The Journey of The Graveyard Gang – Part Four: A Compromised Vision

One of the most common questions I get as a director is, “what was the hardest part about filming your first movie?” I think most people expect to hear something related to the finances. Funding a feature length movie at this level is not without its challenges. But I knew from the start that money wasn’t going to be the main issue, strictly because of the movie’s overall simplicity. The real barrier resided deep within the recesses of my mind. The hardest part for me, going into this, was knowing and accepting the fact I wasn’t going to have an uncompromised vision. I had my screenplay written. I had my story mapped out quite clearly in my head and on paper. But at a very particular point, before principal photography began, I had to stop, recognize, and accept the fact that many things were going to change along this strange journey of discovery. And at the end of the day, no matter how much I disliked a change, I was going to have to accept it and move on.

I think the biggest vision compromise in the entire movie, was undoubtedly the Riot Girls Party scene. The way I wrote that scene in the script, was extremely vivid. It was so vivid that I was fully prepared to eliminate certain elements come time to shoot it. But I always had the mindset of, “you can’t fully count anything out until you try.” Compromising when you’re writing is probably the worst thing you can do. If you’re writing a script and constantly questioning whether this or that is going to work when you’re finally on set, you’re already in trouble. Never jeopardize your story before it’s even written by questioning its feasibility. Tell it exactly how you want it to be told on paper. The changes will come later. If you were creative enough to write something so grandiose that it can’t be filmed because it’s not within your budget, you’re creative enough to make last minutes changes and tweak certain elements to make it work come time to shoot your project.

To paint a better picture of the Riot Girls Party scene, especially for those who haven’t yet seen the flick, our main protagonist, Dalen, finds himself at a fetish after-party of sorts at a private residence, which is being hosted by one of these Riot Girls, so to speak. He attends the party with one of his best friends, Louie (who is a regular at these types of gatherings) and the love interest in the movie, Ellie (an eccentric girl from work who quickly attempts to break Dalen out of his comfort zone) as the film progresses to its unlikely climax. On paper, the scene involved many topless girls, inhabiting this unique atmosphere. It also involved an abundance of people dressed either goth or fetish, to fill in the space and contribute to the overall feel and darker tone of the scene. When it came time to shoot the scene, I had a lot of people from the actual fetish scene in Boston, lined up and ready to act as extras – people that I had known personally and/or had gone to school with over the years. A lot of them backed out and/or couldn’t make it. We tried to line up at least ten women who were willing to go topless for the scene. That didn’t pan out so well either. Once they found out they weren’t getting paid to do it, the interest immediately dwindled. So for this one scene in particular, I guess you could say the lack of finances played a role into the original vision’s demise. At the time, I was pretty limited on cash. So what did I do? I asked my friends to come help me out. “Throw on a black t-shirt! Wear something dark and morbid. Have a drink in your hand, and be ready to dance.” Hell, some of my male friends even went shirtless. So when the girls weren’t willing to, the guys were ready to come off the bench! I’m so grateful for my friends – people who are always willing to accommodate me, come help out on my little indie movie, and do it for absolutely nothing in return.

Much to my delight, Adam Michael Kennedy eventually hooked me up with the contact info of a young woman who was interested in the topless casting call. Aurora Grabill and I exchanged a few emails back and forth and after pitching the scene and tossing the script to her, she seemed genuinely interested. Out of all the potential women who initially showed interest, Aurora was the only one who showed up and ready to participate without any incentive, other than her name being in the credits of the movie. I was grateful. One topless girl, was better than none, so we found a place for her and it ended up working out rather well. The authenticity of the scene was definitely there, it was just minimized to a significant degree. The scene ended up being tamer than how it was written, but still something I could say I was proud of at the end of the day. This is probably the best example, from the entire flick, of a compromised scene not turning out 100% how it was originally envisioned and having to accept the changes that were made and just move on.

