Olfactory Thriller – 12 for ’10 January Submission

by Jimmy on January 31, 2010

Synopsis: Fred (Jimmy Nguyen) visits his favorite local taqueria on his lunch break.  While enjoying his meal, dark forces conspire to bring across his path a mysterious man (Eric Rasmussen) with an olfactory clairvoyance.  Something about Fred’s scent provokes this mysterious man and what ensues is Fred’s struggle to escape from the man whose powerful sense of smell and determination rivals that of the Hounds of Hell.

Making the Movie (spoiler alert, watch the movie then read): As a person with a very sensitive stomach, I spend a lot of time on the toilet, sometimes as much as 5 times a day.  Initially, this may be viewed as a huge burden and handicap in life, but in fact it is not.  It is actually a great advantage to be afflicted with such a weak stomach.  Time on the toilet affords me a comfortable place to ponder life and imagine new worlds, some that can be possibly used in future movies.  Simply put, while my anus flexes, my mind vexes.  The greatest minds of our time share many things in common, but one thing that sometimes goes unnoticed is the fact that many of them always enjoyed long, casual walks so that they could have time to reflect and imagine (see Thoreau and Muir).  Personally, I have replaced the walking part with spending time on the toilet.  Going into my bathroom at home with the fan humming or in the public stall at work with its rustic wooden doors and partitions is like getting into a space capsule and going on an Odyssey of my mind.  It was during one of these pooping Odysseys that I dreamt up the idea for Olfactory Thriller. 

You think you are fairly safe inside your stall in a public restroom with its sliding lock and sleek, synthetic sidings.  Some public stalls even have automatic flush, which enhances the illusion that your stall is designed by NASA and therefore is probably indestructible.  But indeed it is not.  While in your stall, the only thing that separates you from a madman is actually a thin piece of plastic and maybe your poop if you throw it at him to keep him at bay.  I shouldn’t even bother to mention the abundance of openings and cracks the stall affords an attacker.  Yet, isn’t it odd that we choose not to think about these things when we’re on the toilet in a public restroom.  Maybe it’s the endorphins produced during pooping that keeps you blissfully ignorant of the catastrophe waiting around the corner.  For these reasons, it is very clear to me that the public restroom stall embodies the dichotomy of refuge and vulnerability, hope and horror, and comfort and anxiety.  Many of you can understand the last comparison.  How many times have you been pooping comfortably at work when maybe your boss walks in the bathroom and you hold your diarrhea farts until he leaves?  Classic comfort turned into anxiety.

The public stalls ability to inspire such a broad emotional range is why it appears in so many movies.  In fact, the website www.poopreport.com has an extensive list of some of these movies in its Movie Poop-Scene Database.  In many of these movies, people get attacked or even killed in the very stalls where they lay their feces.  However, my whole concept for the bathroom stall in my movie was going to be more metaphysical than physical.  I wanted to focus on the build-up and release aspect of being in a stall, literally and figuratively, more than the fear and violence aspect.  When I came up with the basic concept for Olfactory Thriller I was in a bathroom stall in a government building in D.C..  So naturally, I imagined a movie where a mysterious man akin to a spy stepped in front of my stall with austere black shoes and kicked a “top secret” envelope to me under the door and then walked away.  How crazy would that be?  But what would the note in the envelope say?  The actual note had to be in direct contrast to the entire buildup of the whole sequence.  The letter had to relieve the pooper and not threaten physical harm.  But it also had to be humorous and create lifelong confusion for the protagonist afterwards.  Naturally, the note had to say “your poop stinks.”

