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War Is The Monster

By Sam Carver

     There are probably few films that are pure genre.  Romance has comedy.  Comedy has drama.  Drama has humor.  Historical period pieces have a love story and tragedies have had comedy relief since the days of Shakespeare and before.  War intrudes on romance and drama on a regular basis.  There have even been war comedies.

     There is a certain kind of war film, that of the ground level view of combat seen through the eyes of the regular soldier, that seems to lean toward the genre of horror.  And some horror films seem to have an element of war.  It’s logical that a war film depicting sudden and gruesome death, dismemberment and gore would share a similar visceral reaction from its audience with that of a typical zombie holocaust.  The wounded scream, the living recoil and fear is the dominant motif.  A sense of dread pervades.  Our stomachs churn as we watch and wait for something bad to happen. 

     The war film attempts to convey the experience of war using some of the same imagery as its horror counterpart.  It is not much of a coincidence that The Walking Dead is not only the name of a popular cable TV show about a zombie plague but also a film about black soldiers in Viet Nam(directed by Preston Whitmore III, 1995).    It’s not a particularly new phenomenon.  The hero of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front from 1930 shares a Long night with the corpse of French soldier.

     It’s not only American films that do this.  Andrej Wajda’s Kanal from 1957 features a unit of Polish partisans trying to escape German encirclement by wading chest deep through the labyrinth of sewers underneath Warsaw, a true journey through hell, only to find that hell as risen above ground as well. Kon Ichikawa’s grim Fires on the Plain(1957) shows starving Japanese soldiers in the Philippines, late in the war, resorting to cannibalism.

     Not all war films lend themselves so easily to the comparison with horror.  Films like Patton, MacArthur, Darkest Hour portray war from a certain height, where the real savagery of war is only implied or visited in brief.  The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Von Ryan’s Express and, to an extent, Lawrence of Arabia are films in the heroic mode, war as a Hemingwayan adventure.  That being said, David Lean’s classic does have a sequence of relatable horror when Lawrence’s Arab troops take revenge on a detachment of Turkish soldiers in a frenzy of bloodlust.

     During the sixties the world saw unprecedented images of combat from Viet Nam on television.  After that there was no going back to the sanitary, bloodless depiction of violence that had been the Hollywood norm before.  Also in the sixties was the independent film Night of the Living Dead(1968) by George Romero which plays out like a zombie version of the Alamo, with undead laying siege to a group of huddled survivors taking shelter in a house.  Night of the Living Dead was hugely influential to cinema in general, but particularly to the horror and war genres.

     The darkness and shadow that Romero employs to hide the fact that he has no money to work with, carry over into the climactic sequences of two important war films of the following decades.  The assassination of Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now(1979) and the final attack by the North Vietnamese in Platoon(1986) directed by Oliver Stone take place at night with death hiding under cover of darkness.

     These films and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan(1998) also employ a narrative technique shared by slasher films, but also a classic war movie trope.  We meet a group of young people; sorority sisters, high school friends or a rifle squad.  We get to know them, and perhaps like them, and then watch as they are killed off one by one in increasingly terrible ways by Jason, Micheal Myers, Freddie Krueger or the war.

     There have also been films that consciously attempt mix the two genres.  1986’s Aliens directed by James Cameron features space marines in a running battle with the titular monsters and, again, we see them cruelly eliminated one by one.  In 2002 director Neil Marshall UK produced Dog Soldiers showed a werewolf attack on a house in the Scottish highlands where a unit of British special forces have taken their stand.  Marshall stated in an interview that he took inspiration from Cy Enfield’s Zulu(1964) a depiction of a historical event wherein a handful of her majesty’s troops defend a small South African outpost from thousands of Zulu warriors.

     As this is being written Billy Ray’s Overlord is scheduled for a November release with a plot described as a horror story set on D-Day.

     Just as madness is a key element in films like Psycho or Silence of the Lambs, war film often try to portray the damage done to the human mind and soul by combat as soldiers slip over the edge, as if bitten by vampires or mauled by werewolves, infected by war, they become the thing they feared.  As Tom Berenger’s Sergeant Barnes says in Platoon, “I am Death.”  His scarred face reminds us of monsters like those in Frankenstein or Phantom of the Opera. 

     In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz has become unhinged by the darkness of war and has gathered around him a private army of soldiers from all sides of the Viet Nam conflict who are as dead-eyed and soulless as any zombie horde.

     On an episode of the syndicated movie review show Siskel & Ebert, Gene Siskel quoted Francois Truffaut as stating that there could never be an anti-war film because filmmakers always make war look like fun.  Siskel responded by saying he wished Truffaut had lived long enough to see Platoon.  It’s assumed that a film that serves up the kind of images that can also be found in the horror genre has a higher purpose than mere entertainment, that the filmmakers have some deeper thematic intent.

     Most of what I’ve heard or read from the fans of horror seem to indicate that they just enjoy “a good scare,” a chill down the spine that dissipates in the familiar reassurance of the streets once they leave the theater.

