06. Day 2: Cockpits and one huge ass fan.

I’ll start this section by saying my set builder Brian Clarke is a mensch. Not just a mensch, but the kind of wonderful human being that so selflessly gave to the enabling of my dreams that I will never forget him or what he did.

We needed a cockpit built. Nothing fancy, just enough to look good from a couple camera angles with enough detail to distract a viewer that they don’t notice the whole thing is made out of plywood and cardboard. 

We had a phone call with Brian and my other set mensch, Michael Schrecker. Michael said it would take two months of nights and weekends to construct the set. Brian coughed or something and said he could do it in a week on sandwich money. Michael and I were, uh, shocked. I mean, what do you say to that? Aside from fuck yes, you’re a god.

So I said fuck yes and after a quick trip to home depot we set up in my garage. I would give Brian some meal money and go to work. I’d come home with beer and he’d be that much closer to having it done. It was incredible. Brian is, admittedly, living in the past and is an enthusiastic collector of 50’s and 60’s B-movie sci-fi nostalgia. His house is a tiny museum of kitsch collectables filled with oblong sea-foam dining tables and multi-tiered sauce coffee tables. Not to mention the man has two, fucking TWO, life-size production quality Robby the Robot’s from the original Lost in Space television show.

Design by committee almost always feeds to mediocrity; that’s why movies have the singular vision of a Director. One of the most difficult tasks of a Director is accurately and clearly conveying the style and feel of that vision to a crew so that they can operate without the need of constant supervision. The benefit, though, of having a creative crew is that often they can make decisions that surprise you, things you might not have considered without their input. It’s why Directors often don’t edit their own films, because you want people to be able to surprise you, to give you ideas and new Directions.

Brian exemplified this, as the modern robot cockpit I had in mind wasn’t nearly as grand as the atomic-style cold-war rigging he put together, complete with an analogue reel-to-reel tape deck behind the pilot head in full view of the camera. I laughed when I saw it, mostly because I realized how bad my idea was compared to his. I loved it.

Now here’s another couple conundrums.

In the movie the cockpit rests in the head of the Robot and in the fights becomes damaged. I didn’t want to fake the rocking of the cockpit as even children think that looks cheesy, so we put the cockpit up on cinderblocks and used a couple large 2x4s as levers to motivate it back and forth as well as shake it. I wanted something in the cockpit to move aside from Isaac to really convey the sense of motion, so Brian contributed his father’s WWII era dog tags that dangle from the ceiling. Why Isaac hung his dog-tags there wasn’t important. It felt right, not to mention I felt as though we could use the help of the greatest generation in pulling this off.

The second challenge was the filming space. I had already been searching for soundstages that might work for our monster battle, and most had cheaper, smaller soundstages in auxiliary that could serve for the tiny space we needed to film. The problem was that we were using flammables to create sparks during the heavy action. I wanted that shit spraying everywhere, no half-assing it. Lots of sparks, lots of smoke, all that drama.

The thing about that is, you can’t lie to people that you’re burning shit when you’re in their building. It’s a good way to screw up your shoot day if halfway through your shot list they call the cops on you. A real demoralizer that one is. So, nobody we talked to was comfortable with any fire, no matter how innocuous, and the bigger sound stages that would do it were so expensive that I would have had to cut corners in another area of the film. I was unwilling to do that.

Suddenly I found myself doing that crazy thing they talk about when they say “lie, cheat and steal, just get the shot.”

I decided we would save our troubles and just shoot it where we made it, in my garage. To make the sparks we got some old-fashioned A-grade illegal sparklers in Chinatown. We built a series of grating into the ceiling of the cockpit so we could prop up a series of kinoflos with color filters so that we could get interesting lighting patterns around the cockpit that would also exaggerate the movement when we shook it. When big hits happened, we would wave the lit sparklers over the grating or rub them on it like a grater to get all kinds of crazy fire action going. I was amazed when we tested our dollar store effects and saw how great it looked.

I live on a VERY busy drag in San Francisco and the garage door was about as good at dampening the sound of endless traffic as was a sheet of paper. With a small mountain of clips, we rigged a series of apple boxes and hung over a dozen sound blankets to muffle the noise from the street. Even though it looked like a couch fort made by an idiot child, it almost completely dampened the street noise, much to everybody’s surprise.

