"The end of a season means the beginning of a new one."
Toward the end of March 2009, the trailer for an independent film called After Last Season appeared on the iTunes movie trailer site, causing a small amount of puzzled Internet buzz. I can’t remember where I first read about the trailer but once I found it, I became obsessed with it.
The trailer simply doesn’t follow any rule of editing, and it’s so deeply strange that it’s hypnotic. There’s no real indication of plot. The featured dialogue is a series of non sequitur phrases, and there are reaction shots to things the audience isn’t privy to. The one time that something sort of conventionally trailer-ish happens an animated hand sprouts out of a wall in a poorly rendered CGI sequence the shot is so abbreviated that you have to pause the video to see what’s going on, as if whoever cut the trailer didn’t want us to see it.
The trailer goes like this: "The end of a season means the beginning of a new one," introductory text announces. A doctor standing in what appears to be a teenage girl’s suburban pink bedroom, complete with a ceiling fan, but which is doubling for a medical office talks about the diagnosis process while next to what’s described as an MRI scanner but which is obviously a cardboard box covered in paper. Cut to a woman in a room with butcher’s paper taped haphazardly to the walls in back of her. "There are still places I’d like to visit," she says. "I still haven’t been to the main market." A different young woman is she supposed to be the person being spoken to? looks from her left to her right (we never see her again in the trailer). Cut to a man talking on the phone in yet another room with butcher’s paper on the wall in back of him. "My uncle stayed in the area last year. Uh... he showed me a picture." There follows a series of disconnected shots of various people in various nondescript rooms saying things that don’t mean anything. We go back to the guy we saw earlier on the phone, now with a young blond woman. "Think of an object," he says. "Any object?" she replies, and there are shots of outdated computer graphics. "She’s in a room it appears to be very small," she says, and we see a CGI woman in a room with blank walls, then something briefly blooms out of one. (It’s impossible to tell what this thing is when watching at normal speed it’s the animated hand I mentioned earlier, but I only figured that out after viewing the trailer numerous times and finally noticing that something was, at last!, happening.) Plastic bins, the kind in which you store Christmas decorations in your attic, move by themselves on the floor. Cut back to the woman who wanted to go the main market. "My hometown is near Carolyn’s," she says to the blonde, who replies, "Um... I’ve never been to that town, but I’ve been through it." Back to the fellow on the phone again, who gets to close the trailer with these immortal words: "They’ve got, um, printers in the basement you can use."
And... cut to credits, with the final notice: "In theaters June 5th, 2009."
What the hell? I thought. Is this real? A joke? An almost - April Fool‘s Day hoax?
Then I watched the trailer again. And again. And again. With each successive viewing, it somehow made less sense.
I wasn’t alone in my bewilderment. While the trailer never exactly went viral, fans of odd cinema around the world dissected it. To this day, a blog post I wrote about After Last Season gets a couple of hits a week, often from Internet searches made in South America and Europe. A U.K. film site, Alternate Takes, began an intense discussion of the trailer almost immediately after it got posted. The trailer "appears to do the exact opposite of everything a trailer should do in that it seems to highlight the most mundane moments ("Here’s the questionnaire," "They’ve got printers in the basement," etc.), so in theory should be doing an appalling job of selling the film," Rick Wallace wrote. "However paradoxically, and ingeniously, it is precisely these selections that make the whole thing intriguing; I want to know... why the presence of the downstairs printers is so vital that the makers felt the need to put it in the trailer! This obviously depends on the clip actually being a trailer for an actual film, but it’s doing an excellent job of engaging interest by doing all the wrong things, and what’s doubly clever is that it seems to be aware that it is doing everything wrong, so the selection process is far from arbitrary."
At the time, the big question was, indeed, if this was a real trailer for an actual film. Somehow, the rumor started that the trailer was just a hoax, perhaps tied to Spike Jonez’s Where the Wild Things Are, which was scheduled to open that fall. "Jonze certainly enjoys a good joke," Clark Collis wrote on Entertainment Weekly’s website. "The filmmaker co-produced and appeared in both Jackass movies and once picked up an MTV Award in the guise of a fictional choreographer... And the trailer does look like some kind of gag."
"My uncle stayed in the area last year. Uh... he showed me a picture."
But it wasn’t a gag or a hoax. The film, written and directed by the pseudonymous Mark Region, actually opened in five markets on the date promised in the trailer. I wasn’t lucky enough to live near one of them, but I bought a copy of the DVD that fall.
You might think that After Last Season couldn’t possibly be as odd as the trailer, but you’d be wrong. The film is, perhaps, slightly more linear than the trailer, but the pieces don’t add up, and the non sequitur dialogue heard in the trailer makes no more sense in context than out. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out the plot, but here goes (and, if you’re concerned, there are spoilers going forward):
There have been several stabbing deaths in a university town. A med student named Sarah (played by Peggy McClellan) does part-time work for a large company called the Prorolis Corp. She and a colleague, Matthew (Jason Kulas), experiment with microchips attached to their foreheads; the chips allow them to read each other’s minds.
During the experiment, Sarah has flashes of a murder, which Matthew is able to see. We view them as he does in basic CGI that looks just a few generations up from Pong. These animated bits go on an astoundingly long time, sometimes without sound. There are geometric shapes and birds and humans, all crudely rendered.
Sarah and Matthew are vaguely threatened by an invisible something-or-other perhaps a ghost, though it’s not really clear which was behind the murders. But then Matthew wakes up. Yes, the entire sequence from when Sarah meets up with Matthew to use the chips, through the low-rent CGI and the invisible man till when Matthew awakes which takes up about 40 minutes, just shy of half the film’s running time is just a red herring that doesn’t really have anything to do with the nominal plot of the movie. The murder is eventually solved (it has something to do with corporate intrigue involving a former Prorolis employee) but the film is vague on details.
Much of the acting is flat, at times affectless. The dissonance produced when you’re very seriously talking about an MRI machine while standing next to what’s obviously a cardboard box can’t make delivering your lines any easier.
Technically, the film is a mess. The color and harsh lighting are different from shot to shot within scenes. Shots usually don’t match when there’s a cut the actor’s positions have changed and the light is different. Some scenes are incredibly grainy. In one sequence, an actress has been obviously green-screened into one of the film’s many nondescript, paper-covered hallways. (Couldn’t she just have been shot in some different nondescript, paper-covered hallway?) The dialogue, recorded on set and not looped later, is sometimes clear and sometimes bathed in a weird, watery murk that ebbs and flows in a way that freaked out my dog, who sat next to me on the couch as I watched the DVD.
I’ll admit that every once in a while the director, who acts as his own cinematographer, pulls off an image that does convey menace, in a way that might suggest he’s seen a David Cronenberg movie but that’s probably accidental. (In an interview on Filmmaker Magazine’s website writer-director Mark Region credits mainstream hits like The Sixth Sense and The Exorcist as inspiration. He also states the film was shot for something like $30,000 to $40,000, but with effects factored in, the overall budget for the film came to a mind-spinning $5 million.)
I posted a rather bewildered review on my blog, and thought that would be the end of it. The film would never make sense to me or, probably, anyone and I would never know how this puzzlement of a movie came to be.
"Picture a flat surface. Out of the surface, one letter arises."
"From the alphabet?"
Then something unexpected happened. Actor Jason Kulas found my review and wrote to me. We began corresponding via Facebook and email, and the whole thing started to... well, not make sense, exactly. I wouldn’t go that far. Later, I’d also contact two other actors in film, Casey McDougal (who gets the "I still haven’t been to the main market" line in the trailer) and Joan-marie Dewsnap (who plays the mother of one of the murder victims), for their input.
On getting cast:
Jason Kulas: "When I accepted the casting, all I knew was that it was a dramatic feature, shot on 35mm film (which I figured meant a budget at least in the tens of thousands), with some SAG actors, and it would be full-time and paid. Based on that, I thought it was going to be my highest-budgeted, most promising, highest-profile, most professional gig to date."
Joan-Marie Dewsnap: "I responded to an ad on NewEnglandFilm.com and auditioned in December 2007 at a Barnes and Noble café. It certainly made for an interesting and unique audition, performing in the midst of people sipping their lattes. I was surprised afterwards when they cast me."
Casey McDougal: "I first learned about the project through a casting call online."
