On March 29, 2008, I spent the entire day with local filmmaker Eric B. Walter, who also happened to turn 23 on that day. Now, I know quite a few guys, post college, who don't make big deals out of their birthdays, and as I spent the day with Eric, basically following him around like a shadow, he didn't make a big deal out of his either. Never even mentioned it the whole day we were together.
Still, something struck me as fascinating. I'm wondering if it even dawned on him that it was his birthday. He got up that morning and got ready for what turned out to be a full day of work without the mere mention of it. Since graduating college, I've had to work on several, if not all of my birthdays. The only difference is I got paid for my work.
Eric is an independent filmmaker, which is of course an easy euphemism for a guy who makes movies with practically nothing, for practically nothing, if not absolutely for free. Eric and his crew of no more than a half-dozen, who were all volunteer, were out running around, lugging equipment and props, dressing sets, and standing outside in a sunny, yet still very chilly, early Spring morning for about six hours shooting the first two scenes of his movie, a short film tentatively titled "Whistle."
What struck me as fascinating is that I don't know many 23-year-olds who would get up to work on a Saturday morning, on his or her own birthday, drive a half-hour out of town, for no money, to do something that you know is going to be long, cold, tedious, and tiring. Most kids his age I'm sure were sleeping off a long, Friday night of partying and drinking, but not him.
It wasn't until I sat down and talked to Eric, one-on-one, that I learned that stuff like this is what he's been doing on weekends since he was a kid. Ever since he was little, Eric has wanted to be a filmmaker, and since he was little, it has always been a pulling force for him. I assume.
I suppose that it's not much different from kids who dream of being President, or going to the moon, playing in the NBA, or even the NFL, little kids, who practice off the court or on the field, every day after school, or all day long on the weekends, having fun, but also refining their skills, so that one day, they'll make that dream of theirs come true.
Like becoming president, or playing pro-ball, getting a career as a filmmaker is not an easy road, not an easy road to travel, or even an easy one to find. There are tons of people who come out of the best film schools in the best cities who never make it in Hollywood. There are tons of people who start out, as Eric did, in a town, probably not too much unlike the one on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that Eric calls home, who try it in Hollywood and don't succeed. Nevertheless, despite all those odds and all those petty inconveniences to which many others his age might have succumb, Eric instead got up that morning and got ready for a full day of work.
Like with almost anything, a filmmaker has to have a vision, a dream of something he wants to do, and it has to motivate him, motivate him in a way that supercedes the odds, that supercedes the petty inconveniences. As I followed Eric around that day, I think that I saw that. I think that I witnessed a little, if not a lot of that motivation, and that's what I find fascinating.
Now, every state has a government-supported film office, or film commission, even a little state like Delaware. According to a recent article in MovieMaker magazine, a lot of areas outside of Hollywood and New York are rising as movie Meccas. Where I live, however, it's not as if I'm afforded many opportunities to visit a movie set. But, at the end of March, I was fortunate enough to be invited onto Eric's.
I figured through watching him, through observing him, that perhaps it would assist me in getting that touchstone, or at least some sense of what it is to be the guy in the director's chair, the guy calling the shots, the guy leading the charge, the guy guiding the talent, the actors, the technical crew, by nothing really but the North Star of his mind, his vision, his dream to create a story for people to see, hear, feel, experience, and to share.
Of course, I've never done a movie review of a movie before it's even become a movie, while it's still being made. I usually come in long after the fact. I wondered if I would even knew what to look for, or how to judge what I was witnessing. Would I know if Eric was directing the way a good director should? Would I know if things were moving too slowly or too quickly? Would I recognize the signs? Can directing, like acting, even be judged as it's happening, or do you have to wait for the final product to be sure? I didn't know.
First off, Eric took me from where he lives in Salisbury about 20 miles south to a farmhouse, a seemingly abandoned farmhouse just outside Princess Anne, Maryland, off the highway and down a long, narrow, windy, barely paved, country road called Revells Neck, to a farmhouse not unlike the one from Eric's favorite film "Night of the Living Dead" (1968).
