Four years ago today, I sat up late writing what would become the first outline of Never Been to Graceland.
The first outline was much zanier. Instead of a long-lost song, the MacGuffin was a long-lost Elvis film that had been canned under the orders of Colonel Parker. Michael, traveling cross-country to see the film “because he’s seen every Elvis movie and has to see the last one,” ran across a deluded fan who claimed to be the daughter of Elvis and Ann-Margret, a biker gang, a mega-rich collector of rock and roll memorabilia, and a duo of bumbling private investigators hired by AJ’s parents to find her when she stows away in the back of Michael’s truck (unbeknownst to him.) Oh, did I forget to mention? AJ, now a reporter, in the early drafts was a teenager on the run and in its earliest incarnations, “Graceland” attempted to blend the silliness of Willy Wonka and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World with echoes of the grounded, on-the-road cinematic sensibility of Terence Malick’s “Badlands”… all under the umbrella of a celebration of the phenomenon that is the fandom of Elvis Presley.
Four years ago today, I was still smack in the middle of editing The Incredible Search for Jamie Klotz’s Diary, trying desperately to prove that I could make a movie, period, let alone a good one or coherent one. I had announced Graceland at the premiere of Jamie Klotz’s Diary. It was my “end goal.” Knowing how long and how many failed projects it took before I got to Jamie Klotz, I have to confess I honestly don’t know if I ever thought I’d really actually make Graceland. If I was going to follow this dream, why not shoot as far as I could imagine?
A few days ago I sat down and watched Jamie Klotz’s Diary for the first time in about a year. Whenever I have a new project that’s about to be released, I always end up watching old projects to just reflect. I’d forgotten how funny that movie was, but also, too, how endearing its low-budget workarounds were. I still saw so many things I wish I could just back go in and fix – visual effects, camera moves, sound quirks. Then I switched over and watched Graceland one more time, looking for any possible reason to make any last minute changes or fixes. I couldn’t find one. It is literally as good as it is going to get. Short of re-shooting, I couldn’t fix anything else… and I wouldn’t want to anyway.
So here I am, trying to savor every moment of this, because I don’t know when the next one will be, or if there WILL be a “next one.” I’ve got ideas, some of which I might even talk about at the premieres during the Q&A, but I’m not committed to anything. I’m going to spend a lot of time next week thanking people. I mean every word of it, and if I forget anyone, I’m incredibly sorry. This has been an amazing four years and it couldn’t have been done without help.
My only hope now is that it resonates with the right people.
I have a shelf at home on which I have every single one of Elvis’ movies, from Love Me Tender to Change of Habit, plus the documentaries, TV specials, and a good number of Elvis-related movies that don’t star the man himself; Well known stuff like Walk the Line and Elvis & Nixon alongside more obscure stuff like Lonely Street and Elvis Has Left the Building.
Now I’ve gotta make room on that shelf for Never Been to Graceland.
Okay, I’ll own it. Jamie Klotz’s Diary II isn’t a particularly good movie. It always lacked the sort of freewheeling spirit of the first one. It’s more downbeat and feels smaller in scale, it has some pretty glaring technical issues, and the plot is neither funny or interesting enough to offset the other shortcomings.
Rather than break down the whole making-of day-by-day in the vein of past “Jamie Klotz’s Origins,” I’d just like to reflect briefly (briefly – ha!) overall on those shortcomings and why I decided to create a “Director’s Cut” that no one asked for.
A) Tone & Scope
Of all the things to talk about, this is probably… well if not necessarily the most obvious, at least the easiest for me to talk about. From the moment JKD2 starts, it just looks visually dissimilar to the first one. The colors are flat, almost desaturated – forget color grading, there’s hardly any color at all. The entire film looks like the life was sucked out of it.
Well, I’ll be honest, that’s because I didn’t bother to grade it in the first place. After a bumpy production in which I struggled just to get people together to shoot (not a new problem, if you lookintopastblogs), post-production was practically non-existent. No fingers need to be pointed, I’ll take the fall on all of this – I failed as a director and as a leader. I failed to coordinate and I failed to inspire. I failed to set the proper tone in the script, on the set and on the production overall.
We began filming in earnest in April 2014, a little over 6 months from the premiere of the first Jamie Klotz movie, which was shot essentially in four days. We didn’t finish shooting JKD2 until August. We shot nothing in June and almost nothing between July and August.
