Watched the 1990 Men of Gray Movie today

September 9, 2009

I hadn’t seen the movie in probably eight or 10 years. To my surprise, I enjoyed the viewing immensely!

Don’t get me wrong…

My surprise enjoyment is not a disparagement against the movie. mog-1-Russo-n-menIt’s just that I generally find it hard to watch stuff I’ve directed or edited (or both, in this case) because I can’t easily settle into the role of a viewer of any movie I heavily participated in.

And directing or editing a feature length movie is always a substantial investment of body and soul. Consequently, watching them takes me back to the production of it.

Isn’t that a good thing?

Definitely, since I have many good memories with each production, after all. Still, viewing them again is mostly a hard thing emotionally.

Why? Because, in watching them, my mind flashes back with shocking clarity to the challenges and sacrifices of making each scene – the inevitable resignation of settling between what I envisioned for the scene and what was ultimately possible under the circumstances. To a degree, I suspect that…

All movie directors feel this

…because of the nature of the beast. Directing a narrative feature takes vast imagination and vision in the planning. But creating is always more costly than envisioning.

So, once the director has that glorious mog-1-kickup-avision firmly fixed in his mind, he must then begin carefully chiseling away at that fantastic masterpiece (fully formed in the fantasy of the mind), reducing it to a state that matches the budget, the cast, and any technical or time constraints.

The final movie – what’s left after all the difficult and sacrificial choices leading up to, and through, production and post production – may be viewed by audiences and critics as a great movie. Even so, the movie will inevitably be but a dim reflection of what the director envisioned.

For me at least, mog-1-Russo-threatensthe sought-after movies I had envisioned are still as strong in my mind as is the movies we were actually able to shoot. So, when watching any of these past movies, I’m reliving the sacrifices, even as I’m viewing the victories and remembering great cast and crewmembers.

Also, making a movie is like running a marathon or having a baby (although I’m not speaking  from personal experience on either analogous example) in that they all can be incomprehensibly grueling to go through: seemingly impossible tasks. When you have finished running a marathon or birthing a baby or making a movie, there is not only great satisfaction but great relief that it’s over!

Which is why it’s hard for me to watch … usually.

So you can imagine my surprise, finding today’s viewing so enjoyable.

And it certainly isn’t because the resulting movie mog-1-Joe-stalksclosely resembled my sought-after vision.  I assure you, there were countless necessary subtractions between the vision and the reality of this first Men of Gray movie – it had a budget of less than $10,000, for goodness sake!  🙂

So I should have felt the same discomfort in viewing this movie as with any other that I’ve directed. But, watching it after all these years…

I was having just way too much fun!

I mean, sure — there’s only so much mog-1-showdownyou can do with less than $10,000 when making a full-length feature movie, right? But that actually becomes its charm, in this case. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing what we were able to pull off under the  circumstances.

For instance, most ultra-ultra-low-budget movies are carefully crafted to control costs (like having a small cast, very few locations, mostly daylight shots, minimal action, etc., for example).

But, no, not this movie…

It was a freakin’ epic!

I don’t have the exact numbers, Image-0012but there were probably more than 80 people in the cast, some two or three dozen locations, countless night shots, and maybe a dozen high-action scenes.

Oh, and we made it in a country that has no movie industry — no infrastructure to support film production.  So, my hat is off to producers G. Anthony and Ria Joseph for what they were able to accomplish in putting this whole thing together.  Truly remarkable.

In fact, I could do a half dozen posts about the amazing challenges and crazy adventures in the making of this 1990 movie – and may in fact do so at some point. But suffice it to say, there’s a lot of bang in the bucks we had to work with.

And so I had a ball watching it again

Plus, it was my  first feature film and my first time in Trinidad & Tobago. Image-0009Seeing all those locations and reliving all those memories made me laugh and smile. The guerrilla filmmaking tactics we employed could be strung together and would make a hilarious documentary movie. Remembering those adventures as the movie unfolded scene by scene, how could I not enjoy myself?

 

A great trip. 🙂  And, because I know the movie is very hard to find, I’ve added these screen captures from it to give you a sense of the flavor of that movie.