The farmhouse was made all the more creepy by the fact that the house was under renovation, and was partially gutted. The porch where Eric was shooting the first scene, and where we spent the entire day, had a floor that had sunk due to recent flooding damage. The house had electricity but inside it seemed so dark and dank, as to be tailor-made for horror, the kind George Romero would revel.
As I pulled up to this house, I was a little nervous, but any anxiety initially was melted as Eric introduced me to his band of merry men, the core group of guys who helped him to accomplish his mission. They included Mick Haensler, the lighting director, Dave Schwarten, the sound recordist, Sammy Barnes, the production assistant, and Bobbie Calloway, the actress. But, first and foremost amongst Eric's crew was his chief collaborator, Jon Parke.
Eric and Jon are close friends who at once worked together at this very TV station. They're in different departments now. Jon works as a commercial producer, but when Eric approached him with this short story that he wanted to adapt for the screen, Jon had no problem helping to write the script.
The short story tells us of an old woman living alone with her dog who becomes terrorized by a mysterious force or presence that takes the form of haunting sounds initially. The force then manifests itself and is possibly spurred by a whistle.
What attracted Eric to this story, or at least the idea of making it into a movie, is that it speaks to his philosophy of filmmaking. Like with many real things in life, it presents no explanation or clear-cut answer. Eric liked the challenge of creating a movie with no answers or explanations, a movie whose sole purpose is not only to invoke a visceral response, but also initiate one's imagination, possibly initiate it to come up with one's own answers, and not ones merely dictated to you.
As Eric has said, his theory and technique about filmmaking, which he likes to employ, go to "being able to channel an idea to the viewer on many subtle levels. It's about what's beneath the surface. Not what's merely riding on top... to communicate to you a range of emotions." This involves spurring the imagination.
Therefore, he and Jon got to work on researching and doing the due diligence in planning on how to tell this story in that imagination-inducing fashion, but with the restrictions of their means. In fact, Jon told me that he and Eric did extensive reading into folklore and legends regarding whistles. When prompted, Jon gave me a veritable history lesson. He could probably even tell me who invented whistling. That's how thorough they were.
Jon even reiterated Eric's philosophy that "since there's no dialogue, a lot of it [their film] had to be assumed." Jon said, "So we had quite a challenge in trying to construct a story that we could show instead of tell." The two directors, and yes the two of them co-directed like Joel and Ethan Coen, each having distinctly different responsibilities, in the beginning, worked collectively to map out how they wanted to pull off this five minute tale.
One thing that both had decided, early in the process, is that Eric and Jon wanted to stick to their story boards. Storyboards are a series of hand-drawn pictures, which when strung together look like a bare bones comic book, that basically illustrates what the film will look like. Storyboards are somewhat detailed drawings of what and how the movie's various scenes will be photographed.
Right before Eric began shooting the first take of the first shot of his film, I pulled him aside, and he revealed that with his last project, "The Lumberjack of All Trades," a feature-length and far more complex movie than this, Eric didn't storyboard the whole thing.
A lot of ideas, I'm sure in terms of various kinds of shots, were developed on the fly. He said, "We couldn't do what I wanted to do, but it turned out being better than I thought." With this project, however, Eric was working on a tighter, faster schedule, so it was crucial for him not, as he said, to "stray from my boards... to break my boards."
On set, after Eric briefly introduced me, he jumped right into action. He unloaded his car, which was filled with props for the film. He immediately moved a couple of boxes out and into the farmhouse, a location that was luckily suggested to him by a co-worker at WBOC. Eric said it turned out to be a perfect location, again like something out of Romero's dreams.
Eric set-up a work table in front of the area where he was going to shoot this first take. Sammy, a quiet, soft-spoken gentleman, who worked as an extra on Hollywood productions like "Wedding Crashers" and "Syriana," assisted with setting up the monitors and was somewhat of a gaffer.
