THE SCREENPLAY In 1999 my wife Robyn Cooper and I released our first feature, THE OMEGA DIARY. It did respectable business worldwide, but a poor distribution deal took the wind out of my sails for years. Much of that time I dedicated to packaging my "big" movie, a psychological thriller with some names attached, but that was a couple of years from being financed and I was itching to do something right away.
Simultaneously I was finishing up post on a pair of quickies I photographed and edited for a prolific Hollywood producer. The crews were too small, the schedules too short and everyday I thought to myself "For this kind of work, I could be doing my own movie."
I resolved to do a quickie of my own. I called it "the little picture". Something I could do while the big one was gaining steam. Little did I know the little picture would turn out to be the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
Inspiration struck as I was watching a rerun of the animated TV show, THE SIMPSONS. Homer decides he wants to be an inventor after discovering the works of Thomas Edison. One night, Homer regales his bar mates with a long list of Edison's accomplishments: the light bulb, the stock ticker, the movie camera... and a machine for talking to the dead.
A little research confirmed it. After WWI, the spiritualist faith was on the rise. Frequent seances, etc., were common. Thomas Alva Edison, a confirmed agnostic, announced that he would design a device so sensitive that the spirits of the dead could utilize it to communicate with the living. American Magazine published the story, "Edison Working to Communicate with the Next World." Edison reportedly worked on it until the day of his death, but nobody ever saw the prototype or the plans.
The story took shape right away. A group of engineering students discover the blueprints and set out to build the machine. I wanted to put a new spin on the "kids go to creepy building and die" plotline by making the young cast intelligent, non-stereotypes with a purpose. I wanted them to react like real people, none of that "let¹s split up" stuff, and no SCREAM style winks to the audience which have become cliches in and of themselves. The sci-fi/ horror mix also appealed to me as it reminded me of two underrated films I enjoy, John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS and Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND. I wanted to capture the same contrast of high technology in a gothic setting.
I worked out a trade with Oregon filmmaker John Bowker. He would write the script and I would provide CGI special effects to his upcoming picture. Although we had never met face-to-face or even spoken on the phone at that time, we shared a love of independent movies and corresponded frequently by email. More importantly, I knew he had a handle on the genre after seeing THE EVILMAKER and its sequel, ABOMINATION, ghost movies he wrote and directed.
On 4-20-02 I sent John a treatment titled GHOST MACHINE. A month later he delivered the first draft.
PREPRODUCTION THE OMEGA DIARY was a true exercise in outlaw filmmaking. We stole shots on the freeway, on state beaches, and on private property, but the sheer volume of material that took place in and around the haunted house of THE BRINK prohibited these guerrilla techniques. It was clear early on that we'd have to do this one by the book.
While doing my director¹s rewrite I embarked on an intense location scout fifty miles in every direction. I knocked on a lot of doors, spent a lot of time tracking down property owners at the county clerk's office, and scoured miles of desolate back roads and farmland. One of these expeditions into the wilderness inadvertently led me up a steep mountain on a treacherous four by four trail. Alone with no cell phone reception and way over my head, I managed to guide my little four cylinder mini-van backwards down the trail. Luckily I suffered only a flat tire.
Weeks of effort uncovered several suitable houses, but the property owners balked at the modest fee we offered even with a million dollar insurance policy. Our original August start date came and went.
I was almost ready to throw in the towel, but Robyn, my wife and co-producer, encouraged me to take another look at the Meherin house. It was built by the founder of Pismo Beach and along with another historic building, recently relocated to a picturesque little canyon by The Friends of Price House, a non-profit group dedicated to restoring the houses for educational purposes. It was one of the first locations we looked at, but although it was perfect in many ways with it's looming architecture and cracked plaster walls, I ruled it out. The whole thing was still up on blocks from the move and there were no immediate plans to set it down due to lack of funds. Months had passed and with no better prospects, I arranged to see it again.
I met with Frank Lindsey, the president of The Friends of Price House, and he loved the idea of shooting a movie there. The board accepted my offer and Frank assured me that the house could be set down on its foundation by December.
I had a tough decision to make. We could shoot before the 25th and risk being rained out, or wait out the rainy season which would set us back another four or five months. After some consideration I revised the schedule to take place December 11th through 23rd. Because of the holidays we'd have no wiggle room in our schedule. Come hell or high water, we'd have to have THE BRINK in the can by Christmas.
With less than a month before our start date I eschewed an open casting call and filled out the supporting cast with locals I'd previously worked with. I cast three of the four leads out of LA. As they lived three and a half hours away, I was faced with the challenge of putting them up. The budget didn't allow for motel rooms so one of them agreed to stay on a rollout bed in my edit room (I moved my gear into my quarters to make space), and my mother-in-law agreed to put up two in her spare room where we set up twin beds. Not exactly glamorous accommodations, but the actors were willing to rough it for the sake of the picture.
