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So we made our goal last night!!! HOORAY! Thanks for all the love! We were filming an update video for five hours when it happened (below). For those who just missed the cutoff from being mentioned, we decided we're going to do one final one that will be posted after the campaign ends. For a high def version of the video below, click "Updates" above.
I made this video to thank our second week's backers. Click "Updates" above for a high def version.
I made this video to thank our first week's backers. Click "Updates" above for a high def version.
I Dreamed a Dream!
For those of you who don't know me, my name is Mark Oxman. I'm a Southern Californian native and an actor turned writer turned director. I have been working on a feature film screenplay called "Life Without a Modem" since the day after I graduated college. The entire process has taught me more than five years of college did -- I've learned about the business of filmmaking through pursuing every avenue I could, a focus that took over my life. When my screenplay got to a producer named Declan Baldwin, he encouraged me to direct after I sent him 30 page of production notes for whoever came on board. At first, I thought I would be a horrible candidate since I was young and really introverted. But he convinced me that letting someone else direct would mean my screenplay would never manifest the way I saw it in my head; so I spent four and a half years studying cinema, watching six films a week until I had seen every acclaimed movie ever made. This included everything on the IMDb 250 (including about 50 titles that pop in and out), everything on the AFI Top 100 Films list, all Academy Award Best Picture winners, every movie by David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and Alfred Hitchcock, every film starring Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, and Daniel Day-Lewis, and any movie that just happens to have been a huge part of pop culture that I had missed out on (Pretty Woman, The Goonies, Poltergeist, etc.) When I was a kid, I had a fear of renting videos because it confined me to a single space for an extended period of time. So I had a lot of catching up to do. But watching so many great films, back to back, for four years straight awakened me to what makes a movie amazing. They were completely disparate movies but the ones on the "Best Of" lists had a singular thread -- they did not feel like I was watching someone's creation but instead a peeping tom looking in on a real life experience. Regardless of if it was set in space or in the jungles of Africa, during war time or in the living room of a dysfunctional family, if it was based on a historical event or it took place in a made-up fantastical world -- the directors were focused on telling a story and not on stroking their own ego or showing off how brilliant they thought they were. I could not picture the actors in those movies hanging out at crafts service or goofing around at lunch; there was such commitment from everyone involved to creating this fictional world that it was shocking to see "Making Of" featurettes that ruined the illusion.
When I was an actor, it helped me to communicate sides of myself that I could not express in day-to-day life. While it took a long while for me to get my head around what acting really was, I genuinely had a passion for becoming other people and seeing things, unprejudiced, from their perspectives. All the script analysis I did, and a natural love of literature, made the transition to writing easy. I had a batch of stories in my head that I would constantly write as I walked around, an isolated young man with no companions. I began writing screenplays to purge these ideas from my obsessive-compulsive mind so I could get them down on paper and stop embellishing them on a daily basis.
And when I was asked to direct my script, paving the way to becoming an autodidactic filmmaker, it made me see the world differently. Day-to-day life became a potential movie -- a couple fighting on the sidewalk, sunlight beaming through a tree, the natural ambiance of a bustling city, footsteps on cement in an abandoned tunnel. If acting helped me understand myself and writing was a tool to illustrate all the observations I made as an introvert, directing was the marriage of the two. Bringing the skills of understanding psychology and seeing life as an outside witness guided me in re-creating everyday existence, in a way that an audience could see themselves on the screen, as well as learn from the experience.
The Music of the Night
In an effort to show the attached producer, Declan Baldwin, that I was capable of directing my own screenplay, I decided to direct a music video for a talented unsigned singer in Los Angeles named Chelsea Williams. I did not have much money to shoot so I figured a music video would at least cut out the costs of sound and rescue me from all the ways that bad audio could ruin a low budget production. Chelsea was an amazing vocalist who made a living street performing at both Universal Citywalk (blocks from where I lived) and Third Street Promenade (blocks from where my closest friends lived). I had bought her self-created albums while searching for musical artists that I could use in my feature film. After listening to each track, I decided a song called "Eight Days" would be the best candidate to shoot.
I hired only three crew members -- first, an exceptional visual effects artist named Daniel Jacob Horine who had uploaded a YouTube video similar in style to what I wanted to do. I had sent him so many questions about how he created his, that I just decided to hire him -- fortunately, he lived in Los Angeles. The second crew member was a makeup artist, a necessity in that the actors would be painted to look like silent film characters. And third, I needed an animator to illustrate a lyric in the song as I had conceptualized. And then I found a great cast of young actors who energetically recreated actors from the silent film era.
The video ended up accumulating thousands of hits in a very short amount of time, hitting the 100,000 mark by the end of the first month. While this is not anything monumental given all the viral sensations of today, the fact that I got zero press or promotion for the video, and all of its attention was completely word of mouth, made me feel accomplished. Days before we filmed, I went to one of Chelsea's street performances. People would walk by, mesmerized; I've seen her mobbed for autographs after one of her sets and sell out so many CDs, she had to constantly abandon her guitar while she ran backstage to grab more. But every now and then, there would be moments she would be completely neglected by rude tourists. And I thought, "This girl is an amazing talent. She deserves better than this. I have to go for the jugular on this video." And that motivated me to never go for the easy route when preparing the video, a lesson I hope to retain for all subsequent projects I do.
How to Succeed...
For a while, my goal was to get Chelsea Williams enough attention that she would get signed to a major record label. Shortly after I had set my mind to this, one of the top A&R music executives in the world had watched the music video and asked for more. I sent him a copy of her CDs but apparently, she never heard from him. Still on a high from the process of seeing something in my head and bringing it to life so others could see what I had always envisioned, I began developing a short film -- a modern day musical. The idea was to cast Chelsea Williams as one of the characters, introducing her to an even larger audience while, at the same time, using her impeccable singing voice to my advantage. Her talent would enhance the quality of my short and I knew a few other singers who I could plug in, as well. The premise was basically about an agoraphobic boy whose mom thrusts him out into the real world; having lived hidden in their apartment forever, he can only cope with public school by regurgitating the way he saw life in the movie musicals he watched on a daily basis. In class, he meets Chelsea and she is only less intimidating when she sings to him, in fantasy. The joke was, at the end, he finally asks her on a date and they go out and Karaoke -- and she is a horrible singer.
Although Chelsea was the seed that bore the project, there is no longer a character for her to play as it was axed when I began fleshing out the story. But there's a happy ending regardless. Chelsea has since been featured on a series of ubiquitous Chevrolet commercials...
...which has led to a record deal at Interscope Records. Her next album will not be self-released like her last but through the same record label as Lady Gaga.
I'll Take Manhattan
When the "Eight Days" music video started getting attention, Declan Baldwin asked me to move to New York to work with him on promoting a film he had made a year before. I was already frustrated at our long-distance relationship and so I thought it would be a good idea for me to be in the same place as someone I had been having business relations with for years but over a telephone. So, even though I had lived in Southern California my whole life, in January 2011, I put everything I owned in storage and took two suitcases and moved to New York City. On the plane ride, I began fleshing out the ideas for the short film/musical. Alone in my subleased apartment, afraid to go out in the cold since I've never known anything below 50 degrees, I began sketching storyboards in a spiral notebook my aunt had given me the night before she drove me to the airport. Listening to my iPod, singing along to my favorite songs, I began conjuring images that would open the film. Since the story would take place in a high school with a boy afraid of other people, I developed a song for a Cafeteria Lady, a big voiced/raise the roof anthem about the food she was serving.
As I continued to work on the self-distribution campaign for the Neil Patrick Harris movie Declan had produced, I started keeping track of all the ideas I had for short films. I was itching to do something creative again and it was natural for me to constantly consider my options. When I told my coworkers about the idea for a musical, both seemed disinterested in the idea (or completely misunderstood my concept, thinking I wanted to do a stand-alone viral video showing people making music a la "Stomp.") I put it on the back burner, knowing that it would be exceptionally expensive to do it the way I planned and maybe after I completed my feature film and had some credibility would I be able to do something so ambitious, for no other purpose than as a labor of love.
