Saturday, December 31, 2011

DARK COUNTRY (2009)—On-stage Conversation With Thomas Jane and Eddie Muller

As dreadful and terrifying as Dark Country (2009) became by film's end, Eddie Muller insisted this horror-noir thriller was his type of a fun movie. With director-actor Thomas Jane joining him on-stage at the Castro Theatre for the film's one-off theatrical screening on November 18, 2011, and with their conversation being filmed (in 3D) for inclusion in the deluxe DVD release, Muller wasted no time eliciting Jane's commentary on the making of the film and tracing Dark Country's inspirations. "Was it obvious," Muller asked, "when you were finally going to direct the film that it was going to be a film like this?"

Jane responded that—for his first-time directorial effort—he had been looking for a project small enough to contain, which even then turned out to have its own set of incredible problems. A huge film noir fan, Jane had grown up reading EC comic books and watching
The Twilight Zone: all influences on Dark Country. The project kicked off when a good friend of his sent him a dark and twisted short story by Tab Murphy—known more for writing screenplays for Disney's animated films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Tarzan (1999)—and Jane knew right off that it would make a good film. Since after doing The Punisher (2004) Jane had a deal with Lionsgate, they bought the idea for Dark Country for $3,000,000 and hired Murphy to draft a script. But when at their first production meeting Jane proposed to Lionsgate that the film should be shot in 3D, they balked and backed out. No one was doing 3D at that time. Jane's suggestion was at least a full year ahead of the 3D curve.

But Jane was committed to the idea, having already met Ray "3D" Zone, who was known for his pioneering methods of converting flat images (in particular, comic books) into 3D images. Jane had grown up reading 3D comics like
The Rocketeer and Twisted Tales that featured Zone's stereoscopic effects and so—when they met at a meeting of the Stereo Club of Southern California (SCSC), an organization formed in 1950—Jane took the opportunity to express his admiration of Zone's 3D comics and mentioned that he wanted to work with him. Jane joked that the SCSC gets together in a church basement once a month to show each other nudie pictures in 3D; but, the bottom line was that SCSC members are the leading experts in their craft. They encouraged Jane to consider making a film in 3D and were already creating work on their own jerryrigged 3D cameras back when people were first starting to make their own movies on the RED and DSLRs. It was at the SCSC meetings that Jane learned about how technological advancements were affecting the way 3D movies were being made and how the seeds of the 3D movement were being planted.

Once Lionsgate backed away from the concept, wishing him good luck, Jane arranged for a meeting with Sony Home Video, who agreed to the project because they were hoping for homegrown content to support the 3D televisions they knew they would be placing in people's homes in the near future. Unfortunately there were no cameras to shoot a 3D film and no experienced 3D cinematographers so Jane hunted down Paradise FX who had done all the 3D effects for amusement park rides and convinced them to jump on board to engineer a 3D movie. They broke new ground. They rigged up huge cameras out in the desert with operators connected to cables, cables running all along the ground, and often the weather was so cold that the static electricity froze the cables up so that they couldn't shoot. A simple story with four characters that Jane thought would be a great way to "pop his cherry" as a director turned into a little bit more than he could chew.

Nonetheless, Jane persevered because he wanted the film to look like Edward Ulmer's Detour (1945), one of his favorite noirs. Paying homage to films from the '30s and the '40s, Jane utilized rear screen projections to create effects Muller described as "fabulous artificiality." Muller praised that Jane sought to create "a complete non-existent netherworld out there in the desert where anything can happen. How many claps of lightning can you have in one shot? I mean, it's fantastic." The film was shot quickly over two weeks and Jane pursued the feel of "hand-made set pieces" characteristic of noirs-made-on-the-cheap-and-dirty. When Jane cast Lauren German as Gina, he gave her a copy of
Detour as homework for her part. Other direct influences on Dark Country besides Detour were Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), from which Jane cribbed. A few ideas were also lifted from David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997).

Muller singled out the shot where Jane comes out of the diner and the camera circles 360° around his car at the gaspump. "I could almost feel Tom Neal and Ann Savage hitchhiking on the side of the road," Muller evoked. "I could almost feel the black and white creeping in." Jane had, in fact, tried to convince Sony to shoot the film in black and white—an idea that didn't go over well—even though he was convinced it would be "cool." Muller was wondering what gave Jane "the stones" to go into Sony and ask for 3D and B&W? Jane admitted: "I was just excited by the possibility of breaking new ground and doing something that hadn't been done before on a budget where no risk was involved."

Jane's ideal version of Dark Country would have been 79 minutes long and that was the way he planned it because it was the way he'd always wanted it. As a further homage to Detour (which Ulmer pared down to a concise 68 minutes), Jane wanted his film short. He fantasized that—with Eddie Muller doing commentary on his 79-minute film—it would become the noir of his dreams. But when Sony saw the film they gave him a note that the film needed to be at least five minutes longer. "Are you kidding me?" he thought. "This is a note from the studio? They want me to add something back in? Seriously?" Sony insisted because—in order for certain of their territories to buy and distribute the DVD—the film had to be 84 minutes long. That's why, Jane apologized, some of the scenes in the car are desultory and a bit talky. Originally, those scenes had fallen to the editing room floor on day one.

How tough was it, Muller queried, to not only come up with all these technological advances and direct the film but to also perform in front of the camera? Overwhelmed, Jane phoned up Mel Gibson. "The first guy to go to for advice, right?" Muller quipped. Jane told Gibson he was making this little movie over at Sony that was going straight to video but that he was also directing it, as well as acting in it, and how would one go about that? Gibson sympathized, "Yup. Yup. My first film was this little film Man Without A Face (1993) and it occurred to me that I had never directed so I nervously phoned up Clint Eastwood." Eastwood told Gibson he had experienced the same problem. "Don't tell me Clint called up Kevin Costner?" Muller laughingly interjected. No, Jane rallied, Eastwood didn't call Kevin Costner; but, he did call his buddy Don Siegel who told Eastwood not to shortchange himself as an actor just because he was directing as well. He told him to treat himself like he treated any other actor. "The tendency would be to shoot yourself and get on with it," Siegel warned, "but don't do that. Take the time and do what you would do acting with anyone else. Watch playback and treat it like a job. Take it seriously." Gibson talked to Jane for over an hour, offered all kinds of advice, and after their conversation Jane felt he might be able to pull the film off after all.

To make sure, Jane strategized that it would help to have extra eyes around on set so he hired Ray Zone as his 3D consultant. [Zone speaks to the experience on his own website.] Jane had already overprepared for the film by storyboarding every shot of the movie with storyboard artist Dave Allcock. They used a little toy car to set up the shots, which was a lot of fun. ( Dave, incidentally, has a cameo in
Dark Country. He and his girlfriend are on the missing poster.)

Then Ray Zone and Jane sat down at Jane's kitchen table and worked on the storyboard Jane had developed with Allcock. They developed a fun, color-coded system where they used magic markers to color every storyboard frame with different colors to indicate where they wanted the 3D to sit. Blue was in the frame, red was outside the frame and yellow was somewhere in the middle. That was their method for constructing the 3D in such a way that there would be continuity to the shots and they wouldn't be jarring or out of focus. But most importantly, learning from and building upon the mistakes that were made with 3D in the 1950s, Jane challenged himself by questioning how 3D effects could be used as part of the storytelling rather than mere spectacle? In
Dark Country Jane tried to harness 3D to create a psychological landscape within the interior of the car. Muller riffed: "It's interesting you cite Detour. All the times that I've introduced Detour at film noir festivals, I always say, 'This movie is so cheap. It's so simple. It goes to show you that all you need to make film noir is a man, a woman, and a locked hotel room. And so you now prove that all you need is a man, a woman and a car in the desert. That's it!"

Jane qualified it should be a sexy car, which led Muller to mention that he originally thought Jane had removed the rear view mirror from the window of the car and placed it on the dashboard as a way to get around issues with the 3D filming, but Jane advised him that, no, the 1960-1961 Dodge Phoenix came with the rear view mirror on the dashboard; but, the real challenge was that they had to find three cars: two for use on the road and one in the studio. Thus, the initial 360° shot of the car confirmed it was a major character in the film.

Muller offered that Jane had created what had now become one of his favorite noir scenes of all time. "You have to love it when you and Gina are in the parking lot of the rest stop and she complains, 'We've run over a guy. I've seen you murder somebody. We buried the body in the desert. All on our wedding day.
It's not supposed to be like this!"

When Muller added that
Dark Country was like "a comic book come to life", Jane was visibly pleased and admitted he loved hearing that because that was exactly what he wanted to create. He wanted the film to have that alternate reality comic book look without aping other comic adaptations like Dick Tracy (1990) or Sin City (2005). Though so many great comic book artists go unsung, they've influenced such well-known directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, among others, who have recognized the great shots to be gleaned from these graphics. "I stole as much as I possibly could," Jane confessed.

Pointing out that most people probably didn't know that Jane owned Raw Studios and was publishing comic books, he wondered who some of the unsung heroes were who influenced Jane? Jane recalled that his Dad bought him an issue of
Mad Magazine when he was eight years old "and that was it." From there he made the leap to EC Comics. In the town where he grew up in Maryland there was a bookstore called Barbarian Books that was, in effect, his "home away from home". He had to walk sideways to make his way through overstuffed aisles. That was where he found all his EC reprints and Gladstone stuff and really got into "the joy and the art of the illustrated story." He fell in love with "the great beautiful world" of illustrators: Johnny Craig, Bernie Krigstein, Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, among so many others. Jane's concern is keeping this culture alive for upcoming generations. He fears we're losing this "great beautiful world" to video games but believes there's still room for inspiring people and "doing work that lives in your brain and affects the way you see the world." When he got turned on to Berni Wrightson, for example, he saw the whole world through Bernie's eyes for months. He would see a girl and wonder how Bernie would draw the seams and creases in her skirt or the veins in her hands.

