The Fable of The Cockroach, The Grasshopper, & The Devil

After a delirium-inducing night shoot on The Devil’s Carnival 2: Alleluia, where production raced against the slow-rising sun to complete the day’s final shots, I crept home, bleary-eyed, to a horror show happening in the aquarium where I keep my pet cockroaches: the eldest female was in the throes of delivering a clump of stillborn babies.

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Madagascan hissing cockroaches have live births, and have them often. I’ve kept hissers as pets for years and throughout that time have watched the population inside Tank Shawshank ebb and flow. I’d never witnessed the birthing process until that fateful morning, however, just the crawling, hissing aftermath (incidentally, groups of roaches are unfairly labeled “intrusions” as opposed to the friendlier handles bequeathed groups of less-vilified species, like “litters” or “colonies”).

After carrying an egg—an ootheca—inside them for roughly two months, a female hisser goes into labor, pushing out the shell of the egg, followed by a wriggling bundle of thirty-plus sunflower seed-sized babies, called nymphs. Except for the black of their pinpoint eyes, the nymphs enter the world a creamy white. In the hours following birth, however, their ivory shells and antennae gradually turn a familiar cockroach brown.

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It’s hard to know what labor is like for a roach, but, like with most she-creatures, the experience looks painful and exhausting, and the scene I came home to after that all-night film shoot was no exception.

It was dawn, and even though every muscle and neuron of my being was ready to collapse from work weariness, I couldn’t look away from the unjust plight of this would-be mother, fighting to create lives that never had a fighting chance. The agonizing minutes dragged as I watched her twist and heave behind the aquarium glass, slowly ejecting what looked like an accordion of dried, dead rice kernels. The gruesome, protracted experience ended with the drained mama heavily eating what she could of her failed nativity, before limping away to hide—and, presumably, sleep—beneath a shelter of egg carton scraps and sod.

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With hissing roach labors producing thirty to sixty offspring at a time, it’s a matter of routine that each successful birth produces a handful of birth defects—gimp nymphs and roach runts that don’t survive their first molts—so perhaps botched labors are also par for the cockroach course.

I’ve had this particular mother bug for years, and my gut is that her ineffective labor was the result of her being past her reproductive age, but it just as easily could’ve been caused by other natural phenomenon. For example, I’ve noticed that hissers seem very susceptible to temperature, especially when molting. Maybe the climate was wrong for life that direful morning. To that end, the eating of dead offspring, although outwardly gruesome, probably also has natural advantages for roach mums. Maybe they do this to keep their nymph nests hidden from predators. Or maybe they simply need to replenish the calories exerted during labor. Whatever the natural cause, my artist brain saw the behavior in more poetic terms: I imagined her eating her dead nymphs to hide her shame and the evidence of her creative failure… and, as such, sympathized.

The Molting Comic_Mama

I suppose the reason my tired eyes couldn’t turn from the miniature birth/death/cannibal scene on that sleepless morn—and why I still haven’t thrown out the nymph remains—is I felt/feel a connection between the beautiful disaster that was happening inside the roach tank and my own plight, struggling to bring TDC 2 to life.

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The carnival-cockroach connections were not just emotional ones; in the TDC universe, the character of God is a craftsman who’s routinely frustrated by, and dismissive of, his defective creations. The string of baby cockroach corpses snaking bloodlessly from the womb of their heaving mother, mirrored some of God’s creative malfunctions featured in our screenplay.

Like the God of our tale (and my bereaved Blattaria mother), The Devil’s Carnival has also overcome its share of malfunctions and mutations. The project is fast approaching its five year mark… and its fight for life continues.

In June, I blogged about the drawn-out, complicated pregnancy phase of TDC 2. The birthing difficulties shared in that blog have unfortunately continued beyond the project’s green-lighting, onto set, and will undoubtably wriggle, kick, and bite for many months to come as we squeeze against birth pangs and splash through slippery afterbirth on the road to delivering our own crawling, hissing intrusion.

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In spite of difficulties, on Sunday, August 24th, we wrapped principal photography on TDC 2—another all-nighter where we hustled to beat the inevitable daylight. The shoot, like all creative efforts, was unreasonable, but the unreasonable quest did not begin there.

Years ago, director Darren Lynn Bousman, co-composer Saar Hendelman, and I made a pact to fight against probability and create something that in survival terms was completely unnecessary: art. More specifically: cult musical films. Our dedication to this irrational cause inspired others to join our carnival covenant, like producers Sean E. Demott, Chris Bonifay, and executive producer Brian Perera. These stalwart souls, in turn, inspired others to be a part of the illogical journey—and then others still—until we were a fully-staffed, functioning film production.

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Like our creative pursuit, production was also unreasonable. We had fifteen days—reduced to fourteen—to shoot a feature-length movie musical. Due to financial restrictions, the twenty-two musical selections that Saar and I penned for the episode were reduced to fifteen, and, due to cast availability and shrinking location options, scenes had to be rewritten on an almost daily basis throughout production. Because of these challenges, there were moments where I felt like the devil had leapt from the pages of the script onto my shoulder to reasonably whisper, “Give up.”

In spite of daily chaos, we battled through devils, exhaustion, and frustration to keep our vision and sanity intact, and, in the end, succeeded. Due to the vast and diverse talents of our cast and crew, we captured something beautiful and bizarre through the camera lens that promises to exceed the quality and scale of our past collaborative endeavors. There were even rare moments during our delirious production where I was so inspired by what was happening on set, that I modified story elements to serve those slivers of unpredicted magic.

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On the last day of filming, the insect poetry that began with a cockroach miscarriage came full circle: after five hours of being glued to a make-up chair to visually become the character of Lucifer, I was stewing at a table, under the open sky, frustrated by prosthetic malfunctions, when a lone grasshopper came along to befriend me.

For over ten minutes, the green stranger perched on my red, be-clawed hands and preened itself. Due to the hopping nature of this species’ namesake, I’d never before had the opportunity to examine the grace and complexity of a grasshopper up close. In dance-like motions, the insect brought its long, flexible legs and antennae, one-by-one, to its mandibles to groom. I could have watched this insect ballet until the sun rose, but had to eventually brush it from my knuckles as I was called back to set.

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The moral of the fable of The Cockroach, The Grasshopper, and The Devil: good, bad, or ugly, I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped to make TDC 2 a reality. I’m excited and anxious to share with you the final product. Always Alleluia!


Read more | Comments (13) | Sep 2, 2014

Some Have Razors

We’re weeks away from principal photography on The Devil’s Carnival 2. This being my third musical movie, I’ve learned a thing or two about filmmaking: 1) no matter how well you budget, there is never enough money; and; 2) if you’re going to play the devil, prosthetic makeup, glue, and real facial hair don’t mix. As such, I decided to rob a bank and shave my beard.

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Yes, my beard. For the last six months or so, my shaving razor—like so many misfit pianos and treadmills—had become little more than furniture in my dusky apartment. Untouched and hanging on a shower rack, the silver handle and blades had all but blended into the ivy and silverfish. Over the weeks and months, my face had also transformed, sprouting into something wooly and virtually unrecognizable.

It’s weird to grow a new chin, but there’s something liberating in forgoing notions of grooming and congeniality. As an added bonus, whenever I’d catch a glimpse of the furry stranger that I’d become—in a whiskey glass or foggy mirror at the Greek bathhouse—I’d chuckle and think, “I finally look like my thoughts.”

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It’s this coily mindset that inspired me to throw on a dark hoodie, sneak a pistol from ma’s favorite handbag, and kill two birds with one straight razor: clear my chin forest for the imminent onset of spirit gum and pitchforks, and see if I could prevail upon that pretty, young bank teller to help with my budgetary woes.

