Category Archives: Confessions of a Guerilla Filmmaker
I’ve spent many hours reading through the fantastic TVtropes.org. I never thought I’d find myself there. On their “Evil is Deathly Cold” trope page, they refer to a scene from our 1999 Blair Witch parody, The Bag Witch Project. Scroll down to the “Film” section.
I gotta say, I’m pretty geeked about this.
Gencon 2000: The Curse of the Bag Witch
The year between Gencon 1999 and 2000 was a busy one for Toxic Bag. We were hard at work on “Strange Places,” the fourth volume of the Game Masters Collection sound effects CDs, as well as doing sound design for a couple of feature-length independent films and starting location recording for our “Battles” sound scenes CD.
The Bag Witch Project had taken on a small life of its own, spreading through word of mouth at game conventions across the midwest. We heard of a guy who would hold “Bag Witch” screening parties at every convention he attended. Someone sent us an entire case of Twinkies snack cakes based on one of the gags in the film (and we do mean gag–Chris had to eat the Twinkie and he finds them pretty gross).
Not that we had a runaway hit by any stretch. Bag Witch‘s appeal didn’t seem to extend beyond the gamer world. As more and more Blair Witch parodies cropped up, the parodies became as much part of the Blair Witch conversation as the original film. One film critic even brought up Bag Witch in an interview with Blair Witch‘s Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez as an example of how many awful parodies were out there.
So we decided to produce a follow-up video. As no Blair Witch sequel had yet been released we decided to make a parody of “Curse of the Blair Witch,” the SciFi Channel special that accompanied the original film and provided much of the back story of the legend of the Witch. So we wrote up a back story for the “Bag Witch,” wherein a woman is ejected from MarCon (an early incarnation of the GenCon fair) in Milwaukee in the late 1960s and vows revenge. The name “Bag Witch” is explained –in possibly the clumsiest retcon ever devised—as a foreshortening of “Lunch Bag Witch”—part of the witch’s curse, apparently, was that all the bag lunches at MarCon suddenly spoiled. We cast a bunch of relatives and friends (including an appearance by the infamous Chain Mail Girl as Joe’s, uh, “love interest”) and spent the summer shooting “The Curse of the Bag Witch.” “Curse” is the polar opposite of “Bag Witch”–scripted, tightly edited, with cool motion graphics and music, and best of all Steve and Joe didn’t have to act in it (Chris does have a brilliant cameo as his own brother)!
At the same time, we looked into the possibility of releasing “Bag Witch” on DVD. We were selling enough VHS copies that it seemed to make sense to move up to the new technology. However, at the time it was prohibitively expensive. For the quantities we wanted to order (a few hundred) we were getting quotes of around $18 per disc! So, shelving the DVD concept for the time being, we decided instead to create a “Special Edition” VHS version of the original film that included the same special features that a DVD would have. We recorded a cast/crew commentary track under the film and cut together some of the deleted scenes, and put it all on the tape. So one could watch the original movie, and if you let the tape run you’d see the deleted scenes and then the whole movie again with the commentary track. How delightfully primitive.
What we said then:
GENCON 2000: The Return
A new year, a new show. Would the Bag Witch still have the effect she had last year? We didn’t want to show up and find we were George Lucas, trying in vain to recreate past glories. For some reason which remains beyond our comprehension, the old girl was once again one of the big hits at the dance. Not wanting to risk the ire of the MECCA fire marshals by showing the films at our booth, we decided to wrangle another Anime room showing. After several discussions with the Anime room folks (thanks to them, btw) we were able to secure a half-hour on Saturday night. While this was not enough to show both “The Bag Witch Project” and our new effort, “Curse of the Bag Witch,” we decided to go with the new piece. “Curse” had its World Premiere at 11:30 p.m. CST on Saturday, August 12, 2000. Now, if you read last year’s missive on the Bag Witch Weekend (and if you didn’t, scroll down–we’ll wait), you know we were absolutely terrified at the Anime room showing. Well, this year we were not only scared of sucking, we were afraid of being old news. Thankfully, as the end credits rolled we were treated to cheers and enthusiastic applause…you can breathe now, Steve.