On reading the script:
Kulas: "I still have the script and storyboards, probably scribbled with notes of all the dialogue the lead actress and I changed. We’d been turning some dialogue from what it was into fluent, vernacular English. Looking back, I kind of wish we hadn’t changed anything. Anyway, I wasn’t happy. I’d had high expectations, and this was not what I’d expected. With the writing quality, and all the CGI sequences, ghosts, and dreams, I found the plot confusing... The whole script felt disconnected from itself. What really gave me a sinking feeling was the dialogue not being fluent English. And even that is setting aside the fact that it was mostly banal, unemotional, mundane dialogue... I think it was the unusual level of mundanity (sic) that pushed it over the top.
Dewsnap: "Initially, the script was reading like a psychological thriller, but as it continued, it became a bit confusing trying to envision how it was going to be shot."
McDougal: "I thought [the script] was incredibly involved and complex. There were many layers to the plot and different characters who seemed to represent ideas and really served to move the plot along. Mark Region was interested in bringing actors to the script who would be able to give the characters depth that maybe wouldn’t have been so easily found right off the page."
Kulas: "I thought hard about backing out. But I take my commitments very seriously, and I’d made one. I knew I’d be letting down other people who had made commitments. I held out some hope. This script had some standard elements that can make a film interesting to some... science fiction, ghosts, violence. Maybe with the director’s vision it would be better as a film than it was on paper. Maybe some great camerawork, action, dramatic lighting, suspenseful music, and good editing could make the film interesting, or at least watchable. Looking back, I was self-justifying. I knew that a bad script generally means a bad film. But I was justifying to myself the keeping of my commitment. I think I was blocking out the whole dialogue issue. No matter the vision, or if the film achieved a good atmosphere, this film was only ever going to be a cult film with dialogue like that."
On the production:
Kulas: "So I went to the shoot. And with what I quickly learned, it just seemed ridiculous, and surreal. I learned we didn’t have real locations for about the first five full days of filming. I was stunned. I couldn’t conceive of putting this much time, money, and effort in, but not securing an apartment building. An office building. A classroom. Perhaps a vet clinic to stand in as a medical facility. That’s relatively easy to do. And inexpensive. And will look appropriate.
"The sets struck me as like from a middle school play. When I saw the cardboard and paper MRI, with moving parts and lights, I will say it was the best cardboard MRI anyone could make. And it did cost money. But I was incredulous after my introduction to the shoot. It seemed surreal that with all the money, time, and energy going into it that it was really going to be shot this way.
"New problems showed up as we started shooting. The space was unheated, and we were in northern Massachusetts in January and February, wearing light clothing. You could see your breath on set, though I don’t think that showed on film. The two large space heaters were blowing out circuits if you ran the film lights and heaters at the same time, so the heaters could rarely be turned on. The rooms were so large they could not have been heated anyway. It was sometimes possible to turn them on between takes. You would huddle over them with giant horse blankets enclosing you and the heater. Or you might get time to go to a heated area. But getting a few minutes of warmth periodically still left you cold a lot. With the cold and long hours, I know some people got sick from the shoot.
"The cold had a lot of effects on us. I could see in pre-release photos and trailers that sometimes my nose was red, and my face pale and immobile. Unless you know me, when watching the film, you might not realize I’m often lisping or slurring words because my lips are too frozen to speak normally. The cold tired us out and wore us down. You ended each day deeply chilled, tired, and feeling beaten up.
"During shooting we sometimes asked about motivations, goals, and emotional context. Or when we found the script or shoot process confusing, asked about the scene itself. Mark’s directing was sparse. Sometimes it devolved into him just saying ‘just do this.’ It could be ‘just walk backward slowly while looking to your right like you’re looking at something.’ And we might not get a clear understanding of just what it was we were supposed to be looking at, or precisely when or where it was occurring in the script.
"We filmed individual lines and shots out of sequence, from all over the script; often without our scene partner being present (they were off getting warm). That made things a bit confusing at times. It did of course save a lot of time, money, and film stock.
"It also made for stilted, disjointed scenes. When a scene is assembled from lines said out of sequence, on different days, while you’re looking into space (no scene partner), and being told to complete this line within seven seconds (before the film remainder ran out), it doesn’t help make a smooth-flowing interaction in the scene.
"So picture the situation: We’ve been cold for a while, we’re worn out, parts of the script are confusing, the shoot process makes it more confusing, Mark’s directing isn’t making it fully clear, or giving us new depth or nuance (so it’s feeling a little pointless to ask many questions), much of the action/dialogue is mundane, we’re often being told to just be ‘average,’ and our creative and critical faculties are declining as we’re freezing. So when we’re told ‘just do this,’ and he’s happy with it, we went with that. I know, not exactly great craft.
"Unfortunately, there wasn’t time or money allocated to having discussion, or rehearsal, or multiple takes. Mark knew what he wanted, and was happy with what he got. I think it would’ve been time-consuming and ineffective to try to change the course of things, and not my position to do as an actor. It was too late anyway. Even if some scenes could’ve been improved, the movie wasn’t going to get substantially rewritten while in production.
"Ultimately, I did not ask many questions. Only when necessary to clarify how to give Mark what he wanted. Perhaps just once or twice we said things like, ‘wouldn’t we be more scared now?’ (but he didn’t want that). Overall, if he asked for something I thought wasn’t going to work, rather than raising questions/discussion about it, or trying to change a scene trajectory or an emotional arc, I just did it. I knew it wouldn’t be a good film, but I’d let it be the film the director wanted to make."
Dewsnap: "While waiting to film a scene, someone pointed across the hall to the MRI machine that the director had built and said how great it had turned out. I remember looking at it and feeling like someone who can’t see the picture within a picture. To me, it just looked like a white box made of paper.
"I was only involved in the filming of my scenes, so I did not know how the other scenes were shaping up. I would say that I was more concerned about how my scenes were developing. Everything was being shot in one take, and I surprised the director when I recognized I flubbed a line and asked to do the scene again."
McDougal: "Mark was very kind and incredibly thorough with explaining the project to me. He’s also a quiet, somewhat shy, thoughtful person."
On seeing the film:
Kulas: "After shooting for about a day, I had a pretty good idea what the final product would be like. And I was right. It was what I thought it would be. Bad. Sometimes in ways I could not have known or predicted. Other things I already knew from the shoot, or could predict.
"I did predict that with all the blank white sets and not many establishing shots, the film was probably going to be spatially confusing, and it was.
"Mark seemed to have completely pre-edited the film in his head. He knew exactly what shots, angles, masters, and close-ups he wanted in the final edit. So he didn’t shoot ‘standard coverage’ of scenes. Which did save time and film and money, but it’s not a very natural way to work, and it doesn’t give you flexibility in editing.
"A lot of scenes were too static. It wasn’t like we often rehearsed the scenes, then blocking was refined, and finally shots were adjusted. The shots and lines were being done heavily out of order, and Mark would know he wanted a specific shot done a certain way. But I think this resulted in too many locked-down shots where the actors are too constrained and it doesn’t come out as natural.
"Some things I had no idea about from the shoot. Framing, coverage, sound issues, how the lighting looks through the lens, the CGI, lack of music and sound, etc. I didn’t know the pacing would be so slow and dream-like. The director had talked about the film being like a regular action/suspense film, so I expected a much faster-paced film. I knew the dialogue would make for mostly slow scenes. I assumed the action scenes and CGI scenes would be edited in a fast-paced manner.
"One of the biggest surprises was the editing. You have more control during editing, it seems like it would be easy to do it better. For instance, sometimes after ‘action,’ an actor is waiting for the sound to die out, for the set to settle, and they’re just in their head, before launching into performance. Remember, too, we are quite literally frozen. If an actor looks blank before performing, I would expect that to get edited out. But the film seemed to leave all that in. I guess those blank looks seemed right to Mark.
"Or I saw lengthy reaction shots in which no dialogue was overlaid. It looked like an awkward use of the listening/reaction shots, like the actors are pausing unnaturally.
"Although nearly everything had to be one take, I noticed one spot where I started the shot, and blew my first line on about the second or third word. I stopped and was silent for a second, then redelivered the line correctly, and finished the shot. But it was all left in my mistake, and my resetting myself, and then resaying the line.
