Darth Vader vs Me
There have been lots of articles in the pages of MovieMaker (and elsewhere) that go something like this:
“You think you made your movie on the cheap? Mine cost what you paid for coffee!”
“Coffee?! You’re lucky you had coffee. We dug through the trash for used McDonald’s hot cups and licked the insides!”
What’s so unique about Footprints, the independent movie I directed, isn’t the price tag, though we did make it for way, way under the SAG Ultra Low Budget contract of “under $200,000.” The real miracle of Footprints is the army we had to conquer—an army known as Hollywood Boulevard–and how many days it took to win the war.
Sure, you can make a low-budget indie with twenty-somethings mumblecoring in someone’s apartment, but try making a movie in the courtyard of Mann’s Chinese Theatre. Or the Egyptian. Or Hollywood & Highland. Try having a cast ranging in age from eight to 80, including the divine Pippa Scott (one of the stars of John Ford’s The Searchers) and H.M. Wynant, who let the devil loose on the world in the legendary “Twilight Zone” episode “The Howling Man.” Try a shooting schedule that was only… but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Footprints is a mystery that takes place entirely on Hollywood Boulevard over one day, from sunrise to sunset. Sybil Temtchine plays an unnamed woman who wakes up face down on the historic footprints (and handprints) of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with no memory of who she is or how she got there. She spends the entire day on the mythic boulevard, being handed off from two tour bus operators to a pair of superhero impersonators to a Scientology auditor. She makes her way down the boulevard lined with stars, inching her way closer to the truth to her identity and the reason for her return. It is a film that is ultimately about second chances.
I am a professional screenwriter and playwright, but for the first time with Footprints, I conceived a screenplay backwards from production. I knew the amount of money I could raise, and I latched on to a central memorable image as a jumping off point: A woman wakes up at dawn at Grauman’s Chinese with no memory. From there, I started to walk the boulevard taking notes and snapping pictures of possible locations. There were places with staff who knew me (like the great American Cinematheque staff that operates the Egyptian) and those to whom I had to introduce myself. I had to walk that balance of crying poverty while also instilling trust that granting permission for me to film at their establishment wouldn’t result in said establishment being trashed.
I wrote the script and the locations fell in line: Snow White Café, Shelly Café, Hollywood Book & Poster Shop, and they all charged me nothing (or very little) to shoot there. Our time was extremely limited in each location. My actors had to know their lines as a stage actor knows the text. We went to each location a few days prior to shooting so we could rehearse, which helped remove time-consuming blocking from our shoot days. Plus, for the cast, it took the edge off the unknown of acting in very public locations.
It was day one at 6:20am, and we were shooting a scene at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. My crew consisted of just nine people: Besides me, there was the Line Producer (who doubled as the AD), the DP and his assistant, a utility PA, Make-up, Wardrobe, Continuity and Sound. There were ten if you include my brother John, Footprints’ casting director and co-producer, who was back at the office with our office coordinator. That’s it for crew, though we also had the actors. It was tough but manageable, seeing as no one’s on Hollywood Boulevard at sunrise. But then we shot a scene that comes later. It’s now after 9:00am, and that means the tour buses show up. So there we are—only Me and my Magnificent Eight–trying to manage the crowd in what is essentially L.A.’s Times Square. Ultimately, in the international melting pot of tourists that is Hollywood Boulevard, most people either moved or looked away when we asked them to. But it wasn’t the people of Metropolis West who gave us trouble. It was the superheroes.
After shooting a scene with three actresses costumed as superheroes, an even smaller crew went off to get a brief shot of two characters crossing the intersection of Hollywood and Highland.
That’s when Darth Vader stormed up to me. Flanking him was Tickle Me Elmo and The Flash, whose costume is padded, so for all I know, he was 120 pounds.
“We hear you’re doing a film that makes fun of us,” said Darth.
I told Darth that wasn’t the case. The movie is a celebration of the Boulevard. The Dark Lord put his hand out and demanded to see the script. Use the force, Steve, I thought to myself. You can defeat him.
I explained that giving him a copy of the script wasn’t possible. At one point, I made the mistake of trying to ease the mounting tension by saying something along the lines of “Trust me, my friend.” The Flash got in my face and hissed what is usually only said at the multiplex: “First off–I’m not your friend!”
Darth stepped in and calmed The Flash down. Somehow I managed to convince him that I was treating his fellow impersonators with respect, which I was. And so Darth left, giving us his blessing. Before falling in line behind him, The Flash eyeballed me from beneath his visor. Elmo was about to follow when he double-backed, made sure no one was looking, and quietly told me to check out his website as he slipped me his business card.
But the biggest story of our 80-minute film, which has begun to receive praise from the likes of seminal moviemakers Curtis Hanson and Monte Hellman, in addition to esteemed critics Kevin Thomas and F.X. Feeney, is that we shot it in seven days. You heard that right. We always intended to shoot it in that amount of time, and the only reason we were able to is that the actors and crew were on top of their game. We went back for two half-days after we realized we needed more shots while in the editing room, but that was it.
Several people have suggested that I not share the number of shooting days with others, but I feel that it is not only a badge of honor but also, hopefully, a point of inspiration for other moviemakers who are struggling to make their first (or ninth) film. It can be done if you examine your resources and work backwards from that assessment. View it as a challenge. Writing from the blank page is great, and I do it often, but consider writing from the page that is filled with what you have available to you, like locations you know you can secure and actors you know will agree to be on board. Keep in mind the amount cash you can raise (as opposed to an amount you can’t). As in the great days of film noir, sometimes limitations can free your mind to think in ways you might not have if everything were at your disposal.
As someone tells my protagonist in one stressful moment: “Find a way.” We did, and so can you. I hope you’ll come see the result of our Seven Day Wonder when Footprints opens on April 15th in New York and Los Angeles.
As a final note, I can vividly remember how on that first day of shooting outside Grauman’s Chinese, we all thought about how great it would be if Footprints were to premiere inside, at the greatest movie theatre in the world, even though we knew full well that tiny films never premiere there.
Well, our premiere is at Gramaun’s Chinese Theatre. So you see, in the world of independent films, the only limitations are those we impose on ourselves. Anything is possible.
For more information on Footprints, and to view the trailer, visit footprintsthefilm.com/.