White Serpentine cast was led by DJ Vivona, who has acted in many of my projects, most recently Ratline.  Another lead in China White Serpentine was Eli DeGeer.  I'd been crossing paths with her for about a decade but I had never directed her in anything.  She was also an associate producer on the project. 

Actor Jason Allen Wolfe, who I'd never met before, was brought on to the project by Robin.  I had perhaps two brief meetings with Jason that summer before production began - and then the next time I saw him was on the first day of shooting.  My pre-production quality time with actress Amada Booth was even less.  While I was on location for The Undertow, another feature in this series, Robin brought Amanda to set, where I met her for the first time.  We spoke for about ten minutes.  On Robin's recommendation, Amanda was cast as one of the leads, and the next time I saw her was on her first day of shooting. 

Just about everything we did on China White Serpentine had to happen this fast.  There was simply no time to do things in a more conventional way.  Decisions had to be made strategically, and with the benefit of gut instincts, but very quickly and resolutely. The whole cast, by the way, did an amazing job and they were all incredible to work with.  Not a bad apple in the bunch (and usually there is at least one).

While China White Serpentine post-production also needed to move along at a quick clip, I was determined to give the movie the attention it needed and not rush the project through just to meet the deadline.  Technical post-production problems added to my stress, but the setbacks also provided me with an excuse to take a bit longer in finishing the film. 

Robin was not involved in the editing at all.  She didn't see any of the movie until I had a first full cut, complete with all of the music and sound design.  I think by the time she came in to view this first cut, some anxiety had built up in her.  The movie was very low budget, shot very quickly, and half of its runtime was dominated by much nudity, violence, and many sex scenes.  I think she was worried that she would come in to see my first cut and witness a sloppy, low-rent exploitation soft-core porn with her name on it as co-director.

As her screening of my first cut concluded, Robin seemed stunned.  She was there to screen the movie and tell me what needed to be improved - yet she primarily spent her time expressing to me how happy she was with the final product.  I am sure I had illustrated to her that I wanted China White Serpentine to rise far above the other films in this series, and to be something of a defiant artistic accomplishment - despite the fact that we were essentially receiving funding to make crap.

Robin seemed not just satisfied, but overjoyed at how well the movie had turned out.  The cast too expressed near shock at how proud they were to be a part of this movie.  China White Serpentine is what it is - a low budget genre film with a lot of rough edges.  However, it also turned out to be a unique, standout accomplishment in my two decades of making movies.  It's probably the film that exhibits the greatest distance between what we started with at the beginning of pre-production and the artistry we achieved in the end.

China White Serpentine was released shortly after I completed post-production - with no enthusiasm whatsoever on the part of the American distributor.  The UK release, which came shortly thereafter, may have had more promotion behind it, but I really don't know.  I'm sure there was valid reason for the US distributor to avoid putting their full might into the movie's release.  The market at that time may have influenced their decision to devote few resources to the movie's release, or maybe China White Serpentine received no promotion specifically because I had accomplished what I set out to do - thereby making the movie less marketable than a straightforward, cookie-cutter, low-rent exploitation effort.

The movie received high praise from the few who saw it.  But China White Serpentine never really showed up on genre fans' radars.  Hardly anyone knew the movie even existed, so sales were practically nil.  China White Serpentine was quickly deemed a financial flop.

This series of exploitation / horror film productions, being made for co-producers in New York, the UK, France, and Germany, started to wind down and my sanity began to slowly recover.  China White Serpentine left my thoughts entirely as I re-booted my own company, Wicked Pixel Cinema, and in 2004 began shooting Deadwood Park.

As it is not a Wicked Pixel Cinema production, China White Serpentine is not generally available at the Wicked Pixel Cinema online webstore.  However, we decided to offer a China White Serpentine and Deadwood Park two-pack deal for a brief period of time.  When we did this, I chose to sit down and watch China White Serpentine again, as I had not seen it for years. 

Usually, when I revisit an older project of mine, it is an embarrassing ordeal.  All I see is how much better of a job I could do today compared to my less-experienced self back then.  However, I was surprised to find myself transfixed by China White Serpentine.  I enjoyed watching it, and I found myself still proud to have been a part of its creation.  The movie is an accomplishment that would be difficult to recreate.  It is low-budget genre film lightning, and we managed to catch it in a bottle.

My team around me today also articulate how impressed they are with this tiny little odd-ball film that almost never got made at all.  Of all the exploitation / horror movies I produced as part of this series, China White Serpentine is often referred to by my team as "the good one."

If you'd like to check the movie out, you can pick up the double DVD deal we're offering at the Wicked Pixel Cinema webstore.  The deal was originally for the month of October, but we've held it over through the end of November.  Check it out here.

If you have an interest in this movie now, it may be due to the peculiar circumstances under which it was made.  If that's the case, the DVD should satisfy any lingering curiosity.  The two commentary tracks and the 35-minute behind-the-scenes documentary shed much light on this strange film, produced under strange circumstances.

Thanks for reading.

-Eric Stanze

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