That created a second problem: Ventilation. With the garage door barred with blankets, the smoke and heat from the sparklers had to be dissipated through a back window. While large, it wasn’t enough to clear the space between takes quickly, so waiting for the smoke to fade would cost us time. Somehow, one of my genius people magicked an enormous industrial fan that looked like it had been stolen from a much more expensive movie. That sucker pulled so much air you could feel it pull on your clothes from across the room.

With everything in place the night before, the next morning we set an early call time. It was going to be a long day.

Crew and camera are setting up downstairs. Ryder arrives and we get him into makeup, explaining that we’ll have three stages for different parts of the movie: sweaty but fine, burned a bit and haggard, and “just-fuck-my-shit-up” bloody action hero.

His costume is mostly from the party costume store a few blocks away. It’s an old flight suit zip-up one piece with a couple random military accessories and patches and a tied black bandana around his forehead for maximum Michael Biehn power. I got a flight suit with a high collar to minimize Ryder’s contact with an errant sparks.

With the crew still setting up, Ryder comes down stairs and we walk through the shot list. Ryder is doubtful when he sees the sparks. In fact, when he sees the jerry-rigged bargain basement set around him, I can see his eyes fade. 

I crawl into the cockpit and have the grips light a test sparkler to show Ryder it’s safe. As I’m talking to him, one of the sparks slips down the back of my neck, causing me to grimace mid sentence like I got kicked under the table by a pair of heels. It’s not painful so much as an unnatural sensation. Ryder seems more discouraged by this joke of a movie. I see him put on a professional face, but inside I’m indignant to his lack of faith. I make a silent vow to wrest the performance of a lifetime from him like one wrestles an alligator for a tenderloin.

Setup is taking too long. Camera is moving lights back and forth. I look at my phone. It’s 11:30. Holy shit. Our first day was so efficient it has made us complacent. We are two hours behind. I look to my AD, Trisha, but she seems overwhelmed. Nicole, one of my best friends, has volunteered to stand in as a PA. She looks at me worried. Finally, Dan, the best Producer I could ask for and far better than I deserve, yells in his booming voice and people snap to attention.

I let that one get away from me. Note it, do better next time. Move on for now. We’re away and shooting and now it’s rolling. Everybody knows it’s going to be a longer day than we had hoped but the shots are looking good.

On the first day, despite all the rehearsal, Ryder had struggled with his lines and seemed to stumble a great deal with the character early in the day. He realized and sincerely apologized to me for his error in preparation, but it caused a lot of the crew and I worry that our main star might not be taking it as seriously as the rest of us. So it is with immense shame that I confess the following.

Ryder’s early takes were better than they had been on Day 1, but it was when that first spark made contact on skin that we really saw the range of his performance. Nothing like a little lit phosphorous to bring out the intensity you need for monster combat. It was a fantastic motivator to wake him up, and the crew noticed. Even during takes it was hard for everybody to hide the curling grins at the edge of their mouths and to Ryder’s credit, he never complained or mentioned it once. It was a long day of shooting in a hot, smokey room and he saddled up and rode that Robot to destiny without a single mumble. In the final edit I couldn’t even use his most intense takes. They were so crazy they fit better in a commercial for cocaine flavored Mountain Dew.

In the end Jim came in to do his last shots for the ending and we wrapped both actors to great applause. It was a 14 hour day, not something I like to ask of anybody, but we got all of our shots. Well, except for one important one. I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but you can’t miss shots, ever. We only realized it the next day, after everything had been broken down. Going forward it was clear I needed more support staff as I was getting too busy to oversee all the aspects. I had to find some ninja assassin assistants. Nicole who had just volunteered as a PA, happens to love ninja’ing shit and stepped up. For now though, anybody who had some steam left in them came with me to get drunk.

05. That big bad horrible fucking costume issue.

As we had been planning the first shoot, I knew one thing that had to be started early and figured out as quickly as possible was the construction of the two monster costumes.

Since the idea from inception was inspired by the Power Rangers, and that by proxy was the child of Godzilla, I wanted to eschew the conventional CGI monster claptrap shit I had seen in countless crappy monster movies and put stuntmen in suits and have them duke it out old school. It was more fun that way and also presented a unique and interesting challenge.

