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How art can save your life….. or…..
In the stifling hot humid as all hell summer of 2016 in the TexasNational Forest, about an hour or so north of Houston, I made a little slasher movie–Party Night.
This October September 2018, Party Night will be released is available. Soon it will also be everywhere you can stream or rent a movie…. Netflix, Redbox, yadda yadda… just in time to make your All Hallow’s Eve a little creepier…..
Party Night, the little movie that could, is one of a small string of factors that changed, rather saved, my life.
2016 was my American Beauty year, my Year of Living Dangerously…..
I was in bad shape physically and so far removed from myself emotionally that it was either jump head first into my life or take a one-way walk into the ocean. Go big or go home.
The first thing I did that year was finish my book, All Tomorrow’s Parties, a creative non-fiction account of the 1985 murder of a best friend and how it affected our little young adult band of punk rockers. All Tomorrow’s Parties, named for the Velvet Underground song, was my graduate thesis and after three years of being ill, dazed, and confused, I completed it and received my Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies from the University of North Carolina–with requests from my thesis committee to lengthen the 150 page work and publish. Please.
(This is in the works. 2019 is sounding viable.)
My long time then friend Troy, and I had planned to make a movie for most of the 12 years I’d known him. In the fall of 2015, he wrote the script that we both went yes! to.
We did a Texas hand-shake (although he is from Davenport, Iowa and likely wasn’t aware of the legalities & seriousness of a hand shake contract in the Great State of Texas).
In a matter of one year, Party Night went from a thought to a completed film.
Together we chose a cast of
six five amazing young talents, plus a local theater actor I’d adored and known forever, and a gifted local film actor who assumed the role as psycho killer, and a young actress who can’t act her way out of a paper bag, but begged to be in it because she’s a horror freak–and she’s a nice girl. Troy and I ran through his script at my kitchen table, my daughters joining us on the read through, while I tweaked the dialog to give it a more natural syntax. Having worked in an off-Broadway style theater in Houston (stage manager, sound, lights, assistant producer, sets, entertainment and chauffeur for out of town/state/country talent at TheaterLab Houston) for three years (basically a master’s degree in post-modern theater) I had developed a strong ear for dialogue that rings true (and most of the iffy was changed).
It was child’s play and serious work. It was everything.
Our Kickstarter was successful. Promoting and begging for funds was the most horrible part of the entire process. The only horrible part to me. I literally contacted everyone I think I ever knew….. it’s embarrasing to think of all of the whos I did contact. However, when the credits roll I catch my breath every time seeing names of cherished friends I’d had since I was a girl who believed in me enough to turn over their hard earned bucks.
My daughter and her then boyfriend took on the challenging, but oh my god we have home cooked meals and no pizza what? job of in-house caterers, as well as becoming experts at blood cleaning and the Jack and Jill of all Needs. Tallulah, gifted with a true Monica Gellar sense of detail, ended up a production assistant spotting all the bits and pieces that shouldn’t be in the shot and keeping the show running on time (“She has the lip ring back in……. she was barefoot….that solo cup was moved……”). I gathered props from my Aunt and Uncle’s hoarded house and a local thrift store. (My cousin’s old 60’s rubber-faced stuffed German Shepherd toy dog becomes a star, Fifi, in her own in the film–she then got a big head and moved out West with sexy blonde Ryan to start her new life.) Cousins jumped in with meals and furniture loans and emotional support. Troy hired a special effects artist, Heather, and our fantastic cinematographer-sound guy, Derek. We rented an Air B&B in the National Forest, outside of Willis, Texas, for two weeks and, well, made a movie.
Houston had flooded twice that spring–the Memorial Day Flood & the Tax Day Flood, precursors to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the nightmare that flooded and destroyed not just property, not just homes, but lives. Not all literal deaths.
The tales of what Harvey took will echo through time and reverberate in our nightmares, always bearing its watery mark of the death of dreams, hopes, could-have-beens.
At this point, the floods had left humidity on top of the always present in Houston and surrounding areas humidity and it was so thick you could stir it with a stick and gave home to mosquitos that our regular Texas mosquitos could feed on.
And you know, no a/c when filming even as the June temps soared to beyond 100, even at night because the sound would have been picked up on the soundtrack.
It was let’s get a barn and put on a show. Troy, Derek, Heather, and I with Tallulah and Nick, and the help of the wonderful creative fun actors who bonded the first day, created a film in two weeks.