The entire scope of the film shifted as a result of scheduling, the weather, and my own limitations as a director. A “post-apocalyptic future” scene was hastily written the morning of a rainy shoot day. That “future” section took place in an unconvincing – but indoors! – civic center (complete with modern cars rolling by outside). The preceding scene, where Jamie and PJ first meet each other, was originally part of a subplot involving Jamie’s mom. That was scrapped and ultimately replaced with a scene at Cascade Springs – again, written mere days before the shoot for said scene. An entire cast member was replaced (the girl who played Rachel originally moved away mid-shoot).
The final scene involving The Man (in centrally located Centennial Park) despite being written as jokingly anti-climactic, looked visually uninteresting, and was still marred by passersby (one hilarious outtake has a group of school kids walking into the public restrooms behind Aspen and Yona’s clashed swords) and rapidly changing summer weather, with looming, dark cumulus clouds in the background of several shots which also contributed to horrible visual inconsistency in natural lighting.
Even in early editing, something about the film felt “off.” Despite a plot that spanned across dimensions and time, the story felt small and constrained. My direction on set had been constrained as well – “stick to the script, this is a complex film” and “Let’s not move the camera so much, let’s keep it on the tripod.” Every smaller decision, whether a reaction to an uncontrolled variable like weather or a deliberate choice like camera movement, led to an overall sense of shrinking scope. JKD was a rollicking carefree adventure sprawled all over Hot Springs. JKD2 was a muted, precise sci-fi story, with specific plot points, locations and serviceable but not necessarily inspired visuals.
Jamie Klotz’s Diary II felt very unlike Jamie Klotz’s Diary, and at the time I couldn’t place my finger on why.
B) Technical Issues
Like I said, by the end of shooting, we were happy to be done… except that we weren’t.
Every project I work on is an experiment of some sort. Some experiments are better suited to disposable shorts that are low-stakes. JKD1 had a lot of experimental elements for me, particularly with special effects, to a varying degree of success. Some, like Sahera’s attack on Dorn, turned out great. Others, like Dr. Lawrence’s 2D transition effect, fell flat (pun absolutely intended!) But in all of those cases, I was never working with anything more than what I had throughout the whole film. I was never introducing something new each time we shot.
The first two days of filming JKD2 in April, I had a boom mic that we had plugged directly into our camera. To my dismay, I later learned it was only capturing mono audio, on the left channel. The rain on the metal roof on the civic center led to incomprehensible dialogue inside, and an entire animated sequence (similar to The Man’s Sahera story from JKD1) was scrapped due to incomplete narration that was missed on set. Dialogue replacement recordings did not happen at all due to my failure to properly coordinate and lead.
By our May shoots, I had brought in another camera to use, but one camera was shooting at 30fps and another at 24fps – a horror during editing that would leave some of the footage looking crisp and the rest jagged, or some looking smooth and the rest blurry.
In indoor locations, we had lights rigged up, but often the two lights we had wasn’t enough, so people’s faces were filled in on several shots with flashlights on iPhones. In July, I added a dedicated audio recorder for the boom mic – a recorder that was often set at levels way too low, which led to a need to boost the audio in post, which in turn would require extra clean-up to remove high level hiss or low level buzz. By our last day of filming, one light had stopped working and the other occasionally flickered (as seen in one shot of Isaiah in Jamie’s house.)
I kept adding new elements and equipment all throughout the shoot, not only to experiment with them, but also to continually improve the film – if the audio in one part of the film was in mono and muffled, at least it wouldn’t be in the rest of it! The end result, however, was nothing but inconsistency, across the board.
The film was left untouched on my hard drive from August until mid-December. There was just too much work to do to fix everything. Finally the weekend before Christmas I sat down and just worked at the film until it was in a “complete” state, at least watchable from beginning to end. I kept trying to work on pieces of it throughout the winter, even asking for Ryan Brewer’s guidance on how best to go about fixing a missing shot (ultimately I just cut around it to leave it out). When I finally rendered it out in March 2015 there were still incomplete visual effects (see Brandon’s disappearing toes when Jamie begins fading from existence the first time), the sound mix was rough, I had dropped the composer I had had lined up when my aspirations for the project were still high, and I could not be bothered to color grade it. I was just ready to premiere it to get the weight of the project off.
