My failed attempt at making my first feature
I’ve wanted to make films for pretty much my entire life. Even as a child I knew films were stories constructed by people. Shooting a feature film on my own was always a goal of mine but making that happen didn’t always seem plausible. “Cashing Out” is not my first go at making a feature. In 2011 I attempted to make a found footage horror film entitled “The Local Opener.” It was a tale about a group of high school friends who wanted to make a “different” horror film. It was pretty autobiographical considering my friends had been encouraging me to make a film for some time. We all decided to get together and hopefully make this “different” horror movie. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t different.
I don’t remember all of the details of the story, but here are a few. I played myself, a younger filmmaker wanting to make it big. A couple of my friends and girlfriend told me that I should attempt to make a film about a haunted farm in the area. I thought this was a great idea, so we set out to explore the farm. A bitter old man owns the property, so we attempt to gain his permission for shooting. He denies our request, so we decide to sneak onto the premises. While exploring we encounter a young girl who lives in the area. She eventually possesses (or kills some of the friends) throughout the movie. However, the plot twist is that one of the friends who suggested the farm as the location actually lured everyone there to kill them. The film ends with that friend killing myself by slitting my throat and my girlfriend by chopping her up with an axe. A local news company called “The Local Opener” acquired the footage.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. It gave me the opportunity to learn about different aspects of filmmaking. There were about seven of us involved with the movie. We had one writing meeting to discuss aspects of the story. One mistake I learned during this process is that we focused way too much on making something that was “different” instead of telling a story that was personal to us. Here’s a bit of screenwriting advice: if it has no purpose, don’t write it. Don’t just write movies to write movies. There’s already enough soulless Hollywood entertainment in this world. Write a story that means something to you and people will respond.
Flash-forward a couple of weeks and I had an outline for our story. I didn’t want to write an actual script because I wanted the dialogue and emotions to feel natural. Instead, I wrote an outline with the basic ideas of each scene. None of us had any improv or acting experience, so this ended up being a terrible idea. I didn’t own Adobe After Effects, so I also spent a lot of time learning different practical visual effects from the YouTube. One of the effects I wanted to do was a practical gunshot. I watched a lot of videos on how to make squibs, which are blood packets that explode on an actor. Big Hollywood movies have devices for this effect, but I didn’t have any money. Instead I figured out how to do it in the most dangerous way possible.
I made a DIY chest protector out of a pant belt and foam board that I attached to the actor. Once the protector was secured I taped a blood packet to the foam board. Now you might be asking how I was able to get the packet to explode and look like a gunshot. Simple. I thought I was a great idea to attach a firecracker underneath the blood packet. I used a long wick and fed it through a tube that would be hidden under the actor’s clothing. This effect took forever to execute because it required about four to six feet of a firework wick to burn before the squib would explode. I found this to be a benefit because the actor wouldn’t know when it would happen, thus creating a more natural reaction. I would like the say that this terrible idea resulted in many fatalities because it would have made for a more interesting read. The truth is that it actually worked. I tested it on a friend and it worked beautifully. I decided to do a camera test on myself a different day. If I ever come across that clip again I will update this blog. Long story short, it worked again and looked great. At this point I felt it would be ready to use for the movie when the time came.
I had a few more less dangerous effects to figure out, but shortly after we began shooting. The reason we chose a farm is that one of the actor’s family members owned a farm and allowed us to shoot there. We scoped out the area before shooting to mark spots where certain scenarios would take place. Since the majority of this shoot was to take place outdoors I kept equipment light. I only carried the camera, a battery operated light, camera batteries, and tapes. I don’t remember how many days I had planned to shoot, but I maybe scheduled about 12. All of us were either in school or had jobs, so we stuck to weekends for shooting.
Our first day of shooting took place in my bedroom. It was the group of friends playing video games while explaining everything we were about to do. The scene went pretty smooth considering not much really needed to happen. Our second day of shooting was another exposition scene where the entire group literally sat around a table eating breakfast foods while talking about the plot of the movie. I think you guys can see where this is all going from here. Our breakfast scene was shot in the interior of the old man’s house, and the exterior was used when he denies us shooting on his property. We ended up competing many of the exposition scenes within the first couple of days.
I normally shoot film scenes chronologically, but for some reason I decided it was a good idea to shoot the last scene early in our schedule. This is the scene where I got my throat slit and my girlfriend chopped up. I had been reading a lot about how most great horror movies are scary because of they don't so you. I didn't understand this then, but I decided I wanted to do this for my film. The scene plays out with my girlfriend and I running to the car to escape the farm. One of the aspects that made our movie “different” is that the car actually started versus it stalling. However, once the car was started we can see our killer in the back seat. He hits the camera as it spins around to be in view of the front of the car. He slits my throat off screen while blood splashes all over the windshield. He then drags my girlfriend to the front of the car and hits her repeatedly with an axe (props to my real girlfriend for selling the screaming really well). Afterwards, our killer disappears into the woods. End movie.
The whole scene took forever to shoot, but I do remember it going over fairly well. I still have the tapes, so if I ever come across a mini dv camera again I will check out everything I shot. We only accomplished about three takes until the battery in my car died. I was using my headlights to light the scene, and stupid me didn’t think about how my car battery would die eventually. I’m also very fortunate to have not been pulled over that night because I would have had a hell of a time explaining all of the fake blood on the inside of my car. That was unfortunately the last day we ever shot this movie. After that day my friends lost complete interest in the project.
I was pretty bummed that I never finished the movie. It was probably in my favor not to, but it wasn’t a good feeling not being able to finish it. It was my first real attempt at making a movie and I failed completely. I thought about shooting it again with a different crew, and I even wrote a full script (this script makes an appearance in my 48 Hour Film "Candy Land" when the main character is stapling papers). After not finding anyone interested in the project I completely abandoned it all together. Do I regret it? Not really. It wasn’t this different horror film that I so desperately wanted it to be. It was a great learning experience where I learned a lot about filmmaking. I hope to return to the horror genre eventually, but it will not be with this film.
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UPDATE: I have found the footage of me testing the firecracker squib: https://youtu.be/BIUHIV2lvxA