And This Is But A Taste Of How DEAD BUT DREAMING Was Made

28 Aug

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On May 11th, 2013, I participated as an actor in the final production event for the feature film Dead But Dreaming

As you may or may not know, the bulk of the narrative unfolds in 1805, during the Bolivian War of Independence. The film does, however, occasionally flash back to earlier times to show the origins of some characters. My participation has to do with one of those flashback scenes.

The sequence of events is relatively simple. In Antioch, 57 years BC, (or is it Antioch? Maybe it’s just some mythical faraway land… It is never actually identified as Antioch. Not by the characters and not on screen) a retired Roman general named Demetrios (that’s my character) approaches a courtesan named Chrysis. He wants her for himself and is prepared to give her all his gold in return for her full servitude. Chrysis takes advantage of the sexual power she has over Demetrios, demanding that – rather than gold – he obtain three valuable items for her. She wants the pearl necklace from the wife of the high priest, an ivory comb from the head of Aphrodite (I am assuming this is another courtesan named Aphrodite and not the goddess herself – though, ultimately, that is irrelevant to the story anyway) and – finally – “the mirror of Rhodopis,” which is currently in the possession of Bracchis, her rival courtesan.

Demetrios does as commanded.

During a symposia, in which Chrysis, Bracchis and some philosophers are gathered, it is revealed that the mirror of Rhodopis has been stolen. The blame falls on to Bracchis’ prized slave – Aphrodisia – who, in turn is flogged and crucified. 

What all of this has to do with the film’s main narrative is something I’ll leave for the viewer to discover. Not to mention that this “introduction” has gone on long enough and, believe me, this is the kind of blog where you may wish you’d taken your iPad into the john.

In any case, these were the scenes shot on May 11 and 12, which is the subject of this journal – originally written on May 14th and being published here for the first time.

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DAY ONE

On the morning of Saturday, 11 May, the company sets out to the location that will serve as our “Antioch.” It is a resort & health spa, located in the Valle de las Animas region of La Paz; about an hour’s drive from the Pachamama Films home office in Miraflores, which is near what provincial idiots who want to feel Cosmopolitan like to refer to as: “The Downtown Area”.

The company consists of myself, Cortney Willis, Pablo Paravicini and Mila Joya as the actors. Though both Mila and I will also serve as production assistants – having already been part of the Pachamama “family” for some time now; and it should also be noted that Pablo is excited about working on the team. This is his first acting job in a feature film. He offers to help with the production in any other capacity that he can. By the way, he’s also my personal trainer but that’s neither here nor there…

In the film, he plays my slave. But, at the gym, HE calls the shots.

In the film, he plays my slave. But, at the gym, HE calls the shots.

Joining us (in alphabetical order) are:

Gina Alcon: A production assistant. Her first job on Pachamama Films was as an actress in Maleficarum. On this shoot, she is handling some general assistant duties and also make-up.

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Jac Avila: The film’s writer and director. He also co-stars in the film. In the role of Asar – the ancient vampire and (I think, but I’m not sure) ultimate villain of the piece.

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Eric Calancha: A jack of all trades who has worked on several Pachamama productions, as both an actor and assistant. He is traveling with us today in his capacity as an assistant. He will helping with sound.

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Miguel Inti Canedo: The film’s director of photography. The “official” cinematographer of Pachamama Films. This is his fourth feature with the company. His first was Maleficarum.

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Amy Hesketh: A producer on the film. Also an assistant director. Also one of the stars of the film (in the role of an Irish spy named Moira…just watch the damn movie) but she will not be performing as an actress in the scenes we are shooting.

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Alejandro Loayza: Another production assistant whose first job was as an actor on Maleficarum. On this shoot, he is serving as an assistant to Miguel Canedo – to aid with the camera work.

Alejandro

“Photo Not Available”

This is the reduced crew that is traveling on this fine May morning to the location… More actors will join us tomorrow but, for today, it is just us. And the van is absolutely loaded with equipment and supplies. I doubt that any more people would fit. As it is, I am already sitting at the front seat with Cortney. We’re both relatively tall and long-legged… We can barely fit with all the equipment and the rest of the people in the van.

As we are nearing the area, we begin driving on a dirt road… Dirt begins to infiltrate the van, making it difficult to breathe. Cortney and Amy essentially call me a pussy when I begin to cough too much.

I can think of no reasonable comeback. I sit there and take it.

Upon arriving at the location, we go straight to the cabin that will be our home for the weekend.

As we unload the equipment and begin to get comfortable, I have to admit it is a very nice place – much more so than I expected. I remember that, some years ago, a friend of mine was married at this resort. I attended the ceremony in the ballroom. But I didn’t realize at the time that this was a resort.

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The cabin is outfitted with two bedrooms, a small common room, a narrow kitchen and a small bathroom. But it is cozy and well-decorated. They tell me the place has a spectacular indoor pool and a sauna. I am not all that fond of swimming pools if I’m being honest. I liken them to taking a bath in a gigantic toilet. But I do like saunas. I make a mental note of planning a weekend getaway to this resort in the future.

Once we are done unpacking, it is time to begin working. The sets are erected. This is simple, as they consist of a tent and a nearby cross for the crucifixion scene. Also, neither of these sets will be used until tomorrow. That is when the bulk of the material (the symposia and the crucifixion) will be shot. Today, it’s just Cortney and I (and Pablo, who has no lines) and our “set” is an open field with a small tree.

Cortney and I get to work practicing our lines.

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She is half German, but her English is nearly perfect. She does, however, have some difficulty in pronouncing the word “mirror.” There is a line in the script in which she says that word several times. We practice that line perhaps a bit more than either of us expected. We figure out a way to remove one of the “mirrors” to make it flow better and improve the dialog in general.

I also coach her in the pronunciation of “comb” and “philosopher;” two words that are different enough in German so as to be problematic. But no word is as cumbersome as “mirror.”

myfairlady

We also rehearse our movements. With what intensity I should grab her, the most cinematic and interesting way to perform all the teasing beats… She very gladly accepts my notes on ways to improve the scene. We both agree that making a change to the end of the scene results in something more entertaining and believable.

After a brief lunch break, the time comes to actually shoot the scene.

We get into our uncomfortable costumes.

Well… Maybe only my costume is uncomfortable. I don’t know about her. She looks quite fetching in a green dress and some interesting decorative jewelry, all from her own wardrobe. It fits her character, but I could also easily see her wearing that exact same outfit during an elegant night out.

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I, on the other hand, am wearing an outfit I would never conceivably use for any occasion. My vestments consist of a long white tunic with a brown leather belt, a lime green cape, fastened with golden buttons and a small chain, a pair of extremely uncomfortable, flat leather sandals and an eye patch.

I had made some specific requests regarding my wardrobe. The eye patch is the only request that was honored.

So, anyway… There I am – looking like a bald, half-blind Hobbit – while Cortney looks radiant.

It’s all good. And I suppose it makes the scene more pathetic. And, ultimately believable. My character may be a powerful retired Roman general. But he looks…like this.

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And there you have it.

We do the scene in about 6 or 7 extended, long takes – which consist generally of master shots and tracking shots.

This is standard filmmaking procedure. You do a master shot that covers the whole scene, then you move in for close-ups of the actors as well as details. As an actor, I always try to keep that in mind. I don’t necessarily give 100% during the master shots. I save the “good stuff” for the close-ups.

Then, 7 takes or so in, I remember that this is a Pachamama Films production… These kinds of considerations are a moot point. After about 7 takes, the light is beginning to go… It is decided that we will stop for today and, if there is time, do some “pickup shots” tomorrow.

These “pickup shots” are most likely meant to be the close-ups I was referring to.

As evening falls, and the work day is ending, Alejandro, Gina and Eric leave. They will return tomorrow morning with the rest of the actors.

The rest of us – Jac, Amy, Pablo, Mila, Miguel, Cortney and myself – head to the hotel restaurant for dinner.

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Mila chooses the Pasta Alfredo.

Most everyone else chooses the Llama steak with mushroom sauce.

I choose Chicken Supreme, stuffed with apples and nuts, covered in mango sauce and served with asparagus, carrots and baby potatoes. It is delicious.

I am told the Llama steak is very good as well. Though Cortney asked hers to be well-done and they bring her a medium rare dish. She actually takes it to the kitchen and asks for it to be cooked more. As a result, she will not enjoy her own dinner until after we have all finished ours. Thankfully, she is a fast eater. A fact that both shocked and impressed me when we first met.

