This was originally featured in Negative Guest List:
THE STREETS OF ALISO VIEJO WILL RUN RED WITH THE BLOOD OF FRESHLY SLIT TEENAGE GANG MEMBER'S THROATS
By MONTY BUCKLES
Making a movie is like setting your house on fire, going out and waiting on the lawn for twenty minutes, than running back inside to see what you can salvage. Finishing a movie, no matter how big of a piece of shit, with no resources is an incredible accomplishment. To actually make an good movie is one of those insane, far-end-of-the-bell-curve occurrences that balance out kittens being born with two heads or people loosing their sight through rare genetic disorders. It is easier to become an Olympian, a surgeon, a fighter pilot, a television weatherman, or to murder someone and get away with it than to become a professional film director. With something as fragile as a low budget movie, anything can deep six it. Talent is a factor, but so is the weather(1).
So a tip of the cap to those out there with a bolt loose enough to give it a whirl.
The film Snitch'd was written(2), directed, produced, and starred James Cahill, and was released straight-to-DVD in 2003(3). It is not a low-budget gem filled with tension and excellent performances. It is not a gutbucket feat of imagination. Its not a well-written gritty thriller. Its not a technical marvel. It is not a good movie. It is, however, one of the most personal movies ever made, a fantasy of someone's ultimate idealization of themselves in their most macho incarnation. The direct transcription of an ego so big you can see it from outer space. Sometimes watching it is embarrassing, like catching someone checking out their muscles in a mirror. Other times you get caught in the whirligig swirl of the deluded intention and the flat ineptitude of the execution and there's no way not to get lost in the jaw dropping weirdness of it all.
Cahill stars as a cop that goes undercover in a high school ran by two rival gangs, to investigate the murder of an innocent student. Its a patchwork of the undercover cop movie, the inner city gang movie, the kung-fu movie, and the Red Harvest two-gangs-and-one-stranger-riff that movies have been recycling for years. The film is poorly made. Visually, its bland. The acting is lousy and the individual characters are difficult to tell apart. The writing is strictly functional. As an undercover cop movie, its ridiculous even by the atrocious standards of low budget crime movies. Its operating on the level of cops vs. robbers played by ten years olds, with no respect given to the actual law, or things like evidence, due process, Miranda rights, or accountability. In Cahill's simple and self centered universe, cops wake up every morning, beat the shit out of clearly defined, inept bad guys, then go home to drink some Budweiser and bitch about woman. The film doesn't work as an inner city gang movie. There is no verisimilitude. It is shot in an upscale portion of sunny and inviting suburban Orange County. There were real gang members used in the production but their input was either worthless or ignored. As a kung fu movie, it fails. The fights lack athleticism, grace, excitement, escalation, or any deviation between them. Blows are telegraphed like a registered letter was sent beforehand, and bodies fall. Punches miss by a country mile with an overdubbed SMACK that wouldn't fool a toddler. Nobody is shown to even be a threat to Cahill's character, so there is no suspense. As the Red Harvest style movie, the two gangs, The Cut Throat Mafia and The South Side Gang (who both helpfully wear baseball caps advertising their gang affiliation) their conflict is hard to follow and ultimately inconsequential.
Cahill is short, with the fit, but willowy and unintimidating physique of a dancer (which he is). His face, anchored by a widow's peak and symmetrical, chin-length hair, seems incapable of any expression beyond benign blankness. He cast himself in a roll he wrote for himself: an invincible laconic tough guy. His character is somewhere around Steven Seagal, Bruce Lee, and John Wayne. He is not qualified for this. He can't portray menace. When he tries to look mean he furrows his brow like a petulant child that was denied their favorite toy. When he has to listen he purses his lips and nods along, over-emoting every action with the same for-the-cheap-seats histrionics that went out with powdered wigs. His voice has a effeminate lilt, when he barks out a threat, he sounds more Truman Capote than Jack Webb. His character has a penchant for wearing pressed oversized short sleeve collared shirts over a tank top, an ensemble you'd see on a mannequin in Target, not on an undercover cop who has to infiltrate and organization filled with murderers. Cahill is too old to be playing a teenager. He'd stick out amongst real high schools students like a stuffed cow in a goldfish bowl. Rubbing elbows with gangsters and criminals, he's like Gene Autry riding with the Wild Bunch.
Cahill's character is an expert at karate, proficient with firearms, an ace investigator & the chicks dig him. He's always right. He possess no faults. The bad guys have no ambiguity. They are bullies and unrepentant lowlives that pose no challenge to Cahill. They're fodder, like the blinking aliens in Space Invaders if the player never lost. Even Billy Jack was goaded into surrendering(4), but Cahill is too tough to even have to ever consider anything resembling self-doubt. He protects the weak(5), brutalizes and tortures the evil, and a beautiful high school student takes one look at him and falls deeply in love. Cahill can take on a dozen attackers without breaking a sweat. When his Superior Officer gives him his assignment and warns that taking out the leader of either gang would just make the remaining gang more powerful, Cahill, snide turned up to 11, responds “well you know what? I guess I'll just have to take out both gangs then,” the way you would respond to a condescending request with “oh well? I guess I'll just carry both letters down to the mailbox”. Its one of those movies that posits that something as insidious, complicated and ancient as gang violence can be solved by one guy that is good at karate(6).
