The foundation of my first feature length movie was built on RISK. From the very get-go, before the cameras even started rolling, hell, before any actor was cast for the project, I knew that bringing this particular story to life, one that had been dancing around in my head for eons, was a serious gamble. It was mid 2014, I had finished up my internship at Walden Media, I had graduated from college with my big and important degree and I was ready to step foot into the “real world” so to speak. It was the start of summer, and my only plan was to take this (now completed) script that I had in my hand and go out and film it. I had a really cool spot in mind that was ultimately going to serve as the core location of my film – the newspaper factory that I was working part time at while simultaneously going to college and completing my internship. I built my entire story around this existing location. It’s weird to sit down and hammer away at a screenplay and already know exactly where you’re going to be filming your story and know that you have a location locked in. Typically, that part (the whole location scouting thing) comes well after the script is complete. And that deadly word, that virtually every filmmaker fears, comes into play – COMPROMISE. Much to my delight, this was a particularly special, rare, but most importantly, LUCKY case. I didn’t have to make compromises when it came to the core location for the set of my film. Don’t get me wrong, the compromise thing would undoubtedly knock at my director’s door later, once filming began, for numerous other things, but in terms of having my key set for my characters/actors to do their thing – it was all but guaranteed. I had gotten consent from my big boss, Bill Tyers. He even read my screenplay and was 100% supportive of the project. Here’s the thing that wasn’t guaranteed – the lifespan of this building. An important thing to remember is that it was mid 2014. I hadn’t even begun filming yet and had no intentions to until as early as 2015, once all the details were smoothed out in pre-production. This was a newspaper printing facility that barely had a pulse in the rising digital age. Newspapers were in imminent danger of becoming extinct. I had probably chosen one of the worst times to try and make a film that revolved around this particular subject. This was the gamble. This was the risk. But it was now or it was never. I chose now.
So, my key location was a lock. But now I needed to fill that space with the right people. Continuing with the subject of risk, casting actors for this project was no walk in the park. When actors immediately hear the words, “you’re not getting paid to do this”, it doesn’t exactly win you any points from the director’s chair, nor does it warrant people’s enthusiasm to get involved. I get it. I totally do. Who the hell wants to work for free? Especially when they’re working for a complete unknown who doesn’t even have a single feature movie under his belt. What’s the incentive? There’s really only one thing you can do at this level – cast your friends. And then cast friends of friends. Eventually you’ll be asking the friends of those friends of friends as well. It’s one vicious cycle of networking. When people ask me how I acquired the actors for this project, I typically respond with, “when you know one person, you know ten others.” And that statement couldn’t have rang more true when it came to casting the main protagonist in The Graveyard Gang. Remember when I was talking about helping Dave Schweitzer make his first full length feature movie? Well, that’s where I met the lead protagonist to my film, I just didn’t realize it at the time. Again, more seeds being planted.
Adam Michael Kennedy was a terrific addition to Dave’s film. He played a secondary/supporting role and wasn’t on set too often, but when he was there, he was professional, he was funny, he knew how to talk to people and work with them, rather than against them, and he always made his fellow actors look like a million bucks. But above all, Adam had a presence. Adam knew his role and his position and he didn’t once overstep his boundaries or try to outshine who he was acting with. I knew I wanted this guy in one of my future projects. And when I actually sat down to write The Graveyard Gang, I did something I never do as a screenwriter – I wrote the lead part with the mindset that Adam Michael Kennedy was going to play him before I even reached out to him. It was the first, and to this day, the ONLY time I ever wrote a part with a very specific person in mind to play that role. As a screenwriter, you have to let go of that type of stuff. You can’t latch onto hope. You can’t expect a certain actor is going to play a very specific character in your script. As a screenwriter, you just don’t possess that type of power nor the ability to make those decisions. But this was a special case. I was directing and producing my own little indie feature, on my dollar – therefore, in this rare instance, I held the keys to all the doors that would hopefully and eventually open for this project. I wasn’t answering to anyone above me. I was answering to myself. So, I broke a few traditional rules and latched onto hope. Remember when I said this movie was built on risk, up above? Well you can probably add “hope” to that list as well.
