|Filmmaker Chris Peplin (right) and David Litz,
director of photography on Peplin's 'Beautiful Garden'
For Cleveland native Chris Peplin, wrapping Beautiful Garden signified the end of production for a project driven by a goal: make a feature length film by the time he celebrates his 30th birthday. He’ll do it — with time to spare.
Peplin grew up in the Cleveland area and, at an early age, realized his calling. He studied film at Cleveland State, worked a few internships and then decided to fast-track his career by moving to L.A. to attend The New York Film Academy. After completing the 12-month program, he carried the filmmaking torch back to the Midwest.
Peplin wrote, produced and directed Beautiful Garden. And it’s independent film at it’s best. With little budget, short schedules and never enough help, it’s the love of the craft and the need to tell a story that pushes small productions like Beautiful Garden forward. And for Peplin, there’s one other motivator: “No one will give you millions if you have not done anything. I have to have something to show.”
Along with his creative partner, Charles Moore, Peplin worked on a story and budget. They estimated they could make Beautiful Garden for $60,000 and went searching for investors — film lovers willing to promote the independents. They knocked on doors; they got their money.
Beautiful Garden tells the story of an eclectic clan of runaways, artists, and drifters who take up residence in an abandoned house. Their utopia eventually becomes ingrained with greed, hypocrisy, and corruption. It was inspired by a story Peplin read about a squat house in London.
Even though the script took months to write, last minute surgery on the story resulted in a script that was essentially rewritten in about a week.
Peplin recalls, “I did such a massive overhaul of the script that all but two or three scenes were left untouched. It was a completely different script than the one I wrote originally. And I did it in a week.”
He credits his intimate knowledge of the characters to allow these rapid changes while maintaining an effective story line.
With script near completion, he set out to plan production. Peplin leveraged his limited film experience to develop a budget. There was no question that he’d allocate generously for director of photography David Litz, gaffer and actors. The balance of crew was local volunteers. Some acting talent was imported from L.A. and New York. Peplin graciously acknowledges those on set who made this possible. “They worked for less than what they were worth and it was because of their support of independent film and love of the craft.“
The willingness of local suppliers was a big boon to getting the right equipment for a decent rental fee according to Peplin. In Northeast Ohio, it’s a bit of a magical enterprise to be producing a feature film. Rental houses accustomed to the banality of commercial and industrial videos were inspired to help the independent filmmakers and thus willing to go the extra mile to make it happen. You won’t see this New York or Los Angeles.
Peplin also points out that your network as a producer and director can have financial benefits. He has effectively called in many favors from the people he has befriended over the last few years; equipment acquisition is one example of the strength of a well-woven network.
Unexpected twists and turns
Throughout the shoot, technical issues and scheduling tangles took front seat as they do with any film production. Eighten days of production was scheduled for fall 2010. Major electrical problems at the location house slowed things substantially. They shot for two weeks and then unexpectedly broke for two months.
Peplin now says the break was a blessing in disguise. “After having the opportunity to sit down, edit and take a look at what we had, I’m really glad we broke half way through because I was able to go back and see what was working and what wasn’t. There was nothing I saw that I hated, but there were definitely things that I felt could be better.”
This break also gave Peplin the chance to look at budgeting issues and secure a bit more funding in order to wrap in the black.
During production, Peplin often found himself micromanaging the set because of the limited staff and the level of experience the budget could buy. Despite sleepless nights and burgeoning stress levels, he managed to keep things moving by staying cool.
“Its really easy to lose your head over these issues,” he says, “That’s exactly what you can’t do because you have people relying on you. The number one thing a director brings to the table is knowing what he wants. If you lose your head, you will end up with a film that doesn’t get finished and a group of people who don’t respect you. If you command the set, you will get respect.”
He admittedly learned this the hard way while working an earlier short, A Good Man's Tilt. “I completely lost my head on my short; the hell I went through with that is what prepared me for this.”
Completing Beautiful Garden was a huge goal for Peplin. He understands that small projects like this are the gateway to larger budget films.
Securing distribution and selling the film would fulfill another important need: getting money back to his investors — quite realistic when you’ve only spent $60,000.
He will pursue film festivals and other opportunities to ensure that his work is seen by as many viewers as possible. Based on dailies and the editing completed to date, Peplin feels strongly about the look and feel of the final product despite the limited budget: “This film will amaze many people; they will watch it and not believe we made it for what we did.”
Under the umbrella of their production company, Peplin and Moore have several projects in development for the future, with their next film, Madtown, slated for production in mid March. They plan on making substantial investments in cameras and other equipment.
He’d like to focus on directing and producing while collaborating with Moore on stories and creative concepts. Peplin comments that his love of Cleveland will be a huge factor in keeping production local. This hometown pride not only strengthen Cleveland’s filmmaking clout, but also paves the way for budding future filmmakers, actors and crew.
Turning art into a career is not without monumental sacrifice. Peplin drudged through menial restaurant jobs to keep gas in his tank and lights burning in his home. He laughs, “I decided to go the starving artist route but it gave me flexibility to focus on filmmaking.”
He had the option of serving as crew for major productions, but elected to forgo the comfortable route to pursue his own projects. Peplin says, “There is nothing wrong with being employed as crew, it is a stable, respectable career, but it could also become a trap. You wake up 20 years later and realize you are not doing what you intended to do in film. I decided to go a different route.”
Peplin is not shy when dispensing advice to camera wielding greenhorns. He points out the notion that since film is art, there isn’t anything to learn. Nothing could be further from the truth. Peplin admits that he has learned more on set than in any classroom, but he recognizes formal training as a natural part of the filmmaking experience.
Yes, there have been scores of successful filmmakers without a diploma, but there is a premium for the artist with a diverse background. In addition to his education at The New York Film Academy, Peplin has attended numerous workshops and seminars. While he values the classroom component, he asserts the importance of getting out there and shooting something.