INERTIA: RE-MAKING THE CROW

"Imagine that you’ve spent nearly five years creating an ultra-low-budget, non-profit screen-adaptation of a comic book that has already been brought to life by craftsmen far more skilled and prominent than you. Imagine that, despite copyright restrictions and legal red tape, fans of this book have sought out and proliferated the few copies of your unauthorized work in existence, praising it as “innovative, raw, and poetic.” Imagine that, inspired by its acceptance, you spent another three years crafting a documentary that chronicled your experience making said movie. Finally, imagine that this documentary has been accepted to a film festival in New York City and that you have spent hundreds of dollars that you couldn’t afford to see your efforts projected on the big screen…"

 

So begins the "Bright Lights, Big Screen" essay I wrote for the July 2002 WCTV CLOSE-UP newsletter and the long-since retired (and sorely missed) "A Boy and His Bird" Crow fansite. You can read the rest of that account below, but first I'd like to share a little history on the project.

 

Back in November 1995 during the post-cast-screening interviews for what we then thought was the finished version of James O'Barr's The Crow, I was asked what my next project would be. Without hesitation, I replied, "this." The "this" I was referring to was making something out of the 30-some-hours of behind the scenes footage my friend and filmmaking partner Matt Jackson had recorded of us as we struggled to adapt The Crow graphic novel to home video. 

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It was trickier than I thought to create a making-of documentary in which I was one of the main characters, and I never really got anywhere with it on my own.

As you can see in the closing moments of the trailer above, I finally finished editing our revised and expanded adaptation after-hours at Wadsworth Community Television in 1998. During the year I was doing that, I caught the attention of a few local talk show hosts and ended up sitting for a handful of interviews about the project. One of these chats turned into a 30-minute program I fleshed out with b-roll photos and clip cutaways, called "Inertia: A Conversation on The Crow." Should he ever read this, shout out to Gary Fox for having that talk on camera with me no less than four times!

Another filmmaker and WCTV regular named Charles Bailey also expressed an interest in our adaptation. Charles was both a fan of The Crow and interested in our story as budding filmmakers. He proposed a project eventually called "The Crow: Dust and Bones." 

The idea with "Dust & Bones" was to use our indie adaptation as a means through which to explore the larger phenomenon of The Crow. By 1999 The Crow had become a cottage industry all its own.

 

The interviews he conducted with me and Matt in July and August of that year were invaluable. His familiarity with both the source material, as well as the challenges of no-budget filmmaking in Rittman, Ohio (from which he also hailed) led him to ask all the right questions. Charles also contributed cassettes of long, keyboard-based drones to underscore the narration he was writing about the history of The Crow. 

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During my downtime at the TV station, I distilled the 17 two-hour VHS tapes of behind the scenes to four tapes of footage for Charles to use in our portions of the documentary. Fast-forwarding through so much material in such a short time led to the stylistic approach of using the tape-deck mechanism as a visual depiction of the passage of time. 

Pulling together the timeline and behind the scenes footage, I noticed a narrative device already in place. Early in the tapes, Matt started "hosting" the proceedings using the pseudonym Jack Sommers, a name he always pronounced with great theatrical gusto—JACK SOMMERS! It was harder to shoot "selfies" in those days when cameras weighed a good five pounds or so, but JACK SOMMERS was up to it—and ahead of his time. He also regularly parked the camcorder on kitchen counters or bedroom dressers to deliver monologs in the JACK SOMMERS voice (which had a kind of a vaguely English-stage-actor-y vibe) while I put on my Crow makeup. 

Those monologs became the narrative scaffolding on which I built the behind the scenes footage into a two-hour "production diary" called Inertia: Behind The Scenes of James O'Barr's The Crow. The edited master SVHS tape is dated 9/25/1999. 

 

By this point, the handful of copies I'd sent of our Crow adaptation to the folks who ran fan-sites were getting glowing reviews. I even got a call from a World Of Fandom Magazine journalist giving me James O'Barr's home phone number so I could mail it to him in Allen Park, Michigan. 

 

I was also writing a press kit for the film and building a website where I could share our story and take orders for copies of the flick—and now documentaries—charging only the cost of materials and shipping. There was a gal in New Zealand whom I’d met through a Pearl Jam tape-trading list-serve helping me with the packaging design (Thank you, Juliete!). Each VHS clamshell insert and tape sticker was clearly marked with our non-profit disclaimer.

By March of 2000, the "Dust & Bones" project stalled, and Charles' attention was diverted to The Mechanics of ID. I kept working on the documentary with his blessing.

 

Looking through my heavy three-inch-binder for the Inertia Documentaries, I found the following passage describing my intended approach:

 

I'd like "Inertia" to be both an examination of how we created our movie and an exploration of the comic from which it came. Using behind the scenes footage, photographs, and interviews the documentary will illustrate the process by which two 14 yr olds successfully adapted a comic of such breadth, texture, and intensity; the challenges their limited resources presented; and the creativity used to move beyond them showing ultimately how passion can overcome adversity.

 

Also to be included, an underlying study of O'Barr's piece and a character study of the young filmmaker for whom this project became an obsession. The picture should play like Hearts of Darkness meets Looking For Richard

 

Touchstones of Shakespear and Apocalypse Now with an autobiographical character study?! No sweat. It sounded good on paper, but it was difficult to work with hours and hours of tape of my own voice.

 

I found the key to working with interviews of one's self was to transcribe them. Once I typed them out, I was able to assess things more objectively and cut-and-paste together a script, which I refined on paper for three drafts before even capturing any of the necessary footage into the studio's newly acquired non-linear editing system, The Media 100.

 

I also scaled back the scope to focus more specifically on our project. This streamlined version was meant to precede a digitally re-mastered edition of the film that would run a combined 90 minutes and be distributed through the www.jamesobarrsthecrow.bizland.com website. 

 

On May 18th, I finished "Re-Making The Crow," which you can watch on YouTube here. About a week later, I received a letter from [then] Crowvision, Inc. counsel Koethi Zan demanding I "cease and desist all activities.”

 

Needless to say, I was crestfallen. Of all the many pages and subpages I'd built for the website, the following was the only one to go live:

At the time, I was taking 16mm film workshops through the Cleveland Filmmakers program, and I did have the opportunity to screen "Re-Making The Crow" for my classmates. To my surprise, what they responded to was the story of Matt and myself growing into filmmakers over the four years it took us to complete the project. It was our tenacity and creative drive that captured their imagination, not The Crow subject matter. 

 

After licking my wounds for a while, focusing on a short-lived band called STEVE with my buddies, and enrolling in community college I resolved to make a new version of the documentary combining the talking-head exposition and perspective provided in Charles' interviews with the cinéma-vérité of the JACK SOMMERS production diary. 

 

My goal was to create a film that I could enter into film festivals. Especially after getting a taste of the gratification that comes from an audience responding positively to the work you've toiled over in solitude for years, I wanted to share my experience and connect with people through it. 

 

The result was Inertia: Re-Making The Crow, and this was how I pitched it to festivals in 2001:

 

Told through intimate behind-the-scenes footage shot by the filmmakers themselves, and featuring interviews conducted by award-winning independent film producer Charles W. Bailey, Inertia: Remaking The Crow takes an unflinching look at the creative evolution of two young men amidst their struggle to create a faithful, no-budget video adaptation of James O'Barr's acclaimed comic book series The Crow, which was also the basis for the major motion picture starring Brandon Lee.

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Even though I was careful to focus on our story and explain only enough about The Crow for an audience to understand the necessary context, I was concerned about copyright issues. Before submitting, I reached out to 45 program directors of festivals for which I thought the documentary would be a good fit to make sure there weren't any red flags.

 

I still have printed email replies from eight of those directors—even an unsigned, non-committal response from SXSW—but I don’t remember actually applying to any but The New York International Independent Film And Video Festival (NYIIFVF). Anoo Cottoor, the festival's Artistic Director, was very persistent in her encouragement to submit. 

By this point in time, I had moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and was working at UPS in the evenings and then overnight at a gas station convenience store. The morning Ms. Cottoor called me was hours after I'd been robbed at gunpoint while working the graveyard shift at Great Stops. That's a story for another time, but suffice to say I was not in a good spot—financially or otherwise.

At the time, the NYIIFVF prided itself on being "the largest Indie Film Festival in the world" and offered to screen Intertia in New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. What I had not counted on was how expensive this would all be. To pay submission fees for all three would have been $750—plus promotional packages and travel expenses! 

In researching this entry, I just re-read the paragraph on NYIIFVF from Adam Langer's 2000 revised edition of The Film Festival Guide, which was my primary resource for researching festivals:

Not as discriminating as many other festivals, this is still the only one I know that will call you three times to ask whether you're still thinking of entering your film after you have requested information about it. 

