An Independent (Film) State of Mind (Or: Why Parts of the Last Year and a Half Were So Cool.)

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Entertainment, Family, Horror, Life, Movies, Zombies

Let me say upfront that this is being written more for the benefit of the casual, drive-by reader that blogs in the WordPress family tend to get. Most of the people from Facebook (where I will be linking this) who might read this already know this. Well over half of my Facebook friends either do independent films or are connected to horror hosting and have, in my experiences with them, the right mindset.

So this isn’t really written for them. They may find it an entertaining or interesting read, but this really isn’t being addressed to them. No, this is addressed to you. This is being addressed to the person who picked this up as a hit on the WordPress press page or in a Google search with the words “independent” and “film” in the search and are thinking about going out to do extra work on an independent film.

Getting involved on a independent film can be fun as hell. There’s a lot of long days and hard work involved, but it’s an absolute blast. But the thing that is the most important thing that you can have, maybe even more so than talent, is the right mindset. If you haven’t got that mindset, well, just don’t bother.

But what’s that right mindset? And, more importantly, what’s an example of a wrong mindset? Let me tell you a story about a part of my life in the last 18 months and something that happened just before the start of this last 18 months’ journey.

The thing that happened before Easter weekend of 2010 isn’t really something I can discuss in full detail. It’s not my place to do so since the incident in question was something akin to a family matter in the little independent film group I would be getting involved with down in Sanford, North Carolina and it was not a happy-happy, joy-joy moment in their history. But I do have to address a couple of details to make this bit of blogging have any meaning at all.

The film group, Adrenalin, was working on their feature length film A Few Brains More: Summer of Blood which in turn was a sequel film to their prior film titled A Fistful of Brains. Some of their shoots for the film involved using a fair chunk of extras and to keep everything running smoothly they accepted some help from another independent film group local to the general area that was their base of operations. And this seemed to be working out pretty well for them. Well, at least until the emails and postings started.

Again, I can’t get into it all. It’s not my place and the gossip end of it isn’t the point of this. But there was one specific detail shared with me just prior to my drive down to Sanford, NC from Richmond, VA that at the time seemed a little bit goofy to me and at this point now seems full blown retarded to me. The detail in question was what one of the things that was used to criticize and attack both Adrenalin as a whole and the director, Christine Parker, also the original founder of Adrenalin, specifically. Apparently, this other film group wanted to disparage Adrenalin and Parker’s character because, so they claimed, Parker and Adrenalin weren’t real filmmakers and they didn’t show the extras any respect. Why? Well, basically because they weren’t (according to the dolts) offering to dole out free perks (such as full breakfasts/lunches/dinners and t-shirts) to everyone involved. They also didn’t give the extras cushy places to sit and chill in between the scenes that they were needed in. They were a disgrace because of this and nothing at all like “real” filmmakers should be or act like.

Now, before I go any further here, I have to digress a bit. I’ve been an extra on Hollywood films shot in the central Virginia area. You’re treated like cattle. Actually, cattle may even be treated better. The “food” you get is just slightly above the quality of a vending machine and that’s only if the shoot allows you to have a proper meal on their schedule. And when you’re not shooting a scene, you’re basically told to go sit quietly in a room and frequently reminded that you’re making too much noise if you talk in a whisper that’s loud enough to be understood by the person next to you. Oh, and you’re told just about every hour to not talk to the cast and crew, even if just in passing and even in long downtime periods. If you’re a pest of that sort, they will pointedly inform you, you’ll be removed from the set.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but it’s certainly not an experience that I would consider being treated with huge amounts of respect or some wonderful, joyful experience. I’ve also spoken to a small army of people who eventually made it big (or not so big) who started out with shoestring budgets and have tales of their early film days being filled with pretty much everything but free meals, free t-shirts and other perks but still managed to love what they were doing at the time. So, yeah, I’ve done what these nozzles have described as a “real” film set and I’ve spoken to a number of people who are either cult figures or Icons in horror cinema who started out with low budget indie work and neither my experiences or their self described experiences were the sunshine and lollypops that this group of clods played it up to be while trying to stir discontent.

Oh, and I should also point out that the accusations weren’t true. Parker and crew did make sure that their extras were fed and fed well and they (and I) have the pictures to prove it. Did any of the extras ever chip in on getting the food or prepping it? Yeah, but only because we wanted to and not because we were ever forced to. And there was a good reason for why we almost all would do something like that that I’ll touch on in a bit.

But, unfortunately, their attempt worked. After they played their little games, some people left the production. And, really unfortunately, a couple of the people who left with them, although more so over the newly developing personal relationships than the attempts at stirring discontent in other ways, were fairly important to the film as they were not merely extras, but were actually portraying major onscreen characters. So the situation I was walking into that Easter Weekend last year wasn’t one that could be described as ideal.

Fortunately for Adrenalin and for me, Fate had a soft spot for them and they literally had two replacements for the roles dropped into their laps just when they needed them most and who were both a hell of a lot better in the parts. But that’s another story all together and, again, not really one I have the full right to tell.

