Monday, November 23, 2009

Harvest of Wrath

Recently I was invited back to my high school to talk about my book, and during a Q&A someone asked me to relate my favorite high-school memory. My response: I really enjoyed not going to my senior prom. The answer drew applause, though it was meant as a joke. Now that I think about it, though, it was a better answer than I realized, maybe even the best answer.

I was the model kid: ace student, involved in so many activities that I was president of a couple groups that I never even attended (it's true!), and doer of all things I was supposed to do. As rebellions go, not attending prom was pretty pitiful, but it's all I had--I turned down a few potential dates, and, for what seemed like the first time ever, I did what I wanted to do. And that was to stay home and rent a movie.

That movie was Reservoir Dogs. Now before you start rolling your eyes, keep in mind this was before Pulp Fiction. No one--certainly no one in Fairfield, Iowa--had ever heard of Quentin Tarantino, and my plucking the VHS tape from the bottom rung of the grocery store video wall was pure chance. It blew my mind, and like a teenage Roger Corman, I wasted no time cobbling together a knockoff. (A couple years later in college, every film student would be doing the same. See, I was a vanguard.)

If there was ever a Danman Production in need of a re-edit, this is it. It doesn't help that I start this "thriller" with two-and-a-half minutes of the most flaccid fireworks you'll ever see, followed by even more opening-credit crap. I recommend skipping to the 4-minute mark. Even that is a tough recommendation to make. I'm honestly shocked at how bad this is!

Mostly notable for Jami's surprisingly comfortable turn as biker Bobby McGoon, his legendary (accidental) destruction of my mom's marigolds, and the surprise cameo of cult hero Officer Bill Johansen. A failure, to be sure, but one I reworked (much more successfully) into the climax of The Godfathers: Part Two.

(Hint: You know how in Star Trek, red shirts tipped off those poor suckers about to get vaporized? Same deal in the Danman universe. I knew that fake blood showed up best on white, so that right there is your tip-off: if someone is wearing a white T, they're in for it. Keep this in mind as we move forward.)

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Lottery

Here's a weird one for you.

Due to my incalculable fame, a movie was chosen as the special project in my Advanced Speech class. After picking a story--Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"--all we had to do was adapt it to script form, assign ourselves roles, raid the school's costume room, and shoot the thing. After so recently knocking back epics like The Godfathers and Father Sin, it sounded like a cakewalk.

And it was. But secretly (or not so secretly?) the group setting frustrated me, especially during the process of adaptation. Didn't these fool amateurs know anything about narrative economy? About the amalgamation of minor characters? Perhaps the true gift of this odd footnote is that it makes the usual Danman Productions team look like seasoned pros.

The fact is that I was control freak. I probably drove everyone nuts shooting this. That might be okay if the whole movie was as cool as the opening sequence, but, sadly, the rest is a mess, right down to the incomprehensible climax. It was like hiring David Lynch to direct Dune. It was out of my comfort zone and I didn't play well with strangers.

So, no. Not officially a Danman Production. But who are we kidding?

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Ice Hot Ravioli

Surely inspired by the art-film non sequiturs of "Sprockets", this is our uninformed take on the "experimental film." Senseless and idiotic. But let me tell the story behind the story:

It was the dead of winter. Ice had been pounding down all night. This mattered little in small-town Iowa--they wouldn't cancel school for anything short of gremlin invasion, and only then if the gremlins had throwing stars. So I got up as normal, jackknifed through town, and met up with Matt N. at whatever rehearsal we had that morning.

Probably not an hour went by before even the merciless sadists of the school system admitted that this was no ordinary storm. Trees were disintegrating beneath the weight of the ice. Birds were falling dead from the sky. The McDonald's was... closed. The word shot out around school: Go home. Run. There is nothing here but death.

But Matt N. and I hung around for another ill-advised hour, chatting with our drama teacher, Mr. Slechta. (He is given homage in The Godfathers as the revered "Don Slechta".) Eventually the school was locked and we made our way into the parking lot. Ours were the only cars left. I set about chipping the ice from my door, heating up the engine, and slowly creeping from the lot.

Matt N. waved me down. His car, an infamous jalopy (see for yourself in Breakdown), refused to start. There was no sense in having one of my star actors freeze in the snow Jack Torrance-style, so I told him to get in. We set off together. Inching up the long hill to my house was no mean feat; somehow we made it with lives intact.

The rest of the day was the kind of sunny blur that make up the best memories of your life. My mom made food. We went sledding. At some point we spent a half hour or so making Ice Hot Ravioli. Too many details of that day are lost to me now, but I have this video. And in the margins of its silliness, if I dare say so, is the evidence of a youth well-spent.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

The Godfathers

Although it would be The Godfathers: Part Two that would implode Danman Productions, this is the one that paved the way for the overdue extinction. Clocking in at around 50 minutes, it was ambitious. Not good, mind you. Just ambitious. (And, thankfully, nowhere near as tedious as the trailer hinted it might be.)

Re: ambition, there's one scene involving eight actors and a camera person. That's nine kids! I mean, that's enough to start a freaking baseball team! If nothing else, it speaks to my curious powers of persuasion back then. What could I possibly have enticed nine kids with? Cookies? Fame? I guess that must have been it. Well, dudes, here's your fame. Let me get back to you on those cookies.

There was only one good reason Matt N. and I got to play the godfathers: we had tuxes. As proud members of our school's chamber choir (and, lord help us, show choir), we were both up to our armpits in bow ties, vests, and cummerbunds. Unfortunately, we grossly overestimated the hilarity of our Brando impressions (though I do kind of think our continual references to stuffing our jowls with cotton are kinda cute).

Probably the oddest thing about The Godfathers is the tone. In the third video, there's a scene between Ben and I that's actually rather sad (and, no, I don't mean pitiful-sad). Large stretches of the movie are weirdly sober. Even the snowy holiday setting contributes to the sense of melancholy. So what was I going for here? Parody? Drama? I don't know now, and I don't think I knew then, either.

Points of (some) interest:

* Stop with the in-jokes already! The Naughty Elephant and the Bastard Chicken Clock both get gratuitous shout-outs.

* I love when Joe gets shot and he squeaks, "Ouch!"

* Best line in the entire movie: "Butthead."

* Jami singing "I'm Too Sexy" in the shower.

* The size of Mike's cell phone!!!

* The out-of-nowhere AmberVision scene that is somehow, totally inexplicably, the most tender thing I ever shot. There's something hilariously resigned about how Ben laments that his sunglasses are "just the old regular kind."

* At 3:37 into the final video, the cold weather became too much for our boombox batteries. The famous Godfather theme has never sounded so feeble. Somehow appropriate, don't you think?

Take note, brave viewers: the first couple sections have enough sound issues to seriously try your patience. But take heart! By the third video things pick up considerably. It's all relative, of course, but you know what I'm saying.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Record AFTER previews, Dad.

Recently my old high school invited me back to speak about my novel, and I took the opportunity to plunder the cardboard-box catacombs of my dad's basement. Like Indiana Jones, I was on the hunt for the most fabled of treasures from the storied history of Danman Productions. Did the dusty archives yield the rarities I sought?

WANTED: Trailers X
DESCRIPTION: At some point during my teen years, my town debuted a public access station. Finally, my opuses could be seen (or ignored) by a much wider audience! For one of these presentations, I decided to shoot some trailers. Tragically, these trailers - which included the shocking and infamous "General Foods International Coffee" parody - never made it on to the master tape and thus have been considered lost for well over a decade.

RESULT: Found! Oh my god! Found! Upon uncovering the endless stacks of mini-VHS tapes, I knew it was a fool's errand to sift through them. Most, if not all, had been repurposed over the years by my dad. But one tape caught my eye. Why? Because, in my childlike scrawl, I had written a desperate plea on the sticker: "Record AFTER previews, Dad." I made lots of previews. Surely this couldn't be the Holy Grail. But yes. It was. And it will blow your mind. Stay tuned.

DESCRIPTION: For one public access showing, I decided to string together a broadcast premiere (Harvest of Wrath) followed by a rehash of so-called "hits" (Chicken Clock, Night of the Living Dead, and Fear). But did I just artlessly splice them together? Heavens, no! I shot brand-new footage of me, as a Rod Serling-esque host, introducing each masterpiece. Long thought to be but legend, this priceless curio could fetch tens, even fifteens, of cents on the black market.

RESULT: Found! And, wow, I'm tempted to lose it all over again. Never before have I come off so insufferably smug. Easily some of the most damning footage of me in existence. And yet I will post it here. I fear nothing.

DESCRIPTION: I got news for you: this isn't the first time I've plundered my past. Only a handful of years after these atrocities were committed, I took a college class called "Video Art." In theory, this was supposed to produce videos like someone licking a mirror for fifteen minutes (yes, that was an actual Video Art project), but occasionally some yo-yo would buck the trend. Case in point: my Behind the Music-style mockumentary about Danman Productions, featuring interviews with nearly every key player. Though not part of the official canon, this has mucho interest for Danman scholars. (Note: though I shot the footage for Part II, it was never edited.) (EDIT: Part II has been finished!)

RESULT: Found - but hold in that scream of glee. I found it on 3/4-inch tape, which doesn't do me any damn good at all. I'm probably going to have to pay money to get this one transferred, and "paying money" and "Danman Productions" should never be found in the same sentence. So cool your heels, cowboy. [EDIT: Okay, here it is.]

DESCRIPTION: Danman's final production, the 2-and-a-half-hour epic The Godfathers, Part II, was so catastrophically ambitious that it brought down the entire studio. Still haunted by my failure years later, I locked myself (literally) inside a college editing studio one night and re-edited it, taking out all the long pauses, picking up the pace, and even incorporating a never-before-seen "deleted scene." Over one hour dropped from the running time. Yes, it's the first "director's cut" that is actually shorter than the original! Though only one VHS was ever made, it was highly prized by the very few who watched it. Why? Because, for the first time ever, it made the movie (dare I say it?) watchable.

RESULT: This one remains missing. [EDIT: It has been recreated!] [EDIT: Actually, the original has been found, too.]

WANTED: Julie's movies
DESCRIPTION: Julie? That sister of mine with the incredible talent for screaming? She made her own movies? Indeed! At some point, my megalomania must have rubbed off, for she shot a handful of flicks with her own set of friends. (The only one I remember is My Girl.) Now, technically these have nothing to do with me, but clearly Julie's films were the Miramax to my Disney. Back then I probably worried that her movies were better than mine. But I shall no longer live in fear.

RESULT: Found! I'm as shocked as you! Of course I do not have the authority to post them, but perhaps if enough of you demand permission...? Free Julie's movies! Free Julie's movies!

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