|ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES evolved over the course
of seven years. It was originally written for the stage by playwright
and first-time screenwriter Robert Weston Ackerman. "I came to New
York 14 years ago, after spending four years in Chicago directing every
genre of play possible, from Euripides' Bacchae to Lanford Wilson's Home
Free. But I had no idea of myself as a playwright, and no intention
of becoming one." Then he learned of a friend's suicide. "It
crystallized something I had been thinking about. I wanted to explore
the theme of protracted adolescence. In our culture, we tend to avoid
accountability. And sometime in our late twenties, when we're finally
forced to grow up, we either survive it or it kills us."
Ackerman had worked as a Prop Master on several
"Saturday Night Live" commercial parodies with Production Manager David
Nickoll and invited him to an off-Broadway performance of ORIGIN in December
1996 at the Hamlet of Bank Street Theatre. Ackerman, who received a lot
of attention after a staged reading of ORIGIN in 1992 and garnered favorable
reviews in a newsletter on hot properties, was skeptical about Nickoll's
ability to make the film and took some time responding to Nickoll's request
to read the script a few weeks later. Nickoll persuaded Ackerman
that he could make the film and optioned the rights in March '97.
Because he believed in Ackerman's potential and felt the personal nature
of the project virtually mandated that Ackerman stay on board, Nickoll
commissioned him to write the screenplay. Ackerman stopped taking
work as a Prop Master and focused on completing the first draft by May
2. Since Nickoll was scheduled to return to Saturday Night Live in
mid-August, Ackerman had brutal deadlines.
Several revisions followed, generated through collaboration
with Director Andrés Heinz, who helped transform it from a theater
piece to a film. Heinz had also worked with Nickoll and Ackerman
as a Production Coordinator for the "Saturday Night Live" Film Unit during
the 1996-1997 season. Heinz is a graduate of New York University's
Tisch School for The Arts and his thesis film, GROUND LEVEL B, won the
coveted 1st Place Mobil Award.
Nickoll and Heinz both started at Saturday Night Live
as freelance Production Assistants working on the commercial parodies.
Nickoll fondly remembers those halcyon days: "I had been in New York
for little over a month and was told to meet some guy named Andrés
at 5am at Cupcake Cafe to pick up the crew breakfast. We then spent
the next two days together picking up and dropping off fake plants, bathroom
props, really heavy grip and lighting gear. He hated me for making
him drive the cube truck, but I had never driven a commercial vehicle.
He thought I was a total wuss. That was the beginning of a
It was two and a half years later when Nickoll sent Heinz
Ackerman's script. "It was risky to go with a first-time director because
I felt I should surround myself with veterans to offset my relative inexperience.
But I believed in Andrés and wanted the production to be a process
of discovery for everyone involved. Andrés was certainly as
ready and qualified to make a movie as Robert and I."
Initially the team planned a stripped down, micro-budget,
16mm production. Heinz and Nickoll thought they might use some of
the original actors from the play and cast the remaining roles by attending
off-off Broadway productions. But, after a few nights of futile searching,
the two decided to hire a Casting Director. They met with several,
including Beth Melsky. Melsky cautioned them that she rarely handles
low budget productions and that she wouldn't be able to get to the script
that weekend. On Sunday afternoon she called to say she had read
it cover to cover during her son's Little League game and wanted to meet.
Melsky brought in the best of New York's up and coming.
Heinz says, "Seeing hundreds of actors is exhausting and
you have to rely almost exclusively on instincts and first impressions,
particularly on an accelerated schedule. I knew the film relied heavily,
if not entirely, on the acting, especially as a group since they had to
be believable as longtime friends. I needed actors who were not only
talented, but who were committed to the project and willing to go full
out. All six of the actors did an amazing job and contributed immensely
to the success of the film. I'm extremely grateful to Beth for bringing
them to us."
Pre-production was brief and based out of Nickoll's New
York City apartment. The Assistant Director, David Measer, Nickoll's
childhood friend and recent graduate of the University of Southern California's
Peter Stark Producing program, flew in from L.A. and slept in the "production
office" while he wasn't scheduling and scouting the remaining locations.
"It was a bit insane turning a one-bedroom apartment into a seven person
production office. We usually crashed on the couches at the end of
a long night. I wasn't sure if we were getting ready to make a movie
or just having a succession of slumber parties," says Production Manager
Amanda Back. "We got to know each other a lot better, which later proved
The film was shot in Armonk, NY in 20 days from July 20-August
13, 1997. Most of the crew lived in the home of Marybeth Weston Lobdell,
the writer's mother-in-law, where they shot the majority of the film.
Marybeth and her husband Leighton took a four week vacation during the
insanity, while her son, Mark Weston, remained and worked as the Location
Weston had never handled locations before nor had he ever
been on a film set. But, Nickoll had never produced a movie, Heinz
had never directed a feature, and Ackerman had never written a screenplay.
Nickoll strongly believed that the film would me made on sheer guts and
charisma, and that the team would rise to the challenge.
In long diary entries, Ackerman tried to make
sense of the experience. "Shooting. There's no time between
contractions. There's pain, sweat, labored breathing, a brief dull
pause, and then more of the same. If making a movie is giving birth,
I could use an epidural," he writes.
