Wayning Interests

Random thoughts on and of the modern age

Month: March, 2012

HEARTS OF DUCKNESS

How I made my first short film.

I have always been interested in movies – the first film I ever went to see was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was five years old. The experience of seeing a movie like that (it still holds up) at that age at the cinema was incredible. If, by the next day at school, you hadn’t seen the film, you were on the outs.

In 2008 I was working at an investment bank and editing screenplays on the side. A friend of mine, Peter, had just made his first feature film, which he’d directed, written, edited, produced and funded himself. Even though I didn’t think the film was great, it was inspiring to see all those different credits to his name at the end of the movie.

Peter and I had attempted to make some shorts together, but nothing had really panned out. I was often yammering on about projects I’d like to make, and he was constantly challenging me to get off my ass and make them. It wasn’t that easy – I had next to no money, I didn’t know how to get actors, and the one idea that was fully formed enough in my mind to go ahead with was so outlandish that most, if not all of it would be impossible to actually make. Peter didn’t want to hear it, “Just get out there and make it, man.”

The idea in question was one I had cooked up a few years before with another friend, Andrew. It involved a man being annoyed by his pet duck to the point where he releases it back into the wild. It was missing a few things, like the three act structure, humour, and any kind of semblance to a story at all, but there was something there. Spurred on by Peter’s challenge, Andrew and I sat down to brainstorm ideas for this would-be raucous comedy.

Was a duck itself funny enough? Would a chicken be funnier? How did the man get a duck? What was the duck’s name? These basic questions led us on to heavier stuff: what was the man’s life like before he had the duck? What caused the duck to play up and start annoying him all of a sudden? Along the way, we realised that the answers to some of these questions could be as funny as the annoying duck itself.

We eventually banged out a cliche-riddled plot: a man (SPOILERS), devastated by the death of his beloved dog, goes out to find a replacement pet. He finds a duck and the two get on great…

But when the honeymoon is over, the duck’s true colours start to show. The man learns that living with a loved one isn’t always the great pleasure it’s made out to be, and he finds himself longing for his old dog. Sensing this, the duck flies into a jealous rage and wrecks the man’s house. It’s the last straw – the duck has got to go. In an act that suggests he’s temporarily remembered that as a man, he’s superior to a duck in the scheme of things, our protagonist pays a hunter to have the duck killed.

The fun part of writing the script was coming up with things the man and the duck could do together to show how in love they are initially, and then the different ways the duck could annoy the man to push him over the edge. We made up a list, keeping in consideration the limitations of what a duck would actually be able to do, IF we got a live one.

Another thing to consider was, if we make this film, how are we going to make a duck happen? Would we animate one? Use the ‘Get out of jail free’ card that is low budget short filmmaking by using a plush toy? Or maybe, we could source a real duck.

It didn’t take long to decide that the real duck was the only way to go. If we could get a real duck, the audience would be completely on-side as they watched him do all of the fantastical things we’d come up with, and still find him endearing as he became a pest. This raised yet another set of questions – what kind of duck? Classic farm white, or woodland brown? Deciding on the real duck was the end of our casting woes, however. I’d taken the man role on myself.

I spent a surreal few hours at my day job calling around to different animal acting agencies, asking if they had any ducks. It seemed a tall order – I was told by several places that they didn’t have any, and even if they did they’d be out of my price range. One place seemed too good to be true, “Yes, we have ducks! And your script is so funny! You can have up to five different ducks all for [a three figure sum].” It didn’t feel right, especially based on the kinds of quotes I’d been given thus far.

The next day, I heard back from another place that had originally told me that they didn’t have any ducks at the moment, but ‘we do have a very good goose!’. We considered his headshots and showreel, but it just wouldn’t have been the same. This time, they told me that they had a duck, Ralphie. Could we send the script so they could get an idea of the sort of things we wanted him to do? Shortly afterwards I received a series of photos featuring Ralphie (not Ralph, NEVER Ralph) in various scenarios from the script. Some things weren’t possible – we’d originally wanted him to spend one scene in a birthday hat, but he didn’t like hats. We were told that instead he was more than willing to wear an Hawaiian lei.

We were also told that in no way would Ralphie perform unless his ‘wife’ Lulu was also present. Ducks mate for life, and Ralphie would become distressed unless Lulu was around to calm him. We were assured this diva-like demand wouldn’t cost us any more money, so we had no choice but to accept. After seeing the photos it was obvious that Ralphie, a colourful sensation, was the perfect choice, although I was concerned his naked sexual charisma might blow me off the screen.

Andrew and I spent an afternoon on the Windsor farm with Ralphie, Lulu and Lindy, their handler, so that the ducks could get to know me and feel comfortable doing the crazy things we’d have to do in the name of entertainment. It was another surreal moment, but Ralphie could sure wear a lei.

We could only afford Ralphie and Lulu for a day, so we spent that day getting every single shot we needed. We drove him all around town, from location to location, putting him in all sorts of situations that must have been frightfully embarrassing in front of his wife. At no time did he disappoint, or require more takes. We even found a role for Lulu, as part of a double date for the man and the duck. At the end of the (hot) day, we threw him in the pool to cool off, but Lindy warned us, “We can’t let them both out together. They’ll collude and fly away”. I wished I’d worked that into the script.

The music was a problem. We’d envisaged it as a silent movie because if neither character could speak, they were equals. Given the cartoonish nature of the film it made sense to source cartoonish music, and our first stop was the extensive production music library used in The Ren & Stimpy Show. It took days to pick the right music, and to edit it properly into each scene. I’d foolishly gone into things thinking production music was all free, but no. APRA-AMCOS took their sweet time, but finally presented us with the kind of bill you’d normally get from buying a signed bar of Hitler’s gold.

When the post-production work was all done, we entered the film, now titled Man’s Best Friend, into as many competitions as we could. We got into a surprising amount of them, including the Melbourne Comedy Festival and the Shorts film festival in Adelaide. We even made some money in the end. In its afterlife, the film hasn’t become a YouTube sensation, but it has proved a useful calling card when drumming up interest for future projects.

As painful as it could often be attending each of the festivals and sitting through…interesting films, and as painful as it straight-up was to watch myself every single time, Ralphie’s comic timing and colourful plumage always got a smile out of me. Plus, I’ll always be able to say I’ve been screened in an Academy-recognised film festival. It was an encouraging sign for a first effort, although Peter still wasn’t impressed.

I never saw Ralphie-not-Ralph or Lulu again. We’d been told that their owner was a little girl who was terminally ill, and her dream was to see her pets in a film. I don’t know how that little girl is today, but we did send her a copy, so I hope she enjoyed it even if the movie didn’t end well for Ralphie.

Below is the film in all its glory. Decide for yourself how successful it is as a comedy, or perhaps, pretentiously, as an allegory for either serious relationships and incompatibility, or a ‘rebound’ relationship. Either way, I hope you enjoy it.

W.C. Fields said “Never work with children or animals.” but where I’m from, all you gotta do is tell me no, baby.

WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LAVA?

The Tragedy of the Lava Planet Predator

In 1992, 20th Century Fox started work on an animated series based on the Alien franchise. The show, ‘Operation Aliens’, would have featured colourful, wildly different takes on many of the Space Marine characters featured in James Cameron’s Aliens.

But the show never made it into full scale production, and only a handful of stills of what is believed to be the pilot have ever seen the light of day. The seemingly last-minute cancelation of the show rocked worlds at Kenner, the toy company in charge of the action figure line intended to accompany the show all the way to the bank. The toys were rebranded, released under the generic ‘Aliens’ name.

My reaction exactly. Images from alienscollection.com.

As a kid I had the toys, and I often wondered why Bishop, Hicks and all my other favourites from the movies looked nothing like their on-screen portrayals. The back of each packet featured either pictures from the films modified to look more like the often bizarre toy redesigns, or badly costumed actors made up to look like the toys. Either way, it didn’t sit well.

In 1994, Kenner took my money and funnelled it into the creation of an accompanying ‘Predator’ toy line. But there were no cyber-arm Danny Glovers in this lineup, these were straight up Predators, all given the kind of generic theming that was so unmistakably 90s: Nightstorm, Stalker, Spiked Tail, Scavage.

Stalking probably works better if you don’t glow in the dark.

I think for mine, Spiked Tail Predator was the worst-named Predator only because there is absolutely no effort involved. He’s a Predator, and he has a spiked tail. However generic he may be, though, STP pales in comparison to what would have to be the strangest, most ill-conceived Predator variant released – LAVA PLANET PREDATOR.

Lava Planet Predator. A simple, lazy repaint of the earlier Cracked Tusk Predator (“Just take one and make it RED”), LPP has haunted me ever since I first laid eyes on him in 1994. He was one of those unattainables, the ones on the back of the packet in all his glory, but could never be found at the shops. After a while, I began to wonder if I even wanted him. The more thought you give Lava Planet Predator, the more both his concept and your mind unravel to the point where you have to write (or read) a blog entry about him.

Let’s look at the facts. He’s a Predator, that cannot be denied. He does in fact come with a ‘blazing’ rocket launcher as the packet suggests… But the packet doesn’t suggest anything further. Normally, you’d get a brief bio of your newly purchased plaything on the back of the package, just a little taste cooked up in a New York copywriting cesspool designed to give an LPP or a STP a running start in a playground game.

But the concept of a Lava Planet Predator appears to have bested Kenner’s finest to the point where he comes with no back story, no context to speak of. He just is, and by paying the $10 he would have cost back in the day, you signify your acceptance of his being. In essence, Lava Planet Predator is what YOU make him.

Even in all the time I spent gazing at his little picture on the back of other packages, I assumed there’d be some kind of explanation as to what his go was once I had the real deal in my house. I didn’t give him the thought he requires, because I trusted there’d be that story waiting to make sense of him, to make the world alright.

Now, nearly 20 years later, it’s safe to say that story will never come (or will it?). His stark appearance raises more questions than answers – is he FROM the lava planet, or was he cleverly designed on the Predator homeworld to be an army of one, dedicated to rocket launching the denizens of the lava planet to what must be their extremely hot version of hell?

More puzzlingly, why is he red? Is that how he looks when he’s on the lava planet? Does the red signify his temperature, or is it a ruse, a red herring if you will? If so, why is his blazing rocket launcher red as well? Was it treated to withstand his intense temperatures, or was it purely an aesthetic choice?

Finally, what’s his weakness? A hose? A brisk day? The ice planet, from which there is no Predator? What is the prey on the lava planet? Without prey, can he truly be known as a Predator? Kenner as a corporate entity was absorbed by Hasbro in 1991 and the brand was discontinued in 2000, so it’s likely we’ll never know.

But somewhere out there, on a planet of lava, the Predator sits – his black and yellow chest heaving, his rocket launcher blazing and his yellow eyes burning behind his fearsome red mask. He sits…and thinks ‘I sure wish I didn’t have this heat vision’.