The run-up to GenCon 2000 was the period where we started thinking of Bag Witch as more than just a fluke, a marketing gimmick that accidentally became a viable product. We started thinking in terms of creating a body of work that was a larger parody of summer blockbuster films, with all the attendant hype and excess: commentary tracks, interactive website, t-shirts, spin-off releases, card games, action figures…
Clearly, we were going out of our minds.
Despite only having one showing, “Bag Witch Project” and “Special Edition” both sold out, and we sold over half our stock of “Curse.” Special thanks again to all the Bag Witch fans who have helped us take a total lark of an idea and turn it into a grotesquely over-realized parody of not just a film, but of its attendant hype and marketing as well! Who knows what will happen next year…I hear there’s a “Blair Witch” sequel coming out this Halloween…
…happened to coincide with the first weekend of general release for a little horror film called The Blair Witch Project. In a ploy to draw attention to our booth at the con, we had shot a short parody called “The Bag Witch Project” and put up a big poster for it next to the stacks of sound effects CDs we were selling. The ploy worked. From a distance, the poster looked genuine enough that people stopped by to inquire whether we were connected with the film. Other people asked if we somehow had VHS copies of the Blair Witch film to sell. The small video monitor we’d brought along looped scenes from the parody and we planned to screen the film in its entirety twice a day.
What we said then:
AT THE ‘CON…
We put up our big “Bag Witch Project” poster in the booth, it gets some attention and some laughs, and we tell everyone who asks that we’re showing it at 1 and 4. So 1 PM rolls around on Day One, and we inaugurate the World Premiere of “The Bag Witch Project.” Ten people show up, they laugh, we all have a good time, no one gets hurt. After the show, Gemma Tarlach from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel comes up and says “‘Bag Witch?’ What’s this ‘Bag Witch?'” We tell her and she leaves. We figure out of several hundred booths at the ‘con, ours might merit a small mention in her article… The 4 PM show goes well, with about twelve people in attendance.
We asked our neighbors in the other booths if they minded the fact that convention attendees were standing in the aisle blocking passage…no, they said, not at all, it makes people stop and look at our stuff if they can’t get through!
Meanwhile, we spent some of our downtime walking around GenCon in our “Bag Witch” costumes, taping extra scenes. We figured it might be fun to cut this footage in later, to tie the office footage to the convention in a more authentic way, just for the fun of it.
Then all hell breaks loose.
The next day, another screening and this time, security people came over and told us, hey, jamming the aisles like this is a fire hazard, you can’t do that. So we abandoned the booth screening concept. But then we had a chat with some friends from Chaosium, who knew the the guys who ran the anime room, a large auditorium in the hotel that showed anime, trailers, and various other stuff 24 hours a day throughout the convention. A plan was hatched to screen the movie on Saturday.
Friday morning the GenCon article appears on the Journal-Sentinel. We’re mentioned in the lede above The Phantom Menace (not, however, above Pokemon) as “one of the biggest crowd magnets of the convention” with “convention-goers doubled over with laughter.” Four paragraphs out of twenty-four are devoted to “The Bag Witch Project.”
Chris goes off to stare at Lou Ferrigno before the 1 PM show and when he comes back there are TWENTY-FIVE people SITTING IN THE AISLE in front of our booth, watching “The Bag Witch Project.” Imagine! You’re in the dealer room of a ‘con and you come across twenty-five people who have decided they need to SIT IN THE AISLE and watch a movie playing on a crappy little video monitor. For FORTY MINUTES. What the hell is going on here?
So we’re quite the buzz at the ‘con. So much so that the nice folks from Andon come around to tell us to please keep the aisles clear. So much so that the nice folks at Chaosium ask us to show “Bag Witch” at their showcase in the Anime Room that night. Okay, we say. We hear it’s a cozy little room, seats about fifty. So we cancel the second booth show that day and tell people to “catch us at the Anime Room, but you might want to get there early (8:45 for the 9 PM show) because we hear it’s kind of small.”
The place was packed. The audience laughed, and applauded and cheered like crazy as the credits rolled. Somehow we had a minor hit on our hands.