And, as I suspect, watching the first Men of Grey gave me a few ideas on where to go with the current story, Men of Gray III.

 

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Connecting the dots

September 1, 2009

As described briefly on the blog’s About page, even though I’m writing this screenplay to function primarily as a standalone story, the fact is that it is built on characters introduced in two earlier movies — Men of Gray and Men of Gray II  (released internationally as Flight of the Ibis). Both of these ultra-low-budget movies got some good play in festivals and both have acquired a fan base among Caribbean audiences, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago where they were produced.

Consequently, something that producer G. and I have been sensitive to in developing this story is stay true to the original character of Joe Cameron, and to consider the possibility of including other characters that were introduced in the first two movies — both things that we feel would be appreciated by those who are familiar with these earlier films.

Of course, since the first two movies were loaded with high action confrontations between police and criminals, we damn near killed off the whole lot!

But what about those few characters that did survive the mayhem?

Right: Some did survive. But, with this new story, some 16 years of water have gone under their bridges — 19 years from the first Men of Gray movie, in fact. So I certainly have the choice of starting from scratch: ignoring the past and hoping no one notices…

But frankly I like the challenge of not forgetting about it — of staying fully on course with the story that we want to tell, but also infusing it with these historic threads.

Infuse … How so?

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

  1. Influencing Joe’s brain:
    At the very least, the surviving main characters from the first two movies are part of the emotional and psychological makeup of the present day Joe Cameron, so I’ve already built the modern day psyche of this man with those past events and characters as influencers.
  2. Adding interim adventures:
    I’ve also considered what might have occurred in Joe’s life with these characters in the nearly 2 decades since we last saw them; if they were friends, did they continue to be friends? If they were coworkers or subordinates, did they stay that way? If they were his enemies — wait, no: We killed off all the enemies, come to think of it. But you see my point; life goes on, and so I wanted to have some fun exploring the possibilities of how their intertwining lives may have developed since we last saw them, and how that might influence the current plot.
  3. Reintroducing them into MOG3:
    Though not confirmed, this is something we are seriously considering — infusing this story with the present-day embodiment of these past characters. It introduces some pragmatic risks to the production though, so I’m only carefully looking at this option, designing the story in such a way that, if necessary, we could later remove any of these reintroduced characters without tearing at the fabric of the story.

What pragmatic risks would that introduce?

For instance, if we wanted to cast any of the original actors for the roles, do we know that they are available? Are they even alive? Do they look anything at all like they did back then, or would they have changed so much that bringing them back would do more harm than good for the audience? And, since this new movie will likely have a higher budget, it will also have higher international expectations or distribution requirements. That means that, even if we bring back any of these previous characters, we may need to recast them with actors who have stronger international appeal. Would doing so potentially alienate any of the existing fan base?

So, who survived, and what happens to them now?

None of this is set in stone, mind you, but here are some of the characters from Joe Cameron’s life that we didn’t kill off in the first two movies that I’m thinking we could make good use of this time around.

