The Lost Canterbury Tales
A handful of years ago I got the opportunity to write and direct a low budget film. Very low budget. We didn't have the money for science fiction or fantasy (at least none of the ideas I had in mind, though if you think you need money to do great sci-fi you have to go see Primer right now) so I went with what I knew we could afford - people sitting in bars talking. Sounds like a romantic comedy to me.
But romantic comedy was not my strong suit. And making a low-budge romantic comedy is not the way to become a breakout star director in Hollywood. So I thought about ways I could do this one a little different, do something to show that I’m creative, and eventually an idea formed.
Ever heard of the Canterbury Tales? Written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century, it's the story of a bunch of people passing the time on a long journey by telling stories. There's 24 in all, but in the prologue it is clearly stated how many people there are on the journey and that each of them will be telling a tale, and the number adds up to a lot more than 24, leaving scholars believing Chaucer died before completing all of the tales.
So my idea was this - four friends are meeting at a bar and telling the kind of tales guys tell when they're drinking. One of the three is an English grad student named Bernard who is teaching an undergrad class on three recently discovered Canterbury Tales, which I completely made up. The other three guys have each recently met the girl of their dreams, but each manages to screw up the relationship. The vast majority of the film is flashback as they tell Bernard all about these girls, but we occasionally jump back to the present as his students keep interrupting them to ask questions - they're cramming for the next day's final.
What do the three guy's romantic tales have to do with the three new Canterbury Tales? Maybe you've noticed there's a similar number of each.
The Haberdasher's Tale: A king is cruel to his subjects, so a goddess takes away his ability to feel sensations such as the warmth of a bath or the taste of wine, and the only way to get his sensations back is to give up the throne and deal with a normal person's hardships. One of Bernard's friends is Leroy (a name that comes from the French "le roi" which means "the king." subtle, huh?) who has a girlfriend who treats him like a king, but she's vacant and he doesn't feel love for her. He meets a girl who he finds challenging, because he's not used to someone who has their own opinions, so he too has the choice of being the king with no feelings or feeling love and having to deal with both good and bad emotions.
The Canon's Tale: Even though his brother tells him looking for a fight is foolish, a young knight goes off in search of men to dual to prove himself as a man. During his travels he kills another knight only later to discover it was his own brother who had gone looking for him to bring him home. Similarly, one of Bernard's friends, Victor (a "victor" is someone who wins a battle) goes around thinking that he's in a sort of battle with the opposite sex, and winds up in combative relationships. When he falls for a girl who is goodhearted and true, he reads malice into her actions and kills the relationship.
The Carpenter's Tale: A man makes a bet with the devil - if he can lift his house over his head the devil must give him more gold than he can ever spend, if he cannot the devil gets his soul. The man swindles the devil by breaking his house down and lifting each bit of it over his head one brick at a time. The devil gives him his gold and disappears. But when the man dies, instead of going to heaven he descends into hell, because even though he won the bet, the bet doesn't prevent him from being cast into hell by God the way any other sinner would be. And since dealing with the devil is a sin, it was the devil who tricked him, because simply making the bet doomed his soul whether he won or lost. Similarly, Bernard's friend Mason (as in a person who builds with bricks) thinks he can use and abuse as many women as he wants and then when he finds the one right girl to love and marry, leave all that nastiness behind him. But when he finds that girl, instead of ascending into the heaven he's expecting from this relationship, he falls into a hell of conflicting emotions because he's projecting his own sordid past onto her.
These parallels are never explicitly stated. However, each time Bernard summarizes one of the Canterbury tales for his students, we cut to a university theater production (that it was established Bernard is overseeing) that is putting on these new tales as short plays. These visuals graphically match visuals from the stories his friends tell. For instance, when the knight realizes he killed his own brother we cut to a worm's eye camera angle as he drops down into frame with his hand over his mouth in horror. Similarly, when Victor intentionally brings another girl to a bar where he knows his girlfriend will be in order to show her that he's winning the game he imagines between them, and thus strikes the killing blow to their relationship, she punches him in the mouth. We cut to a worm's eye camera angle as he drops down into frame with his hand over his mouth, stunned from the punch. I had about a dozen of these graphic matches, four for each character.
We knew we were going to shoot the whole thing in St. Louis, and I spent a few days walking door-to-door from one restaurant or bar to the next in the summer heat, looking for anywhere that I could talk into letting us shoot for free. In LA everyone knows what a location fee is, but in St. Louis I visited 108 bars and 20 or so said yes, we could film there for free.
The only thing we splurged on was actors, because it's 1000 percent easier to sell a film that has recognizable actors and if I was going to put years of my life into a project I sure didn't want the acting to suck. We hired a casting director in LA, she sent the script out to a bunch of agents, and we had hundreds of actors come in to audition for seven roles. My producer and I watched the auditions on tape and conferred with the casting director to see which ones we all thought we should call back for a second audition.
I flew in to LA for callbacks and it was an odd experience. I didn’t have anyone very famous come in and audition, it was a low budget film with a first time writer/director so there wasn’t much money or prestige to it. But there were a handful of people who came in that I recognized, including one who as a early teen appeared in nearly every episode of one of the highest rated television shows of the 90’s. It turns out that my whole Canterbury Tales angle did get people talking about the project and there was some notion that this might turn out to be a film that would get a little attention. No one thought it was going to make them rich or famous, but everyone in Hollywood who’s not an A-list celebrity is always looking for work that they can be proud of and might be another step up the ladder.
As someone who had never directed anything before it made me a little uncomfortable giving acting notes to actors who I had seen on television. I tried to keep it to “this is what we’re looking for” rather than a critique of their acting in general because, really, who the hell was I to tell them anything?
In the end we picked seven great actors for our leads. I think the first one we decided on was Carly Pope, who is not only a truly gifted actress and utterly professional, she’s just a lot of fun to have around. For Victor we hired Aaron Paul, which turned out to be lucky for us because not only did he kill it as Victor, a month or so after he left our set he started filming some weird show about meth dealers and then won a couple Emmys. The remainder of our wonderful cast was Chris Gessner, David Monahan, Smith Cho, Shannon Lucio, and Rob Benedict.
One guy who made it to the final round, but who we wound up not casting simply because we had more great acting options than we had roles, went on a few months later to get the lead role in a primetime network comedy that gained a strong following and made the guy famous. Casting the role of Mason had come down to him or Chris Gessner, who is good at taking a joke, so the fact that I constantly lament not casting the other guy has not ended our friendship. Chris is also a talented writer and as I write this is adapting the non-fiction book “This Ain’t No Holiday Inn” for the screen.
For those of you who are fans of the show Supernatural, you'll recognize Rob Benedict as a fantasy fiction novelist named Chuck who might also happen to be God. Rob is also a rock star. For reals. Be on the lookout for a future blog post about the video I directed for his band. Or just go to YouTube right now and search "Louden Swain - All I Need."
We filmed the movie that would go on to be titled “Say Goodnight” over three weeks, shooting 6 days a week. We had a lot of great people on the crew, but movie crew people are kind of like restaurant people – there’s a lot of late nights and people floating from one gig to another and every day as soon as works ends every one of them is straight to the closest bar. It’s a job that doesn’t tend to attract the most stable kind of person. When half your employees are blind drunk at a strip club every night you are constantly worried if they’re going to be at work the next day. One night one of my guys got into a fight with a police officer and wound up getting maced, then grabbed the cop’s handcuffs and threw them before the cop could cuff him, then wound up having his face ground into the asphalt by the cop while the officer waited for backup to arrive. He came back to work after two days in prison with half the skin on his forehead missing.
Fortunately for me, I had hired Joe Farmer to produce, a guy who turns into the Hulk when he’s angry (or when he’s drinking whiskey) and fear of his rage kept the crew from getting too out of control.
Halfway through our 18 days of shooting we discovered we had a slight problem with our video files. And by "slight problem" I mean "complete disaster." Each video file is paired with a secondary file that contains metadata and the second file is needed for playing back the first. A member of our crew had decided that all those pesky little metadata files were eating up too much hard drive space and deleted them. It appeared that our first nine days of filming would be lost forever, but we figured there was no point in giving up, so we just kept filming and hoped for a miracle. Our Executive Producer in charge of post-production, my high school friend Scott Adderton, said he'd do what he could to recover them, and considering his experience (he works in post-production for Happy Madison Productions - Adam Sandler's film company - and is a technical genius with all that back-end stuff) I figured if anyone could figure it out it would be him. He called the company who made the cameras we were shooting on, they basically said, "You're screwed." He called the company that makes the video editing software we were editing on, they basically said, "You're screwed." He called the company that made the hard drives we recorded onto, they basically said, "You're screwed." Based on this fact pattern, I had good reason to believe we were screwed. Scott thought otherwise, and after spending two weeks on tech message boards and going through software and hardward manuals and calling every video production tech nerd he knew, he got the files back. You ask for a miracle - ladies and gentlemen I give you Scott Adderton.
Editing took forever, mostly because Scott kept getting sidetracked with his day job. Plus there’s music, sound editing, motion graphics for opening and closing credits, and a ton of other things you never realize take serious time until you have to do them. And I was doing most of them myself. With no previous experience.
When we finally got a cut finished that was good enough to show to test audiences I had been working on writing, producing, directing, or editing this film full-time for the previous three years. The test audiences were mostly friends and family and they… were confused.
“Yeah, it was pretty funny. But what the heck was up with that whole Canterbury Tales thing?”
No one got it. They didn’t catch the graphic matches, they didn’t understand the story parallels. I could explain it to them and they’d understand and appreciate it on an intellectual level, but if you have to explain your film you’ve failed.
I screened it a lot of times for a lot of people and everyone had the same response – they thought every time we cut away to one of the Canterbury Tales it was confusing and an unwelcome interruption to an otherwise enjoyable movie. It was the entire concept upon which I’d built the movie, and it had to be taken out.
Without the Canterbury Tales part the movie was barely long enough to qualify as a feature length film, but audiences had also had a few other comments that required us to do some re-shoots anyway, so with a couple more added scenes the film came out at a respectable (for a low-budge comedy) 85 minutes or so.
We sold it to a distributor who put it out on DVD. As predicted, no one got rich or famous from it. Joe’s 23 year-old cousin and his friends watched it and said it was the funniest film they’d ever seen. I guess Joe's cousin and his friends are easily amused. Or maybe they were on drugs. Or both. Personally, I’m not thrilled with it, like I said in the first part of this post, romantic comedy isn’t my strong suit. I look back on that time with mixed feelings, but overall the experience makes me look forward to a career of writing fantasy novels.