Steve Tyska, left, and Alberto Cordero in The Grapes of Madison.
My wife bursts into tears when I tell her my idea. I've just been laid off after working at the same place for 10 years, and my grand plan for keeping us financially solvent with a roof over our heads and money for food, two kids and a dog is this: I'm gonna make movies.
Truth be told, I've been to film school, even graduated with something called a BFA in Filmmaking, but that was over 20 years ago. Now I'm 43 years old and I've spent my entire adult working life in mailrooms, delivery trucks and retail stores.
But it's April 2009, and no matter how many employment applications I fill out and no matter how charming my cover letters are, I'm getting no responses, not one little nibble. And anyway, all my work experience lands squarely in the arena known as Dead End Jobs.
After a few minutes, my wife pulls herself together and to my amazement actually agrees that maybe it's worth taking a shot. She knows my secret. I've always wanted to tell stories, to entertain.
With a generous loan from my parents, I purchase some HD video and sound equipment and start offering my services to anyone and everyone. I shoot some footage for a dog yoga video and volunteer to shoot archival video for Children's Theater of Madison. I pitch the idea of a weekly video piece to Isthmus.
One morning in mid November, Katie-next-door sees me on the street and asks me if I know that the deadline for entries for the 2010 Wisconsin Film Festival is Dec. 1. Of course I don't, but suddenly I have a mission. And a deadline. A very tight deadline.
I send out an email to a list of friends and neighbors inviting them to a Monday night brainstorming session at my house. Drinks and snacks will be provided.
I am surprised at the turnout. Basically everyone shows up, though I quickly realize that the prospect of free liquor on a Monday night is perhaps the primary motivator here. My next door neighbor Alberto suggests that I film the meeting, but I pooh-pooh the idea. I don't want to make a meta-movie about making a movie. Note to self: listen to Alberto from now on.
The session quickly and crazily devolves into a drunken shouting match among eight people. Fisticuffs almost break out over a disagreement about Marcel Duchamp. It's that kind of night. To my amazement, everyone has come with ideas for a movie, although style, subject matter and length vary wildly.
We basically have two weeks to write, shoot, and edit a movie that we hope will be good enough to get into the festival. No one is optimistic, everyone is loaded. Finally, I reveal my idea. I think that Alberto and my friend Steve are funny together, and charismatic, and I want to make a movie starring the two of them. Neither one of them has ever acted before or has any faith at all in his abilities, but they are my friends (and drunk) and they agree to a test shoot, a kind of audition.
I decide to kill a few birds with one stone so I enlist the services of the former theater major who lives across the street and shoot a scene in which Steve and Alberto take an acting class. I quickly cut it together and decide that it's not too terrible, and that since it's done it would be a shame to waste it. So I sit down and come up with a one-page outline for a movie that incorporates the acting class scene into a larger story.
I'm working with first-time actors, and I want to make it as easy as possible for them, so I don't write any dialogue for them to memorize. I encourage them to just be themselves and bring whatever they want to the table.
Making a movie is notoriously a pain in the ass, with long hours and much tedium between takes. I am determined to do the opposite. No one is being paid, this is no one's dream but mine, and I hate to impose. I decide this movie will work best if everyone is as spontaneous as possible. I want everything to ride on the performances, and I refuse to stress about lighting and camera angles and production values. I just want everyone to have fun. My friend Jon volunteers to help with sound recording, but otherwise, I am a one-man crew.
Over the course of the next two weeks, we shoot whenever we can, usually for no more than three hours at a time. I try to do only one or two takes of each scene. We are improvising everything, and I don't want people to have to remember what they said for different camera angles. I try not to think about anything other than: Is this funny? Is this working? Will people like this?
We are gearing this movie specifically for the festival, and I want to get as much of Madison into it as possible. We sneak into the Overture Center for a scene. We talk our way into the Bartell Theatre for another. We go to Wingra Park and State Street.
We embrace happy accidents that come our way. Kids walk into the frame, perfect. Boats pass by in the background. great. Lines are flubbed, no problem. I try to turn every misstep into something that works.
We finish shooting on Nov. 30, and I have literally one day to edit it and send it to the film festival in hopes they will accept it. I get to the main branch of the post office on Dec. 1, moments before it closes. I've named the movie The Grapes of Madison. It is 41 minutes long, and I give the package a kiss as I drop it in the mail slot.
This whole time, I've had my eyes on the ground, just doing the work without really thinking or processing. Now I watch the movie and make the horrifying discovery that without realizing it, I've made a movie about myself: A guy loses his job and dives headfirst into a new career that he is completely unqualified for. Good thing it's a comedy.
I screen the film for the cast and their families. People like it. I take it to New York and show my family and friends. I realize I still have some editing work to do. Time stands still as I wait to hear from the festival. Then one day I get an email... We're in! There is much celebrating, and I send in my revised cut of the film. I've labored over it, and I think I've made it about as good as it can be. I'm excited for people to see the film. I'm excited to get going with the next one, a companion piece for Grapes, and then a feature length film that I've been outlining in my head, and on paper, for the past 12 months.
Finally, a few weeks ago, out of the blue, I get another email from the film festival. We've won one of the few awards they give out, and we've won it for Steve's "breakthrough performance." It's the first acting award the festival has ever bestowed. I literally cannot believe my eyes, and my wife bursts into tears when I tell her the news. (Just kidding about my wife, but wouldn't that make a perfect ending for this story)?
Here is a trailer for the festival:
Here's a closer look at the film in an exclusive excerpt: