Our cell phone connection was going in and out. She missed half of the story I pitched.
“Mackenzie…” I spoke with staccato enunciation, “we’re going to set the piano on fire.”
Once the image was in our heads, there was no going back. Mackenzie’s music video would have her seated at the piano bench, surrounded by trees and the ethereal density of the forest. Slowly, smoke and fire would pour from the keys, reflecting the smoldering emotions in her lyrics.
I learned a great deal about old pianos on this project, specifically: they are heavy. I mean really damn heavy. Numerous Craigslist postings for “free, u haul” pianos should have been a warning sign. When I finally contacted some “Piano Movers” (yes, different from regular “movers”) I was desperate and exhausted. I explained why I needed a piano moved from one person’s driveway to a forest 20 miles away; the movers laughed. As luck would have it, they already had a “junk” piano loaded in their truck, destined for the landfill. These are the serendipitous moments filmmaking is all about.
Once we got the piano into the woods, I felt the surge of confidence and creative energy that comes with such a breakthrough. Even better – it played. It was a little out of tune, but it played. Then, the drought broke.
The rain was a gift and a curse. Shooting this video during a state-wide burn ban beneath a stand of kindling crisp cedar trees was not something I wanted to do. So the rain was welcome. But, two weeks later, the keys on the piano were useless. It could have been the rain, or the freezing winter air, but this piano was now just a hunk of wood. Pressing a key required force, it was rough, then a horribly off-key note would ring out, and there the white hunk of wood stuck. In a great twist of irony, we put a kerosene heater at full blast beneath the keyboard thinking it was too cold, but had to back off for fears that the piano would… actually catch on fire.
Realizing that the keyboard only mattered from a few camera angles, namely the closeups, we found the section of keyboard that worked best and “cheated” her fingers over to that section for the closeup.
Mackenzie is dedicated. It was a frigid winter morning; I was wearing four layers and thermal underwear. I was drinking coffee to defrost like the kids in those soup commercials. Mackenzie had to look stylish… she did not select her wardrobe for comfort. As we pulled layers of blankets from her lap and shoulders, pressed record with shivering fingers, and listened to the cacophony of de-tuned piano strings assault our eardrums and echo through the trees, I thought about how delightfully absurd our antics would look to anyone watching from the distance, and smiled.
You will be delighted to hear that the fire in this video volleys between real shots of the piano on fire and visual effects work I did in post, which kept our cast and crew safe and, actually left the piano in… not terrible shape. Current plans are to retire her deeper into the woods to become part of the Phillips’ annual haunted trail. Better than the landfill.
My cinematographer Jarod Phillips, and editor Trey Morrow, deserve so much credit for this video taking shape, as does Chris Cashon for his perfect subtle performance. But most of all, if you like the song, please check out Mackenzie Morrow’s bandcamp page to download it!
Starring Mackenzie Morrow & Chris Cashon
Music and Lyrics – Mackenzie Morrow
Music Producer – Kenny McWilliams
Director/Visual Effects – Aaron Pate
Cinematographer – Jarod Phillips
Editor – Trey Morrow
Pyrotechnicians – Drew Westmoreland, Michelle Lodise
Production Assistants – Emily Kelly, John Galloway, Michelle Lodise
Artist Support – Debbie Morrow, JT Perry
Makeup Artist – Dorothy Sanders
Special Thanks to Mark & Cheryl Phillips, Allyn & Thomas Onisto