Yet, front and center on that work table was Eric's storyboards, and as I watched him direct, I saw him constantly refer to them. It became a sort of checklist, one that he used to make sure he got the shots he wanted, and that he was staying on track.
I recall last year, when I bought some new furniture for my apartment, that the wood pieces came with detailed instructions that included drawings, which could be interpreted as storyboards, for how to put the cabinets together. For Eric, however, shooting a movie is not as easy as merely following instructions in a manual, which the script and storyboards essentially are.
The scene Eric was filming had the woman step out her porch, whistle for her dog, feed it, and as she went back inside, hear and notice a strange noise. In the actual short film, this can't comprise no more than 30 seconds of screen time. Yet, the whole process took over five hours. Some might ask why.
Dave Schwarten, who is a producer on the film, said, "The thing about these projects is you spend a whole lot of time setting up to get a small amount of footage." And, he's right. Dave provided the high definition digital video camera that Eric used to photograph his movie. Dave also explained, while he was doing it, how to put together a makeshift boom mic. A boom mic is merely a highly sensitive microphone, in this case, duct-taped to a pole like a broom stick or something similar, as to be held close-enough to the subject to pick up sounds but not have the person holding it in the viewfinder.
Eric remarked that for a movie with no dialogue, which a boom mic is mostly used to capture, a whole lot of audio work is required here. "Sound is just as important as the visuals." Eric also said, "It's an escalation process... The woman steps outside. She starts to hear the wind chimes, the wind blowing, her hair blowing... the dog begins to bark at the whistle coming out of the forest... [rustling leaves]." It ties back to Eric's philosophy of communicating a range of emotions and channeling ideas in subtle ways, and when being subtle, natural, elemental sound is probably the best way.
Eric operated the camera for every single image captured and recorded to tape, and with his eye firmly planted in the camera's viewfinder, never did you see him without his headphones over his ears. As important as the monitors on the work table, his headphones were like a staple in his wardrobe.
About a half hour after Eric yelled, "Action," for the first time, he immediately started to complain about extraneous sounds that the boom mic was recording. Off to the right of Eric and the camera, Sammy was holding and operating a pretty, strong fan that Eric wanted to use to simulate wind for his movie. He also wanted the effect of having leaves blowing past his protagonist. The only issue was that the machine sound coming out of the fan was registering too high on the boom mic.
At a point when the only sound Eric wanted to hear was the woman whistling, this proved a problem. When assembling furniture or setting up any appliance, most manuals have a troubleshooting section, or most companies have a 1-800-number helpline. Yet, for Eric, and any indie filmmaker, there is no helpline to call, or troubleshooting manual to refer. It was all on him.
No. There were no major problems. Nothing happened that day that necessitated a helpline call. Nothing happened that Eric and Jon couldn't handle. There were only little things here and there, and Jon mostly took care of those loose ends. Despite the fact that on set, he had a chair with the words "Director Jon" on it, a true title, Jon's role ranged from setting up a birdhouse, coordinating the dog wrangler, and gathering leaves.
Jon said that he had no problem with "getting his hands dirty." Neither did Eric, and when it came to technical problems like the loud wind machine, Eric could defer to Jon, Dave, or Mick, but when it came to problems, regarding creative choices, again there is no help line or manual to which to go.
One clear example, where solo leadership was really thrust upon Eric, was when it came to directing his actress. Bobbie Calloway, a lady with whom I only got to talk briefly but from what I could ascertain is a great lady and a great actor, seemed warmed to Eric. From what I understand, Eric has been involved with the Community Players of Salisbury, a local theater group, and from which Eric was able to cast Bobbie.
Of all the crew, she was the one and only actor, the one and only woman, as well as the one and only person, besides me, that late March day, who was new to Eric's camp. Everyone else was either a friend or someone like Mick with whom Eric had worked in the past.