Ev’rybody, freeze! On yo’ knees! Butt naked, please!”

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In all seriousness, TDC2‘s upcoming production angst mixed with fears of having my mouth mane yanked out by Lucifer adhesives, made me realize that a clean slate (jaw-wise) was needed, both physically and emotionally…

After six months of beard growth, however, shaving was not only going to be a undertaking, but an art project.

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Speaking of art projects, I’m in the process of redesigning TZ.com. Part of this cyber facelift involves organizing a series of conceptual photo shoots by which to decorate the new site. While approaching the daunting task of pruning my six-month-old beard, I thought it would be fun to not only document the epic mandible-molting, but tell a story through a set of sequential images that might also fit into my planned web renovations.

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Collaborating with photographer Hannah Havok of Pocket Watch Photo Emporium, seizing some props from Nathan Haskell of The Hand Prop Room, and coercing my friends George Frangadakis and Andrew Freeman of Immortal Masks to let me transform a restroom at their place of business into a set, I purchased a bag of disposable razors and got to it.

As I snipped, sawed, and scraped my way through the jowl brush, a face I had all but forgotten emerged, which included a beard-shaped farmer’s tan. Even though my pale, bald chin and I felt naked and rudderless on the motorcycle ride home from the set, my transformation was complete. Well, almost. My newly-revealed baby(ish) face was ready for all that TDC2 could have to offer, including an impending metamorphosis into a singing, be-horned Lucifer. As some of you know, this episode will feature a lot of Jazz Age slang, including (ironically) a little “chin music”, which in that era meant a punch on the jaw.

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The images included in this blog are just a teaser of what’s to come over the next few months. I’ll be debuting a more expanded look at this particular photo shoot—as well as others—on FaceBook soon, so be sure to “like” my artist page to receive updates.

So… who’s ready for a little chin music?


Read more | Comments (15) | Jul 10, 2014

The Devil’s Carnival 2 is Green-Lit!

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“The train whistle blows and the carnival goes ’til there’s only the tickets and crows here”

~Tom Waits


Read more | Comments (5) | Jun 27, 2014

Holding Patterns

If you’ve done much traveling by plane, chances are you’ve experienced flight delays. And not just long turns sitting at airports, waiting for tardy jets to arrive, but also protracted stretches aboard aircrafts, strapped into seating arrangements, impatiently awaiting clearances to land and/or gate.

These latter delays are especially frustrating. You’ve all but reached your destination, often after a long and turbulent flight, only to be stuck, loitering at the finish line. Aside from anxiety over being so-close-yet-so-far from home, you can sense the swelling restlessness from every soul aboard the vessel. The lingering sighs. The craning necks. The fidgeting feet. It sucks.

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For the last twenty months, my life has been in a holding pattern, although not on an airplane.

For those of you who follow this blog, or my work in general, you may recall that in January of last year, the team behind my second musical film, The Devil’s Carnival, went live with an online teaser announcing the imminent release of a sequel. The nine-minute promotional piece featured rap star Tech N9ne as Heaven’s Librarian.

Even though it’s been over a year-and-a-half since the teaser debuted, the promised followup film has yet to manifest. This is not due to a lack of wanting or trying on the part of TDC‘s team, or yours truly. In fact, at the time that the aforementioned trailer dropped, months of negotiations had already taken place with a company set to finance and distribute the episode. Unfortunately, due to a series of unforeseen issues, the deal fell apart at the end zone.

As you might imagine, this sudden dead-end was disappointing as a lot of work and hope had gone into the lost deal.

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Picking up the pieces, TDC‘s team and I went back to the drawing board to hunt for capital. The stakes were heightened by the knowledge that we needed to find funds quickly… that is, if there was any hope of achieving the 2013 release date boasted in the Tech N9ne teaser.