I discovered, however, that almost nobody creates those things anymore. I should have known better because when I got my start it was at a VFX company in the Presidio, just across the street from the company that started it all, Industrial Light and Magic. Even they no longer had their famous creature department. It was all computers. Costume makers were dinosaurs.

I considered everything. Nothing was off the table. I had phone calls with traditional cloth costume people who told me that kind of thing was out of their ability. I had wonderful midday lunches with enthusiastic art students who valiantly attempted to figure it out only to tell me they too were unable to make such a thing I was requesting. I reached out to video game cosplayers, but out of the few I could get ahold of, they all sadly informed me that their creations wouldn’t be able to hold together in any high action environment.

Finally I found some dyed-in-the-wool creature effects people and I learned something fascinating.

First, let me explain that in film, the craft you practice somehow comes to affect your psyche. Maybe subconsciously or maybe it’s what drew you to it in the first place, but if you’re a grip you tend be laconic, dry and will seize every opportunity to smoke when you’re not needed. If you’re in the camera department, you’re super god damn hip, a real slick hollywood character and you fucking know it. If you’re a stuntman, you know you are a badass but you pretend you’re ten times more badass than that and you will excitedly do any stunt in a put-me-in-coach-I-can-do-it-baby kind of way.

If you’re a creature effects costume person, you’re a wild eyed lunatic howling at the moon the top of a mountain of old Phantasmagoria magazines and Star Trek slash fiction.

I only met a few in the Bay Area. Some didn’t want to touch my little movie. Some would do it but only for more money than I had ever had in my life. Others would do it but had so many red flags I felt like I was on a first date I found on Craigslist. It was a total bummer.

Oh shit: I wish this didn’t happen.

I had no idea how to title this section but this is all I could think of because it’s the God’s honest truth. I’ll make it quick.

A close friend and artistic peer of mine that had introduced me to Scary Cow had heard of my plight in finding a costume artist. With limited experience in costume making, but what I perceived to be a skilled and competent artistic background, we came to terms that she would take on the project for a fee of $9,000 to be paid in three parts. That is a lot of money and since I was privately financing the film by working my regular gigs, splitting it up helped me keep funding the other parts of the film without starving to death. 3k on signing, 3k on delivery and 3k on completion of the film, or so I thought. But hey, costumes were in production and I could return my focus to the other scenes of the film! Huzzah! (fuck)

We’ll come back to this soon.



04. Day 1


The therapist's office was the simplest of them, so it would be the first day. I wanted an office that was open to contrast the cozy, private space associated with a traditional therapist's office. We found an office rental online. 

In the weeks prior, I rehearsed with the actors several times to get the tone right. These scenes were where the central soul of the film lived so the performance was everything, particularly since it had to stand tough in contrast to the high-impact monster scenes interspersed with it. 

The night before we began our shoot, I stared at the ceiling for most of the night, completely aware of the cliche. I feel most men who have pursued careers in docile, bookish professions like mine, will often wonder where their mettle lies. I wondered that night how I would do, like a bystander hearing screams from a burning house. 

Would I take the challenge or would it beat me? Would I chicken out?

Before we did our first take, I had the actors and crew do a little theater exercise I had learned in a dance class I took on a lark in college. Dropping hands to the sides, one would close his or her eyes and breathe slowly, relaxing the entire body, consciously searching for the tics, posture and nuance of one's own body as to breathe them out, start fresh from a clean zero state. It’s an exercise for actors to step into a character without bringing their own personalities with them, but in our case I felt like I was changing skin, becoming a different person from that moment on.

Getting a good angle on Actor James F. Ross

Getting a good angle on Actor James F. Ross

Like the shoot schedule, our shot list was structured for efficiency with limited camera set ups. I shot wide because I knew the first takes would be the roughest, saving our medium and close shots for later when the actors would be more comfortable with the dialogue and their characters so that we could better focus on their performances. 

Ryder, our protagonist, was new to acting but game for the fight. James Ross, the therapist, was a consummate professional in every sense. His dedication to the craft humbled me and his performances awed the crew. I was lucky to have them both. The shoot day went so swimmingly that we had enough time at the end to do a couple fancy pickups that made it into the final film.

