RANDOM ACTS OF MIKE WATT: SHOOTING A LOW BUDGET PICTURE

RANDOM ACTS OF MIKE WATT: SHOOTING A LOW BUDGET PICTURE

So we’ve returned, bruised, battered and weary, perhaps wiser, from the wilds of Rochester, NY.

A few months ago, Amy was recruited to take part in a new movie for Low Budget Pictures, helmed by LBP’s generalissimo, Chris Seaver. In a moment of madness, Chris asked me to take a part as well. Now, we’ve known Chris for”¦ ever, it seems. At least since 2000 when Debbie Rochon recommended that I interview the young director/producer of a movie she appeared in called Mulva: Zombie Asskicker. Seaver’s movies take place in a world completely of his own devising, populated by characters who are all neurologically damaged, emotionally arrested and prone to Tourettes-like outbursts of profanity and bizarre vocalizations. His dialogue combines Shakespearean grandeur with impenetrable hip-hop slang, usually in the same sentence. Misogynistic, time-traveling simians and prehistoric Neanderthals occupy the same high school as a motley assortment of human teenagers””some of whom are cowboys, buck-toothed lesbians, sexually-frustrated and flatulent redheads and/or Metal-loving Caucasian Native Americans.

In short, nobody else on Earth can or will make a Low Budget Pictures movie. Whether you love him or hate him (and there aren’t many people who are ambivalent towards him), it must be admitted that Chris Seaver is a true auteur. He assembled a gloriously-talented troupe of actors who embrace his sometimes-juvenile silliness with glee, gusto and unbridled energy.

And since Mulva 2: Kill Teen-Ape (which seamlessly combines the LBP universe with that of Tarantino’s Kill Bill), I’ve wanted to take part in at least one LBP movie before I depart this mortal coil. Last weekend, I got that chance.

The first time the proposition was made, Chris told us about an insanely violent and raunchy movie he wanted to make, wherein Amy was to play a leather-clad bounty hunter, or somesuch thing, and my role would be determined later. By the time we got the synopsis for what we would ultimately shoot, it had changed into something entirely different. Between Cinema Wasteland and last week, Chris had been hired by a distribution company to shoot a movie called Close Encounters of the Alien Redneck Kind. In this new work-for-hire, Amy would be playing “”Audrey”, a single mom with a breast-fetish website. My role was to be of a soldier named “”Stack Brickmeat” (a name I continued to mangle as “”Brick Stackmeat”) who, upon the verge of “”kanoodling”””as specified in the script””with his one true love, Chaisey, is transformed, through alien technology, into a mullet-bearing redneck redubbed “”Cletus”. As is poor Chaisey, who becomes the alien redneck leader, “”Camel Toe Bobbie Jo”.

We received our script on Thursday and were due to arrive at Chris’ front door on Friday afternoon. Being consummate professionals, we cast our day jobs aside to study our parts and create back-story for our unlikely characters. Or, actually, the opposite of that. We glanced at our lines during the five-hour drive to Rochester.

Now, Chris lives with his lovely wife, Lauren, and their infant son, River, in a single-story house born from another single-story house next door, owned by Lauren’s parents. The houses are connected by a secret passage located in their enormous pantry. I didn’t find this out, however, until Saturday, when I noticed that Lauren would disappear into this dark room for very long periods of time and would return with things she did not take with her. Sometimes, she would take River into this room and return without him. As it turns out, the “”Narnia” of the Seaver world is Lauren’s mother’s living room.

Our co-stars in CEARK are well-known to LBP fans. The lovely and talented Meredith Host portrays Camel Toe, while the less-lovely but no-less talented Indovina brothers, Kurt and Travis, played Bronson and Papillion/Buck respectively. New to us were Billy Garberino (Stink of Flesh), Katherine Indovina and Brad Austin, who were playing other outrageous characters. While I was unfamiliar with these gentlemen and lady, I got to know them on set and through their fine work in other LBP movies like Wet Heat and the upcoming Ski Wolf“”both of which are truly hysterical. The absent revelers, sadly, were Casey Bowker and Josh Suire, who have been highly entertaining in movies like Teen Ape Goes To Camp and Film Crew.

Now, while I am proud of my performance in A Feast of Flesh, I’ve never really considered myself much of an actor. Yes, I’ve been trained as one and, yes, I’ve pretended to be one, occasionally, but mostly I’m just entertaining myself. So it came as no surprise to me as I found my character’s voice evolving from Burt Lancaster to Dudley Do-Right, or later, when I went from an Elvis voice to that of Jim Varney. But, on the other hand, Chris encourages this sort of fluid absurdity, and never corrected me unless he had a really specifically silly line-reading in mind.