Bobbie did confess to me that she was scared to do this project. Mainly because, as a stage actress, she's relied mostly on her voice, but in Eric's movie, there's no dialogue, so she's, for the most part, hushed. The one difference she told me was on stage she got to be big and expressive, but for this project, she had to be subtle and toned down.
It's odd because she would have felt more at home in Eric's last project, "The Lumberjack of All Trades," where being big, and over-the-top acting, were welcomed and probably nurtured in that wacky, bloody, horror spoof.
But, if ever there was a test on what it is to be a filmmaker, it would certainly be how he guides his actress. Besides Stanley Kubrick who bullied his actress in "The Shining," or Alfred Hitchcock who tortured his actress in "The Birds," or George Lucas and Woody Allen who are at times standoffish to their actors, if a director can inspire an actor or properly push him or her into a good performance, then that's evermore the compliment.
If nothing else, I watched and studied Eric the most when he was specifically giving notes and direction to Bobbie. His behavior with her particularly caught my attention. Despite the fact that on several occasions, Eric told me he was "flying by the seat of his pants," Eric was nothing if not prepared, especially with her. He was prepared. He had gone through his storyboards in detail and with almost exact precision. He had done screen tests. For a guerilla filmmaker, he was quite specific.
When it came to lighting, for example, Eric bumped heads with Mick. There were moments when Eric seemed unsure about how certain shots would look, flow, or edit together, due to mother nature not being all together cooperative. It seemed he had to guess at a few things. Eric looked like he required his friend Matthew LaCurts to work some post production magic.
Nonetheless, Eric was very decisive and spot on when dealing with Bobbie. He was focused and certainly able to discern and relate his vision to her more clearly than he did anything else, which was probably his chief responsibility. Eric had a plan. In this film, he wants the audience "to see sound" and because of the numerous close-ups and tight shots, which he loves, he wants people to be able to read his actor's emotions and see everything in her face.
He answered all her questions. He was very hands-on when it came to establishing what she would wear and how her hair should appear. Having been inspired by books that dealt with these various folklores and legends, Eric clearly had a distinct image in his mind. To achieve it, he went as far as cutting holes in her outfit himself and having Bobbie rolling around in the dirt, to get that drabby and unkempt look.
And, once shooting began, Eric quickly got into a rhythm of telling her where he wanted her to move, how to move, where to react, and how to react, but in a way that was very personable. I mean, he got her to roll around in the dirt, voluntarily, and happily. Really, if any director can get his actor to do that, he's got to be good. Being able to have that motivation to create a life-like story on screen but also being able to infect that motivation in others, that's a filmmaker.
Even when everyone on set has to wear multiple hats, be Renaissance men, and wranglers of all kinds, Eric did incite and inspire these handful of people to get up and out in that cold for nothing, and do this really cool thing. To get the people, the equipment, the location, the time, for no money, with nothing more than a vision, charm, and great enthusiasm may not seem difficult, but it is. Yet, Eic did it. He is doing it.
There were always levity and laughter on set. Even when guys were tired and shivering, if Eric wanted to keep them out there longer, I don't doubt that they would have stayed. Not for nothing, Eric was rolling around the dirt as well. He even went as far as crawling into a doghouse in order to get a good shot. I don't know if Scorsese or the Coens would have done that, but I got the feeling that because of it everyone there respected and admired Eric.
Despite being somewhat tedious, I think all of the people out there that day had fun. There is a quote from Warren Beatty who directed one of Eric's favorite films that goes, "You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is work or play."
When it comes to making movies, for him, I don't think Eric knows whether what he's doing is work or play. For him, it's just something he has to do, and, for his sake, I hope he never knows. For the sake of any future filmmaker, and for any one passionate about any endeavor, I hope you never know the difference.
For more information about this film, including updates on each day of production, screen tests, and poster designs, go to www.EricWalterFilm.com. For more information about the filmmakers, as well as media on past projects, including additional video clips and radio interviews, go to www.MySpace.com/ericbwalter.
For more information about Eric's co-director Jon Parke, go to www.JonParke.com.