I sent the script to Adam first. In retrospect, Adam had told me when he received the script, he was currently going through a rough patch with his girlfriend. Interestingly enough, he was actually on vacation with her and his two kids when I emailed it to him. Not exactly the most ideal timing on my part, but if we waited in life for the “perfect” moment to get things done, nothing would EVER get done. The first free chance he got, he told me he grabbed a few beers, plopped down, chain-smoked, and read the entire script in about ninety minutes. Recently, I took the liberty to ask Adam about his experience with the script, the first time he read it. He wrote me such a nice, lengthy, detailed and quite frankly, candid response, it would be a shame not to share it with you all.
“I knew ahead of time that there were going to be a couple challenging aspects of it, as I had never been cast as a love interest in a project EVER. I read over those parts two or three times and thought about how I was going to explain it to my extremely jealous and insecure girlfriend. I told her the truth about the whole thing and it ruined the rest of our weekend. All we did was argue as I fought for what I believed to be the greatest opportunity in my acting career. I respected her wishes and came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to take the role. I can’t remember if I told Guthrie I was still thinking about it or if I had told him I just wasn’t going to take it. But I knew he was giving me a couple more weeks before I had to lock in a decision either way. I revisited this conversation with my girlfriend quite a few times and the answer was always the same. At that point I really started to see things a little differently. There was absolutely no way in hell I was going to let someone determine what my career choices were going to be, based on their insecurities. Shortly after that, I told Guthrie I was definitely going to take the gig and how excited I was about it. It’s amazing how I almost threw away an opportunity that I was truly passionate about in order to please somebody else.”
Once the filming process began, Adam and I would go on to create and develop one of the best working relationships I’ve ever had with an actor, personally. I was so grateful to have him as my lead. He truly cared about the material. He truly wanted to help me realize my vision. He showed up to the game every day, even when he was sick and did his absolute best to work through illnesses just to ensure that we could move on to the next portion of the script in a timely fashion. He was a trooper. All of this was clearly illustrated through many personal conversations he and I had through both text and phone calls after film shoots. Some of the stuff that he used to say to me really fueled me and gave me all the motivation and encouragement in the world to show up to set the next time and just conquer and triumph, no matter what struggles we would end up facing. Some of his words got me through dark times, mentally, while making this unbelievably long trek to complete this movie. But it wasn’t only his words of encouragement, it was also his jokes that always lightened the mood and made all of us laugh endlessly on set. He was the man responsible for us having to do an exorbitant amount of takes just because I would burst into laughter during the middle of a take because Adam was just being Adam. The thing I adore most about Adam is his professionalism. Additionally, he is the improv king. He can take any piece of material, add his own two cents and make it that much funnier. Adam was really good about honoring my material in the script, while simultaneously making it his own. That’s why he’s so damn good at what he does. He would use my words, but then he would add his own sprinkles on top and really give it the punch that it needed. Some of the stuff that he came up with blew my mind and he would continuously surprise me every day on set with some of the lines that he would just completely pull out of his ass, on a whim — lines that I knew would undoubtedly make the final cut. This is why I gave him so much freedom to add-lib on set. I wasn’t insulted in the least, by his additions to the dialogue. Because when it all boiled down to it, he was making it better. I feel as though I would have been limiting him, as an artist, if I didn’t allow him to ad-lib. The dude is a comedian. I wanted to give him a different type of platform. Think of my screenplay as a roadmap. At the beginning of every shoot, I would hand him that roadmap and say, “have fun on your journey.” There were times when he would stick directly on course and follow the script, word for word. If the roadmap was telling him to turn right, he’d turn right. But there were always times when he would toss that roadmap in the backseat, and veer off course a bit, and take the scenic route. That’s when he brought his magic to the table. But at some point, he would always reach back for that roadmap, and turn right back onto the main road. In the end, it’s almost like we wrote the movie together. It was such a beautiful collaboration. In short, any director would be lucky to have this guy on their set.
So, I had my main protagonist set in stone. The hard part was done, right? Wrong. With every great protagonist, comes an equally great antagonist. Our core location, the newspaper factory was a pretty big building. We needed the right people to inhabit this unique space. The journey of casting had only just begun. I needed to venture out and find my supporting roles and my main villain – the group of people that would eventually act as a stampede, by my side, ready to charge and conquer this crazy idea I had floating around in my head – The Graveyard Gang.