Behind the Scenes

For the fourteen months of shooting The Call of Cthulhu, Sean Branney kept an online journal sorta thing and dished out some stills from the production. Read the tale of agony and ecstasy in the world of low-budget Lovecraftian filmmaking.

Hollywood Premiere
Cthulhu Lives (2006)

We had a private screening for cast, crew and friends at the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood. Since then, the movie has screened at numerous film festivals and screenings in the US, Europe and South America. We have been deeply gratified by the excellent response the film has generated from both the press and fans. We have finally cleaned up most of the mess we made in making the movie. And yes, we are working on the script for the next HPLHS Motion Pictures production.

At last...
Silver Screen (7-9 October)
After all that went on below, we finally got to see the movie projected in a theatre before a live audience at the 10th Annual HP Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland. It was a marvelous experience. The film was warmly received by the crowd and went on to be honored with two Brown Jenkin Awards (Jury Selection - Best Short Film and Audience Selection - Best of Show). We had a great time with our fellow filmmakers and fans. We could not have scripted a better opening for the movie (well, maybe if Cthulhu came...)

Fear Factory (29 September)
Somewhere in New Jersey, workers at a DVD factory are being plagued wtih nightmares and they have no idea why...

A shadowy swamp
No, Really... (14 September)
OK, finishing the movie was one job, but finishing the DVD was quite another. We carefully crammed the disc with The Call of Cthulhu, an amusing "making of" featurette, slide shows, alternate music tracks, languages and other goodies and then wrapped it in lovely packaging. It's gone off to the factory for replication and should be available from the Cthulhu Lives Store around October 1st. We'll have a bunch of other neat stuff available then too...

It Is Done (6 September)
Yep. We're putting some finishing touches on it for the DVD, but the movie is done and will be going off for manufacturing this week. Our deepest thanks to the cast and crew, and all the great fans who have following the making of this crazed endeavor.

It took fourteen months of shooting. It's been a great adventure. We look forward to sharing it with you. Soon.

The Stars Are... (31 August)
Strange vapors are emitting from our editing bay... the angles are all wrong. Test screening for crew imminent. I dare not say more.

Well, Is It? (26 August)
We are fine tuning the video edit. We're doing a couple touch-up stop motion shots. Our composers are writing like mad and we're fitting the music to the picture. It's... almost. Very soon now. The stars are almost right.

The Final Countdown (11 August)
We will lock picture on 20 August. No more shooting, no more editing. So, of course, for the next 9 days we are shooting, compositing, editing, and movie-making until our fingers bleed.

The End is Near (2 August)
OK, all that remains to be shot now is Great Cthulhu himself. We were afraid you guys couldn't handle seeing how cool the stop-motion puppet is, but believe us: he's cool. His steel armature features 96 points of articulation, and that's not counting his poseable tentacles, gill things, eye stalks or dream organs. We've got great new composers, and we're editing like fiends. We anticipate having DVDs ready for sale in early October. Seriously.

R'lyeh is a strange place
What the Hell? (9 July)
"Why aren't you guys done yet?" Believe me, we're working on it. Building a scale miniature of R'lyeh is no small task. We think you'll find this one captures the mind-melting grandeur of the place. Anyway, we're shooting miniatures this week and will soon start stop-motion photography on Great Cthulhu himself. We appreciate your patience.

End Game (2 June)
We know we've kept you waiting, but it's going to be worth it. Our only remaining sequences feature Cthulhu himself running about our fabulously non-Euclidean R'lyeh miniature set. While stop-motion filming may take a while, we hope to put the camera away and turn to editing and sound by the end of June.

Ready for My Closeup (7 May)
As further proof that we're getting closer to being done, today's shooting was all about closeups and insert shots. Yes, they were small and non-very exciting compared to some of the stuff we've done, but important to telling the story nevertheless. So today featured closeups on lips, fingers, newspaper clippings and a certain bas relief of Great Cthulhu himself.

