Le Chat Mort
My father has joined the digital filmmaking revolution. He called me a few months ago to announce that, like thousands of other aspiring directors across the country, he had purchased a Canon XL-1 video camera and intended to become a serious filmmaker. His first project would be a short subject about a dead cat. Would I drive out to East Texas and help?
I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I owed him one, big time. Dad has helped out on almost every film I’ve ever made, from my student days to the present, toiling away as a driver, crew cook, or even producer, which, in a parent’s case, means you pay for everything but get yelled at for making any suggestions. On the other hand, the man has lured me into some dubious adventures in the past. Two years ago, he talked me into taking a swampy, grimy, week-long canoe trip down the Neches River with him and a woman from New York City that he met on the Internet. That trip (which played out as a sort of Crocodile Dundee IV–Terror in the Pines, starring my dad as a cruel Texas Paul Hogan who laughed at my chigger bites, laughed when I fell in the river, laughed when the New Yorker and I saw a snake and nearly capsized the canoe), only reinforced his view that his daughter is “one of those Austin types,” which can mean different things at different times, but usually indicates: a little bit hippie, a little bit yuppie, and somehow not really Texan like the rest of ’em. And it reinforced my view that my dad’s projects can be just a wee bit ill-thought-out, and can bring out, well, let’s face it–the worst in me.
However, I was bound to help him, and so it was with the best of intentions that I set out two weekends ago, along with my boyfriend Graham, to assist my father in his world-premiere, directorial debut on the short film Dead Cat Bounce.
FRIDAY NIGHT, 11:00 P.M.
Halfway through the nearly five-hour drive home, just outside of Bryan, Texas, Graham and I are cheerfully singing a song called “J.P. the Hamburger” when his car strikes some kind of debris in the road, instantly demolishing the right rear tire. Another driver has just hit the same debris, spinning his truck right off the road. Furious, he is convinced he hit an old car battery, and that if he can only find it somehow along the side of the road, the police will trace its registration number, “the way they caught the Oklahoma City bomber.” While he’s looking, Graham affixes a spare tire the size of a go-cart wheel onto his car, and we limp back onto the highway at the prudent rate of 45 miles an hour.
By the time we reach Crockett, Texas, it’s past midnight, and continuing at our snail’s pace seems futile. We check into a seedy motel and call my father, who already has the mindset of a true director: hysterical.
“You have to be here by seven in the morning!” he wails. I step gingerly over some sort of giant roach or warrior beetle lying feet-up in the middle of the floor and promise him that, come hell or high water, we will be there by seven in the morning.
SATURDAY, 7:45 A.M.
We arrive on location in a mall parking lot in Nacogdoches, Texas. Dad doesn’t seem to care that we’re late.
“You’re in the film,” he says harriedly, as soon as I step out of the car. Apparently two of his three co-workers, er, actresses have failed to show up this morning. I’m to tackle the role of the “forty-ish, chain-smoking type,” never mind that I’m 27 and have never smoked a cigarette in my life. To my surprise, Dad has somehow also recruited the older sister of my high school best friend, whom I haven’t seen in years.
“What is this movie about?” she asks timidly when I approach her.
“Something about a dead cat,” I tell her. “Don’t ask me, he’s the director.”
The production gets under way. My friend’s sister and I, along with the one actress who showed up, pretend to be shop-a-holics exiting a mall. “Scream like you see a dead cat!” instructs Dad, who unbeknownst to us all is forgetting to turn the camera off between takes, thereby gathering a lot of footage of parking-lot asphalt. We pretend to find a dead cat, and to argue about giving it a proper burial. Finally, our characters agree to put the cat in a shoe box. My friend’s sister is having trouble with her motivation. I’m having trouble not taking over everything.
“We have to walk into the scene or it won’t cut right,” I tell Dad. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but I’m just saying…”
SATURDAY, 12:30 P.M.
After shooting some driving scenes, (during which we almost run over a real cat in someone’s neighborhood) we arrive at La Hacienda, the nicest restaurant in Nacogdoches. It’s closed, so we have the whole outdoor patio to ourselves; however, none of Dad’s restaurant extras have shown up either, so the other diners in these scenes consist of: my friend’s sister’s husband and two little girls, her three teen-aged nieces, and my Uncle Kenton, who’s already drinking the Zinfandel we need for the lunch scene. The restaurant manager kindly loans my dad some plates for the “diners,” whose sole menu choice today is slabs of roast beef garnished with M&M’s and Danish butter cookies.
Dad has enlisted Graham to play the role of the “flirtatious waiter,” but the script only calls for him to serve us wine. In between takes, he comes by and refills our glasses so that they’ll look the same in every shot. Before long, all the actresses and most of the crew are tanked. Even Dad is drinking. He launches into some convoluted back-story for my character; I’m supposed to be someone’s adopted daughter who knows that someone else is having an affair with the sheriff. It’s too hard to follow, and makes me giggle. As we practice ordering our lunches and talking about the dead cat, Dad’s third actress applies make-up, downs another glass of Zinfandel and hollers at passers-by, “the restaurant’s closed, but you can come watch us shoot a movie over here!”
Some people do wander up to watch. It’s East Texas, after all; people aren’t used to having film crews of any size invade their town. The ambulance scene attracts particular attention, as real EMS technicians repeatedly strap an actress onto a stretcher and shove her into the back of an ambulance, then take her out again. This really freaks out the folks across the street at the Golden Corral.
For my part, I contradict my dad constantly, even when I try hard to keep my mouth shut. On breaks, I grab the Canon and shoot pick-ups and extra little shots I’m convinced he needs. Since he keeps forgetting to turn off the camera, I’m caught on tape a few times looking and sounding, well, pretty damned bossy. Oops. Will have to work on that, I guess–or else learn to hide it better.
SATURDAY, 8:00 P.M.
At the end of a long day of shooting, frazzled and slightly dazed from an afternoon’s worth of cheap booze, we go back to the restaurant to watch video clips from the shoot on the bar TV. To my surprise, my high school best friend shows up. It’s been years since we’ve talked, years since we both high-tailed it out of the Piney Woods in her Toyota Tercel that couldn’t get us to Austin fast enough. She and her husband recently moved back down to Texas from Michigan; he hates it here, but they’re trying to make it work. The surreal thing is that while we’re talking and catching up, we’re surrounded by SFA frat guys watching images of me on big-screen television, shrieking about an imaginary dead cat.
I have to admit that the footage looks better than I expected, better than most film students’ first efforts. And Dad admits that some of the extra shots I took will be very helpful, if he ever decides to actually edit the film. We stay at the bar for hours, until Uncle Kenton, still throwing ’em back, convinces my little brother to drive him to the Wal-Mart parking lot to trawl for women. Time to call it a night.
SUNDAY, 10:00 A.M.
The next morning, Graham and I eat biscuits and bacon at my grandmother’s house, hug everyone good-bye and set out for Austin. We’re going pretty fast; it’s a relief to be heading home, and not to be driving on a go-cart tire anymore. However, just as we’re blowing through Madisonville, Texas, yet another traffic incident occurs.
“Yes sir, we’re from Austin,” Graham tells the DPS officer, as I slouch down in the passenger seat with a sigh.
The cop grins. “Yeah,” he says cheerfully. “Figured that, with the Green Party sticker.”
He writes a ticket and I begin to calculate that my dad’s film has cost us a new rear tire, a night in a roach motel, and now a defensive driving course. At what price, his artistic expression? All I can think is that the next time he calls me asking for help on some crazy project, I’m going to ask for better insurance.
Tasca Shadix is planning a feature film in which her father will play a sweet, old Texas guy.