This is the true story of the most spectacular failure of my life, the time I went for broke,swung for the fences, and made a feature film.
It was a ten day shoot, cost around ten thousand dollars, and clocked in around 89 minutes. It was a western.
It was Meaner Than Hell.
I moved from Chicago with my fiancée and son out to Los Angeles in the hope that I’d be able to make a living writing screenplays. I’d gone to school for it, graduated from Columbia College in Chicago with a degree saying I could do it, but had no ins. I spent my first two years out here temping at a major mortgage company, pretending to be busy in a cube, alternating between the same two pairs of beige slacks and basically hating my life.
Then in 2005 or so, Kaiser Permanente Hospital intervened in my future by buying the apartment building we’d been living in (we were now married and I had a little girl) and giving each of the residents $8500 to facilitate their move.
If I were smart, I would’ve put that money towards a down payment on a home which in the intervening years would have nearly quadrupled in value. We could’ve sold that house and lived almost anywhere in the country in comfort.
But I got the brainy idea to use the money to shoot an independent film. It was fresh off of Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without A Crew and my head was throbbing with Elmore Leonard stories, Blood Meridian, Leone and Corbucci.
Really, I think the idea germinated in the 20th Street Writers Group, an informal group of aspiring screenwriters who met irregularly of which I was a member.
I had once met Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects, the weekend before he won the Oscar, and he advised me to never pay attention to budgets or limit your writing according to what could be done conceptually. “If your script has to be filmed on location in space, don’t worry about it.”
So all my scripts had gone that route, big epic things that only Cecil B. Demille or James Cameron could put together. A biopic about the abolitionist John Brown, a post-apocalyptic adventure about a kick ass trucker out to avenge the death of his dog, a story of rugby players in World War I Scotland.
But with this money coming in, and with my dear wife willing to take the plunge with me and let me use the kitty for this crazy movie, I started writing to a budget, thinking about what I could pull off. I came up with a cool concept for a western that I was sure was gonna revitalize the genre. It was dirty, brutal, clever, like Chato’s Land and The Great Silence had a baby that was adopted by Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Westerns of late, I thought, had become bogged down by reality. I wanted to bring the coolness back to them, the muddy, bloody brawls and the insanely rich tough talk that led to the big shootout. I wanted to write a thinly veiled love story between two guys where the much anticipated kiss was a gundown.
I took the title, Meaner Than Hell, from a Johnny Cash song, and a line uttered by the nearsighted kid in Unforgiven. A sadistic bounty hunter Tope Mullins, ambushes wild bespectacled outlaw Picaro’s gang and kills them all around the campfire one night. He shoots Picaro in the foot to induce him to share the location of the loot from his last robbery before he turns him into the authorities (adding a ticking clock element as Picaro’s foot begins to mortify). Unfortunately when they wake up in the morning, Indians have stolen all the horses, and they have to make their way back to civilization on foot, contending with the threat of attack, the harsh elements, and of course, each other, the whole way.
I wrote the thing in a couple weeks, shared it with the writer’s group, and sure enough, one of the guys in it, who would go on to become my Assistant Director, said, “I think we could shoot this ourselves.”
I took it as a sign.
Plans kicked into high gear.
I had gone to school with an absolutely brilliant cinematography student. He lived out in LA now, worked as a set electrician. He agreed to do it for five hundred bucks.
One of the guys in the group was a pretty talented SFX guy, another an editor with a home editing suite.
My dad had a collection of black powder revolvers.
My mother and wife were both talented seamstresses.
So I asked my aunt for an advance on my inheritance, got an HD camera for $3,000, put out a call for actors in Variety, and spent a year gathering props and costume material, and scouting Death Valley and unincorporated Lancaster.
I had a very talented group of guys respond to the casting call (though my ad for honest-to-God Native American actors went unanswered) and filled most of the bit parts with friends, expanding other roles as I went to give the guys that didn’t get cast in the principal roles more to do because I just thought they deserved it.
I budgeted the thing, set aside eleven days to shoot. Two of my best and oldest friends kicked in money and scheduled time to come out and help me with the thing, playing partially obscured Indians and corpses when needed and hoisting equipment.
As game time approached, I started to run into bumps.
First, with maybe two months to go, my extremely talented DP bailed for the chance to go be an electrician on The Gridiron Gang (I think it was). He took a much better paycheck than I could offer, and continues to work steadily in the industry to this day on A-list productions as a Gaffer, Cameraman, and Electrician. So be it. I lost his eye. I frankly think we all did.
