A Mammoth Theatrical Experience

It’s been like a fever dream. One minute, I’m wrapping up a full remastering of the entire Skeeter Bite Productions archive (more on that in a later post!!!) the next, it’s four months later and we’re almost ready to open the first show of Southern Hills Community Theatre’s 6th season.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that because it’s being staged in Hot Springs, “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” has anything to do with the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, but in fact it does not. The show, instead, draws from the experiences of Kathe Holen, whom I had worked with on The Christmas Heist when she played Mrs. Phyllis Falkowitz, and has an archaeological bent, not a paleontological one. Kathe and her husband Steve, as it turns out, are archaeologists and were among the co-authors of a paper presenting evidence that mammoth bones found in California may have been broken by humans almost 130,000 years ago.

That paper, published on April 26, 2017 (just a hair under a year ago as of this post) in the scientific journal Nature, rocked the archaeological world and was featured across the mainstream media. You name it, they covered it: Washington Post, NBC, ABC, NatGeo, NPR, CNN, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, LA Times, The Atlantic… the list went on and on…

I had read about it and knew the Holens had co-authored it, but I guess, to be frank, I didn’t understand the weight of it until later. It’s probably a good thing though that I wasn’t as intimidated as I probably should have been when Kathe approached the board of SHCT with her script for “A Mammoth in Harmes Way.” While the script was not at all based on actual events, the inspirations are clear with an emphasis on controversial findings, backlash and skepticism in the scientific community, and accurately depicting real archaeology.

Among that was peppered a potent blend of fictional mystery, drama, romance and even hints of social commentary on women in science as journalist Beth tagged along on an expedition with Dr. Robert Hedlund, and his team of archaeologists and volunteers, unraveling not only a scientific puzzle, but a larger, darker secret surrounding the Harmes Way excavation site.

We were just on the tail end of the summer show HMS Pinafore, when I first read “Mammoth.” What immediately struck me about the script was the earnestness and honesty with which it was written. There were no cheap narrative tricks… there was zero cynicism. You could sense authenticity in every line.

Quite a good chunk of the plays SHCT have undertaken in the first five years were shows written by playwrights, men and women who churn out several scripts a year full time to keep revenue flowing. Formulaic is a generous description. But don’t get me wrong, they have their place – sometimes you want to go to a theater, turn your brain off, be entertained, get fed the right emotional beats, and leave without remembering the name of the show in six months.

Ten points for wistfully longing for the good ol’ days. Twenty-five points if they reference Shakespeare anywhere in the script. Fifty points if it’s a holiday show that’s an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” One hundred points if the plot is about staging a play-within-a-play, doing a radio or TV show, or writing scripts and things going awry.

The other night, I sat down to finalize the last of the Skeeter Bite archival transfers: I Sent My Grandma Into The Past, The Christmas Heist, and Christmas Radio. I hadn’t watched “Radio” since probably mid-2014. How much our little theatre has grown since then! Isaiah, who plays one of the leads, Dr. Robert Hedlund, in “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” was 15 or 16 years old when we did “Radio.”And I thought the last four months flew by, let alone the last 5 years!

It had been the first show which I had written part of (the bookends surrounding the radio play adaptation of A Christmas Carol – said script racks up 185 points at least, thankyouverymuch!) and the first show that I had directed. The Christmas Carol portion wasn’t anything to write home about, but those bookends, if I can humblebrag a bit, were pretty all right! Not great but I still think they’re kinda charming.

In particular, toward the end of the show, there’s a moment where Sam Martin, playing the Orson Welles knock-off Richard Ives, berates the radio station’s cast for all the production woes. But Isaiah’s character, Jack, stands up to him, telling him that despite everything, the little troupe had done their best with what they had.

At the time, it was an intentional coda to the whole season. It was the last show of SHCT’s first season. Sure there plans for the next year, but who knew how long the theater would live? I didn’t know if I would ever get to write or direct another show again. Betsy had taken a chance on me without knowing whether I even could write and I wasn’t going to waste it.

I knew when I read “Mammoth” that I wanted to take the same sort of chance on Kathe that Betsy had taken on me, and Kathe had expressed an interest in having me direct it if we thought the show was good enough to stage.