All of us were on cloud nine. Our first shoot day was a wild success. Looking back, I should have been more nervous.

Camera Op Tom Krymkowski, Assistant Director Trisha Allex and yours truly after wrapping up a solid shoot.

Camera Op Tom Krymkowski, Assistant Director Trisha Allex and yours truly after wrapping up a solid shoot.


“Six months, ten grand,” I said like an idiot.

I had believers, not crew. Everybody understood that was what was required. Not all were with me for the entire process. Some got credit for working a day on the project. Some stayed with me for the entire three years. 

Some gave nothing, some gave sweat and some gave blood.

The first of us sat down and scheduled it out, itemizing the script for necessary sets, props, costumes and personnel. Four locations: a therapist's office, an outdoor city scene, the robot cockpit and a soundstage for the fight itself. Each one had a different set of difficulties that were highly disparate. Without an experienced AD, I ended up doing all the scheduling, budget and production work myself. On any film, each of those are typically a job with one or more people dedicated entirely to that task alone. This was the first time I suddenly realized that the enormity of my project was far beyond my ability to completely comprehend.

Principal speaking actors would only be required for two locations with a day on each. I stacked the shoot days so that the most technically complex shooting would happen at the end, allowing costumes, stunts and set builders more time to get things in order. The fight would be the last shoot, as it had the most complexities.

02. Starting your own personal cult.

I found a local amatuer filmmakers association in my city, San Francisco. The strangely named Scary Cow Filmmakers Cooperative was a union of sorts. People bought in at a monthly rate in exchange for accesses to the resources of the organization and the community. It was a mishmash of both complete amateurs, manic retirees, students, bored office workers, and insane people seasoned with a handful of experienced industry professionals. Up until this point I had a decade in post-production experience making thirty-second ads for television broadcast, so I counted myself in the latter category. I had more VFX experience than most, so I was often consulted for tips on how to do the small amount of special effects shots that some shorts might have. I was happy to help, as the community was warm and fun and the idea that I might get my movie made always gave me warm fuzzies.

The idea is that a person would network with other members, providing knowledge or crewing their films in the hopes that they would, in turn, crew yours. There were also a series of classes, writing groups and blotto but fascinating happy hours to facilitate connections and establish oneself. Every few months there would be a pitch meeting where those who were starting new films would deliver a two minute rehearsed pitch in front of the group to attempt to sell their idea. At the end of all the pitches the people who proposed ideas would migrate to corners of the room like an awkward middle school dance and hope their pitch would entice a few members to come and crew for them.

Despite my newness to the group, I gave the two minute pitch of a lifetime. I’m not particularly fond of public speaking. I was shaking so much I had to put my speech in my pocket to prevent everybody see the card rattling in my hand, but apparently my pitch was golden and suddenly I had a crew. Scary Cow had never had a creature feature like this before and with my resume of actual film work behind me, people seemed to believe I could pull it off. A lot of people wanted their name on this and the reception put my optimism in overdrive.

The saying is that you never understand how little you know about something until you try to do it yourself. Everything looks easy from the couch but when it's time to deal it can get overwhelming fast. For the uninitiated, Film is different from most other artforms in that it fundamentally requires several different tradecrafts, people and ideas to function like clockwork in order to even proceed. Even terrible movies were created with painstaking adherence to this foundation and I think that is incredible. The creation of any film is the majesty of sheer willpower.

Here is the elevator pitch of my film that was also its logline.

In his dreams, a young man does battle with his anxieties using an 80-story nuclear powered robot.

Wow! That shit sells itself!

I wanted to make something classic and nostalgic, yet relevantly modern. I wanted a porridge of conflicting styles and tempos that reflected the fractured, conflicting nature of the characters mind. I wrote the film as two separate stories that interwove, cutting back and forth to merge towards the end of the film. I would accomplish this with a style of editing called parallel editing, or cross-cutting, inspired by the work of one of my favorite Editors, 
Sylvie Landra.

One story was literal, with the protagonist, Isaac, in a therapy session discussing his anxieties. The other story was metaphorical, with the progression of that discussion enacted as a Toho-style giant kaiju fight in the urban dreamscape of his mind. As the film progresses, each story begins to affect the other with hints that the two stories are not separate at all and that space of the mind is not so clearly defined.

