January 11, 2008 § 1 Comment
Editor’s note: “Family Trees” made its web debut here at roundtablepictures.com. See the picture below. Lars Trodson wrote and produced “Family Trees”.
The big lie, to me, was that you could finance the whole thing on your credit card. The truth of the matter is it was several credit cards, and if you don’t sell your movie you’re in debt for years.
But that was the excitement of the independent film movement in the mid-1990s. This was the era of “The Brothers McMullen” — the Ed Burns film that was picked up and distributed by a major studio and grossed millions of dollars.
There was possibility in the air. If I remember correctly, and please forgive me because this was more than 10 years ago, there was an ad by a credit card company in movie trade journals that showed a picture of their card and called it “your movie studio.”
I left my job at The Portsmouth Herald, where director Ralph Morang also worked, and decided to pursue this unlikely dream. We subscribed to the Sylvester Stallone philosophy, who said, when he wrote and made “Rocky”, that if he knew the obstacles ahead he never would have pursued the project.
So we simply plowed ahead. We had no money, but plenty of ambition and, I hope, some talent. When Gregg Trzaskowski and Lisa Stathoplos came on board, we felt the movie might indeed have a chance. I loved those two, as well as the other actors who came on board. The actors, every one of them, to a person, were not only talented, but lovely people as well. I think our shoot was a happy one.
When we started filming, it was a clear blue autumn in New Hampshire , and the tone was right, and we felt free working in New Hampshire because we were not encumbered by permits or red tape. We just set up our dollies in the middle of Market Square in Portsmouth and Ralph and the great Ron Wyman, our cinematographer, started to set up their shots.
We had a budget, but no money in the bank. I got money from all over the place. Ralph’s mother’s boyfriend was a huge help, a big believer, and passionate enough to keep us going. I got money over the bar one night in a tavern in Portsmouth and the guy said, “Don’t tell my wife.” I called my brother, and my parents, and then there were all those credit cards.
We shot the movie on 16mm film, and there was a guy at Kodak, his name was Paul Good, who had, in an unbelievable bit of coincidence, met my brother at a party in Rhode Island . I can’t remember the exchange exactly, but they were talking at the party, and Paul Good was talking to my brother Brad, and Brad said that his brother was making an independent film in New Hampshire . Paul said, I’m working with the guy in New Hampshire , and his name is Lars, And then Brad said “that’s my brother” — and after that Paul was a huge help in getting us the film stock we needed at a price we could afford. He was a great guy.
Ralph’s assessment on how he came about to direct the movie is as simple as he said it. We had talked about movies here and there, and he came by the house one day and said he wanted to direct it, and I said OK. That was it, and he did a magnificent job. We had one major fight, right on the last weekend, about his staging of the final scene. I think the end result there is a little bit of a compromise on both our parts. But I think you will see his staging and the handling of the actors and the way they read their lines is accomplished and quite lovely.
I’m proud of the script, and didn’t realize until much later on how many parts for women I had written — good, strong parts for people past the age of ingénues. Of course, that does not mean these women are not attractive or sexy — I think all of them are — and it’s nice to see these characters fleshed out by so many accomplished actors.
Our little crew was exceptional, and we were all bit by the fever of making an independent film in New Hampshire , which had not been done in some time. There was Vickie Brown and Eric Gleske and Sue Morse and Kem Taylor and a whole slew of people who gave their time and energy and talent to make this happen.
We submitted a trailer to the Independent Film Market in New York City in 1997, and we were accepted as a work in progress. We got a fair amount of press, and then a bunch of us went down and lobbied for the film.
There was, as incredible as it may seem now, some buzz about the film. These things are strange; there is a surreal aspect to it. Someone who I did not know at the festival said that Penguin Books wanted to talk to me about a novelization of the screenplay, but as far as I know that was just a weird thing to say. It certainly never happened.
The IFM lasts a week, and about half way through it, fueled by bouts of ale at McSorley’s, I had had enough, and said as much to some other filmmaker. I said, I don’t think I’m ever going to make another movie; I hate it. And then after that, for the rest of the week, I had some strange kind of “Bonfire of the Vanities” celebrity because I became known as the guy who didn’t want to make movies. One filmmaker said they would die if they didn’t make films. On the last night of the festival, when I repeated my desire for anonymity, a filmmaker fairly yelled at me by saying: “You can take that whole thing too far!” I said I wasn’t pretending, I didn’t want to do this shtick. I didn’t write another screenplay, by the way, for 10 years.
