** SYNOPSIS for LOVERS, LIARS AND LUNATICS **
"Lovers, Liars and Lunatics" is a dark, screwball comedy about a neurotic suburban family that gets held hostage in their home by two inept burglars. Only as the night progresses do we realize that the Machiavellian machinations of the family are actually drawing the burglars further and further into their nefarious familial schemes, until reality blurs, and we no longer know who we should be rooting for: the family, or the burglars.
Reviews, Articles and Screenings:
updated FEB 7, 2008
** March 29th, 2008 noon to midnight ** LOVERS, LIARS AND LUNATICS will be screened at the SAN DIEGO INDIE MUSIC FEST. Located in North Park, San Diego, on the Sun & Moon Vision Productions' Indie Film Stage: Stephen & Mary Birch North Park Theatre 2891 University Avenue. Visit SDIMF for ticket information. Hope to see you there!
** May 3rd, 2008 at 3pm. ** Southwest Alternate Media Project is hosting a special screening of "LOVERS, LIARS AND LUNATICS". Writer/Director Amber Benson will attend and participate in a Q & A session following the screening. The screening will be held at the Rice Cinema, located on the campus of Rice University, Houston, Texas.
Visit SWAMP for details.
** Sunday, November 11, 2007 at 1:15pm. ** Amber Benson will be at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY to screen LOVERS, LIARS AND LUNATICS. Starting at 1:15pm, there will be a brief introduction before the screening, a discussion on the film, followed by a reception in the café.
Cinema Arts Centre
**Screenwriter/Director David Greenberg reviews LOVERS, LIARS AND LUNATICS for the INDIETALK independent film-making community. Read it here.
**Sirens of Cinema Vol. 2 - issue #7 includes a special review on LOVERS, LIARS AND LUNATICS. Pick up a copy here.
** EXCLUSIVE SIRENS OF CINEMA ARTICLE **
--courtesy of Amber Benson and Mike Watt - Editor, Sirens of Cinema magazine.
Do not reproduce without written, expressed consent from Benson Entertainment
In this three part article, originally published exclusively in Sirens of Cinema Magazine (V2-3, 4 & 5), LOVERS,LIARS AND LUNATICS creator, Amber Benson gives readers a glimpse into the world of Independent Film-making.
click on the thumbnails above to view each page (opens in a new browser window)
or read the text version below--
(IN LOVE, LIES
As far back as I can remember I've always loved stories. And that includes telling them, as much as reading them, and hearing them read to me.
Of course, I had only the vaguest hope --being born into a family of medical professionals in Birmingham, Alabama --that I would get to create stories which would influence and inspire the minds of the next generation as much as the books and movies I read and saw inspired and influenced me.
Okay... I hear the assorted members of the peanut gallery snickering in the darkness. Maybe the words 'influence' and 'inspire' are a bit too benign a description for the movies and books I've created. I suppose the sentiment 'to warp and pervert' might be a more apt description for what I create, because I like to write and film tales that have egregious amounts of sex and death and lots and lots of dirty words.
In fact, before my last film was re-titled, Lovers, Liars and Lunatics, it was affectionately referred to as, "The Dirty Script."
You can imagine the response I got when I sent in my paperwork to the Screen Actors Guild, the SPCA, Kodak, etc. And then the subsequent explaining that had to be done every time I called some equipment vendor or agent to talk about the project.
"No, M'am, we are not making a pornographic film. No, M'am, the actors will be wearing their clothes throughout the piece. No, M'am, I do not draw my paycheck from Vivid Entertainment, or any of its subsidiaries."
Okay, now that I've completely digressed, let's get back to the original point of this article, which was for me to enlighten all of you about the making of my latest film, Lovers, Liars and Lunatics.
So, here we go:
How I Made A Movie By Selling Dolls of Myself For Money.