The two stories were conceptually different in almost every regard. The therapist sessions were shot on a locked down camera. They are static and lit plainly. There is minimal audio, only dialogue and the metronome of a ticking clock. The monster fight is fluid, always moving, powerful synth-driven music and explosive, floor-shaking audio effects mixed to the max in glorious 5.1 Dolby. As the plot advances, you might hear the clock ticking in the background of the monster fight or a growling low-octave synthetic drone of music in the therapy scenes. As Isaac is overpowered by the monster of his shame, the light in the therapist office shifts around the therapist, shrouding him in darkness. His eyes sink deeper into his face, his hair is like that of a madman. Like Isaac, we get the sense that his intentions might not be altruistic, that he might just be another one of Isaac’s demons.

Even just typing that up I remember why I fell in love with the idea. I remember why I wouldn’t let anything stop me from making it.

01. The First Step

“I’ve always wanted to make a movie.”

Great! Fantastic! Art is life or something!

Despite the popular doctrine that everybody has a movie idea, most people do not. Worse, if they do, it’s usually something hilariously dumb. You’ll know if it’s dumb because it’s so much more fun to listen to than it would be to watch. Cowboys with Samurai sword-hands on Mars. Revenging chicks in a post-apocalyptic nuclear dick-kicker. Cats driving forklifts. It’s all great stuff, but probably not fun when you force people to stare at it for more than a few minutes.

I’m personally not against bad movie ideas. I’ve always had a lot of bad ideas, myself, so I’m certainly understanding if not appreciative of kitschy crap. My favorite filmmakers are the alchemists who turn crazy bullshit into solid gold art, but even they sometimes trip on the dumbness. The 5th Element is one of my favorite films, but I can’t remember the last Luc Besson movie I enjoyed. I feel sad just typing that.

Since one hot summer night when I was seventeen, watching Chow Yun Fat gun down gangsters while sliding down a bannister with a toothpick in his mouth, I’ve wanted to make movies. and for me it was now or never. I just had to decide what I was going to do.

Don’t waste anybodies time. Especially your own.

I have to say that before anything. 

Having been to a good deal of short film festivals and hung around the amateur film scene far longer than any hygienic person would like to, I can say the overwhelming motivating factor behind the idea process for most amateur filmmakers is as follows:

“How cheap can I make this?” 

It’s so common it’s depressing. There’s nothing quite like that metaphysical drowning feeling that comes a couple minutes into one of these movies. Maybe you go get some popcorn but then you come back and it’s still going. In film, few things are as big a sin as wasting somebody's time. Not just the audience, but the time the crew spent on your sets, the actors spent learning your insipid dialogue and trying to make it work, even your parents for having raised you only to now suffer this travesty. In the excellent Boaz Yakin film “Fresh,” Samuel L. Jackson’s character says this:

“Anything lost can be found again, except for time wasted.”

But that’s just how most people make movies. They have a location already so they build the idea around that location. They had a script written but it seemed to expensive to do, so they just took out the expensive parts rather than try to improvise an alternative solution. There are all sorts of reasons why people set the bar low when it comes to their approach and for me that’s the quickest way to wasting everybodies time. Filmmaking is about problem solving and creativity, so I’ve always believed in writing what I want to do and figuring out how to do it later. It’s more challenging, for sure, but it means I’m not wasting anybodies fucking time.

EG-01 Concept Drawing by Michael Vanasse

I made a Godzilla movie about depression.

I wanted to make a movie that was ambitious and fun, so even if people hated it they would still have something wild to look at. I was going to do a short film based on a weird dream I had a couple years earlier where I was a Power Ranger in my own personal Megazord, battling a creature that was the embodiment of my own self-destructive desire to be loved. My mom would call in to support me in my battle, an ex-girlfriend would chime in with some nonsense. It was all a very strange dream.

I took this idea and made a few changes. The dream didn’t make any sense, but I liked the concept and wanted to make a narrative out of it. I wrote one or two versions before I settled on my final concept and once I did that I knocked out a script after only one or two revisions. It was a tight 15 minute rock-em sock-em monster movie about dealing with the doldrums of day to day anxieties. I had been going through some depression of my own and felt I could talk about a topic like that without making it as exciting as an antidepressant commercial.