Richard Schenkman MFE Blog, part one:
Greetings! And welcome to my first entry in what will hopefully be a long and rewarding dialogue regarding my new film, “The Man From Earth” (which brings us to the first request for a response from you… between the other producers and I, there has been some debate over the title of the movie; should we call it, “The Man From Earth”, or “Jerome Bixby’s Man From Earth”? What do you think?)
I had hoped to start a filmmaker’s diary way back when we started preproduction on the film, but it was such a frustrating period I knew that if I wrote anything down it would be too negative to put out into the world. Later I thought I’d do a daily production diary once we actually started shooting, but of course the days were so long, and the production period so short, that it didn’t start then, either.
So here we are—March 24, 2006—and I finally have some time because I’m in the middle of an imposed break in the editing process. My editor, Neil Grieve, had to take a “money gig” and work on a cable movie for six-to-eight weeks. But the timing was actually perfect. As of the first week of the month, we had the movie down to a very tight 84 minutes, and we had a cut with which I was very happy. It seemed that the next thing to do would be to take a break and not look at the thing for a while, then show it to some trusted friends for their notes, and take another swing in April. Which is where we stand right now.
As David Byrne asked musically some years back, “Well, how did I get here?”
Here’s the story:
In May of 1999, a producer friend (Gary Depew) told me about a script he’d been given by a man named Carlo, who in turn had gotten it from Emerson Bixby, son of the recently deceased Jerome Bixby, and a writer himself (“Disturbed”). Gary and I had worked together a few years before on “Assault with a Deadly Weapon”, a rock n’ roll murder mystery which somehow came out as “Angel IV: Undercover”, and while the movie is, shall we say, flawed, I liked Gary a great deal and wanted to work with him again if possible. Gary knew Carlo from the social scene, I believe.
Anyway, the script was “The Man From Earth”, which I read immediately and loved from the start. Gary, Carlo, Emerson, and I met soon after and traded thoughts about how to actually make the film. I had suggestions for some small things to change, but I really did like the script as it was and thought we could make it independently for very little money. I don’t want to speak for Emerson (who will certainly have postings at this site as well), but I could see that since MFE (as I’ll refer to it henceforth) was his father’s final script—literally finished on his deathbed—there was a lot of emotion tied up in it for him. I knew he didn’t want to make any big changes, and luckily, neither did I.
We had a script, a director (me), an experienced producer (Gary), and an executive producer (Carlo), and we needed so little money, I thought we’d be in production within a few months.
Only after trading a few emails, I never heard anything again from Carlo or Emerson, and Gary couldn’t explain what had happened either. Just a big yawning silence where a movie was supposed to be.
So I moved on. I made a couple of movies, I wrote several scripts, even sold a couple of pilot scripts for television. But I never forgot about “The Man From Earth.”
Over the last few years, the idea of making a feature film on mini-DV has become more realistic, more acceptable. The cameras capture lovely images that look a bit more like 16mm film than traditional video. Film festivals have totally accepted features originating on DV; in fact, the cinematography award at the Sundance festival went to DV features for two years running. DV features have gotten distribution, even theatrical releases (“November”, “Pieces of April”, “Personal Velocity”).
Summer of 2004, hanging out with my friend, cinematographer Afshin Shahidi, I started thinking it was time to make a DV feature. Afshin owned a Panasonic DVX-100, the camera that many indie filmmakers were using, and he was certainly up for making a movie. My friend Eric Wilkinson agreed (read his bio to learn more about him). He has a strong background in TV production and home entertainment, and when he promised to help me put a project together if I could get the right script, my mind went straight to MFE. I told Eric the story of how I’d first gotten the script, and how it had slipped away, and he asked, “Why don’t you call Emerson Bixby?” Five minutes of Googling later, I was dialing Emerson’s number.
He remembered me straight away, even saying, “You were the only director who wanted to make the movie my dad wrote.” Apparently, this is what had happened: Carlo was so impressed by my enthusiasm for the script that he suddenly realized that other—bigger—directors would probably respond the same way. So he shopped the script around and indeed did get interest from some big directors, but they always wanted to change it. Rather than keep it the sort of eight-hander it was—a chamber piece—they wanted to open it way up, adding flashbacks, locations, action sequences, whatever… Emerson knew that his dad had been nursing this idea since the 1940’s or 50’s and saw it a particular way, and so he had not allowed the script to go into production under those circumstances.
We talked it over and I explained that not only did I want to make the movie just as it was written for creative reasons, I would have to keep it to one location for financial reasons. We saw the project eye-to-eye, and he agreed almost instantly to let me take the script and run with it.
Eric and I formed a partnership and started raising money, while I began the long and arduous task of casting the film. Liz Jereski (Dan Mirvish’s “Open House”) signed on as casting director, never thinking she’d still be at it six or seven months later. I had originally though I’d be shooting in September, 2005, and then in October, November, and finally, December, being careful to wrap by Christmas. But mere days before the scheduled start of production (12/5/05) we still didn’t have a cast together, and pushed back one last time, to January 9, 2006.
It was a long and painful process about which I don’t want to say a lot, especially considering the stellar cast of talented and dedicated individuals who ended up in the film. But I will say this—the trick was finding agents willing to stick their necks out and offer up their clients based on affection for the material alone. That’s what took the time, and that’s why in the end most of our cast came just a couple of small agencies. Tony Todd was the first actor to sign on, and bless him—he stayed with the project for months, through several delays. It was hairy, right down to the wire, and in fact John Billingsley deserves a hunk of credit because he, personally, brought Ellen Crawford and Richard Riehle into the fold.
Next up: we rehearse and shoot.