Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Notes on a Drive-In.

This is an article I wrote for Splice Magazine in June, 2007 for their 30thAnniversary Issue:

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1977, I saw Star Wars at Regina’s Starlight Drive-In. Unlike other kids, who stood in line at traditional movie theaters. To me, it was an ideal way to see a science fiction film that was to influence far too many filmmakers. The Starlight Drive-In is long since gone…buried under condos and apartment buildings. I also saw an appalling little horror movie called Grizzly. And I loved it. Grizzly was a cheap rip-off of Jaws with a killer bear as a substitute for the shark. Jaws had traumatized me months before, and now I was hooked on being scared silly by killer animals of all sorts. Piranhas, crocodiles and even sewer dwelling mutants called CHUD. I am still, to this day, a fan of everything science fiction and horror. Better to blurt this out right away, so I’m less tempted to retreat from a long hidden shame. The drive-in, to me, was occult as porn. And I was its customer over the years. For the most part, these places gave us all the rejects I dearly loved. The shoddy and exploitative movies that high-brow theatres couldn’t be bothered with. It was a place that invited small crimes. You could sneak friends in via the trunk of a car. Beer could be hidden under seats and windows steamed up if you got lucky. Not anymore.

The beloved drive-in is a dying animal, and has been for some time. Cinema 6 has closed…again. Two years ago I made my last trip to see a movie there. That night’s showing consisted of: Wedding Crashers(full of smart-asses) and Monster-In-Law(horrible). But the movies felt irrelevant. It was the atmosphere on a warm summer evening. The place was packed with cars and the young and old. The smell of greasy food. Questionable hamburgers, fries and hot dogs cooked in ancient oil. The nightmare-inducing popcorn, probably popped in the same oil. Seeing children play on rusty swings and life-threatening merry-go-rounds below the big screen. Trucks parked backwards so you could set up your lawn chair and plop your feet on the tailgate. It was THE PLACE I loved. It all inspired me to write a screenplay. And that’s where my troubles start. Oh yes. I almost forgot to introduce myself. I’m Trevor Cunningham, and I’m a local filmmaker.

Here’s some back story. I’ve been an Assistant Director for the past nine years. I’ve written some short films(Apple Jack, Blueberry) and even directed a few(The Pedestrian, Carpe Noctem). But all of it left me feeling kind of empty. Like I wasn’t making the films I loved to watch, or writing the stories that sparked my sense of fun. In other words, the stuff I saw at the drive-in. That’s when I came up with something called ‘Bride of the Grave Robber’. It’s a simple story about a mad doctor’s lowly assistant, his escape from a mental institute and he hides out at…you guessed it… a drive-in. It was the result of a popcorn dream, and the fact I was watching old horror movies a friend had lent me.

About the popcorn dreams. The nuttiness of many of my stories is the result of popcorn. Another hold-over from the drive-in days. I avoid the stuff most of the time, but when the urge hits, or when the bank account looks low, I make a huge batch and wash it down with Dr. Pepper. I go to bed. I have weird thoughts and dreams. I get up and write them down and sell them. Or at least try. So far, every popcorn thought or dream I’ve written down has been given development money. So there you go. I owe my writing ‘career’ to popcorn. Anyway. Monster shows. Drive-In. Popcorn. It all came together. I wrote a treatment, sent it off to Telefilm and received funding. Later, I even got funding from Saskfilm and Movie Central. All was good in the world and with a few re-writes and a slight title change, production would not be far off. That was in 2004.

It is a common mistake to believe, once you receive development money, that putting your opus before a camera will only take a year or two. You couldn’t be more wrong. Now, granted, screenplays can be developed over years before even seeing the light of day. If at all. I know this. We all know this. But what is more frightening than any drive-in horror movie…are the notes. Notes from ‘Readers’. Notes from Funders. Notes from Broadcasters. Notes. Notes. Notes. Feedback like: Is this a horror movie? It’s too campy. I don’t get it. Is it funny or is it a horror movie? Is this an art house movie? Too ‘culty’ to market. Our problem is with the ‘creative’. Is this supposed to be ironic? Too gory. Too serious…etc…etc. One starts to listen to them all too. The problem is, they all contradict each other. No one really knows what they want, or how to articulate it. After all, you want to please and it’s their money. This can be a mistake for any screenwriter starting out. Before you know it, you don’t recognize a damn thing about your story. As a matter of fact, you hate it and it does not feel like yours anymore. Which leads to even more self-doubt and the inevitable inner debate. Does English Canada even WANT to see or make movies anymore?

When I had finished a fourth draft last year, I thought about ‘Bride of the Grave Robber’. I thought it was, to put it mildly, dumb. The more I thought about the story, the dumber I felt. I filed it away. I had given up the ghost and was tired of pounding my head against the wall. It was time to move on to something else. Maybe even get a ‘real’ job. Then, on a trip to Winnipeg, I saw an old abandoned drive-in near Indian Head. And the answer came to me in a rush. I took all those well-intentioned notes, filed them in the garbage, and started over.

As you read this I’m probably eating popcorn, washing it down with a Dr. Pepper and scouting drive-ins. The new title is ‘The Grave Robber’s Apprentice'…and the story feels like mine again. It has risen from the dead. And with a little luck, coming soon to a drive-in near you.

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