While The Graveyard Gang had its fair share of compromises I wasn’t necessarily thrilled about, there were also compromises that ended up working better than how they were originally written in the script. How about that? A perfect example is a montage I wrote in the script involving Dalen and Ellie. On their first date, so to speak, they meet up, go for a hike, and their day culminates at a gorgeous waterfall, sharing a kiss. When it came time to shoot this however, there were many instances where the weather just didn’t want to cooperate with us – making the trails muddy and difficult to traverse, especially with expensive film equipment in tow. Eventually, my DP, Ben Cassiani suggested that we shoot this date montage at his local beach, in Hull, MA. At first, I thought, how is a beach going to be any more visually interesting than a hike in the woods? We may as well just wait until it warms up, allow the trails to dry out and shoot this scene how it was intended to be shot. But then Ben pitched ideas of utilizing the local arcade, the boardwalk, and having the characters do numerous activities all in this one, localized, convenient area surrounding the beach. Once the other additional elements were introduced along with the beach, I thought, okay, this could be pretty cool and different. Ben’s idea didn’t disappoint. Once we started filming in the arcade, I was instantly hooked. When we were on set, I started visualizing the entire thing, pieced together, with the right selection of music, and admired how much more beautiful it was going to be than how I had originally wrote it. This was only one spark of Ben’s brilliance while filming this movie. And it was all done on a whim. Ben and I established a very cohesive relationship from the get-go on this project. I met Ben in college in one of my first film classes. And when we did numerous projects together for class, I knew this guy was going to be someone I wanted to collaborate with in the future. We constantly fed off of each other’s energy. When one of my ideas didn’t seem to work, Ben replaced it with one of his own and vise versa. We just understood each other. We were always there for one another on set, and I couldn’t have asked for a better DP. Thank you, Ben.

The biggest surprise, not only for me, but for just about everyone who ended up working with her, was the recasting of our lead female character, Ellie. This may have been the biggest roadblock we endured along our journey of filming this movie. This was a roadblock that could have been potentially disastrous and ultimately cataclysmic to the success of this project. Meeting Krissy Larsen and her being both suggested and recommended by Adam, turned out to be the polar opposite of a disaster – it was a blessing. Krissy was not the first choice to play the very seductive and suggestive Ellie. It was actually a young woman that I met while studying at Fitchburg State by the name of Mary Darling.

“We actually met in a college meteorology class that we had no interest in taking. We mistakenly thought it would be an easy way to meet lab requirements – come to find out, that was not the case. We were both Communications majors in a sea of science nerds.”

Mary always made me laugh and we got along swimmingly. She was always very eccentric and outgoing and she was a theater kid! Win-win! I pitched her The Graveyard Gang and how I was planning on venturing out on my own, after graduating to make this little indie flick. After writing the script, I realized Mary was almost the ideal person to embody Ellie. I had no other person in mind. I was practically dead set on having her play my lead female character. The movie pitch piqued Mary’s interest and she asked for the script, which I sent over immediately.

“When I first got the script for The Graveyard Gang, I was both flattered beyond words that my friend Guth thought of me for the role and in love with the style, subject, dialogue, and overall edginess. As we started filming, I was sort of dating around and I ended up meeting my current boyfriend of three years and some change. Things just clicked and it got very serious. However, before we got too deep into filming, I hadn’t thought much about what fulfilling this role (super edgy and sexual) would be like in terms of that. I am a writer, actor, director and I write and direct a lot of edgy work and have always worked with good actors who have taken on the crazy dialogue and scenes I put them in. I suppose I am not as good of an actor because once I found this love, I was unable to feel comfortable creating intimate relationships with someone other than him, even if it was just acting.”

We actually ended up filming all of Mary’s scenes that took place at the newspaper factory in the story. It was a total of five scenes and two days worth of shooting. My goal, first and foremost on this project, was to film all the factory scenes before we moved on to anything else that took place outside of those walls. Again, the risk of that place shutting down at any moment was always very high. The reason it always made me a little paranoid was because our facility was constantly receiving equipment from other companies, around the nation that were forced to close their doors. What’s to say we wouldn’t be next on that list? Filming the factory stuff always felt like a time crunch, because realistically, it was. And with that hanging over our heads, came a certain degree of anxiety that I was never able to fully shake while filming this movie.