We get to the Anime Room. It actually seats TWO HUNDRED and fifty people. And it’s full. People have been lining up for “Bag Witch” since 8:30. It’s standing room only. We’re terrified.
All of which is instantly forgotten during the riot that is the Anime Room show and the tumult of applause that follows.
Now we are famous. Friends from other booths tell us that EVERYBODY is talking about “Bag Witch.” One guy who will attend all five shows during the ‘con tells us his dad works for Hostess and, based on ONE GAG involving Twinkies, tells us that he’ll send us a case of same. People stop us in the convention hall by yelling “Hey, Bag Witch!”… which short-circuits our pickup shooting on one occasion. Our flyers are repeatedly stolen from posting areas. The questions about video release are starting to fly.
People now asked if we had copies of OUR film to sell. Wha???
What becomes a legend most? We decide to have one more show in the Wisconsin Room at the Holiday Inn. Most of the audience is led over from the booth by Joe and Steve, who lead the procession while holding aloft the 24″ x 36″ “Bag Witch” poster. This altogether calmer screening culminates in an impromptu Q&A session and the giveaway of the Procession Poster. The last day of the ‘con is marked by repeated, and repeated, and repeated, questions about “Bag Witch.” The question sessions get longer and longer, people are coming by to ask us about subtle references in the film, and a high school kid tries to steal one of our props! We have arrived! Thanks to all the GenCon attendees who made “Bag Witch” the freaky sensation it was!
The convention over, we went back and forth about whether to actually try to sell tapes of the movie, and finally decided, what the hell. We cut in the new convention footage, trimmed out some 15 minutes of the really bad ad libs, and designed a VHS cover. We ended up selling quite a few tapes of the original Bag Witch movie.
And then it was time to figure out what to do for next year.
End of Part Two.
Next: The Curse of the Bag Witch.
These days you’d say it went viral
Because, as I mentioned before, we’re not able to attend the 2009 GenCon game fair, and therefore won’t be able to do anything to commemorate the 10th anniversary of our fluke cult “hit” The Bag Witch Project…we’re instead going to post a series of reminiscences about it here, including what we said about it on toxicbag.com at the time.
What we said after GenCon 1999:
The unexpected runaway hit of GenCon 1999, “The Bag Witch Project” doesn’t suck as much as we thought. In fact, the phenomenon caught us completely by surprise and got more than a little out of hand.
In the summer of 1999, Steve and I went with our friend Chris Petkus to the Music Box Theater in Chicago to see a new horror film. We enjoyed it for its refreshingly non-CGI approach, and spent much of the day talking about it. An art-house film at that point, The Blair Witch Project would not open nationally until early August.
Over the next month, buzz about the film began to grow, partly because of a clever internet campaign and a TV special on the SciFi Channel called “Curse of the Blair Witch” (more on that later), both of which presented the Blair Witch legend as a real thing.
In mid-July, as we were preparing for our annual visit to GenCon to sell our Game Masters Collection CDs, we brainstormed about how we might call attention to our booth (without spending enormous amounts of money). We remembered “Blair Witch,” and how simply it was shot, and the idea began to form that perhaps we could shoot a short parody of the film to show on a loop at the booth, and put a mock poster up or something.
(Yeah, cool, guys: a parody of “Blair Witch Project,” that’s original. It’s only the most-parodied film ever made…)
Well, actually, since the film hadn’t opened nationally yet, there were no other parodies. I’m pretty much certain that ours was the first.
What we said at the time:
Sometime in mid-July we were sitting around discussing how to spice up the convention floor booth. We had just seen “The Blair Witch Project” and discussed the idea of making a short parody film depicting our search for a gaming site at last year’s con. “It oughta be easy,” we thought. Three people go off in search of a mystical, mythical thing and never return. As GenCon is a roleplayers’ convention, we cast our characters as roleplayers in search of the infamous “Bag Witch Tournament,” which reportedly occurs every ten years and somehow involves Twinkies (TM) snack cakes. No one knows of anyone who has ever played this tournament…and come back.
