This post will go into depth about the making of 'Morning Cloth' so if you haven't yet seen it, do watch it first:
Finished watching it? Good. Confused? Good. Perhaps a little sad? Good. Frustrated at it's lack of closure and all encompassing 'huh' factor? Well then very good indeed.
The idea for Morning Cloth came to me way back in February, though the seeds of what became this idea started all the way back in 2009. Let's start in February though and work our way backwards, yes...
(Straight from camera behind the scenes photo showing how foggy it was on the long stairs during our shoot)
In February I watched 'The Double Life of Veronique' by Krzysztof Kieslowski for the first time. I found the film's realistic yet haunting portrayal of a dream-like world very engaging and I particularly enjoyed how it didn't explain anything. The film just was, it just existed in itself like a dream would. It got me thinking about dreams and how compelling they can be, even if they are fragmentary. Sometimes, especially when they get fragmented by waking up, or by just forgetting parts, they can lodge themselves in one's mind more and become even bigger puzzles. So I decided to take a real world mystery that happened to me, and write it into a script where it became part of a larger strangeness.
Most viewers seeing 'Morning Cloth' tend to think that we found a tombstone that said 'BARTON' and then got a white towel to which we added the words ' Barton's Motel.' Well, that's not the case. The towel always said 'Barton's Motel' and the tombstone did not (My epically talented cinematographer/editor/effects artist Jordan Chesney digitally added the 'Barton' to the stone). The motel towel was my real life mystery, and the actual thing that dates back to 2009.
2009 was the year I moved to California to finish up college and it was then that I unpacked my bags and uncovered a mystery towel that proclaimed it was from 'Barton's Motel!' I was baffled as to how this thing came to me (and amused by thinking that perhaps the character Barton Fink ended up the owner of a sad motel after his screenwriting career failed). Well it turned out that my parents had gone to this motel years ago in the early 90s, accidentally packed the towel when leaving, and then, all these years later, inadvertently put it in with my towels and things when I moved West.
The towel stayed with the rest of my stuff but I never used it really, as it still felt odd to me. After seeing 'Double Life' I started to think about the towel again, and how odd it was in many ways. That's when it came to me: What if I used the towel as the starting point to a larger dream mystery? What if a character found the towel, had no clue where it came from, and in deciding to investigate it, found not that it just came from his parents, but from someplace completely unknown and possibly important? What if in trying to research Barton the cloth finder just realizes Barton has died, and the only way he can 'return' it to Barton would be to place it on his grave? Would that be closure? Or just a confused pain? Excitedly I thought, to both possibilities, yes! It would be a small film of dream logic, set in a dream world. And it would end without a proper ending, like so many dreams do.
I often dream early in the morning and wake up before I can finish the stories contained in them and it frustrates me so much! So I wanted to take that frustration and turn it into a film where the 'ending' just fizzled out, forcing the viewer to 'wake up' from it before anything can truly be clarified. Is this perhaps irritating? Yes, but it's what I wanted to do! My DP Jordan even argued against this, and wanted to add some oomph to the ending, perhaps have the cloth finder get sucked into the grave or such...But that was not to be. The story was what it was, ending or not. Jordan is just as passionate about film as I am, if not more so, so our spirited discussions about Morning Cloth were always great, even if we disagreed about parts of it!
I had wanted to work with Jordan for a long time as he is an intensely skilled filmmaker in his own right. He had found my films online years ago and finally we met up, hit it off, and stayed in touch. I knew I wanted to have him DP this film for he is fantastic with beautiful imagery and I wanted this film to look shockingly beautiful, as well as feel ominous. My own style has been, for better or worse, scratchy, fast, and nervous. This is okay for shorts that are like that, but was not right for this. I wanted this film to make people gasp in shock that it came from me. It had to be beautiful and moody and I knew Jordan could achieve this. And boy did he ever! Jordan ended up editing the film as well, and did special effects, AND the first sound pass. Truly this film became a collaboration, and that was exciting for it would not have been ANYTHING without this collaborative element.
I also knew immediately that I wanted to cast my friend Dave Child as the cloth finder. Dave is known for his fantastic stand up comedy and comedic acting and I loved the idea of using him in a completely serious and dramatic way. I knew he'd be spot on and he was! His terse and worried performance is what cements the short film together and helps mask the fact that each scene was shot several months apart from each other due to scheduling conflicts and general craziness. Dave maintained the proper worried tone and the concern on his face as he floats through the film's grey world is a thing of beauty to my mind.
(un-color corrected raw shot from cemetery scene)
We shot the last scene first, sneakily without proper permits or anything in a cemetery in March. The creepy old tombstone with the draped figure just happened to be there and was a major visual boon! The Motel cloth could be draped over carved cloth, creating a weird double image which adds to the eerie quality of it all. A lovely thing!
Shooting in the cemetery was nerve wracking for I feared we could be caught and thrown out. And, half way into shooting, an ornery groundskeeper did approach us and yelled at us for not having proper permission and said we should leave. Me, being the nervous guy that I am, felt like the jig was up, but DP Jordan just said he'd go to the front and ask for permission...Which he did! This allowed us to go back and finish shooting without the groundskeeper growling at us more...Though it was quite evident as he watched us from a distance that he wished he could...
