Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Origins & Influences

This past weekend was spent conducting cast interviews for the Women's Studies "September surprise." A big thanks to Women's Studies Director of Photography, Aaron Shirley, who you'll be getting to know better in a future blog. He trounced around a hundred miles in two states and the District of Columbia helping me gather footage of the wonderful cast which the world will be meeting very soon.

During my own interview I was asked, "How did the idea for Women's Studies come about?" I gave a pretty long winded answer that kind of answered the question, but not really, at least not to my liking. There are a lot more influences, ideas, and strange twists of fate that occured than a short interview would allow. I figured the blog was as good a place as any to go into further detail.

My first brush with academic feminism was some essays from Camille Paglia's Vamps & Tramps. Paglia has a lot of things to say about gender relationships, the media, and socialization, but I sum up her Vamps & Tramps thesis as such: Madonna in her "Justify My Love" heyday was the most powerful woman in the world because of her embrace of her feminine sexuality and ability to translate it the way she wanted through the media. If you find that an over-simplification, hey, Paglia wrote a whole book on it. You can get the sticky details there. She's quite funny, and I think much of her analysis is spot on. Alarm bells may ring with hardcore feminists who find Paglia to be something of a "male sympathizer," whatever that means.

My interest in feminism is borne from an interest in psychology, specifically the emotional and psychological difference between men and women. I came to the conclusion pretty early on that because of our unique but very specific biological engineering, men and women's brains are "hardwired" differently. This isn't to imply that one is better than the other, just different. We think differently. We feel differently. We approach matters of the mind and heart differently.

Anyway, in the summer of 2000, I was living in my parent's basement after what can only be called a failed excursion to Chicago. I had lived there for a year managing a coffee shop, writing screenplays, being poor, and smoking too many god damned cigarettes. Lack of funds and a death in the family brought me back east, and I spent a good amount of time feeling depressed about being no better off than when I had left college two years before. (Am I showing my age, sonny boy?)

For some reason, a buddy of mine had given me a VHS copy of Night of the Living Dead, which I hadn't seen since I was a kid. At that same time, my eldest sister was doing clerical work for a now defunct culture magazine called Gadfly. She had given me a subscription and one of the issues contained a long, rather academic article on George A. Romero's "dead trilogy." (That's Night of the Living Dead, the original Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead for the non-horror fan.)

Suddenly, I got it into my head that I was going to "research" horror films. I'd do it simply for it's own sake and to give my slacker existence some kind of meaning. I had been a horror junkie as a kid, but in my search for "meaningful art," had abandoned the genre for the most part.

During my new "studies," I read quite a few non-fiction horror books including Danse Macabre by Stephen King and Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. I read classic horror novels. (Couldn't get into Lovecraft, but I loved Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.) And I watched horror movies. Universal's monsters, Hammer films, I Was a Teenage Werewolf/Frankenstein/Zombie, 70's exploitation flix, slashers, big bugs, blobs, and Body Snatcher movies; I watched so many horror movies that for a four month period, I was scared of my own friggin' shadow.

Finally, I took a crack at writing a horror screenplay. Was that my intention all along? Consciously, I don't think so, but the wounds from a failed comic book project had really just healed. I think my brain knew I needed to move on somehow, and the horror overdose was the only way to make myself do it. The screenplay I wrote was about a haunted corn farm and though I may be biased, I thought it was damn scary. For awhile, I toyed with the idea of trying to shoot it, but soon realized I wasn't quite ready for that.

I sent the script off to a few friends to read, including an old college professor. He liked it and came back to me with, "Hey, I shoot a short film with some of my students every year. Do you want to write a script for me? I need something less than fifteen minutes with lots of female characters that takes place on a college campus."

During this time, I had recently watched the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, based off the novel by Ira Levin. In the film, Katherine Ross plays an urbanite, amateur photographer whose husband moves his whole family from New York City to the suburban "paradise" of Stepford, Connecticut. In Stepford, the lawns are perfect, the houses are huge, and the men all belong to some weird Elks club housed in a creepy mansion on top of a hill.

The women of Stepford though, they're something else entirely. They clean and cook as if every scrub is pure ecstasy. Exciting times are heading to the grocery store to meet the other wives and talk over dish detergent. Ross finds this to be a little strange to say the least, especially after she meets another recent city implant, played by Paula Prentiss, who feels the same way.

Prentiss, Ross, and another woman played by Tina "Ginger" Louise of Gilligan's Island fame, seem to be the only normal women around, at least until Ginger starts to behave as strangely as the others. Soon Prentiss becomes a mindless "Stepford Wife" as well. It's then that Ross discovers Stepford's secret: the men of the town have had their wives murdered and replaced by look-a-like robots. Ross eventually comes face to face with her own robot doppelganger whose bosom is far more amply endowed than Ross's.

The Stepford Wives
mixed around with the prof's suggestion of a short script with lots of women on a college campus. I thought, "What if there was girl's school that kidnapped and murdered men, a sort of anti-Stepford?" I don't remember there being any sort of "Eureka" moment, just that the idea seemed like a good one. I sat down to write it, and instead of the fifteen page script my old professor had requested, I turned out a forty page short version of Women's Studies.

