"I always thought that a non-telepathic son of telepaths was an interesting idea," says filmmaker Hal Burdick, sitting among the debris in his Durham apartment-cum-production office in early August. The genial 30-something writer-director is resting between edits of his low-budget film, Neptune and Me, and discussing its premise with a self-conscious campiness that reveals just how seriously he has actually considered his rhetorical follow-up question: "Could there ever be a character more alone?"
Burdick proffers a copy of the screenplay, a 100-page document that will eventually translate into a feature-length film. A random glance at the text yields the following dialogue, between a rocker and his telepathic sister:
ANGEL: Trying to kill yourself?
The picture darkens onto the face of ANGEL. She wears horn-rimmed glasses and black leather. She stares menacingly, uncaringly at Eric.
ANGEL (CONT'D): The headphones can't keep me from hearing. You're destroying your mind.
ERIC: Maybe that's what I want.
The story of a Chapel Hill rocker born into a family of telepaths who tries to use his music to keep from losing control of his mind, Neptune and Me is a labor of love for Burdick. For many years an aspiring screenwriter, Burdick says what he's always wanted to do is direct. "It was my desire ever since I was 21. I made lots of Super 8 films when I was 14 or 15," Burdick says, as he stares at a scene of rioting rock fans playing silently on the screen of his home computer. It is the look one gives an adored pet.
"The story's holding up in that kind of kitschy not-too-bad-Scanners-kind-of-fun-horror-sci-fi-ish kind of way," the director says of his project, which has recently finished principal photography in Chapel Hill. Shot for $10,000 on a mini-digital video camera, Neptune and Me is joining the swelling ranks of ultra-low budget features meant for conversion onto film stock and ultimately for cinematic release. Last year, Burdick points out, four to five mini-DV feature films "hit Sundance," and he expects even more this year.
Burdick had the aid of two friends, graphics designer Robbie Lee and musician Eric Seitlin, both Durhamites who have since moved to Florida and Maryland respectively. The trio first met in a Durham bowling league, and then started kicking around the idea of writing a script together. "Then I saw Eric playing on stage in Chapel Hill," Burdick says. "He's just this guy ... but he's up on stage, with a smoke machine around him and he's wearing this funky costume, hammering away on the ax and then I'm like, 'this is a guy I could make a film with.'"
After storyboarding the script, Lee and Seitlin were cast as leads--Lee as a physics student at UNC-Chapel Hill and Seitlin as a rock 'n' roller. Later, Durhamite Amy Lawson was added as Sadie, the love interest for Lee, and ADF veteran Catherine Lewan as Angel, the diabolical sister who's ultimately slain by Seitlin's transcendentally ear-splitting guitar riffs.
Though neither Burdick, Lee or Seitlin had any experience with film production, this didn't deter them. "We just kind of dove in," Burdick says. "We asked, does it really take genius to do something like this? Well--some of it kinda does, we're learning."
One sequence in particular presented special problems to the neophytes. "We have a sequence going to Neptune," Burdick explains, "and it was supposed to be filmed underwater with people floating around. You can buy Aqua-Lungs for your camera so you can shoot underwater, which became impractical to do because we didn't know where we would shoot it underwater even if we did have them."
So the team found a creative solution. "We just went to the beach," Burdick says (as opposed to flying to Neptune). In the scene, Eric Gray, the telepathic character, is running across the sand when he finds a bottle washed up on the shore containing a message from his dead mother. The message explains to him the intricacies of the mind, and what's happening to him. "We're going to make the beach scene blue with the digital after-effects," Burdick says. "We love how the scene came out. But we hated shooting at the beach. We've had sand on the lens ever since."
On a budget that would not cover food for the crew, much less pay talent, finding enough people to serve as crowd extras was a challenge. The script for Neptune and Me called for various scenes of a rock 'n' roll road trip, filmed at different locations. As budget and timing constraints would have it, however, Burdick and company found themselves restricted to using the same handful of volunteers who showed at Go! Studios in Carrboro on a number of days for all the scenes.
Burdick describes one particularly tough challenge using extras, which his crew overcame with startlingly good results. "We needed screaming people coming out of Go! at night. I put out the call to all the extras: Everybody busy. Two people show up. So we have to do a screaming crowd shot with two people. Lo and behold two families walk by with four or five kids. First we kind of just asked the mother. She said, 'I'll go get my boys.' So she shows up with five or six, twelve- to fifteen-year-old boys."
Burdick arranged the shot in a new way to compensate for the dearth of extras--instead of the desired wide-angle shot on dozens of fans running into the night, he turned it into a tight close-up. The two adult extras burst from the Go! Studios door, ran immediately into the fence to form a screaming, two person pile-up, while in the background the youngsters ran about, screaming and jumping in a very good rendition of mass hysteria.
The Cave on Franklin Street was also used as a location for the Chapel Hill rock scene, which gave Burdick an opportunity to incorporate local celebrity Mr. Mouse, The Cave's owner. "Mr. Mouse was so awesome," Burdick says. "He's even offered some stock footage that he's done in Hi-8 as a big crowd scene at The Cave."
ANGEL: Get out! You've never been welcome here!
ERIC: Angel. I don't want to fight.
ANGEL: I felt Mom's pain when you killed her. I still feel it every time I look at you.
(Eric's voice comes over the RADIO STATIC, "It wasn't my fault.")
ANGEL: You are so pathetic. In a family of telepaths, a non-telepathic son will never fit in.
"Pi is one of the inspirations for this movie," Burdick says, eyeing his film as it continues playing on his computer screen, and considering the comparison. "Pi's a paranoid thriller about a guy who searches for patterns in the stock market and ends up finding God. We were taking ourselves as seriously as Pi, but then we realized in hindsight that we weren't that serious."
Burdick then pretends to be describing the plot to a friend, to illustrate the point: "So that's where Eric recorded his brain onto the computer. And, oh yeah, he went to Neptune ... " The director doubles over and has trouble getting out the next few sentences, because each time he begins he's tripped up by his own laughter: "By going through the brain of his friend on the computer and coming back out, taking a piece from the dream, having it tangible in his hand ... in some way it's laughable, but it all holds a thread."
Burdick is realistic about his film's prospects, saying that early on he defined success as getting into film festivals and getting reviewed. "I don't know if I really changed on that," he says. "We're pretty happy with what we did and what we accomplished, and we think we're producing something that is good enough for other people to see, and now we kind of want more."
"Digital's coming," he prophesizes. "It's just going to keep getting better. And it's just so much cheaper." Burdick pauses and seems to listen to what he just said before wistfully uttering what must be the Artist's Prayer: "I just hope somebody else looks at it besides us."
Neptune and Me will be screened Oct. 6 for the cast and crew, and will be shown at various Triangle venues in the coming months, to be announced.