Even though this was a tall order—less than a year to find and close financing, plan and shoot a movie, write and record an album, and edit and prepare the final film and soundtrack for public consumption—we were optimistic. Because of TDC‘s awesome fanbase, episode one had such a buzz around it (and we were all so pumped about the project in general), that anything seemed possible.

Operating in good faith that we’d be in production before the year’s end, TDC‘s co-composer, Saar Hendelman, and I set out to write the book and music for part two.

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Composing a musical is no small feat. In any scenario—even one where the tunes suck!—it would be a ton of work, but Saar’s and my specific and intensive writing process made the endeavor even more sprawling and bumpy (for a peek into our songwriting techniques, click here).

Believing that a green-light was close, however, and that it’d only be a matter of time before we’d be rushing into full-blown music production, Saar and I worked tirelessly on the episode’s tunes and lyrics, and, in November of last year, completed them. The year’s worth of creative labor culminated in twenty-two musical selections.

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The writing journey was both exhilarating and exhausting, and since this twelve-month job was done on spec, it was also financially tasking… but we believed that movie funding was just around the corner, so we hung on by the foreskin of our teeth.

Throughout 2013, several encouraging production prospects arose, so our optimism seemed reasonable, but, one by one, the proposals evaporated. We were hovering in a holding pattern where we could see the runway, but a smooth landing was nowhere in sight.

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Fortuitously, my first musical film, Repo! The Genetic Opera, was celebrating its five year anniversary in movie theatres at the same time that Saar and I wrapped TDC 2‘s compositions. To celebrate Repo!‘s theatrical birthday, director Darren Lynn Bousman and I booked a mini-double feature tour. In touring, we were also looking to find renewed joy in our creative accomplishments to counterbalance the year of limbo with TDC 2.

The tour was great, but its conclusion marked the beginning of 2013′s winter holiday season, where Hollywood all but shuts down. Because of this, I was painfully aware that progress on TDC 2‘s production would most likely stall and that our taxiing around the tarmac would continue into 2014.

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Darren and I took this industry downtime to put together some flashy (and costly) new TDC sales tools. We wanted to hit the new year armed and running, fighting to keep the project we’d all sacrificed to make alive… especially knowing there was an audience out there just as eager to see a sequel as we were.

The elapsing time, however, especially the reality that much of TDC‘s team would be forced to move on to other projects, was making it obvious that TDC 2 might not happen, and that the music Saar and I slaved over may never see daylight.

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Faced with this depressing forecast, as well as the hefty debt I’d incurred from a year without income, I was determined to break the holding pattern, so I started exploring an entirely new music project with Saar, one where we weren’t so at the mercy of factors beyond our control. I was still pushing along TDC part-time, but devoting the majority of my hours to this new endeavor. I even found an angel investor to cover the project’s start-up costs.

Renewed, I dove face-first into this new project with all the passion that creative hunger and financial desperation can inspire, and, six months later, was confident we had developed something every bit as cool and distinctive as Repo! and TDC.

In April, Saar and I were primed and ready to crawl out of limbo and into production on the new project. I was relieved and eager to make something great, and anxious to share it with all interested and sympathetic souls.

And then it happened. Just like with the initial investor for TDC 2, the financier for the new project inexplicably abandoned ship at the eleventh hour. The experience was confusing, depressing, and humiliating. And the holding pattern continued.

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Below is the face of a man called Oblivion. Let she who hath wisdom, stare into its wooliness and reckon the number of months spent on stand by.

After careful consideration of the aforementioned mug, I hope it is plain that a man such as he would not waste breath vomiting over a thousand words merely to complain or elicit sympathy… not unless there was a happy ending to the saga.

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That’s right, fair readers; the holding pattern has reached its limit. The beast Holdor, its belly, gorged with blood, sated and leaking, has finally released me from its terrible jaws. A production—a real production—is green-lit. I can’t divulge the details of said project yet. Official announcements will follow shortly, but the wait is over and a shinny new experience is a-coming your way. Thank you for your patience in the interim.

Who else is excited for the mystery project?


Read more | Comments (42) | Jun 13, 2014

Hard Bodies

There’s a bizarre marketing trend happening amongst small businesses in my neighborhood: recently, a string of shops have stationed life-sized, motorized mannequins outside their storefronts in attempts to draw costumers. On one major boulevard, in less than a four-mile stretch, a half-dozen of these sign-waving dummies have emerged over the last month or so.

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While there is some variety in the shade, shape, and wardrobe of these statuesque sales props, they are all female. Dead-eyed, come-hither gazes (traditionally found only in strip clubs) are painted on each fiberglass figure. It’s strange. Stranger still, these lifeless lasses are all chained and bolted to dollies—Hannibal Lector-style—then propped beside lampposts, like street bawds from a Victorian melodrama.

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Tacky, truly tacky. As such, I’m curious how effective they are at drumming business.

From an economic standpoint, I’m sure there are benefits to using battery-powered models over ones that require sunscreen and bathroom breaks, but is anyone convinced to purchase auto insurance or a haircut because of a plastic hussy with a sign? And how did this become a trend? Was a secret mannequin memo circulated amongst Los Angeles shop owners? Or did those late to the dummy party merely gaze at their competitors’ gaudy mechanical greeters and say, “Damn, I need to get me one of those!”?

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Pediophobia—a fear of dolls, including robots and mannequins—is a common anxiety disorder. Popular schools of psychiatry believe that pediophobia springs from a feeling that dolls may come to life.

I don’t harbor any entrenched fear or mistrust of robots or mannequins, but I did have occasion once to visit a prop house filled with dozens of human-sized, standing dolls. It was creepy. The showroom featured an assortment of male, female, and child dummies, and the presentation was claustrophobic; the mannequins were stacked in rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, like a frozen army. I have to admit that squeezing past the stiffs did cause a shudder or two.

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On the other end of the cognitive spectrum is agalmatophilia, a sexual attraction to statues, dolls, or mannequins. Mannequin, an unintentionally creepy, yet mainstream romantic comedy from the late-’80s, revolved around this paraphilia. Bizarrely, the film was successful enough at the box office to warrant a sequel in 1991. This was most likely due to the sexiness of a young Kim Cattrall—who plays the plastic department store fixture of the movie’s namesake—than to some sort of mass audience fetish… but who knows?

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While I don’t have a thing for dummies, or bad ’80′s films, I have been known to turn a lusty eye at certain curvy jean mannequins placed outside Latino clothing stores in my hood. I’m not sure what this says about me, as these figures are routinely cut off at the waist. They possess no heads, torsos, or arms with which to hold swiveling mechanical signs, but the sculptors did a fine job shaping the bottoms of these would-be ladies.

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I read once that a teenaged Jeffrey Dahmer stole a male mannequin from a department store and kept it hidden in his grandmother’s house, where he was living at the time… but I digress.

On a related creepy note, I remember walking through a female clothing store as a wee lad with my mother and being captivated by an underwear display. The presentation was a row of disembodied mannequin hips. The thought of pulling down the panties on the fake flanks occurred to me (you know… to see what was underneath), but even at that tender age, I knew this behavior would come across as pervy, so I refrained.

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As an adult, I probably should have also refrained from stoping my vehicle several times along a busy stretch of road to snap photographs of the mannequin mamas featured in this blog, which begs the question: who’s creepier, the entrepreneur who displays mechanical maidens, or the writer who reports on them?

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So, now that I’ve shown you my figures and stumps, will you show me yours? Have you, fair readers, noticed humanoid billboards popping up in your town? Do mannequins and dolls frighten or enchant you? Or are you tempted to grab a sign, strap yourself to a dolly, and see how long you can hold a pose without blinking at passing traffic? Share your “Dummy Details” in the “Comments” section below.


Read more | Comments (42) | May 6, 2014