The original script had Mary (who was really what is now the character of Beth) and her EX-boyfriend Zack picked up by a group of college girls (Judith, Diane, Melissa, and Sharon) after their car breaks down, and taken to their secluded women's academy.(The school was named "The Ross-Prentiss Women's Academy" as a homage to The Stepford Wives.) Once there, the academy girls take turns having sex with Zack before realizing he's sterile and killing him. Mary realizes the women are a man-hating cult and tries to escape.

My professor couldn't use it. The subject matter was too much for a small religious college. I was glad too. Even then, I realized that the story had potential beyond the slapdash short I had written.

Later, as I revisited the script, cult ideology and social theory informed the story quite a bit. Most notable were Charles Manson's "Helter Skelter" cult, and Patty Hearst's "Stockholm Syndrome" after being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. I also did quite a bit of reading on Al Qaeda and the methods they use in indoctrinating suicide bombers.

That's the way the Women's Studies story happened. It didn't appear suddenly as much as it evolved from a variety of different influences over a period of time. And that's the way it should be. To me, a writer's job is less about having a good idea than it is recognizing the elements from his/her own experience that combined could make a good story. I'm glad I had the wherewithal to catch this one.

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Hopefully, next Tuesday will be the first of two blogs introducing our cast members. We're still working on a few things that may delay that one more week. If that's the case, we'll have some Q&A with Women's Studies Director of Photography, Aaron Shirley.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dealing With the Devil

After ten years of being a "company" in name only, Ningen Manga Productions, LLC has finally been incorporated. That's right, after years of talking about how we're all being swindled by "the man," I've become "the man." This means I can get rich walking over the dwindling middle class. Plus, I'll get away with it because the government thinks it's good for the economy. So let's bomb those fuckers and steal their oil! Yeah! More tax breaks for me!

"I have seen the enemy, and the enemy is me . . ."

Dear Goddess, what have I become?!?

In all seriousness, incorporating is a milestone for me and Ningen Manga Productions, not to mention more than practical on an independent project as ambitious as Women's Studies. The LLC not only protects Cindy and I financially, it legitimizes us and our vision in the eyes of the professional community. A small thing you may say, but when you're trying to get a good deal on a camera dolly, a little legitimacy can go a long way. And honestly, the only things that have really changed are the title and the fact that we're filing our taxes a bit differently. In scope and practice, Ningen Manga has been a business for well over a year now.

A long time ago (though maybe not as long as I'd like to admit), I was one of those pretentious assholes who railed against "the death of cinematic art" and the horror of "selling out." Then I realized that film by it's very nature is an "art form" married to business and has been since it's inception. The expense involved in supporting the cinematic creation process requires that money be a factor. There's no way around it. Does that mean latching on to a trend and trying only to create something that "sells?' Of course not. However, it does perhaps require the creators to find themes and elements in their vision that are universal enough to appeal to a wide audience.

The line between artistic integrity and commercial viability is a scary tightrope to walk, and I still get nervous looking down because there's no net, only a long drop into what suspiciously looks like a lake of fire. Still, I understand that show business is just that: show "business." So, I deal with the devil, compromise myself as little as possible, and try to do it in a way where I can still look at myself in the mirror because I believe in what I'm doing.

By the way, it's not about the money, not deep down in the secret place I don't show anyone else. The money is really only a means to an end. Do I want this effort to be financially worthwhile? Sure, but in the final outlook it's not what really matters. Anyone who's just in it for the money is doomed to failure from the starting line. However, that line of thinking doesn't get you very far with fundraising. So on some level, it has to be about the money. I can't just say that I think Women's Studies is marketable. I have to believe it, and I do.

And you know what? There's nothing wrong with trying to create something that lots of people will like. I mean, isn't that the point? To tap into those emotions and ideas in the human experience that are universal?

The scary flip side is that maybe greed is a universal emotion too. My biggest fear is that the money need may somehow overtake the creative need. If you prick your finger with the devil's quill pen, does the wound ever heal?

Wow. That kind of sounds like a pretentious asshole talking, doesn't it?

# # #

Just to make it official, the production blog will be updated every Tuesday. The next couple weeks should see some exciting announcements about cast and crew for Women's Studies. Also, when we launch our new website sometime in September, there will be a couple of very cool surprises, so keep checking back.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Married to "Mary"

Cindy Marie Martin
As well as being the writer and director of Women's Studies, I'm also one of two co-producers. The other co-producer is Cindy Marie Martin, who not only is playing the lead role of "Mary," but is also my wife.

I know what you're going to ask. "Did she get the role by sleeping with the director?" I'll get to that shortly. (heh-heh)

Say "husband/wife producing team" to a group of people and you're likely to get a bunch of different reactions. Surprisingly enough, a lot of big film studios and distributors see it as a selling point for an indie with no big names attached. Before I was married, I found the idea a little too cutesy. There was something just uncool about it. Mom and Pop convenience store? Sounds awesome. Mom and Pop film company? Thanks, but I'll pass.

