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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 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.  Compare that amount to the typical submission fee for a filmmaker ($50 - $70) times the number (or estimate) of films submitted and most anyone could tell which amount is larger.  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.