Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The 12 Days of Muerto: Day 9...Lights, camera, Aztec Zombie!

Day 9: Yesterday's post dealt with the signing of the my movie deal. Here I'll share memories on the actual making of the movie...

So the script was done, and we needed to find our hero, El Muerto. So they approached Wilmer Valderrama, who was at the height of his stint on THAT 70s SHOW. When I found out he accepted, I was happily relieved and excited. We were off to a good start. In fact, around this time I had secured a solo art show at a gallery in Santa Monica (the Froden Gallery, since closed). My producer invited Wilmer, who had just signed on for the movie. So, there, on October 16, 2004, Wilmer walked into the gallery with his then-girlfriend Lindsay Lohan. My nieces and nephews spent more time taking photos with them than me that night but I was fine. Wilmer had even bought a couple of my art pieces. We were introduced by our producer Larry Rattner. It was a wonderfully surreal evening. Our director, Brian Cox, shot this photograph of us. (And it wouldn't be the last time he composed us in a frame together...)

 Come January 2005, the film was in full pre-production mode. Larry's offices were hustling with activity: costume fittings, contract signings, planning meetings... They even conducted the actor auditions there. Brian asked me if I wanted to sit in one day and man the camera, which I thought was a great idea. This was the day Joel David Moore came to test. Joel, who you probably saw later in James Cameron's AVATAR, was up for the role of El Muerto's (actually his alter ego Diego) best friend Zak. He waltzed into the room and Brian introduced me as the creator of the comic book. Joel mentioned that the had just finished filming another comic book movie, Dan Clowe's ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL. I said "Well, you're working your way through all the comics", to which he good-naturedly replied "Yeah, guess I'm working my up to play Jimmy Olsen!".

Every time they hired a new production head, I was introduced to them as the creator. One time, the production designer Freddie Naff (a real amicable guy who told me he once did production work for the comic book company COMICO) came up to me with a binder of artwork, showing some of the set designs and props. He said "I showed Brian but he asked me to have you look at these too". Same with the costume designer and make-up department head. There really was a great feeling of being part of a team, not just a figurehead.

After those 2 relentless weeks of pre-production, it was mid-January and time to for the actual filming. Our first day of filming was at the San Fernando Mission, north of Los Angeles. It was early morning, and the Assistant Director had assembled the entire production in a large circle out in the parking lot. She went over the game plan for the day, as well as a general pep talk for the duration of the production. She also then wanted to thank the 'person responsible for all of us being here today...'. I took my bow, stumbled through some little speech, then it was time to make a movie!

What did I do everyday as Associate Producer? Basically, I walked around the set with my sketchbook, would engage with brief conversations with various crew members or actors if they had the time, and generally just studied the filmmaking process. I remember clearly, after Brian had directed the first scene of the day, he walked quickly past me on his way to the next setup, glancing at his wristwatch, "It's 10:15am, and we've just shot the first scene of your movie".

It was during an evening shoot that Wilmer showed up dressed completely in costume and make-up. That was a surreal moment, and it's like it suddenly dawned on me:  "Dang, they're making a movie about my comic!". It was interesting watching the actors discuss a scene with the director, or the director talk with the cinematographer and production artists. You see the process of making a film played out before your eyes. As a cartoonist, someone who writes and draws their own story, it was a fascinating study in contrast: You draw the whole story on a sheet of paper, creating your actors, their costumes, their environment, etc. A film crew is an assemblage of artists working together under the vision of the director, but everyone must be on the same page, in sync with one vision. This was film school for me, with the instructor using my comic as the class project.

One of my favorite stories from that first week: On the second day or so, I was asked by our Co-Producer Susan Rodgers if I could pick up actor Michael Parks and give him a ride to set tomorrow the following morning, because we would be short a P.A. (production assistant). Being the good team player, I said "Sure, no problem". Inside I was thinking: "That's lame. I'm the creator. Can't they find someone else". Honestly, I thought that! Well, so the next day I pick him up. This is the guy you've see in several Quentin Tarantino movies (as seen in the pic here), playing a sheriff. He gets in the car, tosses his nylon ski jacket in the back seat and his script on my dashboard. I introduce myself as we drive off. "Hi, Michael, I'm Javier Hernandez. I created the comic book the script is based on". He says, in that great little drawl of his, as he reaches for his script to glance at the cover "Is that so?". I told him the story of how I got the deal for the movie and tells me "You're lucky. It doesn't usually happen that way.". This man had been in the industry for decades, tv and movies, so he would know. We hit it off immediately and he was so down to earth. We were two guys talking about day jobs heading to another gig. To this day, whenever I watch the film, I get a charge when he first appears in the movie: "Wow! We got Michael Parks in my movie!".

Another week found us in East LA, and for a few nights we set up camp at Evergreen Memorial Park. Yeah, you can't make an El Muerto movie without a cemetery. One evening as they were setting up a shot for the Day of the Dead scene, I was talking to our beautiful star, Angie Cepeda, who played Diego's girlfriend Maria. She was asking me about the details surrounding Dia de Los Muertos, explaining that in Columbia they don't celebrate it. I told her about it's long tradition in Mexico, and how it's a celebration of loved ones who've passed on. She was genuinely touched by the meaning behind the celebration, actually raising her hands in the air and saying "Ooh, I'm even more proud to be in this film than I already was!". It was like a scene out of a movie!

At one point, I visited Wilmer in his trailer, I think to give him a signed copy of an El Muerto print I had made. He was getting his Muerto make-up applied, sitting in his chair while John Williams STAR WARS music played over the sound system. As I was leaving his trailer he called out to "Hey, Javier. Are you happy with the way I'm playing the character?". I stopped at the door and turned back to face him, letting him know that I was indeed happy with the way he was bringing the role to life. I could have floated out the door at that point.

Here's one of the few scenes I know of that didn't make the final edit of the film (It might even be the only one). It's Diego getting his skull logo tattoo. Probably cut out for time, I'm not sure. Btw, that's Mark Bautista, our Make-Up Department Head playing the tattoo artist:

I guess the highlight of the four weeks of filming, for me, was the night I filmed my cameo with Wilmer. This was the part I had picked out months ago in the office of our director Brian Cox. 'Man in costume' was the name of the character. A guy leaving a cemetery during a Dia de Los Muertos celebration as El Muerto is making his way in. This was filmed at the front gate of the cemetery (which I always point out to whomever's in the car with me when I drive by!). I remember the evening, as I walked around the set then I heard over a nearby walkie talkie, "We need Javier over in make-up". Well, I guess I'm ready for my close-up! I first went to wardrobe trailer, where I changed into some black slacks and a long-sleeved black shirt (from my own closet). I also wore, although you don't really see it on film, my Spider-Man watch from Fossil, decked out in the artwork of the original Spidey artist, Steve Ditko. For good luck, I figured. 

So I got to the make-up trailer and decided to go full Hollywood. I asked one of the crew if I could have a haircut as well, so as one of the ladies is applying my make-up, another one is cutting my hair. Probably wasn't enough time for a manicure, but maybe next time! Here's the call sheet listing me as Cast Member #20....

Afterwards, I board the van and I'm driven, with an Assistant Director at my side, to the front gate. Once I got out of the van, and saw the entire crew waiting behind the lights, with the Executive Producers in attendance, and even some of the neighborhood residents watching, I got a little nervous. Play time was over, this was a professional film set with yet another scene to film. Every second adds up, no time for amateur hour on my part. Brian came up to me and just told me to be natural, don't 'act' it. All I could do was try my best. I approached the gate, opened it, then came face to face with Wilmer Valderrama. Me and my character, looking each other eye to eye! Suffice to say, we filmed my scene in about 3-4 takes, which is about what most of our actors' scenes were done in (yeah, I counted every take that day with the seasoned professionals, just to make sure!). Brian was complimentary, saying I did great. It's funny, for me it was a huge highlight, but for everyone else it was just another scene, now on to the next. Sure glad I spoke up and claimed that cameo months earlier, though!

I've probably showed off this photo more times than most people show off their pregnancy sonogram pic, but this is a highlight in my personal history book, so indulge me.

You can see a great little behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the movie here, created by James Seligman.

Tomorrow I'll share more stories from the set, including El Muerto in the tabloids, and the night I got caught in a multi-vehicle wreck on a rain-swept freeway driving home from a filming location!

El Muerto and all related characters are ™ & © Javier Hernandez 1998-2015

No comments: