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Surviving Cinema - 'Scrapbook - Pt. 1'

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Between Halloween and Christmas, most of my production company, Wicked Pixel Cinema, was packed up in boxes and awaiting a destination.  Austin, New York, Los Angeles, and staying put in St. Louis were all options.  I'm still in a state of transition, and where I end up eventually depends on deals I'm working on that have not yet been finalized.  However, the ground is a bit steadier now at the top of 2011 than it was last Halloween, and it looks like I'll be staying in St. Louis for a while longer.  Over the holidays I started slicing open the boxes - and I'm still unpacking and setting up at our new HQ.  This is taking longer than I thought it would!

Speaking of deals… the main one I’m working to close is a distribution contract for Ratline that would also include re-releases of all my past Wicked Pixel Cinema films.  In recent blogs, I've talked about two of these past films, Savage Harvest and Ice From The Sun.  In their time, both of these movies did me a lot of good and advanced my career.  But the next movie I directed advanced me much farther, opened more doors, attracted more fans, and has had a longer-lasting impact.

Scrapbook is a brutal flick.  I've been asked how I worked with and prepared the actors, Emily Haack and Tommy Biondo, who had to endure so much for this movie.  Mostly, my prep with them came down to being honest about the movie and making sure they were on the same page as me.  This started months before shooting. 

Tom conceived the story concept of the movie, but I think even he was surprised at how unflinching I was prepared to be with the whole thing.  Once we were all on set, I did very little to prepare the actors for the really intense stuff - the emotional abuse, the physical attacks, and the rape scenes.  We all knew that these scenes would be better performed if they sort of just welled up and slammed into us out of the blue.  The actors just dove in head-first and let the fear and the adrenaline drive them.  If we prepared too much before each take, there would be a tendency for Tom to be too timid and gentle with Em.  And Em knew her reactions would be more real if she didn’t prepare for those attacks emotionally.  It was better, more real, and more intense to rip the bandage off without thinking about it too much right before.

When camera was rolling, the atmosphere on that set was very heavy, very tense, and quite grim.  But while setting up a shot, or after we called wrap for a scene, everyone, including Tom and Em, got friendly again and the atmosphere lightened up.  There was a lot of laughter on that shoot before and after camera rolled on Scrapbook's scenes of horror and violence.  I think this was a defense mechanism in us.  We had to react this way or the oppressive subject matter would have just crushed us.

Most of my directing, for both Tom and Em, happened while camera was rolling.  Both of them were pros about staying in character as I told them to do different things while a take was being shot.  Spontaneously going into new areas as I instructed them, without cutting camera, without breaking character, and without stopping to think about it, gave an extra layer of realism to those performances.

Tom and I had a lot of talks during pre-production about his character’s quirks.  At first, early on, he had a difficult time focusing and getting his head around the character, probably because he wrote the story and had spent so much time looking at his character from the outside.  However, once I gave him just a few little things to build upon, he was off and running.  Another thing that helped was that Tom was also the production designer, and the primary location was his character’s house.  I called this “method production design” because Tom used the dressing of his character’s home as a way of getting into his character’s head - and he let his instincts as an actor influence how he dressed the set.

The dialog in Scrapbook was mostly improvised.  I think two or three key scenes were written.  Our “screenplay” for Scrapbook was this weird 20 page document that had the scripted dialog, plus a bunch of Tom’s notes, plus all my notes, all scotch taped together and photocopied.  This was a much more organized version of what Tom had originally presented to me - which was just a big pile of notes and sketches written on napkins, pieces of cardboard, scraps of paper, fast food wrappers, etc.  It was fun going through this heap of unorganized ideas from Tom's brain and working with him to focus it all down and fine-tune it.  But I must admit, at the onset, I looked at what appeared to be a big pile of trash and thought "Oh shit, I'm supposed to find a movie in there?"

But I did find it.  Next, we actually had to shoot it.  Production on Scrapbook was unique, and not necessarily in a way that was good for our health.  In next week's blog, I'll deliver some harrowing tales from the set of Scrapbook.

If you want to check out the movie, as well as a lot of great behind-the-scenes stuff, you can snag the DVD here.

Thanks for reading.

-Eric Stanze

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