The Melancholy of a Lost Dog
Monday, 19 December 2011 14:46

"The Melancholy of a Lost Dog" is a short film I wrote and directed in the Spring of 1999 as a graduate student in Film & Video at Columbia College Chicago. WATCH IT HERE.

We were given two rolls of film (800 ft.) -- plenty for a 6-8 minute film, though I'm pretty sure the majority of the class ended up buying at least one more roll; I got by with 900. The school paid for processing those two rolls and we were able to check out all the equipment we needed (16mm camera, lights, etc...). Everything else -- food for our cast and crew, costumes, props, city permits, etc... -- came out of our pockets. The footage was transferred to Beta and edited digitally. The crew was comprised of some of my fellow first-year MFA students, plus a handful of undergrad film students. Director of Photography David J. Howard was a recent graduate of Columbia.

"Melancholy" was the final project of my first and only year in the program. Way in debt with a wedding coming up, I decided to take a year off from school and move back to Iowa City to work for a year. Of course, like so many students who plan to "take a year off," I ended up getting sidetracked by my job and ultimately decided that two more years of film school wasn't all that practical.

The idea for the film actually came from watching Antonioni's "L'Eclisse" with another student in the program, James Kimberling. (James served as my assistant director on the first day of the shoot and deserved that credit; I don't have an excuse for why I only gave him a "Special thanks" at the end. Truly sorry about that, James.) There's a line in "L'Eclisse" where the incredibly sexy Monica Vitti says (and I'm paraphrasing, since I don't have the exact line in front of me): "I can't help this feeling ... It's like the melancholy of a lost dog." I thought this was a fabulously evocative line and I immediately started devising a story that would go with this title (kind of backwards, I know).

The hopelessly literal person that I am, I kept picturing a guy in a dog suit walking down the street -- and the only reason I could imagine why a guy would pretend to be a dog was if he was getting paid for it. That made me think of a character in a play my former Grinnell roommate Kevin Rich was working on. We lived in the same set of apartments, and several months prior he had let me read part of a play about struggling actors. One of the characters had a job portraying a dog called "Scruff Ruffin." I had to use that name, and Kevin was nice enough to let me steal it for my screenplay, while also collaborating with me on the story.

A great actor who now has an MFA from Yale and is a drama professor, Kevin stars in the movie as the lead character, David Murphy/Scruff Ruffin. I was very fortunate to have such an immensely talented actor at my disposal during my time at Columbia. I used him in everything I did that year.

The film was shot over two days in Chicago. The first day we shot all of the outdoor scenes: at a playground in Lincoln Park; in my Lakeview neighborhood; and at Montrose Harbor. The next night we shot all of the indoor stuff at the Melrose Diner, a great 24-hour spot on Broadway and Melrose that was about 100 steps from my luxurious studio apartment.

With my additional 100 feet of film, I had about 27 minutes of footage to edit down into the 8-9 minute final product. A 3:1 shooting ratio is pretty difficult to accomplish, so I had to be prepared and the cast and crew had to be really professional. I didn't have the benefit of multiple takes in many cases. Kevin's opening monologue, for example, was a one-shot deal.

"Melancholy" is not great art by any stretch, but I'm proud of it for my first "real" film -- which basically means it was the first time I had an actual crew and professional equipment. So many student films seem to take place in somebody's apartment and involve a romantic break-up; I wanted to make my film feel "bigger" by shooting in multiple spots throughout the city.

A few other notes...

* Not that it hasn't been done numerous times, but I stole the idea for opening the movie without credits or a fade-up from Hal Hartley's "Trust."

* The music comes from one of my favorite artists, Dan Bern. The song during the "I am Scruff Ruffin" sequence is "Simple" from his "Smartie Mine" album. During the credits I used "Too Late To Die Young" from his self-titled debut album. This song in particular really ties in to one of the main themes of the movie -- the notion that you only have a limited amount of time to achieve greatness, and what do you do if your time has already passed. Read the lyrics here.

* Kevin really did play Faustus -- and quite well -- when we were undergrads. I wasn't necessarily trying to make it autobiographical, but the reference had to be to a well-known play and playwright, and Shakespeare seemed like a cliche. Plus, there's already a Henry V reference in the scene.

* David Howard did a really fantastic job shooting the film, but the framing might seem a little awkward in a lot of the dialogue scenes. Since the final product was edited digitally and screened on tape -- in other words, not projected on film -- we should have used the 'TV safe' framing.

* That's me in the dog suit throwing the key into Montrose Harbor. Kevin had to leave before we were done shooting to go to rehearsal and it was just me and the DP. Ah, the glamour of independent filmmaking.


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