Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Making of Cupcakes, Lies, and Dead Guys Book Trailer--Part 2

by Mike Snyder

“First there was the word – not CLOSE UP.”

Hello! I represent the second half of Pamela DuMond’s ‘process’ (re yesterday’s blog) putting together Cupcakes, Lies And Dead Guys: I was responsible for creating her book trailer. My company, The Trailer Guys, had great fun bringing Pam’s novel to a screen near you.

And lest you haven’t seen the trailer yet:

A screenwriter by trade, I’ve also produced a variety of features, TV series and reality shows, as well as directed and shot 2nd unit action sequences. And I teach screenwriting through a Canadian web site. I love this form of art, as I imagine you love hunkering over a keyboard for long hours, hoping to create a world never seen before, one people will want to enter and stay a while. It’s the most fun we can have with our clothes on!

A book trailer, like any form of filmmaking, is divided into 3 main elements: Concept/Pre-Production, Production and Post.

Conceiving a ‘filmic’ book trailer differs from the usual “pan-and’scan” trailers – the one’s using lots of push-ins and scans across still pictures, with a sentence or two superimposed beneath. We use action and a Narrator to encapsulate the novel, complicating things. A lot.

When Pam approached me about her novel being released soon, I quickly read a galley proof to familiarize myself with her heroine, Annie Graceland, and Annie’s escapades. Next I started imagining how to condense all the shenanigans into 1½ minutes of screen time. I sat and thought about it a very long time – one of my favorite past times!

Many drafts and virtual balls of paper thrown at onscreen trash cans later, I had something worth showing Pam. As a writer I hate having people mess with my words, but as a realist I know we almost never work in a vacuum. IMO, more than any other medium, filmmaking is a collaborative art. The skill is to pick your battles and let the rest go.

If you’ve read Cupcakes you’ll know we had to leave out much more than we put in: Annie’s mom, her best friend, bums, renegade nurses, wayward husbands, etc. Anyone who’s loved a book, then gone to the movie, will know only about 10% of the ‘grist’ ever gets past the mill.

I think Pam and I went through 5 or 6 revisions; everything from character assassinations and twisting plot points to nit-picky wording. Luckily, having started as a screenwriter herself, Pam understood the process and neither of us lost any major body parts.

As I write a script I also begin imagining the accompanying action. I always admonish my students that filmmaking is a visual medium. More so with book trailers, as there’s no dialogue. Narration, yes, but that just exemplifies what’s going on.

BTW, I use a two-column layout in Word, similar to any A/V script whether it’s film, tape or radio. One side has NARRATION, the other ACTION.

This is actually the fun part. At this stage I let my mind run free (no comments!). Hmmm … I could write Annie in a fighter jet or storming a Libyan beach.

My partner, Harry (a brilliant-but-cantankerous British filmmaker who’s cameraman and editor for our trailers) and I decided early on we’d need Special Visual Effects to marry Annie with ghostly Derrick Fuller and decided on green screen -- a computer process whereby actors are magically transported to remote locations. Your local weatherman uses one. With this process we can put actors in 14th century Scottish castles, on the moon … or in a Thai massage parlor.

After locking the script and deciding on a course of action for visuals, the next hurdle was casting. Harry and I enjoy this part a lot. When doing a film we like to see many actors, and love what each brings to the reading. As Annie was our central character, the actress playing her was especially important and we blocked out a day to audition hopefuls for her character alone.

Except Pam had already told someone she could have the role …!

Hmmm. This wasn’t a situation I was fond of, and Harry really got his back up (cantankerous, remember?); but in the spirit of fair play we met Aurora deBlas, Pam’s first and only choice. Neither Harry and I were convinced, but it was early morning and none of us had had our requisite amounts of coffee yet. Besides … “pick your battles,” remember? It was still a great book, a good script, Pam was adamant … and we thought we could work with Aurora.

It must be said here and now that Aurora’s wonderful! She was great to work with: Funny, intuitive, talented and willing to try anything. We loved her, so good on Pam. And Aurora!

A blessing about book trailers, vis-á-vis regular filmmaking is, they’re akin to silent movies. We cast Valentinos, not James Earl Joneses. How a character looks and acts goes more to verisimilitude than how they speak. The only exception is the Narrator, which we’re very particular about. At the moment I’m in discussions with an author who’s written a  light mystery noir about a guy who sounds like Humphrey Bogart. That will be fun casting a voice actor for…!

Another suggestion of Pam’s was Darren, a friend of hers living in San Diego, to play the errant husband, Mike. Darren drove all the way from San Diego to spend an hour and a half filming with us, and was also excellent. I was beginning to hate Pam…

Then Aurora recommended Bill, who turned out to be perfect for the sleezy boss. So much for Harry and I being sole doyens of good taste. But the other roles went to actors we’d worked with previously; a tight little cast, willing to put in long hours for little pay and cold pizza. Things will improve in the future, guys, I promise!