It works though. At least for us it does. We've co-produced two short films together, and both were pretty successful as far as the production itself went. More importantly, we came away from both experiences still liking each other. I won't dare to speak for her, but I like her even more now than I did before we did the films. Why does the Lonnie & Cindy Marie Martin producer team work? A few reasons I think.

First, we both come from theatre backgrounds. We met as actors at a Shakespeare festival, and a rule we both have followed from the day we met is, "Keep your personal life out of the theater." Cindy and I try very hard to keep the filmmaking out of the relationship and the relationship out of the filmmaking. Does the line blur every once in a while? Very rarely, and even then, only when we're alone. That's pretty much inevitable because part of indie filmmaking is not having any set hours, but kind of working on it all the time.

Hey, there's the second reason we work as a producer team. We know (mostly) when to put the movie biz away. If we go on vacation, so does the movie. Being a filmmaker is awesome, but sometimes you just have to be a person too. If you had ice cream all the time, it wouldn't be as sweet would it? Besides, distance lends perspective. Can I pull any other clich├ęs out of my ass? You just watch me.

The biggest reason it works is communication, and knowing who's doing what. For example, Cindy handles the marketing side of things, and while she certainly welcomes my input, she makes most of the big decisions. I handle a lot of the business and legal research, and while she has a definite voice, she never tells me how to do it. We talk out the pros and cons of different production aspects and make the decision that best suits the film. If we can't agree on something, we try to find a way to meet in the middle. If we reach a stalemate, that whole "distance lends perspective" deal usually puts things right.

Now that I think about it, film production and marriage aren't too different. Both take hard work, diplomacy, communication, compromise, and sex. Okay, you don't always have sex in movies. Come to think of it, marriage can be like that too.

Which leads us back to the question: Did Cindy get the lead role in Women's Studies just because she was my wife?

The answer of course is, "No," but don't think for a second I didn't try to pull that whole "casting couch romance" thing.

As we considered our first feature project, Cindy more than I thought Women's Studies was the most marketable of all the concepts I had in my repertoire. She wanted to play Mary, and after having sat in the backseat on other projects, as least acting wise, felt she'd earned it . I did too. However, when I first wrote the script, I had a very different idea of who Mary should be. The character was more hard edged, cynical, and distrustful, more like what now is the character of "Beth" in the script, all the things Cindy is not. I know, it's called "acting," but I had a hard time putting Cindy in a role so out of character.

Then as I begin to let the personality traits, her sweetness, sensitivity, stubborn resolve, and understated darkness, start to inform Mary. I realized what the Women's Studies story was missing as a whole was a heart and soul. There was nothing to care about. All of a sudden, not only Mary, but the entire script began to take new shape. Soon, I realized nobody but Cindy could play the role, because in essence, she was Mary.

Besides, she's hot, looks good with a tennis racket, and can shriek louder than a banshee. All horror movies need that.

More on Cindy at http://www.cindymariemartin.com/ .

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Politics of Being Scared

Women's Studies.

Simply defined, it's the formal study of issues, whether social, political, or spiritual, that deal with the feminine experience. I'm loathe to use the word "feminism" because that word has been politicized to the point of parody. The stereotype is one of wild haired, bra-burning, baby-killing harpies, intent on murdering and enslaving men. If you're in any way enlightened, sensible, or rational, you find that to be asinine.

If you're me, you find it to be a pretty damned good idea for a horror movie. Killer feminists? Beautiful, intelligent women hacking up dudes with sharp shiny things? One ticket please.

Call me crazy or misogynist. You won't be the first. Then after you're done being unnecessarily offended, stop and think about the possibilities for a minute. You have a horror movie centered around a political movement which is universally non-violent. Only in this fictional movie world, part of the movement has splintered off and become violently extremist.

Instead of dumb, shallow girls getting slaughtered in their underwear, save for that last virginal, androgynous "final girl," you have a few dumb, shallow dudes, thinking only with their penises, and smart, self-aware women who realize how crazy killing for a political idea is. The protagonist, instead of being a "final boy" is a women herself, acutely aware of the gray area in which a peaceful political movement can become violent. The "villains" are not a one dimensional male stalker, but a group of intelligent, enlightened women's rights activists who only differ from their peaceful counterparts in their willingness to kill.

Now, forget about any and all political implications, and think about how scary the concept is. To me, that's all that really matters. I'm not out to save the world, or destroy it. I'm not out to bring the feminist movement to it's knees or put it on a pedestal.

I'm just out to scare the hell out of you, and this story seems to be a pretty effective and, dare I say, intelligent way to go about it.

Then again, what do I know? I'm just a dude.

* * *

All that aside, welcome to the Women's Studies production blog. Over the course of the next year (and probably longer), various production updates on the film will be posted here. In the next few weeks, we'll be announcing some of our cast and crew. For news updates, check out the official site, http://www.womensstudiesmovie.com .