"Near the end of the film, the ghost talks in voiceover to us. There was no ghost dialogue on set, so we just had to pause for an ‘appropriate’ length of time before speaking again. There are awkward pauses and lingering silences. That could’ve been edited better. Or create some more ghost dialogue to fill up the dead time. Again, it just seems slow paced and awkward."
Dewsnap: "When my husband and I found out it would be opening on a few screens, we decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Rochester, NY, to see it, as we didn’t know the distribution plans beyond that. We flew down on Saturday and planned on catching the earliest show Sunday morning before flying back that same day.
"As we drove into the Tinseltown USA theater parking lot, we noticed a man walking down the road and wondered if he was the sort that took in all the films that were shown. I must admit I was excited to see the film’s poster hanging outside. We bought our tickets and headed into the deserted theater; a few minutes later, we had our answer. The same man walked in and sat down to share the experience.
"None of us knew what we were in for; as the film rolled, I had to continually ask my husband to stifle his laughter in case the rest of the audience was trying to take the film seriously. However, the man kept fidgeting during the film, fidgeting that increased with each passing minute. We were almost to the end of the film when the man finally burst out and yelled ‘Oh, come on!’ at the screen. My husband could contain his laughter no longer. The man soon walked out before the final minutes rolled by, and I shared my husband’s laughter long after the credits finished rolling."
McDougal: "As an actor, you never know how a film will turn out. It is a collective piece of teamwork. That being said, I’m not entirely sure what Mark’s complete vision of the film was, and upon viewing the film, I realized it was edited in such a way that he is going for something incredibly specific and intentional that requires more than one viewing. I’ve seen the film twice. I know a lot of people have many different theories about the film, which I think is great, but Mark put a lot of effort into this project, and the end product is incredibly important to him."
On the writer - director’s intentions:
Kulas: "Some have wondered was this intentionally a cult/bad film. I’ve never thought that. I’ve even spoken to some of the other actors a lot since the shoot. We were all trying to give the director what he wanted, even when we didn’t understand fully. We weren’t trying to make it bad. If the director wanted some mundane, bad dialogue performed, we performed it as we thought appropriate, until he was happy with it, which was usually the first take.
"Some have speculated whether the director wanted to make a cult/bad film, but lied to the actors so we wouldn’t know. I don’t think so. I spent a while with Mark, under stressful working conditions, and at his home. I think I would’ve detected if there was deception. And Mark’s handling of the film post-release has been the opposite of someone wanting to capitalize on cult status. He’s declined some high-profile and money-making opportunities with the film."
"They’ve got, um, printers in the basement you can use."
After Last Season is, in the end, rather the odd duck of cult films. A small group of people (in viral-video Internet terms, that is) remains curious about the film, but it’s never going to break through into pop-culture awareness the way, say, The Room or Birdemic have both as bad as After Last Season, but somehow much more accessible.
I’ve sometimes wondered why one bad film becomes a cult favorite, playing to packed houses at midnight screenings, while another languishes in obscurity, but I don’t think there’s any clear-cut answer. Some (The Apple comes to mind) are just deliriously entertaining despite being inarguably bad they connect with audiences on some level, even if that level isn’t what their creators intended. Writer-director Tommy Wiseau, for instance, now maintains that The Room was always intended to be a "dark comedy," probably giving in after attending too many screenings filled with laughing viewers.
After Last Season is a tougher nut to crack than the likes of The Room. It makes no sense from a logical or even a dream-like perspective. It’s poor technically, and it’s often grindingly dull. That CGI sequence, long portions of which unfold without sound, is particularly hard to get through awake. In the end, I think After Last Season is just too boring to become a big cult item. (That said, I’ve only watched the film alone it’s possible that it would be more fun watching with a group.)
And yet, there’s something about this damned movie that I can’t seem to shake off. For all the film’s faults, and they are legion, there’s something inexplicably charming about it (to me, anyway), and I’ve remained fascinated by it since that nonsensical trailer first appeared. Mark Region had a vision, and he managed to film it and get it into theaters in an age when even relatively big-budget films with name actors go directly to video.
After Last Season may not make a lick of sense, but there’s something inspirational about that.
See the preview and get After Last Season at www.afterlastseason.com