I didn't see how I could put up any more people, so I decided to find a local actress to play the fourth lead, Bianca. I put out an ad that promised difficult shooting conditions, good food, bad pay and long hours. I figured this would weed out the flakes. It turned out to work maybe too well as I received only a handful of submissions. A couple of the actresses I interviewed fit the bill pretty well. Upon offering them the role, however, one of them chose to instead start a full time job, and the other opted to go on a ski trip.
I had similar results in my search for a make-up artist. The best contender for the job, a veteran of Roger Corman's company, refused the task because of the short pre-production period, and I didn't have the luxury of rescheduling. That's when Catherine Barlow who was to play the female ghost turned me onto an old friend of hers. Mitcheal Toles was relatively green to special effects, but his work on the last Queen Mary Halloween event in which he made up dozens of performers in assembly line fashion convinced me he could pull the job off despite the small budget and looming start date. Best of all, he had family in the area he could stay with. I was sold.
As for the role of Bianca, I was out of options. Five days before the shoot I cast an actress out of LA that I had worked with on one of the b-movies I shot earlier that year. She accepted right away and seemed enthusiastic about the role. Two days before the shoot she backed out.
My diary entry says it all: 12-10-02 Yesterday got pretty dicey. I placed many fevered phone calls in search of a suitable Bianca. I contacted Heather Ashley on a long shot. [I also] met her on the set earlier this year. She was a last minute replacement on that picture, too, and she did a great job. She read the script in no time and it turns out she was thrilled to do it. The only problem is that she was living in Florida doing her TV show, TASKFORCE. Long story short, I bit the bullet and agreed to buy her a ticket out here. She'll be in LA about midnight and drive up tomorrow... Jeff arrives today, everyone else comes in tomorrow. Now we can get on with it.
PRODUCTION Some have characterized filmmaking as combat or coal mining. I think of it as a runaway train. You have no choice but to ride it out and hope for the best knowing that if you don¹t get it under control it will end in disaster.
The first day had to be re-shot. Despite successful testing before hand, the new camera I was using didn¹t cut it. The footage was lacking and it was plain difficult to use. Given more time I could have accustomed myself to its unique quirks, but time is in short supply when you¹re trying to make your day. The day wasn't a total loss. Since we had no rehearsal aside from a read through, it gave the cast a chance to shake out the kinks.
The next few days went off without incident. They were long, but I was getting good results. Then the rain came.
On most shoots, you have what is known as rain cover. You set aside some interior scene that you can quickly move to should the weather go bad. That way you needn't sacrifice productivity by just sitting on your hands. THE BRINK, however, took place mostly in and around a creepy house with no window glass and a leaky ceiling. When it rained you couldn't shoot inside or out, and the dirt road leading to the location turned into a muddy ditch making the transport of equipment and vehicles in or out impossible.
12-16-02 Damn. I wanted to sleep in but I get an early call this morning from Michelle. It's raining hard. She wants to know if the leaky ceiling in the master bedroom set was buttoned up after she left. I don't have the keys to the gate so I tramp up that muddy access road to the house. It's worse than I thought. Leaky ceiling upstairs leaking on Michelle's bed, rain and wind coming in the bay window downstairs, soaking the borrowed sofa.
Groundskeeper has already evaluated the situation. It's in good hands, but we won't be shooting here tonight. Supposed to rain tomorrow, too.
As bad as the rain was, the cold was worse. I didn't realize it at the time, but some of those night shoots got as cold as 1™C, or almost freezing. The actors did have some refuge from the cold in the form of a donated RV, but they were forbidden to use the space heater most of the time because it would trip the circuit breakers.
Early on, I made the decision to dress the actors in short sleeves when possible. Keep in mind, this originally was to be shot in August, and I thought it would be a little sexier than big, shapeless winter coats. Between every take, the actors would rush to bundle up, and they wouldn't remove their coats until I was ready to say "action." Their breath is frequently visible throughout the picture. Ironically, actor Jeff Ryan pours himself a refreshing glass of ice water in one scene.
As if the cold alone wasn't challenge enough, a handful of scenes require Kevin Robb (Boy) and Rachel Balzer (Megan) to be submerged in the old claw foot cast iron bathtub at night. The Meherin house had many charms, but running hot water was not one of them. We devised a plan to heat water in the electric coffee maker.
12-18-02 A bucket brigade has slowly been filling the tub. It's getting cold out.
The giant coffee maker heats enough water to heat the tub to barely tepid. I ask Kevin if he wants to go for it or wait for another batch of hot water. It's too cold. I don't know it yet, but this is shaping up to be the coldest night of the year, and Kevin is getting cranky because of the late hour.
