Escape Room: 48 Hour Film Project

Peggy Lee and me, preparing to shoot a walk-up scene. Photo Credit Jose Juarez, Special to Detroit News


Shortly after we closed Romeo & Juliet at Little Door Theatre, a castmate texted many of us to say that a friend of hers was looking for actors to participate in his 48 Hour Film Project production. As it happened, that friend of hers was also a friend of mine: Jeremy Rahn, who had played Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the previous summer at St. Dunstan’s Theatre. He had also helped out on Romeo & Juliet with fight choreography, during which I had told him I’d be happy to help on anything he was ever working on, because he was just a damn cool dude, and one who I respected both personally and creatively. So I texted him to remind of that offer…

And like that, I was on the team.

Dan Dobrovich, who had directed us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was the other team leader with Jeremy, and we were being joined by a couple other veterans of that production: Peggy Lee and Christian Zilko who had shared assistant director duties. This time, it would be Jeremy directing the show and Dan was slated for the lead actor, with Peggy as lead actress and Christian as assistant director again. By the time we got to shooting, we had added Stephanie Peltier, who had played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Apart from that, Dan had assembled a ridiculously competent crew who brought a lot of very professional equipment with them. I was incredibly impressed and really hopeful that this would turn into something really cool. In truth, it met and exceeded my expectations.

To give a quick background on the 48 Hour Film Project, it’s a contest run in a couple dozen cities around the US. The goal is to write, shoot, and edit a short film in just 48 hours. Team leaders select a pair of genres and must shoot their film recognizably as one or the other, and everyone is given the same character, prop, and line of dialogue that must be incorporated into the film as a protection against teams writing and shooting early. After the kickoff event, we gathered at the home of one of the crew, a beautiful lake house in central Oakland County, and started to go over the basics of our challenge. Enhanced difficulty: the genres we drew were Horror and Period Piece, neither of which the creative team were all that excited about. Jeremy and Dan had brainstormed an idea on the way back from the kickoff event for a horror movie centered around the recreational escape rooms that have started to spring up. We tossed the idea around a bit, discussed some challenges, and then Jeremy and Dan went off to write the script while we went off to sleep. Call time would be 7:30am, back at the lake house.

We showed back up there pretty promptly and got to work, reading over the script, discussing shots and locations, and then we were off and running. I had to jet away for a little bit in order to attend a picnic I was theoretically helping to host, and the script had been written to reflect my lower availability. And there was still tons to do when I got back. (Starting with putting drops in Stephanie’s eyes so she could shoot a crying scene.) We shot out of order, as happens often with film, taking advantage of natural light and other opportunities. In fact, we ended up reshooting most of the stuff I did before I left for the picnic on account of the light being better in the room we had been in. The last thing I shot, however, was my last appearance in the film. It had to go last, though, since it involved me being soaked with fake blood and our wardrobe department (namely, my closet) only had one of the button-down shirts I was wearing. Had to be judicious with it.

We wrapped shooting less than twelve hours after we started, which everyone seemed to think was a pretty decent accomplishment. For my first experience filming anything, I was just happy that I had gotten to do it at all, and would gladly have gone on into the night. But we were also getting a bit tired and loopy, so it was probably just as well.

Tonight I’m attending the screening for the film, along with eight or nine others. Around 40 total teams participated this year, so I gather that they were all divided into groups to make the screening process easier. I’m really looking forward to how it all turned out, and what it looks like to see myself on the big screen. Should be exciting!

Building A Set

Last spring, my friend Erin approached me and said, “Build me a set worthy of the gods!”

Well, not really, as Erin is rather shy and retirning, so when I went to her and said, “I can help build you a set for The Haunting of Hill House, if you need it.” She kind of shrugged and said, “Suuuure?” From anyone else, I’d take that answer as a hint and smile and wait for them to call me. But it was Erin and that was an eager acceptance of the offer. I first met her doing Out of Order, my first show back acting in years and years, and it took until a trip to the bar after our final regular rehearsal before she actually started to talk to any of the cast, really. But we bonded during the performances and after-parties, and so when she got her first shot at directing a show of her own, I jumped up to help her.

So what I’m saying is, it’s like she came to me and said, “Build me a set worthy of the gods!”

What followed was one of the more interesting creative experiences I’ve ever had. I got some help from other theatre members, but not really enough, so for the most part it was Erin and I, laying it out, going to the hardware store, and then a lot of quiet hours on my own putting up flats and building platforms, the latter with some help from Scott, the Assistant Director. The set required a few special effects, including doors that closed themselves, a flexible wall that could stretch and make it look like the house itself was reaching for one of the actresses, and a door that could flex without looking damaged after the fact. The last effect is the only one I wasn’t entirely pleased with, but time ended up being scarce, not to mention most other resources. In the end, though, I’m pretty proud of what we accomplished with it.

I ended up also being cast in the show, which was also a good experience as it helped me understand more intimately what was required of the set as I was building. Not something I generally want to repeat, since it ate most of my evenings for all of October, but interesting just the same. And now I’m about to embark on building my next set for my friend Chris, who was in The Haunting of Hill House and let me know right then and there that he’d be asking me to build the set for the next show he directed, whatever it was.

For funsies, here’s an animated gif of the set coming together.

Election Aftermath 2016

I suppose I’ll be writing a lot of these, because I have a lot of thoughts, and I don’t want to ramble on endlessly. But it occurs to me that the most important thing, in the moment, is to recognize the essential weakness of the recent progressive movement.

Now, it’s entirely possible that we’ll wake up tomorrow, and he will in fact have lost. Though the problem, and the weakness, will by no means have gone away. And it’s also possible that, if he has indeed won, we’ll find in the months and years to come that undoing the legal progress of the last eight years in particular will be harder than we fear. Even with someone like Trump at the helm, even with a very conservative legislature, and likely a conservative judiciary. It’s possible. But it’s also unlikely. One has to imagine that new legal challenges to progress we had thought finally enshrined in law will crop up immediately, anticipating a Scalia-like arch-conservative to be appointed to the Supreme Court. And one can’t help but imagine them succeeding.

And therein lies the weakness.

Rather than try to convince our fellow Americans of the righteousness of social progress, of acceptance, of tolerance, we’ve put a lot of eggs into a singular, authoritarian basket. We have put uncountable energy, and so very many hopes and fears, into the election of a single person that we hope will stand up for us, and we hope that person will push, shove, and bludgeon those that disagree with us into acquiescence, if not agreement.

But acquiescence is not something to build long-term change on. In fact, I think it’s growing more apparent all the time that this strategy–engaged on by both sides–has done nothing but to carve a hole in the middle, where we might meet and discuss things. You against me. Us against them. If we don’t defeat them, it will be the end of us. They don’t understand. They can’t understand. I think the reasons for this are legion, and are reinforced and encouraged in so many ways. I don’t think it’s anything like a conspiracy even, but more like a feedback loop. An echo chamber. We often talk of people as though they’re in particular echo chambers, learning only what they want to learn. And while I think that’s true, I think we’re all within another one, that increasingly amplifies the notion that the only way to progress is through electoral domination.

I think I’ve always disagreed with that notion, but tonight has crystallized the idea perfectly.

Let me be clear that I don’t think we shouldn’t fight for the right laws to protect people who need protecting. But I think we’re too focused on law, and using law as a shield against a hostile other, for the most part utterly abandoning that other and their needs and values in the name of promoting our own. If we can convince people who disagree with us, and maybe understand why they disagree with us, the matter of law and the question of electoral leadership could, in theory, become much less controversial, and much less divisive. Otherwise, we run the very serious risk of tearing this society apart, irreparably.

We have been on that trajectory for a while. Lots of blame for it can be laid here, and there. I personally think the more conservative elements of society are more to blame, but then, they’re the ones who have traditionally relied more on authoritarian solutions. As a defensive measure, for the most part, progressives have relied on it more and more themselves. And the despair I see in the words of my friends tonight makes me realize what a hopeless game that is. Any progress could be undone. Walls could go up, marriages made illegal, rights of all manner curtailed or destroyed.

But here’s the interesting thing. While all of this doom has been descending, one of the cornerstone strategies of old, racist authoritarians to keep African-Americans poor and disenfranchised, has quietly been crumbling. Tonight, nine states voted to in some way legalize or decriminalize marijuana use, many of them voting to do so even for recreational purposes. While we’ve been tussling over who controls the White House, we’ve been steadily working away on a lower level at one of the myriad tools of injustice.

What else could we do if we focused all of this election energy in that direction? And not even just to state or local referenda, but to the very basic job of finding common ground with the people who disagree, and changing their minds. One of the most pernicious lies I’ve seen tossed around is that you can’t change anyone’s mind, particularly in a Facebook discussion. I certainly have bought into it myself, and I believe it true still to some extent, but I think it’s more about how we craft those conversations than the conversation, or the medium of Facebook (or Twitter or whatever) itself.

Democracy isn’t just, or doesn’t have to be just about who gets the most votes, and the power they wield over the loser. Two champions whacking at each other with swords on a battlefield is recognized to be a fraught and bankrupt method of deciding who knows best how to serve a people as leader. But tonight in particular, it seems like that is what our democracy has come to. We have to stop putting our eggs all in that basket. We have to find new strategies for bringing America, all of it, everyone, forward. We have made progress on that score in a lot of ways, and it is incumbent on us who want to see change, and to see progress guaranteed, to double down on those strategies, particularly in the coming months and years.

And if I wake up in the morning, and somehow Clinton has pulled it out, and we’re spared the nightmare of a Trump presidency, this work will still be before us. The system is still wrong, even if our champion rallied at the last second and came out on top. We’ll still hold the advantage only by a knife’s edge, and she will still just be a shield against the other. It’s time to stop thinking of them as the other, and start working on making them us.

Junior Enlisted & The White Donkey

white-donkeyBack around the time that I enlisted in the Marines, I came to an abrupt realization: very little fiction featuring or focused on the military actually reflected what I saw as the reality of the military. For the most part, what I saw was a lot of people behaving in ways unrealistic for their roles, particularly in that commissioned officers were badass, all-purpose action heroes. Junior enlisted (a/k/a the numerical bulk of the military) featured not at all, or if featured slotted into convenient stereotypes, and if a story started with focus on a private, you could bet a paycheck or two that he or she would wind up some kind of commissioned officer (lieutenant, captain, etc.) by the end of the story.

This is purest, refined, high-quality, premium-grade horseshit. This never happens. The closest it got to being a thing was in World War II, due to the sheer scale and attrition of that war.

Yes, officers definitely get their heroics in, though usually it’s alongside lots of lower enlisted folks, often committing heroics on a similar scale. But for the most part, their job is to direct and supervise everyone else doing the actual fighting.

But if you read a lot of military fiction, especially science fiction, you’d get the impression that only officers had stories to tell, and they were the only ones who could interest and engage an audience. I get that part of this is due to the “big picture,” in that an audience (allegedly) feels the need to see the entire scope of the conflict and the character’s part in it. I would argue, however, that there are ways to communicate big picture through a junior enlisted character (who remains junior enlisted), and that big picture is not necessary to tell an engaging story.

Terminal Lance: The White Donkey is as close as I can get to a thesis on this particular topic, at least for now. The graphic novel was written and illustrated by Maximilian Uriarte, a former Marine infantryman and veteran of Iraq (like me!), who created this project as a Kickstarter back in 2013. By then, he’d been at work on a sort-of companion webcomic, Terminal Lance, for three years, starting in 2010 just before he got out of the Marines. After some delays, he finally dropped the book to backers, plus a supply for general purchase on Amazon, this past Monday.

The story follows Abe, a disgruntled junior enlisted Marine as he prepares for, then departs for the war in Iraq, circa 2007. His experiences there are personally problematic, and his disgruntlement spills over in dramatic ways. Along the way he experiences things both surreal and illuminating, and provides a lot of commentary not only on the Iraq war specifically, but war and warriors in general. Unsurprisingly, given his experience, the other junior enlisted Marines are drawn (figuratively and literally) like real people, not two-dimensional placeholders.

The best comparison to this is probably the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, which like The White Donkey, draws from the creator’s own experiences in a hard and unpopular war, with educated protagonists seen as working “beneath” themselves by enlisting in the infantry with the idea of going to war. There are specific incidents that draw from real life, and the war is portrayed as it is (for the most part) with very little hype or stylization. The junior enlisted characters never really advance in rank, they have conflicts with authority, and they’re searching for some meaning beyond themselves. They both find it in the end, though that really is the sum of the similarities in the stories.

Platoon features an arc that is generally too convenient for real life, and Stone is known to have mashed together things that happened to other units or (in the case of the climactic call for a bombing run right on the unit’s position ) to other services. But that is part of the requirement of the story he was telling, in the war movie format. Uriarte had more latitude, being a creator-published work, and the story he wanted to tell was different, incorporating the return from Iraq and dealing with the effects of what happened there. And he executes it well, beginning to end, in every facet of the medium.

Bottom line, excellent book and another datapoint for my thesis: small scope stories have merit, junior enlisted stories have merit, and they’re often more true to the realities of conflict than stories that focus on officers and senior enlisted.

Unfortunate footnote: you can’t get the book any more. The author sold through his print run of the book, and seems disinclined to foot the bill for another printing on his own. I’m hopeful he find a publisher for it, but it may be seen as too niche for a traditional publishing deal. If I know you well and you want to borrow it, something can be arranged, but for now… it’s a rare bird.

Storytelling & Anne Hathaway’s Speech in Interstellar


Last night I finally got around to watching Interstellar. The wife and kids were off at her folks’ and my friends were busy, so I decided to catch up on some movies I had been meaning to see. I ordered some Thai, sat down, and proceeded to watch one of the better movies I’ve seen in a long time. I had been meaning to do some house hunting stuff on my laptop while I watched, but I was so into the movie that that was all forgotten. I want to watch Interstellar again, which is my personal high-water mark for a movie’s quality. Then I posted on Facebook that I liked it, and got back the comment I had been dreading: in short, “Ugh, Anne Hathaway’s speech.”

If you’re not familiar, around halfway through the movie it’s revealed that Hathaway’s character, Amelia Brand, may be pushing to explore one particular destination over another because her onetime lover was sent to that destination. She gives a speech about love, about how it is a motive force, and then winds up speculating that maybe love exists beyond biology and has an extra-dimensional character to it. A lot of people got worked up about this, because they felt it was too much “new age woo” in their science fiction.

In fact, all it really was, was a bit of new age woo in a sad, lonely, and desperate person on the sharp edge of a potentially futile mission to save humanity. It was a revelation of her character. The story itself never really validated her speculation.

This is one of those neat things you can do with storytelling. Let’s say I have a character who says, “Peanut butter is God” and another character who says, “Might be, all I know is, it tastes good.” If the story doesn’t then have the characters receiving the will of God by way of peanut butter, then the author is not really trying to make a point about the divinity of peanut butter. The story is not about the divinity of peanut butter. The story is just showing that under some circumstances, someone might feel that passionately about it. If either of them decide they should go to the store and get more peanut butter, driving forward the action or the plot, that’s still not any kind of statement on the divinity of peanut butter.

Interstellar talks a lot about love and family and what drives people, especially in desperate circumstances. It does not validate the idea that love is cosmologically significant, just that it’s significant to the actions of people. Which, amazingly, it is! Like fear, hate, greed, anger, etc. The only thing Interstellar says, definitively, about the nature of the cosmos is that a) it still has secrets we have not uncovered and b) we need to leave Earth if we want to uncover them.

Last One Out

Last year, I found myself in the strange position of being the last member of my extended family to live in the house my mother’s parents had owned since the late 1950s. That was a rather odd experience. I was working in metro Detroit (while there rest of my own family was still in Grand Rapids), my grandmother had moved to assisted living, and the family needed someone to do some extended house-sitting while they first convinced my grandmother to sell it, then prepped it to be sold. It was cheap, and close enough to work, so I jumped at it.

Leaving it was strange, getting the last of my things out when I moved with my family into an apartment nearer to my job. Walking through empty rooms, knowing that it had been sold to someone else, that someone else would soon start to build memories there. I liked the town the house was in, hard against 8 Mile Road, the infamous northern border of Detroit. Whites had streamed out of there in the 80s and 90s, furthering the “white flight” from the inner city to the suburbs, then to the more distant suburbs (precisely the path my parents had taken in the mid-80s). The neighborhood was exactly as I remembered it, with well-tended lawns and houses and working class folks everywhere.

Saturday, I kind of get to do it again. My other grandmother passed away back in December and that side of my family has gotten their act together, cleaned out the house, and sold it. Closing is in a couple weeks, so Saturday I go over there to take the last couple things we elected to save out of the garage. My Dad’s parents had owned that house since the 1950s, or early 1960s, and it was a touchstone of my childhood, a constant where my own home and neighborhood had changed. Grandma’s was always, or nearly always the same.

And now, like my other grandparents’ home, it’s about to be gone, to be a new home for someone else. I hope it is for them what it was for me.

Greater Mobility

Speaking of geographic mobility, yesterday we ended our temporary single car adventure by getting my wife’s minivan fixed. The “fix” involved replacing the battery–no simple task in her van’s crowded engine compartment–the alternator tested, and a headlight replaced. We hadn’t bothered when we discovered the issue back at the end of February because, aside from a couple points where we needed to be in two places outside of the home at once, we really didn’t need two cars.

However, those points added up and looked to continue to be obnoxious. It meant I had to go into work late, or get dropped off and picked up, and while those were doable, they’re not really sustainable. And the costs savings of only operating one car wasn’t all that great, either. Since we don’t drive the second car all that much, we don’t spend a lot filling it with gas, and the insurance, while not exactly negligible isn’t a life-changing amount of money, either. So we figured having the flexibility, ultimately, was more valuable than the minor cash savings.