Some famous person somewhere once said that you have to use whatever you have to get ahead. I firmly believe in this statement. I, myself, had two thousand Amber Benson action figures (that's one ton for those of you who're curious) stuffed into large boxes in my garage. Sounds odd, but it's the God's honest truth.
My mother had actually had the bright idea of commissioning Diamond Toys to make us (i.e. my company, Benson Entertainment) a limited edition run of a variant Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figure of my character, Tara Maclay, about six months earlier. She thought it would be an awesome way to fundraise for "The Dirty Script."
She also had the bright idea of letting people pre-order the dolls so that we could start the fundraising before we began pre-production. Of course, Diamond Toys hemmed and hawed, pushing back our delivery date by more than a month, causing the Tara/Amber action figures to be delivered, not in the slower weeks of pre-production, but in the middle of a shoot day --I think it was either day number five or six, but I couldn't really say as the whole of production has now become a giant blur in my mind.
So, during our already rushed lunch break, a giant truck unloaded into my garage what the film crew affectionately came to call: The Ton of Amber. Not having anywhere else to put them, we stored the dolls in stacks, taking up more than half the garage --which sorely impeded the ability of our Craft Services [Craft Services: the guys in charge of the table of food and drinks that are laid out for the cast and crew to snack on during the day] and Caterers. Luckily, my Aunt Janice and Uncle Dieter were in charge of these two departments, and they, amazing people that they are, somehow made it all work.
In addition to the dolls, food, and my aunt and uncle, the garage had also become home to my incontinent Dalmatian, Penny, a pee-stained couch, and my line producer mother, Diane [Line Producer: the woman in charge of the running of the whole film] and her cell phone and computer.
Let this be a lesson to all you reading this: don't make a movie in your own house, or you too could end up with a production nightmare story as fantastical as mine.
Now, back to pre-production [Pre-Production: Stuff you have to do before you can actually make the movie.]
Five years before this story begins, I made a small mini-DV feature called, Chance. We had gleaned quite a lot of pre-production experience from this experience --basically by doing everything ass-backwards the first time, and then learning from our mistakes --and now I felt like between the two of us, my mom and I could probably put together a decent 35mm film.
As much as I love the DV medium, I really feel that there is no substitute for a well-shot 35mm film. There's just something innately beautiful about watching a film print of a movie you've slaved over for a year and a half. And as a filmmaker, I was itching to tackle the much more difficult process of working with film --there's just so much more time and money involved in working with good, old Kodak stock.
Besides, I don't think I ever would've really been able to call myself a true filmmaker until I had made a film on film.
Since its inception, I have had a soft spot for Lovers, Liars and Lunatics, which is basically the story of a dysfunctional family held hostage in their own house one night by a duo of bumbling burglars. I love screwball comedies, and Lovers, Liars and Lunatics is my homage to all the great Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks films I grew up on.
It really seemed like the best follow-up to Chance that I had available in my arsenal of scripts, as Lovers, Liars and Lunatics takes place in one location, and it appeared, upon study, to be something we could do for a relatively small amount of money. I think it's also a really funny piece of writing that deals with all the crazy family dynamic stuff that I just love exploring as an actor, writer, and filmmaker.
First things first, I enlisted the services of a few actor friends --including Christine Estabrook and Raydar Woods, who had worked with me on Chance --my incredible Chance sound mixer, Dennis Baxter, and my Chance composer, Aaron Fruchtman. My friend, Jakobine Motz, who shot the short film that we worked on together a few years earlier, Dead Time, agreed to fly in from Berlin and take on the cinematography duties. To fill out the rest of the cast, I trawled through my list of friends --included with that were a few recommendations from my manager, Brook Bundy, and my agent, Stephen LaManna.
I have always hated the audition process. I think it stinks. So, I was determined not to put any of the actors that I met through the process. Instead, I just invited the actors to meet me at a coffee shop to sit down and have a "chat." That way, I knew within minutes if they were somebody I would like working with.
With all the lovely talent finally lined up, now all we had to do was find a crew, get insurance and film, and rent a truck full of grip and lighting equipment. Sounds like a piece of cake, huh?
