Beyond the Do-Lung Bridge: My personal filmmaking apocalypse

...the horror

When Apocalypse Now premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, respected "Godfather" director, Francis Ford Coppola, compared his latest film to the Vietnam War. He said:

"My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam."

So - what exactly did that mean? For many, it meant nothing. For filmmakers, it meant only one thing.

In a world where the role of director is the last remaining dictatorship, anarchy (loss of control) is the one thing he fears the most. Nothing compares to it: studio execs, budget constraints, film critics. If his project, the big picture, unravels into a state of mass confusion, his "world" degenerates into a realm of distorted images, incoherent dialogue, and paradise lost. It becomes what Coppola said at Cannes.

This is my tale. My filmmaking apocalypse.


We hear of success stories like Clerks and The Brothers McMullen. We hear of student filmmakers blowing out their credit cards. We hear all sorts of tales. We can only wonder that all good things come to those seeking out their dream. We assume this because we rarely hear of the failures. The projects which got too big or ran out of money - time - actors - interest. For every success story told, there must be a thousand failures that go untold. After all, nobody wants to hear about the flops.

In September `95, the concept of JUMPCUT was proposed. A feature length production with all the trimmings. Up to this point, those involved had only produced short narratives, music videos, and experimental pieces. But this, this was the "big picture." This was my dream.

Throughout these pages are various quotes. Those quotes that are followed by (-TB) are my own, either recorded or written, during the course of the production.

The Concept

Five filmmakers on the verge of graduating into the real world. A hostile world in which the film industry offers a college grad nothing. A world in which - if one had money, contacts and perhaps dumb luck - one might be fortunate enough in gaining entry into the indutry. But even then, there's no guarantee. No guarantee that, a year later, one might find themself pumping gas in Jersey.

The five of us started with an idea. "Let's make a movie." Simply stated. Now came the hard part. We tackled the idea from the writer's point of view first. Characters. Motives. Plot. Resolution. Etc. Etc. We lost one of us in the very first brainstorming. He couldn't invest the time. No worries, I thought.

The first draft was written in four weeks. The other three had 7 days to read, offer feedback, and return the script for its first rewrite. Only two of three scripts were returned. No worries, I thought.

The second draft was written and while waiting for the draft's feedback, I wrote the third and fourth drafts. I started to realize this team project was becoming a solo act. No worries, I thought.

So, it began. The script was complete. An assistant director joined on and the search for talent began. Over a hundred actors auditioned. The lot was carefully scrutinized. Several colleagues offered assistance to critique the audition videos. The final 24 were chosen. The seven leads cast. A month and a half of auditions. No worries, I ... (ugh!). Next time, I'll hire three more assistants.

Script & Leads

The script was rather easy to write. After all, I shaped the characters around people whom I already knew and situations I was all too familiar with. Or, so I had thought.

The script revolved around three (what else) student filmmakers. It was, as I recall telling my cast and crew, Living In Oblivion meets The Usual Suspects. The three student filmmakers, all from different philosophies on what "film" is, were forced into an unusual cooperative project to show their film professor that filmmaking was a collective process.

"What about Chaplin?" was Bert's remark.

BERT was the realist of the trio. As a "realist," he concluded that film was but a device to capture and record reality. He evoked passages from Andre Bazin's Cahiers du Cinema and would constantly throw quotes from Siegfried Kracauer into Steve's face.

meet BERT!

meet STEVE!

STEVE was a formalist ala "Joe Hollywood." He lived for the big picture, the bright lights, the grandeur that was Hollywood. Everything needed to conform to the Hollywood formula of filmmaking that he so cherished.

He wanted it all.
He wanted it all - his way.
He and Bert didn't get along - at all.

Then...there was ORAL.

He was a simple animator -- always in a world of his own making. He proved to be a welcome ally for either Bert or Steve when either one wished but also had his own ideas on what "film" should be. This would cause a few headaches for our competing realist and formalist.

meet ORAL!

NOTE: Steve was me/I was Steve. I based this character around myself not realizing how much --
"I was Steve & Steve was me" until well after the production ceased to exist.


"The plot? Oh sure, it sounds old-hat? ...the idea of a bunch of guys fighting over making some stupid film? Been done a 1000 times over. But...I got a gimmick." -TB (Pre-production 10/95)

(to Oral)
It's like this, Oral. This film has to be
different yet it can't differ from the way the
world is. Remember that movie set in
Hollywood during the Roaring 20's?


Sure, sure. You know. It was about Tinsel
Town's transition to the talkies.


...God, who...who was that guy, Gene...Gene

Gene Simmons is in Kiss, dude.

No-no-no, not Gene Simmons. Gene...Gene Kelly.
And it had this chick in it...what was her name....

There's no chick in Kiss. There's Ace Freeley,
Paul Stan--

--No-No-No! I'm talking about a movie; a movie!

