Happy Cloud History – Part 2

We had a lot of things going in our favor when we started production. While Digital Video was still a new and expensive format, and none of us had any experience with that, we’d all shot and edited film. At the time, I worked for WRS Film and Video Lab in Crafton, so we had processing more or less covered. I could open an employee account and get the film processed at a steep discount. I also worked in the optical printing department with soon-to-be-star Ray Yeo. Let’s just say we had a lot of leeway to run “tests”. And the guys in processing couldn’t care less what came through there….

Amy and I shot a friend’s wedding and used the money to sign up as professional members at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, the school I’d just graduated from. In addition to providing us with all the big, heavy 16mm equipment, the school was being rennovated and would serve as several of the film’s sets. Since we were shooting a noir-like atmosphere, the unfinished rooms with deep shadows made perfect backdrops.

We’d written the script with our assets in mind. Our joint-owned house had pocket doors separating the dining room from the living room. Closing the doors and dressing the dining room, we had one set. Opening them and re-dressing, we had another. Our upstairs would be background for short sequences, including Sr. Bliss’s counseling office. The basement became a primary set throughout the production.

We had to teach ourselves from scratch how to build websites. We had to buy a flatbed scanner since that was the only option at the time to get photos onto the web. In order to save me some trips out to the school to edit, I bought an upright Moviola (If you’ve ever seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eddie Valiant stuffs a guy’s tie into one of these things. It looks like a steampunk robot.). So we were pretty serious at this point.

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At this point, The Blair Witch Project came along and became famous for what was sold as a little Do-It-Yourself horror movie. It was riding a hefty wave of indie love that started somewhere around Reservoir Dogs and gained momentum with Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Robert Rodriguez was heralded for his $7,000 action film, El Mariachi, and he had already teamed up with Tarantino. The ‘90s gave a lot of indies delusions of grandeur.

We’d managed to shoot a couple of sequences on the highest-quality video I could find: Hi-8. A news report taking place in Incredibly Strange Video–the owner and our friend, Bruce Lentz, was also a horror host on local TV, “Mr. Schlock”, so we thought a cameo would be fun. Plus his clerk, Charlie Fleming, would become essential to “Necromaniac” going forward.

Another sequence parodied the “Surge!” soda commercials. We had a bunch of idiots running through a cemetery, through hungry zombies, to get to the soda at the other end. We shot this ridiculous thing in a private walled-off cemetery out in McConnell’s Mill, moving eight or nine people down the interstate for a 15-second gag. Every one of us played both a runner and a zombie due to the magic of editing and Amy’s line producing. When we were all zombies, a group of kids came by looking “fer ghosts” and didn’t even ask why we were zombies. Neither did the park ranger whose came by on horseback. He wanted to make sure that the hibachi we were using to keep the makeup warm wouldn’t be left behind. He didn’t care about the guy with the knife jutting out of his chest.

The sequences would serve multiple purposes. They would do their part as world-builders, to flesh out the idea that zombies were a world-wide epidemic and we’ve all adapted to it; they would aid the satire; they were cheap and quick to do and we could shoot these kinds of things anywhere with planning (more on that in a second). And we could start to build these bits into a pitch reel for potential investors. This one guy, Darren Aranofsky, made a movie called Pi by asking 100 people for $100 dollars.

We knew more than 100 people. None of them had $100…

Cross that bridge when we come to it… I wrote a script for Necro-Phil and Bill and I started our long partnership of never finding a comfortable position for Bill to do Phil’s head and voice while I, somehow, did the arms. Who straddles who? We’ve since consulted with many, many Muppet performers… results have varied.

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Amy and I shot and edited a friend’s wedding for a couple hundred bucks. That gave us the funds to get a Professional Level Membership at the now-gone Pittsburgh Filmmakers. I’d graduated a few months previous; now I was back.

We bought 100’ of 16mm and decided to do some test shoots. The infamous “Basement Scene” was one of the first I’d written. It involved Amy’s and Bill’s exterminator characters, Sr. Bliss and Simon McForman, killing zombies while a Woman’s Auxiliary Luncheon (we never mention what they’re an auxiliary of) happens upstairs. The sequence was written with a lot of gore, a lot of extras, and would get increasingly crazier as it progressed. It was still part of the first act but would wind up being the film’s centerpiece.

We called everybody we could think of. Nearly every member of our families showed up to play zombies–even actors playing other characters appear quickly in that scene. Francis Veltri, for one, plays the film’s chief villain, but shows up with a huge facial wound in the background of this scene. Because the film’s plot also involves clones, we justified this by saying he was another version of the villain that must not have worked out.

If I recall, the majority of the zombie make-up was done by Bill, with his team of Jen McNutt (?) and Don Yockey. Possibly Ryan Storm as well, though this early shoot might have predated him. Bill was the point man on all of the effects. On days when he also had to perform, wearing both hats started killing him. He would complain about this roughly around the end of shooting.

The chief bits of production value we had for this scene–beyond 20 zombies in unique make-up in one location–were real squibs and pistol blanks. As this was still 1998, the Internet was still mostly text-based. Pictures would sometimes show up if you left the computer running and went to do something else. There was little to no information on most of what we had to figure out how to do on our own. Puppetmaking and squibs? We might as well have been asking for a working search engine (damn you to hell, Webcrawler).

Bill experimented with all sorts of different methods to get a blood-filled condom to explode. He landed upon a mixture of black gunpowder and magician’s flash cotton connected to an electric switch. It took a lot of trial and error (which you can see on the DVD extras of The Resurrection Game). At one point, the condoms were just inflating, rather than breaking. We presumed it was because condoms were engineered to, you know, not break. We thought that novelty condoms would work better. So one Sunday night, the three of us dressed in our our best black leather and ran down to an adult book store on Smithfield Street. Walked up to the counter and demanded, ‘Give us your weakest condoms, please!”

The look on the sex store clerk’s face was priceless. “What do you want the weakest ones for?”

Bill almost pointed at Amy and said, “We need to get her pregnant tonight! It’s a matter of national security!” I like to think that he actually did. (It’s my memory, screw you!)

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What he finally landed on was something he called “Igloo Babies” or “Eskimo Babies”, because neither of those things were slurs at the time. The condoms were stretched across tin plates (for protecting the actor) and wrapped in duct tape, with a little window left for the blood to escape, localizing the internal explosive charge. It worked brilliantly every time. It only took four months of trial-and-error. (For one experiment, Bill blew a chunk of plastic into his own chest so we stopped using that design; on another, he used too much black powder and thought he’d blown me up.)

We didn’t tell Justin Wingenfeld (director, Skin Crawl), playing the Detective’s client who would soon be killed by his wife’s lover, that the squib we put on him had only been perfected the night before. Prior to that, we’d been using a hose and an air-pressure syringe to pop squibs. Bill’s perfected explosive worked better without fear of misfire. (Try it at home, kids!)

Combining the black powder and magician’s cotton also made great blanks for the real pistols we were using in the movie. (Again, we had started with painted water pistols and Bill figured out a way to run a wire through the gun and down the actor’s sleeve so that we could have “firing” guns, but this proved to be time restrictive and limiting. Plus, Bill was starting a gun collection…) He’d hand-load the shells and we’d get a magnificent “spark blossom” from the guns. It became a trademark of the film. We could only fire one at a time and only through revolvers since the empty shells had a tendency to jam. (Seriously, kids, try it! It’s science!)

We shot for the bulk of the day. Crowd shots first, then start whittling away as people get tired, bored, etc. Amy had made snacks for everyone – always feed your cast and crew! As producer, star, occasional camera, all wardrobe, set design, she added craft services as well. Which is probably why Bill didn’t complain until the end.

I am wracking my brain trying to remember if my classmate, Bill Fuller, was on hand for this day or not. I know we added Nick Sportelli, Mark Dobrowski, and their friend Jeff, but I can’t recall if Bill was DP for that day or not. But the crew lit a nice, atmospheric environment for the zombies to stumble around in. The amount of bodies in that small room looked ridiculous, but aided in the tone of the film. Once Bill and Amy started jumping around like Hong Kong action heroes–with Amy producing a different weapon for every kill–we felt like we had a winner on our hands.

Getting that first 100’ feet back from the lab was like watching our future unfold. The Kodak stock captured the red tones beautifully. Even in rushes, it looked like a real movie. I didn’t even cut the workprint, I just transferred it all very primitively to VHS so that I could start putting together a pitch reel to try and drum up money. But with this new footage, we finally had proof that we were making a film…

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