This is a film that I thought was lost. Gone. I had a digital file of it on one of my external hard drives that crashed. Since I had it on a hard drive I’d thrown away my tapes. Then the hard drive crashed. And I hadn’t backed up the hard drive.
I looked through my boxes of library tapes, which I’d been digitizing and tossing. I’ve tried contacting the women documented in the film about whether they might still have a VHS of the film, to no avail. Then after a few years of looking, I was clearing out a locker at work and at the bottom of a stack of tapes — no, it couldn’t be. Popped the tape into a playback deck and – there it was!
I first became aware of the show in 1997 when I was having lunch with former KCRA reporter Tracy Bryan and telling her that I wanted to do a one-man feature story but had no ideas. Tracy suggested Six Women With Brain Death (Or Expiring Minds Want To Know), an ensemble all-women show that was about to top a sell-out six-month run andbecome Sacramento’s longest-running theatrical show. Tracy’s best friend Bonnie was in the show and could arrange everything for me. I did the feature news story and, in the process, Bonnie and I became an item. We have been together ever since.
A years later Six Women With Brain Death, was still running!
The show had originated in 1987 in Kansas City and has gone on to have successful, long runs pulling in cult audiences in every city where it has produced. Here in Sacramento it was produced by Jackie Schultz, who owned and operated The Studio Theatre at 11th & R Streets in Sacramento. She would also act in the shows.
The show was a last ditch effort to save the theater — and it worked. She went from debt to profit. The actors started out doing the show to help Jackie and in time they became the best-paid actors in Sacramento.
(Years later, when Bonnie and I had started making films, Jackie came to our rescue by letting us use the Studio Theatre as our nightly base camp when we were making Nightbeats — giving us a key to the theater so I could run extension cords out into the surrounding parking lots and streets I was using for locations, as well as having access to bathrooms. We also filmed in the dressing rooms and even the bathroom. I don’t know how we would have been able to make the movie without Jackie’s help. And she never asked for anything — anything — in return. Wouldn’t even let me pay her.)
One evening after the show Bonnie and I were having drinks with a friend from KCRA & fellow filmmaker Gary Tomsic. Bonnie was telling about all backstage stories of the show and how over the length of time the show was running so many of the cast members lives had taken dramatic turns. Bonnie and Gary both thought it would be great subject matter for a documentary. I was a bit hesitant, but eventually I went along.
The show itself was copy-written so we couldn’t show any of the on-stage performances, so the entire film would take place back stage. Jackie and the actors were all for the project.
Over the course of three or four nights I filmed backstage, which consisted of two small dressing rooms and a hallway. Very cramped space, which was also where all the costumes were hung.
The first night I shot with Gary’s Panasonic DVC PRO camera, which was about the size of a BetaCam, and clunky for shooting in the close environs. After that I came up with a different scheme: I borrowed a lipstick camera which had a near-fisheye wide-angle lens, bound it to a Sennheiser shotgun mic, wrapped the length of about 12 feet of XLR audio cable and BNC video cable back to the DVC PRO camera. This gave me much, much more mobility and the ability to see in all directions. With the big news camera on my shoulder the right side of my vision was completely blocked by the camera. I couldn’t see what I was shooting with the wide-angle lipstick camera, but it was so wide that I could guess the shot I was getting with pretty good accuracy.
I’d start the camera rolling and record for four- or five-minute lengths of time, accumulating about five- or six-hours of footage.
The following week Gary and I set up individual interviews with all the women at the theater. Gary was an experience director of photography with a full grip truck and 16mm and 35mm cameras, so he lit the interviews and I handled the questions.
I then logged everything. Easily ten-hours of footage, at least.
This was all being done before the advent of nonlinear editing. This meant that when I was editing I was making an edited dub from my source tape to the edit tape with every edit. This could only be done once. There would be no fixing, no tightening, no re-working. It would be edited once. That was it. You had to get it right the first time.
In order to start editing the film and go right on through, I pre-edited the film on paper. I transcribed all the action on the raw backstage video in detail, noting which tape it was (Tape #1) and the timecode (1:29:25). I also did the same for the interviews.
Then, cutting and pasting in Word, I edited the story in a detailed 68-page editing script. Everything had to be worked out ahead of time. It had to work on paper first! Then I could sit down in an edit bay with the script and pop one tape in after another, finding my shots, editing down a few seconds at a time, then popping the tape out again and popping another tape in to make the next edit.
Once the documentary was edited we had a run of 100 VHS copies made, boxed, shrink-wrapped and they were sold in the lobby. All the actors and crew were given tapes.
The women were a closely-knit group who worked so well together and had a unique bond in the back stage.
Six Women With Brain Death started out as a last-stand run of six weeks that went on to run at Jackie Schulz’s The Studio Theatre for six years.
Bonnie and I met through the show she I did my initial TV news story for KCRA in spring of 1997. We married in August 1997 and are still in a long-run of our own.
Gary Tomsic, the filmmaker who I made this in partnership with, passed away this past winter. Gary was a very talented cinematographer & filmmaker. He had big dreams for this documentary, seeing it as a pilot that he wanted to use to get into making a reality series for the eLifetime network about the life backstage of all the theaters across the country doing Six Women With Brain Death. Don’t know how far he pursued this. For me, it was my first stab at making an independent documentary & film outside of a TV station the I worked at.
The following year Bonnie and I saw The Celebration (Festen) the Dogme 95 film shot on a $1,000 single chip camcorder and took the leap into the Digital Revolution, buying a Sony TRV 900 and Final Cut Pro and making films on our own.
But Six Women Backstage was our first.