  • Sean Cameron
    sean-cameron-mog1This is Joe’s son. When we last saw Sean, he was about five years old. Now, he would be a young adult. This is the most probable character to be continued in the new story. He would have changed so much in appearance that we are free to cast openly for it. Also, no other character is “required” to have been a continuing influence in Joe’s life like Sean would. At the very least, we would have to explain what happened to him if he is suddenly missing from Joe’s life now. I apologize — I don’t recall the name of the young actor who played Sean. If anyone knows, please shout it out in the blog comments.
  • Kelly Shepherd
    TLK-MoG2Played by Tricia Lee Kelshall, Kelly was the one female on Joe’s police anti-narcotics “Ibis Squad.” In watching Men of Gray II – Flight of the Ibis, we get the sense that there is some romantic attraction between them, or at least by Kelly, but it remains unspoken: unrequited. Joe’s wife dies early on in that story, so we are not surprised when Joe’s focus is elsewhere.  However, as the movie ends, as Joe and Kelly walk off into the proverbial sunset (in fact literal sunset, as I recall), they are symbolically holding hands with little Sean in between them, and each holding on to the boy’s hands. I suspect that viewers would like to think that Joe and Kelly got together somewhere beyond that sunset. So, I’m playing with that idea now — that they became briefly, but intensly, involved romantically shortly after we last saw them, with each going their own way, with one or both of them remarrying. Now, Joe enters the story as a single man with no romantic connections, and no apparent interest in one. But what happens if, after many years of living abroad, Kelly suddenly shows up, and sparks are flying?
  • Jason
    Cauri-MoG2Jason (Cauri Jaye) was the rookie Ibis Squad cop from Men of Gray II. I have a couple angles I’m thinking about with Jason. We know from the first movie that he is “once bitten, twice shy” personified. So, perhaps he became afraid or disillusioned with the law enforcement business, and has left it long behind. What happens if his old mentor Joe suddenly shows up asking him to work with him again? He might accept, but what if he has become a pacifist instead? What if he is philosophically at odds with Joe’s radical anti-crime strategies? If Joe does persuade him to reenlist, I’m considering having Sean be directly involved at one pivotal moment in the story that involves innocent people being killed by Joe’s team due to some bad intelligence, tearing Jason up emotionally. Or maybe he just gets killed, I don’t know. Lots of options here. 😉
  • Zack Lareau
    Michael-MoG2Zack, who was played by Michael Cherrie, was a youthful, intelligent, and likeable newspaper reporter in Men of Gray II. it seems doubtful that he would still be doing the street beat after all these years. Since the story has several press characters, one thought was to make him a chief editor or perhaps a TV anchorman. An idea that I like even better: He is now an attorney … and could perhaps become Joe’s attorney when the world turns against him late in the second act.

 We’ll see…


Ripped from the Headlines

August 31, 2009

Speaking of news clips, I’m finding a gold mine of story-relevant material from an issue of the Trinidad Express newspaper, sent to me by G. Anthony Joseph, who is presently in Trinidad working on a different production. It could take me a long time to make it through the paper at the rate I’m going. Here, for example, is a single page from the August 9 issue of the Sunday Express:

Sundy-Xpress-Pg

As you can see by my notations, every single article provided me something useful — information about police and the public perception of police, info about politics, murder rate statistics, cultural differences, and more. For instance, let’s start with…

This article about a murdered dentist:

Dentist-murdered

It caught my eye for a couple of reasons. First, it underscores the alarming — and worsening — murder rate that is scorching the reputation of this Caribbean paradise. It notes that this murder pushed the year’s toll to 325. To understand the significance of that number, consider that:

  • The murder rate represents a 600% increase in roughly a decade (a total of 97 murders in 1998).
  • This latest murder puts Trinidad & Tobago on the way to 650 murders by the end of the year. Pretty shocking when you consider that its population is about 1.2 million. By comparison, the population of Los Angeles is roughly 9 times greater, and will likely end the year with less than 300 murders. To equal the per capita murder rate of Trinidad & Tobago, LA would need 5,300 murders this year!
  • Trinidad & Tobago’s per capita murder rate is even higher than that of LA South Central’s Compton City, which in 2006 was rated by the Morgan Quitno Corporation as the most dangerous city in the US.

Second, the article demonstrates a cultural difference in how news is reported in Trinidad compared to what you find in a US newspaper: greater graphic detail. The article describes how the dentist was shot three times in the face, and that he “died on the spot, remaining in a sitting position with his head slumped back into his body was removed from the scene.” It paints a stark visual in the mind’s eye — useful for a filmmaker, but puts the fear of God in the average reader, I suspect.

As a writer, the article interested me because I’m writing about a Caribbean cop trying to make a difference in his country amidst rising crime. So, here’s an example of what officers deal with there, and how the people react to it. The press has a central part in the story too, so it’s wise for me to get familiar with the way it is actually reported there. Then, there’s this real shocker article about…

Guns, ammo, and drugs secreted in a police station ceiling!

guns-stashed-police-stationThat’s right — stashed away in the ceiling inside the office of the senior officer at a police station. The article is full of factual information I can use as a writer (such as police division rolls and titles, like Crime Intelligence Unit and Special Anti-Crime Unit, plus officer titles and roles). The article also underscores the current issue of rising public distrust of the police. Some citizens suspect officers of collusion with criminals or of engaging directly in criminal activities, such as this illegal drugs and weapon cache inside a senior officer’s office implies.