Kathe and I had a great sit-down meeting where we explored in great detail all the questions that I always ask myself whenever I am writing and directing my own material: Who are these characters? What are their motivations? What’s going on between the lines, before and after scenes? Why does this character know this piece of information and how did they learn it? How does one character feel about another even though they may never speak a line between them? Thinking about a story in a deeper, more self-critical way that’s equal parts objective and subjective was a lesson I myself had learned the hard way, especially on Never Been to Graceland. Knowing how it had been inspired by so many real elements in her life, I wanted to save Kathe the heartbreak of losing something beloved dearly late in the game like I lost AJ’s subplot in Graceland. Thankfully it wasn’t anything we had to really worry about!

After the dinner theatre was done in late October, we held a read-through of the revised script, with some theatre friends joining us and filling in roles. Hearing it out loud just confirmed that the show was ready to be staged.

So here we are, less than 24 hours out from opening night. But it’s more than that. It’s the first show of our 6th Season, the first without Betsy (follow her over on the As We Go blog), Kathe’s first, and for me, the first thing I’ve ever directed that did not originate with myself. That might not seem significant, but this year marks the 15th year working by and largely only on my own material. I’m thrilled that “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” is the first major project to break that trend.

Looking back, that scene from Christmas Radio takes on less of a manifestation as a coda than something resembling a recurring mantra: no matter what anyone else says, no matter how many things might go wrong, and though I might not do things as well as a more experienced or trained director or writer might, but we’re going to do the best with what we have and hope folks enjoy it.

I’ll be back after the show to write more about the podcast I started with Gurdip Ladhar, TCBCast, and share some neat behind the scenes stuff from “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” as well as start outlining what the next couple years are gonna look like project-wise.

-Justin

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Jamie Klotz’s Diary II Director’s Cut | Full Film

 

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

Top: Actual shot from original JKD2. Bottom: From the Director’s Cut.

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 look into past blogs), 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.

Not in the original script, but Aspen still did a great job with this.

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).

Surprise extras!

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.

 

Literally shot minutes apart

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 audio in this whole scene sounds muffled because I was trying to mitigate the sound of rain on the metal roof

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.

Actual shot from original JKD2. Note Brandon’s cut off shoe.

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.

The missing line “Kaitlyn? I am having some serious deja vu.” from this shot is barely audible in the original cut, which used the camera’s audio. In the Director’s Cut, I was thankfully about to find the boom mic’s track.

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).

FINAL THOUGHTS

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.

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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.

Recovery

WE DID IT!

I Sent My Grandma Into The Past (And Other Chronological Conundrums) played March 30-31 and April 1 at the Mueller Civic Center to wonderful reception by the community.

As these things tend to go, I inevitably ended up with a pretty awful cold performance week, with it peaking in intensity on Friday and Saturday – two of the performance dates! All three performances would not have been possible without the help of Deana Roberts, who diligently kept me full of Theraflu, Mucinex, and a variety of cough drops, fluids and other helpful goodies.

But most of all, the cast and crew of I Sent My Grandma pulled out all the stops and gave phenomenal performances, despite some minor technical issues on the back end. No matter how hard I was trying to stifle a disruptive cough, I could not help but grin during Zach’s “beat poem” (Pictured above) which of all scenes probably had the loudest and most raucous audience reaction – and rightfully so. Zach’s over the top dramatic reading kept getting better and better each night as I could observe him playing off the audience’s reactions: the harder they laughed, the more of an affectation he put on.

Whether it has been Jamie Klotz, Christmas Heist or this, the thing I have always anticipated the most is the crowd reaction. If we’re eliciting any reaction, I’ve done something that has affected people, good or bad. Thankfully, the crowd was open with their laughter and reactions to the scenes.

The thing I’m most proud about in this script is what I feel to be strong, relatable characterizations. Every character gets a chance to shine and for the audience to learn who they are inside and sympathize with them. When the crowd cheered Grandma Margaret’s final interaction with her best friend Betsy, I knew we’d succeeded in making both of those characters strong enough for the audience to care. When the audience audibly cringed during Spencer and Zoey’s argument at the end of Act 1 as Spencer criticized Zoey, I knew that even though Zoey was the protagonist they cared about, they could tell she was still imperfect as person – and they cared about that. I’m really excited to be able to start developing stories with complex characters and hope to do so in my future projects.

So what’s next then?

Well, of course in August will be Never Been to Graceland’s premiere but as that is in post production, I am functionally project-less as far as having anything to write or start production on. I’m certainly going to take some recovery time after this show, but I do have a couple story ideas I’d like to pursue later this year and into 2018.

