How I Got An Experimental Feature Film… Done
By Eric Michael Kochmer
An Actor Vacillates
My mother never allowed cable. She used to bring home movies like A Man for All Seasons and The Third Man. I grew up on a farm, left to go study theater in New York City and ended up working under experimental musical theater director, Elizabeth Swados. I read material like Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and Eric Bentley’s The Modern Stage. I had ideas for staging and wrote a bunch of experimental plays. I even considered going to grad school for play-writing and Commedia dell’Arte. At some point, my mother said “Go be an actor in LA. That’s what you should be doing”… So, I did.
I found myself in the black hole that is Los Angeles. I got the Part Time Job, went to auditions, took a role here and there, and found myself living the California Dream, swimming in a pool that overlooked a balcony of the condo I rented … in the valley. Over four years, I earned a bunch of film credits and Union status, helped produce a low-budget avant-garde film (by Owen Land), and had helped co-produce an un-received low-budget experimental short feature. I burnt out. After finishing an industrial acting job for a religious conglomerate I shall not name, I sublet my place to a Neil Cassidy look-a-like and got the hell out of town. I flew back to New York, crashed on a friend’s couch, and wandered around the East Coast for a few months – doing a little acting and pondering where the hell my life was going.
My friend, actress and writer, Stephanie Sanditz would call me once in a while and ask me when I was going to come back to LA to do something “weird and fun.” Then one day I was on my dad’s farm, stoned, in the woods, near the hidden pond by the hidden stone wall… and I had a vision that I should make a great art film. I started writing titles on my legal notepad, jumped a plane looking like a hippie, and crashed with a pal in Venice until my old place opened back up.
A Film Is Born
Stephanie had repeatedly been saying that I should meet these guys who started a group named We Make Movies, so in September 2010 I went there for the first time and met (the now CEO) Sam Mestman. I spent the next year networking as an actor through We Make Movies and eventually workshopped a strange political horror movie that I wrote – which, surprisingly, no one was interested in helping me produce.
I still wanted to make a movie. Coming up with something small and simple was essential. Using all of the resources I could find, I could probably shoot something for under ten grand. I found a rambling draft of a play I had written when I first came to LA called Annie’s Having a Chinese Baby and the Goddamn War’s Coming! It was about sixty pages of long monologues, cursing, screaming, funny lines and weird moments. I thought, “Yeah, I could shoot this in a month or two from now.” … then re-named it Way Down in Chinatown.
I changed some of the storyline, with the help of my friend Justin Serulnick. I called Stephanie and asked her to bring her friend Justin Dray (a talented TV and film actor) over to my place deep in the valley, on a Sunday afternoon, in the dead of August – the day that my air conditioner decided to die. Everyone reacted to it (the script – not the heat) with excitement. I knew I found the right piece. I also knew it wasn’t even close to being ready.
The script kept on getting darker and more surreal. I found myself staying up later and later at night, drinking whiskey and watching old silent films and B-Noirs from the 1940’s. In early 2012, horror movie fixture Maria Olsen landed in my lap, happy to help raise funds and form a production team. Next, a young producer named Jonathan Haloosim jumped on board and with him came an even younger and extremely talented cinematographer, Kiko Suura.
The Drudge Puzzle
The four of us did some location scouting in late March and found a theater/rehearsal location that was perfect for about 1/3 of my film, that was available for free (through an old friend)… only during the first week of June. We booked the space.
I should note the whole time I was communicating with a genuinely concerned Mestman, who was saying things like: “Eric, you really shouldn’t be trying to make a feature. Make a short,” and “Do you have any idea what kind of cost you’re going to run into? Besides the actual shoot? Who’s going to edit it? Do you know a good sound designer? Who’s your audience? Have you factored in P.R. costs?” I would always answer with “I know man, it’s going to be crazy!” Then finally from him: “Alright, look, if you’re going to do this … keep it simple.”
All while this is happening, I’m flying up to San Francisco for about one week every month and a half or so to play a drug addicted cop in this feature film (White Rabbit), where I met this fantastic veteran character actor, who also happened to be an experienced studio musician and producer, James Anthony Cotton. We bonded. He read my script. He said, “Buddy, it’ll either be amazing or a goddamn train wreck.” Well, he didn’t have anything going on in the first week of June so, the next thing I know, he’d made plans to bring down a dolly and recording equipment. Since the main characters (in the movie) were creating a musical, I had the idea of using an old folk song, “Goodnight Irene” (that was public domain), as the song in the musical, so we wrangled a band together for the shoot.
Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3 in the following weeks.