Next we shot the opening bathroom scene. This was shot in May. Shooting this got delayed for several reasons, the most comical one being a sudden jogging marathon that restricted my ability to drive back to my apartment on time to shoot when we were scheduled to do so! There's always something....This scene proved to be the easiest to shoot, despite how uncomfortably hot we had to keep the bathroom so as to maintain steam in the room.
The mountain stairs were shot last. This took a long time to figure out and organize and ended up being shot in July. Most interestingly though perhaps is that it almost wasn't shot at all, and wasn't even in the script. In my original script Dave was seen walking down a long underground staircase (which was in reality a subway entrance). It then cut to him appearing in an old musty, mysterious bookstore. It was in the bookstore that he found the book with the sad news about Barton. In my original line of thinking I enjoyed the dreamlike aspect of seeing someone go underground and yet suddenly enter into a bookstore. Dreams are full of weird architectural quirks like this (well, at least mine are), so I thought it would be cool in the film.
However after much thought and discussion it became apparent that filming at the top of a subway stairs would be difficult (even more so than shooting in the cemetery was, as it would be more crowded) and that, in the end, it probably wouldn't work out as well as I thought visually. This disappointment was coupled with the fact that our spooky used bookstore location fell through as well, as the people there were suspicious of us and wanted us to pay them more than we would have liked to just shoot a very tiny scene there. So for awhile I was stuck in a rut and very gloomy. It seemed that even when I tried to do the smallest of shoots I just couldn't. But as I stewed in these thoughts a completely new and wild thought emerged...Why contain myself to industrial undergrounds and small inner spaces? Wouldn't it be much more shocking and dreamlike to suddenly have the film explode out into the wilderness and seem like it was something out of, say, the Lord of The Rings? What if Dave left the apartment, only to be on top of a mountain he must journey down, and upon reaching the bottom, there he finds the book, as if placed supernaturally as a totemic object? That would be much more visually appealing than some dinky ol' bookstore!
And it would be completely unexpected to the viewers, especially those who know my work (which has tended to be very grimy and very much intentionally not beautiful). Plus it fits the dreamscape, for again, at least in my dreams, I am often in a normal small space, only to exit out into some wild vista of some sort. So now the task came to finding an appropriately dreamlike outdoor staircase nearby in Los Angeles. And boy did we ever find one!
(Me, Jordan, and Dave, begin the long descent down the mountain stairs)
We ended up filming on the ruins of a stone staircase built in the 40s by Nazi Sympathizers...Yes, that's right...There was a group of wacko Nazis here in California who decided to build a secret bunker at the foot of some mountains in Santa Monica...Their plan was when Hitler won the war and needed to come over to America he'd stay here in their bunker...Yes, RIDICULOUS...Especially when you consider that the way to get to the bunker involves a steep, perilous, and narrow concrete staircase that drops 200 feet down over just 0.1 miles! So, to put it simply: It's a weird and ridiculous place. It of course never became a Nazi stronghold and it's now pretty much just one of the strangest hikes one can go on in LA.
(Jordan filming Dave towards the base of the epic staircase)
We had to film there when it was foggy though, which made it difficult. By the time we were finally able to schedule filming it was past June, and well past the June Gloom that LA gets. We just had to hope for the best and get there intensely early in the morning...So we shot there one insanely early Saturday morning in July...and we lucked out! We got massive, epic, otherworldly fog. In this fog we shot and shot and it was insanely difficult because it was such heavy physical exercise. We all had to walk up and down that blasted stone staircase countless times to do multiple takes and we were all winded and cranky by the time we finally reached the base of the stairs. And of course by then the light had CHANGED, UGH, natural light, what is it's DEAL, so we had to come back at the crack of dawn the next day and shoot more. So we did! And we got great footage, but man oh man, two early morning hikes plus excessive walking up and down on Nazi stairs really did us all in, so to say.
So the film was shot. Then came the long process of editing, color correcting, and sound design. Due to other projects and personal work we didn't have a full edit of the film until September. So from start to finish, even though it is a small film, took a very long time. And it was a stressful time, full of ups and downs and concerns and worries over the film for me for sure. Though in the end the lengthy time it took to make it certainly added to the film and made it into something more than I ever imagined it would be at the beginning.
I am so thankful that we couldn't shoot in that bookstore now! Had we been able to the film would have been so dull and pedestrian visually, comparatively. Sometimes one just has to roll with the punches as they say, and move forward. Always stay open to new ideas and let these ideas brew, even if they feel more like they are festering instead...
I am very proud of 'Morning Cloth,' even if for some it makes for an unfulfilled viewing experience (in terms of ending). It's what I wanted it to be, and it's something I knew I couldn't have made without collaborating with others. So by opening myself up for collaboration I made what is quite simply the nicest looking film I've directed so far...And that's a most wonderful thing indeed, and a lesson to keep in mind for whatever comes next...
Though I will tell you now, whatever comes next will NOT involve crumbling nazi mountain staircases at 4 in the morning, no sir, no way!