The greatest influence on the film, however, was Thomas Ott's graphic novels, from which Jane admittedly lifted specific shots. Ott draws black and white stories without dialogue and his work resembles woodcuts or etchings. His framing in a story called
Dead End in particular—which includes a long sequence of a guy driving through the desert—was a direct influence on Dark Country. To bring it full circle, Thomas Ott saw Dark Country and really liked it and—without knowing he was the inspiration—mentioned to Jane that he saw a lot of his own work in the movie. Jane asked him what he would think of doing a graphic novel adaptation of the film? Ott agreed to the suggestion, which Jane will put out through Raw Studios. On a recent trip to London Jane got together with Ott to take a look at the first pages and the experience was way too cool for him: he had envisioned Dark Country as a Thomas Ott novel and was now seeing it come to life through Ott's pen.

Before he discovered acting, Jane had drawn a lot in high school. He had wanted to be an illustrator but decided he'd get laid a lot more if he acted. Though he was good, he didn't have the necessary discipline, that "thing" that allows an illustrator to zone in and get lost in the work, which is what separates the men from the boys: that ability to "sit down, roll up your sleeves, and knock it out." Because he didn't have that, he knew he would never really be a great artist. Jane mollifed himself by considering he might paint when he becomes an old man.

Muller then invited Ray Zone to the stage and explained that Ray was responsible for setting the Castro screening of
Dark Country into motion. Ray had attended some of the Noir City screenings in Los Angeles, met Muller, and they had talked about Inferno (1953) and I, the Jury (1953), early film noirs that experimented with 3D. Then Zone asked Muller if he had seen Jane's 3D neo-noir Dark Country? They came up with the idea of screening Dark Country at the Castro and filming the on-stage conversation in 3D as a DVD extra and—as if to prove the point—Zone arrived on stage with paddle balls so that he, Jane and Muller could bounce paddle balls at the 3D camera set up off stage. Of course this was in homage to another 3D movie from 1953, Andre de Toth's House of Wax, wherein a paddleball man offered one of the best examples of the 3D experience at the time. Andre de Toth didn't want to include the scene, felt it distracted from the main narrative, but was forced to include it by Jack Warner and other studio execs. Some consider House of Wax the best 3D movie of all time, Muller reminded, even though it was made by a filmmaker with one eye who had no depth perception whatsoever.

Jane quoted John Ford as saying that it's the mistakes that are often the most interesting parts of a movie. Ron Perlman's line about leaving "no turn unstoned" was an adlib. Ron—sloughing 90 pounds of make-up—had flown directly to New Mexico from the set of
Hellboy 2 to shoot Dark Country.

Dark Country was set on a hot summer night in the desert, in reality they were shooting in November in New Mexico and it was "butt ugly cold." The ground was frozen rock hard. The actors had to use tricks like sucking on ice cubes before delivering lines so that their breath wouldn't vaporize. (Sucking on ice cubes gives an actor about 30 seconds where their breath doesn't show in cold air.) Hearing this made Muller appreciate the scene where Lauren German hangs her head out the window and moans, "It's soooooo hot." Jane recalled that German wore a tiny shift as thin as tissue paper during those cold night shoots. She was the smallest, thinnest person on the crew and was freezing. They had to to give her vitamin shots and fly her home to Los Angeles on the weekends to warm her up.

As for whether Jane would take on directing another 3D film? Absolutely. In the spirit of John Wayne's 3D western Hondo (1953), Jane would like to film a 3D gothic western, perhaps even a noir western. Ray Zone brought up that Raoul Walsh, another great noir director, also directed westerns that had dark tones. Wrapping up, Jane said that screening
Dark Country in 3D on the Castro Theater's large screen was the pinnacle of his whole experience of making the film because it was the way the film was meant to be seen, by an audience who "got" it. He never thought the day would come. "I literally built this film for this audience in this theater," he beamed.

Muller admitted that hosting the
Dark Country event was a crossroads for him in his career as the "Czar of Noir" because the entire event was digital. Earlier in the day, he had a conversation with a friend in the Castro about the future of 35mm film projection and how difficult it's becoming to get the studios to continue shipping 35mm prints. Three major studios—Warner Brothers, Paramount and Fox—are completely shutting down shipment of 35mm prints. Within the year, these studios will no longer allow Noir City to show their slate in 35mm. Noir City X (January 20-29, 2012) might possibly be the Film Noir Foundation's final 35mm-exclusive festival. It might certainly be the last time some of the films on the Noir City X program will be shown to the public in 35mm. "There's nothing anyone can do to stop this," Muller sighed. "The future is happening right now."

Muller qualified that—as long as they preserve a film somehow
on film—then he can live with the changes to come. They can digitize the prints and make film trafficking wonderful and easy and all that but he insists they mustn't lose the film in the process while converting inventory over to new digital formats. There are certain titles that are becoming extinct because they are being ignored in the rush to digital. It's well-known that film remains the best medium for preserving film and that digital copies are too volatile, requiring migration from one form of storage to the next as hardware and storage systems change.

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