That said, I’m forever attracted to the idea of going car-less or car-light. Even living in Metro Detroit, bastion of the automobile, I figure its really quite feasible. I’ve gone without a car on a couple of other (extended) occasions, and it mostly meant a lot of walking and having a certain savvy for the local bus system which, truth be told, isn’t terrible around here. I know, “not actively awful” isn’t exactly high praise, but I’ll take it. I’m confident it’ll (probably) get better.

Present Danger

Every so often, I write something in a discussion that I want to share more broadly. What follows is one such occasion, responding to someone who thinks that the 70s and 80s were a safer time for kids, and wondering if the scumbags who snatched kids and such were always with us.


There always were scumbags, but two things happened.

One, we became far more aware of the scumbags. First newspapers, then nightly news, then 24 hours news networks desperate to fill time and local news channels hyping everything to get you to tune to them instead of anyone else. And then, of course, the scumbag internet and well-intentioned (but trolling) chain e-mails from your friends and loved ones. The sense of danger became inflated far and above its actuality, simply because we heard it more often. Fictional media really didn’t help, either, given shows and movie franchises that exist entirely on the premise that there are serial killers and kiddy diddlers hiding EVERYWHERE, ready to pounce.

Two, we became more isolated in the places we live. Given factors like job mobility (or lack of job security), geographic mobility, and aspirational housing, you don’t have quite as many stable neighborhoods as you used to. New people moving in, familiar people moving out, and a general wariness of strangers increased the fear that anybody, anywhere could be a sinister danger to your kids. Add to that the increased workday/commute (which makes it harder to get out and meet the neighbors) and a general increase in people gravitating toward interest-based, non-geographical communities (such as Fark), and you have a situation in which we generally regard our physical neighbors as no more trustworthy than actual, complete strangers.

But overall, the world is no more dangerous a place than it had been in the 60s or 70s or 80s, when it seems a lot of commenters grew up and wandered the land with impunity.

It should also go without saying, and in the interests of fairly representing the other side of the coin, that all of the people to whom bad things happened are not here to talk about them. I think of that every time I see something on Facebook like “We all played with guns as kids and we’re still here!” or “We never sat in car seats, and we’re still here!”  Well no kidding, Sherlock. It’s about the people who aren’t here that caused the issues in the first place.

But that doesn’t mean that the world is more dangerous. The danger was always there. Danger is always there. The question is how you respond to it, how you teach your kids to respond to it. You can’t ever escape it, so it’s far better to learn to live beside it, and confront it when necessary.

Another Day

I’m getting to the point where I’m just getting tired beyond tired of some things. Not, like, suicidally tired so please don’t worry in that vein, just…tired. Tired enough to ignore them as best I can for a good long time. That’s always tricky though, of course, especially if I’m to remain even vaguely engaged with social media. You never know when a valued friend is going to go on a tear about something. And not that I want to stifle anyone; they should feel free to bang the drum about things that are important to them.

But I’m tired of it, weary, worn out.

The latest thing is the sturm und drang over the Hugos and the Sad Puppy slate. I mean, it’s obviously a shit sandwich. That windbag Wright got nominated for how many separate works? Okay, whatever. As Justin Landon says very well, the whole effing thing is broken. (And whether there’s a false equivalency in the weighting of shortlist appearances for competing agendas, or one side is worse than the other, what’s clear is that it’s capable of being gamed by anyone with an agenda.) And while I could get into the arguments, and the minutiae, and advocate for what I feel is right… Right now I just can’t be arsed, beyond the occasional parenthetical commentary.

In addition to what Justin said about the failures of Internet democracy, I think this is another problem with the always-present nature of the internet and the discussions happening there. There’s a certain pressure to participate in discussions like this, and put one’s two cents in, and take a stand. And it’s like, man, all I’ve got to say is that it’s broken and I don’t have the energy to discuss it beyond that. Thankfully, as of late, no one drops by here to make me defend my assertions, so I’ve got that going for me. But that’s mostly because I do post more here than I say on Twitter and Facebook where I know I’ve got a present, if meager, audience. I’m not so worried about the spambots talking back to me here. Or you, future reader, looking back through the archives to see if I dropped some undiscovered nuggets of wisdom.

In other news, I’m also tired of looking for a house. I mean, fucking tired. Fuck that process. So much hate.