THE HUNTED, AN INTERNET EPIC – THE PRELUDE

What began in the summer of 2001 with an idea to produce a hour long pilot for a cable TV show featuring sword-slingin’ vampire slayers, became a decade of developing one of the longest running web shows online, and one of the first shows based almost entirely on user content.

But after 10 years, I still hadn’t shot the pilot.  My original intent was to shoot a few episodes just to get our feet wet, but more and more episodes presented themselves, many of which were golden opportunities that I couldn’t pass up.  And the episodes were relatively easy to shoot and cost nothing.  And then there was editing, web design, marketing, networking, contests, and other diversions, all of which were extremely time consuming.  And life occasionally got in the way which made it virtually impossible to take on larger projects, namely the pilot.

And yes, I was procrastinating big time.  I tried.  I even held an official casting years ago at the old Westside Fencing Center where over 60 swordsmen and actors showed (which I still have yet to edit into a Hunted episode).  But once again, life got in the way and nothing came of it.  Ten years later, I still hadn’t shot the pilot and it looked like it was never going to happen.  I had been talking about it for so long that no one took me seriously anymore.

To compensate, I started shooting longer episodes in HD – the last three were 20 minutes each.  And each of them were shot in a single weekend with no budget (“Con Job 2” and “Slayercon”).  And they were damn good.  It was then I realized that shooting the pilot was within the realm of possibility.

It wasn’t until 2011 and the advent of Kickstarter did I realize that I could raise funding for the show, which would allow us to at least pay our actors.  I also realized that in order to get people’s attention, I wouldn’t just shoot a pilot, I’d shoot a feature!  It’s what every web series aspires to, but no one thinks to take that step on their own.  They would rather wait to get “picked up”.

I quickly put together an extremely ambitious fundraising video on Kickstarter where I played 20 different versions of myself, and within a few months I had $20,000 and the backing of my friends at New Deal Studios to help produce the show.

Dammit.  Now I had no choice.  There was no backing out.  I had to do this (providing we weren’t hit with a major earthquake or meteor).  What follows is over a year of development leading up to the 18 days of hell that is known as principal photography directing my first feature film.

Actually, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

THE HUNTED, AN INTERNET EPIC – THE SCRIPT

The only thing left now was the script.  All I had to do was to expand the 48 minute pilot into 90 minutes.

Wrong.

After a story session with a half dozen friends and writers, it was decided to trash the script completely and start fresh.  The reasoning was that the show had evolved over the years and was no longer the origin story that I wanted it to be.

The original concept of the script was to introduce the world of The Hunted through the eyes of a newcomer named Gary.  But after years of online episodes featuring myself in the leading role, it made sense to everyone else (including myself) that it should be the origin story of my character.

So now I finally had the money and momentum to make a film, but no script.  And I believe that above everything else, you need a solid script.  Unfortunately, I was way too close to the story to start from scratch.  I needed to delegate and I needed to think waaay outside the box, so I called my friend Tex Wall who lives outside the box on a daily basis.

Tex had written several spec scripts and had gobs of time, whereas I had virtually none.  Together with Andrew Helm and more than a few late night story sessions at IHOP, we went through four drafts which took us about a year.

During that time, I worked like a dog on VFX jobs to save up enough money to take time off to shoot the film.  Unfortunately, every time our start date got pushed because of rewrites, I would have to find another job, which would in turn interfere with the rewrites.

I also wasn’t clear on an exact start date or how we were going to shoot the film.  I originally thought we could do this over a span of eight weekends, but keeping a cast and crew together that long could be problematic.  No, we had to run this like a regular show, over the course of several six day weeks.  And we needed to choose a start date and stick to it.

July 23, 2012.  It seemed the perfect time when everyone was free, locations were available, and Jess wasn’t teaching.  About that time I also decided that I was going to direct the film and Jess was going to produce (which she had never done before).  And on top of everything else, Jess and I were married that May…

…so this was going to be an epic year one way or another.  I called it “the year of scary”.

THE HUNTED, AN INTERNET EPIC – PRE-PRODUCTION

Before we started prep on the show, I got some great advice from David Sanger, head producer at New Deal Studios.  I ask him if it was crazy to do what we were planning on doing for 20K.  His advice was to shoot the film for free and save the 20K for contingency – the unforseeable crap that we were eventually going to have to pay for.  Saved our asses.

