Making a Film in Seattle Can Destroy You
I was the screenwriter, fundraiser, second-biggest investor, PR hack, extras coordinator, and a sometime producer of the largest, most expensive locally produced film ever made in Seattle. It took five years, it cost $1 million, and its extremely slow projected return may have broken the bank for local distribution-quality films for the foreseeable future. It ruined my health, driving me to the brink of suicide twice, and from sobriety back down into a drinking life (and, briefly, the cocaine life below that), and aggravating a chronic muscle condition that addicted me to painkillers. I started with $250,000 in assets and am now thousands of dollars in debt, making $15 an hour repainting a house near Sacramento. I own no more than what fills a backpack and am not homeless thanks only to the kindness of friends.
It really began in 1995, the year I met Daniel Gildark. We were both driving pedicabs—those bicycle-powered carriages—on the waterfront. He said I looked like the writer William T. Vollmann. I told him to fuck off (Vollmann is not exactly handsome), but I was thrilled to meet someone at random who knew who Vollmann was. After a Vollmann-like trip through the end of the Yugoslavian civil war later that year—where Gildark saw mass graves, destroyed towns, and alleys where snipers had waited to shoot schoolchildren, and met the orphaned, the raped, the tortured—some Nigerian gangsters offered Gildark $10,000 to transport narcotics from Rio to Prague. (To this day, he has never taken drugs.) Drug-sniffing dogs led police to Gildark in the Prague airport: He spent two years in prison in the Czech Republic and was paroled after two more in U.S. federal prison.
By 2003, he had moved to Portland and was in film school, living on Top Ramen in a $300 a month tenement. I had lost a run for Seattle City Council, my girlfriend of two years, and my job. Gildark wanted to direct a film. He asked me to write the script. The Iraq war was starting: We wanted to make political art that could turn a profit, and the lucrative horror genre seemed perfect. On a cross-country Greyhound bus trip some years before, I'd read H. P. Lovecraft's tales of ancient cults dooming humanity, and what I saw riding through freeway sprawl after sprawl had looked a lot like a vast conspiracy to end the world.
After signing on, I spent a summer as caretaker of the weird triangular modernist house in the woods under St. Mark's Cathedral. The road was closed for construction and freeway noise absorbed every sound, including the alarm when I was burglarized. I slept with a baseball bat. We threw parties, bands playing at concert volume until dawn. Across the street was a row of condos condemned after the mudslides of '97, filled with bottles, bags of feces, and burnt cardboard, all of it slowly sliding under the 5, abandoned to the bad-crazy drifters the other homeless feared. In 10 days I typed a 200-page draft of a "Gothic, apocalyptic, anti-Bush gay horror" script (no idea what I was doing) titled The Festival. Then the title changed to Leviathan, then Mayday, and then, most improbably, Cthulhu. The plot grew from resonances between Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth (in which an architecture student is trapped in a town and marauded by an alien cult he discovers is mysteriously linked to his destiny) and the experiences of several gay friends who returned in their 30s to small towns they had left in their youth (to bury a parent or help with a divorced sibling's children or a family business). The union of these storylines seemed a credible strategy for updating the novella.
Lying on the terraced floor below the vaulted high angle of the house, I made dismal calls to my ex-girlfriend, the one who'd stuck with me during the arduous six months of my city council run and who I was trying to win back. She refused. My only chance at love had fallen apart, and dark ghosts swarmed out of the past—my father and grandmother's slow and painful deaths, my mother's disappearance, my stepmother's cruelty. One night, a week after finishing the script, I put on Big Star's Sister Lovers, made a noose from a heavy electrical cord, and tied it to the balcony rail. The music seemed to be coming out of my skin. I did not have the nerve to die, or the strength to live sober, so I walked down to the Zoo Tavern on Eastlake for my first drink in four years.
