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On The Set of RED RIVER

-Feature by Nic Brown-

 

Even at 9 o’clock in the morning the air is hot and muggy. Not surprising for a sunny August day in rural Greensburg, Kentucky. If the heat is affecting filmmaker Jacob Ennis it doesn’t show. This is probably because today is the first day of shooting for his newest film RED RIVER. “It’s going to be a bad one

Director Jacob Ennis (right) prepares to film the first scene.

today for everyone, but we’ll get through it.” He comments as he leads a small group towards the location for today’s shoot - a two hundred year old building that is just starting to undergo a much needed restoration. Upstairs looks like a construction site, but that is not Ennis’s destination. He guides cast and crew down under the building’s back porch and through a small doorway into the cellar.

 

At first it seems like the group has walked into an archeological dig. Two hundred year’s worth of rains have washed countless layers of sediment into the cellar, filling it with dirt several feet deep in places. Part of the restoration process has been to dig out the cellar, but that has just begun, and wooden planks form makeshift catwalks over the excavations in the first room we enter. “This used to be the kitchen.” Ennis says, pointing to a large fireplace half buried in the dirt. In front of it stand shelves held up on cinder blocks. Jars are filled with oddly colored liquids, some of them clear. Human eyes and a heart can be seen floating in them. On through a half submerged doorway into the next room. The lower half of a human body hangs by its ankles from the low ceiling over a dug out area. A skeleton sits in the back corner as well, but Ennis pays little attention to these as he leads the group onward. “You’re going to love this.” He disappears through yet another door.


This is the deepest part of the cellar and the sediment here had at one point stood four or more feet deep. Now most of it has been removed, but deep piles stand in one corner, and a shelf of dirt circles the room. What catches everyone’s eyes is the small wooden and tin building standing in one corner of the room. “That’s Hamburger Head’s home.” Ennis then points to a cage built into a corner. “We’ll have a girl in there and the guys are finishing up the second cage to put here.” The energetic filmmaker moves around the room pointing out features such as a pile of severed limbs. Ennis is obviously excited about the location and the prospect of beginning work on his new project.

 

When the group emerges from the cellar a short time later, one of the film’s producers, Billy Blackwell, is giving instructions to some of the cast and crew. “We were hoping to start shooting at 10 am but I think we’ll have to push that back.” He hands a costume to actress Tucky Williams. She plays Ranger Darcy, and today she and actor Christian Brooker, Ranger Gibbins, will be shooting in the cellar. There is some drama as the second cage for the cellar set is finished. Despite carefully measuring it, the cage at first appears too big for the doorway into the set. A little elbow grease and a lot of determination win the day, and the cage is pushed through the door like a square peg through a round hole.

 

Ennis isn’t worried by little things like that. He’s worked with many of the cast and crew on his previous film STASH and knows from experience that these kinds of things happen. In fact it was the success of his first film that has given him the opportunity to make RED RIVER. Executive producer Micheal Rasso, owner of Pop Cinema, is funding and distributing the project to be released on their label on Bloody Earth Films. “Having distribution already lined up for RED RIVER is a great advantage.” Ennis admits, “But there’s always a catch. We’re working on a tight schedule for this film and I need to get principal photography done quickly.” How quickly? Three weeks. Not a lot of time when filming an independent movie with a number of locations scattered around the state. This might worry a more novice filmmaker, but Ennis has worked in television and film in Kentucky for years and he knows how to get things done.

 

In fact, despite a number of problems arising before the start of shooting, filming begins only about 30 minutes later than scheduled. Ennis runs one of the two cameras filming each scene, while Blackwell works the wireless sound. Rangers Darcy (Williams) and Gibbins (Brooker) are in this shot and they find that the set itself is providing them with some special challenges. The scene calls for the pair to run out of the room and try to escape. Running becomes more of a fast trot thanks to the bouncing wooden planks that make up the only really level surface in the room. Brooker discovers just how bouncy one set is when the two boards making up his perch separate and he falls. Luckily, the drop is only about 2 feet and he does no more than bruise his shin, but it underscores some of the difficulties of the shoot.

Ranger Gibbins (Christian Brooker) investigates a strange cellar in the

woods (not a good idea).

The heat is another problem. As temperatures outside hit the 90’s, many of the actors take refuge between shoots in their cars with the air conditioners running full blast. Unfortunately for actor Jason Crowe, he is the center of the make-up and special effects crew’s attention so he has to remain outside and while they work on him. Sven Granlund, Matt Perry, David Workman, and Roni Jonah are all experienced make-up and special effects people, but it is a long process as slowly Crowe is being transformed from a handsome leading man to the horrifically deformed cannibal, Hamburger Head. It’s well into midday before the actor is ready to be on the set. The room with Hamburger Head’s home is now also adorned with half a dozen pairs of blood soaked women’s underwear hanging from a clothesline like trophies on display. Stacey Gillespie, one of the crew for today’s shoot grins at Crowe. “I think I’m black listed from Walmart for going in and buying all those panties and the other stuff.” Gillespie says with a laugh as Ennis has Crowe enter Hamburger Head’s home and try it out. Crowe is forced to crawl in and out of the small building, but that is befitting of his character’s animalistic nature. Ennis sees the actor having some trouble with his left arm. “You going to be ok?” Crowe shrugs. “I broke my arm a couple of weeks ago in a car wreck and it’s still broken, but it’ll be OK. I just have to favor the right one.”

Later, Ennis calls action and the rangers run into the room where Hamburger Head lives. Gibbins approaches one of the cages and sees a young woman, dirty, beaten and nude, locked up inside. Before he can do anything else, Hamburger Head bursts forth from his home and leaps for the man’s throat. He’s stopped short by a dog chain around his neck, just inches from reaching the stunned ranger. For his part, Gibbins forgets any consoling words he might have had for the girl in the cage and he runs screaming for the door with Ranger Darcy. “Cut!” Ennis shouts and they line up to shoot the scene again.


     
Outside, the special effects team is already working on their next task, getting ready for the death scenes. Ennis has planned a number of interesting and gory ways for his characters to meet their end in RED RIVER and it’s once again up to the FX team to bring that action to life, or maybe death, on the screen. Actor David Haney displays a prop machete that he will wield against the unlucky rangers. Although the blade looks wickedly deadly from the side, it is made of something like Styrofoam so it’s light weight and no danger to anyone. A second machete is being worked on by the special effects team. This one has a six inch half moon of material missing from the blade and they are applying blood and gore make-up to it. When finished the blade will fit over an actor’s head and look like it’s buried in it. Roni Jonah applies a generous amount of fake blood to both the actor and the prop weapon to complete the effect and the crew prepares to shoot the first kill on the schedule. Once that shot is captured Ennis turns to the cast and crew. “Alright, who’s got a good line for David to say when he makes the kill?” A number of clever suggestions are tossed around and the humor of it all lifts the tired group’s spirits noticeably.

To the untrained eye the entire day’s events might appear confusing. Filming a motion picture is an exercise in organized chaos. As an experienced director, Jacob Ennis knows this and has prepared for today well so despite the inevitable problems that arise on the set, they are able to complete the shooting schedule for the day and capture the necessary footage. This is no small achievement, in fact, it is one that often eludes the major studios. However, Ennis knows that today’s success is only the first step, they still have another ten days of shooting over the next three weeks. That’s OK though, after all, because he also knows he has a team he can depend on to help him get the job done. One thing is for certain; one way or another Jacob Ennis’s RED RIVER is going to flow.



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