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Production Notes
 
 
 
 
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 beautiful friendship."  

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 invaluable." 

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 Manager. 

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 independent film."  

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."