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SURVIVING CINEMA - Confessions Of A Working Director


In late 2005, production began on the World War 2 independent film Rhineland, a project that would grow to be both a rewarding adventure and a very long, grueling journey for director Chris Grega.

Also the writer of Rhineland, Grega is no stranger to indie feature film production.  He's been an actor in numerous independent features including lead parts in The Undertow, Buzz Saw, and Insaniac.  He's directed several short films, worked as crew for other directors, and toiled in the art department of my own feature Deadwood Park

His producing partner on Rhineland is Robin Garrels, who wrote and starred in Insaniac, directed and produced Buzz Saw, and who co-directed China White Serpentine with me. 

The Rhineland cast is led by Derek Simmons (Insaniac), Paul Wendell (Deadwood Park, Ratline), Robert Nolan Clark (Mil Mascaras: Aztec Revenge, Capdance), R. Travis Estes, Brock Roberts, Christopher Macke, James Gianoulakis, and Tyler Shaw.  I play a supporting role in the film, I pitched in on the production crew from time to time, and I functioned as a consultant on production, post-production, and distribution.

The Rhineland project never had a clear beginning, a specific starting point, a moment where the green light came on... instead the project slowly evolved for a year, like cells dividing in a Petri dish and eventually transforming into a lumbering behemoth.  The full story of Rhineland's life before production can be found in my previous blog entry.

Rhineland is one of those "small projects" that just kept growing.  Chris Grega and producer Robin Garrels never let it get out of control.  The production did not become a runaway money muncher - but the movie did escalate to become a five-year project that consumed the time, talent, and energy of a large cast and crew - and in the end, the movie is probably of a scale and complexity unlike anything you've seen at its budget level. 

Today's independent films tend to cost anywhere from $200 thousand to $2 million.  Grega had only $35 thousand to make Rhineland.  Most films I've seen made at ten times this budget restrict themselves to being "five guys in a house" or "six guys go into the woods" movies.  Rhineland, however, blasts this play-it-safe standard to bits. 

It's an ensemble cast, so there are numerous actors and multiple subplots meshing beneath the primary narrative, requiring not only a large number of actors but a lot of locations too.  Already, we're heavily taxing the tiny budget.  Add to this tanks, jeeps, ambulances, weapons, and uniforms (both American and German)... all accurate to the time period and historical circumstances.  With every vehicle and costume comes a huge stack of other details that also must be period-specific: stretchers, hand grenades, entrenchment tools, patches, mines, maps, radios, lanterns, blankets... the list goes on and on.  But we're not done... 

Rhineland is not a movie restricted to talking heads.  The scope is much bigger, and that often means extras in the background.  As this is a World War 2 period piece, you can't just pull fifty people off the street and have them stir about in the background of a shot.  All of the background extras had to be costumed in the proper military attire and accoutrements.  At this point, it is official: Making Rhineland on a thirty-five thousand dollar budget is suicide.  But let's pile on some more challenges...

Though character-driven, Rhineland is not a dialog-only film.  There are action sequences.  Big ones.  So as if pulling this production together isn't stressful enough already, we're gonna add weapons firing blanks, pyrotechnics (bullet hits and explosions), and scenes of mass chaos featuring soldiers running, screaming, killing, and dying.  The "hill battle" scene in Rhineland, in which a German trench and bunker are stormed by American troops, has all the energy of the D-Day beach battle in Saving Private Ryan.  The Rhineland "hill battle" scene took eight days to shoot, it included all the lead actors, most of the supporting actors (including me), American and German extras, pyrotechnics, stunts, and countless rounds of blanks fired.

Typically, sane people do not say the words "World War 2 movie" and "independent film" in the same breath.  As I described in my last blog, my film Deadwood Park dared to go the World War 2 route, and we blazed some new trails that helped the Rhineland project find traction.  But Rhineland had different objectives than Deadwood Park had.  In accomplishing his goals, Grega made use of the trails I'd blazed, but he widened and extended those trails to ten times their original size.  And when roadblocks were placed in his way, he obliterated them.

So how did Rhineland get made with so little in the way of financial resources?

To be continued.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze