4:30 am I was the first one to the location. I stood there in the darkness of the parking lot thinking about my life. I felt like only yesterday I was in upstate New York dreaming about being here …
You might say I had been preparing for this short film since I was 10 years old. I had watched all the Twilight Zones, I had been watching movies all my life and now it was time to take the leap. I had the script, and the small amount of funds to make what I could. Now it was time to build the crew and start cashing in on my friendships and contacts.
The first person I reached out to was Chris Mosely my Cinematographer. We discussed the process and the story. We talked about lighting and how we would move the camera. I wanted to keep the location small and use every inch of it. I went out with a couple of friends to have a beer, my intention was to scout for a location. They didn’t want to work, they wanted to relax and enjoy their day off. But as a filmmaker, you’re always looking at places that could be a possible location for something that you’re developing. So, we ended up at a small pub in North Hollywood called “The Tonga Hut”. As soon as I walked in I knew this place was the location I had been imagining. It was dark, small bar, booths , juke box, wild decor. I spoke to the owner and pleaded with him about what we were doing. I told him that I was just starting out and wasn’t supported by a big studio, just friends trying to make it in the movie business! After about an hour he told me to “come back tomorrow” and I did.
The next day we agreed to shoot during the off hours, which meant start at 6 am and shoot until 4 pm because the bar opened at 5pm. I also had to pay a small fee to for someone to watch over the bar. With that out of the way it was time to start casting. I had been worked for a producer by the name of Ron Samuels. Ron produced a film I worked on titled “IRON EAGLE”, I also worked on a television series titled “DOWNTOWN” with Robert Englund, Blair Underwood and Mariska Hargitay. Ron had an office on a lot in Hollywood on Las Palmas, it’s now called Hollywood Center Studios. There was a small tiny office that was empty and a payphone outside. So, I talked to a security guard and the lot rep who told me I could use it until someone came in. I brought posters from home and used it on my time off to hold auditions. This was long before I started to put the film together. As I said, I was prepping this film all my life.
The first actor I made sure was in was Carmen Filpi who I had been talking to for quite some time after becoming friends. Then, I asked my old girlfriend Tina Carlisi to play a role. At the time I had been writing with a friend who was an actor named Woody Brown and we were both bartenders together in the past, he had been an actor on television on a show titled “FLAMINGO ROAD”, “LOVE BOAT” and a few others. Now it was time to find the two key actors which were children. I was always told, avoid using kids and animals and I was going against the golden rule but I thought, these kids would be 11 years old, they could take direction and kids are not set in their ways and wouldn’t question the path I would lead them on. So I thought!
I auditioned well over 50 kids for the role and found two of the perfect actors. The first was 11 year old Ronnie Prettyman, white blonde hair, the typical California kid. Then, I found a very talented 11 year old black actor by the name Theodore Borders. Theo as I called him was a 45 year old man living in an 11 year old body. Theo asked questions, he wanted to get in my head. I was amazed by the dedication he brought to the table. His mother was extremely supportive. We talked on the phone and discussed certain elements of the character. This kid was teaching me how to be a director by asking questions, and every question was valid. Now, I had my cast. Next was crew.
While working on a film titled “COPS AND ROBBERSONS”, I was friendly with the producer Ron Schwary. Most people knew me as a craft service guy, a guy that cleans sets, a guy that assists other crew members, a guy that gets snacks for crew members. No where near the top of the food chain on set. But Ron Schwary actually listened to me and gave me the time to plead my case. He asked me many questions about the film I wanted to do. I told him I needed a camera. At that time, we were shooting 35 mm and using Panavision cameras, very expensive! I was floored when Ron said to me “Kid, on Friday, when we wrap, you take the camera and use it. If something happens to that camera, you call me at home”. I walked out of that office feeling so fortunate to have someone like Ron in my life. The next was getting equipment, grip, lighting, props, sound and of course a generator. I wanted to make sure we had great sound. Since I was working on Cops and Robbersons, I asked Kim Ornitz our sound man who I had formed a great relationship with. He agreed to be a part of it. Everything was falling into place. My friends were all banding together to support me.
Then, Woody was not available and I was now hitting my first road block. He was the lead character, the main man, the nucleus of the story! This was a big WTF moment for me. So, I called another bartender actor friend of mine by the name of Brad Wilson. I told him that I was needed him to play the lead in a short film I was directing. Brad said “yes”, he asked when were we shooting, I said in two days. Brad said, no worries, I’ll work my schedule around it. What a relief!
