These days, in the era of YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, it is difficult to believe how recently it was that common people did not constantly make their own videos. In the 1990s, doing so required a camera that cost hundreds of dollars, and was the size and weight of a medium-sized textbook, at minimum. Also, it was necessary to record these videos onto a tape, and to make sure that there was enough room on the blank tape to record the video without erasing any existing footage. Showing someone a homemade video required a television connected to a VCR or to the camera itself. The Internet existed, but the processing and connection speeds of computers in that era limited most Internet uses to text and standard-definition photos and graphics.
I never had a video camera growing up. I wanted one so badly. I had many ideas for movies and shows I wanted to make. My brother Mark and I, along with whatever neighborhood kids were around, would sometimes act out performances that would have made good home movies. We had a weird variety show called The Mark Show, full of characters based on various inside jokes, and a game show called Messy Room, inspired by Double Dare and Fun House and the other kids’ game shows that briefly became popular in my preteen years. For some of our shows, we would record the audio so we could at least listen to them later, but they were the kind of performances that would have worked much better with video.
Now, in my early 20s, my creative project was a website called Dog Crap and Vince, which I began shortly after I taught myself the basics of HTML, the code used to make websites. Dog Crap and Vince was a series of crudely illustrated stories about the adventures of two quirky high school students, and it would have worked much better as video or animation. I still did not have a video camera, nor did I have the money to buy one. But I had more connections now than as a child, so when I showed Dog Crap and Vince to the boys from the youth group at church, and mentioned that it would work better as a TV show or a movie, Zac Santoro offered to ask his dad if I could borrow their video camera. And thus one of my most involved creative endeavors of my life so far was born.
That night, we had talked about beginning the project Sunday after church, so when I walked up to Zac, Ted Hunter, and Danny Foster after church and asked if they were ready to start filming, I felt inwardly frustrated when Zac replied, “Huh?”
“The Dog Crap and Vince movie. You said you talked to your dad about borrowing your video camera, and that we could start filming today.”
“Oh, yeah! He said you could borrow it.”
“So, like, now? Are we going to your house?”
“I can’t,” Ted said. “My mom said I have to come straight home.”
“We talked about this on Wednesday,” I reminded Ted. “You said you’d be free on Sunday, and that you would play Vince.”
“Well, I can still get the camera, and maybe we can film some scenes that don’t have Vince in them.”
“Film some scenes?” a voice behind me asked. I turned around to see Jim Herman. I knew Jim from seeing him around church; he was older than me, I would guess in his mid-thirties, presumably single because I never saw him with any sort of family. Everyone at church seemed to know Jim. “What are you guys doing?” Jim asked.
“We’re making a movie,” I explained. “I’m borrowing a camera from the Santoros.”
“You think I could go along and help out?” Jim’s question caught me off guard, and when he saw me hesitate, he added, “That way you can all be on camera at the same time, and I can be the cameraman.”
“Sure,” I said. “That would be helpful for scenes I’m going to be in.”
By the time we got to the Santoros’ house, we had already made a change to the script. The boys had decided to film a scene that broke the fourth wall, in which I would knock on Zac’s door asking if Zac could come make a movie with us. Although I had carefully worked on this script for several days, this change seemed like it would fit the quirky, offbeat nature of the Dog Crap and Vince world.
Zac, Danny, Jim, and I walked up to the front door of Zac’s house. I knocked on the door, and Zac’s dad answered a minute later “Hi, boys. Hi, Greg,” he said, shaking my hand. “Jim.” Had I been more observant of body language and subtle cues, I might have noticed a shift in Mr. Santoro’s tone when he addressed Jim, but at the time I thought nothing of it. “Here’s the camera,” Mr. Santoro continued, handing me the camera. “Please be careful with it.”
“I will,” I said. “They wanted to film a scene here first. Is that okay?”
I handed Jim the camera as we filmed the new scene. Zac’s six-year-old sister answered the door, and I asked if Zac was home. Zac appeared a few seconds later, and I said, “Hey, Zac. Let’s make a movie.”
“Okay!” Zac announced excitedly, acting overly dramatic in a way that I had not intended.
