Category Archives: Stories

The Dangers of Student Filmmaking

I made it everyone! I survived my first semester of film school!

But it was a close shave, let me tell ya. Also, I didn’t end up shaving that often. That turned out to be ok, though, because I didn’t have to impress too many people with my face, except with the mouth part of my face, and even then, it was more about what I was saying and less about the relative attractiveness of my succulent lips. What I mean to say is, my groomédness rarely came into play because film school is about 90% male, and as far as those Y chromosome folks are concerned, the mangier the better (after all, you can’t spell mangy without man! and guy is almost in there too). Which brings me to the first danger of student filmmaking: incidental abstinence.

It would be nice if we were like those frogs those scientists used to fill in the missing strands of DNA in Jurassic Park and we could just change our gender at will. But alas, despite Jeff Goldblum’s insistence, in my personal experience, Life does not find a way. It just ends up sitting in its room a lot, debating whether it has too much pride to head over to the casual encounters section of craigslist.

Luckily, abstinence is one of those non-life-threatening dangers. It’s when you go around town shooting without proper permits or crew that things get really interesting (not that I would ever do that, readers who are also Chapman faculty). Yes, I’ve come close to death on pretty much every set, but one of those experiences stands above the rest, the veritable giraffe of danger.


You see, I was to play the lead in a simple, one-minute story about a man whose car runs out of gas. We thought it would be a breeze, but as the things on our todo list spiraled out of control, it ended up less breeze and more tornado. A spiraly tornado.

First off, it’s raining, and since I’m part witch (of a Cardinal direction, no less), that’s never a good thing. I know then in my boots, or rather, non-rain-proof flip-flops, that it is an omen of fortune most ill.

Still, not wanting to have a meltdown in front of everyone (see what I did there?), especially that cute editor I was trying to impress (because film school did have at least one girl in it), I soldier on and hop in the car with the affable director, who proceeds to drive us way, way up into the clearly deserted hills, a place where no one would hear us scream. He pulls the car off to the side of the road on some dilapidated gravelly overlook near a bridge and tells me to get out. It’s time.

But before we can get the camera rolling, or sliding, or any form of lateral motion, another car pulls off onto the gravel right behind us. Keep in mind, there is nobody around as far as the eye can see. There are turnouts every few hundred feet, but no, this car chooses to stop directly behind us. Don’t they know this is a film set?

Oh, and then a bunch of gang members pile out.

It was a lot like a clown car, except instead of pouring out seemingly forever, there were only three of them, and instead of being clowns, they were all natural born killers! Or killers created by experience and circumstance or whatever; I’m no Calvinist. Experience that left them covered in tattoos. And muscles. Muscles everywhere.


“Let’s just keep filming,” says the director bravely, right before he crosses the street and walks far far away from the danger, leaving me all alone.

I act like my car has run out of gas for a little while (a stirring performance, I assure you), while shaking in my proverbial “boots,” feet soaked with the liquid fear that I hope is merely the rain and not something more. And then another car pulls up behind us. Just as my dark imagination predicted, more gang members get out. Now it’s a gang soiree?!

Oh, and then there’s another car. Suddenly ten of the most hardcore dudes I’ve ever seen are convening right behind me, plotting how to murder the witnesses who were stupid enough to be FILMING their drug deal.

I look at our possé. There’s me, a buffoon practiced at avoiding conflict; the affable director whose main form of attack is a barrage of smiles; the tall, handsome cinematographer who likes to sing silly songs and whose loyalties probably lie with the camera rather than with me; and this cute girl in front of whom I can show no fear lest I lose face (unshaven as it might be).

The three of them cower on the other side of the road, so far away that they have to call my cell phone to give me acting directions. They promise we’re almost done, but then I see it: the flash of something metal in one of the killer’s hands.

He’s walking toward me now; what little light filters through the ominous rain glints off the object he carries, and I say a quick prayer to Odon, but I know it’s too late. This is it for me.

I spin, confronting the bearer of my demise and see him squat down and pretend to take a dump? He hands his reflective phone to one of his buddies, and the whole gang starts cracking up. They’re posing in front of a “No Dumping” sign, and loving the shit out of it. They each take turns flouting authority by disobeying the government warning…via word play. Apparently three cars worth of these guys met up in the hills not for a drug deal, but for a photo op.

This shatters my perception of gangs.


Location Two: The Gas Station

We arrive at a seedy gas station, thankful to be alive, and more than ready to put this damn shoot behind us. Unfortunately, the location is overrun with homeless people. Now, I’m a big fan of bums, but maybe that’s because all the one’s I’ve interacted with are beach bums who like to talk about the waves, play you guitar on the sand, and compliment you on your fine burrito-purchasing skills. In fact, my most recent interaction lasted about half an hour, and the guy told me he’d written a story about how Obama and Santa Claus team up to prevent the Mayan apocalypse (which comes in the form of aliens).


I sort of assumed that all homeless people were friendly, but as we set up for our final shot, this one guy starts yelling at us about how we’re on his turf, and if we don’t get the hell out of there, he’s going to kill us. Now, I’m not a big fan of my own death, so this worries me, nerves fraying like that now-disintegrated blanket my grandmother promised would always keep me safe. After delivering his message, he simply retreats to a sort of homeless haven in the bushes, where he meets up with what are presumably members of his crew.

And that’s when we see that one of his compatriots has his pants around his ankles and is, um, defecating, right in the open onto some unsuspecting grass.

It’s some sort of conspiracy! The “No Dumping” sign, and now this! The hobos and gangs must have made a pact, working together to…I don’t know! Something!

I try to explain my theory to the director, but he laughs it off as one of those all-too-common crazy Russ ideas. Doesn’t he understand?! If there’s one thing my time as a detective has taught me, it’s that there’s no such thing as coincidence!

He instructs me to keep acting, dammit, but before he can call action, another homeless guy comes at us, screaming. “You didn’t listen to my king? He gave you a direct order, and what the king says, goes. Ya hear me? You take that camera outta here! You take it down now. NOW!”

He’s heading straight toward me. We lock eyes, and I sense his brutal purpose.

“I carry the word of the king!” he shouts, and he’s almost on us.

Finally the director’s resolve breaks, and we run for our car.

But it’s not enough. The homeless guy follows us, and we have one of those movie moments, the driver struggling to hit the unlock button, the monster only moments away.

And then, to our rescue, a shining knight. The lone gas station employee, not your usual knight figure, bursts out of the quik-e-purchase, sprints over, and antagonizes the homeless guy.

“Why you messin’ with their movie, man? Huh? Why you gotta bother these poor people?”

Before I realize what’s happening, the two of them are circling each other, shouting taunts just out of fist-smashing range. The gas station guy keeps telling us to go ahead and finish our movie, but we know when we’ve been beaten, and the driver floors it.

As I look back on it now, I find it rather odd that shooting a movie about running out of gas on the side of the road ended up being much more dangerous than any of the times I’ve actually run out of gas, almost as if, in making the movie, we were forced to live through the movie ourselves…

It’s like some sort of conspiracy.


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Film School!

Hiya readers of Reasonably Ludicrous!

Sorry there haven’t been that many posts lately. This is due partly thanks to the fact that I spent my summer as a TA at Stanford summer camp again, encumbered by a constant barrage of high school enthusiasm, and partly because I just started film school!

Film school is this magical place where you go to spend two years writing screenplays, or so I thought. Then I arrived for the orientation and was immediately bombarded by the general idea that networking was the be all and end all of a successful life. Nothing makes for a smoother first impression than knowing that the people you’re just now introducing yourself to are the same people that will change your life forever and make or break your career.

In fact, said a professor, I’ve watched a million kids graduate from film school, and it didn’t matter how talented they were or how motivated. The only thing they had in common was how many friends they’d made. Oh, and all famous people ever met their most important contacts the very first day of film school. Great.

“Hi, I’m Russ,” I say, and then am filled with trepidation. Did my greetings come off as insincere? Should I have said “hello” instead of “hi?” Is my silly pun shirt giving off an unprofessional vibe? Is it good for a quirky screenwriter to give off an unprofessional vibe?

While all of these thoughts run through my head, the conversation moves on and everyone’s wondering why that weird guy with the shaved head is just staring blankly forward, drooling on his weird shirt.

Anyway, hopefully I haven’t made too big a fool of myself thus far. It’s important that I not only impress my future contacts, but I also must woo the 6 girls at the school.

And if I might not be writing as many blog posts as I once did, well, at least maybe I’ll make some entertaining movies? Like this assignment where we were required to make a two minute video introducing ourselves but weren’t allowed to appear in it.

Everybody else has all these artsy pieces, and then I come out with this. First impressions, here we go!


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A Rapid Descent

A month ago, my friends convinced me to take the plunge and go river rafting on the danger-spewing hellwater known as the Tuolumne. Luckily, I don’t feel puny emotions like fear, no matter how many people supposedly met their demise in this river and regardless of the fact that the rapids enjoy a difficulty ranking just 1 point below “unraftable.”

The Tuolomne is apparently not located in San Luis Obispo, so I have to drive north to a super secret predetermined rendezvous spot: the Sunnyvale In N Out. I get there around 10pm, at which point Brian, Zack, and I pile into one car and set off for the motel room Brian’s dad (Andy) had booked. Everything looks like it’s going to go swimmingly, which is perhaps not something you want on a rafting trip (PUN). But since I’m writing this blog post, you, being the discerning reader that you are, know that trouble awaits.

In fact, just as we’re pulling out of the parking lot, Brian gets a frenzied call from his dad: “So this motel is—static static—service doesn’t really work—static static—because there’s no gps signal. Just make sure to turn when you see a—static static—if so, then you know you’ve gone too far—static static—and remember—static static—white mailbox.”

Luckily, I once earned a merit badge in Orienteering, so with my expert navigation skills, we’re able to immediately miss the onramp. Undaunted, we find an alternate route to the freeway and speed into the distance…only to accidentally exit and go 15 miles directly out of the way. No big deal. We’re having fun. We just backtrack 15 miles to where we went wrong.

Turns out we’d done it right the first time.

It was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour drive, but by the time one in the morning rolls around, we’re only halfway there. Plus we’re on some windy, backcountry road in the middle of nowhere with only a tenuous belief that we’re heading in the right direction.

For many miles, the only non-plant-thing we zoom past in the darkness is a single building surrounded by dozens of parked cars. You know, since we’re already so late, maybe we should check it out. We’re men of adventure, and who knows what this place is! Dive bar? Strip club? Secret meeting place for the occult? Plus we’d already pulled so many u-turns, we figured we should try to set a record. So after yet more backtracking, we park and stumble straight into an after-hours redneck convention, or at least a community of people tremendously dedicated to fulfilling their stereotype. Everyone sports tattoos of skulls or tractors or other hick-things, and one guy had even shaved the back of his head to look like a beard.

Not sure what we’re doing here (besides boosting our egos and feeling out of place), we figure we’ll let the bartender decide for us. Let him express his creativity, right? Apparently he’s in a bad mood, because he hands us raspberry vodkas mixed with seltzer water, a concoction so feminine and so vile that I think it actually took hair off my chest. Not wanting to get beaten up by the women who now had more chest hair than we did, we drained our glasses and got the hick out of there (PUN).

Brian and I need something, anything, to wash away that horrible flavor, but after miles of empty, barren darkness dotted only with the occasional murder-shack or rusted car, the only thing we can find that’s remotely food-like is a 7-11. We burst through the doors and immediately lay our eyes on two wrinkled and unappealing hot dogs who had clearly spent their entire existence rotating on those endlessly twirling spits, waiting behind that scratched and foggy pane of glass, hoping against hope that someday they’d be freed and could fulfill their destiny: ingestion. Unable to turn down something so clearly horrible (and really feeling for the hot dogs’ plight), and pleased that they’re only a dollar apiece, Brian and I go full-on Kobayashi.

A choice made deadlier and more exciting when we happen upon a machine that sports a single red button labeled “Push for Chili.”

We push. Chili oozes out in a constant stream of uniform, moist goop. What could this chili possibly be made of that allows it to remain unrefrigerated indefinitely, and how can chili have such a slimy-smooth consistency? We gloss over these questions and skip straight to the more important question: who can eat more “Nozzle Chili?”

Minutes later, the question morphs into “By the burning entrails of Prometheus, how do we end this soul-consuming stomach pain?”

Unable to find an answer, we crawl back into the car and press on. After getting lost about a dozen more times, we finally take the last left turn we can remember reading before our gps cut out. The dark forest road greets us with a giant “No Trespassing” sign.

We ignore it.

All we know about our destination is “white mailbox” and “a left turn into a driveway,” but nothing looks too promising. Then again, Brian’s dad is one o’ them hippy types, so it’s perfectly conceivable that he booked a room at some crazy person’s cottage in this valley of death purely for the eye-opening meditative experience it would provide.

We finally see a few huts shambled together to form a makeshift house. There’s a white mailbox in front, and the driveway is a left turn. Huzzah! Except there’s no lights on anywhere, and Andy’s car is nowhere to be seen. “Maybe he rented a car,” we tell ourselves.

We drive through it once.

Not too promising.

We drive through it again.

It can’t possibly be the place. But if that’s not it, then where the hell are we supposed to go? We decide to investigate on foot. One shamble-hut looks the most like a guest room, so we walk up to it, using our phones’ last remaining battery power to combat the darkness.

We creep to the door, shine our lights, and, just as we’re about to peer into the windows, we hear a shout.

“Fredbert! There’s somebody at ma’s place!” Followed by some gibberish I interpreted as “Grab the shotgun! And don’t leave any witnesses this time.”

“No, wait!” I shout. I can see her eyeing us from behind her door, licking her lips as she imagines the sweet taste of man flesh. “We’re lost, I swear. We’re trying to find an inn, one with a white mailbox.”

“Don’t know nothing like that round these parts. Now, if you’ll just move a little bit to left; that pillar is blocking my husband’s line of sight …”

Or maybe she just shrieked something about returning to the main road and never coming back…Either way, we were too busy sprinting to the car to pay much attention.

Turns out the place is only like two blocks farther down the road and is a very upstanding and obvious motel with a giant white mailbox. And we made it with three hours to spare before we had to be on the river!

In the morning, we roll out of bed minutes before we’re supposed to be at the launch spot. We scramble to our destination like eggs in a pan (SIMILE PUN), and right before we’re going to get on the water, our guide drops some serious knowledge on us: we’re not allowed to bring glass on the river. “But Andy,” we cry, “you told us a six pack per person per day.”

Andy shrugs innocently, as if he would never have said such a thing. Look around, he gestures. No one else brought any beer. At this point, it’s all too much. The travel, the lack of sleep, the perfectly good beer that will spend the trip in the trunk of Brian’s car. We sit down, the wind ripped from our sails. But then, in a moment of inspiration, we realize that rafts don’t even have metaphorical sails!

In our car lay a gallon of water. Why not turn that into…a gallon of beer!

And thus, the River Brew was conceived.

We empty every variety of beer we’d brought into that jug, then pack it away and hope for the best. And what a best it is! When we arrive at the campsite, we dig a hole in the river and submerge the jug. After it’s been cooled to perfection, we whip out our concoction and take a swig. Consensus: delicious.

Things were really going great. I mean, no one had even fallen out of the raft that day. And falling out is a seriously nerve-wracking prospect. Sure, you could die, but we weren’t too worried about that. The truly horrifying aspect was that we’d all agreed: whoever falls out first is required to eat a wrinkle-dog absolutely drowned in Nozzle Chili.

The trip itself was kinda fun too, I guess. We surfed rapids, played bocce, hiked into an abandoned mine full of centipedes and bat (singular), and enjoyed that rare adrenaline rush that comes only when you know you could float to your doom at any moment.

But the only doom we ever faced came when we were docking for lunch on the second day. We’d pulled in at a problematic angle and were starting to float downriver. One of the guides yelled “Somebody get out and grab the ropes!” I bravely rose to the occasion and attempted to step out of the raft, only to slip and faceplant into the water.

It was the closest any of us came to falling out, and let me tell you, to this day, I have not recovered from that second Nozzle Chili dog.


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