November 07, 2011


Watching Super 8 this morning, I grew nostalgic for those pre-film school days when I made movies with my weird friends the way other kids got a band together and jammed. But what it made me nostalgic for was mainly the idea of writing with an ambition--if not a skill--that wildly exceeded my resources and expertise. Really, Super 8 augmented a bittersweet feeling that came over me recently when I stumbled upon a relic that was the product of ingenuity and a fire in my belly that's only embers at this point.

I actually shot a few things on super8 as a kid, mostly glorified home movies, but it wasn't until my parents bought me my first video camera, in 1990, that the directing bug became incurable. That was the year of the Miller's Crossing/Goodfellas/The Godfather Part III hat-trick, and I wrote my own gangster movie--The Gentlemen--that dutifully ripped them all off. A brief summary of the production: the 19-page script we started with ballooned to about 60 pages by the time we were done; and we shot virtually every weekend and school holiday for two years straight.

Due to the genre we were working in, the creative demands weren't that extravagant. We realized early on that we could get away with painted-on facial hair--moustaches seemed essential in aging us up--because of the generally shitty picture quality. We wanted rain in one scene, just hitting the window, so my friend sent his sister outside on a November night to spray his bedroom window with a hose. It flooded his basement. Looked great, though. There was an easy solution to the many scenes that called for us to smoke: buy cigarettes and smoke them. At one point, we needed a City Hall stand-in. My friend's/the star's mother was an alderwoman, so the mayor gave us the keys to his office for the weekend. (Come Monday, he was not happy to find an ashtray full of cigarette butts and a script page littered with profanity--but hey, we had everything we needed by then.) And we somehow talked a gorgeous teenaged model into playing the female lead, who might as well have been called Helen of Troy.

But as time wore on, I started getting self-conscious about the guns. As we had cap guns and an effeminate little starter pistol filled with police-issue blanks (my two closest friends working on the production were sons of cops), the choice was a cool-looking gun with no muzzle flash or vice-versa. Enter Dave F., a guy I nicknamed Pockets because he had everything you could ever need somewhere on his person. A savant with power tools, Dave would assume the role of my fairy godmother on this and subsequent projects.

So I says to Pockets, I says, "These guns suck." He borrows a dummy gun we had on hand and proceeds to drill a hole through the hollow handle, thread a wire up through the barrel, and secure a charge fashioned from cherry bombs to the tip of it. He rigs the other end of the wire so that it can connect with the batteries we use for the camera; all someone has to do off screen is touch the contacts together while someone on screen pretends to pull the trigger, and voilà!: muzzle flash. It wasn't exactly practical (you couldn't really get more than one take out of it), but still.

I found one of the many guns he set up for this the other day. And before tossing it, I took pictures.

This gag inspired me to ask for the moon, by the way, and probably our most impressive achievement was a shot of a helicopter coming to pick up our main character. Dave built a model helicopter and motorized the propellers; in order to have it move without obstructing the blades, we suspended it upside-down on a makeshift zipline and turned the camera upside-down to match. For added realism, we shot it against a grey sky--I blew out the exposure (erasing the fishing line) and zoomed in from far away to flatten out the image.

Unfortunately, that scene was cut out of The Gentlemen and this helicopter footage now only exists on a Hi8 tape I can't access, or I'd put that fucker up on YouTube right now.

Anyone here have similar misadventures in Sweding to share?