The Making of BAD BUSINESS
From the director's perspective
A 90 minute feature shot in video.
Working without a crew
The first film I ever made was done without a crew while in Film School. I was studying at San Francisco State University back in the days when Bill Clinton didn't inhale and the 16mm hand-wind Bolex was considered State-of-the-art. I hope to think that I've come a long way since those days so the idea of shooting a film without a crew went out the window along with tie-dyed t-shirts and peace pipes.
As a professional I've shot and directed many films. I've worked with tiny crews on documentaries and gargantuan crews on features, but always with a crew.
Filmmaking is not usually a craft one pursues alone, so the notion of making a movie without a crew at first seemed ludicrous.
The idea surfaced at a seminar I was teaching on Producing Low Budget Features which was based upon my experiences making CARDIAC ARREST, a feature I made in the early 1980's. One afternoon, just as the class was winding up, the hand of a wild-eyed dreamer shot into the air with a "stupid question." (The words were his and prefaced the question.) " Was it possible to shoot a movie without a crew, using a consumer video camera?" I was about to laugh him off, but seeing some of that same dreamer in myself, I suggested that it was possible. I paraphrased a quote from Francis Ford Coppola spoken in an interview he gave in the documentary that his wife, Eleanor, made about the making of Apocalypse Now. In that interview Francis, postulates that someday video will replace film and that a great movie will be made by a high school girl from Iowa using a video camera "However" I cautioned my student, "While it was possible, it wasn't very practical. " Over the next few months the idea began to percolate in my unconscious.
Motivated by Development Hell
In the late 1980's I moved from San Francisco, where I pretty much earned my living producing and directing corporate communications, educational films, documentaries and political campaign media, to Los Angeles so that I could pursue the making of feature films. The transition wasn't an easy one and I found myself living not in Hollywood but in a place called"Development Hell", a spot in the filmmaking universe where screenplays can languish for years. While living in Los Angeles I made a few "deals", worked as a screenwriter for hire and sold a few "spec" scripts, but wasn't much closer to fulfilling my dreams than when trying to make independent features in the Bay Area. I was cobbling together a living through my writing, teaching some film classes and directing an occasional documentary.
Big changes in technology
Something else had happened over that same ten year period. The digital age had arrived and I almost missed it. Production tools seemed to have changed almost overnight. Where it once it took rooms filled with humongous 35 mm dubbers to mix a feature, the same job could be done with a digital work station and a few DA-88's. Special effects had left the realm of optical printing and were now zooming off monitors on CGI work stations. The flatbed Steenbeck and KEM film editing machines ,which had replaced the upright Moviola's of my youth, had in turn been replaced by Avids. I was beginning to feel like Rip Van Winkle. It was time to become a digital revolutionary.
So I bought the pro-sumer Sony VX-1000 digital camcorder. As I began to fool around with it, I soon realized I might be able to shoot a movie with it. What I loved about the camera was its tiny size. Unlike a Betacam it was almost invisible. As I shot tests in local café's, or in the open streets, no one seemed to notice. I appeared to be just another tourist with a home video camera. This could be an advantage.
But what to shoot?
Was Mini-DV good enough?
Hoop Dreams was shot in Betacam but I was going to shoot in MiniDV. I continued to worry about grain. By the time the project got to 35 MM film for theatrical release it be quite grainy. One day, remembering that old adage "if you've got lemons, make lemonade", I realized the thing I doubted could be turned into an advantage. I was the line producer of Fillmore, a film which Judith Christ had called the best Rock & Roll documentary ever made and I was one of the editors on The Grateful Dead Movie. I certainly knew the terrain.. The grainy look and a hand held style would add a touch of truth to something shot in documentary style. I have been a fan of mock documentaries ever since Rob Reiner' Spinal Tap, so the jump was an obvious one.
A faux documentary.
Once I'd decided to make a faux documentary, I brainstormed for ideas, searching for a subject and characters. The idea of a hitman as the protagonist struck like lightning. I made a list of scenes which I thought might be funny. jumped into an outline with both , of scenes which might be fun to shoot, trying to imagine what a hitman's world outlook might be. When I turned off the computer I had a fourteen page outline.
The following morning I was excited. I stopped at a local café for breakfast, chomping at the bit to bounce the idea off a few friends, who by this time were probably a bit bored with my crazy idea to make a movie with a video camera. I grabbed a cup of coffee and a bagel, headed outside to an umbrella covered table on the patio and was joined by Chris Mulkey who arrived a few minutes later. Chris is a wonderful, funny actor who has appeared in more than fifty films and on countless television shows. A few years ago he got rave reviews for his performance in Patti Rocks, an independent feature that got a great deal of buzz. Many people will recognize him from the role he played on David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS. Chris loved the idea. Within five minutes he offered to play the lead character. He had a month off between movies and suggested we jump in and do it. .
Putting together a cast.
Between us we knew a lot of actors, so we cast our friends. We were like a couple of kids who decided to put on a play in their back yards. Brian Doyle Murray and Tony Plana, who worked with Chris in BAKERSFIELD P.D. , a very funny television sit-com, which a Time Magazine reviewer called the best new show on tv the season it premiered, agreed to play Vic's Underworld Associates. Julian Semilian, a film editor who is an old college friend of Chris' introduced us to Chase Clifford who played the hitman's girlfriend. Chris real life wife, Karen Landry, who starred opposite him in Patti Rocks, agreed to play two roles. My friend, Larry Mintz, who is no relation, seemed perfect for the hitman's psychiatrist, and Joe Pantoliano (most recently seen in Matrix) who has been a friend of mine for a number of years offered to play "Bodyman" The list of all the actors who worked on this film is too long to mention here, but you can find it at The Bad Business - cast page. Since almost all of our actors were in The Screen Actors Guild, we made arrangements to shoot under one of their low budget contracts.