So, we outlined the basic sequence of events from the film, came up with a few gags, threw costumes and props together and prepared to shoot. The parody setup was simple: three moronic role-players show up at GenCon, look for a mysterious “Bag Witch” gaming tournament, and get hopelessly lost. We chose “Bag Witch” to play off of “Toxic Bag,” and much later had to retcon an origin for the name.
So, we set off to shoot the thing, expecting to come out with a good twenty-minute short we could knock out in a couple of hours of shooting and editing. Imagine our surprise almost twenty-eight hours later when the final edit clocked in at forty-three minutes. Well, we thought, we’ll just have to only show it a couple times a day at the ‘con… Ha.
Our shooting date was the weekend before the convention. We shot all Saturday. The initial location was supposed to be my apartment, but somehow the intense heat contributed to a power outage in my neighborhood. We quickly revised our plan to shoot at Steve’s apartment instead. From there, out to a house in the suburbs to shoot an “interviewing the locals” sequence, and then off to the office that doubled as the “hotel” where we then edited all Saturday night. Once we shot Chris’ last scene (he played the guy who vanishes) he ran upstairs and started editing while Steve and I continued to shoot.
I should say this before we go much further: I’m not an actor. Steve’s not an actor. Chris, while a genuinely funny guy, is not an actor. We non-actors had no script and ad-libbed each scene. Take from that what you will. We would have thrown in more “gamer” jokes if we’d had time, but we didn’t. Many of the scenes fall somewhat short of what you’d call “great improv” and some are downright painful. The initial edit was at least a third too long…but what the hell, we were just using it to grab attention, it was just gonna be playing at the booth on a noisy convention floor, it didn’t need to be “Waiting for Guffman”…
We photographed Steve for the poster, did some Photoshop work and were off to the convention.
End of Part One. Next Time: GenCon ’99.
Pre-production for the new thang is underway…
We’ve still got some actors to see, but I don’t think it’s any great violation of any audition code to say at this point: damn, we’ve got some talented actors in Chicago.
In a rare burst of competence, we held the auditions at the location where we plan to shoot, so Blood and Dave and I could look it over and figure out some logistics and talk about a few camera angles and setup issues. This puts us well ahead of our pre-production schedule.
The shoot is going to be great fun and I think the end result will be pretty fantastic.
Photo by Michael Brownlee.
In the mid-90s, Blood and I were hired by a small production company to work on a music video for a thrash-metal band. The band was signed to a medium-sized label and enjoyed some success touring Europe and Japan. We were supposed to provide audio support for the shoot, meaning we would set up a small PA system and play back the band’s CD, and they would mime and lip-sync the song. Our friend Chris was hired to direct. Chris had gotten got the gig because he knew who Lucio Fulci was. The band were big Zombie fans, and that was the ‘look’ that they wanted their video to have.
Being an occult-themed thrash metal act, the band wanted to shoot their video in a cemetery. Specifically, they wanted to shoot in the Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery near Midlothian, Illinois. This cemetery is supposedly very haunted, and is featured in many of the “Haunted Chicago”-type books you find in the local interest section at Border’s.
Our line producer described it as “an active cemetery.” What does that mean, I asked—they’re still burying people there?
“No, the last burial was around 1989. ‘Active’ means there are still people buried there.”
So, “active cemetery” as opposed to “field,” I guess.
Tucked back in a forest preserve, Bachelor’s Grove has become a popular destination for vandals, and authorities have reported finding evidence of black-magic rituals taking place there. There are also reports of ghosts, strange lights, and a phantom farmhouse that appears and disappears.
On the day of the shoot, I knew none of this stuff. For all I knew we were headed out to shoot in one of those modern, manicured, golf-course-looking cemeteries you see in funeral scenes in movies like Watchmen with “Sounds of Silence” playing in the background. We had asked if the producers had secured permission to shoot at the location. We were assured that all the necessary permits had been taken care of.