Ackerman remained on set throughout the production to
handle rewrites, and also to prepare meals for the dinner scenes, assist
in Art Direction, watch over his in-law's home, and drive the film to Duart
on his way back to the city to stay with his wife and two daughters (both
of whom have cameos in the film).
|Ackerman worked daily with Heinz and the actors,
revising the script as new ideas began to emerge. Heinz insisted
on including the actors in the process. "I believe actors must find
their own way of looking at their roles, and I love tapping into that because
often they will show you something you had not seen. Many things
were changed in rehearsal and on set: delivery, blocking, and in a few
instances, entire scenes."
At the end of the first week of production, Nickoll went
into the city to watch footage with Editor Adam Lichtenstein. Dailies
were screened silently on set, but Nickoll wanted to get a better sense
of how everything was working out. In a marathon edit session, with
Ackerman and Associate Producer Richard Firestone observing, Nickoll and
Lichtenstein created a "trailer" from the first four days of shooting.
When Nickoll returned to set with five spliced minutes of footage, cast
and crew realized that they were actually making a movie.
During the second week of production, veteran Executive
Producer D.J. Paul was introduced to Nickoll by Producer Jim Stark, Agent
Tom Turley, and the film's lawyer, Steven Beer. He quickly became
a part of the team. "D.J. was the perfect addition to the production
and proved integral to finishing the film once we wrapped," says Nickoll.
"He is very smart and he's done this all before. He's a great
sounding board and advisor." Paul was developing his next feature
CEMENT by day and coming to set at night for the week of night shooting.
He helped with everything from sorting the books to negotiating overtime
to cooking midnight meals for the entire crew.
Heinz considers the punishing schedule his greatest challenge.
"We didn't have adequate pre-production time, but fortunately all of the
locations were within a five-mile radius." Heinz wanted to
make sure that Director of Photography Stephen Kazmierski had adequate
time to light and frame the shots. "You have the stress of trying
to get as many pages done in a day as you can. You have to think
about each scene in minimal terms: what do I absolutely need? And
that's about all you get."
The young production department was complemented by a
professional Camera, Grip, and Lighting crew that had previously worked
with Kazmierski. "It was incredibly reassuring to have these people
with experience surrounding me. Stephen has a great eye and his work
is exceptional. I really love the way the film looks."
The filmmakers felt the play had to be opened up geographically
and a few key locations contributed to the sweep of the film. The
filmmakers were met with generous support from the people of Armonk and
surrounding towns. In addition to the Weston house, the film was shot at
La Mer Seafood, Schultz's Cider Mill, Village Prime Meats, a burned-down
country club, and a private lake. "The lake was the hardest location
to find," Heinz recalls. "I knew it had to be perfect. We scouted
virtually every body of water in Westchester County." Eventually,
they found a lake in South Salem that seemed ideal, save for its lack of
a dock and rumored snapping turtles. They begged the owner to let
them to shoot in return for building a dock. About 10 days before
principal photography, Ackerman and two volunteers built a dock and distressed
it with a hatchet and tinting colors to make it look like as if it had
been there for years.
However, once production started, Nickoll grew wary of
the South Salem location, both for its distance from Armonk (45 minutes)
as well as its limited access from the street. "It was going to be
a real struggle to make it to the lake. We had no bathroom facilities,
a precarious access road, and no permits. It seemed like a prescription
for disaster." On the eve of the scheduled lake days, Weston found
an alternate lake and the team scouted it just as the sun was setting.
It was a veritable Eden and the three property owners who live beside it
were incredibly generous in granting permission to park trucks in their
driveways, serve lunch on their property, and use their bathrooms.
And it was only five minutes from the Weston house.
The actors' on-set lives paralleled their characters'
lives. After four weeks, it seemed like they'd been friends for years.
Elon Gold kept his fellow cast members laughing between takes with jokes
from his stand-up routine and impressions of Charles Grodin, Jeff Goldblum,
and Sylvester Stallone. Other stress-relieving activities for
cast and crew included ping pong, mountain biking, ultimate frisbee, and
playing with Kazmierski's dog, Fin.
In spite of the long hours, the majority of the cast and
crew seemed to enjoy the production. Actor Michael Kelly said, "If
the audience can share twenty five percent of the joy we had making this
film then I know it will be a success." Costume Designer Joan Fedyszyn,
who frequently swam in the lake at night before leading impromptu yoga
classes in the field behind the house, joked that she felt like a Fresh
Air Fund kid. Others likened the experience to summer camp.
Gaffer Jim Thorne pitched a tent and spent a night by the lake, waking
early to do a little fishing before call time. "We were all working,
eating, drinking and living together. On any given night there would
be 15 to 20 people sleeping in the house. I had to make sure the
party didn't overwhelm the production," recalled Production Manager and
Head Counselor Amanda Back.
"It was like living on a submarine. Too many people
in too little space, all with a mission, a forced tension and a forced
calm. Optimism and professionalism sometimes gave way to an awareness
of how difficult the whole thing was. But we all worked hard. That's
the most important part. We did the impossible. We made an
The film wrapped at dawn and the crew celebrated before
wrapping out. There were champagne toasts and congratulatory embraces
as the tremendous sense of accomplishment settled in. Then disaster
nearly struck. Sybil Temchen sprained her ankle and was rushed to the hospital.
After dropping Amanda Peet at LaGuardia airport, Nickoll fell asleep at
the wheel, drove off the road and, fortunately, only blew out a tire.
And that evening a bat tormented the remaining crew cleaning out the house.
Ackerman eventually trapped the menacing creature and released him for
theatrical distribution. "In the end," Ackerman muses, "Origin of
the Species really was about survival of the fittest. I've never
been more exhausted in my life."