By Writer/Producer/Director Terry R. Wickham
I’ve heard many people tell me that they want to direct a movie. It almost seems as though anybody feels they could do it. God knows there are thousands of people that have directed films, TV shows and other visual storytelling mediums over the many years the job has existed.
But before you dive headfirst into doing it, you might want to hear my story of directing The Devil’s Five. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about what I experienced, or crying or whining like some of the people I have worked with (including actors on this film). I’m just telling you the unmitigated truth.
First of all when you take on a film of any kind, you better be ready for the time commitment it requires. In the case of The Devil’s Five, it was about two years in the making. Sure I didn’t work on it every day and I did do other projects, including directing another film Stash, the XXistence Teaser Trailer, a martial arts TV infomercial for Super Punch and Kick Target and the music video “Again” for Veronica Freeman over that time period.
But let’s go back to the very beginning of how it came to pass that I ended up directing The Devil’s Five. I wrote the original script that was supposed to be directed by my late friend Bryon Weiss. Being the Hollywood Stunt Coordinator/Stuntman/Producer/Director that Bryon was, made him more than qualified to direct a high-octane horror film filled with action. Bryon was going to shoot it in Dallas, Texas. He told me he was going to call favors from a bunch of his industry friends that owed him to pull off all the action & stunts, which he was an expert at doing. Unfortunately when Bryon passed away of cancer in March 2014, the job had to shift to someone else.
After I unsuccessfully searched for a directorial replacement, including nearly landing John Travolta’s Stunt Coordinator, the job fell into the lap of Devil’s Five creator Thaddeus Byrd. Thad seemed eager and willing to tackle the most ambitious film out of the five that were to make up the anthology Devil’s Five. We even worked on improving the script together. It was in the writing stage that Thad made some huge contributions in terms of the development of “Ansell Schneider” character, purpose of flash drives in the movie and added other horrific touches (such as crime scene photos, killings etc).
But the night before I started directing Stash segment in July 2014, Thad called me to ask if I would direct The Devil’s Five segment instead of him. He said that he felt strongly that I was the best one to direct it since I created the story and he felt I was better with action. I was in the middle of not just directing Stash but producing it as well and because of this, I was determined not to repeat the responsibilities on The Devil’s Five. So I only accepted after Thad agreed to help get financing for it. But once I committed I felt the obligation and pressure to not only directing the incredibly ambitious script, but to do it in a way that honored my friend who passed away.
After nearly 30 years of directing, I know I’m not alone in experiencing difficulties when making a film. I’m pretty certain every single film has problems of some kind, so in no way do I feel that I’m exclusive to facing obstacles.
The first big one, after losing my dear friend, was raising the funds to make the movie. Like Stash, I had to take the reins to raise the capital for the film and it was a super tough, slow go. I set up our fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com and after thirty agonizing days we didn’t get remotely close to our goal. There were times that I thought there wasn’t much hope about the outcome. If it wasn’t for one super generous person in particular, David Melanson, we would have been in very real financial danger of not being able to make the film. The truth is we were going to be short of what was needed. If it wasn’t for investor Thad Byrd added funds during principal photography, this film would not have happened,
Before launching the campaign, I realized that asking people to contribute money to a project, just 9 months after requesting them to donate to Stash made it unlikely that they would be able to repeat for The Devil’s Five. But that didn’t stop me from trying, even in the stiff economy we currently live in.
The next problem was finding a place to shoot the movie. The Devil’s Five contained exciting car chases with a BMW, cop cars, police station with an interrogation room, hallway to interrogation room, police control room, front desk area of police station, hospital and ambulance, all of which I had no idea where I’d find for the film.
After exploring the options available to me where I live on Long Island, the only real lead was when the Suffolk County Film Commission suggested I contact privately owned property (with roads), since that would allow me to film car chases without needing police support. They suggested I contact a farm out east on the island close to Riverhead. I did and went out to visit this farm. But shortly after getting there it, it was obvious that the roadway wouldn’t work for the film and they informed me that the original shooting dates were already booked. Fortunately this nice farmer and his female assistant suggested what I really needed was to shoot at the airport runway in Calverton that Grumman use to use for jets they built for the military.
The farmer and his assistant didn’t know exactly who I needed to talk but did say that the Town of Riverhead owned the runaway and suggested since I was out there already, that I should go visit Riverhead Town Hall to inquire. So I did and after meeting some wonderfully nice people, including Town Councilman Jim Wooten, I told them about my project and there seemed to be genuine interest in helping me. A month or two later I had to sit before the Town Board of Riverhead and pitch my project. After fifteen minutes or so of questioning, I got approval to shoot the entire movie in Riverhead and the airport runway in Calverton. Without this chain of events and the good people behind it all, I don’t know where we could have possibly shot the film.
Though I had cast the movie many months in advance, the casting carousel started to turn when we had to push back the shooting dates from early August to mid-September. This forced me to recast a few actors that couldn’t make the new dates, which could be expected. But as we closed in on our shooting dates new challenges arouse when I had to replace, switch some very important roles, which always added worries to the proceedings, especially when a few of them happened only ten days from shooting.
The other reality I faced was that looking at the dollars we had, versus what the production was going to cost. When I did the math it equated to an absolute deficit. So without additional money of some kind, we were not going to be able to pull off the film. It might go without saying, but try living with this knowledge and the enormous strain it creates. Luckily Thad Byrd contributed all necessary funds to make the movie a realty. For him to support me like that, I will be forever thankful.
Another massive barrier to actually doing the film was we needed lodging for our lead actor Ralf Scheepers. Point blank, we didn’t have the money to spend on getting a hotel for him and without an address of where would be staying, his country of Germany wouldn’t allow him to leave. So we were in a quandary until Elizabeth Ndungu, the General Manager at Residence Inn in Hauppauge/Islandia came to our rescue. Without her kind assistance and the graciousness of her hotel, this film would have been in jeopardy.
We also got lucky when some fine restaurants stepped in to furnish some of the meals that were going to need to feed the cast & crew which on daily basis totaled between 25 & 28 people on most days. On September 26 we had close to 45 total people on set. Please take into account that making countless phone calls to a long list of hotels & restaurants, getting mostly rejection over many weeks adds even more anxiety, which compiles on top of what I was already feeling.
On September 7th, I floated around our pool for an hour or more trying to combat the heavy emotional turmoil the movie was causing me. Unfortunately the water was very cold that day and then I somewhat foolishly spent almost two hours sitting wet against a cool breeze, while I posted replacement casting call notices on my laptop. Combine this with the massive challenges the movie was giving me caused me to get the shakes and my joints started aching. Shortly thereafter I got a fever of 99.9, which ran up 101.9 over the next two days forcing me to go to the emergency room at the hospital on Wednesday September 10th. After taking blood, the doctor listened to my body and ordered multiple X-rays, which confirmed that I had pneumonia in one of my lungs. The doctor prescribed an oral medication for 7-days and told me to rest and do nothing.
The following week with only five days before we were to start filming I learned that one of the cars we were depending on for one of the two police cars for the opening scene, was not going to be available and the person who was going to appear in the movie as well, couldn’t so it was double bad news. This made things a bit tenser but I posted a notice looking for a substitute. A day or so later I found out that the other police car which had been set, had been sold and so both police cars were gone. Things were going from bad to worse. Then two days before the opening scene was to be filmed, my neighbor who had agreed to let me use his BMW months in advance, let me know his car was in the shop getting repaired until the following week. So we lost every car needed for the first scene in less than a week with only 48 hours before we would be filming the scene needing them. Does that sound like something that makes your life any fun?
Again I was very fortunate that supporter Thad Byrd interceded using his determination, gift of gab (with the car rental company) and took another dip into his wallet to provide the movie with amazing police vehicles (a silver Chevy Tahoe and dark Ford Expedition). I can’t begin to imagine what we would have done without his help and the fact he was actually on Long Island to do what needed to be done.
I tried my best to rest and relax (keep in mind all that was going on) and finished my 7-days of medication only 2 days before I started directing The Devil’s Five. But then three consecutive extremely hard working pressure packed 14-hour days on the first shooting weekend hit hard. Two of these dates were done outside on the airport runway, which I”m pretty certain didn’t do my health any favors. The fact is there was no possible way I could ease into production.
We hit the ground running with the tight squeeze of trying to shoot 18 scenes that equated to almost 12 pages of script on the first day (a normal film shoots 4 pages). This highly demanding day surely exasperated my pneumonia condition. I tried sitting and drinking fluids but I wasn’t about to shirk my directorial responsibility, so I plowed forward trying my best to pull off a truly impossible schedule despite the implications it would later cause.
On that first day one of my actresses was very upset at the way she was treated and expressed it to me near tears. When I found out what a production assistant/driver said to her the next day, it made me furious. I also learned this same idiot made a scene at one of the restaurants (that were helping us out) and that he was unprofessionally asking anyone if they had drugs or pot. This caused me to fire him immediately.
Another thing that jacked up the pressure cooker on Friday September 18 was that I was very aware that we were supposed to be done and out of the building by 8 pm (we got there at 8:30 am). As 8 pm approached, there was no possible way we were going to finished filming what was needed, so I just keep working as fast as I could, which didn’t make things any more comfortable.
I was darn lucky that Thad Byrd was there to buy us the time needed to continue shooting. He was like a production angel hovering over the motion picture, squashing out little devils trying to infiltrate the film at every turn.
The next morning, (I didn’t get home until early the next day) I got a little sleep but my family and our birds woke me up earlier than I wanted, which gave me less than the rest I truly needed.
That day, Saturday September 19th, we begin what was the first of three shooting days at the airport runway in Calverton, New York. We got lucky with the weather being clear and pretty mild but midway through the night one actor refused to come back the next night (because he didn’t want to be tired for a flight he had Monday morning) and one actress gave an ultimatum of when she needed to leave (which she did the second night as well). Both of these selfish performers should have expressed their disinterest in the project in advance, because I much rather would have preferred someone who really cared and could tough out what the movie needed and match the dedication & sacrifice everyone else was making. I have no respect for anyone who commits to a movie that doesn’t follow through, giving pathetic excuses, when I have a bunch of other people working longer and a lot harder than they are.
Once more time Thad Byrd again came in to save the day by volunteering to have his hair spray painted the same color as the actor who quit on the film and even dressed in the quitter’s clothes.
We shot on the airport again Sunday night September 20th but when the ambulance got called away to respond to a fire, we were forced to finish the rest of the scenes involving it the following Sunday September 27th. There were two things that highlighted this night. The first was the amazing contribution that Ed Gorman made to get the ambulance for the film. I never mentioned we had lost the first ambulance a month before the shoot. Ed did everything he could to personally ensure we got an ambulance for the film. Not only this but since he is an experienced EMS Technician, he shared his wealth of knowledge with the other actors ensuring our film was authentic.
The other best part of this night was the incredible enthusiasm four lovely ladies Tyler Kipp, Rachael Scarr, Sarah Greenspan and Chanise Renae brought to the set. They didn’t care how late it was and did their best to light up the screen. This night ended around 4 am and I didn’t get to bed until well after 6 am. Though were not shooting Monday September 21, this day still presented some high tension moments, which I will save for my next blog.
So before you gleefully jump into the director’s chair, you might want to wait until I finish my story. By the way I’m not trying to keep any of you from doing what I do. I just want you to know what you are getting into before jumping into the fire. Believe me it can burn.