Chris also likes to shoot in order, so my first scene was also the first scene in the movie, where Meredith’s character and I are interrupted in our kanoodling by the intrusion of an alien redneck pod. “”How much kanoodling do you think he’ll want?” I asked Meredith moments before the scene.

“”Hopefully, not a lot!” she replied.

“”Thanks,” I said.

(Now, Meredith has known Amy and me for years and we’re friends. Still, a little less horror at the prospect of our onscreen simulated kanoodling would have been nice for the ego.)

We shot these scenes and many others in a very lovely and highly populated Rochester area park. Sometimes, it was very difficult to continue with our scenes with the near-constant traffic of families and their dogs””many of whom came by to say hi and to shake off excess water onto us (I’m referring to the dogs, of course, and their penchant for leaping joyously into nearby ponds) while we were in the midst of recreating genuinely antisocial activity like neck-biting and crotch punching.

I should also mention that the temperature all three days was in the high 90s with near 200% humidity and the occasional oxygen fire for good measure. There also seemed to be a mosquito outbreak that left most of us swollen, itchy, blotchy and maimed. And sunburned and dehydrated. And that was just our dignity!

Our second journey to the park came later, with actors Heather Maxon and her significant other, Warren, in tow, where which we shot the first redneck scenes of the day. Of course, shooting at the opening of a park attracted a fair amount of attention. After about half an hour, the cops arrived. Chris held up the camera, Meredith explained that we were shooting a “”student film” (attention Indie folks ““ you’re always shooting a student film; and you’ve always left your ID in your room, if you’re asked). The cop was agreeable, though, mentioning that the park authorities had noticed something “”suspicious” going on. I don’t know what, exactly, we were doing that was suspicious””up until that point, we were just shooting dialogue. We hadn’t gotten to the suspicious activity yet.

Shooting with Seaver and company took some time to get used to, particularly the speed at which we were moving. Once, I thought that we moved fast at Happy Cloud Pictures. We’re glaciers compared to the LBP crew. Of course, Chris uses only available light and an onboard camera mic””he doesn’t even use a tripod, preferring to shoot everything handheld and dollying his body in and out as the scene progresses. He also shoots, again, as much in order as possible. No masters, no more than two or three lines at a time. He’ll also give specific directions if he has a line reading in mind, but no direction at all beyond “”Let’s do that again,” if he didn’t like something (or if we fucked up a line, which was more often than not).

Some of you elitists might be shaking your heads, fingers or other appendages at the above””as I certainly was when we started””but let me ask: what makes Chris’ process less-valid than anyone else’s? You light a scene to get a certain look. Chris likes his movies to look natural while unreality unspools within the frame. His dismissal of rehearsal stems from his preference that the actors do what they do and to surprise him as the scene progresses. Since he has the camera right up in your face the entire time, using a boom mike would not only be extraneous, but very difficult to cram above the frame. This is the LBP style, similar to that of early Goddard and very similar to the Dogma school of filmmaking. And who the hell am I to question someone’s filmic process? He gets the results he’s happy with, I won’t judge how he gets them.

LBP movies are about the characters, first and foremost. Every LBP movie is character-driven. And if the characters seem too broadly-drawn or cartoony, that’s because they’re existing in a world both like and unlike our own. There’s a bizarre combination of classical theatrics, over-the-top radio voice tricks, hip hop, Borscht-belt wild takes, toilet-jokes and general tomfoolery that comes strictly from Seaver’s mind. The actors are called upon to create characters on the spot and the only rule is: be funny. Before any non-fans out there turn up your noses let me bring something to your attention: mugging isn’t easy. As I mentioned, I had to flip-flop from Burt Lancaster to Dudley Doo-Right in the space of three or four words. I had to deliver tongue-twister dialogue at the same time, not look at the camera, not burst into a fit of giggles while the off-camera folks watched and ad-lib sufficiently if I screwed something up and still had to finish the sentence. I’ve taken a great deal of improv and theatrical classes over the years, I’ve studied linguistics, vocalization and numerous accents and I was still having a tough time with all of that.

But Meredith, Travis, Kurt, Billy, Katherine””they handled this stuff without batting an eye. They were just used to Chris, what he wanted and how to give it to him. And he didn’t mind if I threw something in off book so long as it made him laugh and didn’t seem completely out of context with what we were doing.

Consider this exchange:

Chaisey: “”Right here, Stack, I wanna fuck your balls off underneath this wide open willow tree.”