I don't think I've read that since first sending inquiries in the summer of 2001. That's exactly what I encountered, but I was so inexperienced with the festival circuit I didn't know any better. This seemed my one shot to screen the film in such a setting.

Since so much was done via those phone calls, I don't remember if they lessened the one-city-only fee for me; if I borrowed the money; or charged it to a credit card, but I entered Inertia for the New York City festival that February.  

I do remember getting word from a festival rep that folks from Miramax were interested in my film. Miramax/Dimension distributed The Crow; so while the NYIIFVF guy thought I'd be psyched about their query, I was more concerned about getting sued! 

Aside from telling you about my first flight since I was a kid and my first ride in a taxicab ever, that brings us up to where the "Bright Lights, Big Screen" recounting of our screening at the 2002 NYIIFVF experience begins.

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"Bright Lights, Big Screen"

 
Imagine that you’ve spent nearly five years creating an ultra-low-budget, non-profit screen-adaptation of a book that has already been brought to life by craftsmen far more skilled and prominent than you. Imagine that, despite copyright restrictions and legal red tape, fans of this book have sought out and proliferated the few copies of your unauthorized work in existence, praising it as “innovative, raw, and poetic.” Imagine that, inspired by its acceptance, you spent another three years crafting a documentary that chronicled your experience making said movie. Finally, imagine that this documentary has been accepted to a respected film festival in New York City and that you have spent hundreds of dollars that you couldn’t really afford to see your efforts projected on the big screen… And it has no sound!

 

New York. February 2002. Myself, my friend and partner Matt Jackson, and our guests are sitting in the second auditorium of the Sutton Theater on the corner of East 57th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan where a handful of people have gathered as part of the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival to watch our autobiographical documentary Inertia: Re-making The Crow, created at the renowned WCTV studio in Wadsworth, Ohio. A fair amount of the scant few audience members who had sat through the previous documentary short, “Upside Right—The Life of Chris Brick,” remain as the opening title screens illuminate the darkened auditorium.

Matt and I slouch down, blushing with embarrassment as we prepare to watch our own skinny, adolescent frames flicker across the silver screen for the first time. Suddenly it dawns on me: something is wrong. There should be music here! Seconds later the first scenes begin to unfold, and though the subjects’ mouths are moving, the only sound in the room is the hushed whispers of a baffled audience. The projectionists have screwed up the sound!

 

I was sure that I checked the tape at least two-dozen times before I left to make sure that it worked! I knew this had been too good to be true! The equipment had failed, and the showing would have to be canceled! Besides, even if the sound came back on, the damage had been done. No one knows what’s going on in the story! Now, the few audience members that did not leave immediately following the preceding film are exiting one by one. Matt looks to me. I look to the floor.

Suddenly, the sound returned and the embarrassment began. [Some A Boy and His Bird regulars may be familiar with our 1998 re-adaptation of the original graphic novel The Crow by James O’Barr, upon which the 1994 Miramax film starring Brandon Lee was based;] however, the few audience members left had never heard of it. Plus, they had missed the first few minutes of set-up segments, and after the opening title montage, they found themselves watching the screwball antics of two teenage boys attempting to adapt a comic book with some pretty serious themes. Sure, over the course of the movie, these two boys would grow, both into young men and into filmmakers, but these people were not about to hang on for the ride. Most left before the picture had time to get anywhere. But, empty house or no, we sat back, smiled, and watched the fruits of seven years of work dance across a movie screen in The Big Apple.

 

Did I secure wealth, fame, or a three-picture deal with Dreamworks? No, but I didn’t really expect any of those things either. Whatever I may or may not have expected from this trip, my expectations for this piece had long since been exceeded. There I sat with my best friend watching the culmination of many years of work, hundreds of miles in distance and maturity from where we began.

 

After the screening was over, we took a deep breath and filed out into the streets of New York to enjoy a wonderful weekend of sightseeing and memory-making. We ate hotdogs at crammed street corners, pizza in Greenwich Village, pasta in Little Italy, and bagels in Central Park. We rode the subway, went to record shops, Times Square, and China Town. I even bought a goofy USA stocking cap from a street vendor. I had a great time and a fabulous opportunity to see one of the most famous cities in the world while taking part in an esteemed film festival. And all of this was because of a video project I started as a fourteen-year-old kid in a small Ohio town. Projection malfunctions and indifferent audience members aside, it was a trip well worth taking and an experience that no book, class, or seminar could replicate.

 

-David Ullman

Raleigh, NC

Summer 2002
 

 

1999 Inertia interview with Charles Bailey