Mila claims her Alfredo pasta is “unsatisfying,” a fact I surmised when I saw the waiter bring the dish to the table. It looked like an appetizer, served in a bread dish… Thankfully for her, we also brought our own food. I imagine she will be gorging on self-made ham and cheese sandwiches later.

Mila is unsatisfied.

Mila is unsatisfied.

After dinner, we retire to our cabin for some evening beers followed by much needed rest.

If you’ll recall, I mentioned the cabin only had two bedrooms. But it is considered the “family cabin” and fits 8 people. This is not a lie. The two bedrooms each have double bunk beds.

One bedroom will be for Jac & Amy and Cortney & Mila, each sharing a bunk.

The other bedroom is for “the guys.” That is to say: Miguel, Pablo and myself.

A very fortunate coin toss decides who gets to have their own bed. I win. Not to mention that, as both Miguel and Pablo are smaller in stature than me, they should be more comfortable sharing a bunk.

It is also decided that I will take the top bunk.

All well and good.

It turns out that Pablo snores.

So… There’s that.

Also, I am not the best sleeper for a strange bed.

So… There’s that too.

The fact that the bed is strangely short, with my feet actually hanging over the end of it (well, not really hanging – but extending out against the low curved ceiling – another problem) completes this holy trinity of conditions that insure my beauty sleep on this night will be difficult to achieve.

Did I mention Pablo snores?

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I consider smothering him and blaming the death on a midnight heart attack. Then, I remember he’s my personal trainer and I need him, so I think better of it.

Eventually, I sleep.

DAY TWO

Over breakfast, I learn some interesting details about the previous evening. First, that Amy was unable to get a decent night’s sleep. This clues me in to the possibility that she might be irritable and – therefore – insufferable on this day. I clench my teeth and brace for the worst.

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I also learn that Mila is an absolutely still sleeper, as Cortney informs me she stayed in the exact same position for the entire night.

Finally, I learn that Cortney experienced a panic attack at approximately 1:38am. (She actually made a note of the time!) Due to the fact that the low curved ceiling caused her to go into claustrophobic hysterics.

I am pleased I was not the only one to have a bad night.

The rest of the crew arrives at 9am. Eric, Gina and Alejandro return. Joined by the rest of the actors…

Jessica Mardesich in the role of Bracchis.

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Sergio Tavarish in the role of Timon.

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Mariela Salaverry and Andrea Soria-Galvarro as Aretia and Selene, Bracchis’ other servants.

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It takes approximately an hour for everyone to get into costume and ready for the shoot. Jessica has brought a special red dress to wear for her scenes. She is a fashion model and has access to interesting clothing. She chose wisely.

Mariela and Andrea are dressed in very attractive summer dresses. I make a mental note that they look way too “sexy” and fashionable to be slaves. But then I concede that it might be the point. This is a “B movie” after all, and the girls should be aesthetically pleasing.

Mila is outfitted in a flimsy white dress. The flimsiness of it is intentional, as it will be torn off her during the crucifixion scene.

Sergio wears a toga, reminiscent of how Plato and Aristotle are always portrayed visually in films.

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We proceed to the tent set to do all of my lines first. The idea is to first focus on actors and their close-ups, so that we can get the general master shot done afterward, and jump right into the action sequence, which will also be shot as part of the master. This is done presumably to save time.

So… I go first with the close-ups. I recite all my lines in order, reacting to no one and being given cues as far as which direction I should look when giving each line. I have to use my imagination and place myself in the emotional state required for each line.

There are repeated takes of each line.

Making the best of it, I try to do each take a little bit differently; placing different emphasis on certain words and having a different attitude. I do this so Jac will have more options in the editing room when the time comes to put the final sequence together.

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I am able to run through all my lines and finish rather quickly. We wrap most of my participation (including reaction shots and inserts) in under 45 minutes.

Sergio is next.

He is Bolivian, but his English is actually very good. He went to high school at a bilingual institution and did so during a time when they were putting a lot of emphasis on English. That, and I believe he is a linguist. Because he claims to also speak German and French.

That being said, he has trouble with his lines.

Admittedly, they are a mouthful. He has more to say than anyone else in the whole scene.

