Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Script - Part 2

Having settled on my lead character, a rancher moving to Los Angeles, I had to flesh him out. First off, why was he leaving the ranch? People often have the desire for change in their life, but lack the courage to step out into the unknown. Sometimes it takes a traumatic event; a divorce, loss of a job, a death of a loved one, to propel them into action. I saw my lead character as an old-fashion, blue-collar guy with a unique creative bend; someone who was slightly out of step with his peers. He probably would have remained where he was if not for... that's giving to much away.

So, I know why he leaves, but what is his quirk? What makes him different? I've always enjoyed macho characters that display a softer more creative side. I like boxers who paint, assassins that sing. When I considered this question, along with larger story ideas, I decided to make him a photographer. Not a professional, but just someone with a passion. He's not moving to LA to "make it," but he brings that expressive part of himself on the journey.

The final layer to my main character was his ethnicity. We'd all like to believe that color doesn't matter, but it does. In order to stay true to the reality of my setting, my choices were Caucasian or Hispanic. As I pondered various story lines that would be affected by this choice, I was drawn to the many layers of the Hispanic ranchero. Immigration was an obvious issue, but more complex was the relationship between Mexican-Americans and African-Americans; especially in LA. Making the lead Hispanic offered more drama than a white character. I made my decision, Jesse Torres was born.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Script - Part 1

I remember waking up one day and saying, "I've got to make a movie." "Ranchero" wasn't my first. I had written and produced a couple of shorts, and even an ill-fated feature. But this was different. Having just completed the "No-Budget Film School" (thank you Mark Stolaroff) I had a strategy for making a Spirit Award worthy film by using the resources that were available to me. That meant a script with a cool setting - like my cousin's ranch.

My original thought was to write a screenplay that took place entirely on the Silva Ranch in Herald, California. If you're curious, it's a small farm town between Stockton and Sacramento. But as I considered different storylines, I kept coming back to the time-tested, fish-out-of-water tale of a man leaving the country for the bright lights of the city.

This story appealed to me for several reasons. For one, as a child, I was the "fish-out-of-water" when I visited the ranch. To quickly bore those who have read my writer's notes, I worshiped my big cousin Gary. He was a tough cowboy kid who got to do all kinds of cool stuff: ride horses, shoot guns, etc. I was the city kid that felt like a wuss around him. So I kind of liked the idea of turning the tables. But I also wanted a lead character that takes a physical journey to inspire his psychological one. You can't run from who you are; but, a change of scenery can serve as a catalyst for those more difficult internal changes. I settled on a rancher who had lost pride in who he was and where he came from. He would set out on a journey of self-discovery and change not only himself, but those around him. Crap! We'll have to shoot in the city.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Porn Palace

Before shooting "Ranchero," I was unaware of the many "studios" there are in LA. Of course I knew about the majors, like Sony and Paramount, and even some smaller ones like Sunset Gower. But few people I know had ever heard of places like Entertainium.

Entertainum was located east of Downtown in an industrial, warehouse type district. I remember scheduling shoots on Sundays to avoid the clamor of the nearby metal recycling plant. From the outside, the place looked like an old, abandoned warehouse. On the inside, however, was a treasure trove of cool movie sets.

A pool hall, night club, jail cell, and hospital room where only some of the many different sets. Now I don't want to blow the image of the place out of proportion. This wasn't Universal. But for an indie filmmaker looking to get a variety of interiors on the cheap, it wasn't too shabby. As Rich, DP Mike, and I perused the rooms, we figured a lot of films must have shot there. We were right. But most of them were porn.

After a little asking around, we found out that our new found pool hall had been used in countless adult films. So it wasn't a question of not knowing what had been done on the pool table, we knew exactly. Trust me, sanitizer was as good as gold.

But that little trivia aside, the shoot there went very well. We got everything we needed and a lot of joking to get us through a long day. Did I forget to mention that there was another shoot taking place while we were there? We were kind of on the opposite ends of the facility and the other film didn't have much dialogue. I do remember tip-toeing by their set on the way to the bathroom. From inside, the director suddenly yelled, "Cut, cut. Would someone PLEASE lick his balls!"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One of Many Tales

There were many memorable days during the making of "Ranchero." I'll share one of my favorites.

It was about mid-way through our 18 day production schedule. Yes, the schedule was tight. We were shooting at our main apartment location. It was our one day with Danny Trejo. We knew we had a lot to shoot. We knew we were going to work Danny hard. We knew we couldn't afford any screw ups.

Director Rich and DP Mike were well prepared. We hit the ground running and got wonderful footage from the jump. Danny was the consummate professional and everything was moving along smoothly. Then it began; at first just an occasional screech, then building to a constant, ear assaulting, clamour. Little did I know that Jimi Hendrix lived in the apartment, and this was his practice day.

When working on location, there are always obstacles to deal with. We had, of course, spoken to all the neighbors and gotten their blessings for our shoot. However, there is always one who either wasn't home, forgot about us, or was just yanking our chain. After "assurance" from our sound mixer that the audio was unusable, I set off on the unenviable task of asking our friendly neighborhood ax-man to cease and desist. I couldn't tell him too, this was his home, not mine.

As Rich and I ambled toward the offending apartment, a voice behind us steeled our nerve; "I'll talk to him." We turned to see the most recognizable bad-ass in the business striding up to cover our backs. As Danny stepped between us and led the way to the neighbor's door, my confidence built that all was not lost.

There is no real way to describe our guitar player's look when he came to the door and found "Machete" standing there. Danny, in his most polite tone, explained our dilemma and asked for the neighbor's cooperation. And surprise, surprise, we got it. The shoot continued without a hitch, and a happy neighbor got an autograph. Ain't star power great!


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

35 or Bust

I'd love to say that my mind set on "Ranchero" was 35mm or bust, but I'd be stretching the truth a little. The fact is that the project evolved from HD to super 16 to 35.

When the project had no money, Rich and I and Director of Photography Mike Bratowski did tests with several "pro-sumer" cameras. We weren't unhappy with the results. Though our range in color correction was definitely limited, Rich and Mike were pleasantly surprised with the picture quality. However, when a little financing entered the picture, we all scrambled to shoot on film. We briefly considered super 16 until an amazing deal for a 35mm camera presented itself. It was an opportunity we couldn't resist.

To me, at the time, making a movie was shooting 35mm. When there was talk of the project, I anxiously awaited the inevitable question, "What are you shooting on?" When I quickly spouted back, "35," there was always two distinct responses. One was, "cool" accompanied by a simple nod of respect. These guys are serious was the subtext. They're making a "real" movie. The other response was quite different. "Why?" they'd ask with surprise. "It's much cheaper to shoot HD." True. And there were other valid points to their argument. But purists still run the industry. And the last thing that I wanted to hear about our movie was, "It's good, but... it's a video."

Of course, things have changed since we began shooting. Technology is moving so rapidly, the entire industry is changing before the digital onslaught. But ultimately, I couldn't be happier with our choice. With Michael's amazing photography and the brilliant telecine work of Marc Wielage, "Ranchero's" look greatly exceeds it's budget.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It Was About the Acting

Although I wore several hats on "Ranchero," it was always about the acting. When I write, character motivations are primary. I want the "why" for every actor to be bullet proof. And as much respect as I have for the writer (when it's not me) no one knows a character more deeply and thoroughly than the actor.

A great performance requires the actor to walk, speak and think as another person. He or she must embody the nuances of another human being and bring to life that which exits only on paper. The job done properly will bring the audience to feel the raw emotions that the character/actor experiences. It is this bond between actor and audience that makes my heart beat.

I am impressed and moved by all the actors in "Ranchero." From the frighteningly intense work of Danny Trejo to the moving performances of Christina Woods and Roger Gutierrez, the realism, at times, was breathtaking. One reviewer said of the acting that it felt "like I was watching a documentary." It doesn't get any better than that.

But as much credit as I give to the actor, an equal share belongs to the director. All players, no matter how gifted, need a great coach to draw the best out of them. Sorry for the stupid analogies, but Rich guided the team well.

It was a pleasure to work with such talented, giving performers. Their generosity as artists is what made my multi-tasking possible.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009


The diverse cast and storyline of "Ranchero" is something that is extremely important to me. Growing up in a middle class area of Sacramento, I was exposed to people of all nationalities. I know as a fact, that though people possess cultural differences, we all have the same basic goals and desires. Everyone wants fullfillment from their job, health, prosperity and loving relationships with family and friends. "Ranchero" is a human story depicted by characters of different races.

That being said, the character's ethnicities are not without significance. The lead character Jesse states that "his parent's were poor imigrants, nothing is expected of me." How does one rise above their expectations, or lack there of? A first generation Mexican-American, Jesse battles with what he feels is his forced station in life; being a ranch hand. Knowing there's a bigger world out there, he resents his father, the epitomy of a low class laborer. It's Jesse's personal and cultural journey to discover pride in who is and where he came from.

In California, the African-American and Hispanic dynamic is particularly intense. Areas that were once predominately black are now largely Mexican. This shift has created friction over jobs, services, and culture. The black and white conflicts of the past have been replaced by issues of black and brown. The relationship between Jesse and Lil' Bit carries the weight of these issues without hopefully preaching about them.

This topic can be discussed at tremendous length. I merely wanted to say that though the story and theme are universal, the character's backgrounds and ethnicities add flavor and spice.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Working with the Man

With the film "Machete" beginning production, I can't help but think about working with Danny Trejo. If you don't remember "Machete," it was a "fake" trailer that aired during the Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez B-movie extravaganza "Grindhouse." In anycase, "Machete" is a reality with Robert Rodriguez directing. Back to my point, I remember how gracious and how accomodating Danny was to work with.

We had met a couple of years back when Danny supported us at a fundraiser for inner city youth. Roger and I had written a play, "That's My Desire," that dealt with the harsh realities of prison life. Knowing that Danny was a tireless crusader for keeping kids on the right side of the law, we contacted him hoping he'd make an appearance at our fundraiser. On his own dime, Danny flew in from out of state to speak after the show. It was truly a memorable evening and a testament to a very generous and giving man.

Working a scene with Danny was exhilirating. He brings so much authenticity to his work that all you have to do is react. It's impossible to get in your head as an actor when you have Danny Trejo waving a gun and barking orders.

I'd also like to say, that in the world of independent films, where putting a "name" in your movie is almost a ploy to secure distribution, noone could play "Capone" better than Danny. His face, his eyes, his sheer presense tells everything I wanted the character to be without uttering a single word. But it was his performance that really brought "Capone" to life.

Danny has worked on more than two dozen projects since shooting "Ranchero." That's what I call prolific! It was a great honor to work with him, and look forward to doing it again.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Gone But Not Forgotten

I received an upsetting email from my cousin the other day. There was a fire on their ranch up in Northern California. Yes, that ranch; the ranch where we shot "Ranchero." Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the majestic hay barn, where Jesse works at the beginning of the film, is no more. So much for reshoots on that set. It's interesting. In the relatively short time since we wrapped production, several locations have been destroyed, built up, or drastically altered. The parking lot where Tom goes for his drug buy is now a strip mall. The apartment complex where Jesse visits Capone (there were actually two) has been torn down. And even the production lot, which served as several locations, is no longer in business.

As it does for it's stars, movies can immortalize buildings and locations. How can one watch a pre 2001 film shot in New York without seeing the towers and remembering. We all cherish our personal photos of loved ones and special places. But in some strange way, a movie that is released into the world allows others to experience that person and place and miss them along with you.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Time Long Ago

One of the things many people don't realize, that even on big budget films, press interviews take place long after the completion of production. Actors and directors are often asked to comment on projects that they haven't thought about in a year or more. They are already working on their next movie. This was kind of the case with our recent interviews. Although Rich and I have been active in the entire post production process - a process that still continues - there are aspects of story and theme that we haven't thought about in a long time. Rich has completed another film and I've written two screenplays since wrapping production on "Ranchero." And speaking only for myself, I had to review some of the ideas and concepts that were in my head during the conception of the piece. This was both exciting and nerve racking. Am I still talking about the same movie? How has time altered what we set out to achieve and what we did achieve? Has the feedback of viewers and critics affected our perception? It can get kind of heady. I'm anxious to watch the completed interview segment to see if I made any sense at all.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Some Extras

As we prepare for a DVD release, one of the things requested from the distributor is "extras." Extras can be commentary, interviews, deleted scenes, just about anything. Having the ability to speak about your movie, add clarity to issues you think may be missed, is something I believe most filmmakers find appealing. Audiences definitely enjoy the insider's view into the filmmaking process. Like the budget of a film, the extras section can vary greatly in regard to cost, size, and complexity. I think we've put together materials that fit the size of our film.

Rich has compared the interview section to creating a short film; there has to be a flow, a continuity of thought, a progression of ideas. Using behind the scenes video footage shot by Daniel Weisman, and interview sequences photographed by Dave and Dan Hefner, Rich is shaping a twenty minute look inside the making of "Ranchero." That, and an excellent deleted scene with Roger and Baldwin Sykes, will be the main ingredients of our extras section.

Back with you soon.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Sorry, but it's been a minute since my last post. The joy of our festival trip to Providence now over, we've settled back in to the business at hand... finishing up the film. That is, getting deliverables ready for distribution. For those of you that don't know the term, deliverables are the required elements set forth by a distributor to get your film ready for market. They include master copies of the movie in different formats (high-definition and standard definition); still photos of the director and the cast; various contracts; copies of the script; etc. etc. The list can be quite long and intimidating. It can also be quite expensive. Spending 50k for deliverables, even on a lower budget film, is not out of the question.
Fortunately, like the rest of the production, we have the support of a village. Many people at Technicolor Hollywood have aided in the cause. Director Rich and Supervising Sound Editor Brandon Griffith have been working tirelessly to prepare the masters. Even lead actor Roger Gutierrez has assisted with acquiring music. It's indie filmmaking at it's finest.
Each day we grow ever closer to our goal: the opportunity for our baby to walk in the public limelight. You know I'll keep you posted.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Conquering Provience

Well, maybe conquering is a little dramatic, but I'm extremely pleased with the film's performance at the SENE Film, Music and Arts Festival. The "Ranchero" team returned home with the Best Screenplay Award, Best Lead Actor Award, and the Audience Award for Best Feature. That's not too shabby.

I have nothing but positive things to say about the festival. From the moment we arrived at the reception at the Marriot Courtyard, until we left the closing night party at The Spot, we were treated warmly and respecfully. Unfortunately, we had to bail early on the reception in order to make our screening.

It went great. The recently renovated Cable Car Cinema is an excellent venue for indie film. Us living in Los Angeles are a little spoiled when it comes to indie theaters. We have many "state-of-the-art" facilities. Not the case in most other cities. Considering this, the Cable Car was warm and intimate. Audio quality was fine and the screen size was appropriate for the space. I had no complaints. The fifteen minute Q&A following the screening was the best to date. People watched the movie carefully and had interesting questions and inciteful comments. Roger and I had a blast.

In conclusion, I want to thank Phil Capobres, Don Farias, and Linda Dwyer for putting on a well-run and friendly festival. Best of luck to them with SENE 2010! I definitely look forward to future "Ranchero" screenings on the East Coast.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

East Coast Premier

Well, we're on our way to Providence, Rhode Island! "Ranchero" will be screening Friday, April 3rd at the Cable Car Cinema as part of the SENE Film, Arts, & Music Festival. Roger and I will be flying into New York on Tuesday, March 31st and then heading into Providence on the 3rd. Dave Silva is actually flying out to join us for the screening. I love the support. My biggest concern is finding a coat that can handle the East Coast in April. Us wimpy Calfornians like to stay warm.

Unfortunately, we will be screening again on standard definition DVD. I've let this bother me a lot in the past, but have come to realize... people don't really care. The reality is, once the film is distributed, most people will view it in standard def anyway. So I'm going to stop whining and just enjoy the fact that more people are getting an opportunity to see the film. The organizers of the festival seem to be very friendly and responsive. I'm looking forward to a fun, stress free trip.

Speaking of distribution, there have been some very exciting things taking place recently. I'm unable to give details at this point, but will definitely do so in future blogs. In a nutshell, I anticipate a distribution deal being signed in the next couple weeks and "Ranchero" finally entering the commercial world. Needlees to say, this is awesome!

I apologize for being so inconsistent with my postings. Between the regular j-o-b and juggling three film projects, time has been scarce. Rich and I do have some traction with our horror/thriller "Pursued." Keep up with that project at pursuedmovie.com. I'll discuss the other projects at brianericjohnson.com.

That's all I've got for now. Wish us luck in Providence.