Taking a cue from Altman and New York Stories, with a healthy dose of Kevin Smith and The Kids in the Hall thrown in for good measure, a group of young, wildly talented filmmakers, collectively known as The Six, have produced the extremely funny and highly entertaining feature length comedy Night of the Dog.
Following six co-workers of a local movie theater, the film takes place over one night, after they get off work, while headaches and women problems—from vicious ex-girlfriends, sultry neighbors, and phonebook throwing bad mammas—intersect their lives and disrupt their plans of getting together at a local hang out.
Film Threat recently talked with the guys to find out how they managed to make such a fantastic movie on a shoe-string budget, and to find out what they’re up to next.
First, give me some background on how the members of The Six got together?
The Six: There was once an evil empire (Arclight Hollywood). For two long years The Six worked together under this evil empire and because of a shared enthusiasm for filmmaking became friends and were one by one weeded out and fired from this evil empire. Most thought The Six, also dubbed “The Posse Of Perversity,” might join the circus or fight crime vigilante style, but they decided to make movies instead.
Peter Atencio: Well, we all met though working together at the same movie theatre, the Arclight in Hollywood. We all become friends through our shared love of movies, and then we got together and entered a short film contest, called the New York City Midnight Movie Madness Competition. Later on, Arclight proved to be the main source of inspiration for the opening of the movie, as well as all the corporate mantra jargon in the start of the film. That place was totally built on those sort of cult-like team building philosophies. None of us work there anymore, though.
TS: We all popped popcorn and ushered eager movie goers to their assigned seats … we swapped scripts and films on a daily basis …We decided to start off with a short film competition, so we entered the New York midnight madness movie making contest. The first short, made in two weeks, won our heat and we were invited to New York to compete in the 24-hour contest. We all coughed up the cash and flew out … we didn’t place in the grand finale, but decided to step it up a notch. Ian and Eshom came up with the idea to make a feature film together … everyone writing and directing their own sections … it was gonna be about hitmen. It didn’t take much time before we realized we didn’t know anything about hitmen. However, we did have intimate knowledge in the common and maybe not so common aspects of relationships, albeit from the male perspective. Within two weeks of each other, all six of us had just been dumped by our girlfriends … we decided to take out a little personal angst … four stories about the women who ripped our guts out.
What’d you guys do prior to making films?
TS: Prior to making films we all served Arclight cinema patrons and spent our time sneaking into movies when we were supposed to be selling hotdogs. Others served BBQ covered meat products, with a smile, at a local rib joint.
PA: I moved out from Colorado. I grew up loving movies and knowing that I wanted to make them. I went to film school for about a year, but I dropped out because the experience did nothing but frustrate me. When I was 19, I decided to just move out of L.A. and do it myself.
Before we get to Night of the Dog, could you tell me a little about Squirrel Trap?
PA: Squirrel Trap was made by Eshom and Ian the year before we made Night of the Dog. They literally did everything themselves, and it starred Mike Burke (with a cameo by Peter Donovan). A few of the other actors in Night of the Dog are also in Squirrel Trap.
TS: It’s about five mismatching college students that venture into the woods for a weekend camping trip. It was shot on a near zero budget in nine days. This is the film we learned a lot of life lessons on. The highlight was taking Squirrel Trap to the Palm Beach International Film Fest. Sun, beautiful girls, food, alcohol, and film, none of us wanted to come home.
How’d that movie come about?
PA: I think it was really just Eshom and Ian wanting to prove to themselves that they could make a movie for absolutely no money whatsoever. And they pulled it off, too. It was really before we had come together as a filmmaking unit, so that movie exists completely due to the hard work and determination of the Nelms Brothers. A lot of their blood and sweat went into it. No tears, though.
As a first-time feature, were you surprised by how well it gelled, or was it mainly useful as a learning experience?
TS: Think it came out great…the actors all did a great job. Lots of hard work and sleepless nights. Big learning tool, but ultimately a great experience … looking back on any project there’s things we would have and could have done differently … it was our first film and we’re damn proud of it.
Having been written and directed by Ian and Eshom Nelms, what level of involvement, if any, did the remaining members of the Six have in Squirrel Trap?
PA: Well, as I said, Mike acted in it, and Donovan was an extra in the background of one scene, but other than that Jeremy and I had pretty much no involvement. I think we watched a few rough cuts and gave some notes on the movie, but that was about it. It was made before the Six really came to be.
TS: The six, as the filmmaking group, didn’t have any involvement … two of the six acted in the film. Michael Burke was one of the leads and Peter Donovan was an extra (even then we could see the talent in our little shotgun—his nickname). The six formed themselves after Squirrel Trap.
Moving onto Night of the Dog: it is essentially a series of short films interwoven to make one film. Where’d the idea come from? It has a bit of an “American Graffiti” feel to it. Did that film have any influence on Night?
TS: Eshom and Ian had been watching a lot of Altman’s, “Short Cuts” at the time. The main inspiration was from American Pie and Swingers … all dealing with stupid men having ridiculous problems with women. American Graffiti wasn’t directly in our minds, but I guarantee it was in there somewhere … we’re all big fans of the film. The exact idea tossed around was “Four Rooms” or “New York Stories,” but cut together like “Short Cuts.”
Everyone was to write a twenty page script, that centered around a common beginning and ending Each script was to have a minimum of four cut points. We’d meet to pass pages back and forth to each other, giving notes and laughing a whole hell of a lot. I think it was all the beer.
PA: You’re the first person to mention American Graffiti in regards to this movie, but I don’t really think that movie had much influence on us for this. I think mainly it was started as a project that would be like an intercut version of 4 Rooms, sort of along the lines of multi-plot movies like Go, where we’d put our own style and tone into each storyline. We were also heavily influenced by movies like Swingers, or American Pie, where guys are agonizing about women in some way. At the core, each storyline is about how all of us deal with the opposite sex. I co-wrote mine with Peter Donovan, then directed it (he acts in it). The other guys all wrote and directed their own as well.
Where’d you find the other actors, like Deborah Baker, Jr., who I thought was great?
TS: Most of the actors were friends … Deborah and 90% of the cast came directly from the theatre. Two of the actors came from Tony Romas rib joint, where Ian worked for a stint. Two actors were referred to us by friends. It was a close group; most of us knew each other before shooting. Some characters were written with the specific people in mind.
PA: Deborah also worked with us at Arclight, as did a few of the other cast members. She had also been in the short film we did as a group for the NYCMMM contest, a movie called Channeling Alphonse, which was well received and ended up winning the L.A. district of the contest. I really liked her performance in that movie, and I had directed her in it, so I had her read for a part in my segment, and she just nailed it right away. I don’t think I even got around to auditioning anyone else, because she was just perfect for the character we had written. The rest of the actors were either friends or people we cast through auditions.
Tell me about the process of shooting the film? Were the individual stories shot independently, or was everything shot at once?
TS: The stories were shot independently and probably about a month apart. We couldn’t all take that much time off work. We’d shoot for four or five days, take three weeks off, then go out and shoot again. The Six took turns crewing each other’s set depending on who was directing or acting in their segment. We shot the film at night, which was one Hell of an undertaking … limited lighting and the lack of permits lead to some pretty interesting outcomes … We must have been approached by the Burbank Police Department about ten times … they were very cool about it and only stopped us once … Jeremy was running through the streets in his underwear screaming like a mad man. Someone called the cops, said a crackhead was loose in the neighborhood wearing only his skivies.
PA: The individual segments were shot independently. Ian’s was shot first, in May of last year, then Jeremy’s in June, then mine in July and August, then Eshom’s. The length of the shoots varied a lot; mine was the longest, and we ended up doing some re-shoots and new scenes all the way into November and December. Because we had no money, and we were all working day jobs while we made the movie, shooting was a little erratic. It was a hell of an undertaking, a lot of long nights. I’d certainly think twice about shooting a movie that takes place totally at night again.
The film has a fantastic look, who was responsible for shooting it? Were straws drawn?
PA: We all helped with the various areas of production so it really was a team effort in terms of look. As for the main responsibilities of shooting, in terms of lighting and camera operation, most of that was the responsibility of Eshom, Ian, and myself. Everyone made suggestions and helped out, though.
TS: The look was accomplished by necessity … A lack of equipment … we had five lights, most clip lamps from Home Depot, which we bounced off any reflective surface within a two mile radius. Photoflood bulbs were used in various watts (15 to 500) and complimented a limited selection of gels (color temp Blue and Color temp orange). Two Lowel bounce floods were the only “legitimate” picture lights; we’d pull the bounce off and use the 500’s raw when we had to. At one point Doyle Nelms, the set gaffer, used his truck’s headlights for a rim light. Our most valuable piece of equipment was two four by eight bounce cards we made from foam-core. On one side we applied shinny bounce material for an extra pop. The eight hundred feet of extension cords was the only true nightmare. Ian shot Eshom’s segment, Eshom shot Ian’s segment, and Peter Atencio shot Jeremy’s and his own segment. Peter Donovan shot a lot of second unit and second camera footage on three of the sections … he’s got some great shots in the film. The intermingling of the crew and DP’s gave the picture its uniformity.
What was it shot on?
PA: We shot on two cameras to save time, a Panasonic DVX-100 and a Panasonic DVX-100A, both using standard miniDV.
TS: With a little color correction the shots matched up well. Edited on a mac, with Final Cut Pro, in our living room. Eshom says, “With a Mac and coffee maker the world is my oyster.” God bless Silicon Valley.
Can you divulge the budget, or is that classified, on a need to know basis-type information?
PA: We do try to keep it somewhat under wraps, but I can say it was horrifyingly low. The average daily catering budget on a typical Hollywood production is probably three times the budget we had to make our entire film. Tom Cruise’s personal trainer on set probably makes more per day.
TS: We can say that it was made on mostly sweat and hard work.
Now I want to hear juicy, gossipy stories. Who were the prima donnas on the set? Any tantrums or horror stories?
PA: There isn’t much room for prima donnas on a microbudget set with the sun rising fast, so everyone really stayed pretty calm. If you really want to hear the juicy stories, you just need to listen to the lyrics of the theme song that plays during the end credits. All the good stories are in there.
TS: We had heated discussions, but that’s making movies. Yes, sometimes they ended at five AM with a call from The Nelms brothers sweet older manager reporting a noise complaint. But we’re all friends and when there was a creative difference, we’d chill out and figure out how to fix or compensate it. Most of the rough spots came in the editing room: finding the right places to intercut, chopping off parts and limbs of the director’s baby. The big decisions were made with a group pow-wow. If majority wanted something done a certain way then the director, although he retained final cut over his segment, had to at least try it the way the others wanted to try it. 99% of the time the group was right. It’s hard sometimes when you’re close to a project to see its faults. An outside eye that can be very valuable. It’s one of the biggest lessons we all learned while making this film. A heartbreak was the deleted or alternate ending. We shot and edited the footage, and it just didn’t work. It was sickening, because we all felt it was gold, and a fun scene to shoot, we spent the most money on the scene, and it involved a sexy topless woman. It just didn’t work … it was a completely different film.
PA: I will tell one I guess. One night during the shooting of my segment we shot on the beach, and I had brought some lunchmeat for everyone to make sandwiches with. I left the meat in my trunk all night, then put it in the fridge the next day. The following day we were shooting at the restaurant location, and when I woke up I made myself a sandwich with the meat from the beach. About a half hour after I arrived on set I realized that something was terribly wrong inside my stomach. I became good friends with the toilet and had about 6 near-death experiences in the course of an hour. I was pretty wrecked for the rest of the day, and I earned myself the nickname “Bad Meat,” which sticks to this day.
TS: Food was the most valuable commodity on the set of the dog. On some of the nights, we all were blessed with lavish meals The Nelms brothers’ mom (Tracy) prepared us. Our favorite dish: strawberry pizza, a dessert that nears orgasm. On a certain night, Peter (Bad Meat) Atencio earned his nickname. He had purchased a meat and cheese platter two nights before, and was storing it in his car’s trunk while shooting. During the overwhelming experience that is making a film, Peter had left the platter in the trunk overnight. Without thinking and desperate for nourishment, Peter brought the platter in and ate several tepid cold cuts. He encouraged the rest of us to join him, but in the hustle of setting up the next shot, no one had the chance. Thirty minutes later Peter disappears: for an hour. He returned, disheveled, pale, and perspiring. He asked, “Anyone eat from the platter?” We all shock a vehement “NO.” The platter was discarded but lives on today in the nickname it gave Peter A.
What was it like seeing the film with an audience at the Palm Beach International Film Festival?
PA: I wish I knew, but unfortunately my habitual inability to manage my money caused me to miss the festival due to lack of funds. From what I heard, though, the audience loved it. I remember watching Channeling Alphonse and some of my other movies with audiences, and they’re among the best experiences of my life. There’s nothing like it for a filmmaker.
TS: Upon going to palm beach we all had hopes for the film … we’d slaved for nearly a year on the overall production … we were all close to it and prayed it would do well. A grass roots campaign was started by Peter D. and Mike Burke. They set up a myspace account; the idea was a stroke of genius. Before our plane even touched the ground, we had over a thousand members frothing at the bit to see the Dog. A school to college campaign was launched. We talked with the film school students and showed our trailer. With these kids the future of film looks so very bright. Every night NOTD showed, we paced in the halls and lost large amounts of body fluid. It ended with us selling out two screenings, adding another, which we sold out again. We had a lot of repeat viewers, which was surprising to us … we didn’t know what to expect … it was the first showing with an audience that knew nothing of us or the film. The crowds went crazy … it was an audience picture.
What went through your collective brains when Night of the Dog won the audience award for best feature film?
TS: It was announced, we stood up, and stumbled dumbfounded down to the floor. Sally Kellerman was giving away the awards … after she kissed Peter Donovan, who was the first to shake her hand, the big thing on our minds was are we are all gonna get to kiss “Hot Lips.” We did … it was mind numbing.
PA: The guys called me as soon as the festival was over, and I just couldn’t believe it. I went nuts. All week there had been rumbles of what if? among us, and the film had been doing extremely well, selling out a few shows, but I honestly don’t think any of us believed our tiny little film with no name actors shot on miniDV would ever actually pull it off. It was like winning the lottery, or at least what I imagine that feels like, since I’ve never done it.
How can anybody reading this get their hands on a copy of Night of the Dog?
TS: We’re currently seeking distribution … we hope to get into some upcoming festivals- Austin is one. We were told to not just hand out the film at random. But, we’ve got a website, www.nightofthedog.com, where you can view the trailer and read a few things about the film and it’s makers.
PA: You can send a strongly worded letter to major studios urging them to buy the rights to the movie, then you can buy a copy when it gets released in stores. Or you can sleep with one of us. I’m pretty sure anyone who sleeps with us from now on automatically gets a free copy.
So what’s next? Any new films on the horizon?
TS: As a collective, we’ve been throwing around a few ideas for a sequel. Currently, we’ve all got individual projects in different levels of development.
PA: I think we’re all working on projects right now. I just finished a short film I did with Dian Bachar (from Baseketball and Orgazmo) and I’m about to begin pre-production on a new feature I’m directing called 40 Days to Reclaim.