Next on board was out First Assistant Director [the guy who runs the set, harassing everyone and making sure we get all the shots we need for the day], Adam Lawson, and through him we began to put together our crew, including our Gaffer [the guy in charge of the lights], Cris Morris, and our crack Second Assistant Director [the guy in charge of keeping the actors happy and doing the First Ad's bidding], Dustin Blackburn.
Everyone Adam brought on board was excellent, aside from the grip department. They came to meet with my mom and me, and immediately began to tick off a list of things that they didn't want, or like about our film, [mostly they didn't like how much we were paying them and the kind of dolly -- a Panther Dolly, if you're curious --that Jakobine had chosen to use].
Like a bunch of idiots, we hired them anyway, a mistake we paid for dearly during production. As soon as we began shooting, the two grips [the guys who move and set up the light stands and take care of the camera dolly --the big wheelie platform thing the camera sits on] we had hired suddenly became unavailable, foisting a revolving door of their grip colleagues upon us in their absence and for the duration of the film.
Most of the temps were great --a few of them were not so great --but it becomes very distracting to a Cinematographer [person in charge of the way the whole things looks] to have to start from scratch with a new grip crew every other day.
Funnily enough, the best dolly grip [the guy who, uh, is in charge of driving the dolly] we had on the film turned out to be our electric intern, Nate Murphy, who had never touched a dolly before in his life. With Jakobine's guidance, he learned to wheel the camera all over my house, even doing the honors on one of my favorite shots of the whole movie.
Anyway, at this point in time, the closest I was to getting to any kind of directing at all was when Adam, Jakobine, my sister's friend, John Olsen (our storyboard artist), and I got together to work on the storyboards [the comic book like drawings of all the shots in the film], and the shot list [all the shots broken down by scene number and shooting day]. Only then could I be creative and order people around. Poor Jakobine and Adam got stuck acting out bits and pieces of scenes for me so that John could have a better idea of what I wanted for the storyboards.
Lucky for all of us in the pre-production process, my Aunt Janice had come up from North Carolina early, and she was catering breakfast, lunch and dinner for our ragtag production office crew.
I can distinctly remember my mom sitting at the dining room table smoking her five-hundreth cigarette of the morning, her laptop reflecting blue light in her drug store-bought bi-focals, the home phone glued to her left ear, a cell phone -- Dustin's, I think -- to her right. All of this, and the sweet smell of barbeque pork wafting from the giant ten-gallon crock pot like appliance sitting on the kitchen counter.
Ah, what a life we creative types lead.
Anyway, these are what remain of the memories I made during the pre-production of Lovers, Liars and Lunatics, as I'm afraid my brain became slightly unhinged during the filmmaking process.
(DIRECTOR ON A
HOT TIN SET)
I had hoped that filming my new movie Lovers, Liars and Lunatics would go off without (too big) a hitch. I mean, I expected little screw ups here and there, but I figured my enthusiasm and good cheer would keep the film relatively happy and functioning.
Boy, was I a naïve idiot.
The most important thing I learned during production was that I am a completely fallible, insane human being who causes as many problems as I help fix. I made so many mistakes, annoyed so many people, and yelled my little blonde head off so religiously that the instances are too numerous to report. And, odd as it may seem, some of the bad behavior chronicled above is directly related to me trying to be the nice guy.
Look, you just cannot be a nice guy on a set. You cannot please everyone, all the time, or you will never get anything done. This is just a cold hard fact --something anyone who is thinking about directing a movie should pound into their skull before they begin their attempt. I started production behind the eight ball, blissfully unaware of this truth, and it caused more trouble than you can shake a stick at.
Creatively, the buck stops with the director. It's their vision --though misguided it may sometimes be --everyone is so desperately trying to get on screen. A good director knows this and appreciates all the hard work their cast and crew is expending to see that vision come to life.
