Back to the Desk

©2014 Levite

the making of "I stole everything for the Zombies"- the film

      First off, I'm going to be honest with you. "I Stole..." isn't the film I wanted to make. Not by a long shot.
      I had a vision for a short subject set during the time just after the War Between the US States. A period piece with costumes and all. About a young engaged woman and her wounded veteran fiancÚ who can't function as a man and who knows he won't live much longer and doesn't want to cheat her of that part of their marriage while he is alive and wants her to marry another fellow. She still loves him and wants to marry him regardless of the situation. Her father loves and respects his daughter's beau, but he also understands his reason for not wanting to go through with the wedding, yet he also loves his daughter deeply and will support her decision to go ahead with the wedding. My film would focus on the despair of the situation, how torn the father is, and the anguish of the young woman as she pleads with the love of her life to consent to the marriage.

the beginning
      However, the Film Board gave me a first time filmmaker's grant to make a picture about zombies.
      Why they did so they couldn't explain other than that they felt my original premise was "too serious a topic" for a first outing and they thought I should make a one hour comedy horror film. And, they were careful to point out, I could only use a minimal amount of computer generated graphics, the actors and most of the props and action sequences had to be real. And the kicker, have the completed work back to them in a month, or return the grant money, in full.
      "It will be an excellent vehicle for a young female filmmaker like you to showcase her abilities without overweening emotional drama taking away from the production," the woman told me.
      My repeated statement that that extreme conflicting emotions and personal drama was exactly what I wanted to look at had fallen on ears that were attached to closed minds.
      I had two choices, either make their stupid movie, and make it the best I could, and then re-apply for a follow up grant, or say no to the money and then go back to trying to find funds on my own. Which was why I had applied for the grant in the first place.
      But after their final statement I was speechless. I didn't trust myself to say anything at all because I was so angry.
      "It is your decision to accept, or not to accept the grant, Miss Hansen," she held the contract out to me.
      "OK. You'll get your zombies," I said to the lady and signed the agreement.

      When I was taking film classes I had become numb to patronizing comments and suggestions. I expected them from men, but I found the comment that maybe I should be an actress or model instead of a director even more offensive from women. I had done my time in acting class and community theater, and I had done a little modeling, it was not what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted then, and I want now, and as far back as I can remember, I always have wanted to be behind the camera, directing, and eventually, producing.
      Once I was out in the world I found work in commercial production making commercials and product videos. In most cases I did everything from story boarding the idea, then setting up the shoot, and finally, taking the video of the dog food or flower arrangements. It wasn't the subjects I wanted to work with, but filming a five minute spot about the charming amenities at a senior citizen housing complex with a selection of carefully chosen seniors, most of whom were delightful to work with, paid the rent. And, equally importantly, it gave me a chance to do some directing in a longer format than a thirty second commercial about somebody's orchard fresh apples.

      It wasn't long after the residence commercial had been released that I leaped at a chance to do another project for them that would be almost half an hour long and include interviews with residents and staff, and showcase the facility in a more natural environment, and I would be both the producer and director, and, as it turned out, lead camera operator, and set designer as well. All of which I was thrilled to do even though it was a ton of work, and while I had over two months to complete the project, as the weeks wore on, I began to worry that I might not make it with the video I wanted to make.
      And then one day when I was getting ready to shoot a sequence in the resident's laundry room highlighting the fact that they can chose to wash their own clothes or have one of the staff do it for them, Mister Linden, the director of the center, came in all smiles and grabbed by hand to shake it.
      I had come to know the man well enough that something was up, so I asked him what had made him so happy this morning.
      "Oh, Brittany, I've got excellent news. Our video has been accepted to run in rotation on the Modern Seniors Network nationwide."
      I can still feel the chill run through me. A chance for my work to go national. Yes, it was on a cable network that I didn't know existed until I saw it on the monitors in their rec room the first time I was out there, but still. It was national. And that was what counted on a resume.

      For the next two weeks I spent almost every waking moment working to make the video the absolute best it could be. I re-shot so much footage that one of my star actresses fussed at me about stewing over it too much, and making her take the same shirts out of the drier six times.
      She had a point. The film was what it was, and it wasn't even really a film. It was a commercial, a twenty minute informational video about a senior housing complex. I nodded to her and said she was right, and took what I had to the production room and put video together. I watched it through twice, then made a couple of minor changes to smooth out the transitions between segments, and ended up with a nineteen minute forty three second infomercial. Which was exactly what had been ordered.

      I was never so nervous in my life when the center's board, and my boss at the video company, Mr Ford, sat and watched it while I stood in the hallway outside, too nervous to pace back and forth.

      "Miss Hansen?"
      "Come in, please."
      "Yes, of course, I'll be right there." I took a sip of water to make sure I could speak, and then steeled myself for whatever criticism they had.

      When I walked in, they applauded.
      "It was wonderful," Mister Linden said. "Overall, we like it. There are only a couple of minor things we'd like you to address."
      I took a deep breath and thanked him for the compliment, then asked what needed to be changed.
      "Mrs. Miller had an observation about the very beginning," Mr. Linden said and turned toward the lady.
      "Yes, it's just something that bothered me. You begin with the photo of the sign, I wish you could show something besides that."
      "A softer intro," Mr. Ford said.
      "Yes, exactly."
      "Maybe, show the front garden first and then move toward the sign," Mr. Linden added.
      "Yes, that would be much nicer."
      "I can do that." I said. I didn't mention that I had originally shot that sequence and then switched it to the almost title card intro they had watched.
      "Very good. And there was one other change that I wanted you to make. Please put your name first on the credits as Producer."
      I couldn't say anything, but instead I just nodded and smiled.
      "And I have one other suggestion," Mr. Ford said softly.
      "Yes, sir."
      "At the end, where you have our name, could you mention our website?"

      Two days later I sat in the conference room with them and watched the final product. Two weeks later, it was on the rotation on the cable channel. Nationwide.

the grant
      Only a month or two after that I wrote my proposal for the grant from the film board. And then, the following week, I worked on a series of spots for a clothing chain that featured children, and I decided that I liked working with old people more than kids.
      When I got the registered letter from the film board requesting a secondary refined proposal I couldn't believe that I'd made the cut. I stayed up most of the night fine tuning my proposal and was at the post office when they opened to mail it back to them.
      And then I waited.

      And then I stood there in shock while the grant people told me that they had totally discounted my proposal and wanted me to make a live action movie about zombies.
      "It doesn't have to be just about zombies, but something more lighthearted and not as serious as your original proposal."
      "Yes, ma'am." I turned to leave, then paused. "Thank you, for at least giving me a chance to make something for you."
      She smiled and nodded, clueless as to how deeply she had offended me.

      But now, I put the screenplay I had written for the post-Civil War love story away and began to rough out an outline for a comedy horror picture about a reluctant zombie. Or maybe a zombie that didn't know it was a zombie.
      "I don't want to be a zombie, I want to be a werewolf," my chosen lead for the new picture said as I pitched it to him, his girlfriend, Toni, and her brother, Bobby.
      "I'll be a zombie," Bobby said.
      "Well, OK, let me work on it." I answered and jotted down some ideas. As I did I glanced up at the werewolf, "OK, Sid?"
      He snarled.

      Where I had a full screenplay, with dialogue and costume suggestions along with camera angles, cuts, and all for the Civil War film, all I had now for the 'zombie thing' as I called it, was one note card with some scribbled lines about a "Battle Royal" between a bunch of zombies and a werewolf and his friends. For the 'order of battle' which was exactly what I'd written down I had just a few words, "Europe religious wars".
      I knew that to shoot anything that ran longer than a minute or so I had to have a lot more of a script than that. But every time I set to writing anything I ran into a host of problems, including not having enough zombies and werewolves. Part of that problem was solved by having Bobby pitch the effort to his friends in the high school's theater group.
      The grant was enough to pay for some decent equipment, a few costumes, and some odds and ends. But it wasn't enough to pay for two armies of costumed characters fighting it out in an unused factory rented for the occasion.
      But, I had an idea. And in my idea, I began to see why the film board had done what they'd done. I didn't like it, but I understood it.

      I had to negotiate with actors, and fudge a little with costumes, and use some creative camera angles, and do some very unconventional work in the editing of the thing.