I then asked him how I could possibly ask everyone on the show to work for free – a real problem for me.  He simply said “Ask them.  They will do it or they won’t”.  It was stupidly simple, but it made sense.  And I was amazed and humbled at the number of people who were willing to donate their time and energy to support us and this crazy idea.

I set to work filling out our cast and crew and started researching equipment (lights, cameras, sound, etc) while Jess researched everything from locations, insurance and contracts to scheduling software.  We crowdsourced virtually everything.  Anytime we needed anything from props to locations, we would post it via Hootsuite to Facebook and Twitter.  We didn’t get everything we asked for, but we got a lot!

For casting, I decided not to use a casting agent – not just because I didn’t have the money, but because I already knew plenty of great actors with sword skills.  And I was hoping to find friends that I could trust who were willing to work for free.  The main challenge was that these were professional actors who worked fairly often.  So if a paid gig came along, I had to be prepared to either replace them at the last second, or shuffle the schedule as best we could.

We were fortunate enough to find some amazing talent including Monique Ganderton, who indeed booked a gig on “Iron Man 3” right before filming.

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I had serious doubts whether we would be able to work around her crazy schedule, but when I finally met with her and realized what an amazing actress she was, we hustled as best we could to make it work.  We had to keep track of every member of the cast and crew on Google calendars and who wasn’t available on certain days, since our schedule was changing on a daily basis.

And it isn’t until you try and cast a film among your friends do you realize who your true friends are.  If they are truly supportive, they will take whatever role you give them.  Even if they aren’t cast, they’re still there to support you with whatever you need.  Thankfully, there weren’t too many hard feelings, since there just weren’t enough roles to go around.

As for our crew, we didn’t have the budget to fill out every position.  I planned to have the actors take care of their own makeup, hair and wardrobe.  I also wanted to stay extremely lean so we could shoot guerilla if we had to.  Our crew consisted of myself, AJ Raitano (our DP), Josh VanDyke (sound), and Jess as our producer (also serving as everything from craft services to boom operator).  Josh also brought on board his trainee, Jessie, and AJ brought on his AC, Josh Gill, who we simply couldn’t afford, but ended up turning into a one-man show and totally saved our asses!

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Something to note, all of these decisions during prep and production now make complete sense on paper, but at the time it was mostly guesswork with no guarantees that any of this would work.  Also, many of these decisions had to be made days or weeks in advance while we were trying to put out other fires.  It was a nonstop process…

THE HUNTED, AN INTERNET EPIC – CAMERA, AUDIO & LIGHTING

For equipment, my biggest concern was the camera.  Our friends Nick and Liz had just started up their company Rampant Films and were going to allow us to use their new Red Epic – a bitchin top of the line camera that was used to shoot Spiderman.

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That was all I needed to know at the time – even though I had no clue how to use it.  It gave us instant credibility among our actors, and the output looked great.  Even scenes that I thought were completely underexposed could be punched up with virtually no grain.  However, the challenges we faced using the camera were considerable and might have made me consider otherwise had I known…

First off, the owners had to be with the camera at all times for insurance reasons.  I can totally understand this since it’s like a $60,000 camera.  And we weren’t shooting in the best of neighborhoods, so it was like driving a Ferrari into east LA and leaving it on the street with the keys in the ignition.  But unfortunately, Nick and Liz were both working full time, so scheduling was problematic.  Ironically, Nick might have been available if I hadn’t recommended him for his current VFX job.

The Red camera shoots various formats including 5K, which is awesome when it comes to zooming into closeups in post, but you can’t just plug the footage into a regular laptop for dailies.  I was planning to edit the film myself and it would require a whole new computer.  What’s more, they only had a single card for the camera that would take 2 hours to download and backup every night to their Drobo before it could be wiped.  A second mag would’ve cost us close to another $1000.  To save space, we tried to shoot most scenes in 2K, but the slow motion stuff ate up disk space fast.

The camera is a heavy freakin brick.  Even with a shoulder mount, I found it extremely painful and tiring.  Not something you want to shoot an entire movie handheld, which is exactly what we were doing. I have no idea how Josh and AJ were able to pull that off.

