Me Interviewing Me: A (Hopefully) Early Career Retrospective

This last year when I was working on a new short film and planning a short story series for Halloween, I got to thinking about my earlier creative projects with amateur film group Robotic Flyers Productions. Since the short story series was built around the idea that I was supposedly editing stories written by someone else, I was deep into the idea of doing fake interviews with myself, and decided to write a retrospective about some of my film work. Since I went on a blog hiatus from Jan-March 2021, this piece never got published. Here it is at last, to do with as you will:

Salter on Salter: An Early-Mid-to-Late (but Hopefully Early) Career Retrospective 

Connor Salter has not won any filmmaking awards. In fact, the only award he’s ever won so far is for a computer game. However, he does love movies and worked on twelve few short films with Robotic Flyers Productions, doing everything from directing to editing to “acting” (his own quotation marks), but mostly writing. Today, he looks back at the film he’s most proud of: The Other Side of the Cage. Written by Salter and co-directed by him and James D. Stacy, The Other Side of the Cage follows a superhero named the Commodore who’s recently captured his nemesis, Ivan Ghoul. Following the capture, the two men meet in a secure location, having a conversation that shows their philosophy. Today, he spoke about the process of making the film and what he thinks about three years down the road.

How did The Other Side of the Cage start?

In 2018, I was writing a lot of scripts for Robotic Flyers, a group that met weekly to make short films. James Stacy was directing the films most of the time, and we were using a club house in the condominium complex he lived in.  That meant we could film a lot of things – office stories, people playing pool, ordering drinks from a coffee bar – as long as it was in this club house or outside. So, James wanted to do one-room kind of stories like the movie Twelve Angry Men. I realized that a sort of “cop interrogation” plot would work well in that context, and as you’ll probably notice if you look at my pop culture articles, I love unconventional superhero stories.

Did the Hannibal Lecter movies or novels have any influence on the writing?

Yes, but not in the way you would think. I had seen bits and clips of Silence of the Lambs but never the whole film when I started writing The Other Side of the Cage. I did include a sort of cheeky reference in the first draft to the Silence of the Lambs scene where Dr. Lector is tied up in a chair – I had Ghoul describe himself as tied down and calling it “Silence of the Lambs 2.0.” James Stacy asked me to remove that line later so it wouldn’t seem like we were spoofing the film, and he was right.

Despite not having seen Silence of the Lambs, I had seen Michael Mann’s film Manhunter, which based on the earlier Hannibal Lector novel Red Dragon. I’d also seen or read a lot of stories that played on that dynamic – TV shows like Manhunt: Unabomber, Batman comics like The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween. So I knew my plot was part of that subgenre, and I even named Captain Harris after Thomas Harris, who wrote all the Lector books.

What’s really amusing to me is around the time I wrote the second draft, I had gotten a secondhand copy of the novel Silence of the Lambs, and yet looking at the multiple drafts I noticed that didn’t affect how I wrote Ivan Ghoul. Other than taking out that cheesy reference, I didn’t change Ghoul’s dialogue at all. That probably has something to do with the fact the character was easy to write, he came naturally. 

You say the character was easy to write. How do you mean that?

I like witty dialogue and have a dark sense of humor, which makes it easy to write that kind of acerbic villain. I also have a certain amount of anger from being that one weird kid in school that got mocked and humiliated all the time. There’s a lot of cynicism and resentment if I dig down deep enough. So it’s easy to take all those things and write this kind of villain, the intellectual who wants revenge on humanity. I’ve gone back to that well lots of times, writing characters who fit that archetype.

What are some of those other characters?

There’s a character named Alistair in one of my short stories, “Mr. Ekwood’s Unfortunate Summoning,” who has that same kind of outlook, only he’s a bit more camp. A bit like Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust. When I did my Halloween 2020 short story series Tapes from the Crawlspace, I had multiple stories with those kinds of villains, most notably in an Arthurian story where a demon taunts Merlin.

Coming back to the script, if Ghoul didn’t change, then what did changed after that first draft?

I wrote the first draft without thinking too much about how we’d film it, or where we’d get the right actors. It featured a male Police Commissioner named Harris leading the superhero into a room, then the superhero spoke into an intercom on the wall. When it came time to filming, I knew we had to use something in the club house, so the special prison became an underground bunker over a safehouse, with an intercom hidden in a coffee table box. Since Robotic Flyers’ core group was me, James Stacy and actress Caitlin Glidewell, that meant that Caitlin took the role of Harris.

The big change was, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I didn’t like the first draft’s ending. It was ambiguous and it seemed to suggest that the Commodore came away demoralized, that Ivan had won the fight. So I put the script down for several months until I had a better idea. I eventually went with the metaphor of superheroes being like Old Testament prophets, figures who are often disregarded or persecuted. As Dallas Willard put it, the prophet always dies in Jerusalem. However, that doesn’t change the fact that prophets have a job to do, whether people respond well or not. Once I hit on that image, I knew I could end it with the Commodore recognizing that Ghoul may be right about human nature, but he has a job to do anyway.

When it came time to planning filming, James suggested changes on how I should play the character, a new direction.

What kind of different direction?

I thought he should claim he’s the same age as the Commodore and have a bizarre voice so you really couldn’t tell what his age was. I recorded several takes of myself doing a sort of gravelly, overdone recitation of the lines. James thought it sounded like Mark Hamill’s Joker, and that people would find it cartoonish. He was right, but it raised a problem I should have dealt with better.

What problem was that?

The point of the Commodore coming to see Ghoul was not just that Ghoul asked to see him but that he wants to demoralize Ghoul. There was a line where the Commodore tells Ghoul “you’re pushing fifty, you’re getting too old to do this sort of thing.” I thought if I played Ghoul with a weird voice and you couldn’t see his face, you wouldn’t be able to tell I wasn’t the same age as James. I had a script direction where it described him in a pitch dark room, talking over a phone that someone else is holding out on a selfie stick, like he’s so dangerous no one even lets him have an intercom. So you’d never see Ghoul’s face, just a smartphone screen lighting up his lower jaw. 

In the end James didn’t like the selfie stick idea,  so we filmed me against a green screen with windows drawn to create shadows. This looked great, but we could clearly see me and that I wasn’t pushing fifty, so we had to cut all the “you’re getting too old for this sort of thing” dialogue. I made up some new lines that were like “you were too easy to catch this time, face it buddy you’re losing your touch.” James said the new lines, but then he cut them out in the editing. I should have made it clearer that we needed to keep them in, and the film suffered. 

What do you mean?

Well, the value of those lines is it showed the Commodore had a clear plan of attack, he knew what he was doing and was playing offense as well as defense. When we lost those lines and the replacement ones, the structure broke down. The finished movie makes it look like Commodore isn’t that smart, he’s just trash-talking the other guy. 

So in your view, the movie’s flaw is that your script idea didn’t work, and you didn’t explain your replacement idea well enough?

Yes. I should have made it clear to James why we needed to keep those lines.

Actually, I think in hindsight the movie’s big flaws are all things I should have taken care of. I should have re-written Harris to make her sound more like a woman instead of a woman saying lines clearly written for a male character. I also should have given James more direction when I was behind the camera, had him dial his performance back a bit.

Have you considered returning to these characters?

Occasionally. James agreed to give me the rights to the characters in the movie, and I’d love to flesh the Commodore-Ghoul story more.

If I do come back to them, I think it will most likely be in the form of a graphic novel or a web comic. I loved making short films, but the equipment is expensive and your project is restricted by what’s around you or what you can do with special effects later. You also need a team of multiple people involved and you have to pay them unless you plug into a team of people willing to do projects for free just because they love doing it. With comics on the other hand, you’re only restricted by what you can draw, and even if you hire someone else to illustrate and someone else to do lettering, you’re still working on a smaller team than you’d need to make a short film.

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