After filming Mary’s factory scenes, she packed her bags and ventured off to New Jersey for eight months for a massive opportunity. She had told me she was accepted into a directing/dramaturgy internship. I was so excited for her and fully supported her decision. She told me she was still very much interested in completing the movie but we would be forced to put the remainder of her scenes on hold until she returned, which ultimately, I was fine with, because the worst part was done and in the books – the factory scenes. Fast forward eight months, Mary returned from her internship and I was ecstatic to get the remainder of the filming back on track. To my dismay, shortly after Mary’s return, the sense of urgency and motivation she once possessed when we first started filming was no longer apparent. After a few months of her being back in Massachusetts, I received probably one of the worst phone calls a director can get, especially well into principal photography – Mary no longer wanted to commit to the role of Ellie. It’s strange, because I wasn’t the least bit mad or even agitated with her for dropping this news on me. I was just disappointed. And that disappointment eventually graduated to devastation once I started thinking about the factory scenes again. What were we going to do?

Enter Krissy Larsen. I didn’t really know Krissy that well. In fact, I had only worked with her once, very briefly on an episode of a web series with Dave Schweitzer. As far as I remembered, she was very pleasant and easy to work with. But I had no real sense of her acting abilities, strictly because the web series shoot was so brief. Adam Michael Kennedy was the one who ultimately came to the rescue in a time of great need. He recommended Krissy and threw her name into the ring as our next potential Ellie. He and Krissy had worked side by side regularly and were even in an improv group together called Pipes. If anyone had a good grip on how great Krissy was, it was Adam. And at that point, I had nothing but trust for my male lead. Adam wanted nothing but the best for this project and he made that evident on many occasions by how dedicated and committed he was to this role.  So I knew he wouldn’t just select any average person to embody the very unorthodox and outlandish character of Ellie. He was going to suggest someone who he genuinely thought would be the perfect fit for this role. Not to mention the whole time crunch thing again, and how we were under an incredible amount of pressure to reshoot Ellie’s factory scenes. We needed someone quick. Therefore, I put my full trust in Adam and told him to bring her in. I didn’t even audition Krissy for the role. I tossed her the script and spoke to her about the character and told her if it was something she was interested in tackling, she was going to get it. Not too long after reading through the script, Krissy was all in and we had ourselves a brand new Ellie.

As soon as Krissy was on board, the first thing on the agenda was to get back to the factory and reshoot all the scenes that required Ellie. Thankfully, we were able to pick a weekend that both favored Adam and Krissy’s schedules and took both Saturday and Sunday to knock out Ellie’s five scenes. Unfortunately, on the weekend that we selected, Adam had come down with a cold. You could hear it in his voice. Again, just one more thing working against us. But, to the testament of Adam being so god damn professional and his overall ability to just act, he showed up, and worked his way through it. He masked his illness that he was plagued by at the most inconvenient time and pushed through, unflinchingly mind you. As a director, it was truly admirable to watch him do this. I’ll never forget it.  And the funny thing is, when you watch a scene or two in the final cut of the movie, on those days in particular that Adam wasn’t at 100%, you can’t even tell he’s sick. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Adam is a trooper. And if this isn’t one of the many examples that further proved how much he truly cared about the well being of this project and seeing it through, than I don’t know what is. He’s the only guy that could have played the main protagonist, Dalen Gus.

Additionally, after that weekend of reshooting Ellie’s scenes and getting a good first look at Krissy in the role, I knew we were in for something special. There was a particular chemistry that weekend that both Adam and Krissy exhibited that wasn’t necessarily there when we shot those same scenes with Adam and Mary an entire year before.  This isn’t to say that Mary wouldn’t have fit the role of Ellie. There’s no way to determine that with just the five scenes we filmed with her. Mary was my first choice. And to this day I still wonder how her time would have played out if she had stuck with the role. But I am thankful for her being honest about her feelings instead of sticking with the project, because the authenticity wouldn’t have been there. Ellie is an incredibly challenging role. She’s a very eccentric and sexual and aggressive character. It’s no easy feat to embody a villain of this magnitude and bring her to life, convincingly mind you.  Mary realized that early on after only shooting five scenes. And I applaud her bravery and courage to recognize her limits and just know that the role that she once read on paper, realistically just wasn’t for her.

Things don’t necessarily work out the way you originally planned when filming a movie. In fact, they never do. But an important take away from this, is that some of those changes, can turn out to be a blessing. Filmmaking is undeniably a ruthless series of compromises that will generally leave you standing in a puddle of your own tears at the end of the day. I’m both proud and glad to claim that my puddle was a perfect balance between tears of despair and happiness. What more could a first time director ask for?                                                                                                                                     

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