Where there's a will there's a way, even if it makes no sense. On July 31, 1993, twenty years ago this day, I began shooting my first movie in the woods behind my aunt's house in New Hampshire. We used my dad's Hi-8 home video camera, several friends, an alien made of tin-foil (I provided the voice live, just off-camera), and several toy dinosaurs filmed in close-up (later to be intercut with the actors in an effort to disguise their true size). It was a surprisingly organized beginning although this orderly kickoff would soon devolve into a mess of delays, personal conflicts, and technical difficulties - all surprisingly ubiquitous even at this early phase. I utilized a formal screenplay, detailed shot list, out-of-sequence shooting (timecode diligently logged on Hi-8 tape), and a shooting schedule soon fragrantly disobeyed. My father was the cinematographer and I shouted orders from behind his knee, a four-and-a-half-foot tyrant in sweatpants two sizes too big.
Despite this funhouse simulacrum of industry professionalism, the resultant film was an astonishingly incoherent mess: more dada improvisation than semi-coherent narrative (these early works did not come off like the adorably epic-yet-miniature kids' productions in Wes Anderson movies). For years, however, I was clueless to the movie's astonishing inabilities.To me, all the baffling elements made perfect sense - actors playing multiple characters, lack of any exposition or transition between scenes, long static shots of an immobile tin-foil object (I did not have Carlo Rambaldi at my beck and call, unfortunately) accompanied by a shrill offscreen monologue about Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi. I assumed potential audiences understood all this as clearly as I did. What can I say: I was nine.
The movie, called When A Star Moves (because when it does, it must be a UFO) was based on a short story I wrote in June, shortly after seeing Jurassic Park, in which I fused elements from favorite Spielberg films. An alien (creatively named Joel the Alien) is stranded on Earth, his only company an array of pet dinosaurs (no Martian leaves home without them). A conniving FBI agent discovers the alien and dinosaurs, tries to imprison them in a theme park, invites guests - and you can probably guess the rest. I even included a random shark attack halfway through (the shark was a hand puppet filmed up close in a tide pool).
It took seven separate days, in seven different locations, spread out over the course of a year, but the movie was finally finished. I edited it by dubbing from Hi-8 tape to VHS, although the already jagged scene transitions were complicated by the inability to time cuts to the frame or even the second, so that dialogue was often cut-off mid-sentence. I still own a videotape of the "finished" "film" - at nearly thirty minutes, longer than just about anything else I've ever produced. The video sleeve was custom-made by my friend Max, and it is probably the most comprehensible, well-crafted element of the entire movie (containing a striking cover image and fictional pullquotes by Connie Chung and Bill Murray).
I also merchandized my incipient franchise (launching a sequel three years later, I made it through two shooting days before abandoning the attempt; twelve-year-old me did not have the commitment of my nine-year-old self). Handwritten "novelizations", stapled magazine stories, and even cut-from-cardboard action figures were forced on captive friends and relatives. I can only imagine the misery of the adult relatives and parents' friends who were corralled into watching a half-hour of bizarre monologues, and ketchup-splattered screaming fourth-graders. My folks must have spent a fortune on six-packs over the years, as compensation to friends for entertaining their child's delusions of auteurship.
I can't help but look back fondly (if trepidatiously) on the whole absurd enterprise. The precocious aspects inspire affection in retrospect (most of my subsequent homemade movies were videotaped improvisations, devoid of formal technique or production rigor). The nuttiness of the project, on the other hand, seems vaguely troubling, foreshadowing as it does my penchant for esoteric and audience-alienating approaches, stubbornness in pursuing logistical dead ends, and isolation from a fellow-travelling community of standards or feedback.
Still, for all the silliness, I admire the kid in baggy sweatpants and frayed baseball cap, convinced he was on the same level as Hollywood filmmakers. Sometimes I chuckle at his naivete, but at others I quietly envy his confidence.