Beyond Dream's Door Production Notes
The story is half Lovecraft, half existential college hell. Ben is a student who has no dreams, not only at night but also during the day. He has no ambition. Ben is being chewed up by the repressed energy and potential he could have used for good. At the same time, he’s alone in the world as a quasi adult and his literally nightmarish problems force him to do what life does, which is reach out to strangers and try to make friends.
I hated dream films where the point of the movie is that you wake up at the end and it is all a dream. I wanted it all to be a dream, every step of the way. His dream monster can apply dream laws to his waking life. It all becomes equally real or unreal.
This was my first feature after many shorts. The challenge and excitement of telling a full-length story was more than enough to keep me going through any problems. It was ultimately key to make this feature in Ohio before moving to Los Angeles. You’ll never know how much there is to learn about films until you make a feature yourself. Making a feature that got released and reviewed, helped me make most of my connections and friends in LA. Also the confidence of making a feature and having it released gave me a sense of satisfaction that lasted quite a while.
The description on the original video box is horrible. It says something about Ben facing a deadly dream seductress in a house of the living dead. To this day I can tell anyone who reviews the movie and uses that synopsis never saw the film, because it has virtually nothing to do with the film. Also since the film was released straight to video, some reviews said it was a “video feature” which implies it was shot on videotape. This is not true. We went to extra time, trouble, and expense to shoot it on film.
Finally, though horror films are always good low budget films—because the genre is the star and because, in theory, you can make them well for little money—my reason to make this film was that the genre let me express and play with things that I always wanted to play with. My goal was to make a film you could enjoy on a surface level and if you cared to go back and watch it again and figure other levels out, then great.
Making of Beyond Dreams Door
As told by Jay Woelfel
(This originally appeared in Aardvark Video Newsletter March/April 1989. It was written for them one year after the film began shooting to coincide with the U.S. video release on April 7th.)
I’ve been asked by Aardvark Video, as the writer, director and composer, to share my own view of the making of BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR. At times this story may seem more frightening than the final film. With the exception of film stock and make-up supplies, BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR is entirely from and of Columbus, Ohio. It is not the first feature film to be made here, but it is the first and only one that has been commercially successful and distributed nationally in the United States. The following account is purely from my point of view.
BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR began as a group of ideas, which were inspired in the following ways. It was 1982, and I was not quite halfway through my cinema degree at Ohio State. I had just recently become acquainted with H.P. LOVECRAFT, and bought a book called THE BEST OF H.P. LOVECRAFT: BLOODCURDLING TALES OF HORROR AND THE MACABRE. The first story I read was “The Shadow Out Of Time,” which I inadvertently read the line of before starting it, which resulted in the surprise ending being ruined. You can draw your own moral from this.
From these readings, I pulled the basic idea of duality to the world. Heaven and Hell, present and past, real and unreal, living and dead, all balanced by a cause and effect relationship to one another. More concretely than this was the idea of our modern world above ground and another old world living below it.
In writing scripts, you have to always remember that what you write now has to be filmed later. If you write about Mars and want to produce it locally, you’d better have some place in mind to shoot it. Otherwise, it may never leave the cradle of that typed page. In Haskett Hall (home of the O.S.U Cinema Department) there is a room that is called The Studio: calling it this is one of the longest standing jokes around. It resembles what it originally was – a large, dark, drab industrial room for storing heavy equipment. There is also a large crane and a set of concrete trap doors for brining things up from street level to this second story space. I had my place: The Studio. The ideas to explore in this specific place were as follows: what is below those trap doors? What if it got out? How would you put it back? Remember the Lovecraft connection of the aboveground and belowground worlds.
There were still other major ideas involved in what became the first script. Personal dealings with people at the time I was writing led me to believe, as I still do, that people are what they do and what they dream. I’m using dream here in the context of its two meanings: dreams that we have when we are asleep, and dreams in terms of aspirations or goals. People who can’t or won’t successfully combine these two elements are ultimately doomed to some kind of personal failure.
The last two core elements were largely experimental. I thought about how dreams would talk to us in a film, and I decided that dreams wouldn’t speak like the person behind the counter at the burger place. What if they sounded more like poetry? I had seen several experimental short videos use existing poetry as part of their message. All of these, I felt, had failed because the poem had not been written for the piece. Instead, they seemed to be crammed in to help some other point. The idea, for me, was to combine poetry, music and image to create on meaning, which would be the heard of the story.
The final element is a theme of failed communications. The main character doesn’t communicate with his own dreams, so the dreams get angry and come to get him. At various times, he failed to communicate with others, and this lead to their destruction. There is a recurring phone motif, which furthers this idea.
So in 1982, I started writing a script for a now sadly defunct summer video production class offered by the OSU Cinema Department. The class was three weeks writing followed immediately by three weeks of producing what had been written. I had hoped to get a jump-start on everyone else by starting my script early. The choice of scripts to be produced was very competitive. Only two scripts were to be produced from the entire class, and I had not made the cut the previous year. I was not too proud to write to my audience, meaning the instructor, Clay Lowe – so I wrote a very arty and experimental psychological horror script.
It worked. My head start enabled me to rewrite while others were writing their first draft. And, because the script was so personal, I was chose to direct. The video was shot and edited in three weeks and one day. In the spring of 1984, the original twenty-one minute version of BEYOND DREAMS’ DOOR was awarded first place at the Cal State Fullerton video festival.
I graduated in 1985. Between the original BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR and the time of my graduation, the first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET had been released, and it proved an inspiration. Here was a film that used dreams in a similar way to what I had done in my program, and the film was a major success. (The NIGHTMARE series has only gotten more popular since then) NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET didn’t give me the idea for BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR, but it did provide encouragement that my idea was of commercial value.
By this time, I had met many wonderful people through school, and all of us were graduating and becoming wonderfully unemployed people. What we had learned at school did not pay the bills. Our idea was that we could make a feature film here and do it really well. But what film should we make?
Out of all our projects and various ideas, we kept coming back to BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR. It had been successful as a short work, and it contained lots of ideas. I did a rough scene list to expand it to feature length, and then sat down at a typewriter to see if I really could write a feature film in two weeks.
The first thing was to add two characters. Julie, the teaching assistant, had existed in the short version as originally scripted, but the role had been written out before production. A new character, Professor Noxx, was added. Another short video of mine called AT THE DOOR OF DARKNESS suggested new events to build suspense and keep the first part of the film moving. The middle section of the film roughly followed the structure of the original shorter version. Then, at the point of the climax in the original, I wrote in a reversal of action to leave the script in another direction that builds to the actual climax. Although the film is not a character or actor’s story, you will find major events, which are motivated directly by decisions the characters make.
For producing on a low budget, I always kept the cast small and moved them around a lot so people wouldn’t notice. This has always been my style. One scene added at a late stage in the expanded script didn’t involve new characters – instead, it showed the main character confronting himself. In this case, not only was the cast small, but also one of them essentially played two parts at once.
Okay, great, so much for writing the new version of the script itself. At this pint, it’s time to hiss some bad guys: any good story has to have bad guys. I won’t name names so the bad guys will appear even more odious. Making movies costs money. Let me rephrase that: to college-age ex-students earning just about enough to pay taxes each year, making movies requires grotesquely huge amounts of money.
Enter Bad Guy Number One: he had money behind him to do production ideas of his own. I showed him my script, and it turned out his investors would be interested in something like that. Great. Even greater – at this time, I was lucky enough to be picked from the Cinema Department to represent Ohio State at the Cannes Film Festival that year as one of only six students in the United States involved in a three-week exchange program with France.
All expenses were paid. I went to Cannes in May of 1986. I talk to distributors. Several were interested. One even said that if he liked it when it was done, he would buy it. I returned with business cards I had. But in my absence, my first contact’s ideas had self-destructed and his investors were barely a memory. The fresh contacts with distributors were now useless: I as back to having no money and no film to sell to anyone.
In the summer of 1987, I worked as director of photography on a feature shot locally called ROAD MEAT. At the date of this writing, the film has not yet been completed. Working on ROAD MEAT made me more confident that we could make a film locally. But with ROAD MEAT unfinished, we (meaning myself and my wonderful but poor film school friends) couldn’t count on a percentage of the take we owned in an incomplete movie. We still needed money.
Then the phone rang. It was Bad Guy Number Two, who had always wanted to make a movie. I showed him my work. He liked it. I showed him my feature script. He loved it. He said, “Let’s make a movie!”
I revised my script one more time, polishing up dialogue and clarifying some thins I felt needed more work. It was November 24, 1987, and the script was at ninety-eight pages. In film work you figure that a page of script equals one minute of screen time, and a feature film is usually about ninety minutes long. (This seems like harmless information at this point, but wait and see…)
We budgeted out the film in very detailed fashion. I showed the budget to Bad Guy Number Two, and he nodded his head. He promised me that if he wanted to back out of the project, he would let me know immediately; he wouldn’t lead me on. Then he proceeded to do just that with polished skill.
Let me say right here that neither of these bad guys were evil, but as a filmmaker, people like these are the Devil. You will run into such people because they are legion. You spend a lot of time working for nothing and hoping more than you should. There were many other disappointments and little bad guys along the way that are too numerous to mention here. The fact was that if was 1988 and BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR was still just a script written in 1985.
If the project was ever going to get anywhere, it was time to revise more than the script. We slashed the budget to meet a realistic goal of shooting on 16mm film and finished on videotape for the home video market. Gone were many zeros from the budget figure, and gone also was any hope of having a name star in it or having it released in theaters. Losing such things has stopped many people from ever making a feature length film/video. It shouldn’t. Remember: “the play’s the thing….” If the script isn’t produced, it’s just so many words. Stanley Kubrick made his first feature film with money from an uncle. I stated mine with my own money and money from my parents.
I went back to school for a quarter and took a special group production class taught my Rico Long, which ended up supplying most of the twenty –person crew for shooting the film. More organizational work was done and in April 1988, we started shooting. Once we had shot some footage, which looked good, we picked up more investors to give us the balance of the budget.
The cast is made up entirely of Ohio Community Theatre actors. I had me them over a number of years, while I had made short films at school. I met Rick Kesler first, and he led me to Nick Baldasare, and the whole things branched out from there. Nick gave me my first thrill on BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR when, just two days before we were to start shooting, he told me his back had gone out and he couldn’t even walk. He thought he’d be able to walk in time to shoot – which didn’t reassure me very much, but as things turned out, he was right.
We shot for thirty-eight days. This is high for a low-budget film. I went out of my way, as we all did, to make this film look as professional as possible. From a director’s point of view, this meant allowing time for more elaborate lighting and camera moves by cinematographer Scott Spears, and ultimately meant going over budget slightly and over schedule during production. Since no one was being paid by the hour, time was our greatest luxury, if we indeed had one. I figured it was worth shooting an extra take to get some performance or camera move just right, rather than settling for just good enough.
I had looked closely at theatrical feature films, and asked myself what made them look professional? I decided it was the amount of shots used in a scene, composition of the images, and camera movement. Even though we were essentially shooting a television movie, I used long shots the way you would do for the big screen. Whenever we could move the camera in any way, we did. Ultimately we shot thirteen hours of film, which was cut down to eighty-six minutes made up of 1600 edits.
The shooting went relatively smoothly. Ironically, the only major problem was one that we’d never had before, and had discounted from ever occurring. When you make your first film, you go outside in bright daylight and shoot. You do this because it’s easy: you don’t need lights and little or nothing should go wrong. But what if footage is ruined by a light leak? By the time we discovered that we’d lost scenes, one of our man actors was bald –he (Rick Kesler) was playing Daddy Warbucks in a production of ANNIE. We had him save his hair in a bag in case of an emergency, which this certainly was. That’s right – we glued his hair back onto his head to reshoot footage we couldn’t replace in any other way.
Shooting with special effects was a chore; special effects don’t know how to hit their marks, or do what they’re told to do. They do, however, seem to know how to do exactly what you don’t want to happen. The paint was still drying on the monster on the last shooting day, when we finally had all the effects together in the same place for the first time.
With shooting done, we started editing full time. Then the unthinkable happened: we had a distributor before we had finished a first cut of the whole picture. Not only did we have one distributor interested, we hat two. The associate producer/editor Susan Resatka had researched how to get our film listed in Variety under their “Film Starts.” What she found out was that it was both free and easy to get such a listing.
She did it. The two distributors called us, and then they contacted the Ohio film Bureau, and organization that had helped us with some locations and verified what we had done. Both distributors saw some footage and the final script, and they both wanted the film. Both of them wanted something else too.
Special effects and nudity. What? Hadn’t we suffered enough shooting the effects? The answer was no. Did they want us to get naked for them as some sort of act of faith? The answer again was no.
We agreed that now that the monster props were completely assembled, we could shoot them to better advantage. To aid this process, one distributor told us to “slime it up” and light it very darkly. I was told with a straight face (actually, I was on the phone, so I’m guessing) that the distributor’s ten-year-old son had thought of this idea, and he was the ultimate authority for this reshooting. The irony, of course, is how do pre-teen boys become experts on R-rated horror films they supposedly can’t see in the first place?
The other distributor wanted us to reshoot all the effects. I mean everything, including the special effects we felt were just fine already. He insisted, and it turned out we had to use an out-of-state effects house of his choosing. On top of this, it would cost twice as much money, and we would have to wait six weeks to do the reshooting. This requirement knocked this distributor out of the running.
Nudity. Apparently this is a big plus in Europe. Europeans will watch nudity all day, but are prudish about violence. Ironically, I know from working in a movie theater for many years that American parents will let little Buffy sit through a movie that’s violent and has lots of profanity, but not if there is any nudity or sexual content in it.
So, we put in nudity, and Buffy asks Mom to get it. Mom says okay, until she sees naked people in it, and they the tape goes back on the shelf and we stop a large part of the audience from getting to see the movie that could change their lives and make them the next Pope. What do I know? Maybe that’s why we’ve never had an American Pope. Ours is not to reason why…. Actually, kids in this age group make up a major portion of the horror movie audience because they don’t get around to asking their parents to tell them what they should watch.
I agreed to think about it and try to write nudity into the script of an already mostly-filmed script. It’s important to point out at this point out that at that time the movie, despite the amount of footage shot, was coming up short of ninety minutes. In their correct zeal to make a fast moving picture, editors Susan Resatka and Randy Spears had turned a ninety-eight-page screenplay into a seventy-two minute film.
The distributor seemed to want some nudity inserted into the existing footage in some way, and to have a love scene in the middle somewhere. I, on the other hand, was not interested in doing either – as a matter of fact; I specifically avoided doing them in the script and while shooting. What I decided to do was create another character to deal with the repressed sexual side of the main character. A sort of jealous, spurned, lover who now becomes the monster coming after him. Not only did this give the distributor what he wanted, but it ended up giving the monster a voice to speak with, and the film not had a nice symmetrical opening and closing shot with our telephone motif which had not been there before. And, just and important if not more so, it also added time to the running length.
So we offend American parents, thrill the Europeans, Buffy still sees the film somehow, and our problems are over. Not quite.
It seems, according to our distributor, that Europeans are even more picky: not only do they want topless women (for those who might care, the film also features topless men), they also want exactly eighty six minutes worth of film, or they won’t buy it. This is important if your film isn’t at least eighty-six minutes long. Ours, even with the additional monster footage and new scenes, was still short of that magic number.
An avalanche of dangerous ideas came over the phone from the distributor, such as recycling footage from earlier scenes, or, my personal favorite, changing the ending of the film. Call me stupid, backward, old-fashioned, but I think that, more often than not, how the film starts is directly related to how it ends. If you change the ending that was intended, you screw the whole thing up. Well, we didn’t’ change the ending, we didn’t reuse footage, and we ended up with eighty-six minutes. A magician doesn’t reveal all of his tricks especially when he’s exhausted from performing them.
The final night of the sound mixing at four-thirty in the a.m., producer Dyrk Ashton and I were busy falling asleep at the wheel of our car while driving to where soundman Steve Albanese had been up for nearly three days straight working on the final job that would make the film complete. Suddenly, a bat, the flying kind, hit the windshield. We were instantly awake and professing our deep faith in God. Not long after this revelation we arrived to find that Steve had mixed about one of the precious eighty-six minutes that the film lasted. In the four hours we had left until we were kicked out of the facility the three of us worked and finished the sound mix.
We delivered the film to the distributor, Panorama Entertainment. At least we thought we did. Someone at the Columbus airport decided we didn’t really mean to send our only final and complete copy of the film to New York overnight so it could be sent directly to Milan for the overseas film market. No, they decided we’d much rather have it sit around a whole day in Columbus on a shelf so that everyone from here to the moon would think it had been lost forever.
The film made it to Milan anyhow, where it sold and is still selling. At this point, it looks like our investor’s stand to more than double their money. Those of you reading this paragraph who have money may wish to read it again. Please do so.
That’s the beginning of the happy ending to BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR, and the beginning of the beginning of a new Columbus-made film by most of the wonderful people, now fully recovered, who made this first movie possible. We will almost certainly be ready to start shooting another projected film by this summer.
No film was made that summer. Because although Beyond Dream’s Door did make money, the now long and mercifully gone, Panorama Entertainment decided it was money they should keep for themselves. We did not agree. We sued them. The case was settled out of court in our favor and we were paid more than what we would have deserved to get if Panorama had followed the terms of their own contract. There was no non-disclosure agreement in the settlement so I am not in any way slandering any fine people or business by saying this all these years later.
The legitimately fine people who made Beyond Dream’s Door do mostly still work in the film business in one way or the other. A trip to the IMDB.COM will show their contributions to major films and television shows whose daily budgets are about the same as the amount of money we made our first feature film with.