The brainstorming synaptications of my cranium also picked up on an interesting side note of the story, about how business at the station “…continued as usual despite the resulting investigation,” with members of the public being “allowed inside to make their complaints and queries.” Why did that capture my attention? It occurred to me that, were this type of event fictionalized into a story, the writer could use that “police business as usual” activity to serve as a smokescreen, allowing the guilty officer to sneak out further illegal contraband through a member of the public) under the guise of coming in to register a complaint) before the crime investigation unit discovered it. And speaking of police, there’s also this other article about…

Hero cop in murder-suicide:

cop-in-murder-suicideThe article is generally reporting the reactions of loved ones at a police officer’s funeral. Many things caught my writer’s eye in this one. First, I found it to be a strange oversight that the article barely mentioned the woman that this policeman murdered before turning the gun on himself. The cop was apparently considered a hero, sure, but the article either has some serious bias or journalistic oversight in focusing entirely on the sad loss of the police officer… who (did I mention?) MURDERED a woman! So the apparent bias created a bit of mystery.

Second, I found myself drawn into the story because of the way that the reporter revealed some intrigue and drama surrounding the murder-suicide. For instance, one mourner wonders “why wasn’t the nation there for him during his darkest hour?” What was that dark hour? Why was it dark? We get a hint, nothing more, implied by a quote from one of the officers at the funeral: “Why can’t systems be put in place so that a person doesn’t have to go through the legal system to get a chance for promotion?” So, does this mean that the suicidal cop was so distressed over his inability to get a promotion that he murdered someone? More likely, the promotion trouble was but one trial he was facing…

We also get a look here into the real-world grief reaction of a fellow officer who “refused to knowledge that James had died after the incident took place.” We think of law officers and soldiers as stoic, but they mourn just like the rest of us do. In fact, the bonds between fellow officers is surely stronger than that of coworkers in most other professions. After all, most of us go our entire lives without being shot at or purposely stepping into the line of danger, which soldiers and cops may face daily. The shared knowledge of that risk would draw a team together in a meaningful, if unspoken, way.

Third, the article’s suggestion of seemingly insurmountable bureaucracy preventing due promotions provides me a very specific example of something I’m trying to create in the story — the way onerous government processes make the ordinary business of living unnecessarily difficult. Just a couple more real-world examples, and I’ll be set.

All good stuff for a writer to think about.

And from this final article…

students-invest-ur-moneyMostly what captured my attention here was a quotation from the speech of the electricity commission’s chairman, Clement Imbert, speaking to a group of children at a graduation awards ceremony. He said, “Some things that are important to living well cannot be taught that must be learned,” indicating that experience can be as important to one’s development as their formal education. Whether or not you are a writer, it’s a quotation we can all appreciate and learn from.

All that from just one page of a newspaper!

Of course, the struggle that just about any writer faces is finding the balance between research and the writing itself. Between libraries, newspapers, live interviews, and the Internet, there is no end to the amount of research one can do… but eventually, one’s gotta stop researching and start writing the story.  🙂


Being There….From Here: Remote Location Research

August 28, 2009

Once further funding is in place, I’m hoping to do a story research trip to Trinidad and Tobago, which is where we will likely be shooting the entire movie. But while I’m creating this story from my home office in LA, I already need a strong sense of the geography, culture, and environment to help me make the story more realistic and to take full advantage of the rich diversity of that land.

From LA? How do you do that?

