Duel of the Dorks - Behind the Scenes
In the summer of 2009, while Tim Sazama worked at the bowling alley in Norfolk, Leigh Stoffer and I both got jobs at the movie theater right next door. Since I had worked at the bowling alley with Tim back in high school, and the three of us having referred to ourselves as the Trio of Doom off and on over the years, it is no surprise—looking at the location of Duel of the Dorks—that we had wanted to shoot a film here for a long time. This particular summer though, talk began amongst theater employees of having a lightsaber showdown that incorporated the whole building.
As such, Tim and I began developing the idea in more detail. Occasionally throughout the summer, we would see a movie and then wander through the building, pointing out cool locations and neat ideas. The two big ones that made it through to the final film were the brick pillar destruction and the pin setter sequence. We often joke that the entire film hinged on one gag: having the pins reset with a lightsaber hilt in the front. Other than that, we had a rough idea of where the fight would go, and quite a few very ambitious ideas that never made it to being shot. But as usual, life intervened and things got put on hold for another winter.
No Seriously, Let’s Do This
By May of 2010, the eighth Lightsaber Choreography Competition launched, and Tim and I decided we were finally going to stop talking and start doing. We started choreographing, and a few days later, Tim sprained his ankle. Things got put on hold a bit while he recovered, but I continued to ponder how we would go about shooting everything. It was decided that we would borrow Alex Jeffery’s HVX200 once we needed it, as he wouldn’t be using it much at all during June. In the meantime, I met Emily Kreutz, a recent graduate of the audio recording program at Northeast Community College, who was working for her professor/my former boss. She expressed interest in wanting to shoot a lot more video and film projects, rather than strictly doing audio. As such, she would become our primary camera operator. Shortly thereafter, I ended up putting my notice in at the theater, but the manager, Darrin Paul, was gracious enough to allow us to shoot even after my employment ended.
An Intense Week
The first day of shooting began with some hiccups, which included my car breaking down on the way to pick up Alex’s camera, flooding causing my brother and I to detour around large chunks of the trip, and just generally freaking out on my part as I made sure I had everything I needed. The first night seemed to start off pretty slowly too, since we had theater employees bugging us as we prepped, introductions to be had, as it was the first time everyone including Emily was together and actually working on something. And to be honest, a lot of things weren’t thought out in as much detail as it could have.
By the end, it was quite a success. Darrin even let us shoot until we were finished at the theater. We had intended to be done by 11:30 or midnight, when the projectionist would leave. Instead, we shot until 2:30 in the morning, with Darrin watching the whole time and seeming to rather enjoy watching us work. The rest of the week was an exhausting one as we moved into the bowling alley, occasionally having to switch camera operators when Emily couldn’t be there. My younger brother, Jeff, filled in for a good portion of the film, as did Chris Behlers in later reshoots. And anytime I wasn’t in a shot, I would man the camera. Each night we would stay up well beyond our end of the shoot and extend the cut of the film a little further. The following night would then start with a handful of reshoots based on notes from the previous editing session.
During the middle of our first week of shooting, I had to return to Lincoln to allow Alex to use his camera for a day. While I was there, the Elkhorn River, which flows just south of Norfolk, decided to unleash a 500-year flood. This more or less trapped me south of a certain point in Nebraska. I eventually had to simply drive through Omaha and into Iowa to get around the Elkhorn, which put me back in Norfolk just late enough that it wasn’t worth shooting. But the upside was that Alex wouldn’t need his camera back for a few weeks.
It's a Lock! ...or is it?
After a week and a half of shooting with a few missed nights here and there, we had what we considered a locked edit, and began working on the visual effects. The more we watched it though, the less and less confident we were in the second half. Around the five-minute mark, we cut away from the duel to introduce Leigh. She discovered a mess we had made in the employee room where the duel started, and then followed our path of destruction through the building and eventually interrupted the imaginary duel by grabbing my lightsaber and chopping my head off, then revealing (in one continuous shot, via a carefully executed handoff) that the saber was a poster tube, and I was fine. We started tearing the film apart and pointing out to ourselves how little sense anything made:
- The fight was in the imaginations of Tim and myself, therefore none of the destruction was real, thus Leigh wouldn’t have anything to see/follow.
- There was no precedent setup to warrant cutting away from the duel, making the 5-minute mark jarring and confusing.
- The fight needed to continue uninterrupted until Leigh intervened.
- Given point #3, we needed to establish Leigh’s character in the opening.
- Points 1-4 meant we had many o’ reshoots ahead of us.
We first started to fill in the gaps that were present where we cut away from the fight. This ultimately meant more than simply filling in between shots. It meant trashing several minutes worth of the film and re-choreographing and reshooting everything from when I came out from the pits to a new entrance into the lounge. The ending was also extended slightly now that we had more days to shoot in the lounge. So from the moment Tim fell onto the pool table to the credits was entirely new. I was extremely grateful that Leigh agreed to this entire restructuring of the film, as it required much more involvement from the “only one night” we promised her in the beginning. She was also helpful in working out the dialog and even offered the idea that we just end up crawling on the floor by the end.
