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September 27, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Sunlight still lingers outside, a strange occurrence when walking into the Broadway Diner. It’s Aug. 20, and at 7:45 p.m. the diner isn’t open. A cook and server are on hand to feed the cast and crew, who are here for just one reason: to make a movie,
Heat pours from the grills, fryers and long fluorescent lights. Actor Nick Renkoski slouches in a booth and makes a hammer and sickle out of jelly and jam packets. He goes over his lines while sitting with script supervisor Dan Mollenkamp. The director of photography, “Hefe” Rockwell Seebach, and gaffer Cos Proctor set the camera and lighting.
About 15 minutes pass before Todd Sklar strides in. He wears baggy jeans, a functional, plain white T-shirt and a tattered Guinness hat. A formidable beard hangs from his face.
For about an hour, the crew prepares for the reshoots of scene 36, in which John Scott (Sklar) and Nick Becker (Renkoski) talk about what losers they’ve become. The waitress, played by Emily Page, attempts to cheer up the self-pitying pair.
As director, writer and actor, Sklar multi-tasks.
He reads through his lines with the other actors.
“Whatever you do, go natural,” he says, talking about the script. “Go natural. We are not stuck to this.”
He checks the camera angle.
“Oh my God, do I love that shot.”
He takes a step back from himself and his coffee.
“I just want to say, I love making movies, guys. I love you guys. Isn’t this great?”
Quiet falls over the group until Page finally pipes up.
By 9:15 p.m., take one is in the bag.
It was the first day of reshooting Box Elder, the project Sklar, 23, began in December 2006. He’s on his third production team, which at the beginning of August decided that all but four scenes needed to be reshot. The reshoots took place in Columbia between Aug. 20 and Sept. 11. The cast and crew had two days off and two half days. There have been a handful of films shot under 20 days, but Sklar says they’re probably the first to never have a day go for more than 12 hours. The reshoots had to be quick to accommodate everyone’s schedules. Many had committed to other projects and sacrificed their free time for the film. Actor Hina Abdullah had to leave three days earlier than originally planned to start work on a show for the CW network. Seebach was starting a feature in Hollywood three days after the wrap. And Sklar had to start work on a pilot for the Fox network.
Sklar is part of a new wave of regional indie-auteurs, placing him among filmmakers including James Ponsoldt, Peter Craig, Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg. This is a time when backyard filmmaking is finding itself again. Cost-cutting technology such as the Cine Brevis 35-mm lens adapter, which Sklar bought in prototype form, allows filmmakers to use interchangeable film lenses. Together with an HD format, this makes for a more filmic look. Truly independent films no longer have to look like some NYU film student’s project; they can look like real movies, Sklar says.
The technology coupled with the new philosophy of platform distribution (Chris Anderson’s concept from his book The Long Tail that a film is best promoted through tactics such as niche marketing) has further rejuvenated the independent film medium. Sklar’s work with event planning in college and his experience on Four Eyed Monsters, one of the first films to help change the way movies are distributed, honed his skills to effectively use press releases, vodcasts (video podcasts) and social networking buzz to build a base audience and let the film grow organically.
The passion for filmmaking came to Sklar in a flash. Originally wanting to act, he took Introduction to Film at MU as a sophomore. His focus changed after watching Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. “I realized that filmmaking was the best way to express myself,” he says. “At the flip of a switch, it changed my life.”
He immediately wanted to make important serious-subject films. Then, as if one epiphany wasn’t enough for Sklar, a second came after watching Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, in which a privileged comedic film director seeks human hardships to influence his attempt to make a serious film. After being imprisoned, Sturges realizes making people laugh is itself a gift. Laughter is all some people have. For Sklar, this was the second flip of the switch.
“Why not do something I’m better at?” he asks. “That film taught me to go for my instincts.”
Those instincts led to Box Elder.
Cracked, crumbling steps and a glass-littered sidewalk lead to the Bro-house, Sklar’s home and a recurring scene location. It’s 1:45 p.m. on Aug. 23. Inside, the crew sets up in the living room. A pile of trash occupies the corner; it’s obviously not just there for the scene. Taco Bell cups and Red Bull cans compose part of the pile. So much junk litters the coffee table that the surface can’t be seen. Sklar moves the items whose labels are prominent for fear of not getting releases for the products. “It’s the companies without money that really sue you,” he says.
With everything of worry off the table, gaps of wood need to be recovered. Actor Alex Rennie, Sklar’s roommate and prolific trash piler, rummages through one bro’s trash to find the scene’s treasure. “Smells like someone puked,” he says. At 2:30 p.m. the crew is set.
“Let’s take one,” Sklar says.
In the scene, John Scott’s OxyContin-taking, 15-cans-of tuna-eating, baseball-watching friends worry he might not want to party if he misses the exam for a class he’s failed twice. So they wake him.
After the take, Sklar talks it over. “I’m not worried about dropping lines,” he says. “I’m more worried about the pacing. Make it snappy.”
By the end of the shot, Sklar couldn’t be more pleased.
“Great job,” he says to actor Chad Glissmeyer.
“I ate a little bit of your Kit Kat,” he replies.
“No, it’s your Kit Kat now, man … after that.”
In May 2006, Sklar thought he had graduated. But he lacked the credit for an independent study course he took, so he came back to Columbia. He completed the course in December and was ready to go home.
On the morning he planned to leave, the highway to Minnesota was closed because of a snowstorm. With everyone else he knew gone, he decided to work on film stuff. The next day, I-35 remained closed. He had gotten so much done the day before, he called his parents and told them he was staying. He bought a 24-pack of Red Bull, a box of Clif bars and bags of Starburst Fruit Chews. For two weeks, he locked himself in the house. He didn’t take phone calls, and he didn’t tell anyone where he was. He just wrote.
Drawing from his own experiences, Sklar examined how Midwesterners take influences from both coasts and reinterpret them. He looked at “bromance,” the male bonding experience that takes place only in sheltered atmospheres such as college and almost evaporates upon entering the real world, Sklar says. And he explored the search for personal identity. Sklar’s character almost always wears a plain white T-shirt. It’s not just to escape problems of getting releases for brand logos. “I’m not going to make a statement about who I am because I don’t know who I am,” he says about his character.
Sklar left his room and Columbia two weeks later with the script of Box Elder. Box elder bugs share some of the qualities that define the characters in the film — big, noisy, annoying, harmless, lazy, unique-looking and passive-aggressive. It’s also the name of a song by Pavement, one of Sklar’s favorite bands.
Through the rest of January, he assembled his first production team, bought equipment, scheduled the first leg of the shoot and began securing screens for the release.
At 8 p.m on Sept. 2, extras, crew and cast members roam the house. All don fake mustaches. It’s the Stache Bash scene. Red Bull and Mountain Dew sit on ice, and 14 boxes of Papa John’s cover the fold-out table.
Sklar wears a shredded Lacoste polo, which reveals the better part of his shoulders and thus subverts any presupposed prep-ish pomp. Kim Sherman, the only female crew member, looks like the Hamburglar with her black-and-white striped shirt and fake mustache, the Kimburglar.
At about 8:30 p.m. Sklar comes to the realization that only 24 pages remain to shoot — 20 after tonight. It doesn’t seem to relieve much stress, though. His back bothers him.
By take six, Sklar’s mustache stops cooperating.
“Good blooper,” he says. “Good blooper.”
After a little reattachment work, he’s back in business. “Let’s do it.”
After take eight, some of the other cast members also realize the end is approaching. This comes with a few concerns.
“Am I overshadowing Nick with my funniness?” Rennie asks.
“We’re 105 pages in, and now you’re worried about that?” Renkoski says.
During one of the last takes of the night, crew members can’t stop laughing. They cover their mouths to muffle any noise as Rennie, Renkoski and Glissmeyer improv back and forth. Sklar, who lets the camera capture the moment, has to squat and turn away from them.
“That’s a wrap,” he says. “Great shoot everybody.”
After firing his first production team, Sklar left Minnesota during the last week of February to start shooting Box Elder. He picked up his camera operator in Illinois just hours after he had committed to the film, grabbed his actors in Columbia and headed to New Orleans to film scenes from Mardi Gras.
When they returned, Sklar assembled the rest of his team. He met Dan Mollenkamp, script supervisor, at a Columbia Media Resource Alliance meeting. After Sklar pitched his project to the room, Mollenkamp approached him. Sklar, who could see the passion he had, told him he needed someone organized and responsible. Mollenkamp replied, “I’m your man.”
Sklar also met his producer, Brock Williams, owner of local production company Boxcar Films, during the post-Mardi Gras gap. Although the two had been MySpace friends for awhile, they didn’t meet until five days before production. Sklar had been scouting other production companies and walked into Williams’ office on a whim.
They hit it off, and after the meeting Sklar sent him the script. Even though Williams had a number of other projects in the works, he liked the story and decided to help. “It’s crazy that I’m agreeing to do this, but I feel good about it somehow,” Williams says.
He also says they really balanced each other out. Sklar brought his creative energy and vision, and Williams was able to use his production, technical and financial skills to get that vision across.
The shoot is at Broadway and Hitt. It’s 8 p.m. on Sept. 4. Sklar arrives on set in a skullcap. He had to cut his beard and hair for the film, so now he looks like Corey Feldman.
The cast and crew hang out as Sklar surveys the area. Conversations shift from the introduction of new Mortal Kombat characters to the potential progression of Bow Wow’s name to Man Band. This last topic digresses to an overview of ’90s pop music. “Cobain was dead, and that’s pretty much what was happening,” Renkoski says.
Word finally comes: They have to wait until the Pasta Factory closes to shoot the scene.
At 10:15 p.m. the cast and crew reassemble.
“What is this scene about?” Chetan Patel, production stills photographer, asks.
“I don’t know,” Sklar says. “I forgot everything when I cut my hair.”
In the scene, Sklar’s character reunites with a love interest. Williams uses a harness for the scene’s steady cam shots. It and the camera weigh him down.
“Brock, when your back hurts, just imagine it’s you who gets to make out with a hot girl,” Sklar says.
Things start to liven up, especially for the drunken make-out fall gag.
“Cut,” Sklar says after one of the falls. “Did I break your foot?”
“I’m OK,” actor Hina Abdullah says. “I’m OK.”
Sklar likes the take.
“You know what’s crazy?” he says. “We’re all sitting here, all hanging out because we’re making a movie together.”
“Yeah,” Abdullah says. “We’re not going to be doing that soon.”
At 1 a.m., after a long night, Sklar calls it a wrap.
Last December, Sklar applied to the Sundance Director’s Lab without telling anyone. During a production meeting, the crew could hear him screaming and jumping around in the next room. He had just received the acceptance call. Box Elder and Sklar’s life would never be the same.
The summer workshop gave Sklar a chance to work with other filmmakers and make friends and contacts. During his stay in Utah, Lance McDermaid, one of his mentors, saw the trailer of Box Elder on his computer. Word spread, and the people he worked with kept bugging him to show it. Although nervous, he eventually caved. When the footage screened, the audience loved it. Some of the pillars of independent film attended. “It was a very surreal experience,” Sklar says.
Sklar returned to Columbia on Aug. 10. Some of his cast members became uncooperative with scheduling, and with interest from actors Sklar met at Sundance, he decided to recast some roles. When the third production team was in place, he sat down with Williams and Seebach, another Sundance addition. The result of their reassessment led to the reshooting of all but four scenes.
It’s 3 p.m. on Sept. 11, the last day of major shoots for Box Elder. On the Rocks has been transformed into a movie set. Sklar wears a green bandana, black shirt and brown leather jacket. Renkoski is in sweats. Rennie’s jeans are slit from the back right pocket to the knee. Blue gym shorts show through. His shirt, which reads “Hockey Night” in fluorescent green and pink, is as Sklar puts it, “a Rennie shirt if I ever saw one before.”
Sklar looks through the camera and adjusts the shot, martini and rocks glasses lying on a table. Proctor and Seebach finish setting up the lights.
Glissmeyer, who is there to say goodbye to everyone, pours Andre Pink Champagne into red plastic cups. Proctor makes the toast.
Cups rise. Glissmeyer calls action on the way out.
At 5:30 p.m. extras fill in for the second shot of the scene. It’s post-graduation. Renkoski, Sklar and Rennie discuss their lack of future plans. A Steadicam shot follows an annoying guy walking through the bar. He drops the line, “I’m the king of drinking.”
Sklar laughs at how good the shot turns out.
“We’re making a good movie,” he says. “What are we doing, doing that?”
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Before the last take, Sklar thanks everyone for coming.
“Last shot of Box Elder,” he calls. “And action.”
Deviating from the script, Renkoski, Rennie and Sklar, break out in song.
“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got / Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot / Wouldn’t you like to get away? / Sometimes you want to go … ”
Everyone joins the refrain. Glasses rise. There is applause, hugs.
“That is a wrap.”