To which I was supposed to reply, “”Chaisey, you hound.”

But I forgot that line, so, stuck, I rattled off: “”Well, I took a SCUD missile to the left one, so you’ll just have to fuck off the right.”

Chris laughed. The line stayed in. Or, at least, we didn’t reshoot with the right line so”¦

Amy’s chores on the set were similar, though her character was painted in more narrow strokes. As “”Audrey”, she was the literal “”T” of the T&A, required to act in low-cut blouses and arch her back a lot. As the scenes progressed, Chris would shoot her line in a close-up or two-shot, spin around and shoot the reaction or next line with the next character, swing back to her, etc. When she was off-camera, she would react to the on-camera character to give the actor something to work with. That’s how she was trained. At one point, Brad lost his focus and flubbed a line. He turned to Chris and pointed an accusing finger at Amy: “”What’s with the real actress over here?”

A similar experience had Chris stopping when I was doing the same thing. “”You’re not on camera, you know?” I knew. “”I’m giving Kurt something to focus on.”

Neither of these things seemed unusual to us, and it didn’t strike us as unusual either, as Meredith would frequently order one of the actors into their spot to give the on-camera character a focal point. But, apparently, because they move so fast, it isn’t a requirement on an LBP set.

One benefit that Chris has, however, is similar to a Happy Cloud set. He’s surrounded by strong, smart women who run his set while he concerns himself with other things. Meredith, this time around, was his producer, his AD, his grip, script supervisor and the shoot’s den mother. She was the one commanding, “”Okay, what’s next?” Feeding lines, saying “”Let’s move on,” when the others were tempted to dissolve back to the natural state of chaos.

And the chaos was my own misconception. I asked her, at one point, “”Is it always this chaotic and hectic?”

“”No,” she replied. “”This is actually moving really easily. Usually we have a lot more to get done and there’s more”¦ pressure. We’re ahead of schedule, actually.”

Though CEARK lacked break-out stars like Teen-Ape, Caspian or Heather and Puggly, there was still a sheer amount of goofiness and black comedy. LBP mines the depths of taste for laughs, many of them wrung from death, dismemberment and sexual misconduct. And violence. My character was involved in three fight scenes, all of which were staged against Kurt, who hadn’t even been born when I was his age! Kurt is also very agile, fit and fast. And strong. And hurty.

Chris announced towards the end, “”Okay, go choreograph something, guys.” Suddenly, Kurt was outlining a very complicated series of fight moves and I was in pain just listening. During one scene, he leapt clear over me, landed, rolled, leapt to his feet and countered one of my kicks with a kick of his own to my shin, then a roundhouse that just cleared my head. I reacted to the kick and threw myself rolling to the ground.

And Chris didn’t shoot it! I’m on the ground, willing my lungs to re-inflate, convinced my shin had cracked in half, and he says “”Let’s shoot it for real!” Meanwhile, Kurt isn’t even sweating.

Being a consummate professional, I only bitched a lot.

Still, I’d gotten what I’d hoped for: the Low Budget Pictures experience. We got to hang out with people we’d gotten to know over the years through their movies and from a few isolated minutes here and there at conventions. We laughed a lot, we groaned, we gave each other shit. And while there, I got to check out a couple of the LBP movies I’d missed, like the aforementioned Wet Heat and the very well-done Ski Wolf.

And I marveled, again, at the leaps and bounds with which Seaver has grown as a filmmaker over the years. His movies are tighter, now, with very good editing and cleaner sound. And while they’re just as silly, his characters now have arcs to their journeys and the gags are now character-specific. And there’s a sweetness that exists, particularly in the Heather and Puggly movies, that you didn’t find before. Even his frequent toilet humor is motivated, instead of shoved in for a cheap laugh.

You don’t get to witness growth too often in this business. Some filmmakers come and go, making no impact. Others retire because it’s just too goddamned tough to make something people want to watch. Seaver and the LBP crew have legions””friggin’ legions“”of fans all over the world. I joke with him when I see him at Cinema Wasteland””””How many movies did you shoot on the way down?”””but I envy his speed and I envy his consistency. And this is coming from someone who couldn’t even watch his movies once upon a time. Now I look forward to them. Because he gives me something new each time. Bizarre, nonsensical, but consistently funny.

And I, for one, am very happy to have been part of one.

Now, sukkas, head over to Low Budget Pictures for some phat filmage from which you soul will verily soar to the highest heights of heaven and cosmically beyond and shit!!




Posted on June 10, 2008 in Blogs by
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