     Whatever we might tell ourselves about our attraction to the horror genre it’s effect almost certainly runs deeper than we imagine.  The war film, with all its depiction of the horrors of modern combat, can probably be viewed as simply a bloody good war flick.  It’s been twenty years since Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach and maybe we’ve absorbed that film’s level of carnage, enough so that it’s lost it’s power to shock us.  When we watch a classic from the films of the code era we may be tempted to laugh when a character falls from a gunshot without a trace of the damage a bullet can do to the human body.

     Carnage is the norm now and we expect it when we enter the theater or hit play on our streaming devices- from our war films, from our horror films, from our thrillers, westerns and science fiction.

     Maybe Truffaut was right in the long run.  The image is only a shadow of the fact.  Whether war or zombie, film allows us a taste of the experience without the consequences, the thrill without the cost of the real thing.



Love Stories for Losers

by Sam Carver

Nostalgia - A sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

     On a warm October day during my sophomore year in high school afternoon classes were suspended and everybody, grades nine through twelve and faculty, made their way down to the Regent Theater on Main Street to watch a matinee screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

     This was a bold move on the part of the administration and principal, given that the film was already notorious for the youth of the actors in the lead roles and the brief nudity they displayed.  There was already excited talk about it among the kids, especially my group of knucklehead male friends.  As it turned out the shot of sixteen year old Olivia Hussey’s breasts probably lasted less than a second of screen time.

     If this was not enough to stir our already roiling hormones the film was gritty, bloody, beautiful and sad; a perfect reflection of the all or nothing mentality of adolescence.

     By the tragic end many of the girls were weeping openly and I was wiping away my own tears before my friends could notice.

     I developed an enormous crush on a girl a grade below me.  Crush is an apt word for the state of emotional burden it describes.   As we used to say back in the day, it was heavy, man.

     This girl attended the Romeo and Juliet event, and there was an assumption on my part that it was the kind of film that appealed to her:  sweeping, epic, passionate, filled with beautiful people, costumes and scenery with a tortured romance at its center.

     We became friends hanging out with the same extended group or rowdies, goof-offs and malcontents.  I asked her to go to a movie with me, the 1967 version of Far from the Madding Crowd starring Julie Christie when she was in her absolute ascendancy.

     Now, the very act of asking her to be alone with me in a darkened room was probably enough to convey my interest in her, but I may have hoped that she would understand that the story writ large on the wide screen was a stand-in for my own deep and abiding love for her.

     The film was almost 3 hours long, which worked for me; more time in the dark with my girl.

     Here’s what we saw.  Christie plays Bathseba Everdene, who inherits a prosperous farm.  She attracts the attention of three men.  First there’s Gabriel Oak(Alan Bates), who raises sheep.  He is solid, capable, constant and boring as an Iowa Sunday.  I figured he represented me if you left out the solid and capable. 

     Then there was the dashing, callow and selfish calvary officer Troy played by a young and gorgeous Terence Stamp.

     Finally, Peter Finch (who would later win a posthumous best actor Oscar for Network) plays a rich but lonely landowner.

     To turn a long story into a ten minute short, Christie spurns Bates, takes up with Stamp, who leaves her for another girl whom he has impregnated.  Stamp disappears.  Christie is betrothed to Finch.  On their wedding day, Stamp returns to claim Christie as his own.  Finch shoots him dead with a fowling piece and faces the gallows.  Christie marries Bates as the last man standing, neither one of them looking to sure about it.  The end.

     My friend seemed to like the film but her only comment was that the cavalry officer “wasn’t all bad” which indicated to me that she was looking for some way to redeem his character because he was sooo ... gorgeous.  And, like Bathsheba Everdene, she seemed to have no interest at all in the Bates character I’d felt best represented myself.

     I determined to have another go at winning her heart through film and went for another English period drama, The Go-Between, directed by American ex-pat Joseph Losey with a script by the esteemed playwright, Harold Pinter.  The film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes the year it was entered and again, paired Julie Christie and Alan Bates.

     Why didn’t I just tell the girl how I felt?  Because I was pathologically shy, clamming up around the opposite sex.  Unburdening my soul directly felt impossible for me.  Besides, I had an inkling which I never allowed to surface, that the moment I told her of my real feelings our days watching movies in the dark would be over.  Better to prolong the agony and the illusion of a sweet if remote possibility.

     In The Go-Between a young working class boy spends the summer with his wealthy schoolmate at his family’s estate in the North of England.  His friend falls ill and the boy spends time with his friend’s stunning older sister (Christie).

     Almost as a game, Christie dispatches the boy with messages to her working class lover, played by Bates, who uses him to send messages back to Christie.  Christie’s mum catches wind of the scheme and, using the boy like a blood hound, catches the couple in a barn in an extremely compromising posture.  The lovers are separated and Bates shoots himself.

     Years later the boy, now a haunted and emotionally stunted man, is summoned by the aged Christie character to meet her grandson with the implication that her descendent has inherited a genetic resemblance to her long ago amour.

