Friday, September 9, 2011

It’s Not Just a Job, It’s an Adventure: My Low-Budget Film Gig

Back in late 1988, about six months before Vinnie and I got married, I got the chance to do more than just watch movies; I got to help make them, too! It all began after Vinnie and I returned from our first trip overseas, the “Conspiracy” Worldcon in Great Britain. I was all set to take NYU’s Intensive Filmmaking Workshop for eleven weeks. Then Fate stepped in, thanks to a phone call from Bob Zimmerman (not to be confused with the singing Bob Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan). This Bob Zimmerman was a friend and fellow member of CAPrA,short for Cinematic Amateur Press Association. For any young’uns reading this, an APA is a homemade newsletter in which each member of the APA contributes their own fanzines (‘zine for short) and collates them all together while enjoying food and fun. This all happened before the Internet came along and begat blogs!

At the time, our Bob Zimmerman had been hired by producer Steve Mackler for Sony Pictures to be the line producer (click here for more info on what the job entails) for three theatrical films they were financing. Since movies were a new area for Sony at the time, they played it safe by starting out with low-budget genre films which would be sure to make a profit one way or another, whether in theatrical release or on home video. Bob needed a Production Office Coordinator on these films, starting with Rejuvenatrix (not to be confused with The Re-Animator), and he offered me the job. How could I pass up a chance like that? The pay wouldn’t render me fabulously wealthy, but I was more interested in getting hands-on movie set experience, and even my dear mom finally agreed it was worth going for, despite her worries about the crazy hours required. Besides, movie job opportunities with someone I could trust, like Bob, are harder to come by than film school classes!

When I reported to work on Rejuvenatrix, my job was pretty much to be Bob’s second-in-command, running the production office. I was in charge of keeping track of the budget (on the computer, of course), and during the early days of pre-production, I was running errands and scouting around for the props and locations, getting prices and directions and the like. For example, my first two weeks on the job had me calling all over New York and New Jersey for white rats, rabbits, and a Mercedes-Benz. (No, smarty, the Mercedes wasn’t for me, fun though I’m sure that would have been!) I also helped draw up the contracts and the crew/cast lists for everyone involved. My duties included hiring Production Assistants for the set. Many of them came from film schools, while others were filmmakers who Bob had worked with before. I even had my own assistant, Caroline Sinclair. We wound up helping each other because Caroline had done more movie work than I had. I was really grateful to her for filling in the cracks of my film production knowledge, and in return, I taught her how to use the computer; not that I was ever a computer genius by any means (that’s Vinnie’s bailiwick), but as my dear old dad used to say, “In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

Finding good P.A.s wasn’t hard; even the ones with little experience were fine as long as they were enthusiastic and willing to learn, though I won’t deny that the $150/week salary put off some candidates. Granted, back in the late 1980s, $150 went farther than it does today, plus at the time, I was only 22 and still lived in NYC with Mom. But hey, from what my co-workers told me, many Production Assistants on low-budget movies don’t get paid at all, except in experience. More often than not, the camaraderie and the filmmaking experience convinced most newcomers to stay (sometimes even when we hoped they wouldn’t!).

 Synthesizing sinister serum with scientists Stella Stone (Katell Pleven) and Gregory Ashton (John MacKay)

Frankly, being part of it all was pretty exciting, and it was much more responsibility (and more intriguing) than I’d been used to. I’ll admit it was a little intimidating at first, but I quickly got used to my authority, made contacts, and enjoyed the experience while still being kind and having a good rapport with everyone. It helped that many of the folks working on these films weren’t much older than I was at the time. The oldest person on the film was the producer, and he was a mere lad of 40! I even sat in on production meetings; it’s fun to listen to people talking about creating mutant rats as if they were exchanging cookie recipes. I enjoyed listening to the terrific cast reading the entire script out loud, too, with humor and gravitas in all the right places. I particularly enjoyed John MacKay’s performance as Dr. Ashton, the young scientist who gets into an unholy, lust-laced alliance with aging movie queen Elizabeth Warren (Vivian Lanko); his voice has always reminded me of Martin Sheen. He was a nice guy with a great dry wit, too. Since then, our man MacKay has been on such TV series as Third Watch and Law and Order, and his films include Regarding Henry and Niagara, Niagara, as well as a hilarious recent Sprint commercial about “sticking it to the man.” (Click here for the commercial!)