On Location (30 April)
Not content with the myriad of production locations here in sunny Los Angeles, your friends at the HPLHS spared no expense and actually flew a crew to Providence, Rhode Island to shoot a scene (special thanks to Anthony Penta, our local host). We wont tell you which famous building we shot at and in, however, those of you who read the Lovecraft story carefully might be able to guess which one (hint: it's near the Rhode Island School of Design).
The Alert at full steam

Still Rolling (24 April)
Pressing ever onward, we shot two brief insert shots: an exterior of St. Louis University and the famed "Boots in the Mud" shot. For the university we used a Los Angeles high school built in 1911. With some clever miniatures and forced perspective, we were able to create a simple and elegant establishing shot. We then went into a muddy gulch in the hills above Glendale and shot a closeup of boots slogging through mud. This shot will be intercut with LeGrasse and his men trudging through the swamp.

The Horror at Sea (14 April)
Armed with an artificial sky, a replica of the South Pacific and two amazingly detailed models for The Emma and The Alert, we shot our miniature footage of ships at sea. The weather was good, no one got wet and in a 10 hour session we were able to get the footage we needed for some of the key maritime sequences of the movie. The ocean will be set aside for a bit now as we work on the the miniature R'lyeh set. Some of the sequences involving it will require ocean too. You know why...

The Swamp
Once More into the Swamp, Dear Friends (23 March)
We welcomed the vernal equinox by once more shooting footage. Andrew completed the glorious miniature swamp set. The swamp was built at 1/24th scale, with some miniatures also at 1/6th scale for closeups. Armed with lots of fog, we filmed ample footage of the swamp. This miniature set, which took about 6 weeks to build, will now be struck to make way for upcoming shoots of ships at sea.

Is it Done Yet? (2 March)
Umm, no. February was a slower month. Some big non-Cthulhu commitments from some of our team members slowed our progress a little. But the swamp miniature is nearly ready for shooting, and the miniature Alert has been expertly fitted and will soon re ready for filming too. We'll let you know as soon as we're ready to announce a release date.

R'lyeh Dream Model
Dream a Little Dream of Me (12 January)
Live-action photography has officially wrapped on the film. The three sets for the dream sequences were carefully built and painted. Each was designed to use specific techniques of special effects photography from the 1920s to put our actors into the hellish geometry and architecture of their dream R'lyeh. The design of the sets was enhanced with lighting, costume and makeup designs especially tailored to the R'lyehs of the unconscious minds of Wilcox and The Man. Shooting went smoothly through these very precise setups. The production now moves onward to focus on music, miniatures and models. And our editors are hard at work, assembling the first rough-cut of the film as 95% of the film is now in the can.

We're Going to Need a Bigger Boat
Row, Row, Row Your Boat (18 December)
Recycling elements from the set of The Alert plus a few theatre productions, we built the hull of The Alert for the shots when the fleeing sailors approach in their rowboat and climb back aboard their ship. This was our first scene with extensive use of a rowboat in water effect. A clever use of a giant rowboat dolly, lots of fabric, lots of fans, lots of crew, and a few fistfulls of glitter made the illusion work very nicely (although our actors did note the combined effect of glitter and huge fans did make breathing rather sparkly).

We then struck the hull and quickly setup the rowboat for the scenes where they paddle in open ocean. The day was a challenging one, a day where you have to learn to make the best of not having the resources you really wish you had. Still, the footage looks good and tells a key part of the exciting climax of the story.
Paddling for their lives
Action Movie (6 December)
After reviewing the footage of the ship The Emma in the storm, we decided the shot would be better if we put the camera in the ocean and filmed onto the deck, rather than visa versa. We fired up rain, wind and fog and got far superior coverage of the scene in which the sailors of The Emma are battered by the storm and spy the abandoned ship, The Alert.

We booked the rest of the day of shooting to cover the sequence that follows the survivng sailors once they've returned to The Alert and prepare for the final confrontation with Cthulhu. While this sequence will be less than 30 seconds of the finished film, the shots were pretty complicated and needed to be done right. Experimentation led to some excellent lightning effects, some experimental makeup looked excellent, and cast members Dan Harper and Matt Fahey shined as they drove their ship in terror.