In two weeks and on the micro budget of about 17,000. Derek then edited and I worked with musicians to create an original soundtrack.
Music in film is imporant to me. Since I was a kid and saw The Graduate I’d wanted to use pop to tell a story. I first went to my old friend and favorite, Herschel Berry who is our local Houston musical treasure. He instantly was on board, giving me a wealth of unreleased music. My friend, filmaker John Roeckerand his partner in crime, Dylan Melody of Roecker/Melody came me full use of their first album. I looked far and wide for the perfect song for the finalé kill scene and final before trailor scene and found them in thephenomonal local band, Giant Kitty.
Giant Kitty was kind enought to lend them setting the tone of our warrior girl last woman standing.
By the end of 2016, we had ourselves a movie.
Later, when in editing and the one big weak
place was found, the terrible opening that was on par with a middle school student’s movie, I wrote a terrifying torture scene with full directions, hired the actor, handed out money, stomped on the actor’s white t-shirt until it was filthy in my backyard, and put together a set in my garage. Derek again filmed, thrilled the original poorly conceived and excuted opening was being scrapped. Candice, the new first actor on screen, screamed and looked terrified and was terrifying, and voilá we had ourselves a creepy-as-shit new beginning.
Another golden feature was that this little scene set up an entire sequel concept that I visualized in full and was writing when things took a sudden unexpected and without good reason turn in Troy’s definition of our partnership. But that’s another story for another day–Party Night The Aftermath: The true-life-behind-the-scenes-story of the making of a slasher movie.
Our little film was accepted in over a dozen independent festivals and won awards, including Best Feature and numerous for acting and special effects. We went through quite a few directing situations and I was able to use my directing skills learned in live theater, and assisted in the creation and refinement of some special effects based on ones I’d learned there too…….
It was finally determined that the credit should read: “Directed by…. a shit ton of people.” Troy, however, took the credit based on the fact that he’d conceived the idea and written the screen play. I was assigned Head Producer and Production Manager.
How Party Night saved my life.
The short version. Doctors missed the fact that I was diabetic and had a major stomach disorder, severe incurable gastreoparesis (paralyzed stomach) for literally almost a dozen years. I was going blind and almost in a coma when I self-diagnosed and took myself to the emergency room in the nick of time. The stomach condition–which in turn subsided the diabetes, took another three years to determine.
Feeling better than in years, post sinus and gall bladder surgery and now insulin dependent, feeling actually alive, I fought every day to stay one step ahead and to fine tune my health. I really had no idea how I was going to hold up to filming. I was incredibly heat intolerant and we were beginning less than a week after the end of the school year–I was a teacher and getting through a work day was almost more than I could take. When usually teachers–even healthy ones–took a week just to recover from the year.
However, I stepped on the set and was home. Home like I’d clicked my ruby red slippers together three times. Home like I hadn’t been since I’d worked at TheaterLaB Houston.
To someone else, it might not have seemed such a big deal that I ran on little food, almost no sleep, slept on a sofa in the steamy heat, worked around the clock, stayed physically active, multi-tasking, using every ounce of creativity I had tucked away to trouble shoot special effects and one small catastrophe or possible big catastrophe–the spoiling of the majority of the expensive high definaiton film blood– after another. But it was a big deal.
From the first minutes of film I watched that second night in the house, I knew. I knew we had something special on our hands.
Before that, making the movie was a lark. It was the fulfilling of a childhood dream. It never crossed my mind it could be something. I mean, you don’t go into a project with the idea that it would be big…. that fantasy floats around the back of your mind, but you don’t actually go there. You just do the best work… you treat all art as your first and last, as your only opportunity. You never slack. You never cut corners. You fight until you’re bloodied and you’re Rocky Balboa or it’s your one shot and you’re Eminem and this is
your personal 8 Mile–even if it’s over the use of a song playing on a car radio or the slip of the guy’s black boxer briefs in the sex scene or a snow scraper ridiculously in a car hatch in Texas or the inconsistency of a hair style post prom.
But I knew this… this could be something… it was beautiful. It reminded me of the style and look of the TV show Parenthood–pure, real, the camera kissing the actors seeing their golden gloriousness.
It was the same sense of knowing that I’d had all of my life–that knowing which had brought the word witch out to describe me time and again. There were things I knew and I was never wrong. Big things. Weighty things that banged me over the head in a way I could not ignore: My daughter getting into Duke. That I would buy a house in Spring Branch that wasn’t even for sale yet. Moving to Wilmington, North Carolina. Then later in September of 2016, that he was the one I had been waiting for.
It. Was. Beautiful.
I knew then, at that moment when I ran out of words and motioned for Tallulah to come watch, that Party Night mattered. That it was magical. That this entire happening was magic. The fact that I was working with my daughter and my family had stepped up to help make my dream come true was magic. The fact that friends I’d never met and friends I’d known since I was 17 backed the film because they believed in and trusted me was magic. The fact that the actors arrived and caught on like a house afire was magic. Every single drop of potential I had became devoted with full urgency in the making of this project.
I found a way to ignore the foot that wasn’t working, the heat, the mosquito bites I still hold scars from, the bloated I’ve eaten 3 Thanksgiving day dinners feeling my pre-diagnosed stomach had as a constant, the exhaustion, and the emotional pain that threatened to take me over as I coped with an almost unbearable family situation that was coming more and more to light. Yet for once, I stayed. I stayed and fought. I fought for beauty. I fought for art. I fought for myself. I fought for life itself.
The joy and pride and sheer bliss I felt in the midst of this work not only superseded any physical pain I felt, but made me remember what being me was like and could be again. This was more than a film.
Party Night became my green light at the end of the dock. It became my Daisy.
If I could make this movie, I could be me again–fully alive. If I could write my book and make this film, I could pick up my dreams where I’d left off some years back in the abyss of loss and poverty and raising my daughters alone, one with first serious health issues, then serious mental health issues, finishing a degree while working three jobs, then a public school teacher but needing to be in two places at once always, my friends falling away, no romantic life by choice, teaching turning out to be an illusion that left me battered and drained and disillusioned, finally with PTSD. But now.
When I sat in the Alamo Draft House and watched the screening, my name rolling across the enormous screen, along with those of my kids and some of my oldest and dearest friends who’d contributed in some way to the production, I knew every single thing was possible. Dreams I’d not thought yet to dream could come true.
Party Night gave me myself.
There were a number of after-filming “snafus.” Things that were rushed. Mistakes not corrected. A beautiful soundtrack hurried and ignored and assumed so unimportant that one song was mistitled in the credits and most of the music never made it to the film at all despite the detailed instructions and labor of love and generosity of the artists. The beautiful footage with the perfect song overlay was almost ruined with the credits being pumped over the top and not corrected due to some pre-fabricated need to speed up production. Blood letting between Troy and I when he refused to listen–or I’m sure he would say, give me my way. I am bossy when it comes to art. When it comes to art I’m a perfectionist.
Hell, when it comes to everything with my name on it I am a perfectionist.
So at some point despite our original agreement, our Texas hand shake contract, Troy took full credit for directing and took full ownership/rights of the film, and despite the large amount of money I put into the production, including 90% of editing, Executive Director first frame does not bear my name. (We have paperwork now for the royalties. No more hand shake deals.)
It’s interesting how something that was a dream between friends and a Valentine he wanted to make to the film community became a war zone. It’s tragic. Since he’s given me the most incredible apology–the kind that those harmed by others dream of and you see, well, in movies but never in real life–yet no action backed it up.
Now that the film is out and good feedback rolls in for some of the specific work I did–the opening, the dance party in the living room he vehemetly didn’t want, the incredible music that has left more than one viewer wanting more (and there had been more!)–and he takes credit without ever once mentioning my name, he hasn’t contacted me despite our big uniting moment and his admittance that he couldn’t have made it without me–bringing us full circle to the moment we walked into the fim sight house and he huggedme and said, “I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but you.”.
Not even the day the film was released to the world did he message me.
As Elvis Costello wrote, pretty words mean nothing when you’re laying in your coffin.
Yet despite the disloyalty and betrayal, I forgave him. I forgive him. I love him.
I miss him. I miss the opportunity we had to go to film festivals and play moviemakers. To toast our work and dance to the credits, link arms, smile, and glad hand. The joy of having done something with someone you love.
He’s gone on to make another film and has a third in the works. I wish him well.
And nothing–nothing has damaged or swayed my feelings for the making of this little movie. This green light at the end of the dock. It has my heart and nothing can ever change that.
Thus the power of art.
Thus art’s ability to heal.
Green Day Dreams . –a documentary about the all ages female fan culture of Green Day.
Mister Madness . –a documentary about Houston music legend & contributor to Party Night, Houston’s musical treasure, Herschel Berry.
Shonen Knife –a grindhouse feature about one night in the life of three upset women.