The very first film I ever made wasn’t a slapstick comedy or a tear jerking melodrama nor was it a fright-fest monster flick with hideous creatures terrorizing a small town. It was a hard hitting no-holds-barred subjective documentary made to record for posterity the heckling, teasing, berating, intimidating, needling, and harassment I suffered on a daily basis at the hands of my two older brothers.
The story treatment for this movie was simple; film my two older idiot brothers on location and capture them in a natural habitat performing their smorgasbord of abuse on my person thereby providing damning and unimpeachable visual evidence that they were mean to me. The location was a Northern Minnesota summer camp. The intended audience for this 3-minute 8mm expose’ was my parents.
The film was an utter failure.
Traditionally at the beginning of an explosive sibling tattletale like this, a disclaimer is inserted acknowledging that names have been changed to protect the innocent. Well, there are no innocents in this tale. However, I will use pseudonyms in the story in the hope that it may reduce the probability that a turkey leg will be pointed in anger by someone in my family this Thanksgiving across an autumn themed tablecloth with a horn-of-plenty centerpiece.
“Get that leg outta my face.” In a full disclosure, threats with poultry are a common occurrence in my family.
The pseudonym I’ve chosen for my oldest brother is “Pan”. To pan a camera the operator swivels it from side to side like someone who’s saying ‘no’. Growing up, every other word out of my oldest brother’s mouth was “No”.
“I said no.”
“No you can not.”
“No way Jose’.”
The name Pan is perfect for him.
The perfect name for my older brother is another camera move, ‘tilt’. To tilt a camera the operator tips the camera up or down like someone who’s gesturing ‘yes’. With clock-like regularity Tilt tried to trick me into doing something that would get me in trouble.
“Yes it’s dead.”
“Yes Dad told me you could.”
“Yes of course it’s dry.”
If you believe there is no stronger love than the love between brothers, you probably also believe the Vikings will win the Super Bowl© this season. Good luck with that.
My first film might have been delayed by a decade if it were not for a raffle held at our hometown VFW. The grand prize of this raffle was a 8mm movie camera, a projector, and a portable screen. My parents were the winners. To this today I believe the creator of the cosmos hand picked my Mom and Dad to win the camera raffle as a consolation prize for losing so badly in the gene pool raffle with their first born and especially their second.
Arriving at the wooded campsite I quickly located Eldon, my troop mate and the kid with whom I would share a tent. We chose a spot, pitched the tent, and unpacked our belongings.
Eldon was my age, my height, wore glasses like me and had a passion for gadgets.
“Wanna see something?” I asked.
“Sure.” He replied.
I pulled a bundle from my bag and unwrapped the shiny camera. Its knobs, buttons, and dials were enchanting to nine-year-old nerds like us.
“Wow,” he remarked. “She’s a beauty.”
“It’s a movie camera.” I proudly said.
Punching his glasses up his nose he said, “I can see that.” He picked up the camera and looked through the lens. “What are you going to film?”
I said with a grin, “Told my parents I was going to make a nature film.”
“What are you really gonna to do?”
“I’m gonna make a film of my two brothers being idiots.”
He nodded. “Nice.”
Earlier that summer Pan and Tilt had convinced my parents that we three were old enough to see a Saturday afternoon matinee un-chaperoned. In our pitch for this bus trip to the cinema, we chose a run-of-the-mill-shoot-‘em-up Western as the film we going to see. My parents agreed.
What happened next is forever seared in my memory because Pan, Tilt, and I didn’t see a Western, we saw the 3D B picture horror classic 13 Ghosts.
I don’t recall why but we arrived at Hennepin Avenue and 7th Street late that afternoon. The Western flick had already begun. Studying the colorful theater marques up and down the street, it was Tilt that suggested we go see the film with the poster of a screaming little kid with his hands covering his ears.
Little did I know by the end of the day, I would become that screaming little kid.
This 1960 completely forgettable production was cranked out to capitalize on the 3D horror craze sweeping the country that year. Every patron walking into the theater received a cardboard viewer with cellophane windows designed to enhance its 3D ILLUSION-O! effect. View the movie screen through the blue cellophane window and the ghosts disappeared. View the screen through the red window and the ghosts leapt off the screen and tried to claw you up out of your seat and into their living hell.
It was all promotional deception. I saw those damn ghosts through the red window, the blue window, without a window, and even through my tightly closed eyelids. Frightened beyond belief with my sweaty palms planted in my eye sockets, I begged my brothers to tell me when there wasn’t a ghost on screen. It was Tilt who goaded me to look when, of course, the ghosts were at their rampaging worst thus terrorizing me the most.
“Look now Wes.”
“No! Are they there?”
“Look now Wes.”
“Augh! There they are!”
“Look now Wes.”
Those 13 ghosts had a four-poster bed with a frilly canopy. They lured their prey into that bed, then immobilized them, and then slowly lowered that canopy onto their screaming victims. I knew the person was dead because they stopped screaming or Tilt stopped trying to get me to open my eyes.
Those ghosts terrorized me. Walking out of that theater and riding the bus home, I refused to let go of my two older idiot brothers.
Pan, fearing my ghost-induced catatonic condition might jeopardize his future privileges, negotiated with me, a money-for-silence deal valued at one dollar. For this bribe, at home that evening or at any time in the future, if either Mom or Dad asked me, “How was the Western?” I was to reply, “Bang bang. Good. Bang bang.”
Sensing this deal would make me wealthy, I said yes. Pan paid me his half of the bribe on the spot. To this day, Tilt still owes me four bits. For a week I couldn’t fall asleep at night without a light on in the bedroom. Tilt complained. Pan allowed it.
I can draw a direct line from the seeing of that film to my propensity to sleep in a fetal position and finally to my creative drive to make that first film and every film thereafter. My biographer should begin their book about me with, “He tried not to wet himself but …”
On the second day at camp I wolfed down my breakfast, finished my camp chores, then hurried back to my tent. Eldon was waiting for me.
“You gonna go film?” He asked.
“Yup.” I said.
“You want some help?”
“Sure. You can be the assistant director.”
“What do they do?”
“Help me find my brothers.
We searched the tents, the entire campsite, and the surrounding woods. Pan and Tilt were nowhere to be found. We wandered down the hill to the lake and onto the dock.
Looking at the crystal clear water and the tree lined sandy shores Eldon said, “You could start your film with a shot of the lake.”
“You’re no longer the assistant director.”
“You’ve been promoted to actor.”
“That’s a promotion?” he quipped.
I got a shot of the lake, a shot of Eldon smiling at the lake then a tracking shot of him walking up the forest path towards our campsite. In my first exercise of directorial power, while the camera was still rolling, I told Eldon to keep walking. I stopped. I filmed until he was out of sight. Then I yelled, “Cut.”
Stay tuned to this space for Part Two
and the exciting conclusion of
My First Film.