Wednesday, February 23, 2011

3 Years Ago: The first script reading

February 23, 2008

I blogged previously about all the festivals I've submitted the movie to, but I accidentally omitted one – the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. It just so happens that BNFF has accepted Saberfrog, and will screen it at Market Arcade on Sunday, April 10 at 1 pm.

I have a lot of work to do between now and then, but getting Saberfrog into a big festival is an exciting milestone for the film. And it's somehow fitting that this should be happening now, because three years ago today – February 23 – I assembled the actors to read the script for the first time. In many ways, that moment marked the true beginning of Saberfrog.

There's some backstory to plow through before we get to that point...

I was bitten by the filmmaking bug at a young age, and went to film school to pursue a career in it. By around 2002, however, I'd had some painful experiences that soured me on filmmaking, and on the arts in general.

So I took the straight and narrow path, choosing a career in corporate America, learning about programming and product design. I got engaged to be married. It all seemed to be going so well.

Then, in early 2006, it all started to crack. After a round of layoffs decimated my department, I found I had less and less to do, and way too much time to think. I started thinking about how timid my life had become, and old dreams and yearnings started bubbling to the surface. I thought about people I used to know, when life still seemed like an adventure, and wondered where they were now.

And I started writing.

In my daily planner for that year, for the date of Tuesday, March 14, my to-do list included completing the editing of a low-budget digital feature I'd shot in 2001 but never completed. Written at the bottom of this same list is a title: “River in Egypt”. This is the earliest documentation I have of what would eventually become Saberfrog. Its original title was “A River in Egypt” … because the story was about a guy living in denial. (Get it?)

A hard drive crash or two scrambled the edit dates of some early files, so I can't say for certain when I actually started writing. By May I was assembling notes and backstory (a document of discarded concepts is dated May 3) as well as a 22-page story outline. On June 24 I completed a whopping 206-page first draft of a screenplay titled Razor Frog.

This was something that was burning to get out of me, something that I needed to write. I didn't yet know whether this was a film I wanted to make myself. I wasn't yet sure if I wanted to resume filmmaking at all. I got some encouragement in November 2006, when my long-abandoned feature, Curse the Darkness, a fantasy-comedy satire on early-90s political correctness, was screened at the Liberty Film Festival in Hollywood. The festival organizers were very supportive and said I should continue making films.

A bumpy year would pass before that happened. I got laid off. My fiancee broke off our engagement. My father passed away, followed by my aunt – his sister.

Through it all, I kept myself sane by writing. By January 2008, I'd written eight drafts of Saberfrog, wrangling the length down to 118 pages. Scenes had been compressed, expanded, deleted and added. I started looking for locations, and putting out a call for actors. This was becoming serious.

By late February I had most of my lead actors, and I arranged to meet with them upstairs at Spot Coffee on Saturday, February 23, 2008 for a read-through of the script, now on its ninth draft.

Shortly before the reading – either that morning, or the night before – I had a terrible panic. Saberfrog was a script about a guy who goes on a mission for reasons he can't explain or justify, and tries to convince old friends to join him in his mad quest. I came to the full realization that this story was my story. I was planning to make a movie, without being sure why I was doing it, or whether it would be successful, and I was asking a group of other people to go on this journey with me. I genuinely found myself wondering if I had finally lost it.

The assembled cast included J.D. Edmond as Josh, Wendy Foster as Aymee, Diane Conway as Sondra, John Sindoni as Dr. Garrison, and Reuben Tapp as Terrance. I'd met John and Reuben through the Rochester Movie Makers organization – in fact, I'd met Reuben only two days earlier at an RMM monthly event, and invited him to my script reading almost on a whim.

J.D.'s wife Laurie was present, as was Scott Lawrence, a friend who'd previously worked with J.D. and myself on a friend's short film, Enter the Dagon. Scott was there to fill in for the role of Bert, since the actor cast in the role – John Karyus – was living in L.A. and would not be in town until the shoot. The roles of Laurel and Professor Mbaye had not yet been cast, so Diane and Reuben played these roles for the read-through.

Until now, Saberfrog had only existed in my own troubled head. This would be the first time I, or anyone else, ever heard the script performed out loud.

When the reading began, my anxiety quickly vanished. The script got laughs in all the right places. Reuben, a guy I didn't know from Adam, gave the best cold reading I've ever seen in my life, instantly nailing two challenging characters – one with massive personality changes expressed through flashback, the other with a foreign accent. John Sindoni, despite some initial struggles with his character's bizarre vocabulary, brought personality and humor to his dour character. Scott heroically filled in with a humorously deadpan delivery of lines clearly written for John Karyus.

I was buzzed for at least a day after that reading. Whatever angst and chaos I'd been through in the past few years of my life had somehow transformed into a wild, funny, lively script, with a dream cast. It was like winter had instantly changed to spring.

The journey of Saberfrog had begun. And here we are, three years later, with the film preparing to make its festival premiere. To quote the song: What a long, strange trip it's been.

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