For two years, Gildark and I talked daily, bouncing between Portland and Seattle, sometimes driving out to Astoria to find locations to write into the script. In November of 2003, we staged a live reading of the script in Portland. At the halftime break, I was approached by a sinister-looking bald man dressed entirely in ornate black antique clothing, with two long, surgically implanted horns under his scalp. He introduced himself as Diabolus Rex, a magister templi in the Church of Satan and a close associate of Anton LaVey, the "Black Pope," before LaVey's death in 1997. Rex was from Astoria, the son of a satanist couple who lived there in the '60s and '70s. He rattled off a dozen uncanny resemblances between Astoria and Lovecraft's fictional Innsmouth, and even unguessed parallels with original elements of our own adaptation: His childhood basement opened onto the series of old tunnels under the town I thought I had invented for the film. Rex said that Lovecraft, though a strict materialist, was a channel for the occult (literally, hidden) world to reveal itself, and that now we too were unwittingly being steered to this purpose.
In Portland, it seemed, everyone was an artist, but ultimately most of them shied away, skeptical of our ambition. So Gildark moved up to Seattle. We hoped to shoot in the spring of 2004, but spring came and went, and then summer, and then fall, without a path to production materializing, or any backers.
In January 2005, we flew to New York to meet with Jason Cottle, an old acquaintance who, with help from his ex-father-in-law, Dustin Hoffman, had started a short-lived theater in the Shoe Building, an infamous Pioneer Square artist hive where Gildark had lived before going to Europe. Cottle impressed us so deeply with his understanding of what we were trying to do that we cast him (without audition) in the lead role of Russ.
That spring, with the help of Gildark's girlfriend and her family, we pooled $60,000 into our LLC, named Arkham NW Productions after the Lovecraftian county seat. We hired the producers, production designers, and costume designers from Police Beat, which was very nearly the first real movie from Seattle, and yet was just flawed enough to break its beautiful spell. Police Beat screenwriter Charles Mudede—the script grew from Mudede's column in The Stranger—is one of the two or three most engaged thinkers in the city, but his thoughts are booklike, and if a film does not speak everyone's language, it fails. For better or worse, even serious films are pop. But Police Beat was the first to train a local crew in the expectations of distribution-quality filmmaking. And we took on Police Beat's director, Rob Devor, as a consultant.
Onscreen at the SIFF premiere of Gus Van Sant's Last Days we spotted our second lead, the sleepily handsome Scott Green, who had no agent or publicist or phone. A week later, a friend of Gildark's called from Joe Bar on Capitol Hill to tell him Van Sant was there having coffee; Gildark rushed down and got Van Sant's number, as Green was a sort of all-purpose assistant to Van Sant. Green was easygoing and, to us, slightly mythical, one of the actual teenage hustlers cast in My Own Private Idaho (Keanu Reeves finally took the role based on him, keeping his name, Scott). A meeting later, Green was "on board." (We already spoke unironically in the caricatured jargon of "the business.") Devor's connections in L.A. also helped us cast Tori Spelling, who loved the script and agreed to work for low-budget scale.
All that summer we prepared in our office above a warehouse near 14th and Union. The whole half-block was slated for demolition, so we got it outrageously cheap. It was the last raw industrial space on Capitol Hill, an auto-body shop in the '70s and empty since: Next door lived a filthy veteran of the psychic wars of the '60s, exactly one of everything filling up his half of the building like the warehouse at the end of Citizen Kane. Our friends lived there; their bands practiced and recorded there; other film crews shot in the space. It was our playpen. Nights I would DJ for 60 people at a time, or bring my grandparents' heavy old speakers up onto the roof, blasting the Stooges' Fun House. Millie—the octogenarian woman who believed we were poisoning "her" feral cats—would scream up at us, immune to reason, from where the house next door had just been torn down, "You killed Blue-Eyes!" Toward the end, almost two years later, some of the Infernal Noise Brigade folks turned the warehouse into a speakeasy casino, selling liquor and capturing the spirit of the old Seattle that was coming down for condos all around us.
Costumes were built in a tiny room next door to the office. Our old friend Dash, a poet and freelance handyman, put us in touch with a mask maker he knew in L.A. The puppets came one at a time, strange gifts everyone wanted to play with: the salamander people, the long white arm, and finally the full monster suit of black rubber, for which our art director had sketched fish at the Pike Place Market. What came back (for five grand) looked ridiculous. The eyes were made of rubber painted red with slits in them like a cheap Halloween outfit, and it was too tall and narrow for almost anyone to wear. (It looked so bad it never appears in the film.) Gildark's cousin Billy flew in from Chattanooga, toothless and wiry after a decade on meth but happy not to be mowing lawns in Tennessee. Billy could fix anything at all, and his mechanical skill sometimes saved us from disaster.
To fight my discomfort raising money, I wore a cowboy outfit and adopted a flashy and faux-craven "hustler" persona that was, for some, too convincing. I learned I could only hustle people I liked, people I could draw into our vision, and the chief strength of the hustle was its honesty: I would have rather not made the film than lie to anyone. We hired cinematographer Sean Kirby, who had made Police Beat look so amazing. I sold my condo and put it all in: $140,000. Roxanne Tarn, the angel who paid for Police Beat, introduced to us by Devor, fell in love with what we were trying to do (and vice versa) and came through for us in all our tight spots, investing a total of slightly more than $130,000.
With the stress of preproduction and the chill of fall exacerbating my muscle-pain disorder, I was a mess, barely sleeping, screaming as I got out of bed. On a trip to Puerto Vallarta, I bought a gross of Somas, the packet unfolding like a foil tapestry. The muscle relaxants were the only way I could sleep, walk, or sit at a computer. Because of the drugs, I couldn't retain any thought more than a minute: When I needed to remember something, I wrote it on my hand, like the hero of Memento. May, who would become my most serious girlfriend, showed up at the warehouse before the shoot with her partner to make a fundraising video for the project. Whip-smart and devastatingly beautiful, she was gone after a day. Then the work and the pills sucked me under the tide of what that combination became, leavened by alcohol. Later, in the long hiatus, I recalled an amazing conversation I'd had with her weeks before at some party during the busy swirl of production—the precise details were gone, but there'd been a connection we both recognized. Remembering this, I asked her to dinner at Black Bottle, which I spent most of outside on my cell. Three months later, when we were deep in love and I was thinking about asking her to marry me, someone asked us how we met and I told the story of our dimly recalled first conversation. "That wasn't me," she said.
Day one of production, September 29, 2005, we were in the 9 Lb. Hammer in Georgetown, laying 80 feet of track for an ambitious 11-minute take. (Gildark wanted to start heavy to show the crew we were serious.) My job on the set was loose but catholic: The director's left hand, I was there to notice things forgotten at the last minute. I was first to drive back to the warehouse, with a production assistant I'd fallen for who wouldn't have me. We were so ecstatic from what we thought was the day's success (I had never even been on a set) we wanted to go higher. In the office she blew me on the couch by the door, both of us listening for feet on the stairs.
When Tori Spelling arrived, some of us took her to Neighbours to do shots. Spelling was overwhelmingly sexy in person but kind with her power, which, combined with her raunchy, ironic sense of humor about the meaningless fame she was in, made her enormous fun to be with. Incredibly flexible (she had taken a pole-dancing class), she did the splits in the bar, and my friend Jon, who'd borrowed $10,000 to invest in Cthulhu, made out ferociously on a stool with Spelling's friend until they tumbled onto the floor. The collateral attention directed at our star was uneasy and adrenalized. Responsible for her safety and her happiness, I was unbearably tense, swinging between ecstasy and devastation. After the production assistant I'd had that moment with in the office disappeared for two hours to dance with Scott Green, I stood in the middle of Pine Street, phoned my brother, and wept.
In the weeks moving back and forth from Seattle to Astoria, certain events stand out: the party the grips threw for the crew in Astoria (all colored lights and smoke and people gathered on the beds and crowding the hotel balcony in full enchantment with one another); Jon and the actor who played the part of SUV Passenger jumping in their skivvies from the balcony into Astoria's marina, not knowing if the tide was in or not (the hotel banned us because guests thought they heard us throwing furniture into the river); filling a Capitol Hill mansion with 60 extras next to the house of playwright August Wilson (dying, right then, in Swedish Medical Center), the take delayed for three hours due to an inexplicable electrical interference; the late-October shot of the bluff in Gearhart from the helicopter coming around over the waves (the magnificence of the sea on tape!) as the light vanished.