“Go get Danny,” I said.
Zac turned his head toward the inside of the house and called out, “Danny! Let’s go make a movie!” Danny ran out of the house a few seconds later, Zac following, me following both of them, and Jim following us with the camera. “We’ll pick up Ted on the way!” I shouted, since Ted was not there. The two boys, for reasons unknown other than the fact that they were teenage boys, jumped onto the hood of my parked car.
“Cut,” I said to Jim a few seconds later, taking the camera back after he stopped recording.
“Ow!” Danny said. “You kicked me in the head!”
“What?” Zac asked. I played the footage back on the camera’s small screen, and just before Jim had stopped recording, I saw Zac’s foot connect with Danny’s head as they climbed on my car. “You have to leave that in the movie!” Zac said. “Sorry, Danny, it was an accident.”
“It looks good,” I said. “I think it would be hilarious to leave that part in the movie. Especially since it was an accident.”
The leaders from The Edge, the junior high school youth group from church, would have dinner at the Parkers’ house before youth group on some Wednesdays. The Parkers’ oldest son, Brody, was a sophomore at the University of Jeromeville and one of the Edge leaders, and their youngest, a girl named Michelle, was a student in the youth group, the same age as the boys I was making the movie with. Michelle was playing Kim, Dog Crap’s love interest in the movie. I had arranged with the Parkers and Michelle’s real life friend, a girl from the youth group named Shawna Foreman, to film a scene when the leaders came to the Parkers’ house for dinner. The two girls were in Michelle’s room, talking about cute boys, when Michelle’s character, Kim, admitted that she liked Dog Crap. I held the camera for that scene, and one take was good enough.
The Parkers had two telephone lines in their house. Adam, the youth pastor, was downstairs using one phone to call the other, so that I could record Kim answering the phone in her room. After Shawna’s character left, the final film would cut to Dog Crap fidgeting in front of his phone, working up the courage to call Kim and ask her to a school dance.
“Hello?” Michelle said in character as Kim. The final film would then cut to Dog Crap chickening out, awkwardly shouting into the phone, “You have the wrong number!” I continued running the camera as Michelle got a confused look on her face and said, “Oh, sorry.” Michelle hung up the phone. Then she looked up and said, “Wait a minute! How could I have the wrong number? I didn’t call anyone!”
I played the tape back on the camera’s small screen. “It looks good,” I said. “Thanks. We’ll do the dance scene after The Edge tonight.”
“Do you need me again?” Shawna asked.
“Those were your only speaking lines, but you’ll be in the background at the dance.”
“Great! I’ll see you tonight!”
Five Iron Frenzy, a punk-ska band with a Christian background who were too edgy to get much attention on Christian radio, was very popular with the Edge kids at the time. Ted told me that he had gotten the band’s permission to use their music in our movie; he was probably not telling the truth, but I did not bother to check. After The Edge, I filmed the school dance scene for the end of the movie in the youth room. Five Iron Frenzy’s “Where Zero Meets Fifteen” played while Dog Crap and Kim danced. The others in the background danced in much sillier ways than I had imagined; I was losing control of just how quirky this movie was, but I just wanted to get it done. And quirky was good for a project like this, I thought.
“I love this song!” Zac said in character as Dog Crap.
“Me too!” Michelle replied in character as Kim. “It’s my boyfriend’s favorite song!”
“Boyfriend?” Dog Crap said.
“Just kidding! Vince told me to say that.”
I wanted to imply that Vince was playing a prank on Dog Crap by telling Michelle to pretend that she had a boyfriend. I wanted Dog Crap to say something like “I’ll get him back for that,” but what Zac did instead was shout, “Vince!” and run out of the room. At this point, I was not going to be picky; that would have to be good enough.
Kim’s comment about her boyfriend was a reference to a scene from earlier in the movie. I had to shoot the film out of order, to accommodate everyone’s schedules, and I took careful notes of what had already been done and who was needed in each scene. In the boyfriend scene, which we had not yet recorded, Dog Crap and Vince were at school, talking at lunch. Dog Crap said that it is hard for him to ask a girl out because, whenever he starts talking to a girl, she will start talking about her boyfriend, so that he will not ask her out.
