My friend Marty Langford has made that great leap that all film nuts hope to take one day – from being a fan to being a film maker. He and his creative partner Warren Amerman just signed a deal with Heretic Films to distribute their science fiction thriller Magdalena's Brain.
I've had the pleasure and privilege to write three stories about this accomplished low-budget production and I thought I'd post them in chronological order.
Other folks here in western Massachusetts are making movie as well, and I'll post their stories as well.
July 8, 2004
It’s in the mid-afternoon of the fourth day of shooting and the director of photography is carefully lining up and rehearsing what appears to be a simple shot. The camera is to glide through a set of computer equipment with the lead character walking in the background. One person carefully guided the dolly on which the camera is mounted while two others keep the wires attached to the camera out of the path of the dolly’s track.
After trying several variations of the camera movement, the director positions the actress, gives her instructions and quietly said, “Action!” Peering into a video monitor enclosed in black shroud, the director said that the movement is too fast, while another take it is too slow. After a few more moments, though, the desired shot – lasting only a few seconds – is achieved.
Marty Langford, producer and co-writer of Magdalena’s Brain, whispers to me, “Look at the light pouring through the window. This is going to look great.”
The crew quickly breaks down the camera and goes to an adjacent part of the set for the next shot. The continuity person makes notes to be used to match this shot with others, and the make-up artist is finishing shaving the side of actor Sanjiban Sellew’s head.
This isn’t Hollywood, but if Langford gets his wish, the Pioneer Valley will become a center for independent film production.
The set is on the third floor of Mill #2 of the Open Square complex in Holyoke and will be the hub of activity for Glowing Screen Inc. for most of the month. The fledging production company is shooting a script written by Langford and Warren Amerman. Amerman is directing and Langford is producing.
And while this is the company’s first feature film, the crew is all film production veterans. Langford, an Agawam resident, is a hardcore movie fan who went into the business. He is a producer at Veritech in East Longmeadow working on commercial and business films and he also teaches a screen-writing course at Westfield State College.
Amerman, a musician who runs the Rotary Records recording studio in East Longmeadow, has directed short films in the past. The rest of the crew has professional experience behind the camera and hails from western Massachusetts communities such as Chicopee, Springfield, Monson and Tolland.
Langford said that he and Amerman wanted to write a script that was feasible to shoot on a low budget, so they devised this dramatic story with science fiction undertones about a once promising brain surgeon who has retreated from society after an accident that nearly killed her husband.
The husband had been working on a device that transfers memories from one person to another, but something horribly gone wrong and is now bound to a wheelchair unable to communicate, except for an electronic device that he wears around his throat. She is continuing his work, though, in an abandoned factory building.
“This is a real moody piece, a dark moody piece,” said Langford.
Langford and his crew have set up shop on the un-restored third floor of the mill building. Along one wall is a make-up area and the sets are built on the opposite end. There is a lounge for the cast and crew on the next floor.
Langford said that about half of the $25,000 budget goes to rent the camera and to pay for the lead of the film, Los Angeles-based actress Amy Shelton-White. The rest of the cast and crew are donating their services or deferring their payments because they want to work on the feature. Open Square owner John Aubin has donated the use of the space.
If he had to pay for everything, Langford estimated the budget would be between $125,000 to $150,000.
“Everyone has been so cool and helpful,” said Langford.
Shelton-White came to Langford and Amerman’s attention thanks to Springfield native Mark Sikes, who has been a casting director in Los Angeles for a number of years. Langford and Amerman went through many audition tapes of actresses on both coasts before settling on Shelton-White. The actress has had numerous roles in independent films and on television productions and said that she is attracted to productions where there are “people of quality.”
Later in the week, there will be location shooting at a robotics lab at UMass, a local hospital and outdoor locations. Too much traveling can tax the resources of a low budget production, Langford noted.
Langford said the shooting schedule allows the crew to be flexible and to take their time, unlike many independent productions, which by financial necessity must rush from one camera set-up to another. Technical quality is very important to the company and the rented camera is the same model used by George Lucas to film the last two Stars Wars films.
Langford and Amerman’s immediate goal is to have the film ready in September to enter it in festival such as Sundance. They want to get the film in a number of festivals later this year and next year in order to increase its exposure and to find a suitable distributor.
“I’m confident we can get this film on the shelves,” he said as two different camera operators buzzed around the set with their own cameras shooting footage that undoubtedly could become a “making-of” feature for a DVD release.
The long-term goal, though, is to make one or two features a year and build a film making community in Western Massachusetts, explained Langford. Although mainstream films ranging from Cider House Rules to Malice to Stanley and Iris have been shot in the Valley, Langford envisions a group of local filmmakers who could provide a talent pool for each other and utilize the area’s scenic resources.
Looking at the crew work, Langford, beamed “This is what I’ve wanted to do my entire life.”