C) A Second Chance
After we premiered the film in May 2015, I directed all of my attention toward Never Been to Graceland, ready to put Jamie Klotz’s Diary behind me. I had announced it at the JKD1 premiere in 2013 and had been putting it off to try to get the script right. Graceland would be a feature length film and we did a Kickstarter that summer. Two problems. The Kickstarter flopped, and the script for Graceland at that time sucked. Thankfully some writer friends didn’t mince their words toward that end, but between that and JKD… talk about having my tail tucked between my legs. I sort of resolved that maybe I just had one movie in me, and that JKD1 was a lucky fluke – I couldn’t even argue that JKD2 was at least technically a “movie” in that that ran at 24fps and had sound – after all, the mixed frame rates left the movie looking choppy and the sound wasn’t particularly well-mixed!
I spent summer and autumn 2015 finally revisiting the teen heist movie idea from winter 2013 as “The Christmas Heist.”
I don’t know what it was about The Christmas Heist, but it flicked this switch in me. I suddenly felt like filming again, and I hadn’t even necessarily known up till then that I had sort of subconsciously put myself into a mindset of being “done” with movies.
In the aftermath of the show, I found myself in a situation a lot like the one I’m in now, sort of unsure about where I want to go creatively, but very much energized. I found myself watching the Jamie Klotz Duology one evening, and after they were done, I realized the film wasn’t finished. The DVDs had all gone out to everyone in the cast, their families, my friends, it was up online… but it wasn’t done. It wasn’t as good as it could have been and no matter how good or bad the film was in the end, I wouldn’t be content with myself if I didn’t fix it, even if I was the only one who ever saw the final cut of the film.
I re-edited the film, not entirely from scratch, but several sequences were. I color graded the whole film and did as much as I could to at visually align it with the first JKD film. I adjusted settings to mitigate the frame rate issues, reworked the sound, including adding score to some scenes which had not had any before, as well as rescuing a line of dialogue that I had thought was lost, and I even added two new sequences, one “rewind” of the film when Jamie travels back into the past the first time and an audio hallucination that Jamie has toward the start of the third act that more explicitly ties story elements hinted at in JKD2 to the plot of the first film and the potential plot of JKD3 (which I still had not entirely ruled out but was admittedly increasingly less likely).
Despite no one else knowing about it or asking for it, I had to give JKD2 a second chance, for my own sake. At the Mini Film Fest that April, I did the first and only screening of the Director’s Cut, alongside the short “The Black Owl,” which had also been left unedited in the aftermath of JKD2. For over a year, no one else has seen this cut of the film. I toyed with putting it online a few times over the past year, but always decided against it. I don’t know what changed my mind now. Maybe that since Graceland and I Sent My Grandma Into The Past have gone well so far, I am comfortable with what this movie is.
Yes, it’s not a particularly good movie. I can recognize that. But it’s also not an awful movie now, either. It’s not like this is going to be the next viral movie for YouTubers to riff on. There are still moments and shots that I’m proud of, too many flashes of something promising underneath it, despite a flawed technical presentation and weak character development. And despite what this blog might read like, it’s not like we didn’t have fun making this film. In fact, I was able to put together almost an entire half hour (half the length of the movie!) of outtakes – not including the ones during the credit sequences! If you didn’t know any better watching that, you’d think it was the most fun shoot we ever did.
Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, in retrospect. And I absolutely did enjoy working with the cast and crew. Aspen certainly turned in a more nuanced performance of Jamie and Aryona owned the character of PJ. Daniel delivered in spades as The Man (as usual) and everyone else did the very best they could with the direction and script they were given, especially those who were not actors and did not originally intend on even being in the film (like Dustin and Jassmine).
Jamie Klotz’s Diary II is, if nothing else, a complex film. There was a lot I was trying to do and I think I may have overstretched my limitations at the time, narratively, technically and creatively. In many respects Jamie Klotz’s Diary II is merely a stepping stone in my creative progression as a filmmaker and storyteller. And knowing where the lessons its production taught me have led, I’m okay with that.
It struck me yesterday afternoon that it’s been 3 years since the premiere of the first Jamie Klotz’s Diary movie. Time flies. So last night I went back into the footage for the first time in probably a year and a half and whipped up a little highlight reel featuring a mix of portions from the premiere, never before released outtakes and behind the scenes footage, and even a sneak peek at the movie that I officially announced 3 years ago during that premiere!
Thanks for the memories Taylor, Gump, Jim, Scott, Jake, Matt and Tater!
