Like some stoner gambit instigated by its two protagonists, The Reg and Zorn, Doobious Sources was spawned on a dare: make a feature film that introduces a new cinematic language, isn’t art film pretentious, and conforms to the SAG ultra-low budget agreement.
After mulling it over for a day, Clif Lord, Doobious Sources’ writer/director, had landed on an answer. What he didn’t imagine was the eight years it would take to bring his solution to audiences.
Since it’s just as hard to make a micro-budget feature as it is a big-budget feature, one might wonder why anyone would bother. The answer is you can do things on a low budget that wouldn’t be allowed with millions of dollars on the line. And in the case of a micro-budget, it means you can do anything you want. For Doobious Sources, it means telling a story that disregards the tropes of character redemption or likability and turns every convention of the stoner comedy inside out. But more on that in a minute…
In the realm of micro-budget features, Lord had always been impressed with The Blair Witch Project. Though ridiculed by horror enthusiasts, he feels the film is pure genius, “Here was a movie produced on a shoestring budget that maintained tension until its final frame. It also made great use of the personal video camera as a formal device.” Its effect was so powerful, in fact, it created a subgenre within horror called, “found footage”. Even though it wasn’t the first feature to employ single camera POV, Blair Witch used it in a way that felt credible to the scenario. As Lord remarks, “Much of that film consists of feet running over ground, panicked and shaky pans across blurred landscapes, and a total disregard for focus. There are no perfectly framed shots. Most of what happens occurs off camera. But that’s the key to horror: what you don’t show. What exists outside of the frame, what the filmmaker only hints at, is what conjures that sense of the uncanny, of suspense… makes it scary.”
Given the surfeit of found footage horror, however, Lord wanted to go in a different direction. This began him thinking about other types of video production done on the cheap where the audience accepts the image as part of the medium. Two types of production stood out, news and porn. “It occurred to me that I could make a film that existed at the nexus of two four letter words, news and porn, and about how, in today’s media they share a lot in common. It seemed like a great way to satirize the sorry state of what passes for news.”
But, whereas horror succeeds by implication, comedy depends on the reaction shot. One character says or does something, another character reacts and, when edited properly, you have the basis of film comedy. Lord realized he needed a narrative justification for having two cameras rolling to provide shot/reverse shot coverage, and he could satisfy the dare by making an ultra-low budget, found footage comedy about the nexus of news and porn. That was something he’d never seen before – a new cinematic language. Cue The Reg and Zorn.
Lord points to an early fascination with counter culture icons like Cheech and Chong and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers as the basis for his two protagonists. The disregard for authority, ribald sense of fun, the sex, the drugs – all the hallmarks of The Reg and Zorn – have their basis in those earlier characters.
But it’s another trait – their steady-state paranoia – that inspired the narrative conceit of Doobious Sources. “You have to wonder,” according to Lord, “why two people would record their every waking moment together. It’s the narrative Achilles heel of found footage, at least with horror… maybe less so with porn. But let’s face the truth, when heads start rolling and your choice is surviving or getting the perfect shot, art is going to take a back seat, so maintaining motivation for the existence of a camera in the movie starts to feel a little too contrived.”
Solving this problem in as natural a way as possible became the linchpin to cracking Doobious Sources. “You’ve got a couple of paranoid stoners, but you still need a reason for them to have cameras in their hands. Add the notion that they’re an ad hoc investigative news team, part of this trend of citizen journalists and freelancers that has exploded across TV and the internet, and suddenly you’ve got the hijinks of a stoner comedy folded into a media satire about this new kind of ethics-free journalism that also provides a credible excuse for ubiquitous cameras in the mise en sceńe. That’s something that really excited me,” Lord says.
When the script was finished it did the rounds in Hollywood finding near universal acclaim, but it struggled to get made because it didn’t require a big enough budget for producers to get their fat upfront fees. Though it was optioned twice, numerous false starts ensued.
The expiration of the last option coincided with Lord’s attendance at Sundance with his brother, composer Chris Lord, who had contributed to the score of a film in the festival. After attending a Kickstarter party, he and Chris decided they would make Doobious Sources on their own. They decided to raise the money through private equity instead of crowdfunding, however, because Lord wanted to use the film as proof of concept for a new business model for low budget filmmaking and that meant taking on investors as business partners, not asking friends for handouts.
The next challenge was to find two great actors who were relatively unknown to play The Reg and Zorn. Their performances had to seem totally spontaneous, as though they were making it up as they went along. This meant being able to sell a joke without pausing for it land the way many actors do in modern comedies. It was very important to Lord that the performances felt unforced and natural, even at the expense of laughs, because he wasn’t willing to sacrifice the pathos of the film. Finally, the actors needed to have the chemistry of old friends and be able to operate a camera while they acted, because the film was to be shot exactly as it was written – nothing would be cheated for camera.
An open casting was held and the first two actors to audition were Jeff Lorch and Jason Weissbrod. Both came in to read for the part of Zorn. As it turns out, they were good friends and had worked together on a number of short films. They were also filmmakers in their own right. Amusingly, neither knew the other was auditioning for the film and when Weissbrod came in he advised casting director, Julia Kim, he should be Zorn and Jeff Lorch should be The Reg. Lorch was brought back to read for The Reg and, as they say, the rest is history. Still, the producers read another hundred plus actors for both parts, because they refused to accept casting their picture could be that easy.
Lorch and Weissbrod’s filmmaking talents proved to be an enormous blessing. When you’re shooting a film in sixteen days with thirty-two locations, twenty-seven speaking parts, live stunts, and a director who insists the actors shoot the movie, you are stacking the obstacles very high. “If we didn’t pull it off, it was going to be a total disaster,” remarks Lord. “There was no angel investor to turn to if we didn’t get it in the can, no distributor interested in what was essentially an art film without stars. It would’ve been easier, and probably smarter, to shoot the picture in a conventional manner and play it safe, but that’s not the script I wrote, and once you compromise the essence of your picture, you’ve lost your reason for making it in the first place.”
Lord, however, had anticipated these potential pitfalls and personally drew over two hundred pages of storyboards detailing every shot in the film including intermediate frames. He did this primarily as a visual aid for Lorch and Weissbrod. It helped them immensely as a reference and insured necessary story details were captured on camera. It also provided a roadmap for the timing of scenes as it related to blocking and camera movement, so the pacing would match the shifting tone. This last bit was crucial to avoid the feeling of visual repetition that plagues many found footage pictures.
That said, the storyboards were never intended to impose aesthetic rigor regarding composition. Lord wanted to leave that up to chance; to obtain happy accidents and inject a feeling of haphazardness into the proceedings. Every angle was shot as a whole scene master. This was a challenge because the actors were performing and interacting with their respective cameras simultaneously. It was a kind of ballet that proved tricky because the cameras had to be present without becoming a distraction for the audience. By the end of the third day of shooting, this approach had become second nature to the point where Lorch and Weissbrod would even embellish on shots Lord had storyboarded.
It might seem odd for a filmmaker to pursue a less than perfect looking frame, but for Lord the guiding aesthetic for Doobious Sources was garage band. “I wanted the picture to feel like hanging out with all your friends at the house of the neighborhood garage band. Sometimes the songs are a little ragged and loose and sometimes they lock into a jam that just bowls everyone over… people are partying and trying to get laid and acting sleazy and juvenile. You know, having a good time.”
To help realize this “good time” vibe, Lord began recruiting his creative production team by hiring Jeannie Flynn (Avatar, Bones) as the film’s costume designer. He met Jeannie through a mutual friend and was impressed by her approach to character and her resourcefulness. Flynn had to costume more than forty characters for less than the price of an Armani suit, but her work manages to create a unique style for each of them that speaks to their character while staying true to the reality of their circumstances. As Lord puts it, “These guys (The Reg and Zorn) are hanging by a thread financially speaking. They barely have money to buy weed and put gas in the van, so they can’t be dressing like they shop at Fred Segal. It was very important to me that these characters live within their means. At the same time, you want their wardrobe to define them in the mind of the audience.” Flynn managed to create bespoke looks for the principals, even designing, dyeing and hand applying the various Yes designs on Zorn’s tee-shirts. For The Reg, a cheap Venice Boardwalk hat and overalls with mismatched tennis shoes gave him a funky look that was both cool and lazy. “Clif was obsessed with this idea that The Reg would wear something he could easily shed for a quickie,” according to Flynn, “so the overalls fit the bill, even if it’s not my favorite look on a man it worked for the character.” For Ky, (Creagan Dow), Flynn and Lord decided his wardrobe should evolve incrementally to reveal his true character in the same way his real motivations are revealed to The Reg and Zorn. Magnus Martindale (Joe Cortese), being older, wealthier and prone to violence, would be dressed in garments with metallic sheens and colors.
The production design of the film proved to be the most vexing for Lord as he had to fire his first production designer for mishandling funds and that person’s replacement for incompetence. This meant the lion’s share of the film’s design, including the iconic Instant Karma van, the film’s color scheme, and the locations were handled by Lord, though he didn’t take credit. Here’s where storyboarding the entire picture really came in handy, because he had visual signposts to offer his ad hoc art department. Stephanie Wagner, who had been hired as art director, stepped in after the firing of her boss and provided a keen eye and quick mind to right the listing ship. Lord credits her with keeping the production values high while working on the fly to solve problems that were coming at her like a swarm of mosquitos.
