This is a story about how I nearly fired one of the lead actors in our film the day before principal photography began. Oh, and… that lead actor was a truck.
When our Kickstarter campaign succeeded, and we’d finally raised the money needed to make the feature film Reparation, one of my very first cast members was a blue 1971 Ford F-100 pickup truck by the name of Ol’ Blue.
Ol’ Blue was my father’s truck and my grandfather’s before that. I learned to drive in it on the farm, just as soon as my feet could reach the clutch. Ol’ Blue has a three-on-the-tree manual transmission—its gear shifter mounted on the column. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.
The idea of using Ol’ Blue in the film came after my father passed from Lewy body disease just six months prior to the start of filming. After the funeral, I mentioned to my uncle what a hoot it would be to put that old truck in the movie—what a nice way to honor and embody my father into the film.
At that point, Ol’ Blue had not moved from its place of rest in the barn of a cattle farm in Arcadia, Oklahoma. Its bed was loaded with feed sacks. Hadn’t fired a piston in maybe 24 years. But it was a gorgeous and highly cinematic bundle of dulled-out rust and dents. Missing side-view mirror? Perfect. Would we need Streaks ‘N Tips for shooting this truck? Heck no.
So my Uncle John took it upon himself to ensure that Ol’ Blue’s revival would come. With a little help, he got it running and safe. About a month before filming, he and my mother hauled the newly repaired truck up to Indiana from Oklahoma on a trailer. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The thing ran, and ran well.
This truck would be a fairly prominent character in the film, and therefore I needed to audition it aggressively—which meant getting it up to at least 50 MPH on gravelly back roads, slamming on the brakes, doing power-slides, and making sure it wouldn’t roll, stall or generally combust.
The more time I spent with Ol’ Blue, the more I realized that this truck could become more than just a vehicle. It was also a visual metaphor for our main character—its owner, Bob (Marc Menchaca). In Reparation, Bob suffers from multiple variations of post-traumatic stress disorder: dissociative disorder and psychogenic amnesia. I wanted a way to define what was real, versus what was in Bob’s head. The truck could help me do that. During key sequences in the film, shooting from inside Ol’ Blue’s cab (as opposed to looking in from the outside) could serve as a hint about Bob’s state of mind. Bob has an imaginary friend whom we see when Bob is inside the truck.
However, in one key scene when a stranger looks into the truck, we don’t see Bob’s friend in the passenger seat.
In another scene, Bob’s daughter, who has inherited his missing memories, communicates the memory to him in a drawing using the truck as a vessel, by planting the drawing on Ol’ Blue’s shiny blue vinyl seat
Jump ahead to the day before the first day of principal photography. I was still furiously revising my shot lists and scrambling over last-minute details in my own mind. I took Ol’ Blue for one more crazy spin on Tobacco Road to clear my head. Then I was struck with the wisdom to hit the auto parts store to stock up on motor oil, brake fluid, spare taillights and headlights, and so forth. That was my safety-minded father talking—always preparing for the worst. He’d taught me well, and it was a proud moment for me.
What happened next was not a proud moment.
On the road to the auto parts store, I attempted to downshift from second to first gear at a stop sign. Clunk. Ol’ Blue refused. In fact, he seemed downright incapable of complying with my request. The gear shift linkage inside the 43-year-old steering column had chosen today as the day that it would finally disintegrate. It was 16 hours before the first shot of my first feature film, which I’d spent 20 years writing and preparing for. A shot that would feature said truck. It was Friday at 3:30pm; certainly too late for any mechanic to even look at it, much less try to fix it. All gone fishing.
To call my reaction “panic” would be an understatement. What came from my belly was a deep, primal, seemingly unending scream. There was no one around. Just me, sitting in Ol’ Blue’s driver’s seat, which still retained some form of my father. And just like the linkage in the gear shifter, I simply fell to pieces. In that moment, I was an inconsolable eight year-old boy who missed his father, and now had to face the reality of abandoning this truck which had, quite irrationally, come to mean so much.
Any producer will tell you that if a picture vehicle breaks down the day before filming, you replace it. And fast. It wasn’t too late, we hadn’t even shot it yet. Replace it. No question. Yet I was trapped, because this had become an intensely emotional decision without any logic. Months ago I had already made the mistake of packing my own mourning of my father into the cab of that truck, and I was paralyzed now as to how to unpack it.
In a brief spark of rational thought, I called for help. My crazy genius production designer, Duane Skoog, was also raised on a farm and knew old trucks inside and out.
“Hey Kyle,” said Duane. “No sweat! We can shift gears on this puppy. Wanna know how?”
My eyes—reddened, I can only imagine, from the crisis I was in—looked up with a new hope. I nodded.
“Shut off the engine.” I shut it off.
“Pop the hood.” OK…
“Get out of the truck.” Um, now this is getting a little odd.
“Look down there under the hood. You see those two big rods, way down there? You can just barely reach ’em.” I pointed, skeptically. “Yeah, those! Grab the front one and yank it up towards you, hard as you can.” Clank! “Now you’re in reverse!”
I was in disbelief. But then I remembered: We were making a full-length feature on a nickel-and-dime budget, with 31 locations in a 24-day schedule, 25 speaking roles, stunts, fight choreography, two child actors, homemade lights from WalMart, DIY hostess trays from the lumber store, poor man’s process in an airplane hangar… The list went on. Next to all that, a little hood-popping didn’t seem ridiculous at all.
The next day, I rolled up to the set in Ol’ Blue, ready for his close-up in the first shot of the first scene of the first day of filming. Both of us were smiling ear-to-ear. I called over actor Marc Menchaca, who would drive it in the first shot. With my production designer’s cheery confidence, I proceeded to show Marc the various, absurd steps involved in shifting the truck’s gears.
“OK,” he nodded. “You got it.” Not a flinch.
And so it came to be: In every single one of the 31 scenes that Ol’ Blue appeared in, including stunt driving and chase sequences, we shifted gears by stopping the truck, popping the hood, yanking the rods, slamming the hood shut and restarting the engine. MM
Reparation premiered at the 2015 Newport Beach Film Festival, and won Best Narrative Feature at the 2015 Julien Dubuque International Film Festival. Visit www.reparationmovie.com.