Stay tuned… I may have an announcement or two soon…

“Never Been to Graceland” – The Origin of a Title

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So where does the title of Never Been to Graceland come from? Well, from a key line during an exchange of dialogue that has been included in every iteration of the story going all the way back to the original August 12, 2013 first story treatment. (Which is not included in the above drafts as the paragraph it appears in there also includes story spoilers that also carried through all drafts and versions.)

For all of the changes to the story, major and minor, including changing the MacGuffin from a lost Elvis movie to a lost Elvis song, the addition and subsequent subtraction of an array of secondary characters, side plots, and fully fleshed out backstories for nearly all the characters… AJ – who evolved from snarky 17 year old hipster to mid-20s lifestyle journalist – has always been the one to ask if Michael’s been to Graceland and his response has always been the same.

The idea of the phrase “never been to Graceland” is to not only set Michael as a character apart from what one would consider an “average” Elvis fan, but also to signal to the audience that their expectations about what they think about the film, the characters and Elvis (both the man and the celebrity) might be challenged.

I Sent My Grandma Into The Past – Inspiration

Auditions are officially one week away for the Southern Hills Community Theater production of “I Sent My Grandma Into The Past (And Other Chronological Conundrums)” or, put simply, “I Sent Grandma” or “ISG,” as I’ll refer to it in the future. Although that wasn’t the first title it went by anyway, (that was “The Grandmother Paradox”) but I’m getting ahead of myself.

After premieres and performances, I (like millions of writers before me) have inevitably been asked (either immediately after the show or at a gas station somewhere a few days later) how I come up with the ideas for the shows, or how I write them. I’m not not sure of any more blunt way to put it other than to just say that I make it up. Literally. That’s how simple it is.

Well, it really isn’t. You do have to understand a lot of things going on under the hood – narrative structure, character, and in the case of theater, the technical elements of what’s possible on a stage in real time and staying within a budget – but essentially it’s highly organized making stuff up. But anyone can learn these things.

Dialogue is tangible. You can listen to the people around you, or watch videos of people talking and pick up on nuances – cadences, vocabulary, and so on and just imitate that in your writing. Story beats are tangible. Similarly, you can watch other movies and plays and eventually pick up common structures… it’s just like learning about choruses and verses in songs.

Inspiration, on the other hand, is intangible, and I don’t really think it can be learned in the same way. I think it can be learned but I don’t think there’s a set way of learning it. That’s something I have more trouble explaining.

Where do you get your ideas?

Sometimes, like with Never Been to Graceland, I go “this is going to be a story about a fan who goes in search of a lost Elvis recording because that would be cool if that happened to me.” Not to downplay whatever narrative merits it actually has, but that’s the truth of what that story is at its core.

It’s partially based on ideas or people or things that are real – an Elvis fan, lost recordings being found – and partially fiction, and then sort of meshed together.

So, one week out from auditions, where did the idea for “ISG” come from?

Well, leaving out the obvious influences as far as structure and handling the logic of time travel, (*cough* Backtothefuture *cough*) I honestly don’t have a more clear answer.

When Betsy and I were talking about the shows for 2017, I mentioned I had a couple ideas. One was an adaptation of The Big Play, a short that we never completed, and the other I just mentioned as “a couple” because I wanted the flexibility of coming up with something else. I actually had no idea until probably a few hours after I sent the email. Faced with committing to “a couple ideas,” I just made one up. I wrote a draft outline, took it to the board, read them both synopses (synopsises? Synopsii?) that I had written, and they picked this one. So I rolled with it.

How’d I come up with that synopsis in the first place?

Heck if I know. Some things are certainly pulled from life. The main character in “ISG” is inspired by my four year old niece Zoey and my observations of her very literal “character” development as an actual person. But beyond that… you got me. The show’s titular Grandma is only barely influenced by my real grandma and, frankly, probably not by anyone I actually know, either.

I was telling Deana last night, I couldn’t even possibly speak about the show in terms of “executing a vision” because it wasn’t like there was ever really a “vision” so to speak, just an idea I thought would be cute, funny and maybe have a little heart. That’s not to say the story isn’t personal or doesn’t reflect me or my values… it absolutely does, in every much the same way as my previous efforts.

And the script is, I think, funny, cute, and touching. But more than that, it’s proof to myself that I don’t have to stop writing when I’m run out of “real” things to write about.

What I think I’m getting at is that as someone who spent 2006-2016 chasing old narrative threads, it’s both strange and invigorating to be writing something pretty much completely from scratch.

I hope everyone likes it.