Thursday, December 18, 2008

13th Child: The Legend of a Crappy Movie

A while back, I mentioned my huge windfall in the form of a residuals check earned for working on 13th Child, The Legend of the Jersey Devil. And while I alluded to what an awesometastic movie this is, I didn't really get into many particulars. Let us remedy that situation.

When I talk about a production, I'm talking about the cast, the crew, and the actual process of making a movie. There are certainly wonderful productions that for some reason or other, result in less than stellar movies. I'm sure there are soul-suckingly horrible productions that somehow result in excellent movies. But usually, if you have a supremely crappy production, the odds are pretty good that the resulting movie will achieve appalling levels of craptasticness.

13th Child, Legend of the Jersey Devil is such a movie. (It occurs to me that if someone was mining reviews for blurbs to promote the movie, they could use the previous sentence completely out of context. Go ahead. You're welcome to it.)

First, let's start with a question: Just what the hell is the Jersey Devil. Here's one description of how the monster came to be.

The origin of the creature dates back to the 18th century. The story goes as follows: when Mrs. Leeds, an indigent woman living in secluded poverty with her twelve starving children, found out she was to have another child exclaimed: "I don't want any more children! Let it be a devil." When the child was born, it was horribly deformed. It crawled from the womb and up the chimney and out into the woods. It is rumored to have fed on small children and livestock while haunting the area for years to come. Hence, the creatures other name is the Leeds Devil.
Another version says that the Jersey Devil was the 13th Child of a Lanape Shaman who was murdered and mutilated by a British Soldier during the Revolution.

The legend goes on to describe the monster as standing 6-7' tall, having the head of a horse, with dragon wings and claws and a vaguely reptilian body. O.K., as monsters go, this seems like a fine one to have haunt your movie.

Note: According to IMDB, this movie had a Premiere and a limited release at the end of 2002 and came out on video in 2003. I do know that they had a lot of problems and had to do a lot of re-shoots, so that jibes with my memory that we probably shot this thing in the summer of 2000 or 2001. Some things you don't want to remember so well.

Back to our narrative. We shot most of this film in Batsto Village in New Jersey's Pine Barrens. Granted, this is not an area surrounded by luxury resorts, but my first hint that this might not be any fucking fun at all came when I drove up to our hotel. I couldn't find an actual picture of the motel, but this one is a very fair representation. Imagine arriving there...home for the next 8 weeks.

In all fairness, the folks who owned and ran the motel were a very nice bunch of people, but no offense, the place was a dump. If this were the actual motel, my room would be on the ground floor on the "L" portion and our "office" was a double sized room in the middle of the long section. I had my desk right up to the big giant window, where I had a most excellent view of the parking lot and the two lane highway out front.

I'm not going to rag on the crew too much. When you're making a low budget picture, you hire a lot of people who are trying to take a step up the ladder or to break into film in the first place. Experience and talent usually take a back seat to a willingness to work cheap. If you check through some of the credits, you'll see some people who have gone on to have fine careers and a bunch who seem to have disappeared from production almost entirely. Most of the Producers certainly have.

The one thing I'll hang on the crew is that they were all really young and all really drove like crap. My unobstructed view of the parking lot allowed me to witness uncountable instances of them driving our vehicles into each other while leaving in the morning or returning at night. Somehow, the damage was always just a few scant dollars less than our deductible. There was a shop just down the road that was doing repairs for us. At one point, I called to tell them we had another repair for them. The owner told me he already had three of our vehicles in the shop and he didn't have room for any more until he was done with those. He did suggest that if I left this one at the motel, maybe it would get hit again and do enough damage for the insurance to actually kick in.

No, let's talk about the Producers. I don't think we started shooting with any more than possibly half of the financing in place. The producers were constantly kiting the production on their credit cards and one of them had to personally hand over every check after confirming with the bank that their balance would cover it. I know that there were numerous versions of the budget, and even the one I was privy to had entire sections deleted. This was an interesting way to work since a U.P.M.'s main job is to keep the picture on budget. The most commonly asked question on this show was, "Can we meet payroll?"

For weeks leading up to the first day of shooting, I'd been shopping around for deals on the equipment and found rental houses who were willing to make us some pretty sweet deals. Since we were a completely independent company with absolutely zero credentials to point to, all of these companies wanted some fairly large deposits before they'd let us take out any of the equipment. Nobody likes getting stiffed. Fair enough. The first shot on the first day of production was scheduled to be a 100' dolly shot. The only problem was that the producers hadn't coughed up the deposit for the rental house providing the dolly. If I recall correctly, the dolly arrived on set just before they broke for lunch on Day 1.

Nobody ever knew the full details about the financial precipice this movie was made on, but the crew were certainly aware that the money was a day to day concern. Because of this, I considered getting them paid my number one priority. On most any movie, we use payroll companies. For a small percentage of the payroll you run through them, they become the employer of record. It's a sensible arrangement in movies since most production companies are formed to make one movie and then eventually cease to exist.

So, you calculate the payroll for the week and send all the timecards and a check for the total to the Payroll Service. They issue paychecks for everybody and do all the withholding and other stuff. At the end of the first week, I asigned one Production Assistant to drive to NYC and be waiting at the Payroll Service's door when they opened at 9:00 a.m. This P.A. was instructed that her sole job was to pick up the paychecks and then drive back to our office as quickly as possible. She was not to stop anywhere on her way back. If she needed to eat, she could go to a drive-through, but she was not permitted to be physically separated from the paychecks and neither of them were to get out of the car for any reason until she was back at the production office. (I literally instructed her to pee before she left the city and to hold it if she had to go again before arriving at her destination.)

There was only one hitch in this plan. The producers knew that the crew was worried about being paid and they thought it would look much more heroic if they were able to personally hand out the paychecks at lunch. So, without telling me, they also showed up at the Payroll Service and intercepted the paychecks. Then they proceded to do other business in NY. At 1:00 p.m., when we broke for lunch, they weren't back from the city yet. At 1:45 p.m, when it was time to go back to work, they still weren't back from the city. The crew had a little meeting. The crew decided that they wouldn't actually leave but they weren't going back to work until the paychecks arrived.

So they sat. They played touch football. They played cards. They drank coffee and ate snacks. They did not touch any lights or cameras or any of the other things you'd usually associate with making a movie. The producers arrived with the paychecks a little before 7:00 p.m. If I recall, there were heated discussions about whether or not the crew had been on the clock during their sit-in and/or whether or not to attempt to shoot anything more that evening once they had been paid. I'm pretty sure we just called a wrap so we wouldn't have to push the following day's call time.

Another wonderful thing about the producers was their firm belief that every problem under the sun can be solved by screaming at it. This production was the home of much waving of arms, gnashing of teeth, throwing things and raising the decibel level. Pleasant, it wasn't.

One nice thing I have to say about this show was that both Christopher Atkins and Cliff Robertson are two of the nicest actors I've ever worked with. The "suites" in this motel were immediately adjacent to the production office, so the first time I met Chris was when he walked into the office the morning after his arrival in his boxer shorts, scratching his belly and asking if there was any coffee. He actually only had one scene to shoot in the first few days, so I got to know him pretty well while he was just hanging out at the motel with nothing else to do. One day, he asked if I wanted to see a picture of his (then) wife. I'm a personable guy so, of course I said "sure". He then pulled a miniature laminated version of this out of his wallet:

Yes. At the time, he was married to the covermodel of the October 1981 Australian version of Playboy and he just loved seeing peoples' reactions when he showed them that picture.

Lastly, I'm going to leave you with just a little of this movie for your viewing displeasure. I found it on YouTube and I had a little trouble deciding which of the 10 minute clips to show you. It was a hard choice. All of it is paced like a glacier. All of it is really dark and shaky lest you get a good look at the laughably bad "guy-in-a-monster" suit, or any of the effects that just didn't work. (At one point I remember us shooting what was supposed to be a big explosion in a pond that looked more like a medium sized fart in a bathtub.) Eventually I decided to give you just the end of the movie with the credits so you could at least watch my name scroll by (3:37 into the clip). Unfortunately, they've disabled embedding, but here's a link to the clip.

The other reason I've pointed you at that clip are two important things in it. One: At the very end, they mention that all of the deer that are mutilated in the movie "were collected as roadkill" with proper permits. Yum. Two: The actual title of the movie is 13th Child: The Legend of the Jersey Devil Volume 1. Holy shit. The threat of a sequel? Now that's scary!


Some dude stuck in the Midwest said...

I've tried to watch couple of episodes. This was not a good movie, by any standard.

Tania said...

You know, I used to have a subscription to Playboy. Once I was done reading the articles I'd let John have it for whatever purposes he wanted.

That picture has reminded me how much fun I used to have finding the bunny on the cover, as that was part of what I had to do before I could read it.

Jeff Hentosz said...

"Ma'am? You've..., uh,... got some sand..., um, here, let me..."

Eric said...

Cute wife.

John the Scientist said...

OK, I'll fixate on the producers wanting to look like heroes and then fucking that up. Who decided that personally handing out the checks late was better than someone else handing them out on time?

And then, isn't handing them out personally calling more attention to the problem, since on most productions they sort of come more impersonally?

Ten to one those producers went on to work for Bernard Madoff.

John the Scientist said...

Oh yes, this was inspired writing:

"a big explosion in a pond that looked more like a medium sized fart in a bathtub."


Nathan said...


I didn't say that handing out the paychecks personally would make them look heroic. I said they thought it would. Their thinking was defective on a great many levels.

Eric said...

I suppose I should have expected it, but nonetheless, I'm still a little disappointed that you've all vapor-locked on the ass.

Sorry about that. How about: I see they interviewed Donald Sutherland.


Nathan said...


It actually took me a minute to figure out what you were talking about. I assumed you were still fixated on ass and you were thinking about that scene in Animal House when Donald Sutherland flashes his ass in Karen Allen's kitchen.

Oh Well.

Michael Taylor said...

Great post. You've captured the grimy essence of toiling in the low budget world. The last one of those I did, we stayed in a no-tell motel on the edges of town -- the kind of place with a crummy bar and cheesy red carpet. The swimming pool remained empty for the two months we shot that movie.

I always wondered where all the hookers we must have displaced had to go...

Nathan said...

You had a bar? And a Pool?

Even without water, that sounds like sheer wasteful luxury!

Jim Wright said...

I've stayed in a lot of motels like that, Nathan. Should have dumped the script and shot a horror movie in the Hotel

Also, what happened to the PA who was supposed to pick up the checks? Did she ever get to pee, or is she still holding it?