Written by Clayton Tramel
As of January 2021 I was 15 years removed from film school, and 5 years removed from the release of my last film Tell Me a Story: The Life of J. L. Tramel (a feature documentary on the life of my Grandfather). Making that film was a wonderful experience. We four-walled the picture downtown Oklahoma City for a week in November 2016. It came in second at the theater box office that week, just behind Hacksaw Ridge and just ahead of Arrival.
Any filmmaker who has had the pleasure of sharing their work with a large audience knows how special it is. The contagious, uncontrollable laughter. The hushed crowd at appropriate moments. The sniffling of tears in the end. When you share these moments with a good crowd, you never forget them.
Nor do you lose the desire to do it again. In fact, it only intensifies. I have a wonderful job with great flexibility that allows me to work in film when I have a project I’d like to pursue. But between the previous films undertaking, some busy years at the office, and then the COVID-19 Pandemic, it hit me—I was still thinking of myself as a Filmmaker, but I wasn’t making any films. This was January 2021. It was a few weeks late, but my new years resolution was an easy one.
We all tried our best to adjust to a new normal of life predominantly at home in 2020. I not only lived by myself, but also had recently said goodbye to my dog Marty (Scorsese) Tramel. It made for some tough days. Even before the pandemic, I knew I wanted to write something about loneliness.
I thought about outer space. Maybe a story about a lone astronaut stranded in space, but—different from movies like Gravity or The Martian—the astronaut isn’t sure if he wants to come back, despite the efforts of everyone on Earth to get him back.
Aside from not quite being able to crack that script, there would have been another problem if I tried to make it: money. I’m told there are people out there in the world that will just line up to give you and your movie some money. Apparently, they don’t drink from the same water fountain as me. I knew that if I was going to make a movie that I would be writing this year that I would need it to be a concept that was quite forgiving while still intriguing.
And then, as luck would have it, I found it.
One day driving back from Dallas to Norman some 20 miles from my home, I noticed traffic backing up on the interstate. I still don’t know if it was construction or an accident, but my phone said that traffic was at a standstill and backed up for miles. I took the last exit off the Interstate and decided to take Highway 77, an old road that passes through several small towns with names like Slaughterville and Noble to get home. As I crossed the bridge into Lexington, OK, there I saw it:
If you Google “Spider Bug of Lexington” you’ll know what I’m talking about. A 1968 VW Beetle, black, with giant spider legs holding it far off the ground, sitting alone in an empty field. It's a site. I’m in my thirties, and the Bug had inexplicably been there my whole life. As a kid I remember always getting excited on the rare occasion we passed it.
On that day, I was driving by late in the evening. The sun was setting. It was magic hour, and everything always looks better in magic hour. It was glorious. In the 10 seconds it took me to drive by it, it all came to me at once: I could take that space idea I’ve been wrestling with, set it here, and it would work in every way I needed.
It would be a (mostly) one-person show. We wouldn’t have company moves because the shooting would all be in the same place. We wouldn’t require a huge lighting package, as most of the film would be shot outside with sunlight. The location was interesting. Maybe not outer space, but it was a giant spider bug which you don’t see everyday.
Plus, we wouldn’t have to build it: it was already there. Most importantly though, it would work perfectly with the story I wanted to tell. Filmmaking is nothing more than continuous compromises, but you still need the right compromises to make the film you want to make.
I started writing in January. By April I had a completed draft. By July, a locked third draft. I wrote the film with a local comedian in mind for the lead. We didn’t know each other, but I caught his show years before and knew he acted as well. He liked it, but passed. It couldn’t fit it into his schedule. I went to a more off-the-wall choice of a guy I've known since high school who also attended film school with me. He didn’t like it. He passed.
A producer friend recommended another Comedian he worked with previously named Alex Sanchez. I wasn’t crazy about the guy for some reason, but, at my friend’s request, I sat down and watched a movie they made together. Their movie and our movie were very different, but I saw a few key moments on screen that made me think he could do it. Alex and I met in Oklahoma City for about an hour, and within ten minutes I knew he was my guy. He dug the script, too, so we said let’s do it.
We decided to try and start filming mid-October. The time should change perfectly and give us some days with green grass and some days with yellow grass as the story takes place over different seasons and several years. I was doing it. I was scared to put forth the limited resources available and make another film but I was pushing myself off the diving board. I read Clint Eastwood say “if it doesn’t scare you, a little something’s wrong.”
For most of the year the state was widening the Highway in front of where The Bug was. Extending from two to four lanes, but they had just finished that process a month before. I was afraid more traffic lanes might make the sound more difficult to capture cleanly, but that was a question for my sound operator. I loaded my crew in my truck and drove down to Lexington for a tech scout.