     Neither I nor my friend knew much about the suffocating unfairness of the English class system, but she seemed to think that Bate’s character’s suicide was an unnecessary and extreme reaction.  I felt, but did not say aloud, that I could totally get there, that I might also feel as though there was nothing to live for if I was separated from, say, her.

     Given the pall of gloom that overtook us after these films, one would think that I’d seek out a comedy to take this girl to, but, stubborn as a summer cold and dumb as a stump, I doubled down on tragedy.

     The Swedish film Elvira Madigan, directed by Bo Vinterberg, was called by The New Yorker “perhaps the most beautiful movie in history.”

Who wouldn’t want to see that?  Who wouldn’t want to see a Danish circus performer run away with a Swedish army officer, be rejected by society, struggle to survive and end up deciding to die?

     The film ends with Elvira walking through the tall grass in the Scandinavian sunlight after making love to her officer.  The officer takes aim on her from behind with his pistol.  Freeze frame on Elvira, a serene smile on her face.  The shot is heard on the soundtrack.  Hold on Elvira for a few seconds.  Then, the second shot for the officer himself.  So, where would you like to eat?

     All these films were beautiful, full of lovely actors doing fine work, with award winning cinematography by masters of the art, set in a summer that never fades.

     But my girl, being intelligent, detected a pattern in my viewing choices and probably thought there was a chance that any long term relationship with me would end in a murder/suicide.  And, being a sensible young woman, she backed away and we never went to any more films together.

     Young men, heed my words.  Do not woo your women with sad tales of love unfulfilled and lives destroyed.  Show them laughter, warmth, happiness, a future full of joy.  Or take them to a slasher flick.  I hear that works too.

     I was fortunate, in that my friend, besides her other virtues, was kind-hearted and loyal.  She never shunned me for being the weird little creep I was, as others might have, but remained a valued friend, just not the sitting together in the intimate darkened theater kind.  She was not the last woman in my life, nor even the most important, but when something makes me remember these films that we shared, it brings her back to me, and that makes me happy.





by Sam Carver

When image, sound, music and dialogue are orchestrated with skill, film can be an immersive experience.  It can bypass your rational judgment and lodge itself deep in some core of memory.

My first cinematic experience that I can recall in any detail was a terrifying story of a beautiful young woman in a dangerous wilderness taking shelter with a misfit band of social outcasts, on the run from a jealous and vengeful woman of power.  When my sister and her friends took me to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs I went home traumatized and bawling from the intensity of the images.  I’d witnessed the transformation of a queen into a grotesque green-skinned witch, Snow White’s death and resurrection from a prince’s kiss and a chase through a violent storm, all projected on a huge scale before my eyes.  It was an overwhelming experience for a six year old.

A film doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to get under your skin.  It was not long after Snow White that I saw a piece of World War II propaganda on TV called Wake Island in which Japanese troops overwhelm the small but determined marine garrison of a tiny Pacific outpost.  I was in shock at the end, expecting another movie triumph by American fighting men.  If I remember it faithfully, the final shot is a slow push in on a grimy leatherneck manning a last machine gun, firing away at the encroaching enemy.

“So,” I addressed my dad.  “They get rescued, right?  More marines come and they beat the japs.  Right?”

My dad had lived through the war, served in the army.  His brow furrowed and he shook his head.  “Nope,” he said.  “I’m pretty sure they all get killed.”  In my boyhood world this was not supposed to happen.  It completely flipped my world on its head, broke it, in a way.

That kind of transformative experience, the immediate reordering of my perception of the world, is rare for me these days, at the movies or anywhere else.  Having seen the man behind the curtain it’s more difficult to trick me into that kind of childlike engagement.  I can still be moved by a film but most of the life changing events I’ve experienced in a movie theater came when I was young and seeing things in films that reflected an aspect of life I had not yet encountered or realized.

I kept watching movies as I grew up, graduating from straight adventure to more complicated dramas, satire, even foreign films.  My reactions became less emotive and more reflective.  Your approach to watching film changes when you realize that the sailor in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the cowboy in Lonely are the Brave, the gladiator in Spartacus, and the marine colonel in Seven Days in May were the same guy.

I entered my adolescence, on my way to becoming an adult, slowly, painfully and by fits and starts.  Maybe I was looking for something in the movies that would help me figure out what or how to be.  A lot of men who grew up when I did cite John Wayne as an ideal American role model.  A lot of women, too.  I watched a lot of the Duke when I was a boy.  It was easy to want to be tough, in control of the situation and your emotions, taking crap from no one, winning every fight.  It was a mature ideal, a father figure.  By his early forties, Wayne was already playing characters ten or fifteen years older in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  He was the male standard for the moral certainties of World War 2. 

I don’t remember when exactly I first saw From Here to Eternity.  I want to say I was eleven or twelve.  It was on TV and I watched it with either my brother or my dad.  I had heard of it.  The scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing in the rolling Hawaiian surf was famous, but when I watched the film these were not the characters I focused on.  Robert E. Lee Prewitt, played with injured gravity by Montgomery Clift, is a young soldier who arrives at Schofield barracks already carrying some emotional weight in his bags.  We first see him from a distance as he walks towards the camera from across the parade grounds while a unit of soldiers march in lock step in front of him.  Initially unremarkable, part of the background, he moves forward until we can see his face, a recognizable individual in the conformity of the army. 

Prewitt has been demoted and transferred for refusing to box in military tournaments after accidentally blinding his best friend in the ring.  His continued refusal to resume fighting for his new company commander brings him merciless hazing and abuse which he undergoes without complaining or giving in.

It wasn’t until recently, entering old age, in one of those moments of reflection common to that time of life, that I realized how much I had measured myself against Prewitt’s sense of personal honor, how much he had been a model for my young manhood.  I had never made a conscious decision to mold my behavior that way, but the film had worked its way into me to a deep place that turned to Prewitt as a guide for conduct.

Prewitt, parentless, heartbroken and guilt-ridden over the injury to his friend, has a strong code and a kind of wisdom.  He sees that Warden (Burt Lancaster) is “a good man” and Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine) is a corrupt sadist.  He never bends from his decision not to fight, despite tremendous pressure.  He has his friend Maggio’s (Frank Sinatra) back.  From the moment he lays eyes on his dancehall sweetheart, Alma (Donna Reed), he never seems to look at another woman, but focuses all his devotion towards her.

Prewitt’s actions are sometimes irrational, at times problematic, but always masculine in a way that does not reject vulnerability or tenderness.

Prewitt was much closer to the turmoil going on in a teen-aged soul than any character Wayne might have played at the point in his career when it was relevant to me.  Closer to Dean, closer to Brando.  A rebel, but not without a cause and never against whatever “you got.”  His was a different kind of “cool,” a quiet self possession in the face of adversity.

Of course, this was an impossible bar for any screwed-up kid and if I’d been paying close attention I would have seen that I missed the mark more often than I reached it.  Or maybe I just wasn’t Prew, but was forming my own character.  As Prewitt says himself, “a man should be what he can do.”  He is no saint, capable of anger, even pettiness.  He’s never anything more than human.  Even these failings make him more attractive to someone who was sharply aware of his own imperfections.

Part of the poignancy of Prewitt’s story is that he would rather not be an outsider.  More than once he expresses his love of the army.  He is grateful for the opportunity to have something to love, both the army that torments him and the girl that refuses to marry him.  “Just because you love a thing, don’t mean its gotta love you back.”  Prewitt wins respect and grudging admiration, even from the non-coms perpetrating “the treatment.”  The other characters in the film recognize his decency and integrity.

Of course he’s doomed.  After he takes lethal revenge for the fallen Maggio he is photographed in darkness and shadow for the rest of the film.  His unbending nature won’t stand up to fate and history.  As Warden remarks, Prewitt “just had to be a hardhead.”

For a young person wrestling with the idea of mortality maybe that was Prew’s final lesson.  We’re all going to the same place.  We can either march in lock step or find our own way there.  He is extreme even in the story-world of the film.  Other characters seem to understand his principles but are puzzled that he actually goes to the lengths he does to adhere to them.  He is an odd mixture of pride and humility.  He was just a soldier, “two steps up from nothing.”

Alma, with her own issues about social position, tries to mythologize Prewitt, making up a story in which he is a decorated Air Force pilot.  She shouldn’t have bothered.  Prew is fine the way he is.



How Long Did It Take?

How long did it take?

By Wesley Boyd Ellenwood

Sitting at my keyboard this cold January morning I’m reflecting on the long journey that has been my film.  First, I should mention it is done.  I’m grateful for that.  Secondly, I’m thankful to the scores of people who have helped along the way. 

In the beginning, when the script was being written, there were Sam and Greg, Kaylee and Tyler, Dave and Jack.  After the script was finished Carly, Caleb, and Jon joined the effort.  Though it didn’t happen overnight, it felt like almost instantaneously the cast and crew were in place.  We filmed it.  I edited it.  And during the past year Chrystal and Larry have lent their support for its distribution.

Even though no one has asked, “How long did it take to make No Blood Of Mine?”  I think it’s a worthwhile question to answer.

Now keep in mind this is no studio picture.  There wasn’t an industry insider providing anyone with insight or an experienced professional guiding the process.  Mostly it was my blind ambition and the help of my friends.

Many have described the process of making a film in technical ways.  Some have called it the most devious amalgam of art and business ever devised by man.  I liken it to running a marathon while dragging a dead horse barefoot.

To chronicle the time it takes to make a film it’s best to examine the entire process in steps.  The First Step is a script and not just an idea for a script; it needs to be a finished script.  A Hollywood Rule of Thumb says one page of script will translate into one minute of finished film.  So if you’re looking to make a feature film 90 minutes long, then you need a script 90 pages long. 