Anyhow, the weekend was fun despite the issues. I met a lot of really great people and did some really screwy stuff on the film set that really was just fun beyond words. And, because one of the Adrenalin crew knew me prior to this shoot, I even got to pitch a few ideas for scenes and brainstorm with them about some stuff to deal with the situation they had before their two new stars fell into their laps. And, no, for the record, most of what I pitched didn’t make it to screen, but it was fun just being allowed to brainstorm with a group of fun, open, and creative people.

After the Easter shoot, I came back down for a few more shoots on the film whenever my schedule would match up with theirs and allow it. I did some more shambling as a zombie on screen, but I was also quite happy to do other things like set up what was needed for a couple of scenes, fill in as a boom mic operator when the usual guy couldn’t make it, lay way too close to a huge fire and act as a human mat for a person to fall on, get beaten silly by an insane martial arts expert (hi, Ted) who was training everyone for the fight scenes, get covered with tons of gunk and take baths in Off bug spray to combat the small army of ticks trying to devour every living soul in North Carolina that year.

Oh, and I also used my truck to run a few errands for the production. And I chipped in for food. And I chipped in once when the people that owned the location we were filming on suddenly required a few more bucks than they asked for before. And I wasn’t the only one who did so. (Again, I’ll touch on something about this again in a bit.)

And that’s where the mindset thing comes in.

If you want to go and sit around on a high priced set and look as pretty as you can in hopes of getting discovered by a big time Hollywood power player and are really looking forward to the day you can do the Diva thing or, well, whatever the hell the male version of the Diva thing is, then, yeah, do the extra thing on Hollywood films for sure. But if you want to have fun, if you want to have a really great experience, do the indie thing. But do it with the right mindset.

I got lucky, but my bit of luck wasn’t unique to finding me the group I found myself working with. I ended up falling in with a really good group of people and there are a lot of other indie groups out there with equally good people. Unfortunately,  there are also groups out there filled with people like the jackasses who wanted to stir shit up. If you’re lucky, you get to find a group like the one I found.

I found a group of people who are genuinely good people. And it wasn’t just the actual Adrenalin group that I’m talking about here, but rather the entire cast and crew of people from the director on down to the other extras and the various people who just tagged along with the people working on the film. And now, some of these people are my friends. Some I’ve gotten to know well while others I’ve unfortunately not gotten to be around as much as I would like, but who have been nothing but great whenever we’re around each other. And that and more are worth something.

I have memories and experiences that are unique compared to anything else in my life right now that I would not have had if not for the last 18 months. That’s worth a hell of a lot more to me than a bag of chips and a lunchmeat sandwich ever will be.

I have new friends, some of whom I love dearly and all of whom I hope I’m able to stay in touch with for the rest of our lives. That’s damned sure worth more to me than a free t-shirt.

I’ve been given the opportunity to contribute to something creative in a creative way and have a blast doing it. That’s so much more valuable and worth it to me than some material perks.

And if you go into something like this with the right mindset, you can have all of that and more.

Now, obviously you should keep an eye out to make sure you’re not being taken advantage of. If you’re suddenly being asked to pony up thousands of dollars that you know you will never get back… There might be an issue there. But the cons should be easy to spot and you shouldn’t let the idiots stop you from having such an experience.

And to a degree, if you can pitch in and help out in certain ways involving small amounts of little green pieces of paper… Well, it’s a judgment call. But let me put it to you like this.

Have you ever gone to an office party around the holidays? Have you ever gone to a friend’s place for a cookout or pool party? Have you ever gone to a friend’s place for some sort of themed party around an event or holiday? If you’ve said yes to any of those then you’ve very likely been the person bringing either the chips, dogs, burgers, veggies, drinks or desserts. You’ve said that, yeah, you’ll bring those meatballs or that chili you make from your grandma’s recipe that everyone else liked so much last year. You do, in short, chip in some of your little green pieces of paper because you’re going to go hang out with friends and have a good time.

If you’re lucky, if you’re lucky like I was lucky, it’s the same thing here. You’re getting together with friends to have a good time and you just have to bring the fruit salad to the party. It’s the exact same thing, but with a few added perks.

You will have, as I mentioned above, fairly unique memories and experiences that you aren’t going to get at the annual pool-opening party or 4th of July cookout. You’re also more likely to meet new people and make new friends doing something like this than you would be at the holiday office party. You’ll also have a ready-made record of your memories printed on DVD to look at for years to come. Oh, and who knows? You may end up getting the chance to be a part of things in a more substantial and rewarding way down the road.

And, again, if you’re lucky, you’ll be a part of something special that’s yours. This film that I just had a hand in is, in just about any way that most people initially look at things, not mine. It belongs to Christine Parker, Bill Mulligan and Ed Warner to be sure. After them, Emlee, Michael, Zack, Jessie, Amber, Kevin, Shane, Shane, Shane, Shane, Shane and Shane (sorry, in-joke) and a few others get major dibs on that claim for having had major roles in the film. But, you know what, it’s mine too. It’s mine and it also belongs to all the extras who worked so hard on it because they not only loved the project but because they found a cool group of people to hang out with and do something unique and fun with and contributed (in non-financial ways here) everything they possibly could because of that.