There are a few things helping me to have a leg up in envisioning the locale while my legs are still down here in California:

  1. Personal experience
    In the ’90s, I traveled and worked in Trinidad three times, and also lived there with my family for nearly 10 months. I find that there is no better way than being there to pick up on many things that can influence the story and how you shoot the movie. For example, while I was living there, producer G. Anthony Joseph (Trinidadian by birth) took me to a pan yard. This is a behind-the-scenes Carnival experience that the average Carnival tourist would not even know about, and it impressed me as a fantastic location for a movie scene. A pan yard is essentially a rehearsal area set up weeks or months in advance of Carnival by the large orchestras of steel drum musicians that compete around that time. This particular pan yard was a dimly lit open area behind a dilapidated cinderblock truck repair shop in a light industrial district, surrounded by rusty, corrugated steel fencing. What an experiential contrast to what then transpired there! The aural sensation of being directly in the middle of one of these 80-plus member percussion bands is indescribably exhilarating, and the simple yet precisely choreographed rhythmic movement of the musicians is hypnotizing to watch. Whether such a steel drum rehearsal is just a creative backdrop to a scene or becomes central to the drama of the scene itself, it would be an intriguing and memorable experience for the viewer — one that I would never have dreamed up had I not been there to experience it. I could give you a dozen more examples of culturally specific dialogue, locations, and events that ended up in Men of Gray and Flight of the Ibis (both shot entirely in Trinidad and Tobago) because I was influenced by things I experienced while living there before shooting began.
  2. Book and newspaper research
    This movie will be seasoned with many historical and cultural references that will make the story more personal and meaningful for viewers from that region. To make the references appropriate and relevent, I’ve been absorbing just about any book I can get my hands on related to the history, politics, culture, dialects, and geography of Trinidad and Tobago, using that input to enrich my understanding of the land and people.  
  3. Online resources
    I’ve got a list of great sites I can give you that would be useful for anyone doing geographic research on locations worldwide. And there are several other sites specific to Trinidad and Tobago that I turn to regularly to immerse myself as much as possible in the hot local issues regarding the economy, politics, social infrastructure, and crime situation. As the list of reference links would be rather long — and yet very interesting — I’ll devote a post or page to this in the future.
  4. Map-oholism
    One blog reader asked about the maps that they’ve seen on the wall in the story structuring board photos I posted here. Yes, they are part of my story process. In fact, what you could not see in those pictures is that the walls of my office are almost completely covered in maps of Trinidad and Tobago — one way of immersing myself in the geography while I’m creating a story. It started off with just a couple of smaller maps like these…Map-1
    … which were helpful, but didn’t have nearly enough detail to give me more than a geographic overview. So, I added a couple of larger maps, one that details the terrain and this one below, which is large enough (about 3′ x 4′) to list just about every town in the country and identifies the major roads:Map-2
    But, since much of this movie will take place in specific areas or along specific streets in the northernmost third of Trinidad, I really needed a street level understanding so that, if someone in this story is, let’s say, following a suspect into a neighborhood, I’ll have real street names to draw from in appropriate neighborhoods with the right kind of topographical features. For that, I’ve started building out a gigantic map of the primary population areas in which I needed that level of detail. I keep expanding the map as the story develops.  As you can see here, it’s presently about 8 feet wide and 4 feet high …Map-big
    …and displays as far West as Chaguaramas, as far North as the north coast, as far South as Chaguanas (I’ll eventually extend it to San Fernando), and it goes as far East as … well, as far as I could go before my window got in the way, which is just short of Sangre Grande.  As you can imagine, this detailed map has been useful in plotting out very specific locations. So, for instance, if I’m envisioning a car chase that would start downtown and end up on on Saut D’ eau Road a couple kilometers north of Saddle Road …Map-big-XCU…I can know exactly what the terrain is and what possible escape routes the suspects might take.  Thanks to satellite imagery available online, I can even identify houses, pastures, patches of woodland, etc. that I can employ in my vision of where the scene might occur:

    maraval
    It may not turn out to be the location in which the scene gets shot, but having a real location in my mind from which to model the geography of a scene helps me to design a richer, more dimensional and plausible moment.  And it’s a fun way to decorate a wall.  😉

None of this is an adequate substitute for the immersive experience of actually being there for story research in person and in the current year, but all these research activities are valid and useful things that I might have done anyway, even if I’d already done the field research.


Four Steps Forward, One Step Back

August 21, 2009

It was a creatively envigorating day, with much forward progress in spite of the need to go back and edit one of the story threads. Let’s call it four steps forward and one step back then.

