With any art or craft, you start out with small, easy projects and slowly work your way up to more complex ones as you refine your skills. Knitters often start out with scarves or even dishcloths. The first garment I sewed in seventh-grade home economics class was a simple a-line skirt. My friend Jason started with a home movie.
I met Jason in 1994 when he was 8 years old and I was introduced to his family by mutual friends. Jace was a sweet, slightly geeky kid who loved comic books and the theater. Later that year, he appeared in his first semi-professional show as one of Fagin’s band of pickpockets in a production of Oliver.
When he was eleven or twelve, Jason became a huge fan of Clue. Clue the board game, Clue the movie, and Clue the series of books. These were something like “mini-mysteries” books, but the mysteries always revolved around which Clue character had murdered which other Clue character in which room with which weapon. I didn’t see the appeal, but I wasn’t a twelve year old boy with a giant imagination. The spring he was twelve, Jason decided to make his own Clue movie.
Jason’s parents, who are both writers, were on board with the idea, and he wrote a series of six short “mysteries” which he planned to make into a 15 or 20-minute film. Since many of his adult friends were involved in community theater, he wrote parts with them specifically in mind. Deede was Miss Scarlet, Bill was Colonel Mustard, Scott was Professor Plum, and so on. Bill’s wife Jodie was originally cast as Mrs. Peacock, but Jodie was eight months pregnant by the time filming rolled around in July of that year, so I got the call to take over the part.
Jason’s mom, Suz, had taken some film classes in college, so she and Jason sat down with the script and plotted out a shot by shot storyboard. They figured out in advance which lines would be shot as close-ups, which would be two shots (two actors in the frame), and which would be wide angle with groups of characters. This was important for two reasons. One, we all had day jobs and if Jason wanted this film made it had to be done over one weekend. Two, he had no access to editing software. The entire film, sound and visual effects included, was going to be edited in camera – that is, as we made it. He needed to know exactly what shot was happening when in order to make the movie as quickly and efficiently as possible. And he needed to know the exact camera angle because there weren’t going to be multiple takes to chose from.
A filming weekend was selected and Jason managed to get access to the church that his family attended for the shoot. It’s a large building from the mid-19th century with three floors, a kitchen, and a number of small meeting rooms. Since we needed at least eight different “sets” for the different mansion rooms, it was perfect. Or as close to perfect as we could get on a budget of zero. Jason passed out the scripts and we all ransacked our closets for clothing in the appropriate character color.
Massachusetts always has at least a few weeks in the summer with temperatures and humidity in the mid to high 90s. The weekend of the shoot was one of them. One of the reasons we were able to use the church was that it has no central air conditioning, and the congregation suspends services during the summer months. We set up the green room and craft services (the place where actors sit around eating snacks, drinking bottled water, and waiting for their next scene) in the large basement common room, with the lights off and as many fans as we could commandeer spread around the room.
And we, the actors, took full advantage of the fans and the Cape Cod potato chips. Jason the director and Suz, who was serving as camerawoman and cinematographer, had no such option. Remember those eight different sets? Each one of Jason’s mini-mysteries careened all over the “mansion” and, therefore, up and down the three flights of the building. There might, as happened in the first vignette, be a scene in the “living room” on the second floor, followed by one in the choir director’s office on the third floor, followed by one in the back hallway on the second floor, followed by one in the basement kitchen. Since we had no editing software, they needed to be shot in order. Jason and Suz, plus the appropriate actors, trooped up and down the stairs lugging the camera, our makeshift lighting set-up (a projection screen and a few spotlights to shine on it for reflected lighting) and any necessary props. I’m pretty sure that Jason and Suz barely sat down over the two days we filmed.
Then there was the camera. This was 20 years ago, in 1998, and our one camera was a then-state-of-the-art video camera that Bill and Jodie had just purchased so that they could take home movies when their daughter Elizabeth was born. We quickly (as in just after the first take) found out that if we shut if off between takes it would automatically rewind by a few seconds, backing up over the end of the previous scene. Fortunately Suz took a look at scene one before she shot scene two and was able to reshoot the ending, but it’s in the totally wrong location because we didn’t want to troop back downstairs to the correct one. When you watch the finished film, Mr. Body (our “host”) inexplicably switches from in front of a lovely mantelpiece in the “living room” to in front of a badly lit, bare wall in the third-floor back hall to deliver his last line of the scene.
So we needed to leave the camera on between takes, even if those takes were in rooms two floors away from each other. That led to the second discovery. If you went long enough (something like five minutes) with the camera on but not recording, the camera went into “sleep” mode, leaving you with a “blue screen of death” patch in the middle of your movie. Now the trooping up and down stairs came with a time limit between shots.
Finally, Suz knew that there was a short lag time (seconds or even micro-seconds) between when you hit the record button and when the camera actually began to record. So the actors were directed to pause slightly between when Suz said “action” and when we actually began performing. We never figured out exactly how long of a lag time, however, and the finished film contains multiple shots with the actors motionless and silent for a few seconds before anything happens.
There are also a couple of places where Suz didn’t shut the camera off soon enough. In one scene, Mrs. Peacock (me) screams and then faints when she sees a snake. The scream and the faint come right on cue, but then you see me sit up and smile before the scene cuts off. Oops! Our friend Kathy, who played Mrs. White, still occasionally asks “Suz, are my feet in this shot?” referring to one scene where a group of us burst through a doorway into one of the rooms. Being assured that, no, they would not be seen, Kathy took off her heels and did the scene barefoot. Kathy’s feet are, indeed, in the final shot.
Jodie, too obviously pregnant to play Mrs. Peacock, and Kathy’s husband Mike provided the foley work (sound effects). Small paper bags, blown up and then popped, were used for gun shots. At Bill’s suggestion, a metal pot was filled with a small amount of water. When you hit its side with a wooden spoon and rotated the pot slightly, you got a magnificent “BOING” to accompany any coshing with blunt implements.
The one visual effect we had was the camera’s own slow-motion. Jason tended to reserve that for death scenes (there are SO MANY deaths in this movie – it is, after all, Clue). One is a particularly fabulous shot where Professor Plum gets hit in the chest by a doubled-headed battle ax. Someone threw the short-handled plastic ax from off-screen and Scott caught it in front of his chest, then sank slowly down the wall. All in glorious slo-mo. There’s another one where Miss Scarlett practices her coshing technique on a teddy bear, hitting it over the head with the lead pipe several times while Jodie or Mike provides the BOINGs.
Last, but far from least, was the script. It was full of slapstick death (Jace was and still is a huge fan of slapstick) and the kind of lines that only a 12-year-old writing his first screenplay would use. When he needed to get Mr. Body off screen so Mrs. Peacock could indulge in a little friendly blackmail, Jason had him exclaim “I have to go to the bathroom!” and stomp off. A burglar alarm on a valuable piece of artwork was proclaimed to be battery powered, and a character admonished to “find the battery place” in order to disarm it. When dressed for a masquerade in a costume chosen by Mr. Body, Professor Plum questions why he is “an illegal poacher.”
We still quote lines from the film to each other twenty years later. When Jason and his husband Matt got married, they gave each reception table not only a number but also a quote that was appropriate to the guests seated there. The friends who had been involved in the Clue movie were seated at table 8 – “I have found it. I have found it.” – a line for Mrs. White.
We were talking about Jason’s Clue movie a few weeks ago and someone pointed out that, for all of the silly lines and the fact that Jason was a 12-year-old kid making, essentially, a home movie, we all took it seriously. He was our director, and we read those lines the way he wanted us to. We showed up, we hit our marks, and we gave him the respect that every director deserves.
At the start of this post, I said that you begin learning any art or craft with easy projects and work your way up to more complex ones. And that’s what Jason did. Two months after we filmed Clue, he started middle school. The first time he had a school project that he was going to fulfill with another diorama, Suz pointed out that he had said he wanted to make movies and that this was a perfect opportunity. So they sat down and wrote the first episode of “Lapsus Linguae,” an ancient Roman talk show. And we all gleefully showed up at Suz and Ed’s house to film Jason’s first “movie in a night.” Baby Elizabeth was cast as the infant volcano Vesuvius, and Mike got to work in front of the camera as the god Mercurius, who showed up to explain plate tectonics. It was, again, one-take per shot, edited in camera, and storyboarded to a fare-thee-well. I’m pretty sure Jace got an “A” for the project.
Over the next three years, there were two more episodes of “Lapsus Linguae,” as well as a quiz show about felines and primates of the rain forest and a space opera which managed to explain the science of black holes and quasars in between disasters and attacks by villains. We filmed them all in Suz and Ed’s living room, and all in one night (really about three or four hours) apiece.
Jason did much more theater than movies in high school (no more “movies in a night”), and then went to theater school in New York City and lived there for a number of years. About six years ago, he moved out to L.A. and started to do more with film again. He wrote and acted in a web series of sketch comedy, The Comedy Minute. He was assistant director on some friends’ web series and independent films. Last year, he formed a production company, My Pet Hippo Productions, and filmed Analysis Paralysis, a SAG ultra-low-budget boy meets boy romantic comedy that he co-wrote with his dad Ed. Just like with Clue, he also directed, acted in and produced it.
Also like Clue, Analysis Paralysis was filmed in a ridiculously short period of time – in this case, 10 days for a 90-minute film. He again sat down with his cinematographer ahead of time and planned out each shot and each camera angle for the entire movie so that they could make it as quickly and efficiently as possible. They used one location, the house he and his husband Matt own. Jason took everything he learned from Clue, and everything he has learned since, and made a virtue out of necessity and a full-length film with a shooting time of under two weeks.
Analysis Paralysis, Jason’s professional film directing debut, has just been selected by Reeling: Chicago, the second longest-running LGBTQ film festival in the U.S. It will be showing at the festival this September.