DOES THIS FILM HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH JOHN FORD'S THE SEARCHERS?
It would be nice to say that it's an affectionate parody, or else
a science fiction remake set on the moons of Jupiter. But neither
would be true.
I had been trying to get a project going in Liverpool, in England:
exec-producing a slate of eight micro-budget features, in time for "Capital
of Culture" year, 2008. Involving almost the whole audio-visual
community (directors, actors, writers, producers, composers, special
effects, camera and crew) it would have given the drifting Culture
Capital project some badly-needed local participation, and the local
industry some support.
That project was not to be. Yet the idea of a microfeature - costing
a hundred thousand pounds or less - stuck with me. This was the low
road, the way we'd originally wanted to make REPO MAN before a studio
Now, if I was going to make a feature film for such a low budget,
it had to be something interesting and amusing - working with actors
I liked, who were my friends, rather than skittish weirdos with "star" status
or "bankability." I'd been out to Monument Valley in 2005
to watch ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST on a big inflatable screen.
I knew the inflatable screen guys were coming back in 2006 to show
THE SEARCHERS on its 50th anniversary. So I thought, what about a
film involving a road trip out to Monument Valley, to catch the screening
of THE SEARCHERS? Who (apart from me) would make such a trip? No
one drives 2,000 miles just to watch a movie. There had to be a reason
for it. A real reason.
SEARCHERS 2.0, the script, was the result.
Every screenplay I've written (how many is that? 40? 50?) has had
the same initial response: "the characters are unsympathetic." Perhaps
this is why so few of them were made. Financiers are simple, twisted
souls who like a simple story with false breasts, perfect white teeth,
and a muscular, anti-intellectual action hero. Fred lifts weights
while watching TV but he is otherwise unheroic: bogarting the joints
and the beer, telling ridiculous and untrue stories, bitching about
Al Gore and Michael Moore. Mel is, if anything, worse: a penniless
deadbeat dad who gets itinerant workers fired and lies to his daughter.
And Fritz Frobisher, beater of little children, is the worst of all.
But, perhaps because the story was about actors, and the politics
were in the sub-plot (we follow a trail of sad memorials to those
killed in WWII, Afghanistan and Iraq), there was actual interest
in this one. A few kind people offered to buy shares via the internet.
A reclusive millionaire wanted to shoot it in five minute segments,
to be downloaded to cell phones. A couple of "real" LA
producers proposed they take the project on. The catch was casting.
Their visions didn't involve the actors I'd had in mind: Del Zamora
and Ed Pansullo. For your standard Hollywood producer, the writer's
or the director's intentions are irrelevant. Who would bother to
make a picture for only $200K when - with Cheech and Bill Murray
on board - you could raise 3.5 million, maybe 4?
At one point in SEARCHERS 2.0, Mel and Fred are mistaken for homeless
people by a Mexican guy who gives them a dollar. This follows the
revelation that neither of them has health insurance. Not a big deal
- 40% of the people living in the US don't have any, either. But
imagine Bill Murray or Cheech Marin, or any other pair of upper-middle-class,
Hollywood actors, trying to say those lines. It would be impossible.
Worse, it would be despicable - like Jack Nicholson and Madonna playing
homeless people, in a film for Universal.
Then someone showed up who understood this: Jon Davison, legendary
producer of WHITE DOG, AIRPLANE, ROBOCOP, and STARSHIP TROOPERS.
JD had retired from the business to go prospecting in Telluride.
But the script - or the prospect of working with Ed Pansullo, an
actor he had long admired - lured him back to the City of the Angels.
JD took the script to Roger Corman, who (considering his long, illustrious
career as an independent director and producer) we might call the
inventor of the microfeature.
Mel and Fred were written for Zamora and Pansullo. And there was
an obvious part for that great actor Sy Richardson. For the other
principal cast members we went the old-fashioned way and held auditions!
The casting directors were Jan Glaser and Christine Joyce: they introduced
us to Jaclyn Jonet and Zahn McClarnon.
SEARCHERS 2.0 was filmed in 15 days, on the road from Venice, CA,
to Monument Valley, AZ. We were working our way towards the shortest
day of the year; we'd start at 0700 and wrap around 1600, or 1700.
Travel made some days longer. On our penultimate day, it snowed.
The cinematographer was Steve Fierberg, with whom I'd worked on SID & NANCY,
and WALKER. The designer, of course, was Cecilia Montiel; Diego Sandoval
was her art director.
Shooting so rapidly changes the way you make a film: we shot almost
in sequence; the actors had to be exceptionally well prepared, since
the daily page counts were so high; they also drove the production
On a regular feature the cars are usually towed or put on a low-loader.
It's probably safer if the actors don't drive: they have a lot of
words to say and if the car is towed they can concentrate on acting,
not driving. But towing cars or carrying them on trucks slows
things down enormously: in addition to the tow truck there's usually
a camera car, a couple of follow vehicles and the inevitable pair
of highway patrol cruisers or phalanx of motorcycle cops. This is why
even an "independent" Hollywood road movie resembles a
minor procession involving the Roman emperor.
Luckily, our cast were all good drivers. And despite the SUV-gas-revenge
theme, the production had a relatively modest footprint. Half a dozen
actors and twelve crew people fit into five vehicles: two Suburbans,
a Jeep, an art department van, and a mobile home avec generator.
Del came to the auditions (he read opposite all the Delilahs and
Rustys) by bicycle, and only two one-way airplane trips (ferrying
actors from LA to Prescott, AZ) were made.
We used a Canon HDV camera on the recce (shooting by mistake in
a fake "24p" format which was really NTSC 29.97), and three
Sony Z1s in production, at 50i PAL. (One of the cameras died; all
three had different quirks, but Steve came to like them by the end.)
Most of the stills were shot on a Lumix DMC-LX2: a little Panasonic
camera with a 16X9 aspect ratio and a Leica lens. At the end of the
shoot, our sound recordist, Alexandra Gallo, told JD that - if she'd
understood what we had planned - she'd have turned the job down,
since it was impossible. (Alexandra is very modest. Her sound is
Digital shooting brought an additonal benefit for the actors: the
absence of tape measures and slates being pushed in their faces just
before they gave a performance. It hadn't occurred to me how annoying
and off-putting these last-minute camera department checks are for
the cast: shooting on video liberates you in unanticipated ways...
For our last shooting week we were based at Gouldings Trading Post
and Lodge, overlooking Monument Valley. This is a great place, very
film-friendly (they've been putting up movie crews since Harry
Goulding persuaded John Ford to shoot STAGECOACH there). Gouldings
screen DVDs of old Ford pictures every night (usually STAGECOACH, SHE
WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and THE SEARCHERS): I only hope they're not
too horrified by SEARCHERS 2.0 when they see it.
I cut the film in a log cabin, two days' drive from Monument Valley,
using Avid Xpress Pro on a Mac laptop. No technical problems were
encountered. The picture files were kept on several different media:
one drive, a Seagate, died, but drives by OWC and G-Tech proved reliable.
Special effects were created by Eric Leven at Tippet Studios in
Berkley, and by Peter Kuran, at VCE Films in LA. Score and sound design
- by Dan Wool and Richard Beggs - were done in San Francisco. The
online was at Kappa Studios (a former Scientology headquarters!)
in LA, on an Avid Nitris... a machine which our colourist told us
is "96%" compatible with Avid Xpress Pro.
Outputting from the Nitris proved quite difficult, even provoking
Avid support people to show up (!) and recommend a software re-install.
For an online system to be "more or less" compatible with
an offline system from the same company is not acceptable. Who do
Avid think they are, turning out incompatible, funky software - Microsoft?
Maybe next time I'll learn to use FCP. Or Cinelerra, the open-source
non-linear editing tool. (Maybe I'll learn Quechua, too, while hiking
the Pacific Crest Trail.)
But I'd be happy to shoot another picture with the Z1, a tough and
versatile camera - really a big VX-1000, much improved, with native
16X9. Not an ideal camera for the DP: no calibrations on the endlessly-rotating
focus ring, and you must choose a special setting - "allscan
mode" just to find out where the edges of the frame are. But
the Z1 easy to use, ideal for the director! And it records on tape
- easily cloned, reliable and durable - rather than 8GB flash cards,
or Blu-Ray discs, or old tin boxes.
The BBC have bought UK broadcast rights and will - after its TV
premiere - make the film available as a download. SEARCHERS 2.0 been
invited to participate in the Venice Film Festival in September:
most likely in the second week, at the same time as the thrilling
Spaghetti Western homage, which includes many fascinating pictures
including uncut versions of Corbucci's DJANGO, and Questi's DJANGO
SEARCHERS 2.0 isn't a Spaghetti Western, but it
remembers them. Roger Corman's company is selling international rights,
so don't be shy, Foreign Distributors - give Frank Mereno a call
on 001 310 820 6733!
PLEASE VISIT ALSO THE
DEDICATED SEARCHERS 2.0 WEBSITE,
FOR ANIMATION, MUSIC, QUIZZES AND MORE!
2.0 soundtrack available on