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La Petite Mort

In which the author makes his first film
Rosie Adams and Benjamin Ficklin in La Petite Mort. Still from La petite Mort. Rick levin on set of his directorial debut.
Rosie Adams and Benjamin Ficklin in La Petite Mort. Still from La petite Mort. Rick levin on set of his directorial debut.

When Bijou Cinemas announced its 72-hour Horror Film Fest, I said to myself: Why not? It was an open competition with no entry fee; contestants had three days to write, film and edit a 2-3 minute scary movie, the only mandate being that each entrant must utilize a prop and single line of dialogue provided by the Bijou. The prop, in this instance, was a tennis ball, and the bit of dialogue, delivered at the start of the 72-hour countdown, was a line spoken by the ghost Delbert Grady in The Shining: “I should know, sir, I’ve always been here.”

Piece of cake, right? And so, my first film, La Petite Mort, was born.

 

Day One

In my new role as hotshot movie director, I assembled a camera crew: Trask Bedortha and Todd Cooper from EW’s art department, two of the finest visual artists I’ve ever known. I figured I could play dead on screen, so that role was covered, and Liz Gaffney, who has huge gorgeous eyes and a piercing look capable of out-terrorizing Joan Crawford, would play Victim No. 2. But my leads? My beautiful and talented friend Rosie Adams seemed a natural for the big screen. Done. Ben Ficklin, a member of my writing circle, said he’d done some acting. Done.

If this story has a hero — a go-to guy, a visionary, a workhorse — it’s Trask. It was Trask who pointed out to me, the director, that we would need somebody for sound. I sent out a desperate text to all my musician friends, and the first one to answer in the affirmative was Andy Valentine. This was one among many beautiful accidents that would take place during the filming process. Andy nailed it.

Liz and I sat up that first night and wrote a screenplay. We fired ideas and lines back and forth. It took about two hours. We were thrilled with the results. The script was sexy, sharp and foreboding.

 

Day two

Rosie, Ben, Liz, Andy and I got together at Ben’s house to run lines. “Run lines” is movie talk for rehearsing, but instead of calling it rehearsing I thought it was important, as the director, that I keep saying “run lines.” Rose and Ben, scripts in hand — technically it was “script,” singular, because the entire dialogue was contained on one page, printed on both sides — sat down on a couch and started running lines. It was rough at first. Ben was too loud, and Rosie had a hard time crunching out the line “Come hell or high water.” Then we got them in bed.

In bed was where the magic started happening. As Andy, Liz and I sat around the room watching, Ben and Rosie, running their lines, became incredibly intimate and sexy. I was thrilled by the authenticity of their performance, but I was also a little abashed. I had to look away. I looked at Andy, who was also looking away. I looked at Liz. She had her eyes averted, and she was trying her damnedest not to laugh. It looked like she was in agony, but she was smiling.

I would see that look cross the face of my crew members several times during the process of making this movie. It happened to me, too, and I quickly came to understand its meaning. It’s a look of astonished joy and total engagement. It’s the look of a kid on Christmas morning.

Writing fiction is a miserable occupation. It’s more of a disorder, actually — something conceived and executed in private, fueled by cotton-candy hopes but continually undercut by psychic vertigo, self-loathing and a burrowing, withering suspicion that you are utterly wasting your life.

And yet, as a writer, I can say that hearing your words spoken convincingly by actors is a magical experience. Suddenly, the stick figures that haunt your daydreams have dimension and meaning, and not only that: They’ve come alive. In the beginning was the word, and in movies the word is made flesh.

 

Day three

I now realize the only thing I was really directing during the whole movie-making process was everyone’s enthusiasm. What I’m most proud of was gathering a clutch of extremely gifted people together and convincing them that we could do this. Perhaps that’s axiomatic: Behind every director hides a charlatan pimping possibilities, a dreamy person capable of conning the right people into believing in the dream of making a movie.

In the nervy hours before we started shooting, Trask, Andy and I started puttering around with “the set.” The set consisted of a stark, creepy bedroom. We began hashing out who would be where, where would be what and how it would be filmed — I believe this is called “blocking” — and suddenly the room was a tangled maze of equipment and cables surrounding a bed. It looked like a porn shoot. It looked like a torture chamber.

It was a little of both.

Rosie and Ben nailed the first scene in a few takes. Could we have done better? Maybe. But the truth of artistic completion is that art is never complete. You can mess with something forever, striving toward perfection and never finishing. The trick is to recognize when a balance has been struck between accomplishment and inspiration. I think we found that balance.

Scene two, which lasts something like 10 seconds, is a killer. It’s vicious and creepy and, hopefully unexpected. I got to play dead in it, drooling blood. Liz gave an absolutely terrifying performance as Victim No. 2, which involved a ball gag (the tennis ball prop!) and lots of snot and hyperventilating. Rosie transformed herself into something demonic and sexy at once, like Sissy Spacek in Badlands. We did two takes, and actually kept the first one.

The final scene is all Rosie, though what went on behind the scenes is what really makes it click. Trask pulled out a few more genius tricks, and Andy concocted some truly creepy sound effects.

It wasn’t until after we wrapped filming that the hard work began: editing. The editing of our movie was done by Trask, who sat up all night, alone, making our movie look and sound terrific. At 5:57 am Sunday morning, he sent this text: “I can’t work no more. Exporting now ... We had a blast and did our best.”

The jury thought so too. La Petit Mort made “Best of the Fest.”

The winner of the Bijou 72-Hour Horror Film Fest will show before Halloween screenings of The Shining at the Bijou Metro. La Petite Mort will screen with the rest of the ‘Best of the Fest’ at Blairally Vintage Arcade’s Halloween bash starting 9 pm Thursday, Oct. 31.

 

La Petite Mort from traskblueribbon on Vimeo.