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SURVIVING CINEMA - Confessions Of A Working Director

Chris Grega is a professional filmmaker trapped inside a hobbyist filmmaker...  but he's ready to break out.  I've worked with Mr. Grega in a variety of ways over the past decade and a half, beginning with a short film Tom Biondo made called Survive, in which Grega and I both acted.  In the years that followed, I produced and edited two shorts that Chris Grega directed: Frank Wang: The Vengeance, and A Bad Day In The Life (both of which were released nationally... with a little effort, you can probably still hunt them down), and I edited a third Chris Grega short film that was never released.

Following these short film undertakings, Chris Grega acted in a few features that I produced.  He also set out to make his first feature film, Amphetamine, a project I was not involved with at all - but one I watched from a distance with much interest.

Chris Grega's Amphetamine was more student film than professional venture.  I believe Amphetamine was extremely educational for him, and its these lessons-learned that make first features very valuable and important.  Amphetamine was never released. 

Next, Grega made more short films, tried unsuccessfully to get another feature launched, and he joined the art department of my feature Deadwood Park, a movie partially set in battle-ravaged Europe during the Second World War.

Already a big World War 2 buff who aspired to someday make his own World War 2 film, Grega's Deadwood Park pre-production art department duties got his gears turning.  He decided to write a WW2 story treatment.  He intended to make it as a short film... at first.

Grega showed me his treatment for the short film Rhineland - which was at that time titled The Patrol.  I read it and saw great potential on the page.  So much so that I urged Grega to consider making it a feature instead of a short film.  If you make an independent feature, there is a chance it could make some money.  But if you make a short, there is zero chance it will make money.  I believed Grega's project deserved the fullest spectrum of opportunity.

In either a very wise or very insane move, depending on how you look at it, Grega took my advice and expanded the story to feature length.  Being an un-established filmmaker, with no real professional experience, it was clear Paramount Studios was not going to come around and give Grega millions of dollars to make Rhineland.  He reasoned he could scrape together about twenty thousand dollars to make the movie (the budget would eventually rise to thirty-five grand) and he started to research how a large-scale World War 2 feature-length period piece could be shot on such pocket change.

At this stage of the game, Chris Grega started hearing a phrase that's been said to me a thousand times in my career: "No, you can't do that."  Simply put, I've always proven that phrase wrong.  I told Grega he could do the same.

Grega was still understandably hesitant, so I made him an offer.  Deadwood Park contained ambitious World War 2 sequences, including an intense and production-value-packed battle scene.  No other movie at Deadwood Park's budget had ever pulled off sequences of this nature, but I was eager to prove the "you can't do that" people wrong.  Was I completely sure that we would pull it off?  No.  Did that scare me at all?  Absolutely not. 

I asked Grega to pick any acting part he wanted to play in Deadwood Park's WW2 sequences.  I wanted him to have a front row seat for what we were about to do.  I figured I would either crash and burn - and then Grega would learn from my mistakes and discard his silly Rhineland aspirations... or I would be successful, which would prove to Grega that Rhineland, even on a tiny budget, was indeed possible.  Grega chose to play "Doc Miller" in Deadwood Park, a medic who gets killed in our big battle scene.

I assumed that my team and I would work for months preparing Deadwood Park's WW2 scenes, pouring countless hours of research, hard work, and wheelin' and dealin' into them, knowing that the end result might be only a small number of usable shots - but those shots would be realistic, they'd sell the era, sell the chaos of battle, and have the appropriate emotional tone. 

In the end, the World War 2 sequences in Deadwood Park were not only successfully executed, they rose far above my anticipations.  I was not forced to use only a small handful of shots.  In fact, the usable footage I shot was about three times what could be reasonably used in the movie.  In post, I kept cutting my World War 2 sequences down tighter and tighter because, initially, they were just too damn long.

After seeing what could be accomplished with a very low budget on Deadwood Park, Chris Grega then tested the new waters he was eager to navigate with one of those "48 Hour Film Festival" projects.  He made a short called Vous m'Aimez.  It was a World War 2 period piece and most of the dialog was in French and German.  Adhering to the rules of the competition, he had to write, shoot, edit, and deliver the finished short within a period of 48 hours.  Quite a challenge, especially given the complexity of the short - but he pulled it off.  Very impressive.

Grega is a pretty driven guy, so maybe he would have eventually launched his Rhineland project without me leading the way by example.  But if not directly motivated by our success, I think Grega certainly gained confidence that Rhineland was possible by witnessing how Deadwood Park was pulled off.  And that is something I'm proud of.

In late 2005, production began on Rhineland, a project that would grow to be both a rewarding adventure and a very long, grueling journey for director Chris Grega.

To be continued.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze

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