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VALLEY WEEKEND

Scary 'Ghost' Story for Filmmaking Duo

Brian Strasmann and Ellen Treanor risked plenty to write, direct and produce the short film. The result is an artistic success, if not a financial windfall.

September 05, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was now or never for Brian Strasmann and Ellen Treanor.

The husband-and-wife team had been talking about making a short film for months--something to help him move from screenwriting into directing and to help her get an actor's agent. He'd written the script. They'd gone to the two-day how-to-produce-a-film seminar. They even read "How to Make a Feature Film for Used Car Prices."

"We had saved some of the money and we were confident that both of us would, in the future, have the employment to help pay for [the film]," Strasmann said.

Then came the $13,000 bill from the IRS, invalidating all of Strasmann's deductions.

"You know how they send you credit card things in the mail every week?" he said. "For the two months before the film we were literally filling out dozens of these things."

Many monthly statements later, "Ghost Writer" is a celluloid reality. The 32-minute color film has been well received at festivals around the country. It took top awards at the U.S. Film and Video Festival in Chicago and at Cine in Washington, D.C. It was a finalist at Worldfest Houston and the Movies on a Shoestring Festival in Rochester, N.Y., and it played at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival last month.

The film's success on the festival circuit has been a pleasant surprise for the couple, who admit they had no clue what they were getting into when they started. They thought they could plug the lights into wall outlets, that they could shoot just on weekends, that they would work on the film on a flatbed editor in the living room. Boy, were they wrong, and boy, were they lucky.

In that friend-of-a-friend way that things happen in Hollywood, Treanor and Strasmann were introduced to Rolf Linhardt, a cinematographer trained at New York University and the American Film Institute. Linhardt had been shooting commercials and shorts for more than a dozen years, winning two Golden Camera awards and one Clio.

Linhardt was interested in moving into film, and he signed on--bringing along his truckload of professional equipment and a five-person crew. Thus, "Ghost Writer" was saved from one of the biggest pitfalls of low-budget filmmaking--disastrous lighting. Linhardt gave the film a slick, studio-quality look with warm colors and no telltale shadows.

The cast and crew worked for "deferred pay"--if the film ever makes money, they'll get paid--and the crew worked for a reduced rate, hoping to use the project as a sample to get future jobs. Some, like Linhardt, were drawn in by the "Ghost Writer" script, the story of a young widow visited by her husband's ghost, who helps her complete his last novel. The film has some comic scenes, as when the ghost, Rusty (Perry Stephens), appears while Evelyn (Treanor) has guests over for dinner. But the heart of the story is about grief and recovering from the loss of a loved one.

Before getting behind the camera, Strasmann was a full-time screenwriter with several professional credits, including the production rewrite of "Free Willy." He has two films in development: "Cyclone" for Wendy Finerman Productions and "On My Honor" for Warner Bros. But directing a film was a whole new experience.

For almost a week, the cast and crew invaded Treanor and Strasmann's home in Studio City, which served as set, production office, dining hall and hotel. The bathroom housed wardrobe and makeup. Their dog Gretta had a supporting role.

"We wanted to cut our teeth," Treanor said. "We really want to know how to do everything, to know all the steps."

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The biggest lesson of this six-day crash course in filmmaking? "If you don't have a crew," said Strasmann, "you'll spend all your money and you'll have nothing."

As if filming wasn't stressful enough, during the week of production Strasmann was on the phone with his agent, stressing that he needed the job adapting "Gentle Ben" for Columbia Pictures. There was a sigh of relief when he got the assignment. "Now," he said at the time, "at least we can finish post-production."

Post-production houses--which cut negatives and insert titles or special effects--don't take credit cards.

Treanor herself served as producer, star and caterer. "Ghost Writer" marked a bigger career leap for her: She'd spent seven years working in the semiconductor business. Her undergraduate college degree was in theater, though.

"I knew what I wanted to do--I just didn't have the confidence," she said. "I didn't have the presence of mind."

She still does computer systems consulting, but acting is taking up more of her time. She landed a guest role on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and a Fox pilot called "Home of the Brave" in the last year, in addition to numerous plays and commercials.

Performing the emotion-packed scenes with Stephens wasn't difficult. "It was a self-financed film," Treanor said. "It was easy to cry."

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