Week 1

Monday, April 4, 1988

The official start of pre-production on Life on the Edge

…although the story of Life on the Edge actually started long before April 4th.

It might have been nine months earlier (appropriately), when Tom Burman and I wrote the first draft of the script; or it might have been seven years ago, when I first met my eventual collaborator.

In 1981, I was living in Los Angeles, working off and on in the film industry, and dating an actor who had just been cast in the lead in a new horror film for which the Burman Studio had been brought in to provide the special make-up effects (including transforming my boyfriend into a six-and-a-half-foot tall, two-legged bug who indulged in casual rape). As a former special effects technician myself (albeit in the area of miniature making) and a still photographer, I seized the opportunity of covering the entire make-up effects creation process on film. Tom Burman, whom I had long admired for his make-up contributions to such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Demon Seed and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was impressed enough with my background and photographic work to later hire me to work as a special make-up effects sculptor and lab technician. I may have given up on the actor boyfriend not long thereafter, but Tom and I remained fast friends.

Although I had given Tom a screenplay, Far Thought, to read when we first met in 1981, it wasn’t until 1984, when he read a script I had co-written entitled Hell to Pay that he realized I may have been the collaborator he’d been looking for. Tom had felt for some time that his real interest in the film industry was actually in directing, and although he had some very definite ideas of the kinds of films he Tom Burman and Iwanted to make, he also recognized his own limitations as a writer (mainly his spelling – his version of our first produced script would have been called Liff on the Egd). For my part, I loved Tom’s raw ideas and thought his perceptions of human motivations were absolutely brilliant, and it wasn’t long before we’d come up with several screenplays, any of which could have marked the directorial debut of Tom Burman.

Our collaborations would usually start like this: Tom would casually mention, "You know, I’ve always wanted to do the ultimate ________ make-ups." One time the blank was filled with "gargoyle", another time with "carnival sideshow performers". Two weeks later (I work fast), I’d come back with a first draft script, which we’d then polish per Tom’s rewrites and suggestions, until we had a draft we felt was ready to sell.

When the blank was filled with "gargoyle", the script ended up being called Stone Cold Alive. It was a bizarre horror fantasy about a neurotic young photographer (I know what you’re thinking, and no, it was not autobiographical!) who is the only witness to an invasion of Los Angeles by living stone demons. The story was designed – we thought – to be shot cheaply, with Tom providing an enormous amount of creature effects for a relatively tiny amount of money. We created a presskit, which even included a minute-and-a-half of film that we put together out of favors, and we began shopping it around.

Well, we thought it was cheap…but couldn’t seem to convince anyone else. Although the script was invariably well received ("It’s your fault I couldn’t goddamn sleep last night," was not an unusual reaction), it was also invariably turned down when they realized we were serious about our script, our budget and our director. Even though we believed we could make Stone Cold Alive for about four million, no one was willing to give that amount of money to an untested director, despite Tom’s twentysomething years of experience in the film business.

So we did the obvious: Got pissed off and decided to try again (here’s a sure-fire trick for any new writer out there: When you get a rejection, get really mad and turn that to creative energy. Works for me).

Sometime in the summer of ’87, I hit Tom with three different ideas for low budget films; the only things all three had in common were that they all had next-to-no expensive exterior locations, small casts, no opticals and lots of make-up effects. I also felt we should make our story as wild and unusual as possible, to make it stand out from the plethora of low budget slashers and teen comedies, and yet have some of the more commercial elements of those genres. Tom read over the proposals, and (wisely, in retrospect) selected the one which was a parody of 50’s sitcom families. (Don’t ask what the other two were; suffice to say that Tom picked the sanest). Tom added some more of his now infamous, "You know, I’ve always wanted to do…" lines, and on July 10, 1987, I delivered the first draft of Life on the Edge.

That original script differed radically from what Life on the Edge would finally become. Rather than poking fun just at the 50’s sitcom mystique, the early draft attempted a sort of pastiche parody of the last four decades. The first half of the script was what we eventually expanded to the entire film; the second half followed the two teens, Bud and Cindy, to their party, and became a mondo-weirdo take-off on 80’s teen exploitation comedies, with a dash of 60’s drug culture thrown in for fun (okay, so it was really on three of the last four decades – there was nothing the in 70’s worth satirizing).

