November 9, 2014

Club Mendez


How many laws did we break? Too many to count, maybe, over the course of the week. I counted four and a half before nine a.m. on Sunday morning alone. Everything from traffic laws and trespassing to assorted laws of God and nature. But that was the least of it. That was simply how they did things. It was mad hit-and-run indie guerilla filmmaking at its finest.

            But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s perhaps best to begin with the cast of characters. There was Erik, aka The Kid, the writer-director-comedian who’d spearheaded the idea of turning Noogie’s Time to Shine into a movie about five years ago. He was a slim, bearded and bespectacled fellow who was smart and funny and knew what he wanted and usually found a way to get it. On the surface Brad, the film’s co-writer and co-director, was sober, soft-spoken, all-American and clean cut, and was able to use all that to talk us into any number of places where we wouldn’t normally be allowed. He was equally smart, dryly funny and had a way of working with actors. Brandon, bald and mustached with a resonant voice, was a natural actor who’d done a ton of theater, TV commercials and anime. Over the course of our week on the road he came to fully embody Ned “Noogie” Krapczak. And then there was Gates, the trip’s director of photography, mellow, fearless, and strangely poetic, yet completely focused on the technical aspects of shooting a scene. It was Gates who offered the invaluable mantra, “just do what you want until someone tells you to stop.” They were all in their early thirties, all old friends from Austin who knew and trusted each other, and they were all absolutely mad. Mad enough anyway to insist a drunken old cranky blind man accompany them on an insane road trip to grab some location shots (and maybe a scene or two) for the film version of an old cheap pulp novel I’d written some years back.

            Of the four, Gates (who now lived in Williamsburg) was the only one I hadn’t met. For as long as I’d known the others, I’d only heard his name in passing and knew nothing at all about him. Yet he was the one I picked up much too early on Friday morning to head to LaGuardia to grab a flight to Ft. Lauderdale. From there, we got a cab to Miami. Along the way, as he would for the rest of the trip, he described what we were passing so I could at least imagine the environment: “There’s a pawn shop, and another pawn shop. A Chinese takeout place. Pawn shop, pawn shop, strip club, bar, pawn shop, palm tree, a billboard for some Ultimate Fighting thing . . . ” The stretch between Lauderdale and Miami sounded exactly like what I was expecting.

            Erik and Brad were flying in from Austin, and Brandon, who’d arrived about an hour before we did, had flown in from Dallas. While I’d embarked on this adventure expecting to sleep in the back of the van Erik was buying sight unseen off craigslist, we were all to meet at the Airbnb apartment Erik’s wife had arranged. Well, so much for horror stories about the conditions we had to put up with. What came to be dubbed Club Mendez was in reality a drug kingpin’s condo on the 18th floor of the fucking Miami Yacht Club with a balcony overlooking an inlet loaded with massive, lavish yachts. Club Mendez itself was furnished with upholstered black leather furniture and artwork on the walls, all in proper Scarface style.

            While Erik and Brad went to buy Noogie’s windowless, Not Suspicious At All white van, Brandon, Gates, and I went to a little cantina a few blocks away and started drinking. It seemed necessary. Then around five the waitress informed us we had to leave, as the place was owned by Chassids and was closing for the evening. That was unexpected. Or maybe not so much. So we returned to the drug lord’s condo and waited.

            No filming was planned for that first night, as it was agreed it might be better suited for decompression and planning. Early the next morning though they were at it with me toddling along, shooting Noogie’s van as it tooled around Miami. My god, my god what a horrendously ugly place Miami is, all condo towers and cars and dying palm trees, made all the uglier by the harsh sunlight that never wavers.

            After an hour or so of trailing the van in a rented car that would make the rest of the trip with us as well, we all realized the van was too clean for what it had supposedly been through up to that point. They were essentially filming Noogie’s flight from NYC to Miami backwards after all, and had to take that into account. So we pulled into a gas station, borrowed a bucket and a squeegee, and under Brad’s direction (in a prime example of low-budget movie magic) artfully dirtied up the van with instant coffee grounds and whatever else was at hand. That seemed to work quite well, and in the end the van looked like someone (or a small group of people, or maybe a bull elephant) had pissed all over it. It was perfect.

            We picked up Noogie’s wardrobe at a local Goodwill Superstore, stole some shots of the Miami police department, tried and thankfully failed to obtain a cat who would play a big role in the film (assuming it survived the rest of the week in the back of a moving windowless van), grabbed a few more shots around some of Miami’s seedier neighborhoods, tried and failed to track down an open camera store in search of some much-needed equipment, ventured onto a deserted Miami Beach at dusk to shoot a pivotal sequence, then drove around Miami’s equivalent of Times Square on a swarming Saturday night as Noogie had a screaming, speed-induced breakdown behind the wheel. (I was at first concerned Brandon’s semi-coherent screaming out his window might draw some unwanted attention to the whole set-up, but noting what was happening on the sidewalks we were crawling past, I realized he fit into the local environment quite nicely.)

            If we needed any further proof that Brandon really looked the part of a slovenly, unshaven, doofus on the run from the feds, we got it later that night when we stopped at an Italian place in a strip mall to grab dinner. Erik sent Brandon in to see if they were still serving, and though they said yes, they refused to seat us. Although we were mighty hungry at the end of the first of many, many eighteen hour days that would follow, I took it as a small victory.

            One of the big concerns that trailed us was the very real possibility that Brandon (or whoever was driving the van at the time) might get pulled over by a cop who wanted to take a look in the back. The back of the van, see, was essentially a rolling, carefully crafted set featuring a cat carrier, a litter box and bag of litter, empty cat food cans, no cat, occasionally Brad acting as sound man, illegal fireworks, too many empty beer cans, dozens of candy bar and junk food wrappers, three laundry bags stuffed with fake twenty dollar bills, and two extremely realistic fake guns. Yeah, cops aren’t exactly known for their sense of humor.

            I think this fear became a real concern on our last morning in Miami, when we got up before dawn, pulled ourselves together and headed out to a still blessedly empty stretch of beach. As Erik hoped, the sun was just rising over the horizon. They shot a few scenes of Brandon, a cat carrier, and an empty bottle. Then in a mad rush and because the shot called for it, ignoring all the signs and warnings and the prowling police cruisers, Erik barreled the van onto the beach and filmed another scene. In just one of many small miracles that seemed to hang around the tiny production, not only did no cops stop us (though a few passed by), but we were able to get the van out of the sand and back to the parking lot.

            I’ve been around movie shoots before and so was well aware how long and tedious the set ups can be to grab even the briefest shot, but here for the first time, with just a four man crew, I gotta say I was mighty impressed by the work involved, from choosing lenses and hooking cameras to the outside of moving vehicles to wiring Brandon for sound, to rehearsals and multiple takes to getting the hell out of there before we got busted. My job through it all was to stand out of the way, not get in the shot, and smoke. Also, should the cops arrive I was to be used as an excuse for whatever the crew was doing at the time.

            That afternoon we made a break for the Georgia border, all of us relieved to be getting the fuck out of Florida. Miserable goddamn place, Florida, but the crew got what they wanted there (despite some mild guff from the apparent caretakers of the closed and locked Florida Visitor Center), so all was well. En route to Savannah, these Southern boys I was with even introduced me to the joys and wonderment of the Waffle House, for which I am eternally grateful. But that’s another story, and we still had a long and crazy drive ahead of us.


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