Oct. 6, 2004
Local film makers Marty Langford and Warren Amerman are now hard to work putting the finishing touches on their first feature-length film Magdelena’s Brain.
As previously reported in this newspaper, principal photography took place this summer in locations in Holyoke and Chicopee. Langford, the producer, and Amerman, the director, are now working on the final version of the film, including the musical score and final sound effects. The two men co-wrote the screenplay.
They are preparing a final version for an invitation-only premiere at the Basketball Hall of Fame theatre later this month. They are also submitting their film to several film festivals, including Sundance and Slamdance, which is their first step in marketing their production.
The team invited this reporter for an advance look at the film and for a discussion on how their first feature turned out.
The film is an under-stated but involving character study of a young woman whose husband has suffered a debilitating accident while during a medical experiment. With several significant twists and turns, this film bridges the gap between a drama and a thriller and has a science fiction undertone that plays very realistically.
Amerman’s style as a director is to eschew the kind of camera tricks and editing stunts that characterize many films today. The stylishly composed photography and the crisp editing keep the emphasis on the film’s story and performances.
Shot with the same kind of high definition digital camera used by director George Lucas for his last two Star Wars films, Magdelena’s Brain has a sharper image that many low-budget film are able to achieve.
The photography and production design doesn’t betray the tight budget – under $30,000 – and the 14-day shooting schedule. The biggest expense, Langford said with a smile was feeding the cast and crew.
“The shoot went well,” said Amerman. “Many disasters could have happened, but there were no knock-out blows.”
“We all had to wear many other hats,” said Langford. He added that his biggest job on the film was making sure that Ameran could focus on the actual shoot. In turn, Amerman said his biggest challenge was to know when to “move on” from one scene to the next.
Both men heaped praise on the film’s lead Amy Shelton-White whom they hired from Los Angeles, CA. While they said the supporting cast of local actors were fine, that Shelton-White “brought everyone else up,” said Langford.
Amerman said that she would stay in character “until she heard the word ‘cut’” even if the action in the scene was over. “She was wonderful,” he added.
In order to build a reputation for the film, Langford and Ameran are researching film festivals in order to decide which would help advance their marketing campaign. They said there are literally hundreds of festivals and the issue is to find out what significant movies have appeared in the past at which festivals.
“We both like the idea of a successful festival run,” said Langford.
Feb. 22, 2006
In a digital-editing suite at Veritech Corporation, Marty Langford is editing footage from his science fiction thriller Magdalena’s Brain. Langford isn’t working on the feature itself – he’s preparing deleted footage for the extras section of the film’s national DVD release.
Langford and his partner, Warren Amerman, recently signed an agreement with Heretic Films, a San Francisco-based distributor. Their locally produced feature should be at retail outlets such as Best Buy, Amazon.com, Sun Coast and Virgin for sale and for rent at Hollywood Video in July.
With a North American distribution deal set, the team has set their sights at exploring foreign distribution deals and domestic and foreign television sales.
Magdelena’s Brain was shot in the summer of 2004 in several locations in Hampden County, but primarily at Open Square in Holyoke. Langford produced the film and Amerman directed it. They collaborated on the script.
Starring Amy Shelton-White, the film is a story about an experiment in artificial intelligence gone terribly wrong and the toil that it takes on one woman.
Prior to the interview, Langford was working on amending the credits of the film and preparing a group of deleted scenes. The distributor had requested that Langford and Amerman produce a group of extras and Langford noted that there weren’t many scenes not used in the low-budget film.
He showed one scene in which Amerman shot two different versions with different actors. At first, the team thought the first actor was the problem in the scene; however, with the second version, they realized that the scene as written was the problem, not the performers. Langford noted that deleted scenes were not included in the final cut of a movie for a reason.
Langford and Amerman recently recorded a commentary for the film and he said it was a fast-moving experience. Neither man had seen the movie for several months and they sat in Amerman’s recording studio with a bottle of wine.
Langford said, “no one cares about me or Warren on a personal level,” so they didn’t focus their commentary on stories that would come across as self-indulgent. Instead they used the commentary track as an opportunity to share some of the lessons they learned during the shoot.
“We talked about how to work around restrictions,” Langford said. He added that the recording period sped by and they were tempted to do another track to include more information for fledgling filmmakers.
The two men found their distributor by soliciting companies that had a catalog that included films similar to theirs. They sent out a number of copies of the film and two companies expressed interest. Eventually, they signed on with Heretic.
Langford and Amerman are now considering their second feature. Langford noted that many directors break into the business with a horror film because horror fans are the “least discriminating.” As long as a director includes the story elements that please the fans, its audience can deem his or her film a success. Langford said this with a smile, as he is a fan of horror films, himself.
Their next feature will be a heist movie, a genre both men enjoy. Langford described it as “a group of everymen with no specialties who must work together.”