by JIM KNIPFEL
May 4, 2014
My Not Exactly Brilliant Film Career
Although I’m admittedly what you might call a little nutty about movies, I’ve always reacted with a sickly kind of gut horror at the thought of ever being involved in their production. I never wanted to act or direct, and after talking to a couple of screenwriters I know I didn’t even want to write for movies. I didn’t want to know about the technical problems, the delays, the infighting, the lawyers and the scramble for money. I just wanted the final magic (even if it was a little less than magical in some cases). I just wanted something that would take me out of this stinking world for a couple of hours, not something that would remind me how stinking and foolish it really was. I wanted to continue believing these wacky comedies, two-fisted crime dramas and giant monster pictures appeared fully formed out of the ether.
Of course over the years that conviction has proven about as unshakeable as all the others, as I was reminded the other day when someone pointed out I had a damned listing on IMDb, which proved to be about as accurate as anything else on the internet. Not that I’m shocked or mortified or plan to do anything about it, but it seems worth a few comments, both about those things that are listed on the page and those that aren’t.
Back around 1998, my friend George Higham, an artist, filmmaker, and morgue radiographer, decided to make a twenty minute stop-motion film adaptation of Poe’s final poem, Annabel Lee. I’m still not sure why, but he approached me and asked if I might narrate it, which essentially boiled down to reading the poem aloud. I’d known George for a few years, was well familiar with his work, and after he gave me a tour of his miniature sets (constructed in his basement), showed off his models and explained how he worked, I knew it would be a swell little movie. I didn’t know why he thought my voice would work (never could stand my voice) but what the hell, right? I wouldn’t need to appear on camera or move around or anything, which was good. All I had to do was read the poem. So I agreed, and one afternoon George and Morgan and I drove up to a house in Connecticut, (I think it was Connecticut, or maybe Jersey, I’m really not sure anymore), where some friends of his had a home recording studio. They sat me down on the couch in the living room in front of a microphone and slapped some headphones on me. Then George and the two engineers went downstairs where all the equipment was set up. They gave the cue, I read the poem a couple of times, then for other soundtrack bits I screamed, pretended to sob, and coughed. Actually, the cough was just me coughing, but they decided to use it anyway. Then I was done, simple as pie. The film was edited together and turned out fine (George’s sculptures are darkly beautiful things), playing several festivals before being released on DVD. Visually the film was gorgeous, but my own reading still makes me cringe.
That same year a bartender I knew named Dom Engel revealed that he was also a filmmaker. I had no idea, but it wasn’t much of a surprise considering he was an East Village bartender. I was surprised to learn that unlike most EV bartender-filmmakers, he really was in the middle of shooting an indie film with Victor Argo. Fast Horses was a fairly typical late nineties indie number, part comedy, part drama, concerning the misadventures of a tight group of drunken friends who went to the track a lot. That was all fine and good and I wished him the best. Then he asked if I would do a small voiceover bit for him. Just a couple of lines. Again with the voice, but this time I’d play the voice of a dying man in someone’s memory, asking to be killed. I’d probably be all echoey and shit, given I was playing a memory, but what the hell. I wouldn’t need to go on camera, I could empathize with the dead guy I was playing, I liked character actor Victor Argo a lot (at least until I met him later) and it got me some free beers. So one humid afternoon Morgan and I wandered our way into the depths of the West Village to a little third-floor recording studio. I was placed in a cramped soundproof booth, its walls lined with cardboard egg cartons, and when given the cue I started asking someone to kill me. I did it a few more times, then Dom asked me to do it with a Brooklyn accent. Well, as Morgan can testify I do the worst Brooklyn accent in the world. Still, I gave it ago, he thanked me, and I was sent on my way. Yeah, this “movie” shit was starting to look pretty easy, gotta say.
Although I saw an early edit of the film before I recorded my part, I never saw the later version. Dom insisted I was in there, though I’m not a hundred percent certain. If he used the take where I mangled a Brooklyn accent, I guess I’d rather not know. I got some beers out of it, though.
It wasn’t clear at first why someone from Troma Studios contacted me in 1999 about a film they were working on called Terror Firmer. Troma, for those who don’t know, is the New York-based indie studio run by producer-director Lloyd Kaufman, and known for low-budget, adamantly no-class, splatter comedy wonderments like Surf Nazis Must Die, Poultrygeist and The Class of Nuke ‘Em High. That I was asked to come in for a screen test seemed incongruous at best, plain bone stupid at worst. Nevertheless my already weakened convictions about staying as far away from the film business as possible pretty much crumbled completely. This was TROMA calling, for god sakes! Film snobs roll their eyes but dammit I love those Troma pictures. So I headed off to their shabby, funky-smelling Hell’s Kitchen building where a young man named Will Keenan took me into Lloyd Kaufman’s office, sat me down in a chair, and stepped behind a small video camera on a tripod. I was not asked to read anything, not asked to sing or dance or juggle. Instead Keenan simply began asking questions which I answered much too honestly. (I’m awfully glad that audition tape never resurfaced, given what libel laws are like.) When he was finished I was handed what I was promised was Kaufman’s personal copy of his own first book, All I Needed to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From the Toxic Avenger. Then I was sent home, as Keenan called in the next would-be Strother Martin.
A week later I was summoned again, but this time was sent, with very little artistic direction or even a vague hint of what was expected of me, over to an abandoned warehouse in some desolate stretch of Brooklyn along the East River. The whole thing started to smell a little hinky. Was my audition so godawful they’d sent me out here to be killed? Guess I couldn’t blame them if they did, but still, jeeze. I wandered into the dark interior, seeing nobody, and felt my way through the crumbling and filthy halls until I heard voices. I honed in on the echoes, and eventually emerged into a large and open room where fifteen or twenty weirdos, punks, Goths, trannies, and flamboyantly costumed what-have-yous were sitting around on the grimy floor, smoking and chatting. Yeah, somehow I’d fumbled my way to the right place. A large hand-scrawled placard on the far wall laid out a few ground rules, first among them being “Safety to People,” and the last one being “Let’s Make Some Art.” Sidling off around the perimeter of the hipsters I suddenly found there was nothing beneath my feet anymore. That shit happens way too often.
After hitting the concrete five feet below where I’d been standing a moment earlier I realized I’d walked off the edge of the loading dock. (So let that be a lesson to you next time you’re wandering around an abandoned warehouse—watch out for the fucking loading dock.) Will Keenan, who’d conducted the screen test and who also happened to be the film’s star and erstwhile co-director, picked me up, brushed me off, looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t die.”
It was decent advice. If I’d had my wits about me I might’ve offered my services as a stunt man, but it’s probably for the best I didn’t. I climbed back up on the loading dock and waited near the others.
Twenty minutes later we were all herded down another hall into a much larger room which had been set up for a shot. There were cameras, coils of snaky black cable, lights, a couch, a few scattered props, and a small set of bleachers. Keenan introduced me to a clearly preoccupied Lloyd Kaufman, who was surrounded by eight crew members all shouting questions at once. Nevertheless he shook my hand. “Heya, great to meet you,” he said, looking over my shoulder at something else. Then giving me a quick once-over and noticing I was neither a nude young woman nor dressed like a chicken, he asked, “So what’s your character?”
“What are you supposed to be?”
Then it hit me. All these other people were in ridiculous get-ups. They were all, well, something. Thinking quickly and pulling out the cane (which wasn’t yet in regular use) I suggested, “Well, how ‘bout the blind guy? I’m pretty good at that.”
“Nah,” Kaufman said. “I’m already the blind guy in this movie.” People were swarming all around us getting ready for the scene, and someone said, “Well, he could be your cousin.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kaufman said. “That’ll work.” Then he was gone.
And that’s how I got to play Lloyd Kaufman’s cousin in Terror Firmer.
After the one scene I appeared in (yeah, I dare you to spot me) was finished, and in light of my earlier run-in with the loading dock, I was as per usual sent off to the side and told not to move for fear I might get hurt.
As I sat there in a folding chair in the middle of an empty room, I chatted with the occasional passers by, and in the process learned why I’d been offered a cameo. It was the same reason Joe Franklin, Anthony Haden-Guest from New York magazine, and Page Six’s Richard Johnson had been given cameos as well. Troma was hoping you put all these local journalist types in a movie, they’ll write about it and give you a ton of high-profile free publicity. It was a smart idea and worked like a charm. Funny thing is, the only place that didn’t run a story about the wild and wacky world of Troma just prior to Terror Firmer’s release was the NY Press, where my editor, grumpy old sot that he was, wouldn’t allow it considering the circumstances. Well, whatever. Terror Firmer may not be the greatest Troma extravaganza ever, but it is a frighteningly accurate portrait of what it’s like to shoot a Troma film.
After that I decided to take a bit of a break from my snowballing film career. Everything was moving too fast. First two voiceovers, then unpaid work as an extra in a crowd scene? And all in the course of a year? Who knew where it might go next? It was time to stop and regroup.
In 2002 I’m credited as a producer on a filmed interview with a very drunk Barney Rosset, which was included as an extra on the DVD release of Quiet Days in Clichy. What being a producer meant in that case was I helped set up the interview with Barney, and sat in on the interview. That’s really about it. (I’m the one in the background who asks, “Herve Villechaize?”)
After that there was a long dry spell, until Thomas Nola, a filmmaker-writer-musician from Boston asked if I would do a cameo in his new film, Blood Jungle . . . or Eviva il Coltello!. A couple of other friends had long speaking roles, but I think Thomas knew better in my case. One Saturday afternoon he brought his camera over to my place in Bay Ridge and shot a fast series of stills in my front room and backyard, which he then cut out and placed into other photos. So I don’t really appear in the film. Not exactly anyway. I’m in a flashback that runs as a series of old photos. In the snapshots I portray a father bringing my son to a barber to be castrated (well, the films have all been unique, gotta admit that). In an odd coincidence, Lloyd Kaufman had agreed to play the barber but backed out, possibly after hearing I was in it.
Oh god, then there was the time I was so desperate I agreed to write the scripts for two five-minute commercials for non-profits. The first was completely rewritten by some illiterate jerkoff, the second thrown out on the day of the shoot when the commercial’s star refused to read the lines I’d written. I think I’m trying to block that whole experience out of my memory. Obviously I’m not doing a very good job.
Now, after that taste of the go-go glamorous Hollywood lifestyle, I think I can safely start rebuilding my convictions again, knowing full well, too well really, what all goes in to creating the magic. But now I think I’ll just stick with the magic, at least until someone buys one of these damn scripts I keep writing for some reason.
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