The Making of Alex the Great

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It’s not autobiographical. Well, not entirely. There are certain autobiographical elements. I did bury a box of trinkets along with some papers when I was a kid, but there was not a list of “Things to do before I’m 30.” There was a sort of “life plan” that I outlined, but it was more about writing books and going into space. I’ve never held a job for more than about eighteen months, and it wouldn’t be possible for me to work in one place for five years like Alex did. Much of the criticism the character expresses about such work defines my own objections to it. People who’ve worked with me in corporate environments will likely agree that I’m not a good fit for most offices. And my friends aren’t meretricious and gossipy like Bruno and Rebecca – at least, I hope they aren’t. If they are, I hope they’ve got better things to talk about than me.

The movie came to be because four friends (Cole Drumb, Jeong Lee, Spencer Sundell, and me) decided they could work together and create a few short films. We each possessed a deep affection for cinema, each had our own strong opinions and obsessions, and unlike most cineastes we also had experience in various aspects of film and theatrical production. We decided to each write and direct a narrative short. Typical of the way my reach tends to exceed my grasp (or typical of my arrogance and hubris), I decided to write a feature-length project. Yes, the forty minute short film that exists today was originally intended to be a 93-minute movie. More on that later.

Before we made Alex, our circle of friends (which had been informally named “3 Guys Production,” or 3GP, before Spencer came along) shot two other shorts. One was titled Black Sheep of Chinatown, written and directed by B. Jeong Lee, an amusing and engaging story about a young kid on the wrong side of things. We shot this almost all handheld using an early-model Sony miniDV camera, with locations mostly in the International District of Seattle. The other film we shot was to my knowledge never completed, but it was a very dark and intriguing series of monologues featuring killers and rapists. Written and directed by Cole Drumb, it was inspired or based on the writings of Andrew Vachss. (Cole, whose production résumé is quite extensive, went on to write and direct Dominoes, a feature film which opened to some good notices and featured one of the stars of my movie, Andrew McMasters.)

Then we shot Alex, sometime in October 1999. The entirety of it was shot in Ballard, a neighborhood of Seattle where I was living at the time. There is a very photogenic ‘downtown’ section of the neighborhood, which features in many of the exteriors. There is also a decent beach nearby – since it was October, the beach would be mostly deserted and thus ideal for shooting.

Through a series of fortunate friendships and business relationships, I was able to secure the use of one of the first Canon XL-1 miniDV cameras produced. We had the camera almost two months, plenty of time to get acquainted with it before production began. When we were using it, very little was known about the camera’s abilities and performance – the additional lenses, one of the key selling points for professionals, weren’t even available yet – nor were any adapters for other lenses. So we were stuck with that original telephoto lens, which we found out rather quickly would not hold focus very well. The four of us spent hours with that camera, so much so that I often joked we were the first ‘certified’ XL-1 operators in the world.

Spencer put together an outstanding sound recording system for us, using not only the onboard audio mixing capabilities of the camera but also an external mixer, along with lavalieres and of course a boom microphone. Jeong and Cole put together a professional lighting package for us, utilizing their years of work and experience in the Seattle film industry to ensure the quality of our equipment and lighting plans. Through friendships and professional contacts Spencer was able to secure the somewhat historic Tractor Tavern as our shooting location. If you’ve been to that bar, you know it’s a huge showplace for bands – we only shot at the bar, utilizing the remainder of the space for production gear, food tables, or resting areas for actors. We shot four or five full days at that location, having to break down every day by six o’clock for the bands to begin their setup.

Four or five days? Yeah, the script was a lot longer than forty pages. It was in fact eighty-eight pages, and didn’t have an ending. “Over-written” is the kindest word I can think of for the script. Looking back, I remember myself as being deeply engaged in an intense scrutiny of the films of John Cassavetes, and was also beginning my friendship with Jon Jost. The depth of admiration I have for both filmmakers drove me to attempt to create something with personal meaning as well as broad appeal and personal meaning to others. That’s not a bad thing, but I should probably have held myself to a 30-minute short film as originally planned.

The finale you see was actually worked out in rehearsal through dialogues between me and the actors. David Dumrese and Andrew McMasters are two of the most interesting, talented, and engaging actors I’ve ever worked with. They both embraced the parts with a seriousness and dedication I truly was not expecting. David took it upon himself to read Whitman, Emerson, and some of the other authors Alex or the Stranger refer to in their discussion. He and I spent many hours together discussing not only the character and script but our mutual lives. I can honestly say that of the few people I’ve had brotherly feelings, David is one of them.

Andrew and I also spent time together, but in an entirely different way. Andrew saw character of the Stranger as almost like a newborn baby, enchanted with the universe he’s occupying for the first time. It was a take on the character I hadn’t really considered, seeing the “type-A” personality as more of a predatory character. Andrew convinced me he could play the childlike wonder without losing the challenging and confrontational aspect of the Stranger’s personality. This was something I thought he did very well: there is a playfulness and cunning in his eyes as he challenges Alex.

