In the spring of 1991, with no experience, equipment, budget, crew, or Hollywood connections, I decided to create my own TV series.
Not a YouTube series. Because back then, the Internet was still a Ms. Pac-Man-esque dial-up bulletin board. No. This was a cable TV series. On the local public access channel. Which was basically the YouTube of the ‘90s.
I created a body of work shooting on a Panasonic S-VHS camcorder. And they actually showed my glitch-filled content on real TV. My weekly series was called Heart Attack Theatre. It was crude and lewd, yet somehow wholesome. I aimed for a classy suspense anthology like Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Instead, I ended up with a John Waters-esque shock-a-thon, which, looking back, was a more satisfying achievement.
But public access TV didn't have a hit counter. Or Nielsen ratings even. We weren't sure if anyone actually watched our shows. The only time I knew if someone had watched one of my episodes was when an actor told me they were walking down the street and a stranger came up to them and said, "Hey! Didn't you give birth to a giant snake on that weird TV show?"
In Seattle, we were lucky to have theaters that showed lots of indie and foreign films, and back in the ‘80s, I saw lots of those. But we were really lucky because we also had some funky video rental stores in town. One of the best was called Video Vertigo. They had all the early John Waters films, plus weird b-movies, obscure cult films, zero-budget horror, and whacked out documentaries. If you watch enough of those, it ruins you for mainstream movies. So, by the time I made Heart Attack Theatre, my taste level was already in the gutter.
In 1991, I worked a mind-numbing office job. I thought I would go nuts if I didn’t do something creative. I’d heard about this thing called public access TV (although I’d never watched it because I didn’t have cable TV myself). But I learned that the cable TV company was required by law to let citizens put shows on one of their cable channels. For free.
If you didn’t have any equipment, the public access station would even loan you a video camera, and let you use their editing facilities. I had my own equipment because I’d recently filmed a cross-country bicycle trip for someone and had access to the Panasonic S-VHS camcorder we’d used for that.
Super-VHS was all analog. I shot and edited without a computer in sight. When I wanted to do an edit, I would have to search for my clips on two-hour tapes, rewinding and fast-forwarding until I found them. I couldn’t afford a second video deck for editing, so I used the camcorder as the playback deck during editing, recording the “master” on the single video deck. This process was not only time-consuming, especially by today’s laptop editing standards, but it also added a lot of wear and tear to my camera. Analog cameras had motors and other moving parts. Sometimes the video deck would start eating your tape and it would get all crinkled and ruined. I lived in constant fear of this.
Signing up for airtime was easy. One day during my lunch hour, I took a bus to the public access station and filled out some paperwork. But when I got to the part where I had to list a title and describe what my show was about, I drew a blank. What was I going to create?
I liked the anthology shows such as Night Gallery and The Outer Limits. So that seemed like a good format. As for a name, I remembered the TV shows I watched as a kid. They were basically repackaged old movies with perky titles: Jungle Theater (old Tarzan movies), Shirley Temple Theater (old Shirley Temple movies…duh!)…you get the picture. So I knew I wanted something with Theaterin the title, except I wanted to spell it Theatre because that seemed classy. I don’t know where I came up with Heart Attack, but once it all came together as Heart Attack Theatre, I knew I had to live up to that name by creating gut-wrenching stories with nail-biting suspense. Horror. Action. Comedy. Suspense. Every week I would create a mini low-budget exploitation film. A thirty-minute drive-in movie you could watch from the comfort of your own home.
Confident in my ambitious TV concept, I turned in my application. I was immediately crushed, however, when the receptionist told me I’d missed the deadline for the upcoming season, and that I would have to wait nearly six months for the next one. Even then, there was no guarantee I would get a time slot for my show.
Returning to work was a reminder of how bleak life would be without my own TV show. Why did I even try? Maybe it was a silly idea to begin with.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
A few days later, I got a call from the station. Another show creator had backed out, and they offered me a time slot: Fridays at 10PM. Prime time! I pounced on it.
But now I had a new dilemma. I had to give the station a finished show in less than a week. And to keep the time slot, I had to provide a new half-hour episode every Friday for the next five months. I told them I could do it. But could I?
I was a fast writer, so I could churn out a script in a day or two (and sometimes even in a few hours before the cast arrived for shooting.)
But I also needed actors. Hmmm. Let’s rewind to 1989…
I made my first video short in 1989ish. On a VHS home video camera, I filmed my niece and her friend in a cemetery. We took advantage of the spooky statues, and I gave my niece and her friend spooky dialogue, making it up as we went along, giving them each one line at a time.
We had a jump scare. Literally. At one point, my niece jumped out from behind a statue and screamed at her friend, and her friend reeled back in mock surprise.
We shot it all in bright daylight, so we didn’t achieve the creepy atmosphere I wanted. I did get all the footage in about an hour, though, so I was happy with our efficiency. Since all the editing was done in-camera, all I had to do when I got home was add some creepy music to it.
MY CHILD MASSACRE
The year before, I’d taken my niece to the theater to see Child’s Play. I think it influenced her to make her own killer doll movie. So, with her friend from the cemetery short, she made a film called My Child Massacre.
My Child dolls were basically a Cabbage Patch Kid knock-off. Between the two of them, my niece and her friend owned several. In their movie, the My Child dolls were vicious killers.
The plot was simple: A mother leaves her daughter at home with a babysitter, and all the My Child dolls in the house come to life and savagely attack everyone.
My favorite effect was when my niece stepped into some shrubs, and her friend quickly strapped the dolls onto my niece so that when she stepped away from the shrubs, it made it look like the dolls had jumped onto my niece and were attacking her. It was surprisingly well-executed. And I thought my niece and her friend were geniuses for thinking up such a clever special effect.
I also liked how they each played multiple roles, and even recorded an original soundtrack on a Casio keyboard. This was right around the time they had formed a band with another friend, seemingly influenced by both the Beatles and Josie and the Pussycats. The band had only one gig, playing Eight Days a Week at my sister’s wedding reception.
The goal of all my future filmmaking would be to capture the purity of the shrub attack scene in My Child Massacre. Despite its lack of budget, it packed a cinematic punch. It was fun, kind of scary, and it didn’t take itself too seriously. So, forget Hitchcock and Scorcese. My early filmmaking idol was my thirteen-year-old niece. Her work dazzled the senses.
I made my first experimental short, Reverberations, in 1990.
In it, my friend Cathy plays a mysterious young woman who sits alone at night, expressionless, creating a haunting melody, harshly plucking the strings of a ukulele (evoking the weird mood of the dude sitting next to the window in Eraserhead?)
At one point, Cathy stops abruptly, walks into the bathroom, and looks at her harshly lit face in the mirror. Then she goes into the kitchen and opens the fridge and looks at a tray of ice cubes. The ice cube tray is slightly out of focus. Cathy then goes back to her chair in the living room and continues to play the ukulele as the camera pans to the window and we hear a primal scream.
In the next segment, Cathy sits at a small table. Religious-looking candles flicker. They illuminate a fake baked chicken. Cathy writes on a yellow legal pad and recites a poem in voice-over:
You are there
But you are not
You give me what I need
Give me…what I need!
Joanie loves Chachi
But nobody loves me
There’s more, but that’s the Beat Poetry gist of it.
In the final segment, Cathy walks down to the water, lights a candle, and rows a boat out to sea. I can’t remember if she rows back, but I do remember the final shot of a man standing by the water holding the fake chicken.
The first time I almost killed someone during a film shoot was during the production of Snake.
I shot Snake about a year after the cemetery video, a few months after Reverberations. It was another starring vehicle for Cathy.
In Snake, a man marries a woman who appears on his doorstep, and they enjoy a blissful life until a woman from the Immigration Department arrives and the wife flees. The immigration official, played by Cathy, stays to interrogate the husband. Cathy’s character reveals she is an Egyptologist, and she eventually brings the husband up to the rooftop and ties him to an antenna. She performs a ceremony which causes the husband to become possessed by a snake spirit, and then she chokes him to death.
Warren, a friend from broadcasting school, played the husband. And even though it’s possible that he could have been killed if lightning had struck the antenna while he’d been tied to it, he was not the near-death experience on this shoot. It was Kris, the actress who played his wife.
Kris was the wife of the brother of Lisa (another friend from high school like Cathy.) Kris took direction well. So, when I wanted her to climb up the fire escape to the roof of the three-story co-op apartment building I lived in, she did so without hesitation.
Despite her tight mini dress and pumps, Kris was surprisingly agile. It wasn’t until she got to the upper part, where the fire escape turns into a tiny metal ladder bolted to the side of the building, that I grew concerned.
From where I stood with my camera, far away to get a wide shot to capture the entire building, it didn’t seem like such a deep plunge onto the concrete below. But afterward, when I walked over to the building and looked straight up to the tiny service ladder three-stories above, I was thankful for Kris’ firm grasp, thankful that one of her heels hadn’t got caught in a rung, and that she didn’t fall and land on her head.
While I was filming the scene, I shouted out to Kris to not go any higher. But the noise from wind, traffic, and a plane flying overhead made it impossible for her to hear me. So when she saw me waving my arms in the air, she probably thought I was encouraging her to go higher.
To finish the scene on the roof, I went inside the building and walked up a private staircase from the third-floor hallway. I had access to a key that opened the door to the roof (although a year later, that privilege would be taken away from me by the co-op board.) I joined Kris on the roof, and we did a shot where Kris grabs the antenna and screams and/or gets electrocuted.
At that time, I was happy we got such thrilling shots for our opening scene, but I made a mental note to not put my actors (or innocent bystanders) in mortal danger anymore. Over the years, I have somewhat succeeded.
TRISH MUST KILL!
After the success of Snake(and by success, I mean the fact that none of the cast died during filming), I was ready to cut my teeth on a feature-length project. I knew it would star Cathy. And I knew it would have a thrilling title.
I made Trish Must Kill! a couple years before Reservoir Dogs, and more than a decade before Tarantino made Kill Bill. So, putting Kill plus a character’s name in the title wasn’t yet in vogue. And although the title Kill Billgets points for brevity and rhyme, Trish Must Kill! creates more of a knuckle-biting sense of urgency. (I was probably more inspired by the title Die! Die! My Darling! Which ripped off Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Which was inspired by Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? But this way, I get to look cool by referencing Tarantino.)
The bloodbath doesn’t happen until about ten minutes before the end of the movie. And even then, Trish kills maybe one person, if even that. I can’t remember. And I don’t even think there was any blood.
But, in the spirit of use-what-you-have filmmaking, we got footage in and around the University of Washington. I videotaped Cathy/Trish:
Kicking a mailbox
Glaring at a fire hydrant
Chasing a squirrel around the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture.
Unfortunately, the culture didn’t rub off on us.
I also took footage of Cathy running down the steps of Denny Hall, where, several years earlier, I’d taken a Comparative Literature class and was forced to read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and write a paper about it. I used the footage in slow motion with sinister classical music in the background to show Trish’s demonic possession. In my mind, it was like a scene from The Omen. To students walking by, it just looked like a nervous co-ed who was late to class.
I contemplated a sequel (Trish Must Die!) but never made it. I did write a theme song for it, though. Imagine it set to a rousing military march:
For the sake of mankind!
Trish must die!
The girlie wants blood,
But her name is mud!
Trish is a dangerous dish!
If Trish Must Kill! had ever played on network TV, this is how it would have been listed in TV Guide:
After an anthropologist digs up an ancient necklace and gives it to his daughter Trish, Trish becomes possessed by an evil spirit and starts doing goofy things.
Again, the odd thing about Trish Must Kill! is that Trish doesn’t really harm anyone. I think it’s because even though I seem to enjoy putting my actors in real danger, at that time, I didn’t like doing horrible things to my characters. That eventually changed, but back then, my horror was more at a Goosebumps level.
We shot our one genuinely scary scene in the back alley beneath the fire escape from Snake. This was my first night shoot. In the scene, two punk rockers walk down the alley, goof off, then hear a sound coming from a dumpster. One of them jumps into the dumpster then acts like he’s being attacked. His girlfriend thinks he’s faking it, but when she looks into the dumpster, her boyfriend has disappeared. This freaks her out, so she runs away.
We also filmed a restaurant scene in my living room. It looked nothing like a restaurant, but my actors still played it with a straight face.
At one point in the story, Trish sees a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist’s office, like the restaurant, was filmed in my living room, but from a slightly different angle.
The older woman who played the psychiatrist was a student from a theater class I’d recently taught through the YMCA. She was the worst student in the class, yet the only one I stayed in touch with. She couldn’t remember her lines, and, in every scene, she would constantly look at the camera for reassurance, ruining half the shots. But Mary had a certain spark, an unpredictable energy that suited my work. The hard part was keeping her from fleeing the set.
“Kelly. Kelly! I can’t do this! I wanna go home!”
“You’re doing fine, Mary.”
“Why do you hate me, Kelly?”
“I don’t hate you, Mary. Now let’s move it along. We have two more scenes to shoot.”
A few years later, Mary wrote a book about her cat and illustrated it with Magic Markers and got it published.
So, for my first episode of Heart Attack Theatre, I cast my niece, fresh from her My Child Massacretriumph, as well as two women from my office who had no acting experience whatsoever.
That first episode was called Morocco. I can’t remember much about it. I think my niece played a young woman who had traveled to Morocco with her father (shades of Trish Must Kill?) The father was missing, and my niece’s character encounters a ghost or something.
We shot most of Morocco in my apartment, but we did shoot a flashback scene outside. We found a patch of tall dry grass somewhere, probably at a public park. It was the closest thing we could find to represent a Moroccan landscape. Or at least how we envisioned Morocco since none of us had actually been there, and we couldn’t Google photos for reference because Google hadn’t been invented yet. And it was hard not to get Pacific Northwest-esque evergreen trees in the shot. But the clock was ticking, so we got our footage, as imperfect as I’m sure it was. At least the actress was good in the scene.
Things seemed to be working out, and I was confident I’d get the first episode turned in to the station on time. But we still had to shoot the ghost scene. And that’s when we had our first on-set meltdown.
I had been shooting the ill-fated Trish Must Kill 2 (aka Trish Must Die!), and I had cast an actress to play a new character in it. We’ll refer to her as The Antiques Lady.
I’d already shot two scenes with The Antiques Lady, both involving airplanes. In the first shot, I made my living room (unsuccessfully) look like the interior of a Boeing 747. The Antiques Lady, Cathy (Trish), and another actress sat together on folding chairs. I scotch-taped a white piece of paper (crudely cut into an oval shape) onto the wall to suggest an airplane window.
In the second shots, we showed the after effects of the plane crash.
INT. AIRPLANE – DAY
The airplane hits a bad patch of turbulence, and the three women brace themselves for disaster.
The airplane nosedives.
All hell breaks loose.
EXT. PUBLIC PARK – DAY
The three women fall out of the sky, land on top of a hill, then roll down the hill screaming.
At the bottom of the hill, they gather themselves. They are surprisingly unscathed.
During this time, I was also developing a TV show with The Antiques Lady (who was also an antiques dealer in real life, thus her nickname.) I thought her eclectic personality would be great as host of a show talking about collecting old things. This was well before the onslaught of reality TV, and even eight years before the American version of Antiques Roadshow started airing. Who knows? It could have been a contender.
But those hopes were dashed on the set of Morocco when The Antiques Lady grabbed my camera and threatened to throw it in a bathtub full of water after going into a bipolar fit. I should have paid more attention earlier when she claimed that literally everyone she encountered in the antiques community was out to destroy her, and that even the police were in on an elaborate conspiracy to take her down.
It didn’t help that just before this I’d given one of my actors red flakes to put around their eyes for a spooky effect, not realizing they were red hot chili pepper flakes, and that the actor was now feeling the effects.
So, The Antiques Lady is standing over the tub with my camera, and the red eye actor is standing nearby, and I don’t know who’s eyes are more disturbing: the ones inflamed with red hot chili peppers, or the ones glowing with dissociative rage.
This was the moment when I realized I better learn how to solve (and prevent) problems on set, or else this filmmaking thing just wasn’t going to happen.
I somehow talked The Antiques Lady off the ledge (figuratively), got my camera back, and rinsed the actor’s eyes out until they didn’t feel like burning fire. And I somehow got enough footage to put my episode together.
But the experience with The Antiques Lady was so unsettling, I erased all the footage I’d taken of her for Trish Must Kill 2.
It was like that scene in The Ten Commandments:
“Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet. Stricken from every pylon and obelisk of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of man, for all time.”
That’s how I felt about The Antiques Lady. For my own sanity, every trace of her had to be stricken from my life. She messed with my camera.
Naturally, I didn’t make the antiques TV show pilot with her. It’s hard to do stuff like that when you go No Contact. But I do remember fondly our lunch at the Greek restaurant on “The Ave” in the University District when we had dreamed a big television dream together. I funneled that inspiration into Heart Attack Theatre.
The Antiques Lady taught me that quirkycan quickly veer off into uncharted territory. But that even if things go off the rails, the show must still go on. And just because you write whacked out stuff, it doesn’t mean you have to cast whacked out people to bring it to life. You’re not filming a documentary.
I do wish, though, that I could see those Trish Must Kill 2 airplane scenes again. And the dream sequence in the laundry room with the Snuggles fabric softener bear hand puppet. It was pretty dope.
While making Morocco, I realized I needed to find more actors pronto!
But we didn’t have Craigslist back then. So I put a casting notice in one of the local newspapers. Casting calls only came out in the Friday edition. And you had to submit them about five days in advance. In writing. Through the mail.
When the casting call finally came out, I was excited, but I had no idea whether anyone would even answer it. I wasn’t a Hollywood production company. Would anyone take this seriously?
In the casting notice, I used my home telephone number. I had an answering machine which recorded messages on a miniature audio cassette. But when I came home from work that day, I wondered if there would be any responses.
Entering my apartment, I didn’t bother to take off my coat. I rushed to the answering machine to see if I’d received any messages. The red digital counter blinked. I had over sixty messages.
I grabbed a pen and a pad of paper, pressed PLAY, and wrote down every potential actor’s name and phone number. The last message cut off in mid-sentence because it was at the end of the cassette. The responses had max’d out my message machine.
I called the actors back immediately and started scheduling auditions for the next day.
It never occurred to me to rent an audition space. Why waste money on that? But in retrospect, it did seem a bit strange to invite dozens of unvetted strangers into my home to read one-minute monologues and talk about all the ways I wanted to kill them on camera. It’s a toss-up who should have been more afraid… me or them?
My living room sort of evoked a rehearsal studio: hardwood floor, two folding chairs, a picture window with no curtains. It felt light and airy, if not safe and nurturing.
I scheduled actors at ten-minute intervals. At the tail-end of each audition, I’d hear my intercom, and I’d buzz the next actor into the building, and have them come upstairs and wait outside in the hallway until I was done with the current audition. This allowed me to see about thirty actors that first day, and about twenty more the day after.
When you audition actors, it’s easy for everyone to blur together. So you have to take extensive notes. There’s nothing worse than looking at a stack of headshots at the end of the day and not being able to remember specific details about anyone.
During auditions, I would jot down notes such as:
Good sense of humor
Can cry on cue
But the biggest thing I looked for in an actor was their ability to simply show up, and to show up on time. If they were able to do that, they had a good chance of being cast. With my tight weekly schedule, I needed people I could depend on.
Spare Me Your Judgment, Your Attitudes
The other thing I looked for was a willingness to act in a trashy low-budget production.
At first, I assumed all the actors would be thrilled to appear in my mini-exploitation films. But some of them thought it was beneath them. Even though I described what they were getting into, I think once they arrived on set and saw that I was writer, director, cameraman, sound guy, lighting, wardrobe, prop master, special effects, and every other non-acting role, actors must have thought:
“What the hell did I get myself into?”
My set didn’t resemble even a low-budget indie film set. It was just me and a camcorder. I could have argued that I was going for a John Cassavetes cinéma vérité style, but even the amateurs would have called bullshit on that. We were Ed Wood all the way.
I did hit a sweet spot with a handful of actors, though. They not only enjoyed appearing in my over-the-top frolics, but they could also act! And if they couldn’t act, they at least had amazing screen presence.
So each time I cast an actor to be on Heart Attack Theatre, that episode was their true audition. And if I could tell that they enjoyed the material, and that they were easy to work with, I’d usually cast them in more episodes.
The tough part was when you would get a good actor, but you could tell they hated being there the minute they walked on set (which was usually my apartment.) They didn’t get the humor in the script. They didn’t realize we weren’t totally deluded. They seemed pissed that we didn’t have professional lighting, or lots of production assistants running around. Or any food. They realized quickly this would not be a stepping stone to Hollywood. This credit would not end up on their résumé.
This made me appreciate my faithful amateurs even more. And helped me develop a casting philosophy along the lines of:
Have the classically trained actors play the pimps and drug dealers and have the inexperienced character actors play the lawyers and the nuclear physicists.
Eventually, I rented a private mailbox where actors could send me their headshots and résumés. Local talent agencies soon discovered me and started sending me pics of their clients. Didn’t they realize I was a one-man public access TV production?
One agency seemed to deal exclusively with bleach blonde former cheerleader types. In their headshots, they all posed in bikinis on the hood of the exact same Corvette Stingray. Some of these ladies looked fun, and I thought about casting them. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this agency was a front for a prostitution ring, and I couldn’t risk interrupting our shoots with an FBI raid. So I mainly used unsigned talent.