As I said, there was some interest in the film. I made contacts, but every time I called that person at this or that studio, they seemed to have left their job. I was asked to resend the video — these were cassettes back in those days — but nothing ever happened. I would make calls to people I had met, and it was always, “We’re going to get this thing bought, buddy!” but I never heard back. And then time, and life, intervened.
I look back on the movie now and have an incredible sense of pride about it. It’s beautifully done, and I know the acting is uneven, and so is the production, but with what we had we did a great job. And, we finished it, which is a lot more than people do sometimes.
It took my wife and me several years to pay off our debt on this thing, and then the old enthusiasm came back, slowly, and movies still hold their allure for me. Mike Gillis and I are enamored of the David Lynch school of filmmaking, and we hope to make a series of small, surreal, lovely little films with a minimum crew on little or no money. That’s the plan, anyway.
It’s funny how times change. Back then, I had to go to Boston every week and write a check to DuArt to get our developed film — which lingers now in boxes in my attic — and now we can store an entire film on tiny little video cassettes.
The medium may have changed, but that does not mean the desire, or the possibilities, do not loom as large as they did when we started “Family Trees”, more than a decade ago.
January 10, 2008 § Leave a comment
Editor’s note: “Family Trees” made its web debut here at roundtablepictures.com. Gregg Trzakowski starred in the film.
It has been a good ten years since we “wrapped” on the set of “Family Trees,” finished filming. I must say right off that, I seem to recall only positive memories and wonder if there were in fact any negative ones.
The whole experience for me was both very positive and unusual. “Family Trees” was my first film experience, up to that point I had theater and on-camera experience through commercials and industrial video. Landing a lead role in a full-length feature was a great opportunity to work and learn on camera. According to memory, this was a collaborative effort; I would find out down the road that it doesn’t always work this way. There were times when a shot or scene wasn’t really coming together, then someone would come up with an idea and we’d try it. I credit both Lars and Ralph for being open to ideas and creating an atmosphere in which an actor felt safe in letting loose. If something didn’t work we just tried it from a different approach, no harm done.
What made this special for me was the fact that we were all fairly green when it came to making films and consequently, we looked to each other to contribute what each could. Every member of the team was dedicated to telling the story, to serving the story first. Were mistakes made? Yes they were, however I think we all learned a great deal from those errors and exited the other end better at our respective jobs. I know I came out a better actor in the end.
In retrospect, the hardest part of making “Family Trees” was working around people’s day jobs.
“Family Trees” was filmed on weekends over a five month period. I do recall rehearsing the cabin scenes with Lisa (Stathoplos) and Ralph (Morang) when the three of us could get together during the week. Now that I think of it, we had shoot schedule and Ralph called to say we would be shooting the cabin scenes on the coming weekend. Now, according to the schedule it was to two weeks down the road. I panicked and told Ralph that I wasn’t one hundred percent ready. He assured me that if things didn’t gel we would re-shoot the scenes. I had the lines pretty well down and the rest was running on pure instinct, trusting Lisa and diving in head first. To this day, the cabin scenes are some of my favorite.
All things considered, I remain proud of the film we made. “Family Trees” is a story about real life, driven by characters who are not perfect or superhuman, yet extraordinary in their own way.
January 9, 2008 § Leave a comment
Editor’s note: “Family Trees” made its web debut here at roundtablepictures.com. Ralph Morang directed the film.
“Film lovers are sick people” — Francois Truffaut
In May, 1996, I was working as staff photographer at the Portsmouth Herald newspaper in Portsmouth, NH. I had been there almost four years, about the same amount of time as reporter Lars Trodson had been there.
We had worked together on many stories. That May, Lars announced he was working on a script for a film. For some reason, I thought it was a ghost story. Anyway, he gave me a script called “Family Trees” about a couple in their 30’s who were about to get married. There were no ghosts in the script.
I boldly told Lars that I wanted to direct the film. I had made some 8mm and 16mm films in high school, college and after, and had taken some courses at the Maine Film and Television Workshops. My ambition was to work with actors on a film.
There were now the small hurdles of assembling a crew, casting actors and finding money for producing the film. There was no question that the film would be shot on FILM. In 1996, projects were being shot on video, but the medium was not taken seriously. Our film would be shot on 16mm film in the Super 16 format — Super 16 can be blown up to 35mm without cropping, and it is affordable and manageable for a small crew. And there is nothing like the look of film.
We held auditions one weekend the fall of 1996 and had an excellent response to the audition notices. While some of the actors came form as far as Boston; most lived within 30 or 40 miles of our base in Portsmouth.