Scott Green said it was his favorite crew since Idaho. We had relocated most of the film professionals in Seattle to a distant location, and things quickly got intense, and strange: Dash was in Astoria working for us and had a room at the Red Lion at the end of the balcony. He was a visionary, a drunken talking book, a seductively fatalistic half-prophet, half-bullshitter, and his room was one of the places we fed on the dark visions behind the project—certain of us were also feeding on sex, booze, and coke—and let them ferry us to the bliss of brief and total-seeming escape from earthly bounds, success or failure. This presented the danger of letting the whole project fly. (As in politics, who knew what tiny liability could tip the whole enterprise toward its doom?) Dash was an old friend, though, and he was in the bones of this: There was the home team and the guests, and after a while the guests were sliding away.
Tori Spelling's entire persona seemed to me a wryly absurdist work of performance art. She was the center of every room, and to be next to that center was thrilling. One night in Seattle I took her and her best friend, along with Jason Cottle and Scott Green, to the Bus Stop for karaoke. I had been going to the Bus Stop most Sundays for a year, joining the trannies, bank clerks, and opera singers who flowered onstage under the sweetly stern guidance of the host, a black male chanteuse named Adé. The whole bar recognized Spelling, but no one said more than the man who, when she got up to sing, shouted, "I loved you in The House of Yes!" Three hours later, her second time up, a passerby told the closing-time crowd next door at the Cha Cha that Tori Spelling was at the Bus Stop, and before her song ended there were 40 more people in the small room, flashing camera phones and trying to touch her. A guy had his arms around her at the mic. I grabbed him in one hand, put the other over Stranger photographer Kelly O's camera, and hustled our frightened and weeping star into a taxi. (A photo of Spelling got into The Stranger anyhow, as Drunk of the Week.) Her friend told me in the cab, "Don't worry, we had a lot of fun. This happens all the time."
Our last day with Spelling we caravanned the five-hour drive from Astoria to the Sea Lion Caves in Florence, Oregon. For 48 hours, I believed I was in love with the impish and mercurial Slovakian woman Jon had brought along and whom he would later marry, and she and I stood on a cliff over the sea holding hands while the camera rolled. The sea lions (a key plot element) had been out at sea since September, but none of our recent conversations with the Sea Lion Caves manager had revealed this, possibly simply because the manager wanted Spelling to make the trip out there. I had to improvise a script change on the spot accounting for the absence of the animals.
Two weeks later, a storm canceled the rest of our schedule, taking out a transformer with a single bolt of lightning. We all watched from our balcony back at the Red Lion as the town dropped into a 19th-century dark. The wind blew out all the windows in the old net- repairing shed that was the film's iconic location and toppled a hundred-year-old tree into the house where we'd shot Spelling raping Cottle, the resulting mudslide sending another location downhill into a ravine. Cottle had warned me about the Poltergeist legend, the energy we were bringing into the world by making a horror film. Even stranger: The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alert, tied to the town dock and in-camera as we shot a pivotal scene, had the very same name as the boat that encounters Cthulhu mid-Pacific in Lovecraft's 1926 story "The Call of Cthulhu." How likely is that?
A trailer was cut from the first two weeks' footage in a fast and loud session with Gildark, editor Joe Shapiro, Cottle, and myself. As soon as it was done, Cottle and I headed to Portland for the last night of the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival, hoping to squeeze onto a screen (unannounced) before the closing reading and concert by one of my all-time heroes, Patti Smith. When we arrived, the festival director said there was not a minute to spare in the schedule. A volunteer came up: "Gus Van Sant is outside and wants to see these guys' trailer." (Scott Green had brought him.) At the other end of the room, Patti Smith—the Patti Smith (an old woman!)—was eating a bagel.
The festival director explained the situation and introduced us. Restrain yourself, I said to myself, while other voices in my head shouted, "That's fucking Patti Smith!" (Testify to her influence and colossal genius? Mention the WTO? Recite the introduction to "Rock and Roll Nigger": "At heart I am a Muslim... At heart I am an American artist, and I have no guilt!"?) She agreed to cut five minutes from her set to make room for our trailer, and then she was gone. A minute after that I was introduced to Gus Van Sant, for Chrissakes, who wanted to go for drinks. The festival director was furious at the intrusion. (Two years later, he warmly awarded us the festival's top prize.)
Back in Seattle, we ran dry on money with just half the movie shot. One day after the production went on hiatus, a far more important project I had started and worked on for 12 years, the campaign for the agency that would have built Seattle a monorail transit system, ended at the polls, and for a week I went to bars with my friends every night, unashamed as for hours tears ran down my face. I had taken mushrooms with a friend before dawn on the first day of 2004 in a house overlooking Ballard, the Sound, and the Olympic Peninsula, and as the logs burned in the fireplace we'd listened to Joni Mitchell's Blue, Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, and Modest Mouse's The Lonesome Crowded West, and anytime I hear those songs now they send up synaptic tracers of that cosmic dawn. I could feel all the living things in the visible field out the window at sunrise—the chipmunks, the red branches of the fir trees, the leaves of grass—telling me I was right, that my vision for the city would rescue the biome, the salmon would still run for millennia. It was a drug trip, but it felt certain and final like nothing ever had. If I hadn't been distracted by Cthulhu, I thought at the time, the shattering of my faith in Seattle—the muse of my poetry, the point of it all—would have destroyed me.
Now, two years later, I realize it destroyed me anyway.
The publicity over Tori Spelling's visit attracted our last—and biggest—investor, a young software entrepreneur who liked our goth-in-fleece regionalist aesthetic and took the gamble of finishing out the budget. The second half was the hardest: Now we knew how to shoot tight, and had to. We got into a house in the Central District, built in 1889 and, sadly, also coming down for condos. There was no power except our generator, and the "video village" (where the monitors were) was set up in the dark as we poured water through the second floor into a mocked-up living room. The house was forbiddingly sad, full of ghosts.
We spent a terrible four days on graveyard shoots, first for two crazy-making nights in the clammy Seattle Underground and then a model house in a new Maple Valley subdivision. By morning, the crew had been run so ragged some were throwing up. One of the grips, Teresa, collapsed while carrying a heavy box to the trucks, and got back up and went on before anyone reached her. Seeing that, and crew members rushing forward, her shaking them off, I felt a rush of terror and love.
And then at last there was the studio, our home. In the cold room upstairs where the costumes had been made, and where I lived during production, PAs pulled back my rug to pump madly at a tank of fake blood piped through a hole cut in the floor to the prosthetic slit wrists of a child actor decorating a fake room with his suicide. They broke a hole in the roof of the building to shoot down a giant cardboard tube through which our star escaped an underground city of reptilian beings. They poured five hundred gallons of water through the window to flood a jail cell made of two flats perpendicular to the real wall, and pumped it back out again (as it leaked onto the floor the crew lifted live cables and danced them to dry ground). Because CGI looks fake, they dribbled 40 gallons of corn oil in a thin layer down a six-by-fifteen two-way mirror, and built a tank the dimensions of a king-size bed and floated 72-year-old Bob Padilla (the Young Brave on Bonanza) in it, holding still as the water rose (sped up and run backward to look like he was coming out of a wall of black liquid).
We went back to Astoria again, the survivors, and worked for a week: On a slow night of pickups after half the crew had left, we shot the last scene in the schedule. There was a sad party afterward in the conference room above the marina, pizza boxes on the folding tables, time suddenly slack. We sat on the floor drinking but couldn't get drunk. The next morning, Gildark and Sean Kirby and a couple assistants went out for some last shots of the town from the historic Astoria Column. Standing at the top of the column's narrow, coiling stairway, looking out over Astoria as if awaiting this culmination, was Diabolus Rex.
