The Making of Vino Veritas Or, There is Truth in Nebraska By David MacGregor. Prologue Did you ever see Lost? I was in Lost. The Icelandic Sagas are stirring tales filled with heroic men, valiant deeds, and the occasional Viking head rolling across the frozen tundra...
Did you ever see Lost?
I was in Lost.
The Icelandic Sagas are stirring tales filled with heroic men, valiant deeds, and the occasional Viking head rolling across the frozen tundra. My saga, the Nebraska Saga, is the tale of an independent film being made in Lincoln, Nebraska in the summer of 2011. It is filled with heroic filmmakers, valiant performances, and tundra far from frozen. It could be argued that heads should have rolled, but mercifully, they didn’t.
The name of the film is Vino Veritas and it is, brace yourself, a dark comedy for adults. I know, I know, that’s tantamount to entertainment business heresy, but it’s a film for people who have put away their acne medication and who are relatively immune to the ungodly yodeling that passes for singing on this or that talent show. But why, you ask? Why make a film for adults? Isn’t that like opening a vegan restaurant for dogs? Perhaps. Then again, I have a spaniel that enjoys the occasional grape, so maybe a movie for adults isn’t such an outlandish idea after all. What follows is a brief recounting of the nuts and bolts, the highs and lows, of making an independent film. It was a fairly precarious high-wire act. One bout of stomach flu, one hellacious thunderstorm, and we would have been screwed. But somehow, we overcame faulty hard-drives, sweat-soaked costumes, occasional temper tantrums, and ended up with a movie. A pretty damned good movie. This is how we did it.
The Back Story
I’m trying not to be mean.
I suppose it all began on a gorgeous Spring day when I popped my one-year-old son into his stroller and walked up to the park. When we got there, I released the intrepid lad and he immediately toddled off to explore this elaborate and colorful plastic slide contraption. Next to the slide were a couple of three-year-old twins. My son walked up to them, happy to see small people, at which point one of the twins shoved my son in the chest. Eager to join in, his sibling wound up and punched my son in the face, knocking him down. I jumped up from where I was sitting and advanced towards the scene of the crime at a high rate of speed. You might think that my intent was to soothe my son’s hurt feelings and perhaps to chastise the evil twins. Well, no. My goal was to grab the two three-year-olds and rip their little fucking heads off. Not figuratively. Not metaphorically. Literally.
Somehow, I managed not to do that. I picked my son up, took him over to the swings, calmed him down, and that was that. Well, except for the fact that I was still visibly shaking from the two gallons of adrenaline surging through my veins. It was a pretty disturbing incident. I like to think of myself as a reasonably sane, kind, thoughtful and empathetic person. My reaction to seeing my son being attacked was none of those things. It was the reaction of a mother crocodile protecting its young. I was stunned that I had that inside of me, but the more I thought about it, well, of course I have that inside of me. We all do. The only reason that we’re here in the first place is thanks to millions of years of homicidally protective parents.
To put it simply, that’s the truth. Maybe it’s not a very nice truth, but it is the truth, like it or not. And that’s what Vino Veritas is about. It’s about the truth. Uncomfortable truths. It’s about people who think they know themselves and know one another being put in a situation where they interact with all filters removed. This leads to the revelation of not merely personal secrets, but the kind of primal feelings and ideas that take hold of us from time to time, and which we try to suppress or dismiss as deviant or bizarre. Well, they definitely feel deviant and bizarre, up until the point where we realize that our friends and spouses have equally deep rivers of absurdity and darkness running within them that we never even suspected.
That idea, of people stripped to their intellectual and emotional cores, began percolating inside me. I wanted to write something about that as honestly as I could. So I gave it a shot.
I don’t play that many terrorists.
It began as a play. Yes, I know it’s bad form to admit that a movie was ever a play, but since it’s a movie about the truth, I suppose this article should at least be marginally truthful in some ways. From a movie perspective, plays have a certain stigma attached to them, although it’s my understanding that films like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Ruling Class and Arsenic and Old Lace may have had some slight association with theatre before they became movie classics. At any rate, Vino Veritas premiered as a play at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, MI in 2008. Two couples meet for their yearly ritual of drinks and hors d’oeuvres before heading out to a Halloween party, and they are all wearing their costumes (witch, cowboy, doctor, and Queen Elizabeth I). This year, however, the hostess brings out a bizarre blue wine that she just picked up in Peru. Brewed from the skins of blue dart tree frogs, it’s the ceremonial wine of an Amazonian tribe, and it supposedly has truth-telling properties. Three characters drink the wine, one doesn’t, and although things start off amusingly enough, they get progressively darker and more disturbing as the story unfolds. Imagine a bobsled ride down Mt. Everest...on a moonless night...during a blizzard...yet brutally funny. That’s the essence of Vino Veritas. What becomes clear is that while some people need the truth to be happy, other people need to avoid it as much as possible. For whatever reason, the play struck a nerve with audiences, with one publication declaring it the "best new play of the year." Since then, it has been produced in a number of venues around North America, most importantly for this story at the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, where an extremely cultured and perceptive woman attended not only the opening performance, but every single performance after that. She then acquired a copy of the play and sent it to her film director daughter in New York, suggesting that it might make a good movie. The daughter, Sarah Knight, agreed. Sarah had directed a number of award-winning short films, with her most recent being Diamonds Are a Girl‘s Best Friend (a documentary about Nicole Sherry, Head Groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles), and after reading Vino Veritas, she thought it would be the ideal script for her feature film directorial debut.