Two things to note here, if you are basing your script on someone else’s novel, short story, play, or another film then you will likely be infringing on copyrighted material and you should expect to be sued.  Saying copyright infringement is a bad thing is an understatement.  To avoid this, a filmmaker (who is poor) needs to come up with an original idea and then turn it into a script.  Oh and then expect rewrites.  No Blood Of Mine went through 15 rewrites. 

If the first version of the script had been used as the basis for the film, it would have been a disaster.  Thank You Sam, Greg, Kaylee, Tyler, Dave, and Jack. 

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the scripting process began for NBOM because alcohol was involved.  When I pitched the initial idea to my friends in June of 2014 we were seated in a bar near the eastern bank of the Mississippi River enjoying an average night out.  I calculate the script took a little more 12 months to complete with a fair amount of water passing by that bar. 

The Second Step is incorporation.  Making a film is a business.   And all businesses need to be incorporated and funded.  Can’t make a movie without money. 

I thought about writing grants and soliciting investors but after several months of inquiry and frustration gave up on those approaches and drained my savings instead.  I asked myself if not now, when?  So I answered when.  I’d dreamed of making a feature since I was in college and I saw no reason to wait any longer. 

The Second Step really took off when Carly read the script and said she wanted to produce it.  Along with Carly came Caleb and Jon.  Auditions were held, locations were scouted, and a crew was assembled.  Soon thereafter the planning for the shoot geared up. 

One of the best decisions I made during this entire process was to shoot in Duluth, Minnesota.  The city was welcoming and provided a variety of great locations.  Riki, the MN Film Board coordinator in Duluth, was the ‘patron saint’ of the film.  She connected us in the city and made introductions that proved to be crucial for the film’s success.  Thank You Riki.

With all of the planning activity or pre-production running at full steam there was one glaring problem that needed to be solved and if it wasn’t it would shut down the film.  In the script there was a major character by the name of Rennie Dupree.  He was the Police Detective hunting for the killer and was written as Native American.  Though we had auditioned several Native American actors not one had demonstrated the where-with-all to take on this role. 

The Creative Team had a short conversation.  We concluded that if a Native American actor could not be found for Rennie, we would not cast a white guy in the role.  Everyone agreed the misrepresentation of such a character would ruin the film and everyone’s reputation with it.  With one last audition weekend approaching, I faced the prospect of shutting down a film I’d spent much of my life hoping to make.  Then Larry walked in.

Larry was from Iowa though I didn’t hold that against him.  (Humor)  He was Native American and from his first read appeared capable and more importantly willing to take direction.  The role was offered to him.  He accepted.  I took a deep breath and exhaled. 

Funny story about Larry, he and I had exchanged emails for several weeks prior to this time but his schedule never matched up with our weekend auditions.  About this same time, he and his manager Christal attended an Actors Expo.  After walking around the booths they decided to leave via the stairs.  When they did they bumped into Bill, an acting coach and a friend of the film who was funneling actors into our auditions.  Bill suggested Larry should get in touch with me.  Larry did and the rest is now history.  Thank You Bill.

The Third Step is principle photography.  On July 1st, 2015 we assembled to begin the whirlwind that is filming.  We traveled from the Twin Cities to Duluth, moved onto a floor of a U of MN dorm, spent only three days in formal pre-production, enjoyed a day off for the 4th of July, then plunged head first into 22 days of 12 hour shoots.  We filmed six days a week (with Sundays off), and wrapped up July 30th of 2015. 

There is much for me to chronicle about my experiences directing the talented cast and crew of this film.  Instead of launching into those details here I’ll save them for another journal entry but at this time offer up three special memories.

One. The ‘warehouse scenes’ turned out almost exactly as I had envisioned them.  They were all filmed during the second week of the shoot and by that time we were all tuned to the same wavelength.  We didn’t rush and ‘the moment’ just happened in front of the camera almost like magic.  These were my favorite scenes and easiest to edit.  They cut together ‘like butter’.

Two. The story required the location of a police station.  We contacted the Police Department of Proctor, Minnesota.  The Chief of Police had some prior filming experience and pitched our request to the City Council.  They agreed and allowed us the opportunity to use the exterior of the building, their squad room, and a cruiser.  Their graciousness was unbelievable. 

While setting up a wide shot in the squad room I offered a cameo to Chief Wobig.  He was to simply walk in, open a door, and exit the room.  On the rehearsal everything looked great.  Then on the first take the Chief walked through the room and then stopped at the door.  I called, “Cut.”  I explained to the Chief he needed to walk through the door.  The second take of the shot was perfect. 

Months later when I was editing the scene I took the time to watch the first take and observed the Chief stopping at the door, falling out of character, and then standing there observing everyone.  His face displayed awe for the spectacle in front of him; the actors, the crew, the camera, the lights, the talent, the dedication.  The look on his face reminded me why I’m addicted to this thing called filmmaking.

The third moment happened during Second Unit filming in August near Bemidji, Minnesota.  J.C., Thomas, Jake, and I had traveled north to shoot several crucial shots required for the film’s opening.  On the western side of town we found a perfectly flat wide landscape with a two lane country road next to a field of beans.  The shot called for the Thunderbird to roll down the road at dusk in the direction of Duluth. 

We returned just as the sun was about to set.  With the camera in place and a rehearsal finished, suddenly two Bemidji Police cruisers came roaring toward us with flashing lights.  They approached asking what we were doing in the field.  I explained we were making a film.  They told us a local farmer had alerted them to our presence because of a recent series of thefts.  

No joke, the county had been invaded by thieves who were stealing beans in the middle of the night.  It wasn’t difficult to convince the officers we were not bean thieves.  We, or rather I was admonished for not contacting them prior to filming on their county road.  I apologized.  They nodded, took note of our expensive camera equipment, and left. 

We finished the shot but it lacked the fading light of the setting sun illuminating the endless beauty of that flat and expansive landscape.  Nor could you see the beans.

The Fourth Step is editing.  This step is no more important than the other three but it is the final opportunity for the film to be shaped.  I began this task by moving and organizing more than 5 terabytes of picture and sound or about 10 hours of files onto my computer.  I also made a backup copy of everything for safekeeping.  I waited diligently for my dependable but slow computer to complete the transfer.  It took a weekend for the drives to stop flashing.

Next I started assembling each of the scenes in their proper order.  My first effort was a rough-cut that followed the script line for line.  It was completed on September 15th, 2015.  It was painful to watch because it was almost 3 hours long.  I invited the cast and crew to watch it.  I asked for their feedback and most replied, “Wesley it’s too long.”  Now I knew this to be the case but chose to screen the rough cut for them so they might see the edit in progress.  I suspect a few thought I was showing them my near finished cut. 

This screening may not have been a wise choice on my part but I like feedback, it’s apart of my creative process.  Through their eyes I could clearly see what parts needed to be cut.

The rough-cut screening happened Thanksgiving weekend.  By February of 2016 the run time of the film had shrunk down to 113 minutes.   

At this point the film still needed visual special effects, color correction, music, titles, credits, sound effects, and sound mixing.  All of the above falls under what’s called post-production.  Each element is farmed out to others and needs to be managed and then approved.  Nine months later all the elements were delivered. 

After working on the edit for months (sic) I decided my last tweak on the film would occur before the first day of the New Year.  On December 31st, 2016 around 11:30 pm I turned off my computer.  From start to finish No Blood Of Mine had taken two and one half years to complete.


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The Suck Line

The Suck Line

by Wesley Boyd Ellenwood

A few days before we started filming No Blood Of Mine I had a short poignant, conversation with a member of the team.  They asked, “So what kind of film are you planning to make?”  There was a tone in their voice that suggested concern.  I ascertained they were probing me to learn if I, a first-time feature director, knew what I was doing or was just making it up as I went along praying the footage would some how cut together into a coherent manner. 

To be fair, the question of my directorial skill set was a valid one.  Though I’d made dozens of short films this was my first feature and shouldering the responsibility of guiding 50+ cast and crew members is such a unique undertaking that unless and until you have taken on such a challenge, the jury is out on whether or not you have the where-with-all to assemble it.  It is binary.  As a director of a feature either you know what you’re doing, or you don’t.  I sensed this team member’s opinion of me was of the latter.

I replied, “My plan is to tell a good story and in the end, hope it doesn’t suck.”  The team-member furrowed their brow and replied, “Don’t you want to make the best film you can make?”  I paused and decided to answer simply, “Well, of course.”  Their question answered but not in the manner they had expected, they walked away. 

During the subsequent three weeks of filming this team-member, on occasion, asked me again to learn of my plan.  Months later I heard from others, this person never acknowledged my talent and used my utterance of  “hope it doesn’t suck” as corroborating evidence to claim I didn’t know what I was doing.

Now it may be a Midwestern thing but I have heard and used “… hope it doesn’t suck” or its equivalence, since walking the halls of my high school.  My definition of ‘to suck’ would be as follows: to be substandard, lacking in quality, undeserving of praise, or without merit.  There are two forms of this pejorative: the pessimistic and the optimistic.  The former used in a sentence reads like, “Bob, you suck.”  The latter used in a sentence reads a little differently, “Robert, you don’t suck.”  See?  Big difference.

In my opinion, either a film sucks or it doesn’t.  It too is binary.  It is easy to apply this philosophy to high profile Hollywood films.  For example, the film The Island by Michael Bay sucks and the film Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg doesn’t suck. 

Applying this critiquing tool to the entire spectrum of filmmaking one finds the task of choosing on which side of ‘the suck line’ a film falls, becomes ever more difficult the further down the stratum you descend. 

At the top there’s the ‘A List Picture’ category.  Here with the studio-backed films the line is easily drawn.  Then with a step down you arrive at the ‘B Picture’.  Applying the line for these quirky low-budget studio films can either be a sure thing or a gamble.  And with one giant leap you arrive at the relatively new ‘Backyard Indie’ classification.  Here the line is totally blurry because these ‘art house films’ are made outside of the studio system and some are literally, for artistic reasons, filmed blurry.  The last and newest category I label the ‘Backwoods Indie’ and these films have multiplied like weeds due to the advent of affordable HD cameras.   Wading through these ‘no budget films’ to determine what sucks and what doesn’t takes an experienced eye and often a pair of waterproof boots. 

