Mary Russell

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My high school had one of the best video programs in the state; it helps when the teacher is also a disc jockey turned rock and roll promoter turned cable mogul turned millionaire who put his own money into the program. I learned how to edit on an Avid and I learned how to light with a ceiling-mounted grid in a real if small studio with a three-camera set-up. We had all sorts of microphones and all sorts of boxes to mix the sound with.

Many of the folks in the program went on to find work in the film industry. Some of them work for local commercial houses or news stations. Others moved out west after college. One of those guys edits a certain single-camera sitcom. Another ran the social media accounts for the horror movies put out by a certain studio, and eventually made enough connections to secure funding for his first feature film. By all accounts, the film is pretty abysmal - I haven't seen it, but apparently it's found its home as one of the myriad bad horror movies streaming on Hulu - and I'd feel bad naming names, so let's call the director Dylan.

The thing that's surprising about Dylan directing his first movie isn't that it's bad, because he never really showed much interest in acting, writing, or editing. Back in high school, he didn't seem to care what was in the frame or how it got there. He watched movies compulsively, with his favorites being the infamous exploitation pictures Cannibal Ferox, I Spit on Your Grave!, and anything directed by Lucio Fulci. He had a bootleg copy of El Topo back when that film's rights were in dispute, and he let me watch the film with him, but only on the condition that he turn off the sound and play a Johnny Cash record while it was on. I told him once that I was glad he wasn't on drugs, because he was weird enough without them.

"I don't do drugs," he said at the time, indignant.

"I know; that's what I said."

"But I'm not on drugs."

"I know. I'm agreeing with you."

"… I'm not on drugs."

So, an odd duck to say the least, and it's not really surprising given his influences that his first film might be of questionable cinematic merit. What was surprising about Dylan directing his first movie is that he did it at all, because everyone who knew him was fully convinced that he would never do it. Not that he couldn't do it; he had a certain energy, perhaps even a strange sort of charisma and charm, that was undeniable.

And it wasn't that he didn't want to; he did. Sometimes it was all he talked about. One year after graduation he asked me to write him a script for a horror film. I knocked one out over the course of a couple of weeks. I don't remember what it was about or what it was called. I do remember that it was set at a farmhouse, because he had access to a farmhouse and wanted to shoot there. I also remember that he never made it.

Photo of one of the many meetings that Saturday Night Live writers attend every week. You can find The Hustle article on the pitiable lives of SNL writers here .

There were production meetings. He had talked with actors. He set tentative dates to start shooting, and the dates kept getting pushed back, and pushed back, and pushed back. Until finally Dylan decided he didn't want to shoot that particular script. He wanted a new script. Something about vampires.

So I wrote a script about vampires. Specifically, I asked myself what Dracula was really about, at its core. Some might say that it was about repressed urges, or eroticizing The Other, or it's an adventure story about an unlikely group of heroes banding together to defeat the ultimate evil. I determined, in my infinite wisdom, that it was about a vampire and his real estate agent, and so wrote a script about a vampire and her real estate agent.

Dylan loved the script. There were new production meetings. New sets were planned, new props were prepped. He had actors. He had access to equipment. He had, it seemed, everything he needed.

"Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens", a 1922 German Expressionist horror film directed by F.W. Murnau.

Everything, that is, except a crane and a harness. As I remember it, there was a scene that called for the vampire to enter a house through a second-story window. You know the drill: she taps on the glass, the woman inside the bedroom invites her in, and so on. Dylan wanted a shot with the vampire on the ground, several yards from the window, and to see the vampire leap up, the camera following the whole way in one shot. It would be ambitious and cinematic, two words I didn't necessarily associate with Dylan. It was also totally unnecessary - all he'd really need is a shot of the vampire at the window, never mind how she got up there - but if Dylan could pull it off, yes, it'd be value-added.

But he didn't pull it off, because to pull it off he would need a crane and a harness in order to lift the actress off the ground. Actually, he'd probably need a stunt team for it too, because swinging someone up in the air toward a glass window on the second floor is an accident waiting to happen. And as I remember it, this is what Dylan got stuck on. Once he had all this stuff figured out, it'd be go time and he could set a date to start production. Only go time never came.

And again, the salient point is that, strictly speaking, the crane and the harness and the stunt team were in no way necessary. He very easily could have made that film over the course of a few weekends and on the cheap. Or he could have made the first script I wrote for him the year before, or the third one I wrote the year after. At this point Mary enters the picture and tells me to stop writing scripts for Dylan.

There was a joke among our friends that in order for Dylan to actually direct a movie, we would not only need to write it for him, but to create the sets, cast it, rehearse it, hire the crew, prepare the SFX, and then and only then, we would kidnap Dylan and tell him he couldn't go home until he had finished directing it. There was always some obstacle, and it was always Dylan who put it in his way.

Last minute details before shooting a mob scene on the set of David Lean's "Dr Zhivago".

That was never a problem that I had. For whatever reason, I just dig in and I start doing things, sometimes with very little planning. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but the best way to learn is by actually doing the thing and, if necessary, failing. It doesn't mean that one should attempt to shoot Dr. Zhivago on a handheld video camera - please, please don't - but one can shoot something. You can work with what you have instead of always making it contingent on something that's just out of reach.

I know a lot of people - in film, in board games, what-have-you - who always find a way to put impassable and unnecessary hurdles in front of them. Now, to be clear, that doesn't mean that everyone (or even most people) who don't get where they want to are getting in their own way. Sometimes folks are extraordinarily unlucky, and there are certainly legitimate obstacles to overcome with any creative endeavor. Sometimes those obstacles can't be overcome, and it's not because the person didn't try hard enough or want it enough or any of that nonsense. What I am saying however is that it's hard enough to begin with, so one shouldn't make it any harder than they need to!

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