Rejuvenatrix (whose working title was Brains for Beauty, by the way) was a wonderfully nutty, campy, stylish script. It was B-movie-ish in a good way, a nifty hybrid of Sunset Boulevard, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Altered States, with pretty darn good horror F/X, considering our tight budget. It’s about an aging movie star, Elizabeth Warren, initially played by Jessica Dublin. She and John MacKay as Dr. Gregory Ashton join forces, with Elizabeth using her big bucks to finance experiments to create a youth serum. It works, with Elizabeth’s renewed gorgeous self now played by the lovely and talented Vivian Lanko. Of course, this being a horror film, the serum turns out to have some wild side effects: now and then she turns into a bloodthirsty mutant! Don’t you hate when that happens? Dig the cool monster transformation scene!
Like Hitchcock with Psycho, we worked wonders on a low budget! :-)

There are some great lines, like when Elizabeth starts mutating in a nightclub rest room in front of two trendy types, one of whom sniffs, “You know, as soon as a club gets hot, they let in the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.”  Then there’s the scene with hungry mutant Elizabeth killing Dr. Ashton’s sweet young assistant, Stella (Katell Pleven). The doc kneels at her side, moaning, “Stella! Stella!” Mutant Elizabeth, now turning back into Gorgeous Elizabeth, says, “Your Marlon Brando needs a little work, darling.” And then there was Team Bartilucci’s favorite: MacKay’s intense delivery of this sibilant line: “I’ve got to synthesize the serum!” Personally, I enjoyed working on Rejuvenatrix the most. Sure, the hours were long; at first, I got in the office by 9 a.m. and rarely left before 8:30 p.m. But once filming began, most of the action was on the set, so my hours and duties lightened up a bit.

Much as I enjoyed working in the production office, I also wanted an opportunity to work on the set, just for the experience. I got my chance with our second film, Bloodscape, a.k.a. Escape from Safehaven (EfS).  (Check out DVD Update's review on YouTube.) This was a more grim-and-gritty thriller, set in a post-nuclear holocaust world about a family desperate to live in Safehaven to avoid the horrors of the ravaged outside world. Need I say things turn out to be a whole lot worse on the inside? Hero Rick Gierasi went on to Troma's Sgt. Kabukiman, TV's Caroline in the City, and Star Trek: Voyager.

This time, I was a Production Assistant — specifically, I was the P.A. in charge of Craft Services, a professional-sounding way of saying I got food for our cast and crew. It was like feeding an army every day. Imagine grocery-shopping every day for forty to fifty ravenous people. Now imagine having to keep two large Craft Service tables—one on the first floor of the school where we were filming, and the other located anywhere from the fifth floor (did I mention the school had no elevator?) to two or three blocks away (for outdoor scenes). I did most of the shopping, though Vinnie helped me out with the shopping on weekends. That’s a lot of heavy lifting, lugging, and schlepping! I soon began to appreciate the soothing powers of a nice warm bath before bed, especially since I usually came home dusty and/or grimy from head to toe, to my dear mom’s dismay. My mission was to provide breakfast, usually bagels, muffins, and the occasional order of hot egg sandwiches, cold cereal, fruit, yogurt. The afternoon brought our stalwart cast and crew cold cuts and veggies—or as our otherwise tolerant sound man Pavel Wdowczak would snort in his thick Polish accent, “Weggies!” Anything edible was washed down by gallons of coffee, coffee, COFFEE — hold the decaf! Oh, and don’t forget the wrap beer! An hour before our projected wrap time each night, I had to place three cases of beer (Budweiser was the favorite) and a bag of ice into the beverage cooler, all the better for the crew to unwind after a tough day. Ironically, I’ve never enjoyed alcoholic beverages or coffee myself; I just never developed a taste for them. As a result, I had no idea whether or not the stuff was any good, taste-wise. “You ought to try them and see what all the excitement’s about,” our Unit Manager Phil Dolin wryly suggested. But I daresay our tired, thirsty crew wasn’t all the choosy about their beer by the time we wrapped things up in the middle of the night!

Would Louise Brooks think our films were lulus? :

And of course, what would a Craft Services table be without snacks? Even with EfS’s tight budget, variety was the by-word; every so often I’d come up with something special, like strawberries and cream, kiwi fruit, or my mostly-homemade spinach dip (I seasoned it with Knorr’s leek soup mix). Although most of the cast and crew were appreciative, there was always some self-styled epicure who wasn’t quite satisfied. I could have five varieties of bagels (since we were in New York City, they were truly awesome bagels), and three types of rolls on the table, with all kinds of different spreads, and there would still be some wise guy who’d say, “Ya got any Wonder Bread for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” (To be fair, the p.b. & j. fan was thrilled and thankful when I brought him the necessary ingredients the next day, and so were several other members of the cast and crew.) I took great pains to include fresh in-season produce along with the munchies, but of course, the sweets were always the first food items to be snapped up. “We’ve gotta eat more healthy food,” people would wail as they stuffed their rosy little cheeks with M&Ms (the favorite snack of our director, Brian Thomas Jones), Double-Stuf Oreos (everybody’s favorite), or Entenmann’s cakes, the only cake with frosting guaranteed to survive a nuclear attack. All kidding aside, I can’t deny that I loved them all, too! Lucky for me this job required lots of walking and stair-climbing; believe me, I burned off an awful lot of those calories, empty and otherwise. (If Entenmann’s ever makes gluten-free goodies as melt-in-your-mouth delicious as their traditional goodies, I for one will be a very happy girl! But I digress….)
Lunch break! Come and get it!
Fortunately for my sanity and the filmmakers’ petty cash supply, a caterer brought a hot lunch for us every day. For late shoots, we’d order out for pizza or Chinese food. Heck, thanks to Pavel, we even splurged for Polish food—one of the advantages of filming in the East Village was the variety of exotic yet affordable take-out cuisine. Still, Craft Services is a pretty relentless job. In addition to all the running around between tables and supermarkets, you’ve got to make absolutely sure you’re not running out of anything — especially coffee, soda, and utensils — so you quickly learn to anticipate your future food needs.

On a movie set, it’s not just hunger that makes people place such importance on Craft Services. People don’t just eat because they’re hungry, they eat because:
  • It gives them something to do during the long set-ups and such between takes.
  • Like Mount Everest, the food is there.
  • Eating is fun, especially in New York City!
The folks most often guilty of recreational eating are the actors and extras. They often have no choice but to sit around in “The Green Room” or in the location’s production office for hours on end while waiting to do their scenes. I provided recent magazines from home to occupy the gang, but the siren call of the Craft Services table inevitably lured them. There was plenty of hard work involved, but there were many bright spots, too. If you do Craft Services well (and I think I did, if I do say so myself), you’ve got a certain amount of power. Faces lit up when I entered the room with beverages and comestibles; the reactions are almost Pavlovian! People courted my favors in hopes that I’d save them the last bottle of Orangina (and I did just that whenever I could; I’m not heartless, you know!). You get to schmooze with the actors and, if it’s an action flick like EfS, the special effects folks. More than once, someone would leave a bottle of fake blood on the Craft Services table. Good thing the main ingredient in the fake blood was corn syrup and red food coloring!
I even got a chance to be an extra one day! Lauri, the makeup artist, grimed me up good. I had to laugh; I’d spent about ten minutes artfully dabbing concealer on the circles I already had from long days on the set, and Lauri undid it all within seconds with some brown goop, bless her. I wore some dystopian-style clothing, and voila! I, a sworn teetotaler, had been transformed by movie magic into a seedy patron at a sleazy dive bar.  As Pierce, a young Clint Eastwood type, Gierasi passes right by my table when he enters the bar. If you happen to come across EfS sometime, you just might spot me in the scene for a nanosecond near the top of the screen. I even got my sister Cara into the act, however briefly. She came to help out one day when we had fifty more extras (extra extras!), and Cara became the 51st; she’s one of the shocked Safehaven citizens witnessing a public execution in the Arena. Barrymores, Carradines, Baldwins, eat your hearts out!

I wasn’t in on the third Sony film because by then, I really needed a steady paycheck, especially since Vinnie and I eventually wanted to get married and start a family. Still, I have fond memories, and I’ll always be glad I got to be in pictures! (Speaking of pictures, the movie illustrations sprinkled throughout this post came from Ready-Made Rubber's line of movie stamps by Rick Geary.)

Lord, won't you rent me a Mercedes-Benz?


  1. Dorian, what a fun and fascinating article! I am pea green with envy (as Scarlett O'Hara would say), at your wonderful experiences. You made me laugh at the job descriptions, particularly " first two weeks on the job had me calling all over New York and New Jersey for white rats, rabbits, and a Mercedes-Benz." LOL! And to get to be an extra! What fun you must have had. You actually made me hungry describing all the food and such you had to shlump around and present to all the cast and crew!

    I'm going to take my time watching all of your clips -- they sound fascinating. Wonderful piece of work, Dorian, and so different and fun!

  2. Becky, thanks a million for your witty and charming praise of my little labor of love! I don't mind working as hard as I did on REJUVENATRIX and ESCAPE FROM SAFEHAVEN, because it was such a great opportunity with so many wonderful folks working as hard as I was. And as a writer, I got more material for future writing. It's all good! :-)

    For the record, Mom was relieved when it was all over, because she worried about me being out all hours. Of course, now that I'm a mom myself, I understand her worries -- but I don't regret a moment of my moviemaking adventure! :-)

  3. Well, considering the status of the movies you did, I foolishly tried to find them on Netflix, with no luck. I haven't tried Youtube. Do you kow if they are available anywhere, especially the one with you as an extra? I would LOVE to get a look at that!

    1. Hey, Becks, we have indeed found a few scenes from REJUVENATRIX on YouTube! Try this one, for starters:

  4. Dorian,

    Fabulous article and thanks for sharing this "insiders" view on low budget movie making in the 80's. It truly sounds like a great experience...and the eats sound pretty good too. I even see you are listed on IMDB and have your own bit trivia listed. A great book by the way.

    I remember the mimeographed fan 'zines very well. They were all over, college campus', collector's record stores, conventions , etc. They came and went quicker than a blog.


  5. gotta give me some pointers some time!

  6. Becky, though I don't expect to see either REJUVENATRIX or ESCAPE FROM SAFEHAVEN in the Criterion Collection anytime soon (though you never can tell in this kooky old world :-)), I have stumbled across a handful of YouTube clips, mostly of REJUVENATRIX. I've sprinkled whatever clips I could find throughout this week's blog post; click on the reddish-orange links in the text. Hope you enjoy them! :-)

  7. Duh! I've been waiting to look at the clips when I had some time later tonight. Thanks for the info!

  8. John, it does my heart good to hear that, like me, you remember the grand old days of mimeographed 'zines! We'd have bimonthly collation parties afterward, with yummy snacks (many homemade, including mine), and after collating our 'zines, we'd have snacks and watch movies on TV or VHS! In fact, I'm still involved in just such an old-school movie 'zine, CAPrA (short for Cinematic Amateur PRess Association). We have only 5 members (including me), but we're a scrappy retro bunch! Wanna join? :-) That said, you're right that thanks to the Internet, blog posts seem to last forever, while 'zines come and go.