Give My Regards to Broadway
Except for "Spring Awakening" during a previous visit years earlier, I had never seen a Broadway show and although I grew up doing theater, including 15 musicals before I had graduated high school, I thought Broadway shows were filled with cheesy show tunes and thus, not my cup of tea. But in the summer of 2011, members of my family started visiting and each of them took me to see shows. My dad and his girlfriend were the first to arrive and we saw "Wicked," an experience that floored me so much, I had to walk back to their hotel in silence to seal in the emotional high the show had left me with. Someone in line at the TKTS booth told a questioning patron that "Mary Poppins" was the best show she had ever seen; I figured it would be fun and whimsical so I found a $35 orchestra seat on eBay. I left that show on a high, too. By the end of the summer, I had seen nine Broadway shows (one of them being "Jerusalem," a play). Because I didn't have enough money to decorate my New York apartment, I started stage dooring, getting my Playbills signed so I could decorate my naked walls with them. While I was waiting at the stage door for "Billy Elliot," I found myself completely alone. Given that my tactic was to blend in with the crowd and let others identify who was a cast member and who wasn't (I had a hard time telling once they were out of costume and makeup), I just let each and every person pass me by without approaching them, even if they made eye contact with me and my Playbill. I felt so stupid and wondered how I went from being a non-Broadway fan to standing alone on 46th Street, coming off like a weirdo. And it suddenly hit me -- the boy in the musical wasn't just agoraphobic; he was a Broadway fan. I lived in this beautiful New York City and had wanted to film something here. And I always had this musical in the back of my mind as a potential project and planned on shooting it during my time in town. So the character would live in Manhattan, too, and be walking distance from all these shows. Like Charlie Bucket gazing at Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, his dream would be all around him, just a few minutes away by foot. My story became less farfetched and silly and more set in reality with high stakes and conflict.
A Freak Like Me (Needs Company)
Casting the short film was not fairly hard. Because my extent of Broadway knowledge went back only as far as the summer of 2011, when I started seeing musicals, I had a limited pool of actors to pull from.
In 2009, the night of the Tony Awards, I signed onto Facebook to find post after post with an update saying, "Wow, Alice Ripley is amazing tonight!" "If there is an award for Most Amazing Actress ever, Alice Ripley should get it." "Watching the Tonys. Blown away by Alice Ripley." I was fascinated -- who is this Alice Ripley person and are all these people in the same room, egging each other on, or is this woman astounding enough to entice all these New Yorkers to sign onto Facebook to praise her?
When it aired on the West Coast, I waited for her performance and then found out that the updates weren't biased or a fluke; she really nailed the power and emotion that her character was going through. The only problem is, I had no idea what the hell was going on in the scene. Was she cheating on her husband with the hunky boy next door? Wait -- was that her SON?? She's having an affair with her son?? What kind of messed-up play is this? That last question didn't pass through my head as disgust but instead, intrigue. I loved movies that venture into the ugly side of everyday life -- "American Beauty" and its take on the average middle class family; "Precious" and its disturbing look at an abusive household; "Mulholland Drive" and its depiction of the revolting side of Hollywood.
So when I started seeing Broadway shows in the summer of 2011, I regretted not getting to see "Next to Normal." I would have rushed to the Booth Theater upon declaring I was going to start watching New York theater. But it was long gone. So I made a controversial move -- I located a bootleg copy of the show and purchased it.
And whether you think I right or wrong, it was one of the best decisions I made. Because seeing that show moved me in a way that only the best of the best movies have. It was pitch perfect in every way.
Since the short film hadn't really manifested at that point in time, I sought out Alice Ripley via Facebook to ask for her to autograph a Playbill that I had bought on eBay. Since my wall was slowly filling up with signed programs of shows I had seen, I wanted to include "Next to Normal" -- but I wouldn't be able to stage door given that the show had ended two years prior. Weeks later, after I had completed the script, I wrote Alice again and told her "Forget the autograph. I might have a business proposition for you." I explained to her why I was in New York and linked her to the "Eight Days" music video. She agreed to read the script and I sent it to her agent. A few weeks later, I heard that she liked it. I had found my Anna Maria.
A note here -- I named all of the characters off of Broadway stars. I had signed up for Audience Rewards in an attempt to accumulate "show points" to buy discounted tickets, which is how I was able to see so many shows on a limited budget. But doing so meant answering hundreds of trivia questions and I could only find the answers through extensive research. Anna Maria Alberghetti was a Broadway diva who took Sardi's caricature of a director she had feuded with off the wall and took it home with her. Ms. Kelly was named after Laura Michelle Kelly, the beautiful soprano who starred in "Mary Poppins" and whom I had a great conversation with after the show (due to a rainstorm, I was the only one still waiting for her when she exited the building). The lead actor, Stephen, was given his name because the most talented Broadway composers share the name -- Sondheim, Schwartz (I always thought these two were the same person haha) and my friend, Steven Sater, who had written the book and lyrics to the amazing "Spring Awakening."
Steven had invited me to see a workshop of his electrifying "Prometheus Bound" at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts a month after I had arrived, in March 2011. Gavin Creel starred as Prometheus. I named the tutor Gavin because of him and also after Gavin Lee, who had nailed the role of Burt in the production of "Mary Poppins" I saw shortly before writing the screenplay. But seeing "Prometheus Bound" inspired more than just a character's name. Uzo Aduba had a role in the show and her talent was jaw-dropping (given that the show was ingeniously staged and actors would interact with the audience throughout, Uzo gave a five minute monologue on top of a group's dinner table, which happened to be just a few feet from me. I saw the pain and anguish in her eyes from very close up). When it came time to write the Cafeteria Song I had dreamed up (ironically just weeks before discovering Uzo), I wrote the part with her in mind. Since then, she has gone on to steal the show in Broadway's "Godspell" revival.
Stephen was the hardest character to cast -- he's a kid and in every scene of the film. And in those scenes, he exhibits a huge array of emotions -- and it wasn't just embodying anger, sadness, or elation but also the manic-depressive disorder that strings them all together seamlessly. I needed a young actor so exceptional, he could understand the psychology of a broken-down outcast and know that he is not simply shy -- that he is also intense, aggressive, fearless, but doesn't know how to express these sides given his social disorder.
I made offers to young Hollywood stars but their agents were too wishy-washy and I had to abandon the possibilities. I figured I would find a talented young Broadway kid to play the role but didn't know who. And then I remembered, I had seen a stunning performance from a talented 13-year-old in "Billy Elliot" -- Myles Erlick. Just like Stephen, Myles was a triple threat -- a fantastic actor, singer, and dancer. Upon researching him, I realized it went deeper than that. He played guitar -- both acoustic and electric. While most kids play piano, Myles isn't just hitting the right keys but banging out Chopin like an award-winning pianist. He wasn't just a dancer but a multi-champion who had studied professionally since a very young age. And a world class gymnast. This on top of his ability to give a raw, heartfelt performance. Myles was younger than I had imagined the character being but it made more sense that way. A 16-year-old pretending to be shy came off artificial. A 13-year-old, the audience can believe. I had found my star.
The Music Man
But there was one last obstacle -- I had to find someone who could compose the music in a short period of time. From what I had heard, musicals take years to develop. Even with only four songs, how was I going to find someone who could write beautiful melodies in a limited time span? I began asking around for suggestions of Broadway composers. But every demo I heard, the music sounded geared towards the stage and not the kind of eclectic, rock, radio-friendly songs I felt was necessary for a film audience that would include a majority of non-Broadway fans. I began playing clips of one of my favorite bands, Fisher, to my friends, asking them to find a composer who sounded like THAT.
And then I decided to just go to the band directly. I had known Ron Wasserman, the composer of the band's music, since I was in eighth grade. Ron had written the theme song to "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and its subsequent score; at age 13, I started a fan newsletter which went out to 2,000 fans at the end of its run and ended up introducing me to the show's creator and all of its stars. As I grew older, I lost interest in Power Rangers but became a huge fan of Fisher, Ron's band that he started with his wife, Kathy Fisher. Ron listened to my pitch for his involvement and surprisingly to me, had no qualms with participating. His music is so universally haunting and crisp; if I had songs that weren't lovable, the film wouldn't work. But now I had the best of the best and because his compositions are so impeccable, it will enhance the quality of the movie and encourage me to live up to the standards he has set.
I Can't Do It Alone
So I have the script. I've done the prep including storyboarding the entire movie. I have the actors and the music. And I'm just about ready to shoot. The problem? Even though I've raised a tiny bit of money through private investors, short films are designed to demonstrate the abilities of its participants and NOT to make a profit. So it is hard to find investors, given that they won't be making a return on their loan. Without having access to independent wealth, shorts have to be done solely through donations or for the incentive of being included in the film's creation. So Kickstarter is the solution. And anyone who wants to support -- whether you're a fan of one of the incredible Broadway stars or you just want to support an outcast artist -- I sincerely thank and owe everything to, for your generosity. And I will make sure "Sing Along" lives up to my high standards so you can be proud to be a part of it.
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