Friday, June 17, 2011

Childhood Filmmaking Attempts

My wife and I just saw Super 8 (which was fantastic, by the way; I would highly recommend it), and being as the protagonists are a bunch of kids committed to making a movie, that naturally got me thinking about my own childhood attempts at filmmaking. I would bet that most people who eventually end up pursuing film and video work have stories about the films they made as children; this is mine.

My Dad purchased our family's first camcorder, a cumbersome VHS machine, when I was five years old. I distinctly remember immediately insisting that we make a movie. Somehow, we ended up filming a short video of "The Three Little Pigs" starring various stuffed animals (none of whom were pigs) and featuring magnificent sets of Lincoln Logs (for the 'pig' that made his house of sticks) and wood blocks (for the house of brick; I don't recall what the house of straw was made of). I'm guessing it was one of my parents' ideas to do "The Three Little Pigs," as my story suggestions would have most likely involved dinosaurs, trains, or both. But I was thrilled to be making a movie, any movie. Over the next few years, my Dad and I would occasionally play around with the camera, usually having fun with crude, in-camera special effects ("trick photography" as my Mom quaintly referred to it) such as making things disappear and reappear. Georges Méliès would have been proud.

My childhood career as an auteur began in earnest as I entered the third grade, which coincided with my Dad's upgrade to a Hi8 camcorder, a hand-held machine that seemed impossibly small for the time (1992). Naturally, it was too expensive a piece of equipment to hand over to a child with a propensity towards accidentally breaking things, plus I was to be the star of my films as well as producer, writer and director, and so my Dad served as de facto cinematographer; the Greg Tolland to my Orson Welles. That year saw the birth of my first masterpiece: King Kong Returns.

After the hand-drawn opening credits, we see a newspaper boy (my five-year old brother, of course wearing one of my Grandpa's "Newsie" hats) proclaim the latest news: "Extra! Extra! Read all about it! King King is alive again!" And that's all the exposition we need. A pause for suspense (and for my brother to remember his lines). The Newsie points offscreen, "Look, there he is!"

The mighty Kong (a ten-inch plastic toy) arises from behind painstakingly crafted HO-scale model buildings, and proceeds to smash things. As he can't really move his arms, he must do this by thrusting his whole body so that his outstretched arms smash the buildings, all the while wailing and howling. My nine-year old voice had yet to attain the proper level of growl for Kong, and so this Kong has a rather high-pitched shriek. As he moves about the city, an HO train approaches, and the camera strategically pans to the sky to hide the cut; when it pans back down Kong has wrecked the train in a carefully laid-out scene of destruction. Kong then moves to knock over a suspension bridge of wooden blocks, before a Pteranodon, apparently also escaped from Skull Island, appears. Hovering helicopter-like somehow, without moving its wings, the flying beast knocks Kong off a 500-foot cliff (which we know about because of the big sign that reads: "Danger: 500 Foot Cliff!"). This is the end for Kong; in case we had any doubts we now cut to an average citizen (me) reading a newspaper account of all that has transpired to provide the proper closure.

Having conquered the special-effects driven event movie, I was ready to craft some Hitchcockian suspense with my next film that summer: Cliffhanger! The film, shot on location at my grandparents' cabin in norther Minnesota, opens as the Villain (me), dressed in dark glasses, one of my Grandpa's straw fedoras and few other mismatched articles of clothing, explains directly to the audience all of his his evil plots. Not very subtle, but hey, Shakespeare got away with it in Richard III. The Villain (which is the character's name) has stolen a bunch of explosives and needs to destroy the evidence for some convoluted reason, and so sets the bomb on a timer and plants it by the cabin of an unsuspecting family.

This is witnessed by Alex (played by me) from the second story window of the building. He tries to escape but for reasons of plot convenience the door is jammed shut and cannot be opened, and our protagonist concludes that the only way is to climb out the second story window.

Hitchcock would often have an idea for a scene and build a movie around it; North by Northwest, for example, began when Hitchcock asked screenwriter Ernest Lehman to write a movie with a murder at the U.N. and that ended with a chase across Mount Rushmore. Cliffhanger! was made solely because I realized that with the right camera angles and (in-camera) editing, I could fall out of a first-story window and make it appear as if I had fallen out of a second-story window. This scene was the centerpiece of the film.