I became obsessed with Snitch'd. I showed it to friends. Bought it as a gifts. The movie was easy to find and always discounted. People I showed it to all liked it. We all laughed openly at the incompetent creative efforts of another person. It was addicting. Even though I find Cahill to be uncharismatic, and his worldview abhorrent, it was still an incredible artifact. The guy grit his teeth and went ahead and made a movie, one that was finished, released, and distributed. He wasn't hampered by his own lack of talent or resources, he did it anyway. That the results were so dismal was another amazing thing – how could someone had seen that footage and decided to finish? How did a company decided to purchase it to make money? How does something like this exist?
Screenplays have a particular format refined from decades of empirical testing. They are the most effective way to communicate to the director, the keys of the various departments, the producers, and whoever is funding the movie, what the finished film is supposed to be. The format is specific and rarely deviated from either professional, or even amateur filmmakers(7). I manged to get my hands on the screenplay to Snitch'd, originally titled One Hard Hit(8). Cahill ignores the format, and instead invented his own. The logical, intuitive system of separating setting, character, and action has been mashed into a clusterfuck of tortured parentheticals. The formatting, spelling and content of the following are all Cahill's.
Reporter: We will have an update on this soon.... (Note: Record this with a video camera.)
Burke: Turns off television (With remote control)
McClure: How do you feel? (They are drinking Coronas with lime)
Burke: (Burke, who always eats throughout the movie which is somewhat comical) A little sore. Do you believe that punk hit me right in the chest as he was running? Good thing I was wearing a vest. Doc says I have deep bruising, and I should rest a few days. I'm going back tomorrow despite what he says.
Check out this inconsistent, borderline batshit formatting:
McClure: Let her go. (He walks up to him)
Juan: Who the fuck are you puto, I suggest you get the fuck out of here before I...
McClure: Before you what... (Close enough to grab him)
Juan: Before I (Slices through McClure's shirt) cut you up man.
McClure: (Takes off shirt) and uses the shirt to tie up the knife after Juan slices at him a few times. This knife scene should last about 20 seconds before McClure does the technique, evading the storm. McClure knocks the knife out of the guys hand and grabs his face and slams it on the hood of the car about five times. He let's the guy drop to the ground. The guy climbs under the open door of the driver's side and tries to reach for the 9mm under the seat. McClure sees this and smashes the guys hand with the 9mm using the car door. The guy screams and drops the gun, McClure takes the gun and puts it up to the guys head and says.
McClure: If I ever see you again, it'll be your last, comprendes?
Juan: Fuck you. (McClure takes the bud of the gun and knocks him out).
Gabby: Oh shit, your bleeding pretty bad. (Have blood oozing out of McClure's left shoulder). Come in, I'll fix you up. She helps him as he puts her arm around her.
FADES TO BLACK AND TO NEXT SCENE.
Cahill, a black belt in kenpo(9) karate, takes special care with describing the choreography of his action scenes, but at other times, his description is oddly minimal. Here’s a scene that was only partially included in the final film:
Burke: (Jokingly) Probably not. So when are you going to get yourself a fine girl like that?
McClure: You know what happened to the last one, Jenn (Show a scene where she gets killed by a gang banger drive by while she is carrying groceries to the house. McClure tries to stop it, but its too late. Show this in black and white and slow motion as McClure runs up to her).
Here is an exchange between gang members. Admittedly I haven’t spent much time with Latino Gangsters in Orange County, but I suspect that it lacks realism.
Tito: Good man. It's time we revenge the death of our homies Demon, Crook, and the Kidd.
Creaper: I also want those pinche putos dead. Who should we hit tonight?
Tito: Not tonight.
Creaper: We have to tonight, or they'll think we're weak.
Tito: Excuse me, but I call the shots around here. You don't think my eyes see red for the love I had for them. However, I know what's up. now listen, we got to be careful... especially tonight, since the cops expect us to hit them back tonight, but I have a better plan.
Oh, try and follow this:
Black street guy: (Pulls out a knife) Well maybe if I slice you up, you may need something good to relieve the pain. (Steps up to the car)
Burke: Turns around, and looks at the guy. At this moment, the gang bangers drive off with McClure in it. Burke points his shotgun at the guy, but from inside the car. The gun is in his lap) Do you mind if we save this for another time? I'm kind of busy right now.
Black street guy: (Looks at him and sees the gun. He backs up) Oh ya. (Sarcastically and humorously) Of course man. It can wait. I'll just make my way over here (points) and let you do your thing. I wouldn't want you to loose focus on what you're doing.
