Wednesday, April 17, 2019

With a Lot of Help From My Friends: On Half-Past Eight PM (Part Two)

Are you ready for more self-mythologizing? Here's what happened next in the saga of Half-Past Eight PM...

A lot happened in the next school year after my success with Half-Past. My friend Ana, who had transferred to Catholic School for personal reasons, transferred back and asked me to write a movie script for her to direct, but was sadly never produced. Josh and I collaborated on a 30-minute film for CommTech where we played hired killers. And I appeared onstage for the first time outside the drama room in the cast of the Grade 12 production of The Importance of Being Earnest... as the main character's butler.

Over the course of that year I became closer with those drama kids I had been orbiting. Only my paralyzing shyness kept me from auditioning for that year's Sears Festival production of Twelve Angry Men, one of my bigger regrets in a high school career comprised mostly of regrettable moments. But I did become part of that group anyway, making friends without having to be a joiner, just as I always wanted. In the final months of high school it kind of finally felt like I belonged somewhere. My personality had taken three and a half years to bake, and I was very close to shedding the pervasive feeling that they didn't really actually like me. I just wished I had more time to enjoy it.

Somehow, the seed was planted to do a video version of Half-Past Eight PM over the summer. It wasn't something I would have suggested initially, but when the idea started bouncing around it started to gain momentum rapidly. It didn't seem impossible, due to my CommTech and directorial experience. Josh and I had fallen out by this time but I was ready for it to be "my thing" and take complete responsibility. Any doubts I had about my ability to pull it off were overrode by flattery that the people who would have to be involved were implicitly saying to me "Hey, I want to spend a considerable portion of my summer hanging around you, doing this."

Most of the cast was different - the original Half-Past players were a few friends joined by by whatever underclassmen I could get because they weren't wanted in another play (you could only be involved in two in the Fringe - despite the festival ultimately consisting of only one play.) Now the cast was pretty much entirely people I wanted to hang out with over the summer. Ryan was back as Mark, the only person I knew with just the right leading man vibe, the mixture of humour and heart. Kyle returned to play Louie, Doug was promoted from ghost Beatle to Perry. Mikey Hoffs was played by our friend Chris Brown (known usually by his first and last name, or just CB) who specialized in losers and outcast characters - he had played the Anthony Michael Hall character in our Fringe production of The Breakfast Club that year. (I was the Principal, Mr. Vernon.) Imbuing Billy the Enforcer with dignity and also spaciness was my dreadlocked friend Emma. I decided I wanted to appear in a revamped version of the dream sequence playing a ghost that seems to come from outside the movie itself, rather than any pqrticular dead celeb. It was clearly a bit that was still finding its final form.

I took the opportunity when translating the script to screen, as well as having lived with it for two years, to expand the scope. The story would unfold over a whole day and the beginning of the next, mostly spent with Mark and Perry, together and separate. We would meet Perry's fiancee Karen, as well as his sidepiece Elaine.

This was a tricky line to walk. Elaine, played by bright-eyed Lauren, was sweet, naive, and into Perry despite him having a history of lightly bullying her in school. Karen, played by Anisah, was exactly what I was envisioning when I thought I shouldn't give Perry an "out" for his cheating: in her first scene, before the truth is revealed, she is so wholesome and pleasant that you can't really see why anyone would hurt her unless they were a total dick. And after the truth is revealed, she played the scene with perfect crisp coldness of someone who has been hurt, the first actual emotional stake I had written into the script - but not the last. In only two scenes, one of which is her pretty much just exchanging settled relationship small talk with her fiancee, Anisah gives probably my favourite performance of the thing. (It helps that the role is sadly so small and elementary that there was virtually no room for me to muck it up with bad dialogue.)

It was probably an error to bring real women onto the screen for Perry to hurt. They were now human beings for the audience to identify as the victims in his crime. As it turned out, I had tested the limits of the Perry experiment and found the breaking point. I watched this video with my fiancee for the first time in years not long ago and the Perry business made me cringe in a way it wouldn't have when I was 18 years old and making this movie. It's likely that this whole "growing up" thing has in some way modified my perspective on it.

The story was expanded in other ways too. Instead of ending with the famous punchline about Mark's workplace, the story continues. We actually see Mark work his way up to confessing his feelings to Beth... and get gently crushed. In one of the few true attempts at style in the thing, the camera unblinkingly holds on Mark for seemingly an eternity as an offscreen Beth tries to find her way out of this situation when Mark proposes they might be a thing. In my recent watchthrough, as the seconds ticked on, lingering on Ryan's face, I first thought "Wow, I had no idea what I was doing, I should have cut away here." But as we are kept eye to eye with the actor who played Mark in his first two incarnations as it dawns on him that the person he had built up in his mind as his true dream girl, whom he went into the underworld to rescue, didn't like him back, I realized, oh, I knew exactly what I was doing. And it kind of worked. Maybe too well. It's crushing.

The actress who played Beth, my friend Alyssa, helped me see how badly I had underwritten the character. In the first incarnation she was a cipher, someone to be described in such vague terms that watching, you would probably think she was your dream girl too. You would have no reason not to. Alyssa was probably not satisfied playing a cipher, putting her own proto-hipster spin on the character, and helping to refine some of the generic dialogue I had composed. In general, a lot of the cast brought more to the characters than the stock types deserved or required, including Melissa as Carol the hooker and CB as Mikey the awkward shop owner who, in this version, gets a chance to play hero.

In the end of this version of the story, Billy calls up "the manager of Ultra Food Mart" to arrange a meeting, only to learn it's the very guy she liked meeting the night before. Although she is torn between duty and romance, she is soon told by her brother that the job is no longer needed - Mikey and Louie had a falling out of sorts. Billy walks off smiling - "I have a date tonight."

Personally, while nothing beats the original ending, as far as the expanded version goes I'm actually quite pleased with this esoteric happy ending. While having Beth reject Mark may not have been a crowd pleaser, it was how I saw the world at the time - not only can you not always get what you want, you usually don't. And maybe the best thing for you is the thing that sneaks up on you without realizing it. (I think the Rolling Stones put it best when they said... "You got to roll me... and call me the tumbling dice." Oops sorry, wrong song.) It played into my continued interest in validating Billy's feelings and exposing those who might be turned off by them - because, excuse me, why wouldn't Mark and Billy make a nice couple?

The production was difficult - planning and co-ordination were never my strong skills and it would have been tough under normal circumstances. Again, one or two roles were recast. Entire days of precious footage were lost and had to be reshot due to a lack of sound. Melissa (one of the few castmembers with a car and the only one from out of town) got into a fender bender on her way to one of our shoots, and I decided to accommodate that instead of recast. On top of trying to wrangle 18-year-olds on summer break who want to chill and have fun between working their shitty part time jobs. But it gave me what I wanted, chances to spend time all summer with people I knew I would miss, and to immortalize what I knew was the best thing I had done up to that point. Despite scheduling mishaps and emotional breakdowns on my part, I saw it through before summer was over. The only problem was, when "principal photography" was over, I had to edit the damn thing.

Writing is my thing. I have always felt like I am good at it and what's more, I am eager, even today, to get better, and even if it turns out I'm not good, I would still want to do it. That is where my heart is. What is decidedly not my thing is directing. And editing. And cinematography and sound-editing and basically being a one-man crew. I never guided my actors because I didn't want to spend all day trying to get the performance right since the clock was always ticking, and I trusted them to do their best. Watching the video - which was removed from YouTube for copyright considerations - the whole thing is technologically and technically below average. The technology I used then was fine, if far from industry quality. Nowadays I could make a better-looking movie on my phone. The actors - hard to criticize because they were my friends and they were teenagers - are sometimes naturalistic, but sometimes forget they're not on a stage, and sometimes struggle to contend with my occasionally indulgent dialogue. It's possible that the actors' desire to bring true dramatic weight to my sitcom archetype characters makes the material seem more thin than it would be with a light, broad interpretation. The look, the sound, the feel of it - that all falls on me, and it can only get a low mark if I'm being fair.

What's more, my ambitions outstripped both my ability and the tone of the thing. At the time I wanted to emulate the great then-current spate of independent popular films I loved: Lost in Translation, Garden State, Broken Flowers, with their quiet, contemplative, sombre tone and emotional ambiguity. All that approach did was put a dour sludginess on what was normally a bouncy back-and-forth dialogue-driven piece. Being adapted from a play, it was not going to be an excessively visual story. A few years later, I could have taken more inspiration from the American version of The Office, where drab everyday reality meets the broad sitcom types in a world that looks sort of like what I had envisioned.

I spent a lot of the winter working on it, while also going through my first year of college. At various gatherings and get-togethers, people who were in the thing would ask me about its progress, and I had to temper my response between being frustrated at how it was going, and how good it felt that people cared. Maybe they thought they results would be very good. Maybe being in it, and being around the other people involved, meant a lot to them. Maybe they just wanted confirmation that they hadn't spent all that time on it for no reason (for me, it was a lot of that last one.)

Putting the thing on video didn't wreck it - somehow, as cringey as this new version was, it still got lots of laughs when I finally screened it in May of the following year, for a crowd that had largely seen it as a play, or been in it. I hope they didn't feel the need to pity laugh, or to force themselves to feign enjoyment to make the whole process feel like it had been worth the effort. But even if it weren't any good, it was an important memento and worth the many months of my friends asking what was happening with it and when it would be done. After all, I really only did it because I wanted to keep hanging out with these people, not because I had any intentions of submitting it to film festivals (although, in my wildest, most desperately unrealistic dreams...)

A little after this movie was shown, Facebook became widespread. This enabled us to maintain our friendships, longer and more closely than maybe even a few years before, from our places on university campuses spread out across Ontario. Suddenly even if you weren't side-by-side with someone, or perched on MSN Messenger waiting for them to come online, they were still in your life via status updates and pictures and the like. In the long run it proved bittersweet, as you had a better window into what people were getting up to without you than ever before.

We all reunited a few times per year for a while, and variously during summers, until life pulled too many of us in too many different directions for the company we kept in high school to mean as much anymore. I've watched them wander off into the fog of their own life, as I've done in mine. That's growing up, as Blink-182 might say.

By that time, I was fine with it. I had made friends in my new spheres of life and moved on like a normal person. I didn't need to write a whole play to see people. Still, I'd always have this one idea, this one script, this secret weapon in my pocket that, if I got an opportunity, I could bring back again for one more stab at greatness...

To be concluded...

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