It was while we were wrestling with the second draft that I finally showed Tom the film which had indirectly inspired my part of Life on the Edge, and would now do the same for Tom: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Blue Velvet was the film that had proven to me that you could lay your subconscious bare on film and give it a structure, a concept Tom now plugged into as well. Within a few days Tom gave our story the linear drive it needed by suggesting we build the relatively minor character of Crabneck, the boss, into the full-fledged nightmare he became. We totally excised the teen party, emphasized Crabneck and his ‘sleaze appeal’, built up the Hollowhead family, and Life on the Edge as we know it was born.

Enter John Chavez. John had been a friend of mine for over ten years, and we had both moved up from San Diego to L.A. to break into the film business. As a natural salesman – John could sell you something whether you wanted it or not, and you’d still thank him for it – John’s goal was producing. By 1987, he’d had moderate success – music videos, development deals – but was still looking for that first project that could establish him. Life on the Edge was ideal. Tom and I had taken a UCLA extension course on low-budget production, and out of that had gained what we needed to know about breaking down our script, and preparing production boards and a budget. Our initial budget brought the film in at just under $350,000, a figure which obviously appealed to John, and he agreed to act as our producer in trying to sell the project.

John and I had been dealing with a new production company called Linden Productions on another project of John’s, Groundeffects, for which I had written a revised treatment. Linden, comprised of former actress and a principal behind Lorimar, Pippa Scott, and Joe Grace, an associate producer for Arnon Milchan on such films as Ridley Scott’s Legend and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, was interested in Groundeffects but didn’t necessarily think I was the right person to write the full screenplay. John originally gave them the script of Life on the Edge primarily as a writing sample for me, but it turned out to be exactly the sort of unique, low budget project they’d been searching for to inaugurate their own film production schedule. They met Tom and approved instantly, upped the budget considerably, set April 4th as the official start date, and we were off.

Even though we’d been in contract negotiations and Linden had started hiring the crew, I spent most of March in a limbo of either dazed disbelief or wondering when something would go wrong. I had been seriously trying to sell a script since 1979; Life on the Edge was my lucky number thirteenth feature, not counting another two dozen teleplays and treatments – and I had been close on most of the others, only to have something fall through. Now, not only had I sold a script, but based partly on my incessant begging and mostly on my experience in a variety of areas in the film industry1, Linden had agreed to allow me to serve as Associate Producer on the film. On March 31, I left behind my office job of four years, not so much wondering if I’d done the right thing as not being able to grasp what was going on.

That brings us up to where we started – April 4th, 1988. I walked into the Linden offices in Westwood, saw the activity all centering on my film – and I knew it was real this time.

I spend the first day at Linden undergoing a sort of mental Benz as I try to get pressurized to what’s going on. I leave, deciding I could learn to like this.

An early production meeting.

Tuesday, April 5 – Friday, April 8

Most of the rest of this first week is spent getting to know the principals of the project:

Besides the afore-mentioned Pippa Scott, Joe Grace and John Chavez, add Neil Lundell, an experienced producer of low-budget films who will serve as our line producer-slash-unit production manager; Marvin Rush2, our wonderfully-talented director of photography who we chose on the basis of his work on the television show Frank’s Place; Ed Eyth3, a brilliant young artist who has signed on as Production Designer; and Meg Liberman, Marc Hirshfeld and Irene Cagen, who will handle our casting.

By Wednesday I’m out of Linden’s hair and firmly installed in the Burman Studio, since it has been decided that my chief job will be to supervise all our various special effects.

Activity starts gearing up.

Saturday, April 9

The major event today is an art department meeting, in which those intimately involved with the look of the film all meet to discuss it. Ed Eyth shows up with yet another stack of eye-popping drawings – at this point he’s designed most of the rooms of the house, worked out dimensions, and is now designing several glass paintings he’d like to try for the film. The glass paintings will prove to be a major topic of conversation during weeks to come. Marvin has never shot one, and Ed has never painted one, even though Ed has access to Harrison Ellenshaw, one of the great special effects matte artists. Glass paintings have always interested me as well; although the technique is not used frequently in the high-tech 80’s, it’s a useful one too often forgotten, especially by those on a limited budget (it involves image replacement in-camera, and thus no expensive optical compositing). I’m able to suggest a book, The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography, which Marvin, Ed and Tom all request to read.

The other place we keep bogging down is the sequence in the story where the two boys walk through the dark to the pumping station. The idea of the absolute black void had originally been Tom’s, and it remains probably my single favorite idea in Life on the Edge, but for some reason it seemed that initially Tom and I were the only two who could readily comprehend the concept of black nothingness. Even though the sequence contained the most detailed scene descriptions of any in the script, it was amazing what people came away seeing there (but then this script had always been fascinating in the unpredictable – and extreme – responses it often provoked). The renowned film designer Ron Cobb, who would have loved to design Life on the Edge but was unfortunately committed to another film already, saw the boys walking through a whole community, the light from their lantern revealing meters, mailmen, even housewives chatting together over back fences. Ed Eyth, when first brought aboard, rendered the boys’ approach to the pumping station from the outside as a floating industrial nightmare. Most of the people at Linden, in fact, were so unable to handle the void idea that they asked Tom to storyboard the sequence in almost frame-by-frame detail.

At this current meeting, it is finally agreed that the spectacular vistas Ed has planned to create in his glass paintings will be used to show the pumping station only from the inside. That settled, our cinematographer Marvin Rush brings up another interesting problem: If our boys are walking through total blackness, lit only by the light of a small lantern they carry and punctuated by occasional glimpses into lit interiors, how will he light the boys? We discuss everything from draping an entire stage with black cloth to having the boys walk a stationary treadmill. We wrap the meeting still uncertain on this point.

Unused toad prototype

Sunday, April 10

Tom and I meet at the Burman Studio at 7:00 a.m. to embark on an expedition of – remember, you read it here first – toad-hunting. Tom’s had this idea for some time (oh no, not another idea) that for the sequence in which Miriam prepares a snack for the boys consisting partially of some small living creature, he would actually make up live toads. Meaning he would get real toads, take a cast of one, sculpt a tiny "frog suit" from the cast, and then actually put the suits on live toads. Sounds real simple, right? First we needed our amphibious performers.

Actually, we already had one we’d captured several weeks earlier on a similar trip. Tom, who had grown up in the San Fernando Valley, knew of some marshy areas in the northern valley which had once been the hot toad hangouts. We had taken his truck and four-wheeled around in the boonies for about two hours before finding an honest-to-goodness stream teeming with fist-sized toads. We’d captured two (one later escaped) and gone back to the studio, anxious to take the cast. The casting process consisted of holding a toad victim immobile in a fast-setting material called alginate, a procedure which takes no more than seven or eight minutes total and doubtless caused Tom and I considerably more discomfort than the toad; at one point, when the little guy uttered a pathetic squeak, Tom looked up ashen and declared, "This is the worst thing I’ve ever done to another living creature!"The toad was fine 4 – after the squeak he seemed to enjoy it, in fact – but the resulting plaster cast looked like…well, a toad with fingers sticking out of it. Not quite the look we were after.

Now, several weeks later, we were venturing forth again to acquire an additional five toads, for a total of six we could dress for the film. We found our little stream again –

- or what remained of it. We’d had several weeks of hot weather, and both stream and toads had vanished. On this toad-hunt we got skunked, vowing to try another location soon.

That evening, Tom, wife Bari, John Chavez, his girlfriend Julie and I finally indulge in our overdue celebratory dinner. Tom and Bari have chosen the Chinese restaurant with undoubtedly the best fortune cookies: John the producer actually gets the one about "great wealth coming", but mine beats ‘em all:

"Something unusual will happen tomorrow."

Some fortune cookie. Tell me something I don’t know.


1. Oh yeah, and there was the fact that I worked dirt-cheap. I made less for all my work on Life on the Edge than...well, let's just say I'm still paying off the credit cards I lived on for this year.

2. & 3. Marvin Rush went on to be the Director of Photography on nearly all of the Star Trek series of the 90's and 2000's; Ed Eyth is now a chief designer for The Henson Company.

4. I feel I should reassure my readers at this point - Tom and I are both huge animal lovers. Our toads got the best care possible during the duration of the film (see Week 7), and they were happily and healthily released back into their wild homes after we wrapped. I like to think their grandchildren are still passing those stories around...

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