Working with Jen Nikolaisen, who went on to a professional career in Hollywood, was also a delight. Jen took a very professional, almost analytical, approach to the role of Rebecca. She reasoned that Rebecca seemed far more rational than emotional – which was another surprise to me, as I had intended the opposite. However, I liked her idea that there was this tension of reason vs. emotion in her (as it is in all of us), and that she was drawn to Alex because he was so emotional. She complains about his mood swings and whimsical manner, but ultimately that is why she loves him. Admittedly, much of this is lost in the final film – Rebecca had a great deal more screen time in the original script and rough cut of the movie. Jen went on to do many more and bigger things, and I’m glad to have worked with her as much as I did, even if 80% of the result ended up on the cutting room floor.

There are plenty of great production stories I could tell you. But those really belong to the cast and crew. One thing I will point out: the startling and in my not so humble opinion beautiful images shot during the fog were not planned. On the first morning we were scheduled to shoot on the beach, we showed up to find it completely enshrouded in fog. What you see in the movie? It was far worse than that when we first arrived. You couldn’t see a thing. The cast was back at my apartment getting into costume and keeping warm until we called them. But the entire crew was there, ready to work, and getting colder by the second. We discussed canceling, but decided to wait for the fog to lift. We called the apartment and had them bring David and Andrew to the beach.

One of the crew members happened to have some firewood, so we built a fire on the beach and invited everyone around it. Meanwhile, I grabbed the XL-1 and started shooting the fog, the cast and crew – whatever I could to keep the growing anxiety from consuming me. Jeong walked over and suggested I get some b-roll with the actors, get them to rehearse their lines while walking. He knew I was a fan of the walking-talking shot, especially a particular long one in Annie Hall, and thought it might be possible to lay dialog tracks over some stuff shot MOS on the beach. It was a great idea, so I grabbed my two stars and we went to work.

Later as we faced some problem in editing, Spencer and I created that montage of shots. It’s meant to act as a sort of bridge between the change in geography, as well as represent a transition between worlds – the dark and claustrophobic world of corporations and rules, contrasted against the bright and warm world of beaches and sunsets, with a gray and shadowy world of diffusion between them.
Over the years as I’ve shown the movie to people, some of that sequence and the fog scenes get a lot of compliments. As a subscriber to the idea that a lot of the best art happens by accident, I love telling and re-telling this story.

Which brings us to post-production. The first rough cut of the film is legendary among the people who made the movie. Jeong Lee, who was the director of photography, was (like the rest of us) also interested in editing. He asked to make the first rough cut and I agreed. Using the meticulous shot logs kept by second assistant director Alan Perry and faithfully following my script and editing notes, Jeong assembled a nearly two hour movie.

How do you get from two hours to forty minutes? It takes a lot of editing, along with a lot of caffeine, a good deal of nicotine, restrained doses of marijuana, excellent Thai food – and it helps very much if there is very little sunlight, not only because it cuts down on monitor glare but also because it gives you less reason to blow off editing and wander around the park, high as a kite and wondering if you’re going to lose your mind before or after you finish editing, because it is a default certainty that you’re losing your mind.

Put simply, Spencer Sundell saved the movie. We spent nearly a year, meeting several hours a week ad sometimes spending entire Saturdays together, piecing together the movie that you see. First I whittled down the rough cut to something that seemed a little tighter. Then, again using the meticulous logs Alan had kept, we began recapturing and rendering the video footage for editing in Final Cut Pro, which was then not even in a 1.0 version (it couldn’t edit 16×9 at the time, so that’s why we shot 4:3, in case you’re wondering why a pretentious git like me would shoot Academy ratio). It was at this point we found the “audio glitch” that nearly led to me canceling the whole thing.

It turned out that while we were shooting on the beach, at certain times of the day the nearby marina (which harbored a number of fishing boats) would turn on a navigational beacon for ships. This beacon caused a regular and periodic “spike” on our audio channel, which created a sound similar to a burst of static. We later discovered the interference was on the camera’s audio channel – this was demonstrated through the MOS footage I shot in the fog, during which I had no microphone (not even the onboard camera mike) and no external mixer attached. The glitch was not audible while recording, but only appeared as a “burst” on the magnetic tape.

Spencer has been editing sound and doing sound engineering stuff for decades, but even he thought we might be headed for some kind of dialog-replacement since the spike sometimes occurred in the middle of dialog. We resolved to simply keep editing and deal with whatever glitches remained in the final cut. Ultimately, Spencer was able to devise a way to “pull down” the majority of the spikes, even the ones that occurred in the middle of dialog.

Once we were done editing, I put the film on VHS and shoved it aside. The very next, even immediate thing for me was moving away from Seattle. Less than a month after completing the final cut, I was no longer living in the city where I became a filmmaker.

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