If the Dress Fits - the Making of a $99 Movie

by Jana Segal

After I recovered from the trauma of making a 17 minute Western in 18 hours, several people from my directing group suggested that it might be easier to make a really short short next. At that time, IFP Phoenix (then called the Phoenix Film Project) had a 24 hour film contest that allowed you $100 to shoot a three minute film. That was all the inspiration I needed! I started pre-production by reserving a mini DV camera and lighting equipment at Access Tucson  http://accesstucson.org/  and writing a three page script called, “If the Dress Fits.”

The $100 budget rule was very freeing because when I approached merchants requesting donations, they couldn't haggle over the price. I enlisted the help of the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce president convincing her that my $100 video would be a great advertisement for the tourist town of Tombstone. Together we moseyed down Allen Street where she introduced me to several local merchants. Meanwhile, I was also making a documentary on the making of a $99 film, so there was a video camera aimed at the merchants while I hit them up for donations. This proved to be extremely helpful. I'll never forget the nervous smile on one dress shop owner's face when I explained I couldn't pay because of the $100 rule. (And I don't have to because I got it on tape! Hahaha!) But she came through by volunteering her shop for a location. (I have admit it was cool to shoot where one of Tombstone's notorious bad guys was shot.)

I don't know if it was the loaded camera aimed at them, but everyone in Tombstone was so nice and helpful. Whenever I'm in town, I still stop by to say, “hi” to the nice woman who let us shoot in her historic B & B. She had even recruited her whole family to work as extras in full period garb.

“If the Dress Fit.” is the story of a modern city gal who is dragged to Tombstone, Arizona to approve the "Wyatt Earp" suit her dorky fiancee wants to wear to their wedding. She tries on an antique dress that triggers memories of her past life in the 1880s. After reading my script, my directing group gave me some excellent feedback. They said it seemed like an awfully complicated story for a three minute film. I really should have listened, but I was dying to shoot my story in Tombstone. When I first visited Tombstone in 1996, I felt an instant connection. (Which is strange because I never really liked Westerns growing up.) I especially felt drawn to the Birdcage Theater which I visited every time I was in town. I loved hearing the history of this wild honky-tonk and the rumors that it was haunted. I can still point out all the bullets that riddle the walls. Eventually, the manager started letting me in free as honorary Tombstone resident.

Thrilled for any excuse to visit Tombstone, I went there to scout locations and do some casting. I was tickled to get the Tombstone Cowboys who performed my favorite stunt-show at the Heldorado stage. One of the stuntmen at the time was Chris Simcox (who later earned notoriety for starting Civil Home Defense to patrol the border with guns.) We recorded one rehearsal where I explained my convoluted story to him. He mugs into camera as if to say, “What the heck is this crazy lady talkin' about?”

I returned to Tombstone for a read-through with the cast. The Birdcage manager kindly let us use the backstage area for our rehearsal. I was so jazzed! I thought rehearsing there would help my actress get closer to her character (who had worked at the Birdcage in her past life.) But when we toured the theater, the actress started feeling nauseous and faint. I figured it must be allergies to the dust. She finally ran out of the room holding her stomach, “I have to get out of here!” Later, she explained that she had seen someone she knew from a past life up on catwalk. Spooky. I guess she was a little too close to the part.

The 24 hour rule worked to my advantage and disadvantage. The fact that it had to be shot in one day was a great selling point for my volunteer crew. I was lucky enough to get a professional DP (camera man) and experienced actors to agree to work for free for only one day. Of course, it would only take one delay to throw the whole schedule off. But what could go wrong?

Anyone who has ever worked on a movie set knows – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. We were all set up to shoot the first scene, but one of the actors showed up late throwing off the whole schedule. When we finally got to the next location, all the extras for our crowd scene were long gone. When your DP brags that he can make two people look like a crowd, don't believe him. He cant. Without the crowd to show that it is a gunfight reenactment, the movie doesn't quite make sense.

So I learned two lessons from this: 1) Listen to your director friends when they tell you can't make a complicated story in three minutes. 2) Don't have more then one or two locations for a one day shoot. Unfortunately, we had four: the dress shop (exterior and interior), the stunt-show set, the bordello room. A shot of the Birdcage would have been nice too. Very nice.