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More time passes and we still have ground to cover. We haven’t done Cortney’s close-ups. We haven’t done Bracchis… And there is a lengthy dialog between Jac and Mila that would presumably also need to be done. All this while it is still daylight and leaving us enough time for the crucifixion scene, which also has to be completed before nightfall.

It is already past noon.

I also notice something else. It’s getting cold. It was a cold morning and the day is not getting better. And the fact is none of us are dressed for chilly weather.

During a break, I confer with Jac. I notice he is nervous. I tell him that maybe the important thing is to focus on what the heart of the scene is. Is all this talking even necessary? The point of this scene, of this entire sequence in fact, is to establish Aphrodisia’s backstory and explain how she came to be a vampire working with Asar. We really should get to the whole thing with the mirror as quickly as possible.

He agrees. And he considers shortening the dialog and getting to the point a lot faster anyway because it “isn’t really working very well.”

Now it is on to Cortney… She delivers her lines perfectly and we are able to get that done very quickly.

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But it is already the early afternoon by this point and we still have a lot of work to do.

It is decided, then, that we will move on to the master shot and get on with setting up the action scene. And, as a result, all of Jessica’s lines will be done here.

Jessica is on fire during the big action sequence…

On fire.

On fire.

…which requires her to go into a rage and begin flogging one of her servants. This she does with relish, if a bit too much relish. She doesn’t have a great sense of how to use her prop whip – constantly hitting herself with it. Thankfully, Pablo is on hand and offers to help choreograph the action sequence. He instructs her on proper ways to hold the whip, how to swing it, etc.

Watching the shooting of the action sequence puts things in perspective for me. This is really the whole point of the scene. Mila is grabbed by the other slaves and Jessica flogs her, ultimately ordering that she be dragged out to the field and crucified. This is why we’re here. And it’s coming together well. Everything else we’ve done… The philosophizing, the setup, even the lengthy dialog between myself and Cortney – shot yesterday – this is all extraneous. I would completely understand if most of it ends up on the cutting room floor. Particularly if it’s affecting the pacing of what I think is supposed to be a gothic adventure story.

It has been a long day, but evening is approaching, so we’d better get cracking before that sunlight goes.

Now comes the crucifixion.

This is handled with great economy. And that’s necessary because it’s getting colder and colder by the minute, meanwhile we’re all outfitted in flimsy dresses, tunics and togas.

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We shoot the slaves dragging Mila towards the cross, with the entire group following to watch. We shoot reaction shots of the group as everyone is directed to react to the supposed sight of Mila being crucified. There is a shot of me ordering my guard to aid in the crucifixion. He is strong… He must be the one to pound the nails in.

And here’s where things get…for lack of a better word…messy.

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Pablo is instructed on what to do. He will take the large nail in his fist and place it over Mila’s hand. He will take the hammer and bring it down with force over the nail, but pulling back at the last minute. The nail does not have a sharp tip. But it is made of metal. So, care must be taken.

Pablo has devised a technique in which he will grip the nail, with the tip concealed inside his fist. That way, when he brings the hammer down, he can do it with force – catching the tip with the base of his fist, while giving the illusion that the nail was hammered into Mila’s hand.

He practices this. The illusion works.

“This is Pachamama Films. This is not the first crucifixion scene we’ve done. This is not the first torture scene Mila’s ever done. We do this all the time.”

“Hey, Jac… Do you want me to grunt when I bring the hammer down? To make it more dramatic?”

“Sure, Pablo. Go with your gut.”

“I think I’ll let out a scream, like ‘HAAAH!’, when I bring down the hammer. Just to make it more dramatic.”

“That sounds good. Roll camera.”

And so, everyone gets into position…

Mila is tied to the cross, she struggles, whimpers. All very believably. Pablo grabs the nail and the hammer… He places the nail in his fist. He rests it against Mila’s hand…

He brings down the hammer… “HAAAHH!!!” The hammer clinks against the nail, a sound that echoes throughout the field.

Mila lets out an ear-piercing and very convincing shriek of horror and pain, which also echoes throughout the field.

Cut.

It is then that we notice a trickle of blood emanating from Mila’s palm. Not stage blood, mind you, real blood. She glances at her hand quizzically, almost as if to say: “Well, will you look at that?”