As a footnote I’ll add, the only way to raise Bay’s island adventure out of its ‘suckiness’ would be for one of Steven’s dinosaurs to wash ashore Michael’s mistake and devour everyone.  Ewan McGregor appearing as both a character and himself?  OMG!  Proof positive The Island sucks!  Eat them all T Rex!  Eat them all!

For a film to ‘not suck’, in my opinion, requires three things; it needs a story with logic, like if a named character dies then he or she cannot come back to life, unless they are a zombie.  A sympathetic hero, like a Laura Dern or a Scarlett Johansson, unless they are portraying a zombie and then who really cares how many times these actors die ‘cause I’d watch anything either of them are in.  And a satisfying climax, like when the main character achieves their goal, unless they are in a Michael Bay movie because by the climax most of the audience has given up trying to follow the plot and are just enjoying the explosions.

Embracing the accepted Hollywood theorem that the director is the author of the film, it then follows that the handling of the logic, hero, and climax of the film is the director’s responsibility.   And in our box-office conscious culture, it is also the director who shoulders the ever-rising expectation of success as the budget also rises. 

This makes sense.  If your step-uncle is investing ten million dollars in a psychological thriller to be shot in the suburbs of Milwaukee, then he’ll probably hire a seasoned director with a notable film or two to their credit.  If you and your friends have scraped together a few bucks to spend a weekend making a zombie apocalyptic extravaganza in the empty space of your parent’s garage, you’ll probably do what usually happens in cases like this; whoever brings the best camera to the set gets to direct.

However, no matter what size the budget or the experience of the cast and crew or the amount of time allotted to make it, it is this writer’s belief that any director attempting to make a feature film is actively striving to make a film that does not suck.

But here’s the catch.  If the director has a modicum of self-awareness and more importantly, a minimum of resources, then they are quite probably aware that failure is stalking them.  And despite all their best managerial and artistic skills, and despite all their efforts to push, pull, write, design, organize, shoot, direct, and edit their film so as to raise it from ‘below the suck line’ to ‘above the suck line’, their film may be the stuff that boots step in.   

From the very inception of my film I felt failure stalking me.  And when my curious team member asked what kind of film I planned to make, I didn’t want to enter into a long explanation like the one I’ve assembled here.  This then was my dilemma and the reason why I chose to answer them as I did.

To the uninitiated, this suck or not suck designation usually reveals itself to the director late at night in a room softly lit by glowing computer monitors and littered with empty takeout cartons, discarded beverage containers and well past the last opportunity for the film to be fixed.  Beer me.

Another reason why I answered as I did was I didn’t want to say something snarky like, “Well, I’m making this film with limited resources and oh by the way, that includes you.”  That would be just mean. 

And avoiding meanness is crucial.  A movie set is like an airplane aloft.  Everyone needs to keep their cool until the end of the ride.  And until then you’re stuck with everyone onboard working, eating, and often living for weeks in very tight quarters.  And just like on a plane, if angry heated words start to fly on a set, it usually leads to a precipitous descent, one that is rarely followed by an ascent back up to a safe altitude.  If someone does cause a disruption, it’s wise to jettison that person as quickly as possible.  Put a parachute in their hands and push them out the door. 

So because I didn’t want the curious crew member to lose their cool, I utilized the phrase “… hope it doesn’t suck”.  They may not have found reassurance in my directorial skills, but with that answer at least they didn’t learn I questioned their skills just as much as they were questioning mine.  My motivation here was for the film’s completion.

Some directors have other motivations behind their films like glory, experience, or money.  I don’t know about the first two but the last one provides an easy application of ‘the suck line’.  If your film makes a profit, then it doesn’t suck.  While the first two provide press clippings, festival laurels, invitations to parties, or speaking engagements, in my opinion the last provides the best application of ‘the suck line’ along with that long tearful walk all the way to the bank.  Tissue please.

So here’s where I need to swallow some crow.  Even though my opinion would designate The Island as below the suck line, by virtue of my crafted, researched, and peer reviewed (at a local bar) critiquing tool (complete with definitions and parameters of analysis), it then should be noted here that the aforementioned Michael Bay film, (sigh) does not suck. 

I feel dirty.

You can look it up.  (Wikipedia)  The Island cost $126m to make and earned $162m at the US box office.

This revelation leads me back to the top of page one.  In the final analysis, there are only two judges who determine whether a film sucks or it doesn’t, the film’s director and the film’s audience.  The first starts with a vision and completes the film as best they can.  And the second judges the film by virtue of their applause, awards, or pocketbook.  As for the first two motivations, press clippings and festival wins, they don’t pay the bills.  Simple.

So like a plane aloft, if you’ve signed onto a film and you’re not the director, wait until the film is done to voice whether or not it sucks. 