The lurching rhythms and tempo changes, the rough notes and shifting grooves one might expect from a garage band extended to the picture’s editorial strategy. Lord wanted the film to feel rough, raw and unexpected, to swing from crude to beautiful, to feel dirty and cool and fun. It had to maintain its sense of humor without losing the power to disarm. Originally, Lord asked his wife, Concetta Halstead, to cut the picture. Though she had never done a feature, she had cut many commercials and music videos and understood what Lord was after. But, as production geared up, she was pulled away by another project and Miki Miyazaki stepped in to take over. Once Miyazaki completed the first cut of the movie, Halstead became available, and from there on, she and Miyazaki worked on the picture to completion, massaging it for months to get the tone and feel Lord was after.
The garage band aesthetic naturally informs the musical score composed by Chris Lord (Clif’s brother) and E. Shepherd Stevenson as well. Chris Lord is a prolific composer for television shows like Detroit 187 and ABC’s The Family. Stevenson played bass in the Pygmy Love Circus among other bands and has scored a number of features. Their combined talents created a score that mirrors the vibe of the two protagonists and features lots of rock elements that sound totally original, yet somehow familiar. It also gets progressively darker as the fun and hijinks turns deadly serious. “What’s great about the score is that it underlines the themes in bright yellow highlighter, but because it’s rock and there’s a groove, you don’t perceive it as being obvious. As with all great rock music, subtlety is never the answer.”
Indeed, subtlety was never Lord’s aim. His intent was to make a film that “wrapped high minded themes in vulgar content.” Lord rejects the notion of low budget films trying to look like big budget films. He terms this, “push-up bra cinema”. “There’s no point in striving to make a low budget movie look like a big budget movie. My thinking is to craft stories to fit the budget you have and make that the thing. Make that the reason for people to watch it. Nobody cares what your movie cost, they only care if it turns them on. The other approach is a con.” His belief is that if you have a hook, strong themes and deliver them in an entertaining way, the rest is window dressing.
Doobious has several key themes. One involves the downtrodden nature of today’s broadcast journalism, especially local news, which has rejected the notion of itself as a civic minded endeavor to pursue entertainment. This has opened the door to citizen journalists who create stories tailored to their beliefs, unmoored from objective facts that can be distributed over the internet. “There’s a vacuity that has overtaken broadcast news. On local TV news is about missing pets and car crashes. Sure, those are important to the people they directly affect, but how does it advance the needs of the wider society and confront the problems faced by our communities? And international news isn’t much better. What can you say when CNN spends six weeks talking about a missing plane 24/7 while wars rage and humans struggle with poverty and climate change?” This emphasis on faux important news that focus on the salacious, the sordid, is what gets The Reg and Zorn in trouble. They are victims of a system that rewards their basest instincts. The Reg and Zorn speak, in a satirical way, to this new wave of citizen journalists who employ inexpensive production tools to craft professional looking stories outside the boundaries of journalistic ethics. We have seen this recently with the ACORN and Planned Parenthood videos. Now, anyone can be a journalist and report stories to suit their needs. This is a growing trend that portends greater Balkanization of the news media in the future.
Lord also wanted to address the nature of addiction that is so often ignored in stoner comedies, though not in a hyperbolic or maudlin way. “My feeling is people can be addicted to anything. You’ve got people who are addicted to food, sex, porn, drugs, exercise… there’s just something in human nature that takes things that make us feel good and uses them to turn us against ourselves.” This point is driven home in absurd fashion by The Reg’s addiction to Naze-Off nasal spray. What you see in The Reg and Zorn are two potheads who have tailored their lives to accommodate their need to smoke weed. Like most addictions, theirs doesn’t have huge dramatic consequences. Instead, it’s the little, daily compromises that result from their using that complicates their personal and professional lives. Lord asserts “all addicts are collectors of shame”, and that is reflected in The Reg and Zorn as they wind up paying for their lechery in an escalating scale of humiliations.
Lord set out to do nothing less than craft a new kind of stoner archetype in the characters of The Reg and Zorn. He gave them the superficial trappings of typical movie stoners so he could slowly pull back the curtain and reveal them warts and all. Most weed comedies can be classified as idiot comedies, like Laurel and Hardy with a bong. The Reg and Zorn, on the other hand are intelligent. They have something on the ball. They have agency and motivation. Their problems don’t stem from stupidity or laziness, but from their utter lack of morals. Stoners have classically been depicted in movies as feckless and out of it, but essentially decent. The Reg and Zorn are the opposite of that – two amoral people willing to forgive each other for brazen violations of trust because they are bound by their dependency on weed and their reliance on each other to obtain it. They are a confederacy of THC, a symbiotic pot partnership for whom nothing is sacred.
Philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, asserted “life is best thought of as a process of disillusionment, since this is clearly enough what everything that happens to us is calculated to produce.” That is what Doobious Sources – from its fun and games opening to its bleak, final assessment delivered with an uncomfortable laugh – seeks to evoke. It’s Lord’s attempt to leave the audience with the feeling one gets after a night of hard partying as the the sun comes up the realization dawns that the fun is over, and now it’s time to answer for all that’s come before.