Pablo’s face turns pale as he realizes that he miscalculated and ACTUALLY HAMMERED THE NAIL INTO MILA’S HAND!

The word you're looking for is "oops."

The word you’re looking for is “oops.”

He begins apologizing profusely, almost in tears.

After a moment, we realize with relief that the nail didn’t actually go in. It merely pierced some superficial skin. Mila feels some discomfort but nothing out of the ordinary. Amy rushes to dress her wounds as best she can. Alcohol is applied to disinfect the wound. Mila has a smile on her face the entire time.

“Can you continue?”

“We’re not done, are we? Let’s get this done. It’s getting cold.”

Mila, ever the trooper, continues performing in the scene.

I am reminded of a story about Leonardo Di Caprio who, during the making of Django Unchained, actually cut his hand when he smashed a glass against a table. But, rather than yell cut, he continued performing in the scene, using the accident to his advantage.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Mila Joya. Two pros.

Taking it in stride.

Taking it in stride.

The crucifixion scene continues. Special effect nail heads are applied to Mila’s hands (including her wounded one, which has now been treated with alcohol and that wonderful adhesive invented by the army…super glue) as she gets back in position.

The rest of us actors are called into our positions also… We must crowd around the cross and witness this.

And it’s getting dark… And cold.

In between takes, we begin to get restless… “How many more takes of this do you need, Mr. Avila? We’re freezing!”

All we have are flimsy dresses and togas!

What about Mila?

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She’s wearing fucking nothing under that dress they rip off her after nailing her to the cross! And, guess what?

Not a peep.

Our shots completed, we are told it’s okay to return to the cabin and change. We’re done for today.

But Mila is not done. They still shoot for another half hour. Some other important shots needed to end the scene, performed stark naked on this freezing evening of May 12th, 2013.

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I admire the balls on that little firecracker, let me tell you.

The rest of the shoot goes without a hitch. Afterward, we pack everything up and prepare to leave. But not before a final cast & crew dinner – also at the hotel restaurant.

This time it is a special dinner, prepared by the hotel specially for us, and we are all dining the same thing. Vegetable soup, followed by a main course of Beef Stroganoff. There is also hot wine for the chilly evening.

I believe the wine is probably a Tannat or perhaps even, oh God please no, a Merlot. But it has been heated and spiced. So, whatever it is, it tastes like hot, spiced wine and is actually quite agreeable. The waiter brings something, that looks like semen, which he claims is honey. He says we can use it to “sweeten the wine punch” if we wish.

I am not in the mood for Jewish wine. I think I’ll leave it as is, thank you very much.

We enjoy our meal and toast each other for a job well done. We raise a glass to director Jac Avila on the completion of another successful Pachamama Films production.

That’s a wrap.

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On the ride home, I’m sitting at the front again, with Cortney. Our long legs crushed, once again, by the bags stored up front with us.

But we are able to, all of us, actually fit in the same bus. 10 people rode out. But fifteen people are riding back.

And we all fit.

And here’s the best part… I sleep the entire way home.

Perhaps Pablo, sitting two rows back is snoring as he does the same.

But I can’t hear him.

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DEAD BUT DREAMING is now available in a snazzy 2-Disc Collector’s Edition from VermeerWorks. Featuring full-length audio commentary by Jac Avila and Amy Hesketh, as well as a FEATURE-LENGTH behind the scenes documentary, in which you get to see all the ins and outs of how the film was made. (This was basically just a preview).

GET IT HERE!

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6 Responses to “And This Is But A Taste Of How DEAD BUT DREAMING Was Made”

  1. Jeff August 28, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    I laughed my ass off reading this. Well done!

    • Erix Antoine August 28, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

      Thanx!
      Glad you enjoyed it. I aim to please.

      Hope you like the film as well.

  2. Amy Hesketh August 28, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    You forgot to mention that I did the work of ten people those two days. Nobody appreciates me. Sigh.

  3. Charles Lonberger August 28, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    Great and personalized BTS. Makes me almost wish I was there! I enjoy your writing,

    • Erix Antoine August 29, 2013 at 12:01 am #

      Thank you… That’s the feeling I want to evoke. Happy you enjoy this. I’ll be doing more pieces like this in the future.

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