By this time, I was prepared for the film we were shooting in 2 days and I needed to see Robert Relyea and get a pep talk. Robert as you remember, was the producer from LAST ACTION HERO, he was also Steve McQueen’s partner years ago and Bob started out as an assistant to John Sturges who directed THE GREAT ESCAPE. I went to Bob’s office at MGM at the time and sat across from him. Bob sat behind his desk with his feet up on the top of the desk. I remember thinking his shoes were bigger than the length of my arm. Bob was so supportive. He told me to “Go see a movie, take in the camera work. Then go home and don’t think about anything else. Be prepared and don’t let anything get in your way and don’t let the crew see you confused or stressed. You’re the commander of this military team and your job is to take that hill. They’ll respect you and follow you if you’re strong.”
I walked out of that office with my head held high and ready for battle. I returned home to go over some details with my DP Chris Mosely when I received a call from Theodore’s mother. She proceeded to tell me that Theodore broke his arm on an MTV shoot and was in a cast. This was the day before shooting!!! This kid was a major part of the story. He knew his lines, he was perfect for the role. There was no one else!! NO ONE! And he had a BROKEN ARM! So, the producer in me asked “Can we remove the cast until the shoot was over?” What was I saying? This poor kid. She told me “no”. Then the director/writer in me rose up as I remembered what Bob Relyea had said. So, I told her, “We’ll work with the cast on his arm.” I asked if he was still up for doing the role and she said he was not going to give it up.
That night, I didn’t get to see a movie like Bob had said. Instead, I rewrote the script to add Theodore’s arm cast into the story.
I was the first one to the location. I stood there in the darkness of the parking lot thinking about my life. I felt like only yesterday I was in upstate New York dreaming about being here and now I’m here. I thought about my journey and how it disciplined me. I thought about the friends I left and the friends I made. I wondered why these people would even show up. Then, I spotted a line of cars with their turning signals on. I got choked up and felt a tear slide down my cheek. This was it. This was that the moment of truth for me. This was the payoff for the hard work and the dream.
TO BE CONTINUED…
In the early 1990’s I bought myself a computer and the Final Draft screen writing program. I believe the Final Draft program was one of the first version at the time. Now it’s Final Draft 10, which by the way is extremely helpful and straightforward. Years before I wanted to shoot a short film. I was a huge fan of the “Twilight Zone” series. I was also a fan of Hitchcock films. I love the Thriller genre. So, I studied the Twilight Zone series and timed them without commercials. I knew that keeping it short and to the point was very important and I did not want to make a film that was an exercise for actors and their reel, I wanted to tell a story and keep the audience engaged without being distracted. I remember early on the one line I had in my mind I promised myself to use in the film. (I’ll share that later).
So, I had been working in production in the film industry and made quite a number of contacts but never took advantage of it knowing that someday I would need to. I sat in my room and home late at night listening to music that would inspire me to write. I was told by a close friend that each page represented 1 minute of screen time depending on the action. So, that was my first note.
I then reflected on an event that happened to me while I was in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was attending the Academy in the day and worked as a bartender at night. One night, two of the students that were friends of mine came to see me for a few drinks and when I closed the place we sat and talked about the film industry and how important it was to stay friends during our journey. You never know when you need help. My two friends were actors, James Hayden and Michael Kukal. Both very talented. That night we sat at the bar, lights low and the door locked and we made a pact that if one made it, we’d pull the other two in. So, after I completed my studies at the Academy I moved to California and started to chase the dream.
I hadn’t heard from either one of them for about a year and then in the fall of 1983, I reached out and got in touch with Jimmy Hayden. He told me he was on a roll. He had played the lead in the play “A View from the Bridge” and landed a number of television shows. He told me about a film that he had finished titled “Once Upon a Time in America” directed by Sergio Leone, starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Joe Pesci and Elizabeth McGovern. I was so proud to have a friend that was not only following his dream but making it happen! Then Jimmy told me that our friend Michael had died. I was devastated. We didn’t go into detail about his death but it clearly affected both of us. Jimmy remembered our moments and told me that he had landed the role of “Bobby” in the Broadway play “AMERICAN BUFFALO” with Al Pacino playing “Teach”. Jimmy told me they would be in San Francisco and invited me to see the show. I immediately purchased tickets for me and my girlfriend at the time, she was and still is a very talented actress Tina Carlisi. I was tending bar at a place called Stevie G’s in Studio City and one of the regulars there was an actor named Bernard Erhard. He and I talked about Jimmy and Bernie, as we all called him told me that he played the role of “Teach” in the original opening in 1975 along with William H. Macy who played “Bobby”.
A week or so later, I read the news that Jimmy had died of a heroine overdose. I was devastated once again. Two friends, gone. Ironically, the character Bobby, was an addict. I heard many stories of who he had been hanging around with but I could not believe that this incredibly talented actor and friend was now silenced. In 1984, Mickey Rourke dedicated his performance to Jimmy Hayden in “The Pope of Greenwich Village”.
I held that emotion and feeling in my heart and spent those moments trying to develop the story for “Second Dance”. It was around Christmas when “It’s A Wonderful Life” was playing the last time on every channel there was. I was depressed thinking about my life and what was happening and after watching the movie several times I went right to my computer and began writing.
I knew that I had to keep the page count down and began with the idea of 5 pages for each act. This would give me a 15 minute film. I wrote, rewrote and rewrote. Spent my Friday and Saturday nights writing. My friends would call saying “let’s go out” and I knew that I had to get this done no matter if it was made into a film or not. There was something that ignited a fire in me and that fire was burning day and night. It was as if I had this friend who would come to life when I turned the computer on. No one else really understood. Everyone was telling me to take some time away and get back to it. But I was on a mission.
I completed the script in about a month and right away started thinking about how I would put a crew together to shoot the film. At the time, everyone was shooting on 35mm. So, I had to get as much film as I could but is was expensive. I had been working in production doing craft service, a job my brother got me in to. He had said to me, quit bartending and come work with me. You’ll make good money and make great contacts. I accepted the offer and little by little I started to build friendships in the industry.
I was working on the film “Last Action Hero” directed by John McTiernan starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Cinematographer was Dean Semler, a very talented DP that I watched every day. Dean had shot the original “Road Warrior”, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”and won the Academy Award for “Dances With Wolves”. I wanted to get to know camera and I wanted to get into Dean’s head.
Every day I would ask him a question about images, what lens to use in certain moments, what filters, anything that would spark an idea for my film. He told me about anamorphic lenses (which I used much later in my career). Dean had a camera assistant by the name of Chris Mosely. Chris and I started talking about my idea for a short film. We talked lighting, camera, framing, we talked about editing and much more. I became friends with the producer Robert E. Relyea and sat in his office many a night getting advice. Advice that I cherish today.
I had $7,000 in my savings. I and decided that this was the moment that I was going to “jump”. I have great support from many friends. One friend who kept me positive was Jay Traynor. He had been in the film industry and we started talking about what was going to follow up with the short. I keep that in mind and Jay was right there to keep me on track.
Carmen Filpi & Michael G Kehoe during the opening scene of “SECOND DANCE”
I met an actor on the street, as most people do living in Los Angeles. His name was Carmen Filpi. Carmen had been a character actor in many films such as “Escape From New York”, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”, “Ed Wood”, just to name a few. I spoke with Carmen and became friends with him. I didn’t run up to him and say “Hey man, I have a film, you should be in it!”. He and I talked about film, we talked about directors he worked with. Carmen was in a film that I thought was exceptional titled “Runaway Train” with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. I love the performances and the film itself. Carmen asked me what I had going and by that time, I felt comfortable to share it with him. When I told him the story and the back story of how it came about, he was in! He was actually the only familiar face in the short film. Next was building the foundation titled “SECOND DANCE”.
To Be Continued…
Every filmmaker has a starting point. Mine was very early. My mother was a stage director for local theater. I was probably 7 years of age when I witnessed her working with actors and stage hands. I was drawn to her detailed descriptions of what she wanted from the images to the performances on stage. I was there through each rehearsal and dress rehearsal. The electricity back stage was unlike any other feeling I had ever experienced. People rushing past some half dressed, some fully prepared but all were driven by the excitement of the director.
I carried this memory all through my high school years and joined in the drama club. While I played soccer and was in a rock band. Cinema has always been on my radar as a career. I never knew what a producer actually did while I was in high school until I directed a play when I was 17. I obtained the rights to put up “ONCE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST” and learned quickly what a producer handles. I directed that play as well and played and acted in the role of Randall McMurphy. It was an experience that educated me greatly and afforded me fuel for the future.
After graduating from high school, I was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. In my next blog I will go into the adventures during my studies and how those moments influenced my first film “SECOND DANCE”, you can view it on Youtube: https://youtu.be/FM_rvtyjv7o
Until the next blog; Keep the dream alive and never give up!