That wasn’t entirely true. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our first stop of the day was at the band’s rehearsal space, a converted warehouse on Chicago’s west side. This building was like most dedicated band rehearsal facilities in the 1990s, each floor divided into 10×10 rooms with thin walls and lots of black paint, inhabited by thirty or so bands playing as loud as they could to drown out the band in the next space. The walls of this band’s space were plastered with posters of metal bands and photos from hardcore porn magazines. The drumset was perched atop an eight-foot wooden riser, leaving almost no space between the cymbals and the ceiling. The room smelled vaguely of stale beer, cigarettes and pot. The band members were already in full video shoot regalia—leather, chains, studded wristbands. A short guy with a shaved head introduced himself as “Jeff Deth” and said he was going to be doing lights. We helped the band load their gear into their van and headed out to the location.
Bachelor’s Grove is a monumentally creepy place. The headstones have been tipped over and dragged around by vandals for forty years, the grass and weeds are chaotically overgrown. It’s easy to understand why a band whose music is occult-related would want to use it as a setting for a video. It’d be a great location for a horror film too.
Not that I’m suggesting anyone try to shoot one there.
Because it’s hidden back inside a forest preserve, there’s no accessible road to the cemetery. So we had to park out by the main road and carry the gear in, probably a half-mile to the cemetery. Hiking in, Jeff Deth told us about his dream project: to make a scat porn movie starring real supermodels. He made us swear to not steal the idea. We agreed, wondering what galaxy this guy inhabited wherein someone might rip off that particular setup. It’s really altogether too disgusting and degrading to go into further detail, so his concept remains safe (though I’ve found a more detailed description on someone else’s blog; apparently we’re not the only people to whom Jeff pitched his film).
Blood and I had a couple of speakers, a mixer, an amp and a small generator to power it all. We had also been asked to bring any cool props we might have lying around…and by “cool props” the band meant “guns.” So, I had three plastic replica guns in my duffel bag as well. Specifically I had a black water pistol that looked like a Colt 1911 .45 caliber pistol, a cap gun that resembled a Walther PPK, and something that looked vaguely like a Scorpion submachine gun. Additionally, Blood was also going to do makeup and effects. He had a bunch of Zombie green makeup, latex scars and bullet holes, fake blood and even a fake arm with him. Who he was going to apply this makeup to was never very clearly defined by the band. It’s possible they originally planned for groupies to be there to be the Zombs, but on shoot day there was nobody.
The band set up their gear amidst the scattered headstones and once we got the PA system sorted out, the director called for us to do a take. The music blared, the band gyrated, banged their heads and otherwise commenced looking badass…and out of the corner of my eye I saw two men in brown uniforms standing at the edge of the cemetery looking at us.
I got Chris’ attention, and he cut the take. The police approached us. Blood indicated that the director was the guy to talk to, and we hung back. Blood told me later his first thought was, please guys, tell me you left all that pot at the rehearsal space.
“What’re you guys doing?”
“We’re filming a music video.”
“You know you’re not allowed to be back here. This place is not open to the public.”
“The band told me they’d gotten permission to shoot here.”
Waitaminit, I thought—the BAND? And the producer didn’t double check? Oh geez.
Needless to say, no one was able to produce a permit or any other sort of documentation proving that we had permission.
“Come on, fellas. No one’s gonna give you permission to shoot in a cemetery. Pack up all this stuff and get going.”
So we started packing up the gear. At one point, I was wrapping cables with my duffel bag open next to me. One cop looked down and saw the prop firearms.
“Hey, are those real guns?”
He was looking at what appeared to be two handguns and a submachine gun, sitting in my bag atop a bunch of audio cables. I’m pretty sure his hand was on his own firearm. Not looking up, and especially not making a move toward the bag I said slowly, “No, sir, those are fakes. Feel free to take a look at them.” He didn’t. Though a few minutes later as I was farther away packing the generator I saw that Chris, or maybe Jeff Deth, had taken the guns out to show them to the cop. Okay, maybe he was just curious, but I still stand by my decision to not risk getting shot by a police officer for grabbing a fake gun while being kicked out of a graveyard for inadvertently trespassing. I’m sure that’d at least earn me 100 years in purgatory just for being stupid.
