The unsung hero of our loopy voyage to Better Than Crazy likely would just now be hearing about the movie if it wasn’t for an aside Deborah O’Brien made during her audition.
My casting director, Tansy, and I didn’t stage official script readings – we mostly just wanted to get a feel for the actors who’d be stacked against Nick, Aaron, and Amy in the movie and what they’d bring to that table.
Deb was a total pro all the way from the moment she walked into that conference room. She was gorgeous, witty and smart, and after a couple minutes, she let loose a charmingly goofy side of herself that sold us completely. We then chatted about what other projects she’d been working on, and her eyes grew wide as she mentioned a feature she’d starred in that a guy in the area had made a year or so back. I don’t mean to get too big for my britches here, but as a movie freak who was born and raised in Placerville, I had trouble believing that there were other folks like me in the general vicinity chasing cinematic dreams – I immediately demanded to know more.
She added that he’d be a great resource – he was a great guy, too, she made sure to note – and within a week, Mike Turney and I met for coffee and began a conversation that continues to this day. Mike and his wife, Jan, had a killer spread at the time out past Pleasant Valley, a halcyon retreat in the foothills with horses and dogs – the real deal. After my first rendezvous with Turney in town, I started going out to his place every couple of days to hang out, talk about rock and roll and (more importantly) the movies we loved, and like clockwork, I’d eventually find myself with full access to his arsenal of moviemaking equipment.
Turney came to own closets and closets full of lights, gear and microphones when he’d gotten the itch to make a feature a few years back (one of his actors actually had a role in my USC thesis film ShowChickens, proving just how small a world Placerville is). A well-researched techie geek of a guy, Mike had all kinds of gizmos and setups in his office, everything neatly packed to maximize space. And seeing as we instantly got along like a house on fire, he recognized my relative desperation and our film’s micro-budget and allowed me to borrow anything we might need.
Better Than Crazy was shot on Digital Video, so it wasn’t like we needed to flood our sets with light in order to make sure our actors’ likenesses showed up on film, but Turney gave us the luxury of having more than we needed on set rather than be faced with a lack of equipment in a tricky scenario. So he and I started up a quite-regular pattern of shooting the breeze at his place, and hanging out with Jan and having nice dinners and extensive conversations (lots of Neil Young and Eric Clapton playing in the background, too).
The most iconic item I grabbed out of Turney’s closet of treasures was a lovely lady known as Lolita. She was a mannequin head and torso Turney had had the intuition to have on the set of his film. Lolita was utilized as a test subject for lighting scenes, which made for an excellent alternative to wasting time with actors themselves standing in their places, waiting impatiently for Thaddeus and I to get our image looking perfect. I’d never considered a tool like Lolita before, and she turned out to be truly helpful.
You’ll notice when you see Better Than Crazy that there’s a loose vibe to the movie, and part of that was incumbent on our actors having the freedom to move around any given set as they saw fit, so Thaddeus and I tried all kinds of setups in an attempt to have the liberty to shoot whatever we needed in any given space. And in much of the prep footage, you’ll clearly see Lolita front and center, her Sphinx-like gaze looking just over camera left.
What’s great about contemplating Better Than Crazy as a multi-year endeavor is that in addition to being excited and proud of this quirky little gem we made, the project as a whole doubles as a chart of my early friendship with the Turneys. They’ve since sold their property in Pleasant Valley and are currently touring New England, but we’re as tight as ever, exchanging emails and phone calls regularly. And by the time Mike gets back to the Sierra Nevada foothills, the movie he was so generous to will be squarely in the rearview mirror – it’s an almost surreal idea.
But one of Turney’s big focuses is looking forward, not getting trapped in the feedback loops of the past. Mike is also a serious astronomer – he had a mini observatory built in his front yard where we’d hang out after sundown – and is a big believer in weighing the big things with the small in this universe of ours. That’s a tricky element for me, especially in my 30s – I have a love/hate relationship with nostalgia – but whether it’s discussing Contact and Carl Sagan (which we do a lot) or me bouncing novel and screenplay ideas off him and Jan, every time I connect with a Turney, I’m reminded of the undiscovered country the future holds and the potential that comes along with that.
And if Deborah O’Brien hadn’t have shown up to that audition, we might never have met. I’m all for parallel universes and all that, but life without Mike and Jan Turney sounds wonky to me. They went out of their way to help me chase a white whale – my first feature-length film – and now the future (and our friendship) seems brighter than ever.
As Mike says every time he sends an email my way: Onward and upward!
– Mike Restaino, writer/director of Better Than Crazy