“The Inmates are Running the Asylum”
In December 2004, pre-production began on “Jolly Roger,” the first filmed feature I was to write or produce in Los Angeles (I had made three in South Carolina). It was a short pre-production period, as the production company, the Asylum (now famous for the “Sharknado” movies and “Z Nation” show on Syfy), wanted to rush out one more feature before the end of the year.
It would be a 9-day shoot on 35 mm film for $85,000. I was excited to shoot 35 mm (my movies in South Carolina had been on 16 mm), but I knew a 9-day shoot at that budget with the number of locations we had in that script – and the scale of it – was daunting. Also, it was 35 mm “short ends,” which the Asylum got for cheap and which meant the camera had to be loaded and unloaded more often. Which is exactly what you want on a lean 9-day shoot, more down time.
Pre-production was a short three weeks. That included casting, crewing, finding locations, everything. When Gary Jones and I sold the script, the Asylum had said no rewrites were needed (for the small fee they paid, we were glad), but I still did some tweaking on the script. I kept thinking they would ask us to scale it down, as the script had things like fight scenes on docks with a mob of townspeople attacking the evil pirate, but they never broached that subject. Even at a production meeting, it was like “the emperor had no clothes” – no one said what needed to be said, that the script was too big.
For casting, Gary and I wanted Andrew Divoff as evil pirate Jolly Roger. Divoff had played the “Wishmaster” in the first two movies of that name, the original of which had been executive produced by Wes Craven, directed by our friend Robert Kurtzman, and received a wide theatrical release. The Asylum said they could pay $3,000 to Divoff for that role. Not $3,000 a day. $3,000 total. Divoff wanted to play the role but, not surprisingly, wanted more money. The Asylum wouldn’t budge. So no Divoff. The Asylum wanted other people like Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen, who Gary and I had both worked with, but we both knew he wasn’t right for the role. Thankfully Gunnar passed.
“Jolly Roger” was supposed to take place largely at sunny beaches and marinas. We scouted marinas and docks in Oxnard and Marina Del Rey, Calif., none of which were used for principal photography in the movie. (More on that later.)
I had agreed to direct some second unit (usually minor shots, often with no main cast, like establishing shots or inserts). But I was also flying back to the Carolinas for Christmas (I had bought my ticket months earlier), so I wouldn’t be there the whole time. I’d be there the first two or three days of the shoot and the last couple of days.
The first day of the shoot was largely dialogue scenes at the “sheriff’s department,” which was empty space at the Asylum’s offices. I thanked David Latt, one of the producers at the Asylum, for making the film. David told me we weren’t going to be happy with the end result. At least he was honest. The second day of shooting was at a bar near the University of Southern California campus. It was supposed to be a strip club, so our propmaster built a stage and stripper pole. My cameo is in that scene (I have cameos in many of my films, sadly not all).
Then I flew back home for Christmas. A couple days later I got a call that Gary’s brother-in-law died on Christmas Eve. He had to fly back to Michigan for the funeral. Leigh Scott, our line producer who went on to direct many more movies for the Asylum, stepped in and directed for a day while Gary was gone. His style was, well, quick. You can definitely see the difference in his scenes versus Gary’s. But he made his day. And that’s important.
Remember how “Jolly Roger” was supposed to take place at sunny beaches and marinas? So of course, Los Angeles had an epic rainy season then (the second-most on record). As a result, many scenes that were supposed to take outdoors now took place indoors. Our big, climactic fight on the docks between dozens of angry townspeople, police, and Jolly Roger? It now took place in a warehouse in Chinatown with our two lead kids, a couple of police officers, and Jolly Roger. Beach campfire scenes? Shot at the warehouse in Chinatown. Jolly Roger’s cave? Shot at the warehouse in Chinatown. Some of it didn’t look bad – the magic of moviemaking.
Best of all, the last scene of the script, the epilogue, took place on a sailboat out at sea. Gary called me the night before this scene: “Jeff, Leigh just called me. He says he has the boat for this scene.” Me: “THAT’S GREAT!” Gary: “He says it fit into the back of his van.” Me: (heart sinking).
So we get to set, and Leigh had brought a boat (to Chinatown) all right. It was a small kayak-like thing that Leigh suggested we put green screen all around it to make it look like it was on the ocean. Gary walked around it, hand to chin, like he was pondering. Gary said, “Leigh, the sheriff is supposed to walk up from below deck with a tray of margaritas. How is he gonna do that?” Leigh of course had no answer. Gary: “And Jolly Roger is supposed to sneak up the side of the boat and surprise everyone.” I wanted to leave, but Gary pleaded with me to rewrite the last scene of the script. So we did. So instead of a cool scene on a sailboat in the ocean, we have two kids and a sheriff. In a warehouse. In Chinatown.
Another fun fact: One actor got struck by lightning, or it hit right beside him in the parking lot. The movie felt jinxed.
Post-production was fast on “Jolly Roger.” I managed to get my composer friend Mel Lewis on board to score it. Mel ended up scoring over a dozen movies for the Asylum and has great stories himself about working for that film factory. I was invited to be on the commentary track with some of the cast and Leigh. (Gary was out of the country directing another film, so he couldn’t be there.) We were plied with lots of wine at that session.
The movie was released on dvd in May 2005 under the title “Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter’s Cove.” It was the first movie of mine to get into Blockbuster (no small feat, if you were an independent filmmaker back then). “Jolly Roger” actually premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel (it was called that back then, not Syfy) shortly after! Gary and I couldn’t believe it. Back then, Sci-Fi was making and airing movies largely in the $1 million-plus range, and this little movie cost a measly $85,000. But it was part of a package deal to the Sci-Fi Channel. Whatever the case, it was good to see the movie get out there, though if we’d known we had a shot at the Sci-Fi Channel, we would have asked for a performance bump in our contract.
I made many new friends on “Jolly Roger,” some of which remain friends to this day. Lead actors Tom Downey and Tom Nagel have been in other movies of mine, and Nagel is a director now, too. He directed “Clowntown” and “The Toybox,” both of which I helped produce. First Assistant Director Justin Jones and actor Rhett Giles are now producers, and we’ve partnered on a movie. I even talk to the guys at the Asylum from time to time. They’ve done a million movies now and have a successful business model.
When I came up with the idea for “Jolly Roger,” I’d envisioned it as the first of a series. Like “Leprechaun” but with a pirate. But the low production value of “Jolly Roger” pretty much doomed the chances for this. So that’s a sore point. Maybe one day I’ll buy back the rights (a former partner of the Asylum has them now) and remake the movie the right way.
Like George Lucas would do.
Jeff Miller is a filmmaker from Columbia, S.C. who now lives in Los Angeles, Calif. and has produced and/or written 17 feature films to date, including the recently released “Kill ‘Em All,” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. “ClownTown,” “Edgar Allan Poe’s Lighthouse Keeper,” and “Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan” can currently be streamed on Amazon Prime. Jeff can be reached at MillmanPrd@aol.com .