The steps forward:

I got much further in the story’s step outline development today, which I found to be more uplifting than a quad-shot Venti mocha. It’s at this stage that the story begins to materialize and show its potential.

I finally got around to naming several of the primary characters that, up till now, had only been identified in some generic fashion on the index cards, such as “The Judas Type Character” or “The Supportive Press Guy” or “The Acerbic Talk Show Host.” Once I started working on the step sheet in earnest, those generic descriptions of the characters became laborious and distracting. Having real names for the characters freed up the creative process in my brain, since that naming task was like an annoying fly buzzing around my face. Consider it swatted.

The steps back:

At this early juncture in the step outline development, I find it necessary to occasionally move back and forth between writing out the details of the step outline and going back to adjust the details of the story threads.

It doesn’t bother me when that happens; I feel this is a natural result of the interweaving process. The very act of defining where, how, and whether to weave each story thread into the fabric of a particular stage of the step outline reveals both gaps and opportunities in the story threads I may have overlooked earlier. It’s not painful to go back and tinker with the story thread because I haven’t yet wasted any significant effort in writing out actual scenes that would now need to be deleted or severely altered. That’s one of the big advantages of planning out the structure carefully before writing the screenplay; once I go back and adjust the affected story thread, the resulting adjustments to the step outline requires just minutes, not hours.

Here’s an example…

As I worked yesterday and today on the step outline for the first act, I quickly realized that my first draft of The Press story thread was insufficiently developed — too high-level to plot out or represent along the story timeline. Also, in the process of stepping out the first act, a couple of pursuit-worthy ideas came to mind on how to use the press to more effectively form a pervasive undercurrent of antagonism that I had not originally considered when developing The Press story thread.

So today I revisited that thread, deleting a couple of elements and adding several more, including a whole new character: a “John the Baptist” type of political talk show host whose presence, though minimal, will serve the story well in three key ways:

  • Adding a counterpoint to the general position of the press
  • Supporting the spiritual symbolism already present in the story
  • Creating a strong point of historical identification for the Trinidad & Tobago viewers, who may find that this story character’s controversial rhetoric reminds them of their former radio commentator Morgan Job, whose hard-hitting broadcasts inspired about as many as they angered.

So… while I had to go back and adjust one of the story threads, the positive effect of that effort propelled the story development forward by leaps and bounds (hereby defined as five steps).


Heavy story research day

August 18, 2009

Most progress today was behind the scenes, so to speak: doing research. Primary resources:

  • Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. It outlines the role of capitalism and free market economies in fostering a viable arena for economic and political freedom.
  • Think Again by Dr. Morgan Job. It’s his treatice on the culture, race superstitions, and political economy of Trinidad & Tobago. A good resource, but I don’t think it’s available outside of the Caribbean. Dr. Job’s Web site is also a good resource.
  • The online archives of the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian newspaper – A valuable resource on policing and politics in the country.

Looking forward to resuming development of the screenplay’s stepsheet tomorrow…


A crumbling social infrastructure plagues hopes for betterment

August 3, 2009

As the story opens, we see that the economy and much of the country’s infrastructure is in a dangerous and degenerating state. Our story’s hero, Joe Cameron, believes he can pinpoint the cause and the solution to many of his beloved island nation’s social woes. The problem is that, even though he’s risen to a high level in the country’s police force, there’s a limit to how much he can realistically do about these pervasive concerns in his current position. Meanwhile, due to crumbling a economy, his officers are under-staffed and lack the equipment or technology to do their jobs effectively.

So, with these pressing stresses and with Joe’s attempts to do something about them, I created a story thread of sorts (see below) to represent the development of his efforts from the first act setup of this antagonistic situation to the final act’s payoff, which may not be a resolution of the country’s socioeconomic trials, but will at least show the positive effect that Joe’s actions have wrought upon them.

I wish I could say that these are purely hypothetical circumstances.  Unfortunately, the country we anticipate shooting this movie in, Trinidad & Tobago, is having some vexing economic and infrastructural issues along these lines.  Hopefully, the movie can provide some inspiration by presenting some legitimate options for improving the situation.  The thread:

economy-infrastructure-thread