Learning the Tricks of the Trade
by Sunni K Brock
When Jason and I met in 2003, we were both working in high-tech. I was a Microsoft geek, and he was a photography and digital imaging expert for Fuji Film. We were both frustrated artists: Jason wanted to be a filmmaker, and I wanted to use my imagination for something more than just user interface design.
A little over a year later, we moved to Los Angeles to follow Jason’s promotion at Fuji. I worked for a few media related tech companies (one of them a spin-off of the Lucas empire which required me to commute to the Bay Area twice a month), and we worked on amassing equipment and knowledge. Jason had some ideas about the early science fiction scene in L.A. and wanted to write some scripts about it. When we met Ray Bradbury and Forrest J Ackerman at San Diego Comic-Con, it seemed a good time to start. Jason and I thought we should cut our teeth with a documentary, so JaSunni Productions was formed and we started filming some of the genre legends of the area. As our Forry documentary started to take shape, we kept hearing more and more about Charles Beaumont. In fact, so many people told us we should do a Beaumont documentary first that we eventually switched gears.
As we got more into the process, we decided that we needed more time to work on our projects. Jason and I needed to get away from working for other people, and we needed to move away from L.A. for a while. We moved back to Vancouver, WA and made regular trips across the West Coast to finish filming for our documentaries. During one of those trips, we interviewed George Clayton Johnson, who told us that we should talk to William F. Nolan. “He’s living up there in Bend, Or-e-gon. God knows what he’s doing up there.”
Bill Nolan was one of our last interview subjects, but he has since become a close friend and invaluable resource in understanding “The Group”. Listening to Bill’s stories and meeting with Roger Anker (the official biographer of Charles Beaumont), gave me enough context to get at the daunting task at hand: turning some fifty-plus hours of raw footage into a movie.
I read somewhere that an experienced editor spends about an hour working on the project per minute of finished film. This was my first feature length project. It took many scrap piles. It took hours and hours and hours of meticulous note taking to log every interview. It took several false starts. It took a few years.
I looked at my role as honing in on the story. Jason set the vision: he had an idea of how he wanted to start the movie (after we scrapped an earlier cut based on feedback from John Tomerlin and a few key others), and he wanted lots of dynamic visuals to break up the talking heads. We agreed that we didn’t want to copy Ken Burns; we wanted something of our own style, and we wanted it to be self-guided without an omniscient voiceover. We wanted it to be intimate, personal – the story of a man.
Contrary to what some critics may believe, I am not a frustrated animator; I’m not all that interested in animation, but I can do it competently if forced – and Jason V Brock can be a damned demanding director. I would no sooner finish a short sequence and show it to him, than he would say, “I like this but can you make it spin around and angle it…” Sure, just give me another four hours and I’ll have that five seconds just the way you want it…
The most enjoyable aspect of working on a film is uncovering the story from the raw footage. Like Michelangelo said about sculpting, “I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free.”
Jason and I are proud of the result. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a tale of the life of man who was full of drive and passion, and manages to inspire even in tragedy.
But what would the public think? To paraphrase a popular indie film handbook, “You’ve made a movie. So now what?”
We had an early screening of the rough cut (well over two hours long) at the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, OR. The audience seemed to love it. Potential programmers for other venues and festivals wanted it shortened to 90 minutes. Now we have two versions of the film: we screen the 90 minute version on the circuit and sell the longer Director’s Cut on DVD.
We read many articles and books about promotion and distribution. We watched Official Rejection – a documentary about film festivals. We pondered the issue of where to give up the “World Premiere” cherry.
The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA (part of American Cinematheque) was absolutely perfect! We fit right in with a weekend Charles Beaumont tribute. They believed in us and our film: it was a great feeling and a vindication of years of effort. We lined up a ten day event schedule in Los Angeles, printed posters, postcards, and ruthlessly promoted online. Five days before the event, we visited the theater. We wanted to see the poster on the marquee. We wanted to make sure the Blu-ray copy was playing OK for them. We wanted to pinch ourselves and make sure it was real.
We parked off Hollywood Boulevard, and walked into the courtyard of The Egyptian. Behind the glass, on the back wall, beyond the lights and the red carpet, there it was – Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man, on a big movie poster! We checked the schedule: everything was in place. We posed for each other and took photos in front of the placard. We peeked into the glass doors.
Then, from out of nowhere, a very large black man in a tight black shirt with an earpiece started towards us. For a moment, I wondered why the theater needed a bodyguard, and then I realized that there was an entourage gathering at the entrance. They were all wearing tracksuits, one had a giant afro, and there was a tall skinny guy with sunglasses – Snoop Dogg!
“You’ll have to step back, we’re taking some photos here,” said the big bodyguard.
So what’s a woman to do when facing the nerves of a pending movie premiere and being kicked out of the theater by Snoop? I turned to Jason and said, “I want to go find some new shoes…” We managed to make it past the crowd that was now gathering on the sidewalk to gawk at the Dogg posse, and headed down to the myriad of shops.
Nearly a week later: it was less than an hour before the official start of the premiere and people were starting to come into the theater for the signing of The Bleeding Edge (the anthology that Jason and Bill Nolan had co-edited, which included new/unpublished content from every living Twilight Zone writer) that had been arranged before the movie. I stayed busy selling books, jumping up for photos, and greeting authors and guests as they arrived.
Jason and Bill signed copies of The Bleeding Edge along with authors George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner, John Tomerlin, and Cody Goodfellow. Marc Scott Zicree mingled and signed copies of The Twilight Zone Companion. Jason was running around like crazy. People kept coming. I kept selling books. More people kept coming.
Later, after an introduction by the programmer for The Egyptian and Aero Theatres, Grant Moninger, Jason went to the front to introduce the documentary and I escorted friends and authors to the balcony. The theater was nearly full (over 400 people turned out). I was amazed at the interest in our little film…
It’s hard enough to walk in stiletto heels, let alone down a carpeted staircase in a darkened theater. I have a secret preference for them I’ll admit, though. “Sunni’s wearing stripper shoes!” William F. Nolan announced as we were all posing in the lobby of the theater for the photographers and moving into the auditorium. Thanks, Bill.
The lights went down, the place fell silent as a five minute preview of our next film, The AckerMonster Chronicles (the Forry Ackerman doc) rolled, and Jason made his way to sit next to me and Diane O’Bannon (wife of the late Dan O’Bannon) in the Egyptian’s amazing balcony. Finally, it was time to start the film. I hoped that the people here would like it as much as at the Lovecraft festival. I crossed my fingers and prayed that any technical difficulties were minor.
The opening credits looked great! The Blu-ray gods were smiling it seemed, or perhaps it was Ray Bradbury’s well wishes from the day before (he was schedule to speak, but was unable to attend due to an injured leg). In any case, it seemed to be playing well. People chuckled at Rod Serling’s snarky remarks interspersed with the beginning titles. I sighed in relief.
There were moments in the movie where I planned to gauge the audience reaction: the part where John Tomerlin is laughing so hard that he has tears in his eyes and he turns to his wife, Wilma and they both smile; the hilarious interchange between Nolan and William Shatner regarding the shooting of The Intruder; the underwater sequence to simulate a near-drowning incident. Would they get it? Would they laugh and gasp and snicker and hold their breath in all the right places?
They did. And it was wonderful.
Afterwards, the theater played George Clayton Johnson’s, “Your Three Minutes Are Up” based on his moving short story about receiving a late night phone call from beyond in which the long-deceased Charles Beaumont encourages George to get back together with the remaining members of ‘The Group’: William F. Nolan and John Tomerlin.
As the end credits rolled, we took our places at the front of the theater for the question and answer session moderated by Marc Zicree. As I climbed onto a stool, I looked out at the seats. A few people were leaving, but most of the audience stayed to participate (including radio great Norman Corwin and his personal assistant, Chris Borjas). I was shocked at how many people were in the front row – press and media people with cameras and recorders, from American Cinematheque, to the L.A. Times and many genre magazines and web sites! Wow. This was it.
Fittingly, George, John, and Bill – the surviving core group, took their seats alongside me. Marc Zicree introduced us and started the session as Jason came up.
Marc talked about Charles Beaumont and his influence on the genre. George, Bill, and John told stories about the group and how Chuck compelled them to do things. Jason and I related how we came to know them and what it was like to create the movie.
A lot of bulbs flashed. Questions were asked and people were really interested. Afterwards there was a round of applause and a crowd started forming at the base of the screen. We signed autographs and shook hands. We posed for pictures. We set up interviews for later.
We had done it. We had made a movie and had a premiere – and now we were getting a great reaction! We even sold enough books and DVD orders that we actually broke even on the trip. Success. Phew!
But we still have a long road of festivals and special screenings ahead of us, and much incurred debt to satisfy (we completely self-financed the films, and in spite of what people may believe, we’re not wealthy)… Negotiations and legal fees… Late nights screaming at crashing render jobs and fiddling with finicky tape decks… More flame mail with angry film producers over he-said, she-said insider politics and delicate egos… Tempers have flared, tears and laughter have flowed, feedback has been great, and reviews have been mostly excellent.
But alas, we aren’t out to make a fortune (we’ll never make it back, in fact) or become A-listers (that kind of fame is fleeting anyway). No, we wanted to make an impact on intelligent people and influence the influential. We want to tell stories that need to be told. This is our freshman effort, and we’re proud of it. Is it perfect? No, but what ever is? As Jason likes to say, “Always have a follow-up ready,” and we do have more tricks (and treats) in store.