The camera was to be a character in the camera
I'd seen Ross McElewee's personal documentary Sherman's March and loved the effect of the camera being a participant. Chris loved the idea and early on we decided that my voice, would be that of the cameraman, and the unseen cameraman would become a character in the movie.
How we shot
The restaurant scenes were shot mostly in restaurants and cafés around Santa Monica and Venice, although one of the most beautiful scenes was shot in a Thai Restaurant Hollywood which was owned by a friend of Chris's. We would just sit down, order something to eat and begin shooting, the customers oblivious to the fact that we were making a movie. I tried to be careful not to see faces in the background. There are a few scenes in the finished movie where a face is recognizable. In those instances, at the behest of our lawyers we blurred out the faces like they do in all the Cinema Verite cop shows. Another touch which adds to the verisimilitude of the documentary style.
We chose locations where the natural lighting provided the opportunity for good lighting. The entire film was shot with available light, but is very carefully lit. Many scenes are shot with the characters sitting inside a restaurant, but very close to a window. More often than not, the key light came from the daylight filtering in from the outside and the fill came from the restaurant's practical lighting. Working in this fashion we could shoot a scene in a couple of hours, rather than many times that when shooting with a full lighting crew.
Many scenes were shot at night. For those locations we chose places which were very well lit and were often beautifully decorated. There is no art director credit on the film, but we benefited from the work of many wonderful real-life restaurant and interior designers. Chris has done so much film work that he intuitively knows where his key-light is at all times. We would choose a table in a restaurant or bar which was well lit, and often one which had something happening in the background. Wherever I could, I'd make sure the actors had a neon sign, or a bright light in the background, which always made for wonderful visual composition. This worked most of the time, however there were a couple of times when the Maitre 'd and the waiters thought we were crazy because we kept moving from one table to the next. I always thought it brazen to just shoot first and ask later, but nobody ever objected. I guess they thought we were just some crazy tourists. The VX-1000 performed amazingly well in low light conditions.
For the interviews, and actually for most of the film, Chris almost always wore a wireless mic. I bought a pair of Azden mics and a receiver which Azden makes that actually mixes two mics. It did a really good job, so good in fact, that I felt comfortable in shooting without a person mixing sound. Azden now makes a similar unit which allows you to send the signal from two mics to the separate stereo tracks on the Sony which would give you more control in post, but at the time we had to live with the wireless mixer. One of my favorite scenes in the film wouldn't have been possible without these mics. In this scene, Vic (The Hitman) is discovered by Lenny (Sal Viscuso) an "associate" who happens to be driving through the neighborhood. The radio mics allowed us to shoot from one car to the other with amazing ease.
From DV to Betacam
The Mini-DV footage was transferred to Betacam SP. While the camera generates its internal drop frame time code, there is no way to get it without using the firewire. Also, because there is no way to set an hour number on the camera it made sense to regenerate drop frame tc when we made the Betacams which were to become our masters. That way each hour of video could begin with its own hour number. We shot 26 hours of material, which meant that the timecode repeated only on two tapes, and those, by virtue of their content, were easily identifiable.
We made VHS window dubs with visible time code from the Betacam tapes and used those to input them into the computer. Premiere has a feature which allows you to add the time code to a clip once its been transferred to the computer. This was done by reading the visible code from the first frame and typing the number into premiere. Once we were done, Premiere spit out an EDL which we were able to copy to a floppy and import in the On-line D2 session. One of my few complaints about Premiere 4.2 was that the EDL was not perfect. Premiere ships with a conversion utility, EDL Access, which converts from the DOS format to the CMX format. Kenny Fields, a fabulous on-line Editor at LA POST in Santa Monica, was able to clean up the list's imperfections by editing once it was in the CMX format and we were able to use it for the online edit.
Dealing with the sound
The mark of a low budget production is often poor sound, so once the edit was finished, we took the film to Gary Coppola, who runs Sound Satisfactiona terrific post production facility in Hollywood. Gary loved the film and agreed sweeten and mix the tracks for us.
The finished film has been screened for hundreds of people. Almost all of them really have a good time with the film. At each of our screenings we projected video, but always asked the audience to remain in their seats after the credits so we could show them a 35MM blow-up test done by Four Media in Burbank. The 35 mm footage looks amazing, considering it began with a pro-sumer video camera. We've had some difficulty finding a theatrical distributor as it is a very crowded marketplace, but Chris and I are confident that some very smart distributor out there will pick up the film for theatrical distribution. We are also looking for a domestic video distribution deal so hopefully the day isn't too far off that you'll be able to find it in your local video store.
Would I do it again?
Since making this film, a number of features shot with a digital camera have made it into theatrical distribution. Perhaps the best known is Thomas Vinterberg's Celebration. This is one of the movie's inspired by the Dogme 95 manifesto ( READ THE DOGME MANIFESTO BY CLICKING HERE ) So, there is little doubt that the dv format has viability.
While Bad Business doesn't actually fit the Dogme manifesto, it was made pretty much along Dogme rules, except the plot did require the use of props like guns, but the only optical effects were the painted gunshots. For the most part everything else we did would qualify the movie as a Dogme film. After all it was shot with a Mini-dv camera.
While in no way am I advocating the idea that one person with a video camera will ever replace the large crews necessary to make a major motion picture. The skilled professionals who work in the film industry (A.D.'s, UPM's, Cinematographers, Sound Recordists, Make-up, Art Directors, Grips, Gaffers, etc.) are invaluable, and the film industry as we know it would not be the same without their talented input, however I do believe that there is room for the small niche film made in the way we made Bad Business, which will probably be delivered over the internet.
Which brings me back to the question, would I do it again?