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And nothing on the camera body is standard.  At one point, we needed to attach a small light panel with a standard hotshoe mount, but it took us almost 20 minutes and 15 zip ties to get the thing to stay on.  We also needed to run a 25ft video cable from the camera, but it wouldn’t take a standard RCA connector.  I had to track down a 25ft HDMI cable (not cheap) which could plug into a monitor.

The Red has a tendency to overheat and completely shutdown, which was a concern during the hottest part of the summer, but fortunately most of our shoots were during the evening.

The Red has no onboard sound, or at least it isn’t something you can just plug into without special hardware.  We couldn’t watch playback with audio, which really sucked, and we had no choice but to run sync sound which can be a complete pain in the ass.  I know that good sound is essential on any film, and sync sound is traditionally the best way to accomplish this.  But damn, there’s gotta be an easier way.

Sync sound requires a separate sound guy with clappers, booms, wireless lav mics, etc.  And now we have a guy following camera around trying to get as close to the actors as he can without getting in the shot.  Even if he’s not in the shot, you have a huge boom shadow looming overhead.  Recipe for disaster.  And from what I understand, the best way to get busted for shooting without a permit is to have a sound guy following you around with a boom.

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And I’m not going to even talk about the nightmare that is sync sound in post.

There were many times I wish I could’ve shot everything with a simple DSLR and a good camera mounted shotgun mic.  Easy to shoot, playback, edit, etc.  As a backup, I set myself up with a used Canon T2i from ebay, a good microphone, and “Magic Lantern” software to allow quality audio recording.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to play with the camera and fully test it, I found out too late that the microphone didn’t have a strong enough signal.  Apparently, I should’ve bought a “Rode Videomic Pro”.  I did, however, put together a simple DIY steadicam for about $14 which worked well for several shots.

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For sync sound, I toyed with the idea of using iphones as a remote digital audio recorder with the “Blue Fire” app (an idea I lifted from Ed Burns).  Unfortunately it didn’t work as well as I would’ve liked.  We ended up using a Zoom H4N with a nice boom mic, a secondhand wireless system which crapped out on numerous occasions, and a smaller Zoom H2 which I could fit in my pocket with a lav mic or place on a table or dashboard.

For lights, we had access to a complete lineup of studio lights, c-stands and backdrops while at New Deal Studios.  On location, however (which was most of our shoot), we used existing lighting whenever possible – one of the many advantages of shooting reality TV.  As a backup, I had a bin full of work lights from Home Depot and 2 top of the line LED light panels (also thanks to Nick and Liz) on heavy-duty c-stands which could light everything from a small room to an entire street.  I also bought a smaller LED light panel that could be mounted to the camera – one of the best investments I made.  We used that to light everything from car interiors to simulating the glow of a laptop computer.

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THE HUNTED, AN INTERNET EPIC – SCRIPT BREAKDOWN / LOCATIONS

Jess had researched various budget and scheduling packages such as “Movie Magic”, “Gorilla”, and “Celtx” and we decided on a free web-based system called “Scenechronize” which was recommended to us by New Deal Studios.  The software is pretty amazing and it does everything exceptionally well except generating nicely formatted call sheets – go figure.  Another free web-based program called “Lightspeed” was a close second.

Jess taught herself the software and began breaking down the script.  It was at that time we began to realize just how ambitious this was.  I wasn’t too worried about the VFX or crazy stunts, since that was the stuff I knew.  No, it was the 20 locations and 50 or so cast members that was a challenge.  The only things missing to make our lives more difficult were animals and small children.

In the past, whenever we shot a Hunted episode, we just looked around at the resources we had available – people, places, props, events, and then got very creative about how we could tell a story.  With the feature, I wanted the story to come first, which is a noble idea.  But unless you have millions of dollars at your disposal, it’s also a crazy idea.

But Jess has always been a natural for finding great deals online, and she made for an amazing producer.  She somehow found us an affordable two million dollar insurance policy (which we needed to book locations), and she used websites like filmla.com to secure some amazing locations like the Warner Grand Theater.

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She even convinced a few locations like the El Tarasco restaurant in the valley to let us shoot for free.  And we never had to pull a single permit.

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There were a few locations that we couldn’t afford which we knew we had to shoot guerilla – Venice Beach and Hollywood Blvd.  Our plan was to shoot with the Canon T2i and run a wireless mic.  Jess also had her Pepperdine teacher ID, which could be used to convince anyone that we were a student production.  Luckily, we never had to use it.

THE HUNTED, AN INTERNET EPIC – PROPS & COSTUMES

I tried to find a production designer and propmaster, but in the end, Jess and I put together most all of the props and specialty costumes ourselves with the help of friends, Craigslist, and our local thrift store.  It was a lot of stuff, but this was part of the process that we genuinely enjoyed – makin stuff and finding deals!  We found the perfect old recliner on Craigslist the day before the shoot, bought a rusty old shopping cart from a salvage truck on the side of the road, and paid $75 for an insanely heavy medical gurney from a gangster lookin warehouse downtown.

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We also had a makeup person, Louis Kiss, who was able to get us a gallon of blood.  We didn’t use a lot, however, since it could lead to a continuity nightmare.  Instead, I chose to dress in black which would hide the fact that I had a bloodstained shirt.  I bought a couple doubles of everything since it was obvious we may not even have time to do laundry.

For swords, I had a fairly extensive supply including two aluminum hero katanas made by Spike Steingasser, but I needed more variety and at least a half dozen cool looking machetes for our SWAT vamps.  I came across a new distributor online called “BUDK” which had some insanely low prices on swords for $12!

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I was able to equip everyone including our two slayer teams for less than a couple hundred dollars.  The only downside is that they were all steel and razor sharp, so I spent the better part of two days filing them down.  I then spent another day aging everything since it was all supposed to look rusted.

I borrowed a prop handgun and an actual fireaxe from Charles Currier, but the axe was so freakin heavy and dangerous, it was obvious we needed a double.  I priced a rubber axe for $500 before I realized I could just make one myself for $20.

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The trickiest prop / weapon was a full sized metal stop sign, which we purchased online for $30 and aged with spray paint.  For that fight, I also bought a steel trash can lid and some conduit, which were both painted to look rusted.

Meanwhile, we purchased a full-sized chicken outfit (since it was cheaper than renting) and Jess went about customizing it with a superhero logo and cape.

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Jess also found a great deal on chef coats and designed a “Hell’s Kitchen” logo, while our friend Mel Turner helped to design a “In-N-Up” cashier uniform and a superhero outfit for our shoot on Hollywood Blvd.

We had a list of over 100 props and weapons which included stuff like “Hula Girl with Sword” and “Bricks of C4” which we made with from huge block of clay from an art supply.  As I said, this was the fun part, and it was a welcome diversion from research, contracts and paperwork.

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THE HUNTED, AN INTERNET EPIC – REHEARSALS

As cool as it would’ve been, we didn’t have a table read for the show.  I felt like I was already asking too much from my cast, who were all working for free.  Besides, it was a cast of 50, and I wasn’t even sure where I could do that.  No, it was actually easier to meet up with a few of the main actors individually and work the scenes.  I also met with a buddy of mine, Jim Pirri (who is also in the film), who did a fantastic job coaching me through several of my key scenes.

Fight rehearsals were essential to keep folks safe, and I met with Gary Kasper at the LA Fight Academy downtown almost weekly for a few months before filming.  I also drove all over the city to meet with folks when they were available, meeting them at parks, dojos, gyms, wherever.  I was able to get at least a couple days with folks like Bob Goodwin for the theater fight, Scott Rosen for the cop fight, Banzai Vitale for the meter maid fight, Dave Baker for the fight with Harry, and Josh and Taylor for the Vampslayer fight, which I also did a previs for in Maya.  I also set up a rehearsal day with Anthony DeLongis with myself and all of the slayers for the finale.  I then posted all of the fights on Youtube so everyone could remember the choreography.

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VAMPSLAYER FIGHT CHOREO

STOP SIGN FIGHT CHOREO

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I tried to keep all of the fights fairly simple since I knew our shoot time was going to be limited.  There were also several cast members who were unavailable for fight rehearsals, and fights that were location-based (such as the theater) that would have to be choreographed on the day.  Luckily, everyone in the cast were professionals who knew how to use a sword, so I wasn’t too concerned about the action or safety.

I realized though, even though I had some of the most amazing stunt people in Hollywood working on my show, I couldn’t ask any of them to sell out and risk injury.  They were working for free.  And if they got injured, they wouldn’t be available for their next paying gig.