Burke: (Still looking at him, as the guy backs away) Thanks. (Looks back at car, and sees only the back end of car which has McClure in it, then he looks over to see the Principal's car, and sees him get in it, he turns on the car and proceeds to follow)
Okay friends, hold on to your hats: Cahill is a high school ENGLISH TEACHER. He gets paid by the school distract to teach young people the intractable rules of the English language and to impart on them the importance of literature. If Cahill actually took an English class, he would fail. He also teaches drama (in fact, he drafted some of his students as actors in Snitch'd) and he can't act his way out a wet paper sack. As a director, even people who went on to professional careers and great success are alone on an ice floe. The only notable performances are Cesar Moran, who projects understated menace, and Oleg Zatespin who has a great naturalistic quality about him. Cahill is no good at casting either, both those parts are minor. All the other performances are unconvincing with vast tonal shifts between the different performers.
Cahill also filmed large portions of the movie at the school where he was employed. I was once fired from a low-paying, highly degrading job because I was told that the boss “just didn't like” me. Cahill filmed a karate movie at the school where he taught, where the school is depicted as gang and drug influenced cesspool, where the principal runs a drug running ring, students are murdered, and his character engages in hanky-panky with a student, and he doesn't suffer and consequences and a job that he is absolutely unqualified to do in the first place. Amazing.
Cahill comes from literate stock. His parents (his mother is Chinese, his father is Irish) used to own a bookstore in Orange County, and Cahill owns a publishing company he named, with his typical flair, 'James Cahill Publishing'. James Cahill Publishing specializes in limited editions of Clive Cussler novels(10). Cahill sidelines as an antiquarian book dealer. He doesn't just sell remaindered paperbacks on eBay, as of this writing he is offering a first edition of Moby Dick for $6,000. The cheapest book is a $40 copy of Tim Powers' Last Call. The majority of the books he is selling will set you back four figures. Cahill has a safe in his house to guard his books, complete with motion-detecting lasers.
Cahill is also an accomplished Tango Dancer, and somehow finds the time to compete professionally, and teach on the side. Somehow the standards of the tango circuit are more stringent than the English and Drama departments of high schools in California. Thanks, Schwarzenegger.
I wanted to talk to Cahill. I find the guy fascinating. Is he soft-spoken and humble? Self-deprecating and funny? Maniacal? I contacted Cahill through his website(11) and respectfully asked him if I could conduct an interview at his convenience. He responded politely and promptly. I prepared a list of questions and then mentioned that I was also going to talk to Royce Allen Dudley, the film's director of photography. This was a tactical error. I thought I was being thorough. Cahill changed his tune. He told me it would take at least six months before he would be able to answer any questions. Desperate I offered to drive down to Aliso Viejo (50 miles from my front door through some of the worst traffic in the United States) to buy him lunch and pick his brain. I wouldn't do that for a sick family member. He said he couldn't, but might be able to talk to me “next year”. I knew it would be a cold, cold day in hell before I would speak to him in what, as far as I could tell, would be his first interview as a professional filmmaker.
Snitch'd's director of photography, Royce Allen Dudley, was raised by his Republican Grandparents in the beautiful coastal berg of Santa Barbara, California. He's a friendly, sociable man that vibes more blue collar made good than a nose-in-the-air snoot. He's the kind of unpretentious pragmatic Hollywood technician that should have been born seventy years earlier and spent his career working on Westerns. Dudley laughs often, and talks about upcoming projects with the same enthusiasm he uses to describe his favorite movies. He manages to be be a realist and an optimist without being contradictory.
Bill Fortner was killing time in coffee shop in the counter-cultural berg of North Beach in San Francisco during the height hippie era when he spotted a beautiful girl sitting nearby, and drew her picture. Fortner was a character straight out of Dog Soldiers or Cutter & Bone: a hepcat artiste, pilot, and marijuana smuggler. He accompanied artist Michael Bowen on the ambitious plan to dump flowers on the National Guard during the levitate the Pentagon protest. The fuzz intervened and they couldn't get a plane. Fortner and Bowen drove the flowers from the Bay Area to D.C. themselves. Their efforts were immortalized in the Pulitzer-prize nominated photograph 'Flower Power' one of the indelible images of the Aquarian era. Later, Fornter would be found murdered in Mexico. It was theorized it was a drug deal gone bad. The authorities' paperwork was more concerned with the condition of the rental car than the body found inside it. But before all of that, Fortner went over to the pretty girl at the coffee shop and showed him his drawing. He introduced himself. She was smitten. The woman was Dudley's mother. Fortner was Dudley's father. Dudley never got to meet his dad. His mother was a beatnik turned hippie that split her time between San Francisco and Esalan. Dudley was raised by his grandparents.
As a child Dudley made detailed models replicated WWII battle scenes from researched photographs. As a kid he caught 2001, Dirty Harry and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes which gave him a case of the movie bug. A relative gave him a camera. His grandfather gave him a splicer, and he began to make super 8mm films, often shooting in the abandoned park behind his house. He paid for film and processing by walking an elderly neighbor's poodle and pushing her wheelchair bound husband around his estate. He turned 19 and tried to create the kind of artistic film that many young people attempt. In Dudley's own words, it was “a piece of shit”. Dudley married at 22 and moved to the dismal town of Lodi, California. It didn't work out.
