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Director’s Notes #7: The Cast

Of course, miniatures and monsters do not make a movie (though sometimes it’s tempting to wish they did). Actors are required to at least
provide someone to stomp on, eat, or rend with talons and teeth.
Kidding aside, without a cast of competent actors, there was no one to
tell the story. So we needed a casting agent and fortunately, I
lived with one! My girlfriend Susan Papa, who is also an actress, took
on the enormous challenge of finding actors to play the normal
American Haskin family, the abnormal in-bred Crawford clan, and the
manically obsessed cryptozoologist Roger Eagleton Patterson.

Susan first got help from casting associates Susan Baker, a friend of mine
whom I met many years ago when we were freshmen at Ohio University,
and Jason Bowers, an art student Susan Papa knew from her day job at
an art college in Santa Monica. She secured studio space in a Hollywood acting workshop, placed the casting call in the local call sheets, and scheduled each actor to come in and read. At this point, neither Jim nor I was involved as the casting team did their jobs. Susan knew what I wanted in particular, which was an ethnically diverse Haskin family. The Crawfords were  likely going to be anglo, and I wanted Rip – the most deformed and
monstrous of them all – to be BIG.

After a few weeks, Team Cast-the-Bug was ready for call-backs, and
Jim and I sat in chairs far from the stage while Susan, Susan,
and Jason brought each actor in. Each actor was good in his or her own way, but the one thing that I found so frustrating was a lack of competent,
ethnically diverse actors. I know I might get lambasted for this,
because Los Angeles is a VERY ethnically diverse city, but where in
the hell were all the Asian, African-American, Latino/a, Indian, Native
American, Inuit actors? We did get a few, but for the most part, it
was an all-white casting session. I wrote Haskin family characters specifically so that we could have a step-mother who was racially/ethnically different from her new family. If that meant that Byron and Clarissa were
African American, and new-wife Joany was white or Asian, so be it. But
that didn’t happen because we simply never got the actors into the
casting room. Granted, we were not offering much in the way of
compensation, but shouldn’t art trump commerce at the mini-budget
level? Perhaps I’m still idealistic… or just naive.

Anyway, there were some interesting/humorous/WTF moments during the second round. First and foremost, one actor came in to read for alpha male hillbilly Billa Crawford, and he just knocked my socks off. I told Susan Papa not to bother with any more Billas because this actor was my man. Susan was diplomatic enough to say “that’s fine, but just see everyone else before you make your final FINAL decision.” I shrugged, said okay, and patronized her. Toward the end of the day, the last Billa came in and it was John Charles Meyer.

If the earlier actor had knocked my socks off, John Charles blew away my legs. He was totally different from what I had envisioned…he was better. He nailed Billa right away, playing him like a Looney Tunes character, just full of energy and humor while still creepy and threatening. I had my second, even more perfect Billa, and I changed my mind. John was offered the part the next day.

One of the most bizarre moments came while an actress was reading for the role of teenage daughter Clarissa. Specifically, it was scene in which her mother screams for her to reach the plunger…

The dynamite plunger.

The actress clearly did not read the stage direction in the sides,
which indicated that the plunger would detonate the dynamite. So what
happened? The actress cried and screamed while miming the
plunging of a toilet! As I sat watching, I felt like I was in some bizarro world I didn’t understand. That is, until I put the pieces together. It was all I could do to keep from busting out in uncontrolled laughter. From then on, we made clear to the actors in the scene just what kind of plunger it was.

Another actress rose my ire, and as it turned out, she did us a favor with her surprising demand. When all was said and done, we thought we had found our sexy-weird hillbilly Pearlene Crawford in the form of a young (21 or 22 year-old) actress. The script had Pearlene the same age as Clarissa, (about 17 or 18), so that’s what we wanted to cast. It’s important to note that Pearlene had a brief topless scene. Now, the debate about nudity in movies is not one I want to go into, but it was in the script, we notified all potential actresses about it, and we offered a body double if they felt uncomfortable with it. We hid nothing.

But when we invited this particular actress to play the role of Pearlene, she readily accepted it, under one condition: no topless scene. Fine, we agreed, we’ll get a body double. But this actress was adamant that the CHARACTER should not have a topless scene! Her reasoning was that the audience would think (rightly so) that those were her breasts on the screen, which was the whole point. She did not want anyone to think that she would do a topless scene, period. There was no way I was going to debate with her the idea that it wasn’t for her to dictate to us how to make our movie, so I respectfully thanked her for her time and dis-invited her from the role.

As I said, this turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events because
we had already seen a talented, beautiful actress in the form of
Ginger Pullman, whose audition was terrific. She was smoldering, sexy
and edgy, but she wasn’t the age the script called for. When casting
director Susan reminded me that Pearlene’s brother Billa was in his
late twenties/early thirties, and that Pearlene could be similar in
age, it made sense. Of course! We invited Ginger to play Pearlene, and
she accepted. Now that the film is finished, I cannot imagine anyone
else playing her.

One other thing regarding nudity and sex in the movies: American
audiences have no problem with graphic violence, but we sure are
uncomfortable with nudity and sex in movies. The Millennium Bug has no
gratuitous sex or nudity in it, and the topless scene is far from sexy
and titillating. When you see the movie, you’ll understand what I

The rest of the casting went extremely well. We discovered that Jon
Briddell and Jessica Simons (our Byron and Joany Haskin), both very attractive and extremely talented, had real chemistry.

Audiences had to like the Haskins, and hopefully, with the cute and innocent-looking Christine Haeberman as 18 year-old Clarissa Haskin, they would. Incidentally, Christine could easily go on to play teenagers while well into her 30’s. This genetic gift is something many here in Los Angeles would give their first born to have.

Rounding out the hillbilly Crawfords, Adam Brooks set the outrageous
and over-the-top tone as comic relief Fij, and Sandi Steinberg was
an easy choice as Granny Willow. Ken McFarlane – whose cryptozoologist
audition was  twitchy and nervous while maintaining an educated
dignity – was also an easy choice to play Roger Patterson. Surprisingly, the character of hulking, monstrous Rip Crawford changed once we saw Benjamin Seton. Ben was smaller in stature than I had imagined Rip to be, but he showed such sympathy that I changed the character to match him.

Ian Pfister, our Game Warden, was the last actor cast, long after the majority of the film had been shot. Trek Loneman, an amazing actor I’ve tried to use in everything I’ve done since meeting him in film school, was the only actor I would accept for Uncle Hibby, the aged leader of the Crawfords. Fortunately, Trek accepted.

Of course, The Millennium Bug would not be monster movie without a
monster. But how do you go about casting an actor to play a monster?
First, you do not do a casting call in the traditional sense. Producer
Jim wrote up an ad that said something like “we need someone crazy enough to put on a hot foam and latex rubber monster suit to smash miniatures in a steamy warehouse in North Hollywood.” Not surprisingly, we didn’t get many responses. Of those that we got, Benjamin Watts was clearly the one sent down from Olympus to help us mere mortals. Before donning the arm extensions and showing us his moves, Ben came across at once as an amiable, enthusiastic, and introspective performer. When he mentioned Guillermo Del Toro’s favorite suit actor, Doug Jones (who played Abe Sapien in Hellboy and the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, among others), I knew we had our man!

Ben proceeded to put on the bug suit’s arm extensions and give us
his take on how the creature would come out of the ground. When I saw
what he was doing, it all made sense to me. I’d been having a hard time
imagining the details of this particular scene, but when Ben mimed it,
it was epiphanic. Sure, I had designed the bug suit, built it, done some tests with a student inside it. But for the first time, I was seeing just how it would act. And that was all the brilliant performance of Ben Watts. I would, of course, put him through hell for the next four months. But in my defense, he asked for it!

How To Make a Giant Monster Head for a Horror Movie (BTS #4)

Underwear scenes, Third nipples & Deformed hillbillies (BTS video #3)

Director’s Notes #6: The Miniatures

Town-4How can you tell a man in a monster suit is supposed to be a giant unless you have something to compare it to? Simple. You build miniatures. Early on, we established that our monster would be about 30 feet tall, which necessitated a 1/6th scale for our miniature sets. These sets would provide not only “locations” for the Bug to romp, but also allow us to establish our geography, as well as create background plates in which our actors could be composited.

We decided to shoot the effects according to the script order. First up then was the miniature forest, and we needed trees. Building 1/6th scale redwood trees turned out to be a relatively simple, straightforward process. Various diameters and lengths of pvc pipe were purchased at Lowe’s and Home Depot, then cut to the appropriate length. Although it was not established in the script, I had always imagined the forest as a redwood forest. That helped us, because with redwoods, there is more trunk and very little foliage at ground level. To produce two dozen trees, I laid out a ten foot sheet of clay that was about six inches wide and two inches thick. I then sculpted “tree texture” into the clay, cast it in Ultracal, and painted-in black pigmented liquid latex. When the latex dried, the skin was pulled and glued around the pvc pipe. Instant tree trunk. We later made runs to Michael’s craft stores and bought lots of plastic evergreen foliage. Scale was always a challenge, but I think we got away with it.


The tree trunks were painted and the plastic foliage wired-in. Small L-brackets at the bottom of the trees were attached and then screwed into the stage, while the trees were supported from above by a 2×4 grid attached to the warehouse’s ceiling support beams. For the ground level foliage, more plastic and nylon plants of the appropriate scale were purchased at Michael’s, and then arranged and glued onto lengths of two-inch wide by one inch thick pine lumber. For the ferns, we enlisted help from our mom, who arranged and glued the mini-fern clusters to small blocks of foam for the sake of portability.

Next up for construction were the various buildings. The script called for a hillbilly cabin, a crypt and graveyard, and a ghost town.  Again, 1/6th scale was required for these buildings, too, as the size of the monster had been established. Jim and I had begun the process of miniature construction immediately after securing the warehouse. We relied on the storyboards, determining which buildings needed to be built with full detail, and which ones we could get away with only one or two sides of detail. We also needed to take into account which buildings were going to be damaged or destroyed.


The Crawford clan’s cabin was started first, and would be featured prominently throughout the film. The entire structure was built from half-inch plywood on a one inch thick particle board base. Strips of luan were ripped on a table saw, then glued over the plywood shell. The front of the cabin was left mostly open, because it needed to be destroyed. Balsa wood was what we relied on for destructible buildings and parts of buildings. For the cabin, I built a balsa wood front, which turned out to be an unnecessary expenditure of time and money because the cabin was never seen being destroyed from the outside. We filmed it, but the destructive action was weak. Ironically, the storyboards never revealed the cabin being destroyed as an exterior shot. It was the one time that we strayed from the boards, and it proved an important lesson.

Ultimately, the overall cabin design was pretty basic, although I designed it with a steeply peaked roof because I thought  it would give it a more fairytale appearance, which fit our aesthetic.  The cabin was painted with thinned-out wood stain and detailed with balsa wood pieces and model railroad moss.

It’s probably important to note that unlike a big budget film, the miniatures were constructed primarily by just two people: Jim and me. Others came in to help when they could- Jim’s wife Mehri glued shingles on the cabin roof for what felt like months, my girlfriend and casting director Susan painted some of the buildings, and even Michael Goedecke, one of the executive producers, came in for a few days to make little bricks out of clay. But for three months, it was mostly just the two of us, and then later, just me.

Next, the script called for a crypt. I had taken a bunch of photos of crypts in the old cemetery in downtown Cleveland during a family visit to Ohio. The crypts were of the appropriate age… not that I was too concerned about historic accuracy. I built the crypt from individual clay bricks, which were sculpted individually from water based clay, then laid out on small sheets of plywood to dry in the sun. Once, after spending the morning making bricks, Jim and I needed to make a run to Lowe’s for some supplies, and so we jumped into my car and drove off. As we cruised down Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, we heard this odd crashing sound.  I looked into the rearview mirror and what should I see but clay bricks flying everywhere! Apparently, a sheet of bricks had been laid on the roof of my car to dry out, but neither Jim nor I had noticed when we got in. Needless to say, we picked up every undamaged brick while traffic obliterated the others.

MBug_Miniatures_2Because of the delicacy of the crypt, and the fact that it had to be destroyed, I was not able to build it until a few days before shooting. I built it on a small base which was screwed into the stage floor. Brick by brick, I hot glued that crypt together. Once again, the advantage of the storyboards meant that only two sides of the crypt had to be built. I will always use storyboards for effects sequences, because why build what you don’t need?

The most challenging of the models to build were the various structures comprising the ghost town of Mason’s Grove.  I love ghost towns, so I was really looking forward to building Mason’s Grove. I had done some research while visiting the ghost town of Rhyolite in Nevada, taking lots of photos and reallyMBug_Miniatures_4absorbing the atmosphere. Mostly, though, I relied on a picture book of ghost towns I had given my girlfriend as a Christmas present (yes, I’m a romantic) and research from the internet. The challenge really was that there are very few ghost towns in the kind of climate in which the movie takes place. Desert ghost towns are well-preserved because of the lack of moisture in the air. Ours was in a mountain pine forest, and had to look decayed and grown-in, which we accomplished through the judicious use of various mosses and lots of artificial plants. We also had gotten good results with various colors of wood stain, which we thinned with turpentine and painted onto the various buildings.


The jail was the most involved of the buildings and the only one made of stone. I had gone to Foam Mart in Burbank to find some sculpture foam, but the price for it was way out of our budget for the amount we would need. Instead, I went back to Michael’s and discovered that the foam blocks used for dry flower arrangements would work for our needs. Best of all, five blocks cost only about six dollars!

The foam blocks were sliced into thirds, glued to the wood shell of the jail, and then carved. I used a steel dental tool to carve out the individual blocks, which was relatively easy, since the foam was so soft. That softness, of course, meant that it was easy to damage, so we had to take extra care when moving it into place.

MBug_Miniatures_3There was a lot of whimsy in that town, and the level of detail we were able to achieve is, in my opinion, pretty impressive. Their are miniature election posters that proclaim “Vote Mason for Mayor!” all over the place, as well as some “Circus Coming!” bills. There are also piles of lumber outside the general store, little pieces of furniture here and there (the hotel has a porch swing courtesy of suitmation actor Benjamin Watts’ impressive miniature-building skills!), flower pots, crates, trunks, barrels, etc. I doubt viewers will ever see them, but that’s okay because no one is watching The Millennium Bug for such things. But I wanted them there, if for no other reason than the atmospheric verisimilitude they provided.

There were a slew of other miniatures that were built, including a gallows, an abandoned well, a monster “nest,” a TNT shack, and a living room interior. With one small exception, the miniatures did their jobs and held up well. That one exception? I’ll reserve the story of its utter failure for another time…