There are many times when I am in a bathroom stall and imagine this happening to someone.  It makes me laugh uncontrollably.  I’ve always wanted to do this to someone at work.  I would stand in front of their stall door and to try to open it.  The person in the stall would say something smartly like “occupied” or “someone’s in here.”  Then I would stand in front of the door for a couple seconds longer totally silent.  Maybe I would breath heavily, but I wouldn’t speak a single word.  As the person in the stall got more and more anxious, I would simply drop a letter with the words “top secret” onto the ground and then kick it into his stall then turn around and walk out.  The person in the stall would of course open the letter only to discover something that he had feared all along: his poop really does stink and everyone in the office knows it.  He would be in denial at first but as he walked around the office that day he would grow paranoid and begin to falsely believe that everyone was in on the joke.  People talking and laughing casually at their desks were really laughing at him and his stinky poo.  This paranoia would last for days and affect his mood and work habit until he would finally explode and walk out and never come back.  I would not see him again until a few years later outside of a gas station.  He would be very disheveled and in penury begging for money holding a sign that says, “Everyone’s shit stinks.”  So if after seeing this video, you plan to do something like this to some random person at your work, think it through carefully.  This could be the consequences of your action.  The “Your Poop Stinks” letter is like the cursed pie in Stephen King’s “Thinner” or the cursed button in “Drag Me to Hell.”  This brings up another good question: Why is it always the evil gypsy that puts a curse on people in these horror movies?  Where is the outrage?  Where is the Gypsy Anti-Defamation Union?  Where’s my Django Reinhardt appreciation day?

The footage in the movie took four different days to take.  Originally, the entire movie was only going to consist of the chase scenes and stall scenes in the empty building (basically, Olfactory Thriller pt. 2).   But after showing just this part to  to some people and gauging their reactions, I knew I had to add more to the movie.  So we went back out and shot the scenes in the restaurant, park, and garage.  I believe the burrito buying and eating scenes are crucial because this sets up the whole pooping scene in the end.  The movie might have only taken 4 days to shoot, but it needed 7 months to complete.  Some of you may have noticed that Eric did not have such a thick beard in the interior building scenes.  Some of you with eagle eyes may have even noticed that Eric’s shirt didn’t match from pt. 1 and pt. 2.  And then some of you with Legolas (an Elf from the Woodland Realm in Lord of the Rings) eyes may have noticed that I had shorter hair in the final scenes.  That’s because the first scenes in the USDA building were shot in July 2009.  We didn’t get around to shooting the restaurant and garage scenes until January 2010.  By that time, Eric was able to grow more hair on his face and was able to lose the shirt we used in the first shots in the USDA building.  If you noticed all these things and still enjoyed the movie, well then that’s just the power of mise en scene.

Here is where I have to thank all the people who helped me make this movie: Lenah Nguyen, Eric Rasmussen, and Jamilah Fagbene.  To actually have empty hallways and garages, we had to shoot on a weekend and at night after 8 p.m.  Each time it took between 2 and 3 hours to get everything we needed.  We each rotated between acting, shooting, and pushing the wheelchair for the dolly shots.  Everyone had to be a jack of all trades to finish this movie.  It was a wonderful experience and it is always the best part of making a movie.  You are with your friends and family and you are doing something creative and beautiful.  It is the best time you’ll ever spend with each other second only to having a barbeque and playing croquet in someone’s big backyard.  Now editing on the other hand is the lonely, grueling, and exasperating part of making a movie.  That is unless you are working with film and you have your friends and family cut and prepare the film with you in the same room (see the documentary “American Movie”).

Fun facts:  We shot the scenes that took place in the USDA garage at 8 p.m. because we wanted to have an empty garage.  But since we could only do it on a weeknight (when Eric Rasmussen was available), we accepted the risk of people working late and then leaving the garage when we were shooting.  Indeed this did happen.  The first two people to leave that night while we were shooting in the garage were two black gentlemen.  They came out separately but within 30 seconds of each other.  I then turned to my cinematographer, Jamilah Fagbene, who is a black woman, and asked, “Do you think they’ll call the cops?”  Jamilah responds, “Black people never call the cops.”  Later, an older white gentleman walks to his car in the garage and I ask Jamilah the same question, “Do you think he is going to call the cops?”  Jamilah responds, “White people always call the cops.”  She was right and wrong.  No one called the cops on us.

The stare down scenes were inspired by the spaghetti Westerns made by Sergio Leone.  Eric Rasmussen, a big fan of the old school movies, introduced me to Leone’s movies and it has changed my life in many ways.  Now I want to make a Western!

The diarrhea sounds were made by my mouth and by pouring water with blueberries into my toilet.

