Saturday, June 2, 2012
Regenerate Me - The Horror! The Horror!
He had summed up - he had judged. The horror! The horror!
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I recently revisited a favorite author, Joseph Conrad, and specifically, Heart of Darkness. Most film fans know this was the basis of Coppola's movie, Apocolypse Now. Conrad's Kurtz was an ivory trader in uncharted Africa whose zeal had led him to make personal armies of the natives, who looked upon him as something of a god. When Conrad's narrator gets to him, he is a gaunt, ghostly figure who is looking into the abyss.
Kurtz's death in the novel on a couch in the cabin of a tiny steamer encompasses the true nature of horror. The narrator, the captain of that vessel who has become fascinated by Kurtz, leaves the cabin after his final words and is not even in the room when he dies. The reader can feel the chill in the room.
"It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair....He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath. The horror! The horror!"
Both Kurtzs had come with good intentions, and done things that were horrible - the hanging of heads comes directly from the novel.
Conrad's story about the darkness in the human soul should be the the heart of the horror genre, and it is in classic horror. The real monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is not the creation, but the doctor who goes beyond the desire to save lives to creating life from death. Dr. Jekyl, and those around him, must come to deal with the darkness in his - and all men's souls - in Mr. Hyde.
Somewhere along the line, the horror genre de-generated (the puns start here) to any excuse to have humans and former humans do horrible things. So it was with Regenerated Man.
The one-line plot description is "Thieves force a scientist to drink his own formula, turning him into a deformed, monstrous killer." There isn't really more that you need to know.
John Rosnell, my old friend JR, was DP on this show with his usual crew. Originally, the director and producer's didn't want to bring on a production manager, and I heard JR complain often about this terrible shoot that he was on. Remember, JR was more than a DP - he was a vendor. It was his equipment, and he brought the camera and G/E crew, and he did not take lightly to his crew being put in bad situations.
This was around the time I was leaving the movie with Van, and Stacey kidding me about leaving her on a lousy movie, and me kidding JR about how he was still on his own lousy movie. As was our way, JR started "threatening" to bring me onto Regenerated Man. Since there was resistance from the producers to pay an additional person they didn't think they needed, I didn't really think it would happen.
Movie sets can sometimes be a reflection of the genre of the movie; comedies can be fun on set, dark subject matters sometimes leads to tense sets because of many emotional scenes that require crew to be quiet and stay clear of actors trying to portray unspeakable things.
Horror films, to me, fall into the category of most genre films - sci-fi, horror, mob films (something I know very well, and which I will explore at some length in good time), etc. They tend to become more about the gadgetry of film-making, whether it be special f/x, blood, props, etc. Acting tends to take a back seat, as does craftsmanship like cinematography. Surely, in the hands of masters like Scorcese or Tim Burton, this is not the case.
That was not Regenerated Man.
We were very much about the SFX make-up of the deformed doctor, a really pleasant actor named Arthur Lundquist. Don't take the lead in a film where you will spend as much time in the make-up chair as you will on camera unless you're a trooper, and Arthur was.
I came on after the film had started as production manager - nothing new for me at this point. The producers expected that if they were going to have to pay me - and none of us was getting paid well - I better show them where I was saving them money.
The "money" people on this film weren't movie people - one of the biggest contributors owned a deli that was additionally providing the food for set. It took a great deal of prodding to get them to understand that cold cuts is not an acceptable lunch for crew.
For up-and-coming filmmakers let me make this clear - an acceptable lunch is a hot meal. It's the least your cast and crew deserves. There also needs to be a vegetarian alternative - and that should not just be pasta every day.
It can sometimes be a struggle to get film caterers, who understand how to do this, to service small crews on low budgets. That means often being creative with other meal sources - restaurants and delis who think of catering as big parties and not the way crews work.
On at least two occasions, I had very good experiences with friends or parents of the director providing the catering - in both cases, they cared, they listened, they responded to suggestions and corrections.
These guys - not so much.
Two of the producers were also playing small parts as thugs in the movie, and if they understood such things, there would have been a lot of sense-memory they could have brought to their parts.
They were the type of producers who loved the title, but thought that paying people meant you owned them, and resented every penny they had to spend. I got into a number of heated arguments about the catering and their thoughts on my crew.
JR is the only reason I remained - I wouldn't quit and leave him, and the producers wouldn't fire me because they know JR would have pulled the crew.
Throughout Conrad's work, the nature of honor is examined. In the film adaptation of Lord Jim - absolutely one of my five favorite movies of all time - a sailor who was on a ship where the crew abandoned the passengers - tries to earn back his honor on his own scale. He finds himself on an island where he helps rid the locals of a thieves who are robbing and abusing them.
He marries the daughter of a high-ranking official of the locals. When they capture one of the thieves, he makes the decision to let him go, and says if he is wrong, he will pay with his life. The thief does try to return with others, and while they repel the robbers, the son of the official is killed. That night, the official makes Jim an offer - leave that night, and he will make no attempt to follow him. If he is still there in the morning, the official will be forced to have Jim honor his word and be executed.
Jim stays. For him, running - again - is not an option. He dies with his honor restored.
There is little heroic about production managing, but I feel just bringing the film in on time and budget is only the basics - you owe it to the producers to make the best movie possible - maybe even better than they deserve or would have thought.
This was the only time in my career where I abandoned that creed. I was so appalled by these people that my only concern was finishing the movie on time and on budget and moving on. I specifically remember a funny incident with JR.
JR was lighting the set with Jeffrey, our gaffer. Now, JR was not a DP you had to rush - he rushed himself. He would work to help get the lighting done himself. At one point, I asked what the delay was.
"I'm just need to add a few touches to get the look (the director) wants."
"But are we basically lit? I mean, it would look ok, right?"
""Well, yeah, but it doesn't ...."
"JR, I dont care. I'm tired of these guys complaining about how much they're spending and how the crew doesn't work hard enough. If you've got a key light, shoot the damn scene."
JR understood, and we hurried the lighting.
When the film was done, I asked my name not be in the credits. What is funny is that it later became a cult classic. I take no credit for that.
Genre films can be trashy, but they can also be a lot more, and my next experience with a genre film was a mob film, one of many I would go on to do, with a better plot, better actors, and a great producer/director team.