There’s a certain safety to making a film culled from the ether of imagined reality. Your idiosyncratic characters are sewn together from the mist of imagination so there’s less risk of real people becoming insulted, angry, hurt, litigious or even homicidal as a result of your fictional film. For some strange reason, I decided to stray from those sheltered waters recently by writing a new narrative film based on the life of my grandfather, David Karr. Throughout his life, my grandfather, who died in 1979, was a husband (four times), a father (six plus times), a White House press reporter, a film producer, a powerful millionaire, a defense contractor, a corporate CEO, a quintessential American businessman making inroads in the USSR at the height of the cold war… and then the accusations start about the whole soviet agent thing. The McCarthy finger pointing. The potential poisoning. The four autopsies.
Needless to say, a touchy subject for my family. But being a foolhardy filmmaker, I decided to raise some money and try to make the film anyway, so after the generous folks at Bravo!Channel gave us a budget, my Chop Wood Carry Water Productions partner, Eddie Boyce, and I spent several months reworking the script and trying to ease it into a place that my relatives were comfortable with. A month before production, my dad gave me the final sign off on my somewhat controversial script about his notorious father and we were ready to make a movie.
From Hammer and Sickle to hammers and nails
With the leaves turning yellow on Interstate 90, Eddie and I drove for ten hours in a borrowed 1989 BMW from our apartments in New York City to our Ten For Grandpa rented production office in downtown Toronto. Having partnered with the amazing folks at Torch-Head Productions, Heather K. Dahlstrom, Patrick Hagarty, and co., we began the surreal undertaking of trying to build nine elaborate sets from four different time periods with a barebones crew and a miniature art department budget. Compounded by the short film irony that you basically have to ramp up a feature length film worth of crew and materials for what amounts to a couple of days of shooting. With two of our lead actors flying in from Los Angeles, and a soundstage booked, our scrappy production team had two weeks to wrangle a super35mm camera package, a whack-load of film negative, an extensive lighting & grip package, a professional crew of technicians, actors, extras and a tiny volunteer army of art department types.
As I coughed up last night’s tobacco phlegm, Eddie Boyce rolled off his air-mattress every morning, stumbled out of his walk-in closet, took a quick shower, and like clockwork was ready to open the door at 9am to find his punctual producer counterpoint Heather standing with her three ring binders bursting with paperwork and contracts. We then sat glued to our laptops and phones for hours trying to draw together the tangled web of production.
From a technical standpoint this show was ridiculously ambitious from the very start. The main reason we decided to forgo location shooting and instead build our project on a stage was because we wanted the camera to be on one seamless journey between scenes. So while assistant director Patrick Hagarty exhaustively searched for union actor look-alike versions of my family (as well as a motley background cast of KGB agents and KKK members), our superb director of photography, Guy Godfree, painstakingly worked away for days on a 3D pre-visualization of the entire film.
Low budget film wrangling is a full time job. It’s hard to squeeze in your directing homework, when you spend so much of your time at the liquor store buying bottles of scotch and cases of beer as graft to thank generous suppliers for their cost saving deals. On this project, I even went so far as to talk the technician who was doing a shoulder x-ray on my torn rotator cuff into gifting us a videotape of an ultrasound performed on his unborn child for a visual effects shot we were trying to pull off.
As day one drew close, our little team moved onto two soundstages at Wallace Studios. Production designer, Allyson Smith, had three painfully short days to build all 9 sets. Her department had begged and borrowed used set walls from a number of different wrapped shows, including some rather gaudy cartoon show walls, so that as the sets went up, anyone who came to visit was confused as to whether we were making an investigative Cold War historical piece or a hideously mish-mashed kids show. We spent so much time at the studio, that Eddie’s better half, Jamie Proctor, who flew in from New York for the week, barely got to venture outside the walls of stage 1 on her first tourist trek to Toronto.