The very end of shooting was the most nerve-wracking. Alex absolutely needed his camera back by a certain day, and we were having a hard time getting permission to reshoot the theater opening. It came to the point that Alex and his DP, Brian Watt, were on their way to Norfolk to get the camera, while offering to shoot the scene for us as long as they could hit the road by a certain time. Luckily, the person supervising at the theater that night was David Hans, Leigh’s cousin. He allowed us to shoot at the last minute, and we scurried through.
By this point, the film had been edited entirely minus the new opening, and positioning the very last frame at the 7-minute mark (our time limit for the contest), we realized we had a mere 40-seconds to open the film and seamlessly cut into the first shot of actual saber action. The dialog was written to be very short; nearly one word lines, which also helped display Leigh’s annoyance with these two dorks, who likely have had other lightsaber battles at work. Tim and I worked out the scene with some acting direction from Alex, and Brian shot the crap out of it. I in fact didn’t even bother giving direction for the camera or reviewing shots. I trusted them enough so that we didn’t get to see the footage until I ventured down to Lincoln the following week to fetch it, as there wasn’t enough time that night to dump footage.
We managed to squeeze the opening into 60 seconds, which pushed us 20 seconds over the time limit. But we then used that as an opportunity to find 20 expendable seconds elsewhere in the film. Our composer, Justin R. Durban, assisted in this area, giving a few great moments where we could cut chunks of choreography out and make two shots that were separated before actually flow together. In the end, it resulted in a tighter, cleaner cut, and I was very happy to cut what we did. Without going 20 seconds over, I’m not sure we would have taken the initiative to do so.
Duel of the Dorks presented us with a situation we are not generally used to, in that we had continual access to the bulk of our location. The bowling alley was usually open for us to return for quick pickups, and when we needed to record foley, we were able to simply record things in the actual environment. We borrowed a Sony NX5U from Digital Solutions in Norfolk, (which was where we were editing and doing the VFX anyway) along with a shotgun mic and a wireless lapel mic that we could place in interesting locations. Feeding each into an XLR port, we could record two vantage points into different channels from whence they would be separated and remixed if needed later.
Tim and I actually had a blast spending four or five hours moving through the location again, armed with the cut of the film on a laptop and recording every little sound that wasn’t lightsabers. The shop in the back of the bowling alley proved most useful. One would have found us there for a good half-hour throwing things on the ground until we found a good lightsaber hilt sound, seeing as the actual props sound like what they are: hunks of solid aluminum. We eventually settled on two pairs of vise-grips (a small one and a large one), and proceeded to drop them on the ground, slide them down the lanes, pick them up, catch them… anything we did with the props on screen.
Placing the lapel mic in interesting places proved quite useful. The moment I come out from the pits and Tim is waiting for me, we recorded the creaking door by clipping the mic onto the hinge itself, and then just letting the door swing back and forth. The amount of times it swung back and forth was actually quite funny, but we trimmed it down to match the visual. We also did a number of recordings in the lounge by placing the wireless mic inside of the pool table, and then proceeded to drop the vise-grips, poster tube, cap and Tim on top of it. This added some nice bass to these sounds.
The best part of recording everything later was the happy accident in the opening. I was rigging the lapel mic onto the handle of the door that Leigh opens at the very beginning, and as Tim listened with the headphones, he discovered that we were picking up an amazing howling from the wind whipping through the entryway right outside the door. So we recorded a bunch of this wind and used it as our opening sound. We also ended up picking up some bowling sounds down the hall, so we kept that in there to clue the audience into the fact that it wasn’t just a movie theater. Some of this wind was also mixed in when the fight moves into the entryway, but it is quite subtle once the music is layered in.
All of the dialogue was also recorded later, at Digital Solutions. Although being my first time trying to really do ADR well, I feel it could have been better. By this point, we didn’t have precise enough scheduling to go out to the college and record it properly like I would have liked. But the whole experience was quite fun, as Tim and Leigh and I can never stay serious, resulting in several minutes of goofy recording.
Justin R. Durban is a fantastic composer whom I met in 2008 while working with Fat Monster Films. We have since remained in contact and worked together on a few projects. Early in post production, I began cutting things together with Pro Scores. I had intended on asking Justin to do a score for Alex vs Nate 2 later, so I didn’t ask this time. However, after seeing various production photos on Facebook, Justin shot me a message and offered to write a score for us. The result was more than I ever could have imagined, and really gave the film that final bit of polish we needed.
Duel of the Dorks premiered online in September 2010 as part of the Lightsaber Choreography Competition. That day, the guys at Friends in Your Head, who were the judges for the contest, hosted a live show where they gave commentary and critiques of every entry. There was also a lively chat room going the entire time. Check it out below!