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I Don't Know Who You Are

“I Don’t Know Who You Are”

By Wesley Boyd Ellenwood

In early autumn of 2016 I had contacted a film festival director.  Having just finished No Blood Of Mine, I was eager to enter it into a festival.  Prior to speaking with him I left two messages with questions about the level of press coverage his festival receives. I thought the festival he managed would be a good fit for the murder mystery I had made. 

When he returned my phone call, we started out with the typical pleasantries then I steered the conversation toward my press coverage question.  I asked if there had been any films that had been chosen by his festival that had garnered significant press reviews and I added a second question.  Had any film selected for his festival signed with a distributor? 

The director hemmed and hawed and shifted the conversation to the topic of submission fees.  O.K. I thought.  I’ll listen to what he has to say. 

He explained how most festivals don’t really need the entry fees that filmmakers are charged because the ticket sales from the multiple days of screenings generate the vast majority of a festival’s operating budget. 

His explanation was logical.  It doesn’t take an accountant to calculate how much 200 seats times 20 films at ten bucks a seat adds up to be ($40,000).  Compare that amount to the typical submission fee for a filmmaker ($50) times the number of films submitted (50) and most anyone could tell which amount is larger ($2,500 < $40,000).  So I listened silently agreeing with his assertion that film festivals really don’t need the fees earned from submissions.

He went on to offer the reason why festivals continue to charge fees was to deter ‘the casual filmmaker’.  I totally understood his point.  The Internet is littered with video sites displaying all types of videos including dogs wearing holiday garb, some are an hour and half in length.  An entry fee is a practical hurdle to limit these ‘work of arf’. 

I have to confess to have made a video of my dog Zoey wearing Reindeer antlers.  But no, I have never entered it in a film festival.  I also made one of her splashing in a river biting the waves made by a passing speedboat while a Mozart Sonata plays softly in the background.  It’s adorable!

After he completed his explanation I sensed an opening and asked my crucial question.  “Well,” I said.  “Do you think your judges would select my murder mystery for your festival?”  His answer was pithy.  “I don’t know who you are.”

I don’t recall anything that was said past that point but his answer stuck with me for several days.  Later, I examined his words from every angle like an art critic studying a marble statue.  After mulling over the expressed meaning of his words as well as those hidden or implied, I arrived at a finished analysis. 

My film made by a no-name director and starring a group of no-name actors, didn’t have a well-known celebrity or ‘name’ attached to the project.  Without a ‘name’, his opinion of my film didn’t matter.  My film to him, because he’d never heard of me, was an untested product by an unknown director with an unknown capacity to attract an audience.  And if the film couldn’t sell tickets, then it was a questionable selection for his festival.  Story quality doesn’t matter.  Name recognition does.

Like a cartoon grenade exploding in my hand covering me with silver confetti and waving a tiny ‘BANG’ flag in my face, I got it.  My first feature would attract a smaller audience than … let me think here … say … my adorable dog in a ‘Christmas Caper’ wearing a Santa hat and barking frantically to warn the plucky neighborhood heroes of the villainous next door neighbor waiting around the corner to pounce on them with a net.  Hard to swallow but I got it.

After doing some research on what film festivals want I figured out that besides lacking a ‘name’, my film didn’t contain a hook or a catchy description, tackle a social issue or have a dog.  I made a murder mystery.  Oh well.  Woof.

As a film director you are presumed incompetent until proven otherwise.

Now I’m sure not all film festival directors are as driven by the bottom line as this one.  I hope there are festivals out there that select a film because it tells a good story even though there’s neither a celebrity nor a notable name attached to it.  I do so hope.

So, with my first foray into the film festival circuit I rediscovered what I all ready knew; it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.  And because I didn’t know anybody and nobody knew me, I learned my dog was a better bet to sell tickets than me.  Arf.




The Journal Begins

To celebrate the pending arrival of the discs and their sale, I will begin to write about the journey of this film from inception to completion.  My goal will be to publish an installment once a week.  Stay tuned to this website for more details.


Ordway Screening

On Friday May 26th, 2017 at 7:30 pm the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is hosting a free screening of "No Blood Of Mine" at Metropolitan State University's Film Space in Founders Hall.  After the screening a Q&A is scheduled with writer and director Wesley Ellenwood and cast member Larry Yazzie (Meskwaki Nation of Central Iowa).  

This screening is free and open to the public.  It is part of the Open Screen Film Series at Metropolitan State and is funded in part through a Knight Arts Challenge Grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.  This screening is also part of the Ordway community engagement series "Oyate Okodakiciyapi: a unique celebration of Native music and dance".  The Q&A will be hosted by Community Coordinator Christal Moose (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwa) and an advisory Council of Native and Indigenous community leaders.

For tickets and more information visit  https://www.ordway.org


On February 4th, 2017 No Blood Of Mine was awarded "Best Narrative Feature" by the Saint Paul Frozen Film Festival.  Congratulations to the cast and crew!


The website is done.