Thursday, March 18, 2010

Remember to Act Blind

The first time we assembled the cast of Treasure Blind to read through the script and talk things over, I asked Daniel to open the meeting with prayer. For most of the 52 different characters in the feature, that was the first time they had heard him speak, let alone pray. And if you've never heard Daniel pray, you don't yet know Daniel. He was ten at the time. I vaguely remember being ten. Mrs. Habegger taught my 5th grade class. She disapproved of the girls I had begun to chase around at recess. I disapproved of her. The point is, I was no where near mature enough to offer a prayer beyond some rote nonsense I had memorized for emergencies - like when grown ups would ask you to pray in public so they could congratulate themselves on how well they've trained you. But my asking Daniel wasn't anything to do with me. I wanted everyone else to learn what I had: that this ten year old who had faced some of life's most self-focusing circumstances, was incredibly others-focused and knew how to talk to God from his heart. It has always been a sobering, inspiring, and humbling thing for me to witness, and I was eager for the whole cast to see and hear. After the "amen", no one around our 35 foot circle commented, but all eyes were searching for the owner of that squeaky voice.

During long shooting days, all of the crew and most of the cast got to spend a little more time with him. They learned that Daniel talks... alot. He knows knock-knock jokes. Far too many. He might even make up one or two. He's always hungry. His favorite things to eat include powdered sugar donuts, Mexican food, and if he has cereal - no milk. He prefers bananas to apples and potato chips to hamburgers. He has a collapsing red and white cane which he demonstrates to all who will take note, and even some who won't. He uses the cane to avoid bumping into objects or obstacles which of course he can't see. But his memory is so keen, that after a couple times across the room, he's got the position of everything memorized. This brought up the need for an unusual direction that became a sort of standard reminder added on to any other direction, "Remember to act blind." Honestly, after the first couple takes, Daniel would glide directly to his mark better than a sighted person because he was used to operating by memory. If his character was encountering a strange location in the scene, Daniel would have to be reminded that Henry couldn't see.
I also remember the first time I realized that he would never see this movie. It seems obvious now, but I had never taken the time to consider what he was doing. He was working just as hard, if not harder, than anyone in the cast or crew, and while we would all one day go to the theater and watch the final product, he would go and just listen. Listen to the dialogue that he had completely memorized - his lines and everyone else's. Listen to the giggles, the gasps, and sighs and the sobs of the audience, but never would he see one image. He did go that day. In a tuxedo. And he LOVED every moment of it. He never acted blind. I never reminded him to. In fact, I wished to see it all as deeply as he could.
His prayer that first pre-production meeting had one theme: that TREASURE BLIND be a tool in God's hands, and that God would use it to further his kingdom. I forget that. Often. I tend to wonder about sales, or shelf life, or reviews, or return on investment. I need to be like Daniel: to place my movie, and my life, in the hand of my forever-sighted Savior, and trust him to lead me and the movie exactly where he wants us to go. Thanks Daniel. I'll try to remember to act blind.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cutting Wounds

Most of the elements of the production of TREASURE BLIND I immensely enjoyed. Then there were things I intensely hated, like cutting scenes. Some of my favorite people aren't in this movie. Many scenes that took so long to arrange the location, coordinate cast and crew, set up the shot, shoot it multiple times from different angles, scenes that cost money, that cost time, scenes for which my friends sacrificed their time and talent and comfort and dignity... were simply cut. Discarded. Sometimes not even finished. It was painful at the time, and painful now as I relive the frustration of concluding that all that time and energy was in fact unnecessary. At the end of the editing process, seconds are critical. Like a hot air balloon sinking into the ocean, we were casting off any extra weight not absolutely needed for survival of the story.

It's not like I intentionally or in ignorance wrote a bunch of extraneous stuff either. It took me a year to write the script, most of which I spend re-writing and simplifying and cutting everything I could. Brevity is the soul of wit, I'm told, and I read and reread scenes searching for anything extraneous. Events and conversations that I felt absolutely crutial while writing, I later couldn't justify. I found myself deleting lines, paragraphs, even whole scenes. The difference was, when I deleted a scene in the script, it may have eliminated a name, but not a person. After the script was finalized and cast, eliminating characters meant eliminating a person - usually not only a fellow actor, but also one of my friends.

So to all my friends who sacrificed so much to help me as I groped blindly through my first movie, I offer my profound thanks. But more than that, I offer apologies for not being able to show your friends your scene because it was CUT. It's not you... it's me.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Remember the Smiles

It just happened on the set of A Christmas Snow. It happened on Greyscale. Actually it always happens on movie sets: a random and eclectic mix of never-seen-in-real-life individuals morph over time into a movie family. Sometimes, if you're blessed, a family that loves being together, sometimes not. Sometimes the families are the very picture of dysfunctional, but always a family. The family that congealed around the camera of Treasure Blind was one of those special, warm and wonderful examples. It's not that we had no conflict or disagreement, but even in the pressurized environment of too many locations, too little time, missed assignments, or untimely complications, the cast and crew of TB was a true source of joy for me. There were timely hugs, words of encouragement, prayers, and smiles. Always smiles. When it was over, we all missed the strength of those smiles every morning. I reflect on the delight of that shoot often, and when I do, I always think about two smiles I miss most of all. Two eternal souls that added their talent to this project enthusiastically and tirelessly, not knowing it would be their last.

Scotty was a behind the scenes guy. He had no experience making movies, but he was a true friend who sincerely wanted to lend a hand in any way he could. He was an extra for us at the church service and spent his day sitting on a boring set, singing a hymn over and over about a hundred times, and trying to act like he was enjoying the "service". He did so with never a complaint. Scotty was also instrumental in getting two brand new Crown Victoria taxis to the set for the last scene. But mostly, we all remember Scotty for his great hamburgers. For a special treat after weeks of shooting, Scotty towed a huge grill behind his car to the set and spent hours in the heat grilling his special recipe into many pounds of ground beef. Let me tell you, burgers never tasted so good. Cast and crew scarfed them down one after another and Scotty kept 'em coming. It was a much appreciated gesture of love from this part of the TB family. Scotty was found dead in his home some months later. Now I wish I could say "thank you" one more time.

The other smile I'll always miss is Bill. Bill and I go back many years. We met on an industrial film where he was my boss. I made him my boss in my movie too. It just seemed right. Over the years we've worked together many times, driven together to out of town auditions, spent evenings at one another's home, guest-taught one another's acting classes, and shared the joys and heart aches of life. I'll never forget the phone call: I was at church on a Wednesday, the week of Christmas, 2007. "They say I've got lung cancer." I prayed for my brother over the phone while pacing the church's parking lot. I watched him get worse quickly over the next few weeks. I cried with him and his dear Wanda. We prayed together many times for healing and more time, but God had ultimate healing in mind in his perfect time. Before January was over, my friend Bill was in heaven. I miss him.

These members of my "Treasure Blind" family I'll see again one day, but never on another set. I needn't bother writing a part for Bill into the next script. He won't be there. We won't hear the encouragement and enjoy the refreshment Scotty offered after a hard day of shooting the next one. But I'll never make another movie without remembering these two brothers. And I'll never make another movie without realizing that it might be the last project for any one of the cast or crew... or me. Because of that, I hope I'll take more time to appreciate each set up, each line, each scene, each burger, each smile, each hug, and each unique member of my movie family. I hope you do too.