Under the no-doubt-bemused but nonetheless stern glare of the police we hoofed all the gear back out the half-mile to the vans. The band assured Chris they’d get in touch when they’d actually gotten another location lined up—properly this time. None of us ever heard from them again. And I don’t think Jeff Deth ever made his movie.
Images of Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery are from graveyards.com and are linked courtesy of Matt Hucke. Thank you, Matt!
We recently teamed up with Chicago writer/actor Michael Brownlee to produce some short films based on the darkly comic scripts that emerged from his sketch wars project. The first short, “The Loan’s the Thing,” was directed by Blood in late 2008. Dianna Driscoll, with whom we’ve worked on a slew of theatre projects, joined us as Line Producer as well as Production Designer, taking on the task of preparing all of the props and set dressing. Frequent Toxic Bag co-conspirator Dave Taub was on hand to light and shoot the scene, and his wife Mel once again earned her “Most Valuable Crew Member” title by providing craft services.
The actors we initially asked to be in the film were unavailable, so Michael and his wife Karyn agreed to do it…as it turns out it was pretty much perfect casting so I don’t know what we were thinking asking anyone else to be in it. After a month of weekly pre-production meetings to determine set design, nail down a location and work out script and storyboard details, we built the set and pre-lit at our friend Walter’s building on a Friday night and shot the scene Saturday.
Karyn had a 3 pm call for a show she was in, so we planned to shoot all of her material by 1, break for lunch, send her on her way, and then work on any close-ups of Michael for the remainder of the day. As it turned out, Karyn and Michael nailed everything so quickly that we stayed well ahead of schedule. We made a decision to work a few minutes past that 1 pm cutoff, and we were entirely shot out by 1:30 in the afternoon.
Guerilla film geek tips:
• To achieve a cold, sterile look, Dave white-balanced the camera against a pink sheet of paper.
• Dialog was shot to a ZOOM H2 portable flash recorder. Very cool because 1) the ZOOM is really inexpensive and b) dialog files can be imported into ProTools really quickly.
The next day I digitized all the footage into Final Cut and handed a hard drive off to Blood, who spent the next week editing at his house. When he brought the hard drive back to Toxic Bag HQ to finalize the edit, however, we discovered that –due to a discrepancy between the small Final Cut rig at his place and the big Final Cut rig at the studio—all of the footage in the edit had become corrupted. We spent the evening frantically re-assembling the cut, referencing a Quicktime movie he’d exported to match the timing. We’ve since brought the two Final Cut systems to a mutual understanding and they play nice now.
The final product is on our YouTube channel, and we’re now hard at work on the next short in the series. Stay tuned!
On-set photos by Michael Brownlee which is why he’s not, um, IN any of them.
While we’re waiting for the Negotiator to arrive, let’s try this
8 a.m. Saturday. A 2-bedroom apartment in Chicago that serves as the primary location for an independent film on which Blood and I are working as production sound mixers. The residents of the apartment have been living there during shooting, and the strain is beginning to show. The fact that the production is paying their rent for the duration of the shoot has long since stopped balancing out the inconvenience of having a film crew invade their home each weekend.
Blood and I arrive on set. The director, line producer and executive producer are standing in the living room, looking mighty concerned.
What’s up, guys? we ask.
“J___ has locked himself in his room and won’t come out. We have to shoot the bedroom scenes today and he won’t let us in.”
This is the second bedroom stuff, the scenes between M___ and K____?
“Yeah. We’re totally screwed if we can’t talk him out of his tantrum; we’ll have to send the crew home and lose a whole shooting day.”
Have we shot anything in that room yet?
“No, we just shot some stuff in the other bedroom, for the other scene.”
Does it have to be THAT bedroom? Why don’t we just re-dress the other bedroom, the one we CAN get into, maybe move the furniture around and put different sheets on the bed, make it look like a different room?
“um…we didn’t think of that.”
They’d gotten so bogged down in the specifics of the problem (how to talk the angry tenant out of his room) that the relatively simple solution (just shoot in another room) hadn’t occurred to them. Just needed a fresh perspective. Eventually J___ came out of his room; he’d made his point and we were out of his way, well into shooting in the other room. The rest of the day went off without a hitch, we got the shots, no one got hurt.