Two other integral members of our merry band are Cynthia, makeup & hair, and Cara, special makeup and tattoos. Their efforts can be seen more fully in our first trailer, JT Ellison’s Taylor Jackson novel, The Immortals: They had a lot of fun flaying, filleting and generally wreaking havoc on a variety of young actors in that one.

In the future Harry and I also hope to add a wardrobe designer and all-around knowledgeable PA (preferably a film student) to speed the proceedings along. But for the time being we get by…

Locations were scouted and locked (cemetery, Annie’s house, beach, yoga studio, etc.) and at the same time Harry and I began discussing a “look.” We decided, given its light nature and fun elements, to make Cupcakes as lush as possible, using oversaturated colors throughout. Sort of a 60’s, Todd A-O/Technicolor version of reality, as compared to digital harshness.

We also chose camera setups that would help sell the fun of the book: “Dutched” (skewed) angles, low angles up, high angles down, etc. All the bits & pieces that go into making any film.

Soon it was Shoot Day One. We all met at the Annie’s House location, and from there a splinter unit consisting of Harry, Cynthia, Aurora and me took off for the beach and a quick ‘pop’ of Annie in her cheese hat. 3 - 4 quick takes later we piled back in the car and returned to Santa Monica. We shot Exteriors at the house first, as Darren was under a time constraint, then moved Interior for the kitchen scene. By then it was lunch, and while pizzas were ordered Harry, Aurora and I scooted over to the cemetery and shot her ‘grave stomping’ scene.

Oh, we taped other stuff that never ended up in the trailer, but that’s par for the course…

And if you’ve been paying attention to the shooting schedule -- yes, it was still daylight at the cemetery. Making the scene transpire at midnight was up to Harry in editing.

After a hurried lunch we all piled in our cars again and caravaned out to The Valley and our gym location at California Fitness Center. We shot the scene with Troy and a heavily-disguised Annie in the owner, Steve Balalian’s, office, then moved to a separate exercise studio for the scene with Annie and Ginger. Finally, in a breezeway between the gym and exercise studio, after “losing the light,” we shot the stalking scene for the end of the trailer. All-in-all a good first day!

Day Two arrived way too bright and early as everyone congregated at Harry’s house-cum-studio. We started with driving shots of Bill, then moved indoors for the green screened Thai Massage Parlor. Inbetween all this, Cynthia is frantically changing makeup designs and hair styles!

Vic (Derrick) had arrived by then and we shot his bedroom and bathroom scenes (again, green screen), then shot Aurora’s side of things in the real bed- and bathrooms. Difficult to set proper aspect angles for the actors, but luckily we’re able to run playback and see if we goofed up.

Next we shot the Malibu Beach Café scene on green screen in two passes, first with Aurora and the table, then with Vic and nothing. Then the tag, where Derrick The Ghost is applying suntan lotion to Annie on the grass. That was also green screen, tho we ran out and shot a bit of lawn.

We bid Aurora adieu and thanked her for an amazing two days, then finished up with Derrick on the sun deck eating poisoned doughnuts (BTW, the stalker was played by Pam The Ham…).

That was it for Production. I left it to Harry to download all the tape into the computer and put a rough cut together. Some producers like to micro-manage their editors but from my experience editors in general, and Harry in particular, are proficient enough thankyouverymuch, and don’t require a lot of input during the opening game.

Several days later I visited Harry and we looked at a ‘rough cut.’ The elements were all there, so it was time to refine, massage and begin playing with color and SpFX – which we did ad infinitum (did I mention we’re both perfectionists?). While I’m usually concerned about timing of lines and action and which are the best angles to use of our actors, Harry was worrying over which effects to add to each scene, including color and sound.

Like Vic popping up out of the ground at the cemetery, or lying on Annie’s bed. Tough stuff.

In the meantime, we began auditioning voice actors for the Narrator. Thanks to the wonders of computers and digital blah-blah-blah, they were able to email us samples of their work, which we could listen to at our liesure. Also, we were thinking about music. Harry trained as a concert pianist when he was a wee lad in England (his grand piano takes up 9/10s of his living room), but we needed something a little sprightlier than Penderecki.