Do you remember in Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make. a Porno where they spend all of their time and resources on costumes and props and renting a building to use as their soundstage, only to show up the first day of shooting to find a construction crew demolishing their set? That’s what we ran into on our tech scout. The new lanes were finished, but the State decided to go ahead and put new ditch lines in as well. Just feet from where The Bug was, the grass was completely torn up and lined with several large back hoes, set to work there for the next two months. My heart sank. There would be no movie made this year.
We waited patiently for the next April and by then, every prop was ready, wardrobe was labeled, and the shot list was set in stone. Our only change was Alex’s availability. At his job he had a weeks worth of vacation days for the year—he made it to the middle of January before using them up. This meant we could only shoot Friday evenings for a few hours after work, and on weekends. That’s not preferable, but would also give me the advantage of editing during the week just incase we wanted to try a scene again, which we did a couple of times.
Our daily crew was generally myself, Alex, and four other people: camera, sound. G&E, and one Art Department member (for half the shoot before growing to three). A rule I always have from previous shoots is to never skimp the Makeup Department. When you need them and you don’t have them it’s a disaster. I went down my list of MU artists trying to hire one, but our unconventional schedule combined with Killers of the Flower Moon shooting at the same time in Oklahoma made everyone unavailable. Lucky for me, Alex has great skin and we somehow made it without.
When we lost our one Art Department crew member after the first 4 days to be replaced with the prop box. Since The Bug was essentially already dressed, aside from having to redress it one time after The Bug Man had moved in and “decorated” to his preference, the set was dressed one time and done. Art wise all that would change from scene to scene was props, so they all got labeled by scene number, went into the prop box, and boom: we were covered. Didn’t even have to pay overtime.
Back to compromises: there were several. When you don’t have much money to pay anybody and are relying strictly on favors, you better be prepared for some no shows and cancellations. In the early breakup scene of the movie, Bug Man's ex-girlfriend mentions he never dances with her (because he doesn’t know how). Much later in the story he is still thinking of her, and he hires a dance teacher to come out and teach him to dance.
The day before shooting, the lady we scheduled to play the dance teacher (a real life dance teacher) got sick and couldn’t come. We couldn’t find a replacement on such short notice, so I quickly re-wrote the scene to have Bug Man teaching himself how to dance by watching YouTube tutorials instead. I figured we would get what we could on the day and have to reshoot the scene later. It turns out the awkwardness of a terrible dancer trying to learn (combined with trying to do so in private) fit the character much better.
It turned out to be one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
Interiors of The Bug were all shot in a “dummy” bug in my garage. The actual Lexington Bug is too weak to hold a person inside and mount cameras and lights on, so a dummy was a natural choice. The windows and windshield of the real bug is covered with black boards, but they’re so old they have small slices missing in places. We painstakingly put those exact shapes of slices on each window into our dummy bug, which gave our Cinematographer Samual Calvin matching blacked out glass with just enough places to let light in to show what time of day it was and make the passage of time possible. He did a masterful job with that.
The biggest trick up out sleeve as far as pulling off a feature that looks this good on this tiny budget with less than a fistful of crew was in Ethan Hudson running the entire G&E crew all by himself. But it wasn’t just that: he generally slated as well. He consistently assisted with art department issues (what’s the heaviest things the grips carry? The art department) and even brought a cold actress her jacket in between takes to warm up. If you don’t have people like Ethan on your team, you’re not going to pull this off. Plain and simple.
Our post sound and music is of course where a bunch of random takes become a movie. Our sound team did a wonderful job of cleaning up traffic to the point where it was never an issue. In fact, we used those sounds several times to get in and out of scenes as a transition. It was my first time working with a Composer, and Nicholas Poss became the MVP of the movie. Nothing brings a scene to life more than music, and Nic wrote a score that was simple and heartbreaking all at the same time.
We ended up getting to premiere our film at Oklahoma’s most legendary indie theater, The Circle Cinema in Tulsa, as part of their own CC Film Festival, where they made us closing night film and best picture winner. What an honor to share with my friends and family in such a legendary theater.
In the end, through all of the compromises, disappointments, long hours chasing my tail and days wondering if we ended up getting anything good in the can, I can say I’m so proud. So happy to call myself a filmmaker again. Glad I spent a year not only doing what I love but also getting better at it. And just like last time, now trying to decide what to do with the desire to try it all over again.
Bug Man is now available on Amazon Prime Video and Tubi
Clayton Tramel is on twitter @claytontramel
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