Capt. Collins in the storm
At Sea (24 November)
The last major sequence to be shot involves the sailors from the Emma boarding the abandoned ship, The Alert, before the go ashore at R'lyeh. After chatting with the locals on R'lyeh, they paddle for their lives to get back to The Alert, ram Cthulhu with the ship and limp away from the accursed place. This makes for a very good story, however, it's a serious challenge for low-budget filmmakers. The ship sets not only needed to be realistic, they needed to be built (a) to match the models of the respective ships and (b) look like 1920s movie sets. Not ones to be easily thwarted though, Leman and Branney and able crew set about building sets for the two ships.

Because the script only has the sailors on the schooner, The Emma, briefly, we fashioned a deck, railing, some rope rigging and sails. With fog machines, a massive fan, and water spritzing by the makeup department, we were able to capture a nice quick scene on The Emma. The Alert, is another story.

The Wheelhouse of The Alert
The set of The Alert needed to provide interior and exterior views of the wheelhouse of a run down commercial fishing vessel. Our friend Nick Offerman provided us warehouse-type space adjoining his excellent woodworking shop. For a week we toiled like maniacs using 1x2s, luan (thin plywood), cardboard, plexiglass, vintage scientific equipment, accurate nautical charts, a severed finger and several hundred wooden nubs to create The Alert's wheelhouse.

We finished painting the set as the cast was getting into makeup (notice no one grabs the ship rail; it's paint is still wet). We shot late into the night, our stalwart crew joined by Aaron Vanek (behind the scenes video and photos) and Kirsten Hageleit (swinging light fixture operator). We captured great footage of the pre-R'lyeh action on the ship. Next week we'll be back aboard The Alert to film the deperate panic that follows face-time with Cthulhu.

The Paddy Wagon
The Paddy Wagon (18 November)
After our first several attempts to shoot the antique paddy wagon were sabotaged by weather, mechanics, location problems and the like, we scheduled it again. This time we sent a flat-bed tow truck to the Police Headquarters of a certain southern California town (we don't want anyone getting in trouble). We loaded up the car and set out for Branney's back yard with the paddy wagon, a squad car and Officer Aaron, a real police escort for the vehicle. Because no one on the set was actually qualified to drive this antique vehicle, we labored to push it up a steep driveway and get it into place. Andrew retro-fitted the car with a set of electrical lights (the original lights are gas powered) and a magnetic New Orleans Police sign. Clever use of lighting and fog transformed Branney's back yard into a bona fide Louisiana swamp with an authentic period police vehicle.

R'lyeh in the Backyard (4-6 November)
The Plan
As the movie heads towards completion, we knew we'd have to film in R'lyeh. Not some namby-pamby model or digital effects shot; we need to build a real 3D R'lyeh set to complete the movie. Andrew Leman, knew it would drive him to insanity to try and draw a blueprint of R'lyeh, so he opted to build a scale model. It came out very nice, was suitably bizarre and I liked it a lot. Until I asked him what the scale was. His model meant we would have to build a set 35 feet wide, 16 feet deep and 25 feet high. Something the size of a small house. It had to be structurally sound enough for 8 actors plus filming crew to climb around on it. Oh yes, and its geometry is so weird that part of the set needed to be capable of eating an actor.

Wide Shot
Our incredibly obliging friends Noah and Brad said we could use their backyard for shooting. Had they known how big this thing would be and what we'd do to their yard, I'm sure they never would have agreed. But they did and soon we were grappling with the incredible cost of the amount of lumber needed to build this thing. In a flash of brilliance, scaffolding came to mind.

Cheap, metal, strong, easy to assemble... a perfect solution. Soon Leman, Branney, Barry Lynch and Matt Fahey had assembled six sets of scaffolding, topped with six theatre platforms. On top of those went flats (false walls used in theatre productions). Then came cardboard, lots and lots of cardboard. While very vulnerable to wind and rain, cardboard gave us a cheap and flexible material to use to face the stone surfaces of R'lyeh.

R'lyeh required fabric, huge amounts of fabric. Fortunately Branney (who runs Theatre Banshee) had just finished a production which used huged pieces of fabric in its set design. We quickly cut down the 9x9 fabric panels, brought them to this set and used them to face the 10x20 towers of scaffolding. More fabric still was required to build the ocean that surrounds R'lyeh. A special diaphanous shimmery blue material was found which creates a very nice water effect (particularly when shot in black and white at night).

We painted and painted and painted. Then we added a dinghy. And in less than a week, we created a massive Cthulhoid play-structure, capable of being filmed from many angles and meeting the needs of the story.

At night with sailors
We gathered the cast, crew, wardrobe and makeup teams and got the sailors ready for their first arrival at R'lyeh. Everyone (especially us) was pleased to see the structure could hold up the whole cast and it could be photographed from a variety of interesting angles. The terrified sailors clambored over cyclopean blocks of cardboard as we shot many scenes of them exploring the city.

We came back with a slightly smaller group of actors to get coverage of additional scenes. The temperature dropped considerably (quite a hardship for us thin-blooded Californians). Thursday's particular challenge was to get the actor playing Rodriguez falling off of the top of Cthulhu's tomb into the miasmal void below. David Pavao was quite a good sport as we asked him to do many painful things over and over again.

Rodriguez plummets onto fabric
We realize that the stills we're showing you here look incredibly goofy. But when you see the images through the lens of the real camera, in black and white, we think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how good this cardboard monstrosity looks

The entire cast was assembled one more time and with the aid of a taller ladder (14 feet placed on top of the main deck already 11 feet off the ground) we were able to get some more great coverage. Late in the evening we moved onto perhaps the trickiest shot of R'lyeh: where Parker gets devoured by the architecture.
Cinema Magic
To get the shot we built a part of the set which contains an inward 90 degree angle which when properly lit appears to be an outward 90 degree angle. Using this, the actors would jump off of one platform, land on another and then the actor (Chris Lackey) playing Parker would fall backwards into the negative space. It sounds pretty easy but actually required quite a bit of courage as Chris would have to fall backwards, blindly into a hole, hoping to land on the foam cushions hidden somewhere below in the darkness. Chris' mind came around to the idea of what was required of him, but his body remained resistant. Eventually though, we fed Chris to the angle several times and it looked pretty damned cool as R'lyeh swallowed him up.

By 2am on Friday night, we wrapped shooting in R'lyeh. It's since been dismantled, and hauled off to the dump and another location where elements from this set will be recycled.

The Man at Work
Swamps are Wet (20 October)
We set in for the final push to finish all the live action shots. Among these are a shot of Legrasse and his men in the paddy wagon and the Swamp Family telling Legrasse about the terrible things happening in the swamp. After much searching we managed to get permission to borrow a real 1910 era paddy wagon from a certain police department. We were all set to shoot when we got word that the mechanic who was prepping the car for us left it in gear and it crashed into a tree. It's being fixed....

As for the Swamp Family shot, we found a swamp shack and lined up and 9 actors for the scene. The song says, "It never rains in Southern California". It hasn't rained here in about 6 months. So, you can all guess what happened out at the swamp shack. Fortunately, only the crew got incredibly soaked, no equipment was permanently ruined, our host's house only blew some fuses, and no one was injured or arrested. We wrapped the evening by changing locations to somewhere warm and dry and getting some great footage of The Man working on geologic specimens in the museum.

Effects Shots (25 September)
We cracked out the camera again to get some needed coverage for the trailer for The Call of Cthulhu which is scheduled to be released at the HP Lovecraft film festival the first weekend of October. Using a theatre where Sean currently has a play running, we setup four different shots. The studio logo shots with the globe and zeppelin were shot here. We also shot R'lyeh sinking and Cthulhu himself for the trailer.

The Man and The Widow
Norway (28 August)
After scouting numerous location to use as the Johansen house in Norway, we eventually settled on the so-called Snow White cottages in Silver Lake (a neighborhood in Los Angeles). These apartments look as if they were built to be part of Disneyland and they provided an old-world quaintness that's hard to find in this part of the world. We brought in our very agreeable actors and quickly shot some terrific footage of The Man's visit to Johansen's widow in Norway.