He returned to Santa Barbara older, wiser, and single. He decided that he was going to shoot, rather than direct films. In the spring of 1999 he shot the movie 2 Left Turns (also known as Triangle Square), on 35mm. '99 was the height of the marriage of commerce and Independent Film. Movies like The Spitfire Grill, Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Texas were being bought for amounts that incredible then and inconceivable now. 2 Left Turns starred Matthew Lillard, who was becoming a movie star (at the tim he was so jazzed on the collaborative process of filmmaking that he would operate the boom on some shots) and Nicole Eggert. The film was well-received and picked up some heat. The director began taking meetings at Miramax. Dudley had just broken up with girlfriend and was sleeping on his friend's couch. He got a call from a first-time director with funding. He had seen Dudley's ad(12).
The Director had a script entitled One Hard Hit, and needed someone to shoot it. Dudley wanted to get out of Santa Barbara. He wanted to put some space between him and his failed relationship. He also needed the money. In August of 1999, Dudley packed up his 16mm camera, his Nagra sound recorder, a boom mic, flags, stands, handheld bounce, his lights (a Bardwell 2K, shop lights and a few Colotran open 1K's) into his beat-to-shit '77 Chevy van, and headed down to Orange County.
There is a union-mandated zone, covering a 30 mile diameter circle around Los Angeles, with the center being the intersection of Beverly and La Cienga. If its a union shoot, and it is to be shot outside the zone, the crew is to be paid more, given the option to stay in a hotel on the production’s dime. Nobody wants to pay for that. So, despite it's proximity to Los Angeles, films and television shows are rarely shot in Orange County(13).
Cahill doesn't like Los Angeles. He tries to go there as little as possible. He wants its people and its resources to come to him. Although Los Angeles is the center of the western hemisphere's entertainment industry, and forty miles away, Cahill prefers to shoot out of home in Aliso Viejo, a city so generic it serves as the corporate headquarters of Marie Callender's.
For the duration of the shoot, Dudley stayed at writer/producer/director/star Cahill's house, that he shared with his parents, in a cul de sac in a wealthy neighborhood in the hills. Dudley slept on the couch(14). The neighbors weren't happy with the production.
The film's female lead, Gabby, was to be played by Vera Jimenez(15) currently a weather and traffic reporter on KTLA and the recipient of two Emmys, three Golden Mics and the three-time winner of the wonderfully named 'Golden Pylon'. Dudley convinced Cahill to cast an unknown actress and former Beauty Queen who had just moved to LA named Eva Longoria, and Vera was given the part of Gabby's best friend, Trina. After Snitch'd wrapped, Longoria landed a three year contract in The Young And The Restless, followed by being cast in Desperate Housewives, which became a huge hit. According to Dudley “she was a total pro already, and if she knew if was shit, she kept smiling”.
Oleg Zatsepin was born in Hollywood. His mother worked for Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, his father worked for an alarm company. His dad also dabbled in acting, occasionally landing a commercial or a low profile gig on television. Oleg grew up doing wrestling, judo football and attended a Russian school as a child. He went to college and got bit by the acting bug. He first gig was Bikini Traffic School, shot by Gary Graver. Graver shot F Is For Fake and the unfinished Other Side Of The Wind for Orson Welles, but he drifted into T&A. For a first movie, one about a bikini traffic school, it was heady company and Zatsepin dug it. Oleg met Cahill at an audition held at Santa Ana High. He thought Cahill was a "little normal guy" who was was conducting auditions with mostly kids. Cahill cast Oleg would be good as the menacing security guard, Blackie. To his regret, Oleg didn't try for another role. To prepare he built his character on friends and relatives. Cahill was smart enough to leave Zatespin alone, and Zatespin ended up improvising his scenes and without the handicap of Cahill's lousy dialog, he's the only actor in the film that's believable. Not only that, Oleg cuts through the cast like a knife in hot butter, he is built like a brick shithouse - making the rest of the cast look about as threatening as newborn puppies - and his presence makes mincemeat out of the clearly out-of-their-element amateurs and a big hambone like Cahill. He's great in the movie.
The film was shot from sunup and then a good portion of each night. Rather than drive back and forth from Los Angeles every day, the makeup person and some of the other crew members (including, often, Longoria) would stay at Cahill's house with Dudley. Cahill's mom would cook rice dishes for the crew. Everyone adored Cahill's parents. There was no schedule. Minimal location scouting. At dawn, the crew would wake up and either head to the school, or would wait for Cahill to drive down the hill to find a location. The crew would sit around, until Cahill would return with a new location. They would shoot 17 hour a day, 9 hours of waiting around, 8 of shooting. After wrap, upon returning to Cahill's house, Cahill would disappear into his room for an hour or two while the crew camped out in the living room. Nobody could discern what he was doing in there.
The crew shot at two high schools, Cahill's accountant's office (doubling as a police station) a crew member's house (doubling as a gangster's hilltop mansion), a local church (doubling as a school exterior), Bob White's Kenpo Karate School, Camelot Bookstore and a whopping three scenes in three hours at the Shark Club in Costa Mesa, who let them shoot there for free.
When Dudley first talked to Cahill, Cahill exuded “cheerful and confident,” and told Dudley he would be more of a collaborator than an employee. Since Dudley would be operating the camera, the Director would be starring and therefore, in front of the camera for most of the shots, and there was no VTR(16) Dudley would have an unusual amount of control over the project. They talked about how Cahill visualized it, which Dudley interpreted as gritty, contemporary cinema. Then Dudley read the script. He realized it was “not a career-changer or an art film,” but since Cahill seemed so pleasant and he needed the work, he figured it would be sold to the direct to video market and it could be shot with some visually compelling elements. Once they began shooting, “like a frog slowly boiling” Dudley realized something had gone horribly wrong.
Dudley's pleas for more lighting and more careful staging were ignored. Cahill decided he didn't like handheld camera work. The dolly and the track came apart early in the shoot and Cahill didn't want to pay for a replacement. Cahill only liked locked off shots on a tripod, where he could view the shot beforehand and wouldn't have to resort to trusting his own professional director of photography. The film became static after that. There is no visual nuance or editing momentum, the shots were hastily set up and ended up so bland, it is like watching the objective view of a indifferent deity. Cahill would see a frame and proceed to make tweaks to unimportant elements while insisting that the lousy blocking and bland composition were fine.
The crew was small. Primarily it was Dudley, Cahill, Donn Keresey – a college pal of Cahill's who receives co-writing credit on the film, Paul Brunotto, who would boom and help with grip and electric, two makeup and hair people (Cahill was “very conscious to get his hair and foundation checked before every take”) and a guy named Fabian, who helped grip. With the exception of the cast, that was pretty much it.
Zatespin is not the kind of guy with an axe to grind. He thought the shoot was long and disorganized, but he didn't care - he's just happy making movies. He enjoyed hanging out, especially with Eva. He emphasized she was nice to everyone during a production that must have tried her patience. His least favorite part of the movie was his death scene, August in Southern California and Oleg had to lay down on some "hot ass asphalt" as the camera panned over him sprawled dead on the blacktop. His email was succinct: "SHIT did that hurt."
In the film's DVD commentary, Cahill explains:
Anytime you’re doing a martial art movie, you’re much better off using full Hollywood swings and everything, I really wanted to keep that original look and use real Kenpo karate type moves, so if you use that Van Damme look they actually look better for the actual making of the film, but for me I wanted that quick, raw look for the film… That kind of cutting edge, different from all the other Hollywood, flying kicks done on stilts(17), cables and everything else like that. No springs in my movie, everything here actually is real choreographed, real authentic moves. So that bruise you see on the guy’s face(18) [laughter] might have been a real bruise he had got during the scene.
You can film a fight scene with elaborate choreography and let it speak for itself, but if the choreography and physical prowess of the performers isn't up to snuff you can fashion kinetic energy in how the scene is shot and cut. The rhythm of the editing can compliment the action and dance around any flaws in the scene. The camera can follow Seagall as he beats the ever-loving shit out of the lowlifes that killed his partner, with frightening and unfaked speed or Van Damme can leap through the air to kick a stuntman through a plate glass window in slow motion, shot with a half dozen cameras and multiple cuts. Either is a valid approach. Cahill didn't have the time or the resources to do the later, so he had to, via necessity, do the former. He would set up a master shot, show the unrehearsed and untrained other actors how they were going to receive a beating from him, then he let'er rip. There is already an unconvincing premise to work from, and the poor actors weren't up to the significant challenge to reacting convincingly to a silly barrage of fake-punches. The fighting is shot in the same inert way as the rest of the film. It doesn't help that Cahill's choreography is dreadful. Cahill just kicks various actor's asses and moves on. Dudley tried to explain to Cahill that there is no drama or suspense in having a hero who is invincible, and that “even Superman had his kryptonite,” but Cahill wasn't convinced.
He thought he was better than Superman.
During the shoot, the film used some real handguns, provided by Cahill's father, as props. Since guns, fake or not, were never fired during the course of the production, this seemed like an odd choice. To mime a gunshot, the character would jerk the gun hand back without firing, so any authenticity is lost on the viewer. During the scene filming without a permit at a public park with, no prop master, no police, no security, just a working crew and some gang affiliates. It was theorized it was a certain pair of ex gang members were responsible for the theft, but the allegations were never proven. A person on the film told me that they ran into a gang member years after the film was shot. They talked, and the gang member said the stolen gun was used later in a shooting.
In an other odd and rare application of verisimilitude, some real knives were used as props. Two actors were cut. In once scene, the Cut Throat Mafia (who take their title literally and very seriously, as they cut their victim's throats, even after dispatching them with gunfire) mow down a bunch of rival gangbangers in a drive-by shooting. Rather than drive away, they stop, and leisurely get out of the car to cut some throats (hey, we've all been there, right?). Some poor actor, lying on the street in the middle of the night, pretending to be dead, really had his neck cut by an actual knife, narrowly missing opening the primary artery supplying blood to his brain.
The other actor was cut during the climax of the movie. Before the inexorable rendezvous with the head badguy (who bares a resemblance to actor Turk Pipkin) Cahill sees a garage full of gang members grilling inside their unventilated garage. Instead of waiting a few minutes for the characters to die from monoxide poisoning, Cahill enters the garage for another fight. I asked Dudley about this. Cahill said he wanted a dramatic entrance. Dudley jokingly suggested the BBQ for dramatic plumes of smoke to accompany his heroic entrance. Cahill went for it. In the ensuing fight, as Cahill uses a ping pong paddle to supplement his hand to hand combat, he accidentally stabbed an actor, inflicting minor injury.
During this process, Dudley's demeanor went from enthusiasm to detached bemusement. He was convinced the movie would never be released, and although Cahill was polite, he was a delusional ego case who wouldn't listen. As his suggestions were ignored in favor of vastly incorrect decisions, Dudley considered quitting, but was being paid $500/day. He had some rough years before and needed the money.
They finished the shoot without ceremony or a wrap party. Cahill stiffed Dudley $250. At the end of the shoot, another crew person asked to be paid, only to be told his payment was deferred. Dudley forgot about the film, except for the occasional call asking for technical help. The film's sound was close to unusable. Cahill couldn't find an editor in Orange County that would edit the film and was capable of cutting magnetic analog tape. The tape was transferred to compact disc, with no timecode(19) reference. Syncing was a laborious, time-consuming process. The film went to CFI, a prominent, respected film laboratory for processing and color grading, but it ended up being rendered from a compressed film without any grading by a distributer that didn't want to spend a cent more then they had to. The original distributer, a company called Spartan, staged a photo shoot with a muscular looking guy that looked like he would stab you in the eye with an ice pick for half a pack of cigarettes. They used photos from those sessions for a few microbudget films they picked up on the cheap & knew were dogs, then dumped the DVD's into discount bins everywhere, often aimed at the Latino market(20). The cover art was effective(21), the DVD sold for cheap(22) and they made it look like a low-budget, high violence, turn-your-brain-off thriller that's a perfect Tuesday night killer.
For Dudley, it was his first movie released with his name on the box. He reacted with a mix of pride and horror. He is still annoyed by the lousy transfer which accentuated the film's faults and made it look even cheaper. He had to buy his own copy, same as everybody else. He'll work with people that will bring the movie up to him. He gets tired of explaining it. Zatespin thinks the finished film was okay, but acknowledges some of the performances weren't up to snuff. "its difficult to bring out of them [the amateurs Cahill used] what is needed to make the movie real". He admits the film was “a bit ridiculous,” but he's just enthused about the process. “Film on you is film on you.”
Years later Cahill called and asked Dudley to shoot a short film for him, unpaid. It was only going to be a single day's work. Dudley agreed, reluctantly, but the day before the shoot, he had car trouble and no transportation to get him to set. He called Cahill, who said he would take care of it. At 6AM there was a knock on Dudley's front door, Dudley opened it to see Eva Longoria, baring coffee. She was a cast member on The Young And The Restless but went down to Orange County for free for a day and picked up the DP to shoot for a day with Dudley, Oleg Zatespein and Cahill. The plot of the film, which I haven't seen, was that Cahill initially seems like the bad guy, but turns out to be the hero. Longoria's character has the hots for him.
Years later Cahill called Dudley with a new project, Juarez, Mexico with Cahill as writer/director/producer/star. Dudley agreed to do the film if he was made a co-producer and was involved with the post process. He told Cahill that having his character display normal human fallibility was necessary. Cahill addressed his concerns and acquiesced. Once the cameras rolled, he ignored them.
Juarez, Mexico while amusing (especially Cahill's introductory scene, which is on YouTube) isn't as entertaining, nor as personal as Snitch'd. Its more of a brooding detective mystery than an action flick. Cahill managed to wrangle some impressive locations for free, and the film is more ambitious with a bigger scale, but suffers from being boring and unfocused. The most amusing aspects was the half-assed, badly faked efforts to make the upper crust environs of Orange County look like Juarez (I've spent time in Juarez, I can tell you first hand, the movie doesn't look authentic) or the way every character speaks perfect English.
Cahill asked returning cast member Oleg if he could use 1974 pickup as a picture car. Cahill didn't provide any compensation or insurance. Oleg drove out to Adelanto in 115 degree weather on his own dime and he blew a rod right through the lower crank case. The truck went kaput. He called Cahill. Cahill told him to leave the truck there and someone would be dispatched to pick him up off the side of the road. Even though it was a picture car for the production, Cahill didn't offer to pay for the repair, any sympathy, or even an apology. Zatespin sent him the tow bill (not the mechanic's bill) and parted ways with Cahill.
