It only gets worse before it gets better…

Ok, I’ll warn you in advance. This is going to be a BIG blog entry. Quite possibly the biggest blog entry known to man. And yes, I’ve read all the “how to write blogs” articles on the Internet, and know that blogs are unlike books and newspaper – you need to keep them short and straight to the point. Blog readers have a short attention span, bla, bla, bla. But you know what – stuff it! The whole point of this blog is to help other film-makers learn from our mistakes, so I think the more information we jam into this, the better for everyone. Besides, no one is forcing you to read this anyway! And so, with that said, lets bring you up to speed with what’s been happening over the last few weeks. Hold onto your office chairs!

Lets flash back to the start of August. Things were stressful and chaotic, but we looked as if we were heading in the right direction. During the first weekend of the month was spent urgently trying to get some of the more creative and construction elements of the production finished. Isaac and Tim (our animatronics guru) continued work trying to get Pinky’s face finished, and the rest of us frantically started building a massive space ship in Isaac’s back yard. There were a couple of trips to Bunnings, a few trips to dodgy parts of town to grab unloved furniture, lots of hammering, jig-sawing, cutting, pasting, bleeding, gluing – everything was happening! Most of the ship was constructed out of things we got for dirt cheap at the Reverse Art Truck (RAT), in Ringwood. Basically you purchase a plastic bag for $25, and then you can fill it up with whatever “junk” you want. We bought two bags and filled them up with all kinds of weird and wonderful items (bits of foam, wires, tubing, cardboard off-cuts, bottle lids, malformed containers, etc.), and also purchased some large chipboard-like panels for $2 each. Most of the wood we used for the spaceship came from one of Isaac’s old beds, however we also picked up some other bits and pieces from Bunnings, as we didn’t have the time to hunt down more free wood. Despite the fact that neither Caithlin nor myself are builders, and Isaac wasn’t around for some of the time – we did a pretty good job. Things were starting to come together!

Given that we were building the craft in the middle of suburbia, as soon as it became dark, we had to stop building, not because of the lack of light – but because I don’t think the neighbours would have been too happy with us smashing wood with hammers, attempting to use power tools and singing songs from Triple M at some ungodly hour of the morning. So at night, we put down our tools, and continued work on other things – schedules, animatronics, the Pinky baby, call sheets, etc. With only a week to go until shooting – we had a lot to do

Caithlin and I continued building the craft on Monday, with Isaac up in Geelong continuing work on Pinky’s head. It was “full speed ahead” with the deadline looming, and still a lot to do. But despite all this – we were slowly winning. Although it was going to be tight (and by tight I mean to the nano-second), but we should have got everything built and ready for filming in time. Anli dropped in for a bit during the day, and over lunch we had some heavy discussions about the script and the overall direction of the production. She seemed to be loosing faith in the production, but given that we were only days away from shooting, and everything was gradually falling into place, I made the terrible assumption that she would just continue to ride aboard the crazy roller-coaster! I thought I’d been able to convince her once again that what we were trying to do what unique, exciting and in many respects ground-breaking. We weren’t just putting together a film for the sake of it – nor were we trying to cut corners or do things the easy way. We had a massively ambitious plan that involved lots of actors, locations, pyrotechnics, special effects, animatronics, shooting on a camera that is basically still in a prototype stage, and doing all this on basically no budget at all. The concept of Sakooz is hardly your average film student production – it’s an epic, big budget, fire, flames and smoke motion picture! Basically, we wanted to make an Australian version of The Host (visually and thematically that is), without the 10 billion won (which works out to be about $11 million Australian) in our back pockets. Challenging, yes. Impossible – hardly!

On Monday night, we continued working around the clock – building, sewing, writing, calculating. And then on Tuesday, the first bombshell exploded. We were all spending the day away from each other each working on our own things – Isaac was up in Geelong working on the head, Caithlin was at home working on baby Pinky, Anli was busily trying to put together some additional script and character information for our actors, and I was also at home busily trying to work out the logistics and financial of the whole production. Then, just after midday on Tuesday, Anli sent us all an e-mail:

Chris, Isaac and Caithlin, I really don’t know how to say this in the best way possible, and I apologise for not being able to tell you this in person but I don’t think I could explain it properly at all. To put it simply, I can’t mentally pull myself through this project any more. After being sick and being away from you guys, I took on a different perspective about the whole project which I can’t seem to reverse no matter how hard I try. I want to be there for you guys, as your friend, to support you in everything you do, but I also really care about being a writer, and from a story point of view, through nobody’s fault except for my own, I feel like I’ve compromised too much of what I really care about. I’ve known this for a long time, but have always maintained the mentality that I can put it on the back burner and ‘fight’ my way through. But now, without a true belief in the story, I can’t physically do this. I know this will seem very unfair, selfish and weak of me to do, but I hope you somehow understand, and not take this personally.

And with that one short e-mail, everything started to very slowly fall apart. As soon as I read that e-mail, my mind went into overdrive. Anli deciding to leave the production was obviously a massive shock, and a big reality check. She had obviously lost complete and utter faith in the production, and more importantly, she had lost faith in the concept and the story. This was a big problem – but what scared me most of all was what Caithlin and Isaac would think. Having already lost Dave (our ex-Production Manager) earlier in the year, and now Anli, was this the end of what was heading to be an absolutely amazing production? Anli obviously takes her writing and all creative elements of film-making deadly serious. And despite all the hard work we had put into trying to get the screenplay to a point were everyone was happy and genuinely in love with the script, we obviously never reached that point. Her fears that we rushed the writing process, and were planning to shoot something that simply wasn’t ready, story wise was completely valid. At the end of the day, I guess what makes a film is STORY, STORY, STORY, and if the story is wrong – the whole film will fall apart. This is obviously what scared Anli to the point were she decided she couldn’t go on. Of course, the fact that we were only days away from shooting and there was still so much to do must have also been a deciding factor – as well as the fact that this whole venture was going to cost us so much money! And so, Anli left the project.

One of the biggest problems that Isaac and Anli have always had about this project is that they have felt as if we have been writing the script to a deadline – which is exactly what we’ve been doing. Last year we decided that we wanted to make a feature film, and after thinking about a couple of different ideas, we all decided that “TV Tubsters” (which became Sakooz), was the way to go. And so we started developing the idea. At first we started trying to put it together as a group and we did this for a couple of months. Then we decided that it was too hard to write together with three people and so we left the task to Isaac. Despite my objections, we also decided that it was going to be way too hard to complete a whole feature film in a year at University and so we scaled back our production to a three minute promotional teaser/trailer. Although I still really like the idea of the trailer, and think it will lead to bigger and better things, deep down I still believe if we just “went for it”, we could have pulled off a feature length film – but I guess we’ll never know! Isaac then spent his whole summer stuck in front of the iMac writing away. He wrote and he wrote and he wrote. At the same time I started studying every single writing book there is from Story (Robert McKee), to How to Build a Great Screenplay (David Howard) and even books like Screenwriting for Dummies (Laura Schellhardt). Having attended many, many script writing lectures at all kinds of institutions over the years (both as a student and as a technician in charge of making sure the presentation runs smoothly) – I actually have a really good understanding of the screen writing process and the techniques and principles behind it. However, I’ve never considered myself a writing, and therefore have never practised the craft. Anyway… A first draft was very close to being finished by Isaac. In March, Isaac, Anli and myself went to beautiful down-town Hong Kong for a couple of weeks for the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Of course, the plan was that when we weren’t watching films, we would be further developing the script. As could be expected, this never happened, and we spent most of our time doing touristy things and going out on the town. However, when we finally returned to uni, and Anli and myself read the draft in its latest state, I don’t think either of us understood it. It was funny, it was quirky, it was out there (one of our biggest inspirations at this stage in development was Gremlins 2), but I for one just simply didn’t “get it”. And so, I made the EXTREMELY tough decision of trying to convince Isaac that we should re-think the first draft in its current form. It was hard (especially as he had just spend weeks and weeks in front of his computer busily typing away), but eventually that’s what we decided to do. We went back to square one. And then, one more as a group, we started busily “smashing” together another feature film concept – obviously along the same lines (i.e. aliens on a kids TV show), but just with a different approach and direction.

Having read books like Rebel Without a Crew (Robert Rodriguez) and Peter Jackson, A Film-Makers Journey (Brian Sibley), I guess I’ve never seen the problem with just making the decision to just sit down and write a really cool screenplay that I for one would personally like to see. I’m a strong believer in just making films that you would like to see, as I’m sure that there are at least one or two other people in the world that have the same taste and humour as me. And if I can create a reaction from just one person, then that’s what I think it’s all about. Film-making, in my opinion is about creating reactions from your audience and about making people really think and question the world they live in. Some people may say that most films are purely just in it for the money, and they don’t change anything. I disagree! Take for instance Jurassic Park (1993). At first glances, you might wrongly assume that this movie was just solely created to sell tickets. And I guess, in some ways it was. But just like most (if not all) of Steven Spielberg’s movies, this film also addresses all kinds of things about what’s good and bad about the world we live in. Although you might not notice it at first – this movie makes you question things. Should we mess with nature? Is family the most important thing? Is your life more important that your loved ones? Although this film is a big, action-packed roller-coaster ride – it also has messages embedded into it, and morals. And I think you’ll find that with all GOOD movies, one of the key reasons that makes them good, is the fact that they question the world we live in, and make you ask questions in your head. That what I wanted to do with Sakooz! Sure I wanted to create a really “cool” movie with lots of action, explosions, cool aliens, etc. But I also wanted to create something that made you question things. I wanted a film that had the heart of Garden State (2004), with the action of Transformers (2007), and the humour and visual style of The Host (2006).

And so, Anli, Isaac and myself started rebuilding the story, character and plot outline. We started to question everything, and ask ourselves and each other heaps of questions. What would Leodore do in this situation? Why would he do it? We did pages and pages of character notes and questionnaires. If we couldn’t answer a question, we sit down as a group and run around in circles until one of us had a brainwave and everything fell into place. The process was hard work – it took a hell of a lot out of you, but it was (in my opinion at least), worth it. Not only were we creating a story that was beginning to have some kind of a backbone – but we were also learning just how hard it is to create a complex story from the ground up. I’ve read a million times just how hard the writing process is, and how much pain writers go through – but until you do it yourself, you just have no idea. Like most things, when you sit down staring at a blank screen, it all seems almost impossible. How can you possibly fill all these pages with magical words? But once you start getting into the swing of things, slowly by surely, everything starts falling into place. Of course, what you write the first time won’t be perfect – you’ll no doubt need to stop, go back, and re-write what you wrote (and probably took you three days to write!), but that’s all part of the process. It’s hard work – but someone has to do it! Flash forward to the 26th of April, and that’s when we started this blog!

So, in an attempt to get this post back on track, what happened after Anli’s e-mail? Well the next day was absolute hell. It will go down in history as of my the toughest days I’ve ever had to go through. Now this might sound like an overreaction – but believe me, it wasn’t. And I’ve been through some pretty tough dates in the past, believe me! Isaac, Caithlin and I met at Isaac’s house. When I got there, I went round the back, as the original plan was that we would continue to build the spaceship all day. But when I got round, no one had hammers or glue in hand. And so, we started talking, arguing and discussing. It was like some kind of a crazy triangle. Isaac had decided that for various reasons, we shouldn’t continue on with the trailer. Caithlin was still (at this stage) in the middle. She saw everything from Isaac’s point of view, but at the same time, we’d put so much work into everything, and were so close to filming, that she also felt that it would be a shame to throw everything in. I was at the other end of the spectrum. I REALLY wanted to make Sakooz a reality. And the discussions continued. We were hitting road block after road block. I’d tried to convince them both we should just finish what we started, because despite what they might think, I still believed in the concept and story and honestly believed we were heading in the right direction. Isaac tried to convince me that we should stop now as the whole production had bad foundations from the get go. Caithlin tried to see things from both points of view. Eventually however, I lost the battle. They both decided that they definitely didn’t want to do it. I was shattered. But what could I do? Without a Director, Assistant Director or Art Director, it was just me all alone. I was outnumbered, and I lost the war. And so, in Isaac’s backyard, we made the INCREDIBLY tough decision that Sakooz was not going to be finished this year. I was devestated – seriously. After all the money, blood and effort I’d put into this production (that I TRUELY felt strongly about), everything had blown up in my face. One of my final words were “I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m going to get this film made one day”. We decided that I would keep everything in storage at my place. And so, I left. The drive home was a so hard. At first, I just expected it. It almost felt a bit like a relief. I no longer had to worry about all the problems and issues that Sakooz brought with it. But it was an easy way out. As I got closer and closer to home however, I started to break down. To be honest, I just didn’t know what I was going to say to my family and friends. The fact that I’d have to tell my family that we’d basically just given up (and yes, I know it wasn’t as simple as that), was too much. As I got closer and closer to home, with Lovers Electric blasting through the stereo, I started to ball my eyes out. It was all too much. I nearly ran off the road a couple of times. But all I wanted to do was get home. I felt like a three year old again that had just been bullied in the playground. When I got home, my family thought something SERIOUSLY bad had happened. Had someone died? I know it seems really silly, getting so worked up about a stupid university project – but when you put so much heart and soul into something, only to have it taken away from you in one foul swoop, it’s tough. I knew deep down that it wasn’t the end of the world, and I knew that I shouldn’t be getting so worked up about it, but at the time, my body and mind just gave up. It was all too hard. But, after much calming down, and hugs from my amazing family (and yes, this all sounds very lame and stupid – but anyway!), I started to regain some kind of composure. They started to ask me serious questions – why did we decide to give up on the trailer? What needed to be done? What are the pros and cons of the situation? Could I just do it myself? Slowly but surely my brain started working again. I started to seriously consider everything.

I’ve never been one to just give up, regardless of how tough things get. It’s just not in my nature. However, this situation really put me to the test. I felt trapped – I couldn’t see a logical way out. But after discussing things with my incredibly supportive family, I started calling up friends and asking for their advice. I was still shaking like crazy. I had no idea what lay in the future. After calling up heaps of people, the general consensus was that I should just go for it. Don’t give up no matter how hard things get. Just continue on. I started thinking back to all the books and stories I’ve ever read. Every film has these kinds of issues. But they always get through it with a bit of hard work and determination. It was decided – despite loosing the Director, Art Director, and Assistant Director (and my co-writers), the show must go on!

In the space of one day, my whole world collapsed, and then I suddenly found myself no longer as just the producer of this crazy project, but also the Director, Art Director and everything else. It had gone from a group project to a solo mission. But I wasn’t alone – I had an AMAZING team behind me. I had a incredibly brilliant crew in place, and an equally impressive cast. Despite all that had happened, I all of a sudden felt like maybe, just maybe, we could pull this off. It wasn’t going to be easy – but we the support of my family, friends and the rest of Team Sakooz, I felt that we might just win the war after all…

And so, the start of the real adventure continued! The first step was going to be tough – real tough. I had to call up Isaac and Caithlin and explain to them, that despite everything that happened today, I had decided to take on everything myself. Isaac wasn’t impressed. It had been an incredibly tough decision for us all to throw in the towel, and he didn’t appreciate my sudden change of heart. But in my defence, at the time I didn’t really have much of an option. It was two against one, and I didn’t think I could even remotely possibly think I could do everything myself. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I wouldn’t be doing it all by myself. I would just be the “ringleader” – my fantastic cast and crew would be the one’s that would help ensure that everything goes to plan. Although neither Caithlin or Isaac liked it – they didn’t really have a choice in the matter. If I wanted to go ahead, then that was my choice. They both warned me that it was going to be hell and that I would probably end up with something that was just plain “crap” – but that didn’t really bother me. At least I’d give it my very best shot. And at the end of the day, I believed in the concept. I believed in the story. In fact, I loved the story and the characters. After all, despite the fact that Isaac, Anli and myself developed the Sakooz story as a team – at the end of the day, I felt as if it was always my story. I had worked on the Tweenies over a period of four years (I first travelled around Australia as a minder and animatronics assistant at the extremely young age of 15). It was a MASSIVE part of my life, and the experience really made me the person that I am today (for better or for worse!). Although Leodore was a fictional character, there are so many elements of him I can relate to (which is kind of scary).

So, despite all odds, and despite all the issues and problems, regardless of the fact that we lost our director, art director and assistant producer, the show must go on! Over the next few blog entries, I will start filling you in with what happening in the days leading up to filming, and then what happened on Day One through to Five of Principle Photography. It sure was one hell of a ride!

Now to finish up this post, I’ll leave you with a blog entry that Isaac wrote the day after I decided to take on the project solo, that explains his reasons for why he chose not to complete Sakooz. It’s been really tricky writing this, as I don’t want to put words into his mouth – so hopefully this clearly states his point of view:

Well, I am the Director of Sakooz, or at least I was the Director. Yesterday we completely scrapped the film, it was an extremely hard decision for all of us, and it would have been far easier to continue along ignoring it’s problems just to finish the damn thing. However if we were to continue along we would have not only been wasting our own time. Not that this is a problem considering the fact that we have already spent over 10 months on this project. One of the problems is that we would have been wasting many other people’s time and resources. We were lying to everybody involved, convincing them all that it was a good idea when we didn’t truly believe in it ourselves.

It is nobody’s fault; the film just didn’t have any depth, heart, or substance. The primary problem behind this is that we attempted to develop the idea as a group of three, each of us taking turns at it and sometimes developing it together. With a project this big it really needs to begin as one person’s idea or baby, they can seek consultation from the people around them, but the story remains theirs enabling that person to immerse themselves entirely in the story. This film was nobody’s baby and then at the same time it was everybody’s baby. We all knew the story in different ways, which constantly caused major confusion.

We worked like this primarily so that we could achieve the result by the deadline, this is the second problem. When developing a feature motion picture a deadline is rarely a good thing. These problems lead to the overruling problem, it became a business, it felt like we were a factory churning out a pre-packaged microwavable instant-movie-matic 3000.

But why didn’t we stop and work things out? Well, here we come to the biggest problem. We are a great team here at latenite films, we have made great films and will continue to in the future. However with this film the three person creative collaboration is where we went most horribly wrong. Of the three key members of latenite, (becoming four) there are two creative minds and a technical mind. The two creative minds knew there was something wrong, we felt we couldn’t just do it as factory work. We needed to be working on something we truly believed in, something we believed in beyond the surface, beyond it’s colourful furry exterior. However the technical mind was of the mindset that if we just continue pushing and ignore the problems we will get past them. This is a great quality to posses especially as a producer; you need a person who is so stubborn who can push people through the bad times with sheer force. However, you also need to know how to stop, when you can see that things have been going in the wrong direction for a long time and that all which was the idea of the film is lost.

It was more than just this; we the creative minds should have spoken out. But we did, we tried to change the direction of things at various points along the journey. Whether it is 5-minute attempts or an hour trying to get rid of the ball and chain, which held us on this one blind path to… well? We were strongly opposed by the technical mind and were shut down, I admit after my last objection I just went back in my hole, knowing that the opposing opinions were not open to change.

I shut myself down and just thought of it as a shit-house ass-munching job of which I have done many. I stopped thinking about what it meant and just went along with it. It was impressive at times, I had formula pitches I would use to bullshit to people that it was a good concept.
But at times it shone through, like when we pitched our final proposal to the lecturers at our university. I thought I should try to actually think about it and what I believed about it, I had nothing, and this film was no longer a positive part of me. It became a cancer, filling me with anger and rage, I began to hate everything it represented.
Even beginning to hate those I worked with, though underneath the rage I loved them dearly. I went along with it during the day going about it as a job trying to distract myself from its dark side. I even enjoyed parts of it, but only because I was able to disconnect myself from the deeper elements of the film.

It was at night when these elements caught up with me, causing me to lose many nights of sleep, fighting with my head. To a large degree it was the fault of us creative people, we tried to voice our opinions and were shut down, but we should have tried harder. I guess because we loved Chris so much we wanted to diplomatically convince him, but once you have pressed the go button on Chris there is no compromise, no change, until the project be completed, no matter what the outcome.
We obviously should have tried harder, but would it have changed anything?

And so, I had shut myself into a thoughtless capsule, in the daytime blind to the negative elements of the film of which there were so very many. I didn’t have the balls to try to escape, my thoughts were along the lines of “just finish this piece of shit and move on”. Luckily because of sickness the other creative Anli had time to herself to think clearly, she managed to rack up the courage to make the harder decision to leave while we were weakly continuing on.

I came to my house from Clifton Springs dressed in work clothes prepped to finish the spacecraft for the film. I was blocking out all my rational thoughts as I commonly did during the daytime. Caithlin (Art Director) came to my house to work on the ship and I could tell instantly that something was wrong; she had a distressed look on her face as she explained to me that Anli had quit. When Chris arrived we sat down in my yard and had a very long discussion, going round and round in circles weighing up the pros and cons. We all decided it was best to pull out, all of us quite reluctant; knowing though it was undoubtedly the harder route, it was the smarter one.

We don’t know what will happen from here; Chris has changed his mind overnight and has chosen to pursue the film. Why? Maybe partially for fear of the alternative. This is ok, though I must admit I feel betrayed, even though I know this was not his intention. I understand why he is not ready to make such a powerfully destructive and painful decision. Whether he finishes it or not I hope he learns the many valuable lessons I have learned from this experience.

I am going to pursue some ideas I have been working on for some time and see what comes of them. Above everything I have learned to push my opinions a little harder even if it compromises relationships.

I was listening to a podcast the other day, from the amazing team at fxguide where they were running a fxguide/fxphd hosted a roof top party at Siggraph. Although the whole podcast was fantastic, there was one section that Mike Seymour was talking about (in which he himself was quoting Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar) that really caught my attention. He explained that: you need really good people because the idea itself isn’t neraly as important as the execution. And a good team with a bad idea, will actually just fix it or replace it. A bad team with a good idea will just make a bad film.’If you haven’t listened to the podcast already, I highly recommend you do, because there are some other words of wisdom that are just really helpful and inspirational. And I guess, this point perfectly sums up why I wanted to make the trailer despite all the problems. The idea was good – not perfect, but the initial concept has so much potential. However, more important than that, we have an AMAZING team working on this production. We have the most incredible DOP I could have asked for, the most amazing production team, the more incredible crew that went above and beyond, an amazing pyro and special effects team – in fact, everyone was just so terrific, and I can’t thank everyone enough for all their hard work. We ran over schedule ever day – and not once did anyone get angry or start putting up a fuss. So thank you to everyone that helped get Sakooz through principle photography!

Well… that’s all for now! In the next post I’ll start going through what happened in the days leading up to the shoot, and then explain what happen during and after filming! Lots of exciting things still in store, let me assure you!

If you made it this far down the post – thank you! This has turned into a bit of an essay!

Until next time, onward and upward! ( Which reminds me – congratulations Chris Jones on all your recent success with Gone Fishing! Bring on the Oscars 2009! )…

The ringleader… Chris!