In May 2006, a class at Hot Springs High School was assigned an end-of-year project by their teacher, who was sick of hearing “there’s nothing to do in Hot Springs” from her students. Everyone was supposed to make a video showing what they do on an average day in Hot Springs. Taylor Lund and Jesse WhenyaNeedham were in that class and came to me and said “let’s make a video!” They gave me a bunch of ideas for scenes and jokes and I wrote the script. We called a bunch of our friends and on May 19, 2006, with a borrowed Digital 8 camcorder, we started filming “A Day in Hot Springs.”
The kicker? The video starts off with Jesse and Taylor hanging out, then it completely goes off rails into things that would NEVER happen – a ninja attacks, they meet an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer, get lost underground, visit the “Tater Lodge,” and even encounter the mysterious “Mt. Dew Monster.”
The creation of the video itself was the statement – this is what we do on an average day; we make our own fun. It premiered the following Monday – they got docked a few points because it was too long.
This was one of the very first things I ever wrote, shot and edited. It’s terrible, it’s nonsensical, it has no plot and the jokes are ripped off. But after the school year was up, Jesse and I sat down at Centennial Park and started writing Quest for the Lost Treasures: Another Day in Hot Springs with a plan to make it into a 7-part series (one for each day of the week) of what we nowadays would call a webseries that would have been posted to MySpace (and in fact still is – https://myspace.com/thegaus/video/the-quest-for-the-lost-treasures/54150771?mri=54150771)
Throughout 2006-2007, we wrote the rest of “The Week in Hot Springs” and shot a huge chunk of it all the way through 2009, but never quite finished it. It suddenly had a plot spanning different dimensions and time travel, shamelessly ripping off everything from Aladdin to Revenge of the Sith, and featured an adversary known only as “The Man” …….sound familiar? This one project inevitably led to the Jamie Klotz’s Diary series, and indirectly to Blue Suede Reviews and even Never Been to Graceland.
The original short was edited in Windows Movie Maker from a 240p transfer directly from the camera. I always swore one day I would track down a Digital8 camera again and transfer what footage didn’t get recorded over and re-edit it at a higher quality. I finally did last year, and I’ve held off on posting this just for this day. This is the result. (Most of the higher quality footage is in the latter half).
I probably re-edited this thing problem 5-6 times before 2010 as various “special editions”, adding overdubbed dialogue, adding special effects, music and sound effects, fixing typos and every single time, still finding things that I screwed up. True to form, there is a typo in one of the titles in the 2016 version. Maybe one day I’ll get this f**king thing right.
After a fast and fun four day shoot, editing was immediately begun on The Incredible Search for Jamie Klotz’s Diary. Spurred on by the creative energy generated from the shoot, a rough edit was assembled by the end of the week. Almost immediately it was clear that there were major holes in the film. Dorn’s half of phone conversations with “the boys” were still missing and were thus filled in with stand-in shots for timing purposes (with me as Dorn), several scenes had serious audio problems (the library scene behind the glass was unintelligible), and worst of all, the last third of the movie’s pacing was choppy and rushed, jumping straight from Jamie asking Brandon for help to the final confrontation.
It was jarring and felt like there was something missing. So on the next Wednesday, June 5, 2013, Aspen, Garett and I went out to not only patch in a few holes in the opening and closing narration scenes by Jamie, but also add a completely new scene to the movie that had not been in the script, but was perfectly in line with the spirit of the movie’s predecessors. A training montage.
It makes no sense plot-wise as to why they would go do this, but that was part of the fun of the joke. We filmed portions at the HSHS Football field, back at Garett’s house, Evans Plunge, and several other places around town.
A favorite addition to the montage was the junk food scene, one which Aspen to this day still gives me a hard time about. This outtake pretty much sums it up.
On the same “5th day,” we brought Isaiah back in to fix a continuity error I’d caught in editing: in the scene where Dorn steals the satchel from Jamie, Ryan is hit by Jamie with the bag and then it’s stolen from Jamie by Dorn. Problem: these two shots were filmed on separate days, but were from nearly the same angle, and where Isaiah’s character “fell” was obviously empty in the shot with Michael. So we added a quick shot of Isaiah moving out of the frame, supposedly retreating from battle to go assist Sam’s character catch Okoye. Yet another minor fix, but an important one.
By the first weekend after filming, Daniel had come in to record his lines for the Sahera Backstory scene, although no artwork was complete at that time. After the day of reshoots, most of June 2013 was spent tightening up what was already there, adding sound effects and learning how to roughly complete the visual effects of scenes like Dr. Lawrence going 2D and making Sahera throw Down out of frame at an unrealistic speed.
With mostly a lot of trial and error, by July 1, the fourth rough edit of Jamie Klotz’s Diary was complete. This edit still sits on my hard drive today and features a different opening song, very little color correction, rough visual effects (Dr. Lawrence is almost entirely transparent in his 2D form), Dorn’s half of the phone scenes are still missing and the credits have not been added. In spite of what was still missing, the movie was very much in watchable form.
A decision had also been made to axe the scene between Dorn & Lawrence because, in rushing the shoot that day to squeeze in as much with Michael as possible, I missed a couple crucial alternate angles and readings completely, rendering the scene mostly useless, in spite of it helping explain Dorn’s motivations and family connections to the diary and treasures. In order to fill that hole, dialogue would be added to Dorn’s (still unfilmed) telephone calls with “the boys” to clarify.
In late July, Aspen came in to dub the lines for the dreaded library shot as well as a couple new lines during Sahera’s backstory – which still had no artwork and we also shot the bonus end credits music number which would feature additional outtakes/cast dancing and would only be shown as part of the film during the premiere, which had been set for September 21.
On August 22, Michael finally made it back to Hot Springs and we added the crucial shots of him on the phone. Not the ideal scenarios compared to the scenes that had been scripted (in fact, Isaiah to this day has never met him despite their characters having a number of interactions on screen) but it was an exercise in creative compromise and working around limitations. On August 25, Okoye added her lines over the library shot and on September 5, an 8th draft rough cut had been assembled. Credits were added and the movie was essentially complete, save the artwork that was still missing. Enter Deana.
It’s no secret that Jamie Klotz’s Diary was in part inspired by The Legend of Zelda game series and, as scripted, the scene depicting Sahera’s backstory was always intended to be done in a style similar to the openings of A Link to the Past or The Wind Waker. However, I had no idea how it was done, or where to even start.
A week before the movie was set to premiere, I still had no idea how this scene was going to be done. My girlfriend Deana took a look at the game openings, almost immediately recognized the style I was looking for, and offered to create the prints necessary to finish the scene. I sketched out what I had in mind and she fleshed them out, creating the artwork, carving the blocks and, two days before the premiere, creating the prints themselves, which I scanned, composited & edited into the movie literally the night before the premiere.
She hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit or recognition for the amazing artwork she created, and unfortunately it’s buried till almost the 45 minute mark of the movie. But they’re really fantastic pieces of art that – even if the rest of the movie was blah – that scene was going to look great!
It was a turnaround of only four months between the first day of shooting and the release of The Incredible Search for Jamie Klotz’s Diary. When the premiere date hit, I was so nervous that I hid in the Mueller Center conference room as people entered the theater and made Aspen make the announcement that the program would be delayed 5-10 minutes to wait for the stragglers to come in.
Would they like it? Would they think it was funny? Would they get it? Was anybody even out there besides friends and family? I was just hopeful anybody would even show up, let alone like the movie. To me, I was still surprised that in spite of it feeling so thrown together, it felt cohesive. Worst of all was the discovery that the Mueller Center’s audio system was cutting out the left audio track. Due to the last-minute completion of the Sahera backstory scene, one of Daniel’s lines was accidentally hard-panned left. Without a real hard fix and completely incapable of re-rendering the whole thing, my quick fix was to load the isolated line as an mp3 on my cell phone and play it through one of the microphones as the movie was playing, cued at just the right moment.
Somehow, it all worked. I don’t know how, but it did. Even more surprising was how engaged the audience was. They were willing to give this slapdash, thrown together project of mine a chance, and during the Q&A, they asked so many great questions of the cast. I was feeling a lot of feelings, but mostly I was just grateful. It was completely unreal and I went home that night wondering it was all a dream.
The question on everyone’s mind, even asked during the Q&A, was: what’s next and would there be a sequel?
-Don’t be afraid to make cuts or additions based on the needs of the story and pacing.
-Your first edit will suck. Your second edit will suck more. Your fourth edit might be watchable, but it will suck. Be brutal. Keep tightening. Find a flow and go with it.
-Test all equipment, both on set and before you screen the final thing.
-Whether people like it or not, you did it. And that’s an accomplishment you can be proud of.
-Carry the lessons you learned into the next thing you do and make that next one even better.