In its six-year history, the Media Arts Department at the University of Montana had not seen a student filmmaking project of longer than 40 minutes. Until last year, that is, when graduate students Michael DeGrazier and Benji Cosgrove attempted, and successfully completed, a 90-minute feature-length movie called Between the Ditches.
For the first two years of the three-year MFA program, DeGrazier and Cosgrove worked together on smaller films, each inviting the other to do camera work for their individual projects. By the third semester, the two had written and directed a 22-minute short called Milk Movie, which premiered at the Crystal Theater in June of 2003. The two developed an amiable working relationship in which DeGrazier’s skillful cinematography complemented Cosgrove’s screenwriting and diplomacy with actors. “For our thesis we wanted to combine our strengths and do something big, something else that will challenge us—which would be like a 90-minute movie—and try and get it done,” says Cosgrove, 28. “I don’t think we even knew how difficult it was going to be.”
The first thing they did was purchase about $6,000 worth of equipment online, paid for with four credit cards. Armed with a $2,800 mini-DV [digital video] camera and an array of expensive sound equipment, they worked from October to December of last year and had finished shooting 98 percent of the movie by Christmas. They spent the next five months sitting in front of a computer, editing the footage.
“We had to take all this stuff and make it feel like a movie,” says DeGrazier, 25. When they finished, they sold most of the equipment, getting almost 80 percent of their money back. “Pretty good for a six-month rental,” Cosgrove admits, “which is what it turned out to be.”
Between the Ditches stars UM acting student Andrew Rizzo in the role of Charlie Downs, a thirty-something former mental hospital patient whose unfettered honesty and lack of social prudence puts him at odds with a society he sees as treading toward the absurd. The movie is raw and unsettling, its realism unflinching at times, yet with a shade of the surreal thrown in to suggest the unsuggestable.
Cosgrove, who wrote the script and holds an undergraduate degree in sociology, says the movie isn’t necessarily a story about mental illness.
“I don’t think it’s a story about a mental disorder as much as just a story about someone who hasn’t grown up with the normal filters that maybe you or I would have when we deal with other people in society,” Cosgrove says. “Charlie kind of just says what he thinks and a lot of it is surprisingly honest, even though some people will say it’s crazy. He just doesn’t know how to interact the way he’s supposed to.”
Cosgrove wrote the script over a three-month period while working as an intern for a production company in Los Angeles. His main job as an intern: reading other people’s scripts. “I read a lot of bad scripts and it made me feel better about the work that we’re doing,” he says. Many of the scripts were big-budget rip-offs of other movies—“alien-invading scripts” and “serial-killer-on-the-loose scripts,” says Cosgrove, who admits the experience was “comforting.” Besides, working in Los Angeles allowed him “to see how the system works down there.”
Cosgrove and DeGrazier are the first to admit that making a feature-length movie is no walk in the park, and in the first month of shooting they realized why no other students had attempted a 90-minute movie before. “Originally, we though it would just be like three short films combined,” says DeGrazier, “but it wasn’t anything like that. When we ask the actors to work for free, we sort of have to work around their schedule, so there were a few times when we had to shoot a lot of stuff in a short amount of time, and those were the really stressful times.” Cosgrove echoes the sentiment: “While we were in the middle of shooting, we were still trying to find actors to play some of the parts, we were still trying to scout for locations and get permission to use locations, we were still trying to find props, we were still trying to find costumes. I mean, it was just chaos.”
Anyone who’s lived in Missoula for more than a year will instantly recognize most of the locations in Ditches, including the Missoula Ale House, Bel Air Hotel, North Side cemetery, the alley next to Taco Del Sol and the exterior of Community Hospital. Other of the movie’s not-so-distinguishable local locations include Pyron Technologies, Marcus Daly Hospital in Hamilton and the Grand Street Theater in Helena.
The scenes shot at the theater are some the most visually and dramatically compelling of the entire movie: Theater staff allowed the filmmakers to shoot into the morning hours for three nights running. Rizzo joined Cosgrove, DeGrazier and an assistant to shoot the scenes, which show Charlie baring his thoughts, his fears and his anger upon a stage, before an invisible cheering and jeering audience. Both Cosgrove and DeGrazier agree that Rizzo’s performance in the theater toward the end of the movie “gets scary,” and say it wasn’t any less scary when they were shooting it.
But the toughest location, DeGrazier says, was inside Marcus Daly Hospital, where the staff worried about the crew intruding on patients. The filmmakers eventually managed to convince hospital personnel through sheer persistence.
“The only location we had to pay any money for was at a hotel, which is in one shot,” Cosgrove explains with a laugh. “We actually had to rent the hotel room for that night.” Everyone downtown was really helpful, they say, even when they shot in parking garages and public elevators “with our crap all over the place.”
While shooting around Missoula, DeGrazier explains, the two talked about how they didn’t think many other communities would be as encouraging. “Almost everywhere we went we were allowed to do what we wanted to do,” he says. “If you went to a big city somewhere, they’d want to charge you money and there’d be a whole bunch of specifics.” Pyron Technologies even handed over the key to the joint and told the students to come in after hours.
For other budding low-budget filmmakers in Missoula, Cosgrove has some advice: “Be prepared to work the hardest that you’ve ever worked in your entire life,” he says, adding that making movies with digital video is getting easier, and many people around the country are making some really cool stuff for cheap. “I think Missoula is going to see more and more as time goes on.” The filmmakers are planning a move to Los Angeles in January, where they say they’ll continue working together. You can watch Between the Ditches at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena on Thursday, Aug. 5, at 9:15 PM, or at the University Center Theater at UM on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 7 PM.