The Big One (14-15 August)
Our previous weeks of shooting were preparations for the big shoot of mid-August. We needed to get footage of Legrasse his men in the swamp, the crazed dancing cultists, and The Man in the sunroom. We came to the conclusion that the swamp sequences needed to be shot on a set rather than in a real swamp. Swamps are hard to come by in Los Angeles in the summer, and the shots we needed would be hard to setup and light in a real swamp. So, after

Legrasse & Co. in the swamp
doing some scouting, we settled on renting a sound stage. Visualiner is a huge facility in Culver City, with a theatre, big empty spaces, and built-in strip club set (complete with stripper poles). The plan was we would build a swamp, take it to Visualiner, assemble it, shoot the swamp sequences, then shoot the green-screen sequences with the cultists, shoot the Sun Room scenes and finally shoot some more green screen footage.

It's hard to build a swamp from scratch, but with some help from our friends, lots of fabric, yarn and paper maché, we managed to assemble a swamp complete with ten massive trees. It looked pretty absurd in person, but with light, fog and actors, we were happy with the final results. The swamp was used for just one day of shooting with the cops and the cultists before it was struck and stuff into dumpsters.

The Man in the Sun Room
The green-screen we'd planned to borrow didn't materialize, so we quickly built one with masonite and chroma-key green paint. Then our squad of crazed cultists caked in dirt and wearing a few tattered rags (some wearing nothing at all) performed their hideous ritual on the green-screen. It was exceptionally weird, even by our standards. But our cast was a bunch of pros and they danced, undulated, flopped and brayed as they summoned their dark god.

The following morning we setup the Sun Room and with the help of some lovely natural light, captured some great footage of Matt Foyer as The Man. After a half-day in the Sun Room, our crew of eight sailors came onto the green-screen set and we filmed shots in which the sailors will eventually be composited into the R'lyeh set.

The Studio and Beyond! (7-8 August)

Crazed Castro
Our second weekend of shooting involved a return to Arkham Studios and shooting at two public beaches in the Los Angeles area. Our first night we converted two other parts of the studio into Legrasse's office and the Sydney Museum. Again, innovative lighting by Dave Robertson created very distinct looks for the different scenes shot at the same location.

Museum Clerk with an Old Friend
An early start and cooperative fog got us off to a good start. Unfortunately an actor forgot to bring a key hat from home. Our amazing costumer, Laura Brody actually managed to cut fabric from the hem of an actor's pants and fashion it into a completely suitable hat, all in the back seat of a car at the beach. Laura is amazing. Our first location, on the cliffs by the beach had been tagged with graffiti since our scouting trip and we were forced to improvise. With some Spider-Man-like moves, our Director of Photography, David Robertson managed to setup some excellent shots.

A New Zealand Pub
Our streak of excellent luck in not getting arrested continued as we moved to another busy beach location for another shot. The police, street mimes and fishermen left us alone and we were able to get our footage and run. We wrapped the day by shooting in the bedroom of Hollywood apartment owned by another obliging friend. Once again David's ability to get a shot while hanging his body precariously proved of great use. Again, no air conditioning, but a smaller crew and shorter scene made for a pleasant shoot.

Our friends at the Celtic Arts Center in Studio City were most kind to let us use The Snug, their clandestine back-room pub as our New Zealand tavern. With some imaginative lighting we were able to capture the feeling of a dingy Wellington watering hole.
A Particularly Unhelpful Clerk
A key part of low-budget filmmaking is to get your friends to let you shoot at their locations. You have perhaps noticed by now that we have many kindly friends who have helped us in this film. Our next location was provided to us by Joe and Laura of Eros Archives: one of the leading dealers of vintage erotica. Yes, we filmed in warehouse filled with vintage smut, right in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. Yet with the miracle of film (and Andrew Leman's relentless dedication to vintage office supplies), the erotica warehouse transformed itself very neatly into an Australian government records office.

In the Beginning (24-25 July)
Our first weekend of shooting was in a lovely Victorian house in Pasadena. It was brutally hot and a very challenging weekend of shooting. We were able to use the house for four location though, and no one actually passed out from heat exhaustion. Ah California in summertime. Without air conditioning...

The third day of shooting we moved to our pal (and fellow Lovecraftian filmmaker) Bryan Moore's Arkham Studios. Bryan's hospitality combined with air conditioning made for a much more pleasant shoot.

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