DEAD WEIGHT STAKES ITS CLAIM.
DEAD WEIGHT STAKES ITS' CLAIM (originally published in the March 2012 issue of The Scene Newspaper)
When people tend to talk on end about cities with 'happening' film communities, more often than not, you would likely see the conversation veer in the predictable direction of L.A. or New York City or maybe even (to a reduced extent) the rise of more tax-break savvy places like New Orleans or Pittsburgh. It's true that copious big-scale productions tend to occupy such areas for the sake of standard issue, metropolitan back drops or the ease of luring more top dollar superstars, but what of the essence of the community itself? Do the lesser participants give their all to a project for the love of the art form or the handy fattening of a resume?
This topic brings me back around to a spot on the map I have covered a time or two in this column before, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. For all its apparent, and over emphasized, mundane qualities, Oshkosh (and the majority of its surrounding area) is quietly harboring a potent and increasingly more fertile cinematic community of its own. Said collective is really blessed with having largely been born of the seemingly tireless creative impetus now known as Head Trauma Productions. Recall, if you will, a plucky little horror short entitled Better Off Undead and later on a pair of surprisingly sprawling, Oshkosh based Zombie walks. These projects came out of the duel brain trust of John Pata and Adam Bartlett, who had majority roles in bringing these things to light. Now the pair have taken their swelling ambitions to task and crafted (with ample local aid in tow) what may be the most accomplished cinematic product to come out of this here Wisconsin to date, Dead Weight.
Dead Weight is a full blooded, feature length and very character driven end of days opus that focuses on one Charlie Russell and his laborious efforts to reunite with his displaced gal deep in the heart of what's left of Wisconsin. Along the way, the expected (and sometimes not so expected) threats and complications are made manifest. I was fortunate enough to be part of the audience at a not quite 100% complete advance preview screening with cast, crew, friends and family members and I can personally attest to the fact that, thanks to the quality of this film, this previously self contained Oshkosh film community may just have to learn to get used to a dwindling level of obscurity. Good cinema cannot go unnoticed for long.
Recently, I sat down with both John and Adam to analyze and discuss some of the bits and fits of independent filmmaking, from concept to public consumption. It all took place in a narrow office space atop the Blue Moon coffee joint in the gut of Oshkosh, the fellas did most of the talking, which is a good thing.
Asking for the inevitable, how it all got started back story led Adam to recall noticing an ally in the city of Neenah (the slightly less filthy sister of Menasha) that he snap shot with his cell phone, passing it on to Pata with a caption that read 'We should fill this with zombies!' What followed was a succession of story ideas (or 'bullet points') jotted down by Adam and John (who was still shaking off the bad hangover of his collapsed feature project Among The Dead) and cobbled into a sort of basic outline until finally, while en route to Madison on an assignment in relation to their screen printing day job, the duo began brainstorming in tandem about how to flesh out a proper script.
For the next 16 or so months (at twice a week, four hours a night) the guys got down to serious, hash it all out and wrangle it all together screenwriting. The initial draft of the script for Dead Weight (the only title this project ever held, by the way) counted in at 122 pages (roughly two hours in the typical page to
screen rationale). Carving and polishing and subsequent drafts carried them up to November of 2010, when, with a finished script in hand, John and Adam set to assembling a cast and crew that would provide the protean that would bring their words and situations to vivid life.
Actually, the lead of the piece, Joe Belknap-who plays Charlie, came to mind midway through the writing process. Pata and Bartlett had made his acquaintance at the bachelor party and later wedding of a mutual friend and as they were fleshing out their protagonist, Joe kept popping into mind. 'He totally had all the elements, all these characteristics that we were already writing into the part of Charlie' Adam explains. 'We pitched the idea (and later, the script) his way and though being initially very weary due to his work schedule and an utter lack of acting experience, Joe-with the encouragement of his spouse Becky- jumped on board!'
Once the script, lead and shooting schedule was established (for a mid-April start) the remainder of the cast/crew needed to be established. With the noted exception of three Chicago based SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actors, including Aaron Christensen (who plays the most level headed of Charlie's fellow 'survivors', Thomas), the rest of the the total of 27 speaking parts and all the behind the scenes players were all tried and true Wisconsinities. Mary Lindberg (who plays Samantha, the girlfriend Charlie is questing for) and Sam Lenz (Dustin, another of the survivors) are Oshkosh locals and good friends of the filmmakers. Cinematographer Travis Auclair is a pal of Adam's from back when he was a teen hustling records at the notorious area juggernaut The Exclusive Company.
Travis, in fact, provided John and Adam with a defacto third party in the core creative engine of this project. His cinematography graces the picture with an uncommonly rich and crisp quality (bleak and close to monochrome for the desolate present day scenes, warm and inviting for a series of well placed flashbacks) that raises the film immediately above any dreaded restrictions of finance and/or resource. The film looks superb.
Just how much input did this D.P. have in terms of the production? 'We would tell Travis what we wanted, how we wanted it to look and he would try to figure out the camera angles and ask us what we thought. Every shot was a collaborative effort.' Adam relates, adding, 'Travis was the professional on set, he was the experienced one, he made our film look legit.' Travis Auclair studied film at the U of Milwaukee and has applied his camera skills to everything from commercials to political spots to a forth coming documentary called The Sign Painter Movie for filmmaker Faythe Levine (Handmade Nation). John points out, 'When ever Travis spoke up about something, we listened.'
Supporting parts were matched with fitting people the pair knew had traits they felt went in accordance with a given role. 'Every step of this process involved us pulling talented people we knew from around Wisconsin' Adam states with native pride.
A guy named Lee Marohn, who served multiple roles on the film as a producer, script supervisor and location manager provided the shoot with a lion's share of its locations (for the present day timeline footage) by virtue of his family owning a sizable portion of rural Wisconsin property. Perfectly remote and mostly barren, these locales (plus a neighbor's abandoned house) provided a major saving grace for a production that was oftentimes at odds with the cruel and moody whims of Wisconsin weather. The team sought to shoot this portion of the film in full chronological order, so the convenience of these locations further lent aid to this goal in spite of an uncooperative mother nature.
Rehearsal time with the cast was another obstacle altogether, albeit one with ironically fitting results. You see, for the most part, due to the fact that actors and crew members hailed from all across the state (plus the few from Chicago), there basically was never any pre-production rehearsal time, just a few brief read throughs with select players and the filmmakers. How did this effect the project? I'll let Mr. Pata place it in perspective, 'Many of the actors are meeting each other, during the actual production, for the very first time, much the same as their characters are and it kinda worked out to our benefit, in a way.'
In addition, alot of the blocking, setting up and framing of scenes was done with a great deal of spontaneity with the crew foregoing storyboards and flexing their troubleshooting skills to work around unforeseen circumstances (like the aforementioned shitty weather). despite such adversity, they managed to plow through around 12 script pages a day on average (a more traditional shoot tends to cover more in the area of 5 or 6).
Stunts and tricky physical action was dealt with on a more measured and controlled level thanks to some handy expertise on the parts of cast members Aaron Christensen and Reba Fox who knew well how to deal with moments of edgy confrontation and violence in a safe and efficient manner. Any trials and tribulations the production may have endured were greatly offset by the constant 'high' generated by members of the cast and crew, even at the lowest of points. John and Adam both agree, 'Nobody ever complained, nobody ever wanted to quit or go home. Everyone was just into it and having a good time, they picked us up more than, we think, any of them realized.'
When asked to further detail the level of difficulty and challenge they faced as co-creators on Dead Weight, Adam does his best to sum it up thusly, 'Even though the making of the film is one of the things I'm proudest of in my life, it is also, easily, one of the most stressful things I have ever been involved with. It's been an unbelievably difficult task.' On divvying up duties, 'John was sort of like the primary director, I'd never directed before. I helped in the writing and I knew how I wanted the actors to say stuff. Plus John was doing all the editing and I don't know anything about editing or what kind of coverage we'd need, so I was there more to try and keep things rolling and not have time wasted.'
With the initial April shoot completed and John undertaking the assembly of footage, plans were next set into place for how the Dead Weight posse would nail down the mostly interior based flashback scenes that can be found sprinkled throughout the film. 'The flashback stuff really solidified the sense of this picture as a community based effort well more than the present day country stuff as we had to deal with many area businesses and shot in a multitude of spots in Oshkosh and the Valley.' John elaborates. Places tapped for this portion of the production (which rolled in August of 2011) include The Reptile Palace, Cranky Pat's, House of Heroes, The Ramada Plaza (in Fond du Lac), Sparks Advertising (Neenah) and the Outagamie County Airport (standing in for Minneapolis). 'All the businesses were super cool and more than eager to to get on board', John says, noting that his and Adam's previous experience in dealing with city officials and area companies for their pair of zombie walks came in handy. 'That gave us a bulk of proof that we can do things with credibility and in a professional manner.'
The editing, sound effects, A.D.R. and soundtrack work digested a total of around 7 months. John and Adam sat down and wrestled with trimming the initial, 96 minute cut down as well as incorporating composer Nicholas Elert (of the band Northless)'s score into a right tight 89 minute final cut (including credits). Of the finished piece, the proud parents had this to emphasize, 'We wanted to make it the most concise and solid 89 minute film we could, no filler. Everything is in there for a reason, it may not seem like it at first but it does when you visit the film again, and we hope that people will be willing to do that. There's little hidden things that people can pick up on with repeat viewings.'
As for the future of Dead Weight? Aside from the low profile screening I attended, the film will have its first official public screening on March 30th and 31st at the Time Community Theater in Oshkosh. The cost of admission is $5 (and you can snag advance tickets here; carryingdeadweight.com), door open at 7pm, the show kicks in at 8. Cast and crew will be on hand and there will be t-shirts, posters and a double disc DVD package of the film available for purchase. The DVD will contain a fat platter of bonus nuggets like outtakes, lengthy making of documentaries and other, random insanity. Also, comic book artist Tony Moore will be doing some cover art for a limited edition of the disc.
From that point on, Pata and Bartlett are looking to shop the film around to potential distribution houses and film festivals and if that don't work they'll just press on and get it seen by any means necessary. The goal is not so much to placate their egos and show the world what they've done, it's more about getting the film out in the name of all the people who worked on, invested time or money on or just basically lent their support toward the making of Dead Weight. In Mr. Bartlett's words, 'We started Dead Weight, but from the moment the first shot rolled it was no longer just our film, it was about all these other people and their energy and it was all that me and John could do to contain that and mold it, it became its own thing.' Perfect.
One last thing, the first person who can name the actor who gets referenced a dozen or so times throughout the film gets themselves a free DVD after the screening. Ready. Set. Go!