Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Looking Back at Filmmaking

HeartwoodAn elephant carries its baby for 22 months. I carried mine far longer. My baby was HEARTWOOD, a feature film.

I first came to Hollywood in 1975, where I starved writing four-minute radio dramas for Vincent Price ($86 each), then suddenly (it took four years!) I became extraordinarily successful at getting film projects produced: The EarthlingBacktrackTHE EARTHLING, with William Holden and Rick Schroder, and BACKTRACK, with Jodie Foster and Dennis Hopper. But the director was dying of cancer while shooting THE EARTHLING…and ironically the film was about a man dying of cancer. It could’ve been a brilliant inside view…but it wasn’t.

And Dennis Hopper, who directed BACKTRACK, had been mostly dead for years.

Mediocre twice. So I quit—for a long time.

I did Wall Street for a decade. Then I partnered with my brother and wrote another feature film. I raised all the money. It was Spring 1996. Hurricane! I had no idea what kinda ship was gonna run aground.

swank heartwoodRobardsAs an unflagging champion of Self-Reliance, I decided to show a small redwoods community saving itself. After casting Jason Robards (the only living actor to win an Oscar, an Emmy, an Obie, and a Tony) and a nearly unknown Hilary Swank, my brother and I built a fictional mill town, turned a quarry into a deserted gold mining camp, constructed a treehouse 60 feet up in a live oak, borrowed/stole logging trucks, and planned to convince the crew to lug lights, cameras, and cable a half-mile down a narrow dirt path to a waterfall where a skin-chilling love scene was to be filmed.

I produced. My brother directed. I scheduled 34 days of shooting. Three meals a day. Almost 70 crew members and cast, plus a varying number of extras. Over 10,000 meals!

Then I checked weather records for the previous seven years. Mendocino County rains seem to cease around mid-April, so I began shooting on April 17, 1996. It rained for 15 out of the next 34 days.

*  *  *  *  *

You make four movies when you make a film.

The writer “sees” the entire film in a mind’s eye. No rain. The cast is convincing. The execution imaginative. Movie #1 is perfect…but it’s imaginary.

roll of filmThen the director, actors, and crew make it real, converting words into meticulously logged film rolls. We shot 140,070 feet; the finished film was 8,585 feet long. Inevitably, there are compromises: temperamental equipment, temperamental actors, temperamental crew. Results are never what the writers expected. Entire scenes simply don’t work, but some are even better! Result: Movie #2

Then comes post-production, a confusing welter of computer, film, video, sound, and optical technology—a more arcane, booby-trapped, and wretched hive of scum and villainy you’ll not find anywhere.

mendo redwoodsIt begins with editing. More compromises. The director discovers, over many, many weeks in a tiny room with a big computer, that some of his brilliant visions were superb in the woods, but are too long, too slow, and too wandering to keep audiences in their seats. On a hunch, Sc. 114 gets inserted after Sc. 176, Scs. 177-180 are omitted, and suddenly the villain’s motivation is clear. The producer wonders why he rented expensive lights for the night scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. At last, there’s a beginning-middle-end. But it ain’t over yet…because the singing of the Fat Lady’s (and every other sound) has not yet been heard.

Dialog, which has been recorded separately from the film, is synched with moving lips. Foley, the sounds that come from feet, hmovie audienceands, clothes, slaps, whaps, thwocks, knocks, and plops—anything made by the movement of living creatures—is artificially created. Actors are recalled to “loop” garbled or misrecorded speeches. Sound effects are digitized and a musical score is composed, recorded, and edited to fit. Result: Movie #3.

Then the audience watches, and we discover that they see the whole thing differently than we ever did. They sigh when the script isn’t particularly poignant and laugh when it isn’t funny. This is the real thing: Movie #4.

HEARTWOOD was a coming-of-age love story and a drama about becoming the hero of ones own life. Sometimes heroes come back wounded.

3 Comments

  1. Abi says:

    Beautifully written! But how come no mention of the Second Assistant Assistant Second Director? Or was it Assistant Second Second Assistant Director?

  2. Julie says:

    Or the brilliantly-played (subtle, yet convincing) role of Bridesmaid #2?

  3. Emily says:

    Ain’t no way Bridesmaid #2 is getting a higher mention than Bridesmaid #1. I am calling my agent! LOL 🙂

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