And that’s the mindset you have to have if you really want to get anything of any true worth out of the experience. Sure, a production that manages to secure enough of a budget ahead of time to lay out for food that no one in the cast and crew chips in for and that can hand out free goodies like film related t-shirts (which I have never been given on a Hollywood set) is nice, but it’s just icing on the cake. No, actually that’s not true. It’s not even the icing on the cake because you actually kind of need the icing on most cakes. It’s more along the lines of one of those little candy flowers that gets stuck on the icing once the icing is actually already there. It’s nice, but the cake is every bit as good without it as it is with it.

So, yeah, I’ve driven three-plus hours to work for free on a film set on multiple occasions and then chipped in for costs on things from time to time as well. The shit disturbers would (and in a way did in one of their emails while speaking in general terms) call me a moron or an idiot. But to me, I was driving down to hang with friends, do something creative and fun and, at least occasionally, the film itself was kind of a secondary thought at times.

Still, hopefully you get luckier than I’ve been about that whole drive time thing…

But, drive time or not, the only way to get anything good out of something like this is to, yet again repeating this concept, have the right mindset for it. Know going in that you’re not going into a high dollar, Hollywood set. Know going in that most locally done indie filmmaking is about as shoestring as it gets. Know that there aren’t a lot a free perks in the material sense, but that the things you will get out of it are so much more worth it.

If you’ve got that mindset, you will have a ball and get so much more out of something like this (or, as I’ve also done in the last 18 months, being an extra for a horror host’s show) than any bag of chips and a sandwich or a t-shirt would ever be worth to you. And you get a really nice reward for it at the end of it all.

My reward “at the end of it all” was just this last weekend. Down in Smithfield, NC, I got to see the film on a nice screen in a nice little theater that was filled with people beyond just the cast, crew and extras who worked on the film. People laughed where they were suppose to laugh, people cheered where they were suppose to cheer and a good time was had by all. And there at the end, you get a little bit of satisfaction knowing that this fun, creative thing you were a part of is now done and that there’s at least a small part of you up there on that screen making those people laugh and cheer.

So… New friends, fun memories, unique experiences and something in the end to enjoy and show for it and that will be enjoyed by others. Yeah, that’s a hell of a lot more valuable than some sandwich or some free t-shirt.

So go. Go out and find your group if you’ve ever wanted to do anything like this. Have fun. Hell, have an absolute blast. Just make it easy on yourself insofar as allowing yourself to have the experience and go into it with your head in the right place.

Oh, two last things. First, run like hell from the person who starts talking like the shit disturbers who created so much hardship and problems for this film. If you’re doing something like this, doing anything remotely like what I did with people even half as much fun to be around, don’t let the shit disturbing bastards bring you down. And, second, if you can’t wrap your head around the right mindset and you think you have to have your perks to have a good time or you think that it’s your job to be the shit disturbing bastards and point out to everyone that they’re not getting their perks… Stay the fuck home. You’re nothing but poison. You’re nothing more than the jackass that you yourself probably work with or have worked with at some job or another that you and everyone else hated because all they did was stir the pot or constantly talk about how everything was so much worse than it actually is. You’re not needed, you’re not wanted and you’re not worth it to have around.

But you… No, not you but that other guy there… You get it? Great, then come on out and play. Let’s have some fun and be a part of something that’s cool as hell.

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Comments
  1. Bill Mulligan says:

    Wow.

    I wish we had a dozen of you but instead i just have to be thankful that we got you at all. How many people get that lucky?

    You’ve always gone WAY beyond the call of duty to make things work up to an including this weekend and I hope you know just how appreciated you are. But even if you ignore all the financial contributions you’ve made there’s another reason why people’s faces light up when I tell them “Jerry’s coming.”; your enthusiasm, positive attitude and pure love for the whole idea of being in a movie. It’s the one thing you’d better not lose when you’re doing indie films. I still wake up amazed that I’m doing this.

    So I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say Thank you, Jerry, for everything you’ve done for the film, for being a great friend and giving us the kind of emotional support we really needed when things went bad. having a story you’ve nurtured get turned into a movie is a dream come true; watching it come this close to falling apart is a soul beating affair. I said we got through it because of the people around us and you are one of the main people I was talking about. For that i will always be grateful.

  2. Sean says:

    When I read “one of the things that was used to criticize and attack” I was reminded of something that was said to me a while back. Criticism isn’t a bad thing if done AND taken correctly. If your only goal in making criticisms is to be hurtful, people aren’t going to want to work with you or be around you.

    I’ve worked with a lot of people in television. There are some who are only in it for the paycheck. There’s no heart in what they do, no pride in any accomplishment, and generally they’re the first people to complain when something isn’t up to spec. Generally, their work is so far below spec it’s laughable when they get annoyed with other people. Then there are the ones that do it for the right reasons, and you can see it in the finished production.

    • jjchandler says:

      Yeah, but, and trust me on this, Sean, they weren’t even in the same ballpark as “done AND taken correctly” type of comments. I saw one of the things that they wrote and sent out for public consumption before heading down for the Easter shoot and all they were about was trying to rip others apart while talking themselves up and basically destroy what was being done. Just complete nozzles and then some.

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