We finally settled on a great vocal actor and nice, light music, Harry finalized the cut and we uploaded it to YouTube For Pam’s Eye’s Only. She had a few notes and requested some changes, which were right on and not out of the ordinary. We don’t make a habit of staying in post any longer than necessary, so we ask our clients get their ducks lined up as quickly as possible once script or cut have been sent to them for review. After that, we make the changes or argue, er—debate, their efficacy and make a final copy in whatever form the client requests. Usually it’s a high-def YouTube version they can upload/download and pass around, but sometimes they want it on DVD. We use a very high-end HD camera and Harry is a whiz at uploading in proper formats for any given platform, so the finished product is always just right for its intended use.

And that’s how it’s done. Well … that’s how we do it. It’s a great way to exercise our jones for creativity and be challenged at the same time (most filmmakers hate to repeat themselves). Honestly, I enjoy the Conceptual stage most, before all the craziness happens, as it’s most in my control; but Production and Post have their own rewards, including the chance to mold, refine and (in some cases) correct things that pop up on set or afterward (there’s nothing worse than getting into a scene only to discover your immortal words just ain’t working!)

It’s art and industry at the same time, two parts creativity and one part technical skill. It’s fun, fast and furious and a joy to do.

BTW, we’re looking for a Romance (modern or historical) or Sci-Fi novel to tackle next, plus I have that noir Bogey mystery to script as well as begin considering a book of poetry to ‘trailerize,’ which should offer its own special challenges…




Gina said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Mike! Interesting to see how much work goes into even a very short film.

Martha reed said...

Hi, MIke. Thanks for sharing your insights.

I wonder with ebooks and trailers if we're seeing the tip of iceberg the way we saw music videos and MTV take off?

Joyce Tremel said...

Welcome! Fascinating stuff.

Mike, sorry I couldn't get the actual script to post--Blogger wouldn't cooperate. When I copied it over to the blog, it went clear across the entire blog covering up the sidebar. I tried several ways to fix it, but couldn't. If someone wants to see it, can they email you?

Annette said...

Interesting stuff, Mike. Thanks for coming over to Working Stiffs and sharing!

Jenna said...

Wow. VERY interesting. Now if I could just afford it... Thanks for sharing, Mike. I for one would love to see the script.

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

Thanks Mikey. Now come back here and respond, please. (I'm going out looking for Mikey. He is probably scouting locations or drinking coffee somewhere. Back in a bit.)

Yes, he is this smart. Scary, but in a good way!


Pam DuMond

Euroky said...

Hi Martha,

I believe so, especially now that I hear you can embed video in iPad, Kindle and Nook. That means authors can pay to have trailers of future books as part of the novels they're selling.

Euroky said...


Thank you for your responses and enthusiasm. It's been a pleasure to write for Working Stiffs.

And thank, Joyce, for trying so late last night to get the script thing to work...

I'd be glad to show anyone who's interested what a script looks like. Email me at and I'll send a .pdf.

And Jennie, it's not as much as you'd think to produce a trailer such as Pam's. Harry and I don't make much at the moment, tho we *do* insist on the other technicians and actors getting something, plus any location fees, clothing, special makeup, snacks and lunches, etc. If you check other companies I believe what we offer (filmic trailers) is more than competitive with the pan-&-scan crowd.

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

Hey Mike:

The Working Stiff readers can also e-mail you to discuss trailer ideas, pricing, whatever, correct? I don't think you charge ANYTHING for an e-mail or phone consultation, do you?

You did mention you were looking for a romance and something else And would give someone a super duper great price on that? (Cough, cough.)


Euroky said...

Pam is a really good pimp-- er, friend.

Yes, if anyone's interested in exploring the possibility of a trailer please email me. I'll consult the heck out of your idea for free. The trailers we've done to date have been for forthcoming novels, which seems like the perfect time for a tie-in.

As I said in the blog, we're specifically looking for a Romance (historical or modern), YA or Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Speculative Fiction, to stretch our legs with a new challenge; but we still love a good mystery!

And if anyone wants or needs to know how to promote themselves and their work to the fullest, I direct you back to Pamela DuMond, the queen of social media and self-promotion.

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

Pimp? Pimp? What are you saying Pretty Woman? Welcome to Hollywood baby...



Euroky said...

Just a reminder: People asked but no one's written. Hit me up and I'll send you a copy of the script we did for Pam's Cupcakes trailer. You'll get an idea how they're laid out.

Mike Snyder

Grant Jerkins said...

Ah, Mike, what would guys like us do without smart women like Pamela around to nudge us? Good job on the trailer and the blog.

I might hit you up for an upcoming project. It's a YA Paranormal Christian NASCAR Zombie
Romance with elements of Literary Fiction. And recipes.

Joyce Tremel said...

Pam and Mike, thanks for being our guests for a couple days. We really appreciate it!

Euroky said...

Thanks for having me, Joyce. Anytime. Perhaps I can post on novel-to-script next time, for anyone who's thought about cross-marketing their material.