Two months ago we put on a live show during the production of my independent feature film “At The Maple Grove.” The film, for which we’re currently holding a Kickstarter campaign for post-production funds, tells the story of a renowned night club called The Maple Grove while it preps for what might be its final show, interwoven with the experience of a young filmmaker who suffers a health scare and how his creativity bleeds into life when he begins making a movie. I’d like to share a little bit about how and why the live show took place, as well as the experience behind making it happen.
The first image of the film that popped into my head was of a performer on stage– the lights shining down on him as he looked at his audience and began to sing. I was listening to Sammy Davis Jr. croon “Once In A Lifetime” on his album “Live At The Cocoanut Grove” at the time, wishing that I could have been at that show. This initial spark of an idea led me to begin outlining the script.
While I was writing, I was also sitting in on an acting class at the Stephanie Feury Studio in Hollywood to meet actors for potential future projects. As I delved deeper into thinking about the characters for my script– the performers and employees of the night club, all the relationships– the faces of the people in the studio immediately began to fill the roles. Over several months, while watching these actors portray so many different characters from so many different plays, I began to learn the types of roles for which they’d be perfect. In addition, as many of the actors had been workshopping stand-up routines and songs at the studio, you could almost imagine they were preparing for a story about a night club all along.
As a result, a majority of the performers in the film came from this acting studio, including Matt Micucci, Chip Godwin, Marielle Vigneau-Britt, Justin Streichman, Cheke Whitfield and Michael Silva. Two more performers joined the cast from outside the studio– Bee Hudgins, whom we found through auditions; and jazz singer Paulette McWilliams, whom I actually found through Twitter (casting in the modern day!).
The Maple Grove
One of the main influences on the script was the John Cassavetes’ film “The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie.” Filmed in 1976, the movie centers around the owner of a tawdry burlesque club called the Crazy Horse West, where gangsters frequent and the audience always dresses up for a night out. Another major influence was the work of Bob Fosse and his films “All That Jazz,” “Lenny” and “Cabaret.” But all of these were movies both made and set in time periods with aesthetics long gone. As it were, the visual I had in my head for The Maple Grove was something I feared didn’t really exist anymore, and at least not on a level we could recreate with a micro-budget.
But while scouting locations with my sister Alison, who was both a producer and actor in the film, we eventually wound up at The Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. When we walked through the front doors of the place– an intimate music venue with a classic, timeless look– we were immediately struck with the feeling that this was The Maple Grove. We wound up spending eleven days of production inside and around The Hotel Cafe, making it our key location.
In order to film at The Hotel Cafe, we couldn’t interfere with their regular business hours. So we had to start each day of our production at 4am and finish by 4:30pm. Our cast and crew arrived… perhaps not bright, but early on the morning of the show and began prepping for the shoot. A rehearsal for the actors took place while the crew set up. We then filled the audience with our cast, our friends, family members, our crew and extras. We had three cameras running simultaneously throughout the show. After we broke for lunch, the cameras were repositioned for new angles favoring the audience while a few of the performers took the stage for encores.
The practical reasoning behind putting on a live show during production was based on time and money constraints. If we approached the show with the standard coverage and multiple takes that we approached the rest of the script, it would have taken several days to film the entire thing, which we couldn’t afford. So the actors had only one shot to get up there and do it live–
With Michael Silva playing the role of Emcee, Matt Micucci performed a stand-up act filled with physical comedy, segueing into a vaudeville duet number with Chip Godwin and a piano. Meanwhile, Chip Godwin’s act blended a cover of a song by The Kinks with a spoken word passage and a disappearing act inspired by William S. Burroughs, all accompanied by a burlesque dancer. Marielle Vigneau-Britt had recorded a song with musician Eddie Baytos, and performed it to a routine choreographed by Betty Rox, all inspired by song and dance stylings of Bob Fosse. Justin Streichman did a stand up act as a character that he’d created at the acting studio. Cheke Whitfield performed a cover of a live Sam Cooke medley and Bee Hudgins sang a song she’d co-written with her musician friend J.W. Cudd. One of the highlights, Paulette McWilliams, a seasoned vocalist who has worked with Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, Bette Midler, Michael Jackson and many more, performed three songs with an incredible band that she managed to bring in for the show, including jazz legacy Nat Adderley Jr. on piano.
Some of these performers had put in months of preparation, while others only had weeks or even a few days to prep. Yet all of them gave remarkable and inspiring performances on stage.
The experience of arranging a live show for an audience during principal photography was one of the most challenging experiences of the shoot, and it wouldn’t have been accomplished without a devoted team effort.
Each actor crafted and performed their own unique act with complete dedication, bringing in many wonderful collaborators to partake in the event. And the actors who played the audience members, waitresses, bartender and door man completed the world of The Maple Grove. Our A.D. Department, run by 1st A.D. James Fitzgerald and 2nd A.D. Laurika Harris-Kaye, organized and handled a hectic and time restricted set. Our cinematographer Kris Carrillo and his crew captured the event beautifully. And of course there was the rest of the crew, including our production designers, sound designers, wardrobe department and hair & make-up team. Even the employees of The Hotel Cafe served as crucial collaborators in allowing us the use of their stage, instruments and sound equipment. And our audience, who stayed with us for twelve hours of shooting, helped bring it all to life by engaging in a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Now that it’s over I definitely miss it, but now I’m excited to complete the film and share it. Our crowd-funding campaign to finance post-production runs from September 9th through October 11th. If you’d like to help us finish the film, or learn more about the entire production, please check out our Kickstarter page and assist us in sharing it with the world.
Christopher Zatta began his career in television as a staff writer on the NBC series “Heroes” where he wrote and co-wrote three episodes. He’s since written and directed two short films, the neo-noir “Ambition Of Love” and “Harvey’s Dream,” based on a short story by Stephen King. “At The Maple Grove” is his feature length directorial debut. For updates, follow Christopher on twitter @crzatta and check out his website ChristopherZatta.com.