Shortly out of
film school, Ted and I started a little production company called "Starfire
Productions." Our ultimate goal was to make movies the way the pros do:
pitch our projects to distribution companies to raise financing. Ted,
however, decided to fully finance our "warm up" film. Considering
the scope we had in mind, this proved to be an undue financial risk.
To his credit,
Ted was generous in compensating the key players in the cast and crew. He paid a flat
salary similar to the system later adopted by successful digital companies
like InDiGent (Pieces of April, Tadpole). He
felt that to get the best performance from people you had to pay them
is not typical for such low budget productions.
Being a romantic
at heart, Ted took a fancy to a story of mine about first love and loss. I was into dark thrillers, not his cup of tea by any
stretch. Since Ted was putting up the cash, the love story prevailed.
We worked the
way most film partners do. Together we created the story structure, after
which Ted would go off to do the wordsmithing while I busied myself with the
technical aspects of production. Later, I would tweak his work. This
centered mostly on giving the dialogue a more filmic (streamline) feel, an
issue that would come back to haunt us in production and later
The script came
in at fifty pages. At the standard count of one minute screen time per script
page, this translated to a fifty minute film. A whopping length for a short
We didn't know about "ideal running time" for
the purpose of marketing. In the film festival world, a fifty
minute minute film can be classified as either a "long short" or "short feature,"
depending on the venue. In the real world, however, there is no market for
such a running time. Fresh out of film school, who knew?
At the time, I
had a student film called The Dummy making its rounds on
cable TV. In the 1980s, cable did none of its own production and was hungry for
product. The Dummy
was a seven minute "low tech" horror film. A bit embarrassed by it, I tried
to get the film pulled when I started working for NYU but had signed a five
year contract with an automatic renewal clause. In all, it played for almost ten
years on HBO, Showtime, and The Movie Channel. It would become the most
screened short in cable TV history and inspire the Chucky horror flicks.
The point here is that a true short, like a true
feature can find a market outlet if it is worthy. This is not the case for a
film that falls between those ideal running times, which was the case
with Sarah. Our strategic errors were mounting
and we had barely finished the script!
Ted had the makings of a true producer.
He would have been one of the
best had he stayed in the business. In addition to being the executive producer of
Sarah, he did all the front line production management.
Overall, he did an amazing job of pulling
the available funds. The look of the film, especially the boat scenes,
attests to this. Remember, this was before HD. The movie was shot
on standard 16mm with the old 1980s pre T-grain stock and required full lighting, no
While Ted's ultimate stumbling block was
his own brand of film aesthetics, he was an excellent musician and much of
the score, though uncredited, was inspired by him.
He went first class as much as he could. We held the
auditions at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. Between the Backstage ads and
agent recommendations, more actors showed up than anticipated. The audition process was grueling
since we tried to give them all a fair shake.
One of my fondest memories from this
period is of fifteen year old Rena Sofer. There were many talented girls
auditioning for the part of young Sarah, but Rena came in like a whirlwind.
With her red dress, raven hair, and unbridled enthusiasm, she blew us away. Rena was the embodiment of Sarah. She proved to be a joy to work
with, as well.
Joe Perce immediately clicked with us and
was cast in the lead role. Joe is a talented improvisational comedian with the ability
to slip into equally dramatic roles. He kept the mood upbeat during our long
hours on the set, even while shooting the grueling climax.
The film, now with the working title of The Only One,
began production in 1986. Our goal was to capture the
beauty of autumn in the New York/New Jersey area, so exterior principle
timed around the color change in late October.
This was a huge risk since leaves stay
colorful for only two weeks and we could not do reshoots or pick-ups
if required. Amazingly, the production schedule went off without a hitch. We
managed to capture some beautiful shots, particularly in the park and
backyard dock scenes.
Lou La Volpe & Ted Hunter (right)
The direction of the film was also a
joint effort. Ted and I worked similar to the way we wrote the script.
Generally, we discussed the scene beforehand and then I busied myself with
the camera while Ted worked with the actors. After each take, we reviewed each other's work and perhaps did some tweaking
for the next take. The system worked
smoothly, but an old problem began to rear its head.
Ted loved contemplative scenes and was a
big fan of
Marlon Brando with his long pauses and internal dialogue. To me, this was
a recipe for disaster since love stories tend to move slowly by nature. It
was the very issue we struggled with in writing the script. This time I deferred to Ted thinking that
we could fix the pace in postproduction.
Little did I know that it would be over twenty
years before I could actually do this!
Thanks to Ted's management skills, the filming of
went off surprisingly well for a low budget production. There was a sync
failure at one point, but we managed to salvage about half the night's work.
We also decided that we needed more coverage of the race boat test.
Specifically, POV shots
inside the boat. Since I was the cinematographer, guess who
had the privilege of doing this? Sitting in a race boat going a hundred miles per hour with a
twenty-five pound camera bouncing on my shoulder is not my idea of fun!
Other than that, we pretty much stayed on schedule and within budget.
In a nutshell,
Sarah/The Only One died in postproduction. Editing started out
smoothly enough, but creative differences began to mount
until the whole project ground to an unceremonious halt. No festivals, no
distribution, no discussion.
Directly after production, Ted returned
to his realty business because the market was taking a downturn. He left me
to edit the movie, which we expected to be pretty straightforward. I had cut
about a third of the movie by the time Ted came back to join me.
Unlike videotape, film stock is very
expensive, even 16mm. For this reason we used a modified master scene
approach during production. Specifically, we started each scene in wide shot
and gradually moved closer with modest overlaps as the scene progressed.
Hollywood, on the other hand, shoots the entire scene from multiple angles.
The modified approach saves money but there is the risk of not having enough coverage if an angle doesn't work.
As I edited the movie, it looked like we
did okay in terms of coverage. The shots were cutting together nicely and
the pace was moving along at a speed appropriate to the unfolding story.
Unfortunately, Ted didn't think so when
he returned. He felt the movie was moving too quickly. I was at my wits end
with this issue having dealt with it during both the writing and shooting of
the film. I held my ground and we had several arguments over it.
Ted was footing the bill so I conceded (reluctantly) and edited the film to his specifications. The
version he was
happy with came in at eighty-five minutes. This translated to
almost two minutes of screen time for each page of the original script. Red
flag. Big red flag.
After sound editing and scoring, we had a test screening for family and
friends. This turned out to be a disaster, at least through my eyes.
The film's pace was so slow that it obscured both the acting and the story. The
movie was still a rough cut, by no means
complete. I couldn't wait for it to end so I could go home and hang
myself with the scant trims Ted allowed me to make.
Ted felt it,
too. I didn't see him for three months after that fateful night. In addition to
dealing with the disappointment of his festival dreams going up in smoke, he
was busy salvaging his company in the middle of one of the worst real estate
downturns in history. By this time, he (we) were just
too exhausted to deal with the movie anymore. Personally,
I just wanted to get on with my life.
Not only did
die in postproduction, but it took Starfire Productions with
it as well. Ted and I never made another movie together. In fact, Ted lost interest
in filmmaking and went on to repeat his real estate success in
the stock market. I returned to NYU, this time to work for the school,
eventually becoming their Production Supervisor of twenty plus years.
collaborated with Ted for a few years after that, neither one of us ever mentioned
In the summer of 2010, I learned that bootleg copies of my wacky student film The Dummy
were popping up on the Internet with a bit of a cult following (see
Cult Movie Database). As it turns out,
the movie was the source of nightmares for a generation of kids watching
late night television in the 1980s. Those kids have since grown up looking
for the movie. The stories they tell are very funny. Some were not sure
if they saw The Dummy, imagined
or dreamt it.
out my copy of The Dummy to digitize for the
Internet, I came across a video
copy of Sarah. I stared at the cassette for a long time,
no longer feeling the old dread and disappointment. Years ago I wanted to
re-edit the film based on the pacing that I thought was appropriate, but as
family and career became my focal points, there was just no time for it. The idea was all but
lost except for a few fleeting moments over the years.
I always felt
had some merit. It's a sweet story about first love and a lot of talent went
into making it. For example, Rena Sofer went on to become a successful TV actress with
roles in many hit shows, most recently
24 and Heroes;
Perce won an Emmy for his work in commercials; and Alexander Brady has
appeared in films and theater, currently on Broadway in
Come Fly Away. On the
production side, Nancy Deren won an Emmy for production design on
Pee Wee's Playhouse and
Stephen Sywak became a mechanical engineer in the entertainment industry, working on such
projects as Disney's Beauty
and the Beast.
Not only were
there a lot of talented people on the set of
Sarah, but it was also a formative moment at the
beginning of our careers. To me (perhaps a romantic next in line only to Ted) this is something special. It's a shame the film sat on a shelf
unfinished all these years.
Suddenly, I remembered
something that I said to myself years ago--that I would re-edit it if Ted's
pacing didn't work. With trepidation, I proceeded to digitize the analog
tape and load it into my computer. I made a few preliminary cuts--things
that I remembered bothering me. "Just for fun," I kept telling myself.
The truth is, I could barely watch the movie because it was so slow and it brought
back some fraught memories.
After a few
nights of tinkering with the film, I had my daughter look at it. Tasha
is a filmmaker in her own right and a darn good editor,
so I trust her.
I asked if there was something there or was I wasting my time. She would have told me in a heartbeat to stop, which
I was half hoping she would do. Instead, she said to continue.
encouragement, I used my memory and skills to tighten the
eighty-five minute rough cut.
When I was done, half the film was on the cutting room floor, to use the old
vernacular. I was left with a tight forty-two minute fine cut . 42:30
to be exact. I found this number to be poetic since it is exactly half the
running time I started with and close to the one minute to one script page rule
In fact, the final cut
resembled the screenplay we all started with. The change was very dramatic, the characters themselves
becoming more dynamic with the change in pacing.
From a technical
point of view, dialogue should cut back and forth on the words, using
reactions (beats) sparingly. This keeps the scene moving forward, yet gives the
reactions more power when they occur. Ted originally had me cut the scenes with beats
at both the beginning and end of each shot. This, by definition is a rough
cut and moves very slowly.
these shots, I was able to create the fine cut I strived for two decades
earlier. Several "two shots" were inherently slow. Since I no longer had
alternate angles to disguise action compression, I had to get creative with
the available footage.
To complete the
film, I added a few missing shots and sound effects, finished the sound
mixing, made opening and closing credits, and corrected the color and density. The
last job was the most time consuming.
Laboratories could not
find the original negative or video master, so I worked with the
video copy I had unearthed, which was reasonably good. I was disappointed that the
original elements were lost but thankful to have at least the analog video,
otherwise there would be nothing.
I will always be
grateful to Ted for the opportunity he gave me and a bunch of budding
actors, filmmakers, and musicians. I had a chance to hone my craft and
truly learned a lot about independent filmmaking (the least of which is
ideal running time!).