by Sue Lange
I tried hard to not make a movie, I really did. I made one two years ago, so I knew what it was all about. It was during my experimental phase, when I was young and daring and when any effort was good. Now I was experienced. Now I knew how hard it was. And expensive. And tiring. I learned a lot about myself from that first experience. Like how I tend to get caught up in perfecting logistics. If I could go with the flow, I’d have a better time with it. In that way, making movies is like life: if you relax into it, you’ll enjoy it more.
But I’m a natural born logistics perfector and it hurts to let things go. If we have to shoot in the street, I want the traffic to stop. If we’re simulating a suicide, nothing short of nine stories will do. You pay for that kind of perfection. The permits and insurance alone will kill you.
So what I discovered two years ago was that movie making is a logistical nightmare. And we only had two characters! Movie stress goes up exponentially with each additional character. Why, then, would I even consider making one for a story with 26 characters?
Blame it on the music.
Unlike most writers, I can’t write with music playing in the background. I’m a musician first, writer second, so to write with a soundtrack going means nothing gets done. Half way into a paragraph I’d start to wonder why.
But then, I don’t write fairy tales either, so all bets are off and all rules broken in this saga. Before I sat down to write Princess Dancer, I first read the primary source: Grimms’ Twelve Dancing Princesses. And to make it dark like Phyllis and Deborah wanted, I read to a soundtrack: The Burned. And then, and then, as the music continued in the background, I wrote the first rough draft, historically the most difficult of passages. The words flowed like butter in summer.
In the first moments of self-congratulations for completing the draft, a hideous idea to me. “This would make a great trailer for the book,” I thought to myself. I didn’t dare say it aloud because you know what happens when you do that. What I did say aloud was: “No. You’re a writer, not a filmmaker.” And so the idea was thankfully put to rest. But a vision of the black light tattoos and stained glass ballroom stayed with me, niggling at the back of my head like a tick.
A few weeks before BVC rolled out Beyond Grimm, the black light tattoos and stained glass ballroom came to the fore; I couldn’t shake them loose. I knew I could never pull something together before the book launched. But a local poetry group had sent out a call for short films for a mini-fest they were holding in a couple of months. Surely I could make that. I volunteered my as-yet-only-a-gleam-in-my-eye project to the group. They nodded.
After that I was committed. I started asking around for dancers. A local ballet instructor, Melissa Vettleson, gave me the names of some choreographers. I had two dance sequences with two totally different kinds of dances. I needed two dance designers. Rachel Skye was interested in handling the lounge scene. Carlos Rodriguez said he could do the ballroom/swing scene. Okay, now to find the dancers.
And a place to dance. The natural place to shoot a ballroom scene would be a ballroom, right? So I called up an old theater in our town that had been converted to a ballroom and set up an appointment to see the place.
Every impossible dream has a precipitating event. Mine was the visit to the Fred Astaire Ballroom. Officially I was scouting locations, but unofficially I was scouting dancers. I had hardly gotten the words “I’m making a film” out of my mouth when Linda, one of the owners of the ballroom, said, “Do you know Tracy Schott?”
Now, in my town, anybody doing filming, videoing, or taping of any kind, knows Tracy Schott. She is our town’s producer. Maybe the only one in our county. And it just so happens that I did know Tracy. I bumped into her once in a while, usually at a film-related event.
I was about to say, “Sure,” when Linda blurted out, “She’s a student here. She takes ballroom lessons with her husband.”
Oh boy. My fate was sealed after that. I rushed home and left a message on Tracy’s answering machine: “Tracy, Sue Lange. I need you in my movie. You are not going to produce, direct or edit. You are not going to shoot it. You are going to be in it.” I wanted Tracy to know I had the project under control and was not looking to hire her or ask for free consultation or anything. I needed dancers.
We set up a meeting. We talked. She respectfully declined being in it, but put an offer in front of me that would change the Princess Dancer project forever. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it was just that momentous. She used the word “red” and “camera” in the same sentence. What I mean is: “Red camera.” “Red camera.” “RED CAMERA.” (cue echo)
What she said exactly was: “We should get Kevin involved. He has a Red camera.”
In case you don’t know what that means, let me just cop some hype from the Red website: “Disruptive, revolutionary, game changing, paradigm shifting, visionary, challenging, rule breaking, irreverent. All are adjectives used to describe the technology and the pioneers that envisioned a true digital evolution of film, the minds behind RED.”
It just so happens that I want to be disruptive and revolutionary. Don’t you? I mean, doesn’t everyone? How could I not want to get Kevin involved if he came with a Red camera. I wanted to be a game changer.
The Kevin she was talking about was Kevin Hackenberg, a director out of Philly. When I think of Kevin I think of professional production. Which in my amateur mind means huge costs, budget overruns, exponential increase in complications.
But Kevin came with a Red camera so I had no choice.
Tracy set up a meeting with Kevin at the Reading Community Theater. I had booked the theater to shoot the lounge dance scene. Ruth Martelli, the director of the theater, graciously allowed us to meet there for a looksee, well ahead of my scheduled shoot.
There, on the stage, in front of Tracy, Kevin, Ruth, and my SO, Gary, I described the Dance of the Dead, my twelve lost women, the Princess Dancer Lounge, the twisted Lon, the lumbering Tire, the mysterious man in the Homburg, Lavinia’s mother, and Susie’s irrepressible twinkle.
They were intrigued. They promised to read the story. I creamed in my pants. The only thing a writer ever wants is for someone to read her story. Even better, they seemed interested in taking on the project, but only if I scrapped the theater as the location. “Lon needs a lounge,” Kevin said. Tracy agreed. I did too, but I believe in movie magic and figured I didn’t need to shoot anything but the stage.
But what did I know? Did I have a Red camera?
The meeting broke up. They went home and read the story, and miraculously retained interest in the project. They came up with plans. Plans that pretty much scrapped everything I had already put into place. I had cast half the cast at that point. They dropped a couple of them and said we had to have proper auditions. They said I can’t just call up friends and see if they wanted to be in a film. We had to find people with experience or at least a sense of timing. We had to have real actors for the non-dance sequences. We had to tell some sort of story.
Story? I could care less about the story. I wrote it; I’m done with it. I wanted dance scenes. Everything else was fluff. I relented of course. Agreed to do things right this time, but no way could I meet the minifest deadline.
Our new deadline is May 5th. Have to be done by then because after that I’m going to be out of the country for a few weeks. At least the shooting has to be done by then. If we wait until I get back, we’ll lose momentum. By “lose momentum” I mean the 24 dancers and 3 actors we’ve assembled for an April shoot will be scattered to the far winds by then. The planets will be way out of alignment. We will be totally effed.
Unlike most people, I do not perform well under pressure. Under pressure I shut down. What that means is I’ve exchanged a haphazard, admittedly subpar, seat of the pants project that would play out in a minifest in my town and not give me any grief, for a metastasized, costly, ulcer-producing book teaser that may or may not get done.
Was that a wise choice? Of course! Because deep down inside I want to be “visionary, challenging, rule breaking, irreverent.”
I can only be that if I have a Red camera.
Quiet on set!
You can read Sue Lange’s “Princess Dancer” in BVC’s BEYOND GRIMM. These are not your grandmother’s fairy tales.
Next intallment in the saga: Beyond Grimm on Location
Read the saga from the beginning with Beyond Grimm Goes to the Movies