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Squid Lake: An Oral History of the Florida Filmed Classic

December 8, 2015

Hello all. Mark here!

I love the Sharkdropper podcast and recently they had an incredibly bizarre episode that featured an interview with the crew of the Florida filmed movie Squid Lake (Listen to it now! It is glorious). It featured crying, alcohol consumption and I’m pretty certain something really bad was going to happen afterwards. However, I loved listening to the pod so I found the crew members and talked to them about Squid Lake.

The following post is an oral history of the film Squid Lake. It only screened one time at a tiny theater (which I was at) and has since become a word of mouth legend. Before I get into the post I wanted to briefly introduce you to a movie that has been burnt in my memory for years.

I remember walking out of the Conch Shell Cinema on St. Petersburg beach and seeing a poster that would change my life. The poster was a badly photoshopped picture of a lake with an ink blot in it. It was so bad I had to take a picture. 

squid lake

My curiosity was piqued so I stopped by the ticket counter to see what the movie was about. I talked to the manager and he told me the movie was sold out. However, if I helped promote the film he would give me a ticket. I agreed and he gave me some flyers to hand out. 

“Squid Lake tells the terryifing (sic) tale of a squid attacking the denizens of a small town located next to the great lakes.”

The night of the screening was insane. The theaters third largest auditorium was sold out (200 seats) and the the following 75 minutes might have been the weirdest experience of my life. The drunk crowd went insane for the film and they clapped, fought and laughed their way through the entire film. It was a scary atmosphere and when the movie ended the raucous crowd carried out the star of the film on their shoulders and the ensuing after party ended up on the news due to several store fronts and cars being destroyed. I had never seen a reaction like that to any film and the experience opened my eyes to what bad cinema can do.

Here is the crew I was able to locate.

Steve Balsawood – Actor

Debra Winters – Production Designer

Hank Cleveland – Actor/Prop Master

Mason Jar – Beach Theater Manager

Chuck Finley – Cameraman/props/grip/electric/craft services/transportation.

 

Steve Balsawood – I was working at a gas station when a man walked in and loitered around the store for about an hour. When he finally walked up to the counter he told me he no money to buy the items he picked but he would give me a role in his film If I paid for them. I agreed because I had nothing better going on and he quickly added several more items to his tally. 

Hank Cleveland – I remember this guy comes pulling up to the swimming pool store I worked at and he asked me if I owned a house and had a pool. It was a forward question but I figured he was a customer looking for advice. I said “yes” and he told me I could act in his film if the production could use my house.  He said he would pay me $700 at the completion of the film and that I would be a star. I had always wanted to act so I was pumped. 

Debra – I recently graduated from online film school and was screening my thesis film about Albanian refugees at the St. Petersburg Conch Shell Cinema. The screening was a success and I was approached by a man who wanted me to design his film. I was already accepted into an internship in LA and had the summer free so I figured some set experience would be nice. He gave me $35 dollars and told me I needed to develop a squid and underwater scene. He then took $10 out of the $35 and told me to meet at the Burg laundromat on Thursday. He then dumped loads of free mints into his bag and walked away.

Chuck Finley – I was friends with Debra at the online film school and she asked if I could go with her to see if this movie was actually legit. I had some reservations but I was so deep in debt from my thesis film about World War 2 ninjas I figured I needed anything for my reel. Also, please stop by worldninjas.fundme.com to help me recoup my loses. 

Debra – I was a little worried about bringing Chuck onto the production because he was a real loose cannon and had an almost out of control drug problem. He was a nightmare in the online classes but he helped me edit my film. I didn’t want to go alone to meet Lenny so I figured at the very least Chuck would protect me.

Steve Balsawood – I met the crew at the laundromat  and Lenny explained to us that he loved The Room and wanted to make a bad movie that would become a cult classic. He said there was no script or money but he had a pretty good idea of what he wanted.  He said we would shoot on weekends and told me I would have to fight a squid, possibly have a love scene and deliver an Academy award winning monologue. 

Debra Winger– Lenny once again took $5 out of the $25 I had left and told me I needed a squid to be ready by the following Saturday. The $20 I had was a joke so I took some old PVC pipes and made a cone out of them. I then put a sheet over it and cut out some paper eyes and the squid was born. I knew it was shit but I had to spend the money on making the underwater scene. 

20151117_145905

The infamous squid.

Chuck Finley – I can’t really explain what Lenny looked like because I was having a lot of personal problems at the time. I do remember that he said nobody would notice that we were going to use the Gulf of Mexico in lieu of a lake. I asked why we didn’t call it “Sea Squid” and he literally stared silently at me for several minutes. He broke the silence by asking me if