That stuff, I didn't have a problem with. What tripped me up, left me out on a limb all by myself, was my inability to say "NO" --that is, until I was so frustrated by not getting what I wanted that all hell would break loose. I had a vision, yes, but I was terrified of stepping on anyone's toes to achieve it.
The prime example of how this flaw affected our set was exhibited in the animosity between the Script Supervisor (Scriptie) and the Director of Photography (DOP). The relationship between these two key players is already notorious for being fraught with tension --which is something I've personally experienced on many a set I've worked on as an actor.
I think the reason they constantly find themselves at loggerheads is they are both approaching the same problem, but from two completely different schools of thought. The Scriptie's job is to keep continuity (i.e., make sure the actors are wearing the same costumes, the props are in the same position, etc), and to watch that the eye lines are correct and the camera isn't crossing the line (which makes the film impossible to cut). The DOP's job is to set up the shot (which includes choosing the type of lens, setting up the camera and lights, and framing the shot itself).
With that said, you wouldn't think their jobs conflicted that much at all. They're like doing two completely different things, right? Wrong. They are both integral to, and yet can sometimes be totally at odds, with each other.
On our set, instead of me squelching any work-related discord between them, I let it fester and it just got bigger and more unmanageable. I was too terrified of not coming across as the nice guy to tell anyone to back off. Instead of standing up and putting a stop to the situation, I went into placate mode --which led to a lot of hurt feelings and bad vibes.
Eventually I couldn't take it anymore and blew up at both of them. It was a really immature, hurtful way of dealing with the situation, but I caused it to happen all by myself. If I had just dealt with the situation from the beginning, things would never have gotten so out of control. In the end, I discovered that being the nice guy --when it's really just a front for being a coward --eventually leads to you becoming the Spawn of Satan. It's best just to be honest and forthright from the beginning --even if it means people call you names behind your back and don't like you as much.
Just ignore them. I do.
As for other screw-ups and assorted craziness.. well, I think our first quasi-major screw-up was made on the first day of shooting. We were out on location in Pasadena at a lovely office building shooting all our interior office scenes with our actors, Vic Polizos, and Mia Cottet, only to discover that we'd ordered the wrong film from Kodak. We were in a real bind. We either shot what we had, or we re-bought the correct film (being 35mm, this option wasn't in our budget) and lost part of our day in the process. Our DOP, Jakobine, was a real pro and she made due with what we had. Needless to say, everyone was freaking out for, like, half a morning.
At the end of that same day we also lost our grip truck. Our first AD (Assistant Director), Adam, tore the roof off the truck with a tree branch while trying to drive it up the hill to our primary location. With no truck, that meant the Grip and Electric departments had to unload all the gear into the house ---where it stayed for the duration of the shoot --and then drag it around from room to room, based on where we weren't gonna be shooting that day.
Then there was the umbrella incident.
We had shot a good chunk of one of the scenes with Vic and another actress, Christine Estabrook, only to realize that the large red and yellow (very noticeable) umbrella outside over the patio furniture was visible through the kitchen window---it had somehow been moved during one of the scene-change set-ups. It took us forever to figure out how many shots it made its debut in versus how many shots it was missing from. Continuity stuff like that makes you want to pull your hair out.
Another huge problem we had was shooting against the large plate glass windows in the kitchen and living room. You don't realize how many reflections show up in a window when you're shooting at night. The poor camera crew spent half their time stuffed under a large piece of duvatine (heavy black fabric) so the camera's reflection wouldn't ruin the shot. Trying to light the rooms with the huge windows became like a Herculean task for the Lighting and Grip guys. They had to make sure every light was placed in such a way that you couldn't see its reflection in the windows. It was tedious work that took the guys forever. But they did an amazing job. I dare you to find one reflection of light in the entire movie.
Then there were all the deviled eggs..
Our poor production designer/props gal, Lea Anna, and her team (which also included my Aunt Janice who was on Craft Service duty) spent like a week making a trillion deviled eggs --they were everywhere on the set. These deviled eggs played in a number of scenes, so we had something like three different categories of them: 'prop eggs' (which were glued to a paper plate), 'stunt eggs' (there were more of these guys than I can count since they had to be thrown on the floor over and over again in one scene), and 'eating eggs' (which Christine had to eat like for three days in a row, plus one re-shoot day).
Then, of course, there was the whole directing-yourself-as-an-actor aspect of the film. Having already directed myself once before on my previous film, Chance, this wasn't quite the daunting task it would have been otherwise. I kinda knew what to expect from the situation, but it still added a whole lot of extra pressure I really didn't need.
Still, I was lucky enough to have someone running playback for me so I could watch all the scenes I was acting in. After every take, I would have to run behind the camera and watch playback so that I could make sure I was getting what I wanted. It made things pretty surreal for the rest of the cast. I think Michael Muhney --who played my boyfriend, Louis, in the film--- had it the worst. He ended up taking a good chunk of his direction from me while I was standing beside him, wearing a black ski mask with a white daisy embroidered on the forehead. Talk about bizarre.
I find that I actually enjoy the acting process more when I'm directing, I'm a perfectionist when it comes to delivering a performance, so it's nice that when I'm directing I don't really have time to think about the acting. Seriously, I'm just entirely too busy running around telling everyone else what to do to beat myself up over a blown line.
Amazingly, I've only just touched on the insanity that prevailed during the production of Lovers, Liars and Lunatics, but believe me, it was an interesting experience --in fact, it sort of scrambled my brain permanently!
Yet, I do think because I learned something from the process that the whole thing can only be labeled as a positive experience. Here's hoping I've grown enough as a director to take what I've learned on this movie and apply it to my next project.
One thing I do know for sure is that on my next film the deviled eggs are staying at home. There's only room for one Spawn of Satan on my set and that's me!
After a fruitless year of film festival submissions and a not-so friendly search for distribution, I have made the decision to distribute my film, Lovers, Liars and Lunatics, myself. For a long time, this idea was anathema to me. I felt like self distribution was a failure; that my film wasn't a real film.
I did everything I could think of (short of sitting in the distributors' offices myself and refusing to leave or eat until someone took Lovers and Liars off my hands) to try and get a distributor interested in the film. I hit every major festival, and a few minor ones too, but not a one wanted to screen my little movie. I did mass mailings to Producer's Reps [these are the middle man who sell your films to distributors for a percentage of the sale price], but the letters just came back 'Return To Sender/Won't Accept'.
You'd think after fifteen years in the business that my connections (ha!) would lead me to find someone, somewhere, who would help me sell the film. Well, I learned the hard way that no one wants to help you do anything in this town.. they only want you to help them.
On top of that, no one in the film industry wants to take a chance on anything different or unique anyway, so what was the point of struggling to get the industry to see my work?
All anyone in the Entertainment industry wants to do is sit and count their profit margins. So, they hire all these guys and gals with MBAs---i.e., people who know business, but have no creative experience, at all --to make the creative decisions that govern the kind of film and television we, as viewers, watch. That's like saying you want an undertaker to do the short order cooking at your local diner. God knows what kind of congealed body part you'd get on your omelet.
Sadly, I've come to the conclusion that we don't live in a society where creativity is hailed; we live in a world where it is out and out discouraged. Which means amazing, new ideas are stillborn in favor of blockbuster sequels and remakes.
It was a horrible epiphany, but I finally realized that there isn't a place for me and my creations in the mainstream film world. If I wanted to get my film out there, I was going to have to do it myself.
I've self-distributed before. My little Indie film, Chance, did very well when I sold it online. I made my investment back and was able to start a little fund for producing the next film.
So, here I am five years later, back in the same situation, preparing to do it all over again.
But this time, I want to change my mindset. Instead of looking at what I don't have, I want to look at what I do have, namely a hardcore, loyal base of fans who loved my first film and are very excited to see what else I can come up with creatively.
I earned a lot of wonderful fans from my stint on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they've been more than willing to jump into all of the strange worlds that've come out of my head as a writer/film-maker. They even accepted it when I put their beloved James Marsters (who played the sexy vampire, "Spike", on Buffy) in a dress and high-heels for one of the scenes in Chance.
It's taken me a while, but I can now say that I don't care that I'm not sitting in a darkened theatre, eating a bunch of popcorn, and yawning at the commercials while I wait to see my own movie. Yes, it would be amazing to get Lovers, Liars and Lunatics into the theaters, but it is not necessary. I don't need all the frills and fanfare. I just want to get my movie into people's homes, so they can enjoy it.
On the plus side, I know that anyone who buys the film will get to watch it at their own pace. They can rewind the funny parts, fast forward through the gory bits, a re-watch it two hundred times if they want to. I hope they will love their DVD (or hate it, I don't care which), but that it will be on their own terms, not at the whim of some bloated Film Industry that's trying to force-feed it's audience something it made up in a movie mill.
And this idea makes me happy --satisfies me, even. I've made my peace with Art vs. Commerce; in my life, Art wins.
So, the next item of business is to finish the film, have it pressed into neat little DVDs, and then get the website out there so people know what we're up to. If anyone's curious, and wants to take a peek, the address is: www.loversliarsandlunatics.com.
I think the hardest part about the whole thing will be letting my baby go. I've spent so much time with this film: editing it, working on the sound, getting it just the way I want on every front.
I just can't stop tweaking it!
You'd think after months of sitting in front of the computer screen dragging bits and pieces of scenes from one monitor to the next I'd be ready to throw my hands up and chuck the whole thing into the toilet, but it's quite the opposite, actually.
After my friend, Joshua Charson, an editor for Buffy and Tru Calling, cut Chance and I saw how much fun the process was, I vowed that the next film I made I would edit myself.
So, I put together the Final Cut edit system in my office, and just played around with cutting together little things I'd shot, until I felt comfortable with the software. It took a while to get the hang of it, but it's now one of my favorite things to do.
When I got all the footage for Lovers and Liars back from Fotokem --we'd had the 35mm film developed there and telecined [the process of adding frames to your footage to increase the frame rate when going from one format to another] from film [which is 24 frames per second] to NTSC video [which is 29.97 frames per second] ---I started downloading it into my system immediately. I was actually cutting together stuff while we were shooting.
It took me a long time to get the cut finished, though, because I ended up booking a Sci-Fi Channel movie called Attack of the Gryphon, which shot for a number of weeks in Romania. Needless to say, I couldn't stuff a huge Apple Computer and two monitors into my suitcase, so I took a bit of a breather from the editing suite.
I thought the editing process was going to be the hardest thing about finishing Lovers and Liars, but I found out quickly that it was really the sound that was going to be the killer.
Our Sound Mixer, Dennis Baxter, also has a small post-production sound house in Orange County, and he took on the sound editing and mixing single-handedly. He did a beautiful job, but because he was a one-man operation, it took a lot of work on his part.
When I finally came in to give him my notes, he was already 90% there with all the sound effects, music cues, etc. but the one thing we were having trouble with was finding a basketball game announcer's voice to run underneath a pivotal argument between the husband and wife characters. Dennis and I looked everywhere for something in the public domain but there just wasn't anything. We didn't know what to do. Finally, Dennis had a brilliant idea. He found a speech by Richard Nixon that was in the public domain, changed the pitch and speed and laid basketball game sound effects underneath it. Voila! We had our announcer.
Well, I've babbled enough at everyone during my three-article stint for Sirens of Cinema, I just want to say thank you to the editors for letting me express myself in their pages. It's been a lot of fun writing these articles. It's kinda put the whole filmmaking experience in perspective for me. Something I sorely needed.
I just hope you guys enjoyed reading these rants as much as I enjoyed writing them!