      Later, well after it was done and I'd calmed down, I can see how doing it made me a better filmmaker, but at the time I didn't like it at all, and now I didn't like the fact that they didn't tell me what they were doing up front.

the zombie shoot
      I wrote out a script of what you could call dialogue, mostly growls, unintelligible mumbling, a few howls, and some screams, and figured out how to turn seven actors into entire armies. Part of that answer came from raiding the theater company's prop room.
      Each actor had one primary role and several minor parts, each of which had its own costume, or at least, parts thereof. For example, Sid would be the lead werewolf and have the most on camera time and action of all of the canines. For this he had a well-fitting mask and a costume that was fairly intricate. He would also, in different masks and in a few cases, makeup, be a handful of other werewolves when their captain wasn't on screen. Sid also agreed to play a couple of zombie parts in support of Bobby, as Bobby would of him, and in at least two scenes, he would be a human victim of one or the other.
      Toni ended up with the most roles in the film. She would be in almost every shot, and we lost count of how many parts she would play. Because she was on the thin side, she fit into every costume, although we had to put some old football should pads on her to make her a convincing werewolf.
      Because of the limited budget, we had to find a set we could use for free. I started asking everybody I knew if they knew of any 'cool old buildings'. And I got all sorts of responses. Everything from a collection of abandoned mobile homes waiting to be stripped and recycled up to a few spectacular locations. Now I just had to pick a couple and work with them.
      I picked the mobile homes for the opening sequence, an office building for the dramatic setup, and the old grandstands at the fairgrounds for the climactic battle between the two armies of evil forces. Now with my locations chosen, and some initial establishment shots done of them, I could work on refining the script.
      Yes, I was building my movie to suit the talent and locations I had available. I had no other choice.

      I had no driving vision for this, I only had a couple of ideas, while Bobby had a lot of ideas for his zombie, and Sid wanted to play his werewolf straight, and so I started putting the ideas together. The only part of it that I felt was my original work was the three primary scenes. I had borrowed the costumes, most of the on screen interplay between the characters was coming from the actors, and the sets were somebody else's all together.
      Which is where the working name of the film came from. Other than what was on my original note card, everything else had been pretty much ripped off in one way or the other.

      I worked with my actors and my volunteer crew and we did some of the roughest story boards ever used in the film industry based on what I called my script.
      If we did it as we had laid it out it would come in close enough to the hour requirement to meet the target. And, what was equally important, we could shoot it in two weekends. Then I'd go into the studio and do the special effects we had drawn out and edit the whole thing into a movie.
      Based on all of that I outlined a shooting schedule and character list for each shot. Then I had to distribute props and verify which costume went with which character.

      It wasn't until the first day of live shooting that I felt like it was really going to happen.

      We moved our gear into one of the old house trailers, and by using scavenged furniture and a lot of tape we came up with enough furnishings to make our set look lived in by the undead.
      Bobby suited up and became the father of the family of zombies and we did a couple of test shoots in the kitchen and living room of the trailer.
      And then we did a quick walk through of the scene, went over the various mumbles and other zombie-like noises and gestures as they discussed their discovery that werewolves had moved into the neighborhood, and who needed to walk slowly in from which room when.

      "Ready. Action!" I said pointing at Bobby who was looking out the window. He moved with a slow shuffling gate and spoke in low moans and rumbles while only barely moving his mouth and his gestures were little more than a nervous tic in his arm. And everybody else followed suit. And, at least to me behind the camera, it looked good. Or, good enough.

      The first shoot went off more smoothly that I had expected.