He lined up a meeting with a friend of his, but the guy advised me to ditch the idea of making a feature and just concentrate on a short film. I recalled an anecdote Martin Scorcese related about how he made a short film and got it in front of some executive who shrugged and said, “Now go make a feature.” I was eliminating the middle step, I thought. Besides, I’d shot four shorts in college. I hadn’t come out to LA to make more shorts.
So I decided to shoot the thing myself.
More money for the budget, I figured.
Then, the whole cast and crew….I won’t say they totally mutineed on me, but we had a disagreement.
During a read-through of the script I mentioned that I intended to shoot the entire picture without live sound and foley all the dialogue and sound FX later.
Nobody wanted any part of that.
I argued that this was the way spaghetti westerns had always been shot, but I guess nobody liked the idea of trying to dub voices in later. The big worry was it would look stupid and amateurish, like a badly dubbed kung fu movie.
I think this was the part where I failed my movie. It was mine. Mostly my money, my vision, but I caved. If nobody wanted to do it that way, what could I do?
I scrambled to research boom mics and sound equipment, and I think, in the end, I was ill-prepared to shoot live sound and the end result suffered for it. The rattling of shingles on an old cabin by a howling desert wind can be evocative, but not when your actors are shouting over it. The sound quality of Meaner Than Hell varies pretty wildly from scene to scene.
But, mea culpa. I was the director, I shoulda put my foot down, but I didn’t.
So game day comes. My oldest friend flies in from Illinois and we bug out about how we’re shooting a movie in California over a table of In ‘N Out.
I gather up the actors, we drive out to the desert, shoot the first scene in a dry culvert.
My two principals are a great couple of guys.
Playing the bounty hunter Tope Mullins is Thomas Crnkovich, a guy whose father actually coached one of my relatives in football or something way back in the day, but who is twenty years older than me and whom I’ve never met, though we’re weirdly from the same general area. I could not write Tom as a character if I tried. When he sent me his portfolio, it included pictures of him wrestling with fucking tigers. He had worked for a time as a wild animal trainer for the shows in Las Vegas. He was a funny, funny guy, into Alice Cooper and his van. He was my pick for Tope from his first audition. Skin like leather, crazy eyes, I think his biggest role had been in Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD. When I asked him in his audition what the first thing he had to do when training wild tigers was, he answered, in his Eastwoodian hiss, “Well the first thing I hadda do was teach the tigers not to kill me.”
My pick for Picaro Gonnoff was a tough one. I left the ethnicity, nationality, body type, appearance, everything entirely to chance. I wanted to craft the role around the actor I chose. It was a hard pick for me between three guys, one of whom nailed the dangerousness of Picaro, the other who nailed the Tuco-esque craziness and humor, but only one of whom I thought could portray the balance between the two – be a charming, funny asshole one minute and be grinding his heel in your face the next. That was Jared Cohn (credited as Jared Michaels). Jared had a Colin Ferrel kinda look, but he brought this outrageous faux-southern accent that just won me over. He sounded like a guy that had gotten the shit kicked out of him at an early age and learned to kick back when you weren’t looking. After I selected him for the role, I tailor made the character’s backstory for him, and wrote in some lines to incorporate who he was. I don’t know if a badass Jewish outlaw has ever been portrayed in film before or since, but that was Picaro/Jared.
Anyway, the guys were a little worried about my ability to point a camera in the right direction, and I remember Thomas asking to review the first shot after we’d done it. I remember it was a long take of the two of them stumbling down the gully into the foreground. It began with lots of negative space which the characters then gradually filled as they approached. I was proud of it, and apparently it alleviated their fears, because they both crowed over it and never questioned my framing again.
Film school, bitches! And extensive storyboards!
Well, storyboards which I swiftly abandoned as the day wore on and the light in the gully began to fade.
The second problem I ran into was my own insane scheduling. I really thought I could cram all these scenes into a set number of hours. I didn’t take sleep deprivation, egos, setup times, and getting lost driving in the freaking desert at night without GPS into account.
I reverted to a simple three shot set up for most of the early campfire scenes (one shot of each speaker, medium shot of the two of them).
I killed my minivan battery probably three times running the lights off of it. I remember too that Thomas had a hard time delivering his lines over the sound of the engine which he swore he could hear (but nobody else could) and we had to keep backing the van up behind boulders until he was happy. At the end of the shoot, my buddy Tom threw the wanted poster prop into the fire.
“WHAT THE FUCK DUDE?!” I hollered, snatching it out.
He had thought we were done with it. But eh, since it’s plucked off a corpse later, the big burn mark wound up looking cool. Happy accidents.
By the time we finished the initial shooting, it was dawn.
We pitched some tents and slept out there for about three or four hours and I got them up again to shoot the rest.
Two of the guys who had been rendered corpses needed to leave, but one of them was in the shot and I had to shoot several takes around the guy lying there dead and eventually getting scalped. Nightmarish.
I also remember this was the day my good friend Jeff Carter was scheduled to show up at the extremely remote cabin location of Ballarat in Death Valley to render a couple of the guys into living corpses for a dream sequence. The shoot felt so bad, I nearly abandoned the idea. We were far out of cell range, and I assumed because Jeff hadn’t heard from me, he would stay home. I very nearly went home without heading to the cabin, but decided at the last minute to do it anyway.
When we showed up at the cabin, something like three hours late, Jeff was sitting there with his makeup kid on the porch of the little store run by the only two residents of Ballarat, a rawboned old father and son pair. I had to hide my freakin’ tears when I pulled up because I had nearly left him there and he had showed up to do his part. God bless that guy. We didn’t even end up using the ‘zombie’ shot, but we heard a passel of crazy ghost stories about Indian spirits in the mountains and jet fighters from Edwards Air Force Base crashing out in the dead lake where Charles Manson’s van still sat mired in the alkali.
That first day, nobody talked much on the drive home, and when I climbed into my bed I broke down when my wife asked me how it was going (did Sam Peckinpah cry like a girl so much while shooting The Wild Bunch? He probably just got drunk a lot – I wasn’t budgeted for booze) . I remember saying I felt like I was trying to paint with boxing gloves on. I was in over my head.
The next day one of the actors slept late and we lost an hour knocking on his door and windows. We drove back up to the desert and had another grueling day/night shoot, but my AD Elliott McMillan, God bless HIM, suggested we not drive back and instead get a cheap hotel room out in the desert and thus get an early jump on the next day.
That was one of the most fun nights I ever had. It was Elliott, Jared, Tom, and I with my buddy Tom from kindergarten drinking beers and half-watching a monumental Dodgers game, laughing over Tom’s crazy sex stories and just being a buncha guys.
I think it was the next day’s shoot at the cabin that was one of the best days of my entire life.
I don’t know if you’ve ever made a movie, or seen something you’ve written adapted by actors, I mean…RIGHT.
At this point in the story, Tope and Picaro are holed up in a remote cabin. They have a heartfelt moment in the night, sharing their personal stories of killing and mayhem (this is the scene I think most suffered from live sound as the wind wouldn’t die down and we had to keep stopping to accommodate the jets flying maneuvers in the distance). When Picaro tries to shoot Tope, they wind up beating the shit out of each other (in my storyboards, their crazy brawl across the cabin floor is portrayed like a sex scene with clenching hands and tangled feet – I don’t think it came through in the final project) and at this moment the Indians decide to attack. Tope kills an Apache in the doorway and they both look on in shock as the guy’s corpse is whisked away by an unseen comrade.
Tope makes some remark about ‘His squaw must’ve had summer waiting’ which causes both of them to forget their enmity for the moment and share an honest laugh. And in the middle of that laugh, Picaro produces a hidden Derringer and blasts Tope through the face.
It was written to be a jarring moment, and of course I knew it was coming, but Jesus Christ, I swear, when it did….when Jared and Thomas played it PERFECT on the first take….I nearly ruined it by hissing an appreciative “FFFFFFUCK!” at the end of the scene. Haha.
I don’t know. Seeing that, something just clicked.
We had to beat the sundown to get the rest of this sequence finished. At first Thomas didn’t wanna roll around on the ground, which had old nails and glass scattered across it. So I, in a t-shirt, dove down to the ground and rolled around first to show him it was OK. I don’t know if it was OK but you wanna hear the funny part? You know what made me do that? It was a line from a Larry Hama GI Joe comic – or maybe it was the cartoon. But General Hawk told somebody ‘Don’t order men to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself.’ And that stuck with me through years and years of adulthood, and reared its head in my mind at that moment.
Or maybe it was something from Patton’s War As I Knew It.
I don’t know.
But after that, and after I expressed such unbridled exuberance for what they were doing, it was like all of us were on the same page, and we were killing it. We zipped through the scenes. And Jeff was there, and he had to create a blossom of blood – a bullet hole in the side of Tom’s face, and it seemed like slow, meticulous work that was taking forever while I shot what I could of Jared. A gust of wind blew a cloud of particles into my wide angle lens and I unscrewed the thing and handed it over to my buddy Tom (from kindergarten). We were revolving, hunched around that cabin, grabbing the footage like war photographers.
In between takes I was jumping in place urging Jeff to hurry up with the makeup, saying it looked good enough, but professional as he was, he urged me to shut up till he got it right – till Thomas’ face was a mess of hamburger and powderburns, leaking Kayro all over the place.
We shot the hell out of that scene and it was goddamned beautiful. So beautiful that years later, when I brought a promised DVD copy of the finished product to the two guys that ran the Ballarat story, I walked through that ruined cabin (half of it is collapsed now), and I started crying like I had PTSD or something.
That day, I was a filmmaker. I was a freakin’ auteur, wearing every damn hat on the tree.
When we finished, the sun was plunging into the desert and all the land was painted orange, and out of the mountains a flock of bats came spiraling out across the desert to light on a wading pool the residents kept out there behind their trailer. They whipped all around you, little flying mice, swarming erratically but taking no interest in you.
We were all of us buzzing. It was utterly awesome and one of the best days of my life.
We shot under a railroad trestle, Elliott mimicking Jeff’s makeup on Thomas’ face perfectly. I shot him pursuing a ghost through the stark, over exposed desert while Thomas assured my two year old daughter Magnolia that all that blood was just because he’d cut himself shaving.
We shot out near the Kill Bill church.
We shot Thomas’ last scene on a hilltop – the big climactic gunfight. It looked great, but I made the mistake of telling him he could keep the black hat that was part of his costume, so when he was supposed to get drenched in blood, he kept protecting that goddamned hat.
We applauded his last scene, and moved on the next day to the mountains near Bodie, California, where a perfectly preserved 1880’s mining town sits up there as part of the National Park Service. We spent the night in some absolutely freezing cabins (one of which John Wayne had apparently stayed in at some point), my friends playing guitar and drinking beer, smoking weed with the cast. Stayed up late, had a great time, got up at the crack and went to shoot the final scenes of the movie on the steps of a period church.
Now as I mentioned, I couldn’t get any real live Indians for the shoot because none responded to the casting call. So I put my eldest son in a black wig, and my buddy Dan, who is Mexican, and a guy named Maeis who was the only guy that came to the Indian casting and was Middle Eastern or something. On the ride up there I spied an Indian Casino, and I had the guys walk through there and offer seventy five bucks to anybody who’d come to the two hour shoot, suit up, and participate. I budgeted for three guys. Jared brought me one, a guy named Richard Sallee. But damn if he didn’t look the part.
We put him in Apache costume, and set him front and center to offset the questionable Indians. I think he worked out great. Plus he got paid three times what I offered him since he was the only guy there.
Meaner Than Hell was a wrap. The back of my van looked like we had birthed a calf back there.
We moved into a slow editing process.
I inquired into getting the rights to two professional songs, Johnny Cash’s God Is Gonna Cut You Down for the credits (which we originally cut the ending to) and Bill Monroe’s haunting My Last Days On Earth, which I envisioned as the recurring theme throughout the picture, and which we cut the trailer to.
But the price was, in the words of the Duke, “absolutely re-god-damned-diculous.” It was almost two thirds of my entire budget. So I picked up a guitar, having never played before, brought a Jaw harp and a harmonica to my buddy and editor Ryan Gerossie’s apartment, and somehow he mixed the disparate elements together into a cohesive theme which you hear now on the soundtrack. We attributed it to John McGovern, a portmanteau of his relatives and mine, but that’s us. Believe it or not, I was originally in talks with Vince ‘Rocky IV’ DiCola to do the score, but it fell through.
We ended up having to foley some of the sound in a makeshift sound booth that basically consisted of Tom Crnkovich, Jared Cohn, and Robert Vertrees taking turns in Ryan’s hallway with a microphone and pillows and towels stuffed under the doors. I think those scenes have some of the best sound work of the movie.
SFX, we had a blast doing those, selecting various gunshots (at one point Elliott and Ryan put this ridiculous cannon explosion over the shot of Jared’s Derringer going off which made all of us lose it hysterically). We did Rebel Yells, officer calls, volleys of fire, Indian screams, all from a Westwood apartment.
We shot pick ups out in the desert, and even brought the desert home to Ryan’s back alley for the shot of Picaro’s foot getting a bullet (it was actually, I think either my foot or Ryan’s).
We premiered the thing at a bar in Hollywood. Thomas and Jared showed up with their character’s hats. Jared introduced me to a few people who never called me. I got the drunk on hard hard liquor for the very last time in my life, until I puked up my guts in the street afterwards. It surprised me the people that turned out for the thing – old coworkers, friends of friends. It surprised me who didn’t show too.
I didn’t get to give a speech or anything before the movie ran for the only audience it ever had. I kept everybody waiting up to the last possible minute, affording no time for a proper introduction. I don’t know that I had anything to say. I think maybe by that time I hated Meaner Than Hell. It wasn’t precisely what I wanted to accomplish, and I was sick of it. Much of the crew had stopped believing in it, dismissing it as crap. I guess a lot of it is.
In the intervening years it garnered no attention. I submitted to all the big indie festivals and a lot of the small ones. Nobody wanted it.
I had, in my mind, taken the best shot I could, and nobody had turned their head. Nobody had noticed it. It sat on Ryan’s computer. I made half hearted attempts to put it on Netflix and Amazon over the years, but always turned to other projects. Thomas would call me out of the blue and ask about it now and then. Everybody had their DVD’s. Every actor had been paid (except Alex Bakalarz, who played the wounded soldier – I owe him fifty bucks for the two hour shoot still). I couldn’t even look at it anymore.
And over the years, as my tenuous connection to the film industry dwindled and my fiction writing began to supersede it in terms of success, Jared’s, conversely grew. I started doing script work for his projects, and now the guy seems to be directing a movie every other month. I see him on Netflix and all over Facebook, shooting in freaking Thailand. His movies show up in my newsfeed, getting reviewed on major websites. He’s a driven guy.
Thomas….last year, Thomas called me again. “This is Tope,” he said, as always, and by God he was.
He told me he was playing Dillinger, in an indie film shooting back in the Midwest, where he was currently living. He asked me about Meaner Than Hell as always, and about any other projects I had going. But I was just writing novels now and had nothing for him.
Elliott and I had such plans for Thomas. One late night ride back from the shoot we talked about how we wanted to do a kick ass Lone Ranger movie, and Thomas and Lance Henricksen would play the Cavendish brothers. Thomas would be a Lash LaRue type character with a bullwhip. When I was still writing scripts, I put a role for him in an unrealized zombie project, as a cantankerous caretaker of an amusement park. I even talked about redubbing Meaner Than Hell the way I wanted, if I could get Thomas and Jared together to do it.
But around Memorial Day Thomas got killed by a train, almost out of nowhere. Well, out of nowhere for me. That guy palled around with tigers. I thought he was unflappable, untouchable. The obituary said it was deliberate, though. I don’t know. Friends of his I’ve talked to doubt it. I don’t know what I think.
My affection for Meaner Than Hell grows with each subsequent viewing now, though.
It’s no masterpiece, but I really believe there is a good movie in there. Maybe I should have shown the Indians more. Maybe I should have cut the dialogue down. My biggest regret about the whole thing is that I feel like I failed the talent involved. There was a great group of guys that gathered together and believed in this thing while they were doing it, and in the end, I guess they got nothing from it. Or at least, it wasn’t something they felt proud of, could point to, or that (perhaps most importantly) got them more work.
But I’ll tell you what. I firmly believe that at the fifty five minute mark to the end, I made almost exactly the movie I wanted to make. It’s right there. It started for real on that day I wrote about above, when I nearly ruined a take with my own excitement.
And how many people can say they did that?
I like Meaner Than Hell. How can I not?
Anyway, if you want to watch it, we put the whole thing up on Youtube now. You can watch it here. And if you get bored out of your mind, fast forward to the 55 minute mark I guess and give it a half hour of your time.
It’s a very slow burn, but I lit it with the help of some good friends.