Throwing Caution to the Wind

in

Column by Doug Herman.

Exclusive to STR

How I wrote, directed and produced a low-budget feature film while driving long hours, defying death, diamond mining and a double-stabbing at the age of 60. A true story. A cautionary tale.

“Before you realize it, you have succeeded in completing what seemed originally a colossal undertaking; not by one long-sustained effort but rather by a connected series of short efforts, each one a complete whole.” ~ Tristan Jones

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness had genius, power and magic in it.” ~ Goethe

Road Movie

America is one long continuous-and-ongoing road movie. From the Conquistadors to the Okies to the Flower Children, Americans have always been on the move. We write the script and we’re the bit player and the star, the hero and villain, in our own production. We get the good lines and the bad. And often, for better or worse, we only get one take per scene before moving on.

In the middle of summer, July 1st 2008 to be exact, I embarked on my own road trip. Gambling on a tip from a friend, I skipped fishing in Alaska and drove to Connecticut from LA.

Rolling the dice on a 3,000 mile road trip for a job possibility as a personal assistant to the rich and famous, I headed east. Instead of rolling on the rough waters of the Kodiak salmon fishing season--well-paying work I’ve done for the nearly 30 years--I planned to work for a hundred days and nights and earn maybe ten or twenty grand. If everything went as planned. Big If. Big plan.

But life is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans.

Months later I would learn of a double stabbing that occurred on the same boat I would have worked that summer. The skipper of the salmon seine boat, FV Kilokak, broke up the ghastly attacks before anyone died. Had I been there, I might have been caught in the middle. “That would have been you,” said a skipper friend, “trying to break up a dispute.”

Life’s a gamble; place your bets. Every morning that we roll out of bed we gamble. Every day we roll down the road to work we gamble. Every single minute we move, forward or back, crossing the street or merging into traffic, we risk it all, life and limb. We gamble. We bet on ourselves. We roll the dice. We turn a corner in our life. We take a calculated risk and throw caution to the wind.

Thus, Caution To The Wind seemed an appropriate title for my movie. If you Google Images, you’ll notice two distinctly different DVD box covers. The first cover I commissioned was created by the most talented & controversial graphic artist on the Web, David Dees. The second was created by the distributor who wanted a younger, straight-to-video look. As with almost everything related to the movie, plans changed and rearranged and more than a little unforeseen serendipity occurred along the way.

The Germ of an Audacious Plan

I just didn’t awaken one morning and suddenly declare: Lights! Camera! Quiet on the set! Rolling! Action!

In fact, a year before any significant pre-production occurred, I found myself on the road, as I mentioned, heading east to Connecticut, in search of a wealthy investor or employer. The search failed, thankfully. Had I succeeded, I might be there still, laboring solely for money in an insecure world.

While staying in Michigan during the road trip, my cousin Kenneth burned a CD of music for me. Road songs I hoped to use in my movie, they kept me inspired while on the open road. I played parts of that CD every day, especially “Learning To Fly,” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. I tried to envision where I would insert a certain song. Then I realized that I wouldn’t be able to afford any of the music. The royalties for one song alone probably exceeded my projected budget.

Three thousand miles after I began, I arrived in Connecticut. After a few vague promises and a healthy dose of reality, the job never materialized. I spent a pleasant week in a tent at Lake Waramaug waiting for a call. The expected job at an agency in New Milford, Connecticut never materialized. Instead I left and went to work in Virginia.

While there in Virginia, I visited Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. “I’m a great believer in luck,” wrote Jefferson; “And I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Unfortunately, my luck didn’t pay. At least not in dollars. I wasn’t going to make the twenty grand I hoped to make by my east coast gamble, not even ten grand. Instead I earned $2,000 by a lot of hard, dirty work at the Farm Colony near Stannardsville. Doubtful, now, whether I’d have enough money.

On the Road Again

Was the gamble worth it? Yes and No. In the plus column, I got to attend two family reunions and attend my 40th high school reunion, in Howell, Michigan. No, I did not make the twenty grand I might have earned fishing in Alaska. But then again, I avoided the double stabbing that might have included me. Big plus there.

Mark Twain observed, probably during one of his many journeys back and forth across the country: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”

Halfway back to California, an idea struck me. Why not stop at the Crater of Diamonds State Park, in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, and dig for real treasure? Dig for diamonds? Yes, diamonds!

The extinct volcano throat, Crater of Diamonds, was open to amateur prospectors. Some sizeable diamonds had been found there, in the vast, muddy fields, by people exactly like me. One big diamond would pay for the movie, I thought. Maybe I’d get lucky and find more than one. Maybe life would imitate art. In my movie script, the stranded travelers stumble on a dead guy in the desert outside Las Vegas with an attaché case containing stolen diamonds. Why not me?

After two dirty days of digging in the muddy field, I hadn’t even found a microscopic diamond. Kids had found them and retirees too. But even though I moved heaven and earth (lots of earth but very little heaven), I never found so much as a grain of sand-sized diamond. Tired but not discouraged, I showered and hit the open road. So what if life doesn’t imitate art. Life is too busy being original.

Months before the shoot, I did pick up a strange, very strange, yet comforting volunteer. Somewhere on the long road trip back from the east in early November, my mood began to wallow between self-pity and a bleak fatalism. Despite my best efforts, there did not seem to be any way possible I could make this movie.

But as I drove along I-10 in New Mexico, a soft yet distinct voice spoke. “Before your car odometer reaches 250,000 miles, your movie will be finished.” I glanced at the odometer on my white 1986 Toyota that I’d named Snowflake. It didn’t seem possible. Over 248,000 miles already and I wasn’t even in Arizona.

Returning to California, I passed a truck and trailer carrying a classic car. I was listening to “Same Road, Same Reason” by Acoustic Alchemy. A good sign, I decided, an auspicious sign. Still, I wondered how I would ever carry this project, this delusion of grandeur, through to conclusion. I had only earned two thousand dollars for the entire summer, hardly enough to rent a classic car.

Writer/ director Robert Rodriguez, patron saint of all first time filmmakers, wrote: “You’re gonna come up with problems everyday on your set. You can get rid of the problem one of two ways—you can do it creatively or you can wash it away with the money hose. You got no money, you got no hose.”

No money to finance a film. No actors. No costumes. No props. No sound equipment. Nothing more than a script that I wrote and registered at WGA-west months ago. Then I wondered: Had I really heard that distinct voice in the back of my mind?

Over the Fall and Winter of 2008, I polished the script and tried to picture every scene, every line of dialogue in my mind’s eye. I enrolled at College of the Canyons, in Valencia, California, in an Intro to Film & Video class. I scouted locations along California Route 66, spoke to business owners about using their café or shop and searched for a colorful classic convertible. After all, this was a road movie. In the meantime, I began to amass props and costumes in a friend’s garage I called House Cat Productions. The owner, Ann Berg, had four cats and they all took an avid interest in my project.

I wandered through thrift stores seeking just the right accessories for the tantalizing costume I imagined for my beautiful leading actress, Tabitha Brown. She would play a starry-eyed young actress determined to win a role in a big budget, superhero movie to be shot in Las Vegas called Spidergirl. What would her costume look like and, more importantly, could I afford to buy one or make one?

Between classes, I began to write character descriptions, called breakdowns, for the cast. I also emailed the idea of investing in a low-budget, independent feature film to investors, proposing the idea mostly to my friends and family. Eventually this group would become “Los Hermanos y Hermanas.” The Brothers & Sisters, but also a play on our last name.

I laughed when I read Robert Rodriguez’s recommendation in his Ten Minute Film School. “Make yourself a business card that says you’re a film-maker, pass them out to your friends, soon as you get that over with and you got it in your mind that you’re one you’ll be one, you’ll start thinking like one.” And so I did and Rodriguez was right.

Over the Winter holidays, I mailed a newsletter to my friends and family, outlining my audacious plan. Borrowing the line spoken by Morgan Freeman, as Red, in “The Shawshank Redemption,” I wrote: “I find I'm so excited I can barely sit still, or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at the start of a long journey who's conclusion is uncertain.”

I was unemployed, 59 years old and had little money in the bank. I realized that only hard work and some unseen support and serendipitous magic would bring success. So I’d start with the hard work and hope for magic later.

Henry David Thoreau advised us to go confidently in the direction of our dreams. Build castles in the air. Step to the beat of our inner drummer, no matter how measured or far away the music. The hardest part of any audacious plan is to formulate and outline the plan itself, to list resources and assess strengths and, yes, weaknesses. Countless times I studied my notes, my personal blueprint for the movie, wondering if I’d forgotten anything.

In February 2009, after enrolling at the College of the Canyons, I strolled around the lovely Valencia campus, an old man, over 40 years older than most of my fellow students. Still I did not feel old, in fact I felt younger and happier than most of the kids I passed, silently passing them with the excitement only a free man can feel—at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.

Six months later, when the last scene was finally shot and I began to edit the first footage, Snowflake’s mileage read just shy of a quarter million miles.

A Dozen Fun Facts & Figures of Filming CTTW

1. Only 12 days of shooting for the entire film, almost all of it on location.

2. Nine scenes were shot on a single Saturday, nearly 20 pages of script, along lonely highways north of LA.

3. Some of the road scenes were shot along the exact same highways used in Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, “Duel.”

4. Although a non-union production, ALL actors, both leads and supporting, were paid Screen Actors Guild (SAG) weekly and single day union rates.

5. Props are where you find ‘em. The classic yellow Ford convertible, called the Yellow Submarine in the movie, sat curbside in Santa Monica for over a year with a for sale sign, before being used in the movie.

6. The Executive Producer & Houseboat Skipper credit might be the only one in the history of Hollywood. An Alaska commercial fisherman, KJ also cooked salmon and halibut steaks between piloting the houseboat and writing checks to cast members while in Laughlin, Nevada.

7. The Bagdad Café used in the film was the same café used in the cult classic of the same name that propelled actor Jack Palance back into Hollywood fame.

8. Due to budgetary limits, the College of The Canyons in Valencia served as several locations while the student director (me) attended classes in film & editing.

9. As the Art Director, my job was to make props, costumes and paintings used in the film, including everything from the large round portrait of John Lennon in the first scene to the fake Las Vegas newspaper in the last scene.

10. Shooting “guerilla-style,” due to budget constraints, we shot on location without permits or insurance, and were ticketed only once, when the cinematographer was cited for operating a truck with passengers in the back.

11. “She took a chance; she made a choice,” has a double meaning in the movie. The name of the real-life husband and daughter of leading lady Tabitha Brown? Chance and Choice.

12. The tarantula spider in the opening credits was filmed when shooting B-roll along the centerline on lonely Route 66. The tarantula was released safely and paid Spider Actor Guild (SAG) union rates.

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 148

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @ Gmail.com

Comments

Mark Davis's picture

You're an inspiration Doug!  How do we order/see the movie?

Douglas Herman's picture

Thanks Mark,
You can order the DVD with a cheesy box cover from Amaz, Targ, Walm, Borders, etc.
Or you can send me $20 for a personally burned Dvd, with boxcover you see, autographed somewhere, to  me, at  1829 North Palm Dr, Tempe, AZ 85281, postpaid. 
Check, money order or silver American Eagle..... lol.