      One thing I had learned in making the Senior Center video was to not overshoot things. I did three takes of the sequence in the trailer, from a couple of different angles, and left it at that. Outside, where I needed shots of the zombie family and their friends coming and going on their way to confront their new neighbors I did it all in one go with one camera inside and one outside.
      The next day came the filming of the werewolves. This was more fun for me because Sid was a natural ham and would howl and growl with only the slightest gesture from me. Compared to the slow movement and close order drill of the zombie scene, this was a riot. Sid was as over the top as anybody had ever been in that sort of role without out and out playing it for laughs, and the others got into it as well. Werewolves ran through frame, and or stopped and howled and then ran back out. And while they were off camera they'd change part of their costume or put on a cowboy hat and run back through so it looked like we had fifty werewolves where we only had six extras supporting the primary actor this weekend, or as Sid put it, "the Big Dog!"
      The following weekend we moved the production out to the closed grandstand. This was going to be tougher to pull off because I needed two armies, and at some point, they had to face off in something that looked like a battle. I had three areas for the action, the first was going to be between Sid and Bobby in the grandstand area where one would come in with his supporters to confront the other one. The second was the parking lot where they could run back and forth between a broken down truck and an old dumpster and our cars. The last battle area was the old heavily rutted dirt racetrack in front of the grandstand. I knew if I could get enough extras, and for today I had a total of eleven extras who had to switch enough parts of their costumes so the work I did in the final edit would be convincing.
      The two leads had two lieutenants who would be in the opening sequence in the grandstand. The other nine actors would play soldiers for one or the others. There was much growling and moaning. Zombies shuffled and swung their arms and werewolves ran here and there and it was all very exciting.
      We did two full takes of the confrontation in the grandstand. Then we moved out to the parking lot, and now everybody, including Sid and Bobby, were extras and they had a ball with our grand melee of werewolves versus zombies. The plot was simple, it was a fight to the death, and the only weapons they could use were the occasional old fence post and concrete block in some choreographed action that one of my extras arranged.
      After lunch we moved the show out to the race track and went through it again. This time there was a lot of dirt thrown up in the air while people rolled around on the ground.
      I did have one good idea about the final sequence and had Bobby and Sid and their top henchmen get back into their original costumes and go inside the grandstand and got several shots of them pretending to fight inside or peer out the window and give orders while the others continued the war outside on the track.

      Then we came to the final scene, where the werewolves and the zombies realize that fighting each other is essentially pointless and they stand and make noises at each other in something of a truce, then they leave in opposite directions with much grunting and reluctant nodding.

the edit
      It took a while to gather everything back up and get it in the boxes that it came in, but the principal photography was done.
      Now it was up to me to take almost four hours of video and massage and cut, it into an hour long coherent whole about polar opposites agreeing to disagree but live in peace.

      I started with the ending and put it together back to front. I wanted to make sure I didn't do anything to the storyline that wouldn't make any sense to the ending. Once I was satisfied with that then I began work on the main story with the two sides discussing the problem. Finally, I cut together the action sequences, and found myself about twenty minutes short of the total running time.
      "I've got more material," I said to myself and went back to the various takes.
      Now I had a second scene at each group's home base where they had finished their discussion and decided on a course of action. Then I added a dramatic moment that I hadn't used in the first cut when Sid leads his troops into the grandstand and they confronted a group of humans who were supposed to be the cleaning crew. After I'd shot it I thought it looked a bit too much, even for the film we were doing, but now, it fit, and it also filled in an extra three minutes of running time.
      The only thing I wasn't overly happy with was that this still was not the film I wanted to make, and I didn't have a title. But, I had a film, and that's what I needed then and there.

      The grant said my film had be between fifty two minutes and one hour long. My final version was just a couple of ticks under fifty five minutes.

      Sid and Bobby and the others loved it. They ranted and raved and carried on and I ended up with bruises on my back and arms from being hugged so much. And, I had to admit to myself, for what it was, it wasn't half bad.

      My only hope was that the film board lady liked it.

the board
      The film board sat and watched it, but other than a few laughs at some of the sequences, they did so in almost total silence.

      Then they watched it again, and this time, they took notes then asked questions. All of which I answered openly and honestly.

      "And now, Miss Hansen, I think you are ready for the other outing."
      I felt myself blink a couple of times, "I don't understand."
      "This was your second effort in the somewhat longer format, correct? You did the film for the retirement village and now this, correct?"
      "Yes, ma'am."
      "And you have learned a lot about production and direction from both, yes?"
      "Yes, ma'am. More than I realized."
      "And I believe we can all agree that we are impressed by the quality of this film given its genre and the somewhat limited budget and time frame you had for it. As well as the non-fiction promotional video."
      "Thank you. I did try to do a good job on them."
      "And you did, I think this better than some of the mainstream movies I've seen recently," one of the gentlemen on the board said.
      "Thank you, sir."
      "Yes, it was. Which is why I am going to make the motion that the board extend a full feature grant to you, with a considerably longer time frame to work with to make your Civil War love story."
      This time I was speechless for a different reason.
      It was at least a full minute before I could answer, and then when I could finally say, "Thank you, ma'am. Thank you, all of you," my voice was shaking.

End "I stole everything..."

[NOTE: No real zombies or werewolves were harmed in the writing of this story. All characters are FICTIONAL. Overall this Piece Is A FICTIONAL STORY, enjoy it as such.
Thank You the Author. ]

The Fiction Index

Back to the Desk