Saturday, January 13, 2007

The House Between

It’s been over two years since I met John Muir, known to pop culture enthusiasts as John Kenneth Muir – “not because I’m pretentious,” he explains, “although I am pretentious,” but so that people don’t confuse him with the renowned naturalist who shares his name.

John was a featured guest at the inaugural MonsterFest convention, organized by Rob Floyd and Jim Blanton at the Chesapeake (VA) Public Library in October 2004. At that time, he had completed 15 published books on television and film, including critical assessments of John Carpenter and Wes Craven that I read while researching my own book on American horror films (published in April '04).

I would not have introduced myself to John Muir as a writer, because John was a real writer. My book (as one reviewer for Video Watchdog noted) was little more than a college thesis; John was already setting a new standard for pop culture studies. Nevertheless, Jerry Harrell – who was at the convention in full “Dr. Madblood” regalia – did not hesitate to introduce me as a writer... and John and his wife Kathryn could not have responded with more enthusiasm and encouragement for my goal of someday turning a writing hobby into a career. I was thrilled to meet someone so down-to-earth who had managed to do just that.

I was not the only one in awe of John that day. He drew sci-fi and horror genre enthusiasts like a magnet. A year later, he returned to the Chesapeake Public Library with a proposal for his new friends. By then I was working as a producer on the Discovery Channel’s docudrama series “A Haunting,” so he included me in his proposed venture… to produce an original, low-budget science fiction series called The House Between.

The conceit was simple: Five strangers trapped in a house with no way out, and no idea how they got there. He said it was partly inspired by his frustration with the ABC series “Lost” – which was continually resorting to flashbacks, rather than dealing with the present dilemma of its characters - and partly inspired by Jean Paul Sartre's play No Exit. I immediately thought of Night of the Living Dead, the brain-child of ten friends who volunteered their time and money to make a film that transcended its minimal production values.

To his credit, John understood that minimal production values did not necessarily reduce the scope of storytelling possibilities. He was determined to explore questions of physics, psychic phenomenon, mysticism, religious fundamentalism, politics, greed and good old fashioned personality disorders… on 2% of the budget of the famously low-budget Night of the Living Dead. Of course, George Romero will be the first to say that it’s much easier, in the digital age, to create your own movie or television series. The real hurtle is distribution. But John had an answer for that too – he is thoroughly convinced that original Internet productions, “consumer-made television,” are the wave of the future. His friends were more than happy to help him test the theory.

A six-member cast and an eight-member crew converged on Charlotte, North Carolina, in June 2006. For the next week, we would be trapped in an empty house with blacked-out windows, completely oblivious to the “real” world. It was like being thrown into a dream reality, with a very sobering mission: We had seven days to shoot seven (dialogue-heavy) episodes. No easy task. I appointed myself task-master.

From day one, I was amazed by the talent and dedication of everyone involved. It was as if every single person there had been waiting for an opportunity like this, and when the cameras started rolling, they all became consummate – and passionate – professionals. Somehow, John must have known that it would happen like this. The actors learned their lines on the spot. The crew knew exactly how to get around any problem that presented itself. As on any good production, the team simply gelled.

The project quickly became a collaborative effort that relied on everyone there for its continued success. There were times when the production seemed like a house of cards. If any single member of the team hadn’t been fully engaged, the whole thing would have come crashing down. But everyone we needed was there, and giving 110%. By the second day, we were moving forward at full speed. By the fourth day, we were circumventing production problems with relative ease. (Many of the problems stemmed from our lighting equipment, which didn’t weather the 16-hour shoot days quite as well as the actors and crew). By the fifth day, everyone was comfortable enough for wild improvisation – making for a great episode that renewed everyone’s energy for the home stretch. (Truth be told: The lack of sleep was starting to make us all a little loopy.) By the seventh day, our nerves were frayed… but everyone maintained an air of professionalism, and we managed to get the last show in the can just before a summer storm swept into Charlotte, and provided us with some great
moody exterior shots.
Afterwards, we all went to John’s house for a late dinner, and sat around talking into the early hours of the morning. It had been an absolutely grueling week, but nobody wanted it to end. Perhaps it was because we couldn’t quite believe what we had accomplished… It’s an amazing thing to realize that you are capable of more than you ever thought you could be.
So now the big question: How much of this ambition, talent, enthusiasm and labor will show up onscreen? I think that some of us who were involved in the shoot may have a tendency to preface the result with a disclaimer – apologizing for low budget, rushed schedule, and lack of production experience. At the same time, we will be effusive in our praise of the things that work. There are some remarkable achievements in acting, lighting design, videography, special effects, music, and – perhaps most significantly – storytelling.
As I watch the finished episodes, I am consistently amazed by the subtleties of John’s storytelling… hints of longer character arcs and larger conflicts that I somehow overlooked on the page. I think it’s fair to say that there will be plenty of moments in the series that don't work as well as we'd like, but equally fair to say that there is a very strong vision that becomes increasingly apparent with each episode – something that inspired every member of the cast and crew to become engaged with the project on a very personal level.


Before we left Charlotte and returned to our respective “real worlds,” I thought it was important to share my awe of the project: Things like this don’t just happen. Everyone has a story... but John and Kathryn managed to convince a group of people to spend a week of their lives (a week of vacation time, for most of them) in a musty house, testing themselves mentally and physically for 16 hours a day, to bring this story to life. I can think of plenty of vacation alternatives that would be more enticing… but none that would ultimately be more rewarding. John and Kathryn deserve a lot of credit for making the proposal, and the cast and crew deserve a lot of credit for showing up and making it a reality.

I hope that those who view the finished product will be able to share some of this enthusiasm. A few months ago, John wrote on his blog: “I would prefer to sit in a theater and view something new and exciting and different (even if flawed...) rather than something mainstream and uninventive.” I believe that viewers who agree with this perspective will find plenty to love in The House Between.
You can check out John’s trailer for the series on YouTube. The full-length episodes will begin posting in mid-February.  For further updates, see John's blog.

2 comments:

  1. Joe -

    Man, this is a beautiful post.

    From the depths of my soul, I thank you for all the kind words and support (and I know the rest of the cast and crew will feel the same way as they read this).

    To this post, however, I must add a final notation: I was lucky - EXTREMELY lucky to have an outstanding producer in one Joseph Maddrey. We couldn't have achieved what we did on The House Between without you and your dedication.

    Sometimes this meant you had to play the "bad guy," and sometimes I snapped at you or was pissy. Because you were telling me what I didn't want to hear. But what I NEEDED to hear. And you were right, every time.

    Quite simply, we couldn't have made it through the week without your understanding of the scripts and storyline, without your eye on the clock, and without your good sense and determination. Not to mention your creative flourishes. For instance, there is a moment (or sequence, I should say...) in the third episode, "Positioned," that totally flies because of your (genius...) suggestion how to shoot it.

    Is it going overboard to state that you are a paragon of producerhood?

    Cuz you are. Not to mention the kind of friend every guy needs on a shoot like this.

    You better come back for Season Two: Electric Bugaloo.

    -JKM

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  2. Astrid1/16/2007

    I ditto what John said, and then some. I will forever be in your debt for cutting most of the dialog of that kitchen scene with Lee in "Positioned." LOL (I love you, Lee!)

    Seriously though, you crack the whip and it hurts so good. :-)

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