Kiss' movie sucked.

Bert's frustration reaches a boiling point.

the cafe shoot

I'm not talking about Kiss' movie! Would you
forget Kiss' movie already! I'm talking about
"Sing -- SINGIN' IN THE RAIN!" That...that's what
I'm talking about....singin'-in-the-rain.

Bert exhales hard, out of breath.

Anyway...I read that there was this one character
who said something to the effect that: "When
you've seen one, you've seen 'em all" which
basically means--

--that all movies are pretty much the same?

Bert sighs, annoyed, once again. He lowers his face into the palm of his hands.

...yeah, righ--absolutely....


All movies are pretty much the same, right? According to Georges Polti, there's only 36 dramatic situations, so what could I do to make Jumpcut different? Well ... they way it was told.

Seen Pulp Fiction? Many praised Tarantino and the unique way he portrayed his tale. He simply took one major sequence out of its place, split it in half, and then slapped one part at the beginning of the film and the other at the end of the film. Me? I was going to take Jumpcut one step further.

I also adopted a non-linear timeline BUT one that was so complex, one would begin to wonder what was reality (real time) and what was the film project our three students were working on (reel time).

Throughout the script, I forced the reader to maintain their focus. Not to let their mind drift. If it did, they would become lost between the two realities: the real and the reel.

"In Medias Res."

It's Latin...means in the middle of things. Many great epics opened using this device; Virgil's included. He chose to open his famous tale not at the chronological beginning of Aenea's adventure but at a crucial point in the story, four months before its conclusion and at the height of a terrible storm at sea in which the characters fear that their lives may come to a premature end.

Why? Because it creates a feeling of curiosity, anxiety, suspense, capturing the audience's interest. And that's how were going to do Jumpcut. -TB (Pre-production 10/95)

The Production

View images Saturday, 17 Feb 96
Shoot A / scene 3

...and there off!

The first shoot was set in a movie theater: two leads, one crew member, handful of extras.
Should have been an easy day.

Lesson number 1: When making a feature, nothing is easy.
Hiring the cast I thought would be difficult but getting extras? Ha! That would take hardly any effort.

Lesson number 2: Prepare as much as you can and still be ready for everything to fall apart.
Hiring the extras became one of my greatest headaches. NO ONE wants to be an extra in a no-budget film for free. Though I managed to work my way around several of the shots without extras, all wide angle shots went out the door. I learned to improvise real quick.

Lesson number 3: No such thing as a clean-up crew on a no-budget film.
We spent the last hour of a very tiring evening cleaning popcorn off the theater floor.

Lesson number 4: Another one? Sure, why not.
Don't wait on tables all day and then go think you can grab a camera in the evening, shoot for an hour, and shazam! have an instant movie.

"Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now--images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his inextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression." --Joseph Conrad 'Heart of Darkness'

I tried to do too much with too little time. I failed to get several key ECU's. Didn't get to use the smoke canisters I spent half the afternoon locating and blew hard-earned tip money on and oh ... those damn LIGHTS! More on that later.

View images Wednesday, 21 Feb
Shoot C / scene 25

...sigh. Don't even get me started.

I loaded up my Mazda pick-up with a slew of equipment, drove downtown, unloaded, found parking (eventually), and then discovered the Bursar's Office didn't receive the correct information from my assistant. BTW, did I mention I was shooting this whole gig in & around Loyola University Chicago? Anyhow, the Loyola Department of Security refused me access to film the Bursar scene.

"The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove, was in my nostrils, the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes." --Joseph Conrad 'Heart of Darkness'

So here I was. No crew. Two cast members looking at me like I was insane. A truckload of equipment with nothing to shoot. Began to wonder how much in tips I could've made if I hadn't taken the day off.

Fast thinking. Told one actor to catch a movie and come back in a few hours. I took the other actress, recorded her lines on a Nagra, and would figure out how to work them in later. One of my crew showed up unexpected (Thanks, Frank!) and we managed to get a few CU's of her as well. We also managed to do a quickie tracking shot of the exterior of the Bursar's Department (hell with their authorization!) but all in all, after having a one-on-one with Jim, I decided to 86 the entire scene.

Jim? Cool dude. A technical advisor for the university, he was always there in providing assistance on various projects. Probably taught me as much as, if not more than, any class ever did.

... A week into production. One scene squeaks by. Another one totally wiped from existence. No biggie I thought. Coppola erased the whole French plantation scene and still had a great movie, right?

My problems, though, were just beginning. My head cameraman informed me he could no longer make many of the shooting dates, most of the shoots were to be handled by a skeleton-crew, and I was barely keeping ahead of each shoot with the story board. Add on the fact that this collaborative project of five was now a solo act and I was biting off one helluva chunk of the proverbial shit sandwich.

View images Saturday, 24 Feb
Shoot D / scene 23

...I wish all days went this well (for the most part).

Today, we shot on location; third time so far. Now I know why Hitchcock loved to shoot in the studio. The location was the Wolf & Kettle Cafe off Rush Street. Normally, February in Chicago would put the mercury around freezing. Not today. It must have been in the upper 50's that day making the downtown area a smorgasbord of tourists and locals alike.

There was six on hand for the shoot: Three actors, one crew hand, still photographer, and myself. The location seemed secure and the cafe's workers were all very congenial.

Today was a good day. The actors hit their lines, the lighting overall was less than problematic, and except for the growing audience of onlookers, who congested the cafe to witness this magical event, the day went off flawless. I'm glad I have it all on tape for these days were scarce and far between.

Of course, there were some minor problems. Remember all those curious onlookers? When shooting began, there was a handful of people about the cafe. By the end of the shoot, it was standing room only (not to mention those who watched from outside). Cool huh? Well, try mixing the audio from various points of the shoot. Where there was once only faint bg noise, I now had a crowd of people chatting away. My life in post-production was to become a living hell.

"Droll thing life is--mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you hope from it is some knowledge of yourself--that comes too late." -J Conrad 'Heart of Darkness'

View images Wednesday, 28 Feb
Shoot E / scene 13

...Should have been an easy one.

Today (tonight) we shot over Rush Street. Between the 2 massive buildings sits an enclosed skywalk which I thought would make for a great shot. Semi-controlled environment. No intrusions from curious spectators. 1 1/2 pages of quick dialogue. Easier said than done.

Showed up too late to properly set up. Forgot to bring an important piece of prop (headphones). Also, only brought one light; large "soft-light" that wasn't enough. The problem with that was since the skywalk was glass, the actresses (wearing dark clothes) blended into the dark skyline of the city. Luckily, one had brought a white coat which helped a great deal in breaking up the back/foreground.

Other headaches? Well, a simple rack-focus & zoom-out move had to be reshoot a dozen times over. Sometimes the actresses' lines weren't projected right, sometimes we racked yet fail to frame up the zoom properly, sometimes we just tripped over the all stupid cables...ugh!

We got the shot (finally), packed up, and headed home. 4 hours for what ... 30 seconds screen time?

View images Saturday, 2 Mar
Shoot I / scenes 5, 17, 39

...3 scenes & 11 pages of dialogue

Didn't quite get that far. This was the hardest shoot to date. But hey! It was in-studio (for once).

This was how it was suppose to go:
Three different scenes. Same location. Same three actors. Completely closed off shooting location. If any equipment gave me a difficult time, I had an entire closet full of backup equipment at my disposal.

This is how it went:
2:30 a.m. rolled around. Only one scene complete. Couple gels burned to a crisp. Crew and cast completely exhausted. So - what happened??

For starters, the room where the shot was taking place was a tiny studio. Crank up a few lights and it felt like a sauna. I had also proposed too many camera angles and this killed the momentum of the character interaction. It was was suppose to be a highly charged scene which needed intensity.

You can't shoot a line - cut - change cameras - fix this light - adjust this mic - (hey, where did my actor go?) - focus - sound check - and then ask your actor to give the next line with the same intensity as the previous one. Instead of using my actors to create the intensity, I was planning to employ creative editing to set the pace. Should have stuck with a master shot, a few CU's, and just let them loose.

But I couldn't do that; nooooo. Remember, I am "Joe Hollywood." AARRGGGHHH!!

"You should have seen the pilgrims stare! They had no heart to grin, or even to revile me: but I believe they thought me gone mad--with fright, maybe."
director and leads
"I delivered a regular lecture. My dear boys, it was no good bothering....I watched the fog for the signs of lifting as a cat watches a mouse; but for anything else our eyes were of no more use to us than if we had been buried miles deep in a heap of cotton-wool. It felt like it, too--choking, warm, stifling." --Joseph Conrad 'Heart of Darkness'

Scene 17
...Three days later

Severe storm had hit the city, delaying the arrival of cast. I set up early, got some extra footage and was prepared this time. Unfortunately, too prepared.

The tight quarters and pressure were taking its toll. For the first time, I flared up at my cast. 2 of the 3 were good friends of mine and sometimes its hard to be 'buddy' and 'boss.' I believe Bert's comment to his girlfriend during a break were "He's treating me like a kid!" Well, what did Bert expect from Steve? If I wasn't so wrapped up in the picture, I might have noticed the transformation taking place.

The "real" person whom I based the Bert character on? He was my head cameraman who was now a phantom (as mentioned earlier). Perhaps he had seen the Steve in me coming out - before I did.

Alas, majority of the shoot was a success. Again too many angles. Too many POV shots. Should have just let them go at it. The "chemistry" was there. Unfortunately, "science" was not my strong suit.

As for the remaining scene (39)? Never quite got that far.

Time to reload the camera! Click here for the next installment....