Eric Roberts, the composer of the original music and sound effects for the movie, did all the music and sounds in two days, which is quite remarkable.  I had met Eric through a friend of mine named Bryan.  Bryan and I had met in the Peace Corps in Peru.  Eric and I decided to meet up for a couple hours so that I could show him some footage for my movie and see what he could do with it.  I forget to mention that Eric wanted to start experimenting with doing soundtracks for movies so it was a win-win situation.  Upon walking into his apartment, I was pleasantly surprised to find old keyboards and pianos, recording equipment, and stereos beautifully strewn about.  As soon as I showed him a clip from my movie, Eric immediately knew what music and sounds needed to go with the clip.  He began to pull out a Japanese koto, blow keyboard, and a bongo that you put your fist into.  These are probably not their correct names but I was so excited when all of this was happening.  It was quite inspiring to see someone so skilled at their craft and had no formal training in music.  Hopefully, we can expect an article about music and sounds in movies from Eric Roberts in the future on this very blog.

The restaurant and park scenes were shot in Columbia Heights, D.C.  Since we were working with only a light crew, just Eric Rasmussen and I, we had to depend on strangers walking by to help us.  Sometimes  helping us meant  just telling us if everything went well during the shots.  This is especially important for the long shots because someone could have walked in front of the camera and waved and if I didn’t playback the footage right after the shot finished (which sometimes happens when I’m in a hurry), I would not have realized something was wrong until I started editing, which is always an unpleasant surprise.  Sometimes strangers helped us by simply standing near the camera, making it difficult for someone to grab the tripod and camera and run away.  One special stranger actually got to do a pan and zoom shot with the camera.  The shot I am talking about is the one where I am walking across the street and glance back and then the camera pans and zooms in on the park bench revealing Eric still staring at me intently.  I had to pick a stranger that looked like he or she had shot a movie before.  So as people walked by I zeroed in on a hipsterish-looking guy and as he passed I explained to him what we were doing and what I needed from him.  It turned out that he was very capable of doing the shot because it took him only one take to get it right.

Shooting out in public in D.C. with a tripod and an official looking shotgun mic with fuzzy wind guard is a great experience.  People are always curious as to what you are doing and are always willing to help out.  One woman even asked if she and her kids could be extras.  When I said she could, she quickly backed out by saying, “No I would if I wasn’t pregnant.”  In reality, she was a beautiful, slim-figured woman who was probably only 2 weeks pregnant.  Other people would just ask what we were doing.  I would answer them and then follow up with questions like,, “Do you live around here?”  They would then answer, “Yes.”  Then I would ask, “Can we shoot a scene in your house?”  As a movie maker you always have to be scoping out places for scenes in your next movie.  Anyways, I can’t stress enough how delightful it was to do the scenes in Columbia Heights even if it was in the middle of January and I only had a short sleeved shirt on the whole time.  Not many people are shooting independent movies in D.C., at least not in places like Columbia Heights, so its a novelty when people see it happening in their neighborhood and they love it.  This stands in contrast to New York City, where you see large cameras and boom mics just about as often as you see rats in the subway.

Originally, we wanted to shoot the interior restaurant scene at the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl.  However, when Eric and I showed up at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the line, as usual, was already out the door.  As I tried to bypass the line and walk through the door, a bouncer would not let me through because he thought I was trying to skip in line.  So as an alternative we decided to drive around Columbia Heights until we found a good restaurant for our movie.  It turned out to be Taqueria del Distrito Federal.  I just walked in and asked the waitress if she would be willing to play along and she was happy to do so.  Muchisimas gracias a la Taqueria del Distrito Federal.

Shooting the scenes inside the USDA building on the weekend was quite an interesting experience.  To avoid any trouble, I will not write about one humorous incident that happened in the building, but you can ask me about it the next time you see me in person.

Questions for discussion for your movie group: If the mysterious man in the trench coat had not chased Fred for so long, would Fred’s poop still came out loose and stinky?  I mean anxiety causes a lot of upset stomach not just burritos alone.  So did the mysterious stalker really have an olfactory clairvoyance or did he cause the stinky poop himself?  Classic cause and effect questions sort of like the questions that come up in Terminator.  If the Terminator and Kyle Reese hadn’t gone back in time, then the Terminator’s arm would not have gotten stuck in that compactor and never been discovered by SkyNet and then they would have never created their Terminators.  Whaaaaa?

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