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SURVIVING CINEMA - Confessions Of A Working Director

Recently I've been talking up a small/big film called Rhineland here in my little corner of FEARnet.  You can read here how this behemoth of an indie film was born, and how I was involved.

And you can read here the dizzying magnitude of what director Chris Grega and his team took on with almost no money in the budget.

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

Answer: Nobody got paid.  This film represented a welcome challenge, a spiritual journey, a learning experience, and/or a really kick-ass good time to a lot of people who volunteered their services.

Secondly, Robin Garrels and Chris Grega are excellent producers.  Making a movie is like going to war.  The logistics of producing a feature film - especially one with a very low budget and Rhineland's complexity - can be overwhelming.  Garrels and Grega were either going to give us a spectacular show when they crashed and burned... or they were going to pull off a movie with one of the widest budget-to-production-value ratios I've ever seen.  They accomplished the latter, I'm happy to say.

Lastly, Rhineland had the benefit of an experienced cast and crew.  Though a few of the key behind-the-scenes people were green, most of Grega's filmmaking army brought to the project experience from other productions.  Just from the Wicked Pixel Cinema camp, Grega gained grip and audio personnel, as well as a few bit part and background actors.  Wicked Pixel Cinema Associate Business Manager Gus Stevenson came out to the Rhineland set to be a background player, but he was "promoted" to a nice speaking role.  Scott D. Muck, one of the producers on Deadwood Park, played a supporting role in Rhineland, and he conducted the boot camp training for the Rhineland lead actors.

Early in the pre-production of Rhineland, Grega asked me to play the supporting role of "Sgt. Hawkins" ...and I was told I'd be needed for "only one day... maybe two."  So I committed to playing the part. 

The shoot was originally scheduled for approximately 30 days spread out over a few months.  It grew to 42 shooting days, spread out over three years.

My one or two days of acting turned into six days.  But I had it easy.  The lead actors were caught in the Rhineland vortex, unable to escape its gravitational pull as they were called back to set again and again for re-shoots, pickups, and entirely new scenes. 

I believe these lead actors, as well as the crew, grew weary of Rhineland, a physically grueling project that seemed to have no end.  But they honored their commitments and stuck with it, likely because they had a passion for the project, but also because they had the best kind of leadership: a director who leads by example, who was willing to suffer more than anyone on his team, and one who was willing to drive his own body and brain to extreme exhaustion in pursuit of the best movie he could make.  It is hard to call it quits, even in extreme circumstances, when you have passionate leadership like that.

Back when Rhineland was nothing but a short treatment called The Patrol, I was the guy who urged Chris Grega to make it a feature.  A year or so later, standing on the set of Rhineland in my WW2 military attire, I was eager to soak it all in, feeling partially responsible for setting in motion what could be a flaming disaster for my friend Chris Grega.  I did have confidence that Grega could indeed pull it off - but I had not figured out how.  So I was genuinely curious.

As a few months turned into a few years of shooting, the cast and crew started to jokingly refer to the production as if it were an ongoing television show instead of a single movie - as in, the first winter shoot was "Season One of Rhineland" and the next winter was "Season Two" and the next "Season Three".  I could tell that this elongated schedule was not an indication of runaway production or incompetence.  This was instead the result of a director determined to get it right and make everyone's effort, time, and patience pay off in the form of a movie cast and crew could be proud of.  I had no problem coming back to play Sgt. Hawkins additional days.  And I could tell that this production was not going to be a flaming disaster.

Patience had been required for the shoot.  Additional patience was required as Rhineland seemed to get stuck in the post-production mud.  The final shots of the Rhineland production were completed in 2008.  For over a year, the movie continued to evolve in post-production.  Numerous versions of the movie were created as Grega and his editors explored the many opportunities offered by their raw footage.  I've seen five different versions of the movie, and I'm guessing there were more. 

At some point George Hickenlooper (Hearts Of Darkness, The Big Brass Ring) joined the project as an executive producer, and his involvement motivated some of the significant rearranging that took place in post-production - including the original music score being scrapped entirely and replaced with new music by new composers.

Eventually, Hickenlooper left the project, vacating his executive producer position, but personally I think his input had a positive effect on the final film.  In fact, when I see the movie now, it is significantly improved compared to the first cut I saw.  It must have been draining and frustrating for everyone - but the lengthy, exploratory post-production was the right way to go.  It made the movie better.

It's now February, 2010.  Post-production finally wrapped up around the first of this month.  I've come full circle on the Rhineland project.  I was there at the start and I'm here at the end.  I was able to arrange a distribution deal for Rhineland, and I'm in the final stages of co-coordinating the film's DVD authoring, which is being done through Wicked Pixel Cinema.

Rhineland is a remarkable accomplishment in my opinion.  Check it out when the DVD is released later this year.

One more thing before I wrap this up.  Grega describes the making of Rhineland as "a life-changing experience."  Truth be told, if making a movie is not a life-changing experience, you're doing it wrong. 

I'm sure every person on the Rhineland shoot grew as a person, gained some new insight, and/or had their perspective on life altered in some big or small way while working on this movie.  The more time-consuming and more challenging a shoot is, the more likely it is to impact you in such a way.  Here's how Rhineland resonates with me...

The greatest personal hero in my life was my grandfather (who risked his life during World War 2 as a merchant mariner).  During my grandfather's last day alive, I was on the Rhineland set - eerily, wardrobed in the period during which he was roughly my age. 

My grandfather always encouraged me to do what makes me happy.  Life is too short to not.  If making movies is what I want to do, I should just do it - even if it does not lead to riches or fame, and even if it attracts the criticism of family members who insist I should "get a real job."  My grandfather was a great inspiration and a great comfort to me.  It feels fitting that during his final hours on this planet, I was doing what he always encouraged me to do.  I was on a movie set.  I was home.  That’s the memory of Rhineland I will always carry with me.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze