The Gathering Place

When I wrote the first three episodes of “They Live Among Us,” I was toying with the concept of each episode as a stand-alone story, patterned somewhat after Rod Serling’s masterful “The Twilight Zone.” I liked the idea of strangers, walking in and out of each other’s lives, and how little we know about the man or woman who stands next to us on the train. However, as the characters began to come to life, I realized that this little idea was bigger than I originally thought; it had – and has – all of the earmarks of a fully fledged series.

I began to think about how to keep the characters independent of one another, while also weaving a tapestry of stories. I was also concerned about exterior night shoots – they are considerably more expensive to film. I realized that what I needed was a central location, a gathering place where my characters could come to meet, to work, to seek solace and comfort. Thus, I created TLAU’s gathering place – The Paradise Bar.

Contrary to its name, Paradise has seen better days. It’s a shabby, dark watering hole just off of Hollywood Boulevard. Faded photos from stars of yesteryear adorn its paneled walls. This is where Caim and Father Buer come to meet. This is where Craig meets Lillith. Beth works at the Paradise. Drawn to Hollywood by its promises of celebrity and fame, Beth is a struggling actress, and, like so many desperate young women before her, will do anything to get the job.

Presiding over the Paradise’s tarnished facade is Jimmy. Jimmy is a transplant from Ohio; his grandmother moved there from California after Jimmy’s grandfather died. She had just discovered that she was pregnant, and she moved in with her in-laws, so they could help her raise the child.

Jimmy has always been curious about his grandfather; like Jimmy, he was a writer – though not a successful one. The circumstances surrounding his death were mysterious; tawdry fodder for the tabloids. Jimmy yearns to uncover the truth behind this mystery, and to discover just who his grandfather really was. The only thing he has to go on is the knowledge that his grandfather was a screenwriter. He also has his grandfather’s name: Joe. Joe Gillis.

The Inhumanity of Humans

The theme that drives the look, the sound, the story of They Live Among Us is the dichotomy of life in Los Angeles. Feeling alone in a city of millions. The glitz of Hollywood, against the dirty machinations of the Hollywood machine. The incongruous wealth of the Westside set against the abject poverty of homelessness. How humans can be the most inhuman of beings.

I wanted to go Downtown and shoot some location stills; I wanted to find some visual imagery that expressed the rich cultural tapestry of Los Angeles, to find some good visuals for mood/tone, as well as to nail down good second unit shots and principal locations. I hopped the subway yesterday, and traveled towards Union Station. The idea was to stop at Union Station, begin at Olvera street, and head back up, one stop at a time.

Eventually, I made my way up to the Civic Center stop, which rests at the corner across from Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral.

The Cathedral is magnificent; twelve stories high, towering over 2.5 acres. Golden, brilliant, shimmering with triumph… and power. I stood in the plaza as the bells began to ring their call to mass; goose pimples broke out on my arms.

In the gift shop, I learned of the costs of this behemoth structure. $250,000,000.00.

I realized that this place was far from the reaches of the character of Fr. Buer. It was not in these gilded halls that he gave his flocks comfort, but on the streets of Skid Row.

And thus, eventually, I found myself standing in the middle of Skid Row.

Skid Row is all but forgotten in Los Angeles. Originally, it lived between 3rd and 7th streets, bordered by Main and Alvarado. However, a few years ago, developers realized the opportunity to exploit the impoverished; they snapped up building after building, at below market prices, and began the long and painful gentrification of Skid Row.

On the surface it all seemed good. Skid Row would be no more. The homeless would be helped. Celebrities joined the cause; they helped feed the masses on holidays. They took photo opps with homeless children. They threw some money at organizations… and then, they quietly went away.

Skid Row did not disappear. Skid Row was simply relocated – a few blocks east – into an even more inhospitable clime. At the incongruous intersection of Winston and Wall Street.

The first thing you notice as you walk towards Skid Row is the smell. The air reeks of vomit, of urine, and of despair. Trash does not litter the sidewalk; instead it percolates in piles along the streets.

Then, you notice the noise. There is a constant hum, a chatter, the babbling of the damned, for Skid Row is a real-life articulation of Dante’s Fifth Circle of Hell.

I have been asked if I was afraid, and I was not. These people were not dangerous. They were victims; every ounce of their being was channeled towards surviving the next minute. People, all of them, living on the streets. Young children scattered among them, eyes wide with fear. A man and a woman, engaged in a brawl, while a group encircled them, cackling and cheering. The horror of insanity. The stench of fear. The degradation of being expelled into this hell-on-earth.

I’ve always believed that poverty was the most insidious form of violence, and here, on Skid Row, this belief was reinforced.

Eventually, the day grew long, and as the shadows of dusk began to descend, we made our way back home. We still had more places to go that night, and the day had exacted an emotional price on both of us.

As I rode the subway back home, I closed my eyes, and I thought of Father Buer, of how he ministered to the supernaturals who populate Skid Row, how he gives comfort to those who have fallen, and how I was grateful that, in the world that I’ve created, Father Buer lives among us.

The Saint and the Sinner

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

The world of demonology has been a fascinating one to explore. Fallen angels. Grace. Redemption. Madness. Despair.

When angels fall from grace, they become demons. Not only in Judeo-Christian mythos, but ancient Babylonian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Greco-Roman, Hindu and even ancient Arabic tales all embrace the concept of the fallen one as demon. It is universal.

One of the elements that led to the birth of TLAU was the desire to explore the aftermath of a fall from grace. This concept led to the creation of two characters: Father Buer – and Caim.

Father Buer  spends his days tending to the homeless in the streets of Los Angeles. In this world, however, his flock is cut, shall we say, from another cloth. Father Buer ministers to those who have fallen. He gives comfort and aid to demons.

…and this is where Caim, the fallen angel, comes in.

Falling from grace is both tragic and traumatic. Imagine the suffering of the fallen one, when s/he realizes what they have done – and at what cost. Life as an immortal, but on earth instead of heaven. Surrounded by mortals. Outliving them all one by one.

Surviving those you love is a particular form of torment, and for Caim, life as he now knows it is an eternity of anguish. It is enough to drive even the most stoic being mad – and that is precisely what happened to Caim. He wandered the streets, living in the hellish abyss that is Skid Row, amongst the socially untouchables, the insane. Until Father Buer found him.

For hundreds of years, the Church has had one in their midst who gives of self to tend to the fallen ones. A priest who helps to ease their suffering, and, for a few, helps them find their way back to grace. In the City of Angels, this priest is Father Buer. His mission is to restore Caim to grace. For, as he says, “We are all of us God’s creatures. All of us. Even you.”

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© 2011 They Live Among Us Movie

Poverty and Creative Thinking

Poverty can be a good thing.

I have been reviewing the episodes. Placing them under various microscopes. Story. Character. Dialogue. Budget.

The last word has had my stomach turning cartwheels. Budget. Night shoots. VFX. SPFX. Can I do this – and do it well – for five grand?

In a word – no.

Granted, I will have some nifty effects… however, I realized that I needed to tone things down. Pull it back. Write it with what resources I have.

This decision has been a good one. Why? It’s forced me to write for character.

Character is what drives They Live Among Us. You’ve met Beth (now Lillith, her name, like her story, evolved), and, you’ll begin to meet the others. An angel in love with a prostitute. A youthful pop icon, who is thousands of years old. A park ranger in love with a ghost. A writer who yearns for adventure. A priest who tends to demons.

When you return to character, you return to what is essential. You cut out the fat that having money can bring. You can’t hide poor storytelling with eye-popping visuals, because you cannot afford them.

I’ve had to limit locations, because each set-up costs. By doing so, I’ve created a common ground for my characters – a shared space between them. They are strangers to one another, as are many in L.A., the countless tapestry of people weaving in and out of each others lives… connected yet apart.

These budget imposed limitations have opened up yet another portal into my gothic urban tale of the dark side of the City of Angels. I’ve been able to tap into the vast and rich history of Los Angeles. Present and past collide in startling twists and turns… and the result (I hope) is rich.

If I had ten or twenty or thirty thousand dollars to spend, I am not certain that these discoveries would have been made. For that I am most grateful

We are just over 20% of our funding for They Live Among Us. I am thrilled and eternally grateful to my beautiful backers… and am still seeking more. Consider joining our Kickstarter campaign. It will be the journey of a lifetime. I promise you.

 

Meet the Team – Gavin Hernandez

I’ve been working hard to create different supernatural characters than the roster of vampires, werewolves and zombies. The three form a magnificent triumvirate, that goes without saying; however, I felt that there were enough of these creatures in pop culture to generate an entire planet of the lupine and the undead. One of the three will wander its way into TLAU; however, I wanted a more unique addition to my roster.

I turned back to the readings of my youth, and thought of the creations of one particular master of the genre – H.P. Lovecraft.

It’s been years since I was terrified by the presence of Cthulu and others. My books are buried in storage. I needed some guidance.

I thought of a person that I knew who was well acquainted with the Lovecraftian tales, and contacted someone near and dear to him with a question. Gavin Hernandez is his name, and within hours, I was forwarded this reply:

“Well, a shoggoth (big tentacley thing with extra mouths and eyes and such) could probably dwell in one of the deeper tunnels, but the most likely would be a ghoul, which is a sort of canine humanoid monster that eats corpses that usually live in crypts and cemeteries. As far as ones that could pass as human…one of the Elder Gods, Nyarlathotep, the embodiment of chaos, usually takes the form of a pharaoh-like man, then the Mi-go, alien creatures with absurdly advanced tech, can masquerade with some success as rather sickly humans, but not so well in public. The best bet for that would be a Deep One-human hybrid, a la The Shadow Over Innsmouth. They are half-human half-fish humanoids, and for the first few years of their lives they appear human with a few off characteristics, only becoming full monster after several decades. They can speak fluently in whatever native tongue is nearest, and can easily pass for full human. My personal favorite would probably have to be the Mi-Go, as they aren’t hostile or evil, just very different-but they manage to still be chilling. They bear us no ill will, and have actually shown much interest in humanity. They can speak human languages, but can’t be photographed, as they are composed of rapidly vibrating particles. Also, they’re fungi. So that’s nice. Also, if she’s wondering if there are any ones that could both live in a subway and pass for human…Well, one of the characters in a story was a human painter who befriended a pack of ghouls and eventually became one. Also, cats in his stories (admittedly in a dream-land) are able to fly to and from the moon in a single bound. They’re magic.”

I laughed in wonder and delight. I knew that I had found the ultimate researcher and consultant. I asked him if I might add him to the team; he graciously agreed.

So, please welcome Gavin Hernandez. Wonderful human, compassionate soul, and master of all things Lovecraft.

Oh. Yes. Did I mention that Gavin is 15?

Episode One – Lillith

Meet Lillith. This is how I imagine her at a younger age; fresh and innocent, hails from the Midwest. An all-American girl… with a dark and terrible secret.

In my inaugural blog, I talked about how “Lillith” helped to launch “They Live Among Us.” This episode began as a ten-minute stage play, called “Boy Meets Girl,” one of those ditties we pound out when we’re procastinating preparing for the “real work” at hand – for me, a feature screenplay.

BMG was about a sad-sack, Craig, who, on a sunny day, falls in love with a girl, only to discover that she is a bipolar psychopath. It was a breezy little piece. A few weeks ago, I was prompted to adapt it to an animated film – which I did… and that action began the story fermentation process. It percolated deep within my brain.

Prior to the TLAU Kickstarter campaign launch, I rewrote it, to examine if it could have a more supernatural bent – and it did. I was pleased with it; I worked the other pieces, built and launched my campaign, while engaging in the rewrite process. Rewrite, refine… you know the drill.

As I was working on Episode Two, “Fall from Grace,” I became keenly aware of the monetary limitations I had placed on this project. I’ve begun to obsess over locations – and night shoots. Night shoots are expensive, and money for the project is in short supply, even at 100% funding (although Kickstarter assures me that I am allowed to exceed my goal *wishfulthoughts*).

I wanted to shy away from the iconic endless-summer-rodeo-drive-venice-beach-healthnut L.A., and move it back to a more stylized form, a modernesque Raymond Chandler gothic film-noir look at the City of Angels. Those secrets that lurk in the shadows. The outsiders who avoid the limelight. Those who live – unknown – among us. The beast within us all, and the eternal struggle of good versus evil.

Suddenly, the perfect sunny day that opens “Lillith” did not ring true. Something else did not either – the story was told from the boy’s perspective. Lillith is the outsider; she is the one who fights the eternal torture of being who and what she is… I needed to fix this – and fast.

I decided to set it at night – but at a party. Indoors. They are young, so a shabster’s pad will do.

I also rewrote it from Lillith’s POV. And, in doing so, I took a sketch character and – I hope – turned into a fully-dimensional being. Albeit, not a human one, but one as filled with confusion, torment, the anguish as any lonely young woman. The desire for acceptance. The need for love. The despair of isolation. The shame of what she is. It’s all there, in one who lives among us. Her name is Lillith. Say hello to her – if you dare.

© 2011 Bullshed Productions

Day Two – It’s All in the Details

I had a fitful night of sleep last night; my brain was consumed with images of Los Angeles, and wondering how on earth I would be able to pull off my urban gothic vision for $5k? Am I delusional? Do I have a fever?

And then, I realized… it’s all in the details.

Episode One is two exteriors; however, they are in the day. There is some VFX involved, but I believe that under-cranking can readily take care of that.

Episode Three is three-four interiors and one exterior. The exterior is in the day.

It was Episode Two that had me stymied. It’s the most ambitious of the three – and most of it takes place at night. There lies the rub. Night shoots are not cheap, even with digital. I also had this vision of these sweeping shots of L.A. at night, from above and below, a Gotham  like look at Hollywood. Most of it occurring in alleys and streets; definitely not a running and gunning type of setup.

I was worried, truly worried. I am striving for high quality at low-cost. Like everyone else, I want for my work to excel.

Then, I realized that I could move most of Episode Two indoors. Two – three brief night exteriors. Perhaps fill in with great stock footage of L.A. at night… and keep the majority of the story inside. By doing so, I can lower the cost of the episode. I then realized that this choice also opened up a door within the story that was a little stuck. It solved a problem. It’s making the story better. More layered. More conflicted… and more tragic.

*****

I’ve added the option for digital downloads of “They Live Among Us” for my Kickstarter supporters; green is always better. I’ve also had a request for a one-page of the series from one of my contributors. How silly of me to not have created that. So, I’ll tweak Episode 2 to move it inside, and get to work on my one-sheet.

In the meantime, I’m meeting with some D.P.’s and looking for a designer for the logo/title. I know what I want… I’m just not as crafty with Photoshop as I am with Final Draft.

To all of you following this adventure, thank you for your support. If you wish, please contribute to my Kickstarter Campaign. Twenty-eight days to secure funding! I’m certain that they will go by in a flash.

My next few posts will be about the creation of the script. We’ll start with Episode One – “Beth.”