“That’s not true,” Vince replied encouragingly. “There’s Christine. Go talk to her.”
Dog Crap walked up to Christine and said, “Hey, Chrsitine. Did you figure out that one math problem you were confused about?”
“Yeah,” Christine answered. “My boyfriend is good at math.”
Dog Crap walked back to Vince with a look on his face as if to say I-told-you-so, and Vince said, “That was just one girl. It’s not everyone. There’s Samantha. Go talk to her.”
Dog Crap walked up to Samantha and said, “Hi, Samantha.”
“My boyfriend says hi to people,” Samantha replied.
At least that was how I pictured the scene in my head. When we recorded it a few days later, Vince said “go ask her out” instead of “go talk to her” for Christine. That seemed out of place if the whole point of the movie was that Dog Crap wanted to ask out a different girl from these two.
Christine and Samantha each had only one line, and I recorded their parts for that scene after we finished the school dance scene. It turned out better than I had planned. When I first started working with The Edge last year, a girl named Samantha Willis had said some awkwardly silly things to me. When I wrote this scene, I named this character Samantha because I had Samantha Willis in mind to play the role, and fortunately, she agreed. “My boyfriend says hi to people a lot!” she exclaimed excitedly on camera, before adding “Bye, Dog Crap!” It was perfect.
We filmed one more scene in the youth room. I played Matt, the school bully, who was also trying to ask Kim to the dance despite Kim’s frequent rebuffs. In this scene, near the end of the movie, Kim turns Matt down again. “I’d rather go out with someone who crawled out from under this table!” Michelle exclaimed in character as Kim, lightly shoving Matt away.
Just then Zac, in character as Dog Crap, crawled out from under the table, where he had been looking for something he dropped. Dog Crap greeted Kim, who smiled at him, and he used the opportunity to ask her to the dance. I thought that scene was particularly brilliant writing on my part, and Zac and Michelle acted it perfectly.
On Saturday, I picked up Zac, Ted, Danny, and Michelle, as well as Jim, who did not have a car. We went to a nearby school, with classrooms that opened directly to the outdoors with no hallway in between, to film the scenes taking place at school. It was more common in those days for school grounds to be left unlocked, open to the public, and all of the school scenes took place outside of classrooms, so this would be good enough for my purposes.
While Dog Crap was trying to find a way to ask Kim to the dance, Vince was training for an upcoming video game tournament. My bully character, Matt, in addition to trying to steal Kim, was also bragging that he was going to win the tournament. Dog Crap’s cousin had told him about Fish Boy, a mysterious video game master who lived in Jeromeville. I also played Dog Crap’s cousin; my two characters were distinguished on camera by Matt wearing a hat and Dog Crap’s cousin not wearing a hat. Of course, though, in one scene I forgot to wear the hat as Matt, and confusion resulted when I showed the movie to people later. I did not know how to run a costume department.
In character as Dog Crap’s cousin, I suggested that we all travel to Jeromeville to meet Fish Boy, and Ted replied as Vince with a brilliant ad-libbed rant. “Jeromeville?” he said with a crazed look, grabbing my shoulders to get my attention. “I’ve heard about this place! They have frog tunnels! And roundabouts! And you get arrested for snoring too loud! It scares me!”
I was not expecting this, but I stayed in character and calmly replied, “But Fish Boy is there! You’ll win the video game contest for sure.”
Vince, instantly back to normal, said, “Oh, yeah. Let’s go!”
Later, we drove around to film scenes from the Jeromeville trip. In character, I got lost several times and made multiple wrong turns, including getting stuck in a roundabout circling multiple times. I took Jim and Michelle home, since I was done with their scenes, and the rest of us went to the Fosters’ house to film the scenes with Danny playing Fish Boy.
Danny’s eighteen-year-old sister Erica, a leader with The Edge, joined us as we walked a quarter mile to the nearest gas station, where the characters had to stop to ask for directions. I had intended this scene to be a shot-for-shot parody of the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker meets Yoda, without realizing at first that the little green stranger who finds him is Yoda. The boys wanted to go into the gas station store and get snacks. I wanted to focus on getting my movie done, but since these boys were doing a favor for me for free, I let them. Afterward, I reminded everyone of their lines and started the camera.
“We’re being watched!” Zac said in character as Dog Crap, noticing a girl next to them.
“No harm I mean you,” Erica replied, using her normal voice but Yoda’s characteristic syntax. “Wondering what you are doing here, I am.”
“We’re looking for a video game master.”
“Fish Boy! You seek Fish Boy!”
“You know Fish Boy?” Dog Crap asked.
“Take you to him, I will!”
For the next scene, we returned to the Fosters’ house. After an awkward blooper in which Ted forgot his lines, Ted, in character as Vince, angrily spoke up about how they were wasting their time. Luke Skywalker had done the same when Yoda took him to his house.
“I cannot teach them,” Erica said, turning away. “They have no patience. They are not ready.”
“I was once the same way,” Danny replied from off camera.
Dog Crap and Vince looked at Erica, wide-eyed. “Fish Boy?” they said. They turned to each other and added, “Fish Boy’s a girl?”
“No, silly!” Erica replied, no longer speaking like Yoda. “I’m no good at those games! Fish Boy’s my little brother.”
Danny emerged from his bedroom, wearing some weird mask and carrying a hockey stick. Neither of those details was in the script, but this movie was already weird enough, so I allowed it. I continued recording as Fish Boy showed the other two shortcuts and special techniques for the game they were playing. After we finished, I thanked Danny’s parents for letting us their house. I took Ted and Zac home, then went home myself.
Over the next couple weeks, when I had time, I finished recording the remaining scenes. I edited the movie with a very unsophisticated setup of two VCRs connected to each other. We had a watch party on the big projector screen in the youth room at church after The Edge the following week; most of the Edge leaders and some of the kids who were in the movie stuck around to watch.
By modern standards, the movie was pretty terrible. I knew nothing of acting, directing, or editing, and with my rudimentary equipment, the video and sound quality was subpar. The characters’ clothes inexplicably changed from one shot to the next within the same scene, and twice during the movie, my shouts of “Cut!” were audible at the end of scenes, since editing a video with two VCRs was not a precise technique. The film was only half an hour long, too short to be considered a feature film. But we had so much fun and made so many memories during those few weeks.
The Dog Crap and Vince movie had a lasting legacy in my life. The boys from The Edge and I quoted lines from the movie to each other for years to come. I watched that movie so many times with so many people that I still remember much of the dialogue by heart. And Samantha, the boys’ classmate whose boyfriend said hi to people, became a regular character in the web series. It was later revealed that the character’s last name was Whitehead, and years later, among my adult friends, the act of bringing up a significant other in conversation out of context became known as “pulling a Samantha Whitehead.”
Those few weeks that I spent making the Dog Crap and Vince movie also set in motion a chain of events that took a much darker turn. I had no idea at the time that anything like that would come to pass from it, or that anything like this would happen among a Christian community such as Jeromeville Covenant Church. Looking back, though, in that context, it makes sense now why Mr. Santoro, normally a warm and friendly man, seemed aloof when he greeted Jim Herman on the day I borrowed the camera. But that is a story for another time.
This project was also the beginning of my realization that I prefer creative projects I can do alone over ones requiring the involvement of others. As much as it is fun to bring others into my creative mind, coordinating everyone’s schedules and dealing with flaky people caused much frustration. The same thing invariably happened every other time I tried to involve others in Dog Crap and Vince projects. But for the people who did stick to their commitments, I now have a record of the role they played in my life.
Readers: Tell me in the comments about something creative that you worked on with others. Did it all go according to plan or not?
As always, the episodes featuring Dog Crap and Vince were inspired by Cow Chip & Lance, an actual creative project that some people I know have worked on for decades. It has been inactive for a couple years, but some of their material is still available for viewing (click).
Also, if you like music and aren’t following my other site yet, Song of the Day by DJ GJ-64, go follow that one.
And I updated my Greg Out Of Character blog for the first time in several months, with a post that has little to do with 1997. Go follow that one too.