Slow coffee maker. Twenty minutes later we give it another go. The water is about the same temp, but Kevin decides to take the plunge. Too bad mom forgot the trunks.
She encourages him to go in wearing only his boxers. That doesn't go over well. Hell, I wouldn't do it either, especially with all the older babes standing around watching (Kevin's about ten). I send Jeff home to pick up my swim trunks.
This time we get him into the tub, knee deep. The temp has gone down and Kevin is freezing his ass off. Everyone is tired and standing around watching him. His mom is losing patience with him. There's no way in hell he's going to sit in that water tonight. I feel for him, so I give him a way out. I wanted this to be a positive experience for him, not a traumatic one. We decide to give it a go some other time.
Will gets the shakes and goes home early to warm up. The rest of us press on. It's fucking cold! My tripod starts grinding. I'm convinced ice crystals are forming in the fluid head.
The challenge of Rachel's tub scenes was compounded by the fact that the script required her to be submerged in ice water. In my defense, I made every effort to find fake ice cubes. Unfortunately, fake ice doesn't float. I rewrote the scene to take place during the day, shot as much of it as we could in a dry tub, but eventually Rachel took the plunge into real ice water.
Afterwards she told local reporter David Vienna, "I'm still kind of cold, but it's worth it in the end."
Sure enough, because of shooting delays we were forced to reconvene in January for a week of night shoots. We would show up at 5pm near sunset and wrap at 5am when the sky got light. The rain had let up and it was moderately warmer, plus this time I wised up and provided the actors with thermal undergarments cut to fit beneath their short sleeve shirts. Nevertheless, shooting at night took a toll on everybody's nerves.
I would often peer out the window and see Will White, my gaffer, literally sleeping on his feet outside next to the 2k light. I also witnessed my key grip, Mark Eakes, discover that a light wouldn't power on because instead of plugging it into the power strip, he had plugged the power strip into itself.
At one point I was convinced I was having a genuine supernatural experience. As I was about to shoot, my walkie-talkie began to crackle because of low batteries. I turned it off, and was about to roll when the crackling started up again. Adonis, my camera assistant, later told me I "freaked out" as I tried to figure out how my walkie-talkie had managed to turn itself on. Fortunately, ghosts weren't involved. Deep under my winter coat I had a second walkie-talkie. I had forgotten all about it. It was making all the noise.
The final night of shooting with the principals stretched well into the next morning. As they were due to depart that day, I had to resort to day for night shooting. For one shot I was positioned at the top of the stairs and as I panned the camera to follow Jason Flowers (Todd), I fell asleep on my feet and put my elbow through an antique window, the only piece of glass in the house. Ironically, this took place before a scene that required a broken window, but that was to be simulated. I had no intention of actually breaking the glass. Lucky for me, the broken pane was not one of the original ones, and it was replaced with a better piece of glass for $50.00.
After the last of the cast had wrapped and left, Robyn and I discovered our car battery had died. I passed out from exhaustion in the driver's seat as she arranged for AAA to get us started. It would have been a fitting ending to a trying shoot, but that was not to be. The principal cast gone, I grabbed a few hours sleep before returning that night to shoot the prologue of the movie.
POSTPRODUCTION A few days later, Robyn and I shot most of the pickups and inserts. The rest of them we shot over the course of the next two years. Understand THE BRINK was paid for with credit cards. When the movie's expenses were added to our already considerable debt, we were in the hole for around $40,000.
I had to go back to work. Prospects were tapped for both of us on the Central Coast, so we decided to move to Burbank. Robyn found a real job at Disney's SOAPNET. I worked on some independent films as a hired hand. At one point I worked quality checking DVDs. Mostly I did extra work on various TV shows, working on the picture whenever I could, editing, doing pick-ups, and even calling some of the actors in for low-tech ADR in our apartment.
I tried to do as much of the work myself as possible to stretch our meager postproduction budget, but eventually I hired Jon Coco who turned in a great score and Doug Tomooka who salvaged most of the weak audio.
I used Adobe Photoshop and After Effects to fix lighting and effects that went wrong during principal photography. There are 131 postproduction visual effects in the final picture, many of which you'll never notice as they were band-aids for mistakes I made in production. Whenever I thought I was close to being done, I saw something else I could improve upon. Eventually, I had to say "enough is enough," but the result is the most technically accomplished piece I've ever completed.
It was a difficult road, and it's not over. I still have to see the picture through the distribution process. Once released on video, it will literally have a few weeks to achieve some kind of success before becoming just another catalog title.
Was it worth it? All I know is I'm getting that itch again. It's about time to make another movie.