As it all came crashing together, Eddie, Heather and I made our last minute phone calls to special effects supervisors, rental houses, and our unborn-fetus prop wranglers. As the film’s narrator David Alpay (Ararat, Man of the Year) lifted off from LAX, I squeezed in a couple of hours of rehearsals with our wonderful actors, trying to give them insight into the distinct pathologies of some of my more exotic relations. Then with the smell of barely dried paint in the air, our cast and crew of fifty finally descended on the studio at six in the morning on the first day to start shooting. Busting ass to make it through our day without falling behind the tight schedule, Guy’s team of technicians furiously lit the set as I began work blocking the actors in the first scene. As Catherine Black (American Psycho), metamorphosized into a 19 year old version of my aunt, I had my good friend – the amazingly talented actor David Huband – laying in an awkward face-down position on a carpet for the better part of the first day playing my deceased grandfather. Continuing a tradition we started on our 2003 production, The Straitjacket Lottery, when I endlessly tormented Huband by forcing him to wear a straitjacket for seven days.
While many feature crews survive their month-long production marathons on an unhealthy mix of vitamin B shots and cocaine, our scrappy indi-short film crew lived and died on lack of time, adrenaline and Guinness. It became apparent that exhaustion was begging to set in at the end of the first day when in a fit of crazed unwinding, Stephanie Chris, a member of our art department, threw a metal screw at my eyeball, chipping my glasses.
As the production grinded to it’s finale (on day two), David Alpay dug deeper into the material, hitting his stride as the film’s narrator. A very different role from his 2006 turn as Lonnie Dobbs on our film Anniversary Present, where I had Alpay blowing up a car in an underground parking garage at four in the morning. The first scene off the top of the day had Alpay surrounded by late-fifties KKK members, then transitioning his mood by walking into my Grandmother’s re-imagined present day Upper West Side kitchen, only to finally arrive in a Parisian morgue in 1979 for David Karr’s fourth autopsy. Our excellent wardrobe designer, Deirdra Morris, was so passionate about the look of the film, I only questioned her judgment once and busied myself making a lengthy argument in my defense to get a change on Grandma’s shirt. Then I went back to torturing David Huband by forcing him to lay on a cold metal slab for hours in full body makeup. We finished out the scene with renaissance man, Geza Kovacs – who we cast as both the Klu Klux Klan Grand Dragon and the Coroner because of his amazing audition – hard at work slicing into David Karr’s Y-incision. At lunch Geze asked me if I had noticed what he was doing in the autopsy scene. I told him that what he’d been doing had been perfect but he insistently prodded me, “no, but did you see what I was doing in the scene.” I nodded. He shook his head a little: “I was playing the Coroner as gay.” I burst out with laughter, and realized that my director’s skill at picking up on actor’s subtle performance choices still left something to be desired.
As the day ended with a huge setup of the late seventies George Cinq Hotel lobby and gift shop, I started to get a little heartbroken that this fantastic crew of folks would so quickly have to disband and move onto other projects. There was a mutual feeling in the air that this show could easily go on for weeks more. This fortified Eddie’s and my resolve to get a feature project off the ground in the coming year.
Finally, three days of returns and one uproarious wrap party later, relief and excitement come over us in the transfer suite at Notch as we screened the footage for the first time. Ten For Grandpa was an extremely personal project, and teaming up with such an amazing crew of collaborators made it feel like we’d forged a brand new super talented family of folks to work with. And now that the stress level have returned to a simmer, maybe I can even quit smoking again.
Doug Karr has worked in the industry since 1997 creating original independent films. His feature length screenplay, My Thermonuclear Family, was recently awarded the Grand Prize at Filmmakers International Screenplay Competition. Karr’s projects include Anniversary Present staring David Alpay and Liane Balaban (New Waterford Girl). The 2003 mental health caper The Straitjacket Lottery which screened at over 25 festivals and won multiple awards. The award winning documentaries LSD25, The June Bug Symphony, as well as the hour long Lifecycles: a story of AIDS in Malawi. His films have been seen by audiences around the world and on numerous television channels.