    I'm pleased and flattered that you noticed my movie credits on the IMDb, as well as my work with my longtime friend and author David Hajdu as one of his research assistants. Isn't it great that all of us here and our various blog posts have drawn us here together to enjoy each other's writing and photos (yes, I've checked out your photo blog)? Viva la Internet! :-)

  9. "A chick is seen/With me today/Tomorrow Zanuck/Starts to call . . ."

    Oops. Sorry. Thiking of your stint as an extra sent my mind to wandering. Haven't seen Escape From Bloodhaven yet, but now I've got a durn good reason to.

  10. Nate, my budding director friend, I'd be glad to share my movie memories and tips with you! I must say, however, that I strongly suspect that with all the newfangled moviemaking technology available today, you could probably teach ME a thing or two! :-)

  11. Michael, I got a kick out of your delightful IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S SUPERMAN reference! Glad to have you here commenting among us again; here's hoping your health continues improving, dear friend!

  12. M'mm, Entenmann's. Honestly, nobody can pack it away like actors whether they be of the working or non-working variety.

    Dorian, you spin a great yarn. Your adventures in movieland come to life. I could feel your aches and pains, and your excitement.

  13. Caftan Woman, I'm delighted you enjoyed my account of my movieland adventures -- thank you kindly! I'm also pleased to hear that they have our beloved Entenmann's in Canada so you can enjoy their goodies, too! :-)

  14. Dorian, delightful article! I've actually seen REJUVENATRIX, though it was several years ago. Hey, I even looked you up in the iMDB and saw your "craft service" credit on ESCAPE FROM SAFEHAVEN. I've always had a fondness for movies made on a ain't easy. When I interned at a local TV station in the late 70s, I befriended one of the videographers, Phil Smoot. He always talked about making his own movie...but then, lots of people say they want to make movies. Well, a few years later, I learned Phil had written & directed a low-budget horror film called THE DARK POWER starring Lash Ra Rue. I eventually saw it on tape--not a great movie...but still he made one!

  15. Rick, I'm happy to hear you enjoyed "It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure...," and I'm delighted that both you and John went to the trouble of looking up my IMDb credits -- thanks a million! God willing, perhaps one day my suspense novels will be polished and published and maybe even adapted into a movie, and then I can add a new IMDb credit to my bio. Hey, if you're gonna dream, dream big, I say! :-)

    But Rick, how very cool that you were an intern like I was in my college days, and that Phil Smoot ended up making horror movies of his own! I looked him up on the IMDb, and he seems to have kept himself busy. My stepdad liked Lash LaRue, so I'll have to let him know about THE DARK POWER if he doesn't already!

    I'm with you, Rick; getting the resources to get a low-budget film off the ground and into theaters is pretty darn impressive in itself. Thanks for sharing your own movie adventures with me!

  16. Dorian: This was so much fun to read! Aside from all the hard work, you really sound as if you had a great time. How I envy you working on a movie - on set or off. Learning all the nuts and bolts from behind the camera, so to speak. AND getting to actually be IN one of the movies too. Wow.

    Thanks for sharing a wonderful time with us. This is one of the best parts of blogging - learning about different bloggers' life experiences.

    We're a great bunch, if I do say so myself. :)

  17. Yvette, thanks for your praise! I'm so glad you enjoyed hearing about my low-budget movie-making adventures as much as I enjoyed telling you guys about them. It was hard work, but it was fun, too, thanks to the great people I was lucky enough to work with. Moviemakers and bloggers really ARE a great bunch, aren't we? :-)

  18. Thanks for the info! I have to say such as exciting stuff here, thanks for the sharing...

    Job Duties

  19. Shaik, glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks!