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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.

giraffe-o-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.

clownposse

“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.

shattered

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).

apocalypse

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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Oops, I Got an English Degree!

This morning, I woke up to a horrible realization. Actually, that happens pretty much every morning, the realization being that I’m awake and no longer in the blissful world of dreams.

But on this fateful day, I came to recognize a much more devastating truth: I had spent four years of my life studying English.

You’d think kids who get into Stanford would be smart enough not to pursue their dreams, but I’ve always been quixotic (and as an English major, I can tell you that word’s based on a character…from a book!), so I studied what I loved, future be damned! My parents, idealistic saps that they are, actually encouraged me towards this! They said, “Russ, you can do anything if you put your mind to it!” Can you believe that?

So I kept at it. I enjoyed my major, and I’ve never been one to deny myself any desire, no matter how whimsical or potentially hazardous.

And it was just so easy. Wait until the final paper is assigned, read (or skim) a single book, then write an eight page treatise on the main character’s Oedipus complex. How could I turn that down?

Unfortunately, it just so happens that people in “real life” expect you to have these pesky things called “skills,” and for some reason, nobody mentioned them to me until it was too late. All my computer science friends had these amazing resumés, and I didn’t have an iota of work experience. I assured prospective employers of my vast intellect and chronicled all the fantasy books I’d read, but still I didn’t receive a single call from any of the companies to which I’d applied. Didn’t they see how well I’d praised myself? Didn’t they understand how my comprehensive knowledge of potential post-apocalyptic scenarios could come in handy?

Suddenly it’s graduation and all my friends have moved to San Francisco and New York to do important work, so obviously I have to pretend that I have my life together too. I decided to take a year off to “find myself” and “work on my writing.” They seemed like good excuses at the time, but then it turned out that finding myself was hard to do when there was so much good TV on, and working on my writing was nigh impossible when you end up joining a fraternity that’s always throwing booze and women at you (not that I succeeded with the women). When I was working toward my degree, I didn’t mind the distractions, but now I was starting to realize that without an outside force giving me a series of easily attainable goals, I had developed some sort of weird conscience/guilt complex that made me feel horrible about myself.

It was terrible! Before this year, I’d always loved myself (heck, somebody had to!), but now my life was a travesty of my ill-formed childhood plans. I was supposed to be a multi-billion-dollar writer person who lived on the moon.

Sure, living in San Luis Obispo is nice, but it’s no the moon. Now, I could blame the lack of lunar accommodations on the government, but there was no excuse for the unearned billions. Clearly, I had to start doing something that would get me paid, or laid, or anything really. And with that, we’ve returned to the head of this ouroboros* of a conundrum: I have a degree in English. Where could I find people crazy enough to pay me for that?

*It’s a thing.

And then it hit me: the internet!

There are plenty of people who make money on the internet, right–plenty of people who are (presumably) a lot less “qualified” than I am? If they can earn a living by remorselessly spewing out their life stories and pointless observations, why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I enter this modern-day gladiatorial ring and battle my fellow English majors for the love of the wealthy masses. After all, it’s up to us to stave off the ennui of conquering the known world, and if we’re good enough, somebody might pay us.

On the web, everyone can put themselves up for examination, and if they’re pretty or funny or ugly enough, never have to do any real work. And in the end, isn’t avoiding real work what being an English major is all about? That’s why I’ve started blogging. Even if I can’t achieve anything real, I might at least become internet famous. So here goes. This is my blog and my chance to show my parents that their money wasn’t wasted, or that it wasn’t quite as wasted as they previously thought, and that I’m not quite as wasted as I was five minutes ago. Funny how that works.

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