I exchanged emails with Dudley, met him once outside his place in Van Nuys, and then had a half dozen beers with him over the course of a few hours at the Red Lion tavern in LA. We talked about filmmaking, an enterprise far more suited to Sisyphus and Kafka than Horatio Alger. Dudley is still working in the trenches. He talked about his two kids and his upcoming projects. We swapped stories of evil producers that live to short change you, and rough shoots we should have quit. Conversations always circled back to Cahill and Snitch'd. Dudley was candid and funny, and I couldn't tell if memories of Cahill were painful, annoying, or cathartic. When asked if Dudley would work with him again if asked, he said he would be polite, but wouldn't do it in a million years. He was intrigued when I told him how Cahill's mood changed when I mentioned Dudley's name, and told me that he saw a casting notice for a comedy that Cahill was trying to get off the ground, featuring a “fat, cranky cinematographer” character. Dudley didn't know if that was a knock on him. He was worried that the piece would be a one-sided mocking of Cahill and his work, and we wondered how the guy found the time to teach English, teach drama, teach tango, compete in tango, achieve the rank of black belt in marital arts, publish books by a bestselling author, sell expensive books to collectors, and write, producer, and star in multiple nationally distributed movies. We both admire him.
Oleg kept acting in small speaking rolls. He has appeared in high-profile shows: Party Down, My Name Is Earl, NCIS, Scrubs, and Monk (amongst others). He was recently released by his agency, which wasn't much of a disappointment, because he wasn't happy with his representation in the first place. Not that's hurting, he is the part owner of a few high profile clubs in Orange County and Hollywood, and owns a company that deals in textiles used in the production of high end jeans. "I love acting, but the biz side sucks," he told me. He wants a roll where he can show more emotion, wants to collaborate with major talents. He's about to put together another reel to look for new representation. He'd work with Cahill again provided he was compensated. The truck is water under the bridge.
The opening scene for Cahill's second movie, Juarez, Mexico was shot in the high desert, outside Adelanto, California. They set up a complicated scene shooting a moodily lit ritual sacrifice at night, with the harsh California shrub land doubling for the Chihuahuan desert. Cahill dispatched a PA to find some extras. The PA drove to the local Dairy Queen and asked a carload of teens if they wanted to be in a movie. They said yes. They all drove back to the set, where they were directed to ask as cult members, watching a spooky occult murder in the middle of nowhere. The scene is complicated technically, and important to set up the ominous tone for the rest of the film. During an ebb in shooting, one of the teens eyed the director. He looked familiar. The teen hesitated, then asked, “you're the guy from Snitch'd, right?”
(1) This is what making a low-budget movie is like: you wake up at four in the morning, having gone to sleep at two thirty the night before. You didn’t get any sleep, instead you laid in bed, petrified in fear and immobile from stress. You stumble past ugly piles of dirty gear and sleeping crew members in your house, which smells like feet, into your kitchen which hasn't been cleaned in days, where you drink an energy drink because you don’t have the time to make coffee, followed by taking a quick shower while dreading the day in front of you. You are shooting at a location you got for free, and you are terrified the entire time of the crew damaging it, or somehow someone managing to offend the owner of the property, who is already upset. You can’t afford any damage. You can’t afford to loose the location. You actually can’t afford to do anything, because you have gone over budget and over schedule and far in debt and you’re nowhere near finished. You arrive on time, hoping during the drive that that the crew that you didn't drive yourself arrives on time, because they were the only people you could find that would work for the peanuts you’re able to pay. There is no conversation in your car on the way to set. Everyone is sick of each other. You hope the actors arrive on time, because if they don’t you don’t know what you’re going to do. You hope they remember their lines because if they don’t, you’re fucked. You hope that your star didn’t decide to shave their facial hair or change their haircut, because that would ruin the continuity. You arrive to stale unhealthy donuts and shitty lukewarm coffee and begin answering questions from the crew, knowing you have to be as polite and diplomatic as possible because they are all there for free or close to it. You can’t possibly answer all their questions, because most of the time the answer would be a) of course not, I don’t have any money, or b) I don’t know yet, because of (a), but I am going to try to figure something out (which you won't be able to). The actors and crew arrive and somehow the owner of the property where you’re shooting doesn’t tell you that he changed his mind and you have to leave, although he is considering it. You block out the scene. It’s clunky and doesn’t really work, but you have no choice given the location and the fact you have no more time and no alternative. You light the scene with your DP, who doesn’t have enough lights nor time to do a job everyone can be proud of. Thankfully the light coming in from outside is remaining relatively consistent and won’t require too much relighting, and for some reason this is the only corner in North America where there isn’t a leaf blower down the street or a helicopter overhead and your beleaguered sound guy (who you will discover is not lying when he says you can't shoot and you do anyway because you can't possibly stop for sound on your oppressive schedule and much of the dialog will have to be replaced in ADR, which is expensive, time-consuming, and sounds fake) says that its okay to shoot. The actors do the scene. Its, uh, um, okay (not really). They flub a few takes. You don’t have the luxury of critiquing the performance and guiding it into something you’d like and would be part of a cohesive whole, you just have to hope like hell that they manage to finish it once so you can get out of the location in time. They manage to do it once without fucking up their lines. You ask the soundperson if the sound is acceptable. The soundperson answers that it is, but you can’t tell if they just said that just because they want to leave. You ask the cameraperson if the actors managed to stay in focus. They insist they did. You thank them, knowing that they want to be there even less then you and you don’t have the resources of a big production where you get to monitor things to your satisfaction. You take their word for it, and you say that the crew can move on, which is good, because you are already running late. As the crew wraps out of the location, you help carry gear out, inwardly cringing anytime someone swings a heavy stand near the glass coffee table or almost takes a divot out the drywall while lugging an oversized pelican case through a doorway. The owner of the property is standing over you like permanently ruined finances incarnate, and does everything but go over the interior with a magnifying glass. You heave an inward sigh of relief as you leave the location, cut short by the thudding realization that you need to continue this bleak and terrible process at three more locations until 2 in the morning, then it is repeated for two more weeks. You eventually finish shooting the movie. A year later, you finish editing it. Nobody likes it (especially not you) and it never get distributed. You spend the rest of your life ashamed. You die alone. You spend the rest of eternity in hell.
(2) In the film's credits, Donn Keresey receives a writing credit in addition to Cahill. In my copy of the film's screenplay, which is 90% of what was in the finished product, Cahill receives sole credit.
(3) The film was shot in August of 1999. Take a second to reflect on the changes in American society between 1999 and 2003, and think about sticking with the arduous post process on a movie like Snitch'd.
(4) Billy Jack is a similar film to Snitch'd, both made by humorless ego cases. Puerile politics and monstrous ego aside, Laughlin isn't a bad action director and is a charismatic leading man, so its easy to see how Billy Jack rode the zeitgeist straight to box office gold. Its also easy to see how a charmless square like Cahill stunk up the joint.
(5) 'Weak' could be defined in Cahill's universe as anyone that is not Cahill, but he defends the virtuous weak. How's this for a stacked deck? He beats up teenage gang members that were picking on retarded kid for no reason.
(6) Which isn't as stupid as his follow-up feature, Juarez, Mexico, where the murders of 100's of maquiladora workers in a country where the government is hopelessly corrupt and dependent on drug money to function can be solved by one karate detective (Cahill) who doesn't even bother to learn how to speak Spanish.
(7) There are exceptions. James Cameron, whose last two movies were sequential all-time box office top-grossing champs, uses a 'scriptment', which is still whittled down to a screenplay. Stanley Kubrick, who knew a thing or two about filmmaking, also deviated from the accepted format. Another expectation is improvisational films, which would be impossible to script. Snitch'd is not improv, and there was no involvement by James Cameron or Stanley Kubrick.
(8) Both titles have nothing to do with the movie.
(9) Elvis Presley was also a black belt in Kenpo Karate. Wonder how The King would do in a modern MMA competition? Just sayin’.
(10) James Cahill Publishing is part of the 'Society of the Cusslerman' website, “developed for Clive Cussler book collectors who require pictures, details and information of every book published throughout the US and UK.” You can check it out (or not) here: http://www.cusslermen.com/ if you want to order a $125 limited edition copy of Cussler’s Pacific Vortex with a $6.50 shipping fee (a used copy on amazon.com will set you back 0.44¢ with an added $3.99 for shipping) be my guest, moneybags - here’s the link to James Cahill Publishing: http://www.cusslermen.com/Cahill.htm
(12) Before the internet, and before cheap, feature-quality digital cameras became obsequious, there were ads in Backstage West and Dramalogue where Directors of Photography could ply their wares.
(13) How rare? The television show The O.C. is not shot in the OC. Nor was the film Orange County.
(14) The couch features in the film. When Cahill's character and his recently-shot partner, Burke, bullshit on the couch and take some sexist jibe's at the later's wife, they are sitting on Dudley's sleeping spot.
(15) Credited as 'Elvira Jiminez'.
(16) VTR, was invented by Jerry Lewis (yes, that one) so he could watch himself pretend to be a spastic when he directing his own movies. It involves receiving and recording a video feed from the film camera so the director (or whoever has the juice) can watch that scene as it happens, and since it is being recorded, review it later.
(17) I will never find fault with a movie for including a flying kick done on stilts.
(18) “[t]he guy” is actually one of Cahill’s drama students, who was roughed up by his teacher in the scene.
(19) SMPTE ('The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers') timecode is way of syncing each picture and sound file. Its irritating, technical, easy to ignore, and easy to fuck up.
(20) You can find the film in the Spanish language section at many Best Buys, often at a significant discount. Its sad, because the film contains next to no Spanish.
(21) The marketing team for Snitch'd did a bang-up job, except for inexplicably failing to exploit the fact that Eva Longoria somehow ended up in them movie. Quite a few people, including the person that showed me the movie, bought in based on the cover, which features a the muscular, gun toting tough guy with garish tattoos and the tagline “East LA's pushers have a new menace... The DEA has a new partner”. The DEA, East LA or the man on the cover are not featured in the movie.
(22) I've bought a good half-dozen copies of Snitch'd & never seen it offered for more than $9.99, back when that was a good deal. Best Buy had it by the bushel in discount bins for $4.99, and as of this writing its available for $5.00 new and $1.96 used on Amazon.com – heck of a deal for that much entertainment.