Editing was interminable, playing Scrabble with the plot, losing our best-loved scenes, keeping ones badly written or acted because without them the film made no sense. We rewrote the near-futuristic radio broadcasts because the war was already in its fourth year and its sixth (the year the film was set) was no longer a joke. The extinction of the polar bears predicted in the script had begun in reality. It rained harder in Seattle than any of us had ever seen, water flowing from the Piecora's lot into the warehouse and leaching a half-century of motor oil from the concrete floor and dissolving that stupid fucking monster suit. After the first six slow months of postproduction, because I believed another Seattle winter might dig me a hole too deep to climb out of, and in a pique of disappointment over the death of the monorail agency, I moved to Mexico, where I drank and drifted and wrote travel guides.
There are smart, original filmmakers (like Megan Griffiths and Dayna Hanson) in Seattle in preproduction on what could be real narrative feature films who have spent years looking for investors. And there are tens of thousands of millionaires in the city, while Roxanne Tarn, the sole major funder of serious Seattle film for most of this decade, has exhausted her Microsoft retirement money trying to make things happen in her city. (She's going to have to go back to work full-time soon.) The necessity for a local artist to gain outside acclaim before being taken seriously in the Northwest—a phenomenon going back probably to Morris Graves—cripples aspirations the area holds toward making influential film of its own, at home and on its own terms, an effect compounded by the bizarre and delusional comfort zone that praises hobby films with no hope of distribution (i.e., every nondocumentary feature from Seattle except Outsourced, Police Beat, and Zoo). Honest criticism is considered to be a breach of alliances. The Cthulhu crew—one by one—are moving to Portland, where it is cheaper for Hollywood productions to shoot, and, of course, L.A.
If we couldn't sound an alarm that would help awaken America to our growing ecological disaster, we at least hoped to scream into the gathering darkness. The former may be beyond the reach of art. As for the latter, Cthulhu is hardly the timely, minor classic we thought we were making. I didn't know until the edit how truly little the form accommodates. It is gorgeous, though, and interesting. We will be very slow to repay our investors, some of whom sacrificed hugely: We really thought we had the zeitgeist, that this thing would sell for millions.
Most of the mistakes were mine or Gildark's: the poorly blocked scenes shot in the first couple days, which happened also to be the first, bloated scenes written and some of the earliest in the film; having 80 locations, which made the budget twice what it could have been; the places in the script that aimed for Cronenbergian metaphor but instead strayed into corn. At festival after obscure festival, gay men and horror aficionados loved the film (dimly projected from a DVD); women and most everybody else thought it was a piece of shit. Lionsgate passed, as did a slew of smaller distributors. I cried myself to sleep—in the arms of another beautiful woman at least—the night of our 2007 SIFF premiere, sobbing, "It's not that good! It was so much work!" Gildark now pushes rolls of carpet at the convention center.
But we learned how to do it—all of it—right. Next time.
At last, just recently, Cthulhu sold to a distributor who surgically extracted many of its flaws with reedits we hadn't thought possible and tightened its sloppy two-hours-plus running time into a serviceable (though odd), Hallmark Hall of Fame–looking, 99-minute horror pic that feels (stunning cinematography notwithstanding) like it might have been made for television.
The deal paid almost enough up-front to cover our debts. Two weeks ago, I waited alone with Gildark to discuss marketing with our distributors in a penthouse conference room on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, a softly illuminated fog below us threading over Pacific Palisades and the San Diego Freeway. What should have been thrilling was instead more like finally getting to fuck your high-school crush at the age of 95. Meanwhile, we have one script ready (a rock musical about the romantic poet John Keats, set in present-day Seattle) and seven other projects in development: a Sundance-tailored black comedy set in a burger joint; a melodrama about a romantic quadrangle of adulterous college professors in 1992; a remake of a '70s swamp-monster drive-in movie; an adaptation of a postapocalyptic bildungsroman; a romantic comedy about Ukrainian internet brides; a historical drama about the last days of Seattle's New Deal congressman Marion Zioncheck; and the SoCal Greek tragedy of a doo-wop star's love-child. We want another chance. We want to live like that again.Grant Cogswell has been contributing to The Stranger since 1999 and will be returning to Seattle soon. Cthulhu, distributed by Regent Releasing, will be in theaters this fall.