She contacted me; we chatted about things over coffee in New York, and decided that I would adapt the play into a screenplay and that we would produce the movie ourselves. How, exactly, would we go about doing that? Well, our master plan entailed two concepts:
- We would beg people for money.
- We would try to entice really good actors with both theatre and film backgrounds to be in the film.
We founded our production company, Blue Frog Films LLC, and decided to use a fiscal sponsor (the Film Forum in New York) to help raise money. As a non-profit entity, when people donated money to our project through the Film Forum, they got a tax write-off. The Film Forum kept five percent of the take, and we got the rest. Slowly, money trickled in from very generous friends and family. Then, the owner of a Nebraska winery (no, I’m not kidding) heard about our film and thought that a film about a very special wine was a terrific idea...especially if that film was made in Lincoln, Nebraska.
This gave us pause. As it turns out, remarkably few actors with distinguished pedigrees live in Nebraska. Then there was the matter of the crew and the equipment. Still, the director was originally from Lincoln and had a support network of friends and family there, we found the perfect house to shoot in, and the winery was offering to give us a head-turning amount of cash. Hello, Lincoln, Nebraska!!!
As for the actors, the first actress we approached was Carrie Preston, whom the director loved on both stage and screen. An accomplished director in her own right, she has been in films like Doubt and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but is perhaps best known for her role as waitress Arlene Fowler in HBO’s True Blood series. She read the script and said she was in. Next up was Bernard White, again a veteran of stage and screen, and best known for his role as Rama-Kandra in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Born in Sri Lanka, he sounded quite exotic, up until the point I learned that he graduated from Michigan State University the same year I did. He read the script and said he was in too. Clearly, we were on a roll, with the first two actors we approached signing on. The final two roles were trickier, but we were extremely fortunate to get Heather Raffo (best known for writing and starring in the one-woman show, Nine Parts of Desire), and Brian Hutchison, an experienced New York stage actor who has also made occasional forays into film and TV. Finally, our location was a beautiful old home built in the 1920s that also serves as a photo studio for the current owner. Considering that the film’s story takes place in the home of a couple who own their own photo studio, it was an absolutely perfect fit. So, with script, financing, director, cast and location in place, it would now be an easy matter of shooting the film. Simple. Oh, and our shooting schedule? Twelve days.
The Production - The Beginning
The only way I would live here is if I was wanted or something.
The drive to Nebraska from Michigan was a relaxing jaunt of 765 miles. Aware that we weren’t exactly flush with help, I brought my 17-year-old son with me to put him to work as a Production Assistant. I also stopped in Warsaw, Indiana, to pick up my soon-to-attend-NYU-Film-School nephew to put him to work as a Production Assistant as well. These days, slave labor tends to get a bad rap, but if it was good enough for the Egyptian pharaohs, it was good enough for me.
When we arrived in Lincoln, one thing was apparent. It was hot. As in baking, energy-sapping, soul-destroying hot. The biggest problem with the heat was that the film is set on Halloween night, and not Halloween night on the surface of the sun. The house we were filming in had no central air-conditioning to begin with, so throw in some movie lights and twenty people standing in a room, and things rapidly get a bit toasty when it’s routinely over one hundred degrees outside. So, fans were brought in: electric, battery-operated, and hand-operated. Portable air-conditioning units were procured, along with the necessary flexible silver ducts, and soon the house looked like it was being attacked by a giant silver squid, with ducts running everywhere, including up actresses’ dresses between takes. Finally, ice packs were purchased, which the actors would literally strap to their bodies in an effort to keep their body temperatures down and stop the sweat from pouring off them like they were in a Turkish sauna.
So far, so somewhat good. Then we ran into make-up issues. Our first make-up person was not quite up to the task, with one actress commenting, "I look like I’m going to a Texas wedding." Our second make-up person quit after three hours by sending the following text, "I have to leave. I’m a single mom and I have to deal with an issue. I can’t tell you what it is." Make-up person number three was Dustin, a female impersonator fresh off a stint impersonating Liza Minnelli and Michael Jackson (not strictly a woman, but close enough) in Utah. Happily enough, Dustin was terrific, and even brought in one of his female impersonator friends to help out as well.
The set looked really good, both the interior and exterior of the house. Although one of the set-designers self-deprecatingly commented that it looked like "it was designed by two chimps with a cell phone," the house was filled with an incredible variety of severed heads, bloody hands, cobwebs, and a truly remarkable skeletal torso that appeared to replicate the appearance of someone who had been buried alive. Shooting on two state-of-the-art Red Digital Cameras, we had an extremely experienced crew, headed up by John Beymer, an Emmy-winning cinematographer who was the Director of Photography for over one hundred episodes of Law and Order. Our costume designer, Carlos Brown, had worked on films such as Like Water For Chocolate, and our Assistant Costume Designer, Andy Anderson, went so far as to design and create the wedding rings worn in the film.
Rigorously organized and meticulously detailed though we were, through some breach in the space-time continuum, we somehow ended up behind schedule almost from the very beginning. This resulted in the director and I meeting regularly in the bar at the Cornhusker Marriot after each day’s shooting to go over the schedule and to shake our heads in mystification. With no time wormhole in our budget, the only solution was to impose on the cast and crew just short of the point where they would become mutinous and murderous. Not much of a plan, but it was all we had.
The Production The Middle
Hey, did you get your girlfriend pregnant yet?
Nah. She turned lesbian on me.
You might imagine that as the screenwriter and co-producer, my life on set and during the shoot was one of laconically barking out impossible demands and having fawning acolytes fetch me peeled grapes. That was certainly my expectation, but the reality was much different. Holed up in a $40 per night Extended Inn with a bed and a pull-out sofa, my son and nephew cagily commandeered both sleeping surfaces by going to sleep before me, so I wound up sleeping on the floor. On a typical day, I chauffeured actors and crew to and from the set, made runs to Home Depot for things like soap and painter’s tape, filled in as the second boom operator, and became very familiar with the route to what became my own personal ninth circle of hell Starbucks. It was an amazing thing. It would begin with one of the actors making the simple remark, "Man, I could go for a Starbucks." Bearing in mind the heat and our grueling shooting schedule, I would say, "I’d be happy to get you something. What would you like?" Not two minutes would pass before a horde of film people would descend upon me, "Hey, you going to Starbucks...I heard you were going to Starbucks...Starbucks?" They were like vultures on fresh carrion, and soon I would have nine orders for "large dirty almond milk mocha latte" thingees. But, if overpriced java was the price to pay for keeping the cast and crew happy, then overpriced java it was.
And so we ground on. Shoot the scene. Shoot the close-ups. Shoot the reaction shots. Move everything to the other side of the room to shoot reverse shots. As the saying goes, the two things you never want to watch being made are laws and sausages, but films can be quite comfortably added to that list. In between scene set-ups (and essential Starbucks runs), I would tweak and adjust the script as the actors and director brought up various points, or we decided to keep or amend an improvised piece of dialogue. Was what we were doing any good? Was it bad? There wasn’t much time to reflect on that. Like tightrope walkers, we couldn’t afford to look anywhere but straight ahead, because we had to keep shooting our 12-14 hours a day.
The Production The End
The Angel of Death is blocking the light.
The final days of the shoot had what might best be described as a Bataan Death March feel to them. The heat was relentless, sleep-deprivation was setting in, and the cicadas at night were driving the sound guy out of his mind. The actors had an almost perpetual "what did I get myself into?" expression, but once the cameras were rolling, they were invested, animated, and often just flat-out brilliant. It was a wonderful thing to witness. And a hell of a relief too. On our last night, we finally filmed a scene set out on the front porch, which we had been putting off in the hope that the heat would abate at least a little. We closed the street off, the locals showed up with their folding chairs to watch a movie being made, and the cicadas gave it their best shot. With the end in sight, both cast and crew gave it one last Herculean effort as night crept on to early morning. By this point, even the cicadas were exhausted, and we finally wrapped somewhere around three or four in the morning. People who should have engaged in hearty hugs and congratulations all around instead wandered off into the night in search of a horizontal surface to lie down on. The battle had been bravely fought, but we wouldn’t know if we’d won until we began editing the footage together. After maybe three hours of sleep, it was finally time to leave the blast-furnace of Lincoln, Nebraska. I offered to give Bernard White a ride to the airport in Omaha, which gave him and my son a chance to get to know one another better. We were no sooner on the road than my son said, "When I first met you, I thought you were a real asshole. But I changed my mind." Pleased to hear this, Bernard cancelled his flight and joined my son and me for a minor-league baseball game featuring the Clinton LumberKings in Iowa. Watching the two new best friends enjoying their hotdogs and wearing their complimentary Clinton LumberKings caps, I could say that the entire experience had been well worth it.
Oh, and the film? It’s something. It’s beautiful, funny, thought-provoking, and filled with terrific performances. If you ever momentarily tire of superhero extravaganzas, remakes of remakes, and beloved black comedians in fat suits, you should watch it as a kind of filmic palate cleanser. It will give you an idea that even now, in our own CGI-infested, irony-obsessed day and age that a movie can still tell a very human story. And as if that isn’t enough, the film will also help validate your secret belief that the Hundred Acre Wood occupied by Winnie the Pooh and his pals is nothing less than a cartoon insane asylum. As the character Claire expresses it, "You want to talk to me about Winnie the Pooh? I’ll tell you about Winnie the fucking Pooh." And so she does. If you can handle the truth, you should check it out.
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