Our lead actress was Lisa Stathoplos (“Martha”), who has an extensive acting resume on stage and in film. She played Jud’s mother in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Our lead actor was Gregg Trzaskowski (“Wil”) who has since been in “Message in a Bottle” and “The Conquest of America” for the History Channel. In the credits for “Family Trees,” we used most of the alphabet for their names. Lisa and Gregg had actually worked together before in a television commercial.
Another actor we cast was Don Marston (“Moody”) who had extensive stage experience across the country. All the supporting roles were filled by local actors and some first-time actors.
Cinematographer Ron Wyman came on board, and the three of us went to Boston Camera to look at cameras and equipment. They set us up with an Arriflex 16SR3 with zoom lens and accessories. We rented the camera package on weekends because the rate was lower than weekday rates. Film was provided by Kodak.
Our crew was small and consisted of six to eight people. They included Brent Beavers, assistant camera; Vicky Brown, script, continuity, and all-round production assistant; and Susan Morse, sound assistant.
Our first day of shooting was on October 26, 1996. It was a beautiful day and we shot our first scene in Market Square in the middle of Portsmouth. We got no dialogue on tape: many motorcyclists also wanted to enjoy the beautiful day in Market Square. It was noisy. We did use the footage under the titles, but without the sound.
We had better luck with sound later in the day on Peirce Island, a park. Thus began our routine over 12 weekends in the winter of 1996-1997. I would rehearse actors during the week for the upcoming scenes and we would shoot on the weekend. On Monday, the camera go back to Boston and the exposed film would go to DuArt in New York for processing and 3/4” U-Matic video dubs.
Watching the first video dubs was exciting. The film looked terrific, and we were very pleased with ourselves. Outdoor shooting, after we overcame our sound problems, went smoothly, as the weather cooperated. Our lighting equipment consisted of a reflector or two. Soundman Eric Gleske made the Nagra sound recorder jump though hoops.
One brilliant idea I had was to shoot a scene as Martha and Wil drove through the Maine countryside. There are a couple of ways to sh oot a car scene. The easiest is to shoot from the back seat. Not us. We decided to cutaways from a truck ahead of the car. But because of the bad roads, the shot was so jiggly we could use only a little of it. To get the two-shot, we used a hostess tray. This is where the camera is mounted on the car door and shoots through the window. A hostess tray is like a piece of bridge decking hung on the car door with an entanglement of suction cups and straps and is more than sturdy enough to hold the $100,000 camera. For the reverse angle, repeat on the other door. We could not see the image as we drove, and we guessed at the exposure.
Sound Recordist Eric Gleske and I hunkered down in the back seat during the shots. The actors had to start and stop the camera. Nevertheless, the scene looks beautiful.
Our first indoor shoot was in a workshop, where Wil and his friend, Jeff, have an intense conversation. We established our lighting technique with this scene. We replaced the household light bulbs with BBA photoflood bulbs. These are 250 watt bulbs for which our tungsten film was balanced. For each set-up we used a 2000 watt reflector for fill light. Cinematographer Ron Wyman did the first of many scenes with the camera on his shoulder, following the actors as if he were another person in the room.
We chose outdoor locations to show off the beauty of the New Hampshire and Maine seacoast and indoor locations we were familiar with, to keep the production simple. For interiors, we used locations that fit the characters — Wil and Martha had an apartment in a typical Portsmouth house; Martha’s parents lived in a grand Victorian. The Sheraton Hotel donated a room for one scene, and we took over the Press Room one Saturday for a scene in a bar.
My favorite sequence is the scene in the Victorian house. For two days we shot what was a party that takes place in on e evening. In some shots there must be 30 people. In others there are only two. We covered the windows with tar paper to have perpetual night.
Ron was editing some of the scenes as we went along, but we had no whole film to look at yet. As I went through the footage, I saw we had a challenge editing some scenes. While Ron cut together a 20-minute promo piece, I went through the whole film using VHS video dubs, trying to work out the editing problems.
In September, 1997, we took the 20-minute cut of key scenes to the Independent Feature Film Festival in New York. This is an annual juried event where independent filmmakers present there projects to potential buyers. It was an exciting weekend and “Family Tress” was well received.
Our final cut was done by Jay Childs and, through the miracles of modern technology, is now available for download.
It is said that you should be part of something larger than yourself. In making a film, collaboration is key, and flexibility a necessary skill. While something in the can is the goal, the process is what you will remember.
If film lovers are sick people, then film makers are insane. It’s a great kind of insanity.