After miraculously surviving what, to my nine-year old mind, was an impossibly high fall, a limping Alex grabs the bomb, and throws it in the lake. He's just in time; my Dad provides some magnificent sound design and special effects by making explosion noises while shaking the camera. Meanwhile, I do my best Star Trek collision acting and pretend to be tossed about by the lake-dampened explosion. The End.

Much was left to be desired from this, so my next project was a gritty reboot of Cliffhanger! In th redux version, the Villain has a slightly more defined motivation: he wants to dig a mine on the land owned by our protagonist's family, who of course won't sell, so he plants a bomb to fake a gas explosion. This is still explained via soliloquy. The ante is upped by the presence of Alex's five year-old brother, Eric (played by my five year-old brother, Eric) who also must escape the mysteriously locked house. After escaping and heaving the bomb into the lake, Eric decides that he will go and catch the villain and gets away before Alex can stop him. The Villain is standing by the road, with a revolver in a holster at his side (like any good villain), when Eric runs past him. Then, remembering what he was supposed to do in the shot, he runs past again and snatches the gun away from the Villain. "Stick 'em up!" Eric yells as Alex arrives. Alex calls the police, and we cut to the Mayor (my Mom) awarding certificates of bravery and declaring it to be Alex and Eric Day. The End.

Later that summer, I made the sequel, the awkwardly-punctuated and aptly-titled Cliffhanger! II: The Sequel!. Eric is being babysat by his cousin Adam (played by our cousin, Adam). Meanwhile, the Villain breaks out of prison. Next he shows up and kidnaps Eric while Adam is distracted watching television. Seeing them leave, Adam chases after them, leading to a confrontation during which Adam is knocked off a cliff and left for dead. The Villain ties Eric to a bomb and is about to place a ransom call when Adam bursts in and punches the Villain, escaping with Eric. The Villain chases after them when the bomb explodes (via more camera shaking). We are informed by the Mayor, who is again handing out awards, that the Villain perished in the explosion. The End.

I would make one more movie that summer, before moving on to a project which grew exponentially in size and ambition and thus never got made. The completed film, Dino Days! concerns two time-traveling scientists, Professor Alex and Professor Michael (myself and my best friend Mike). First they travel to the Jurassic Period, where they are chased off by a Dilophosaurus, (a clay model that appears in a somewhat failed attempt at forced perspective). The Dilophosaurus eats Professor Alex and Professor Mike flees. This was achieved by some very crude stop-action, which was severely limited by the fact that we did not have a camera capable of shooting single frames (instead we just hit 'record' on and off as quick as possible). 

Jurassic Park had not yet been released at the time of filming, but the promotional tie-ins were everywhere and had already made an impact on me, as evidenced by my decision to depict the Dilophosaurus with a frill that appears around the neck. I knew full well that the frill was not present in the fossil record and had been made up for the movie, but it looked cool so I chose to include it. Clearly, Alex-the-movie-lover was struggling with Alex-the-dinosaur-nerd-with-a-strong-need-for-scientific-accuracy.

Not scientifically accurate.

In the movie, I also wanted the Dilophosaurus to fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but knew that they lived about 100 million years apart. Alex-the-dinosaur-nerd won this battle, as I then had the Professor Mike flee to the time machine while the clay Dilophosaurus stows away on board, and then they all travel to the Cretaceous Period (when T. Rex lived).

Prof. Mike gawks at the all the dinosaurs he sees (all of my prized Carnegie Collection dinosaur toys), and the T. Rex eats the Dilophosaurus before attacking the Time Machine (more crude stop-action). The Time Machine explodes (shaky-cam, which was beginning to be my hallmark), and Professor Mike proclaims, "Oh no! The T. Rex destroyed my Time Machine. Now I'll be stuck in the Cretaceous Period forever!" The End.

Dino Days! was the last film I completed until college, but not for lack of trying. Not satisfied with how Dino Days! had turned out, Mike and I began planning a remake which grew and grew in ambition. Eventually it turned into a feature-length script and we spent years trying to teach ourselves special effects and filmmaking techniques in preparation for this epic (which was soon re-titled Mesozoic Mayhem; I had a thing for alliteration). By the time we entered middle school, we'd spent years preparing for this thing but still hadn't shot any of it except some special-effects test footage. Around seventh grade we decided the whole thing was rather silly and the project was abandoned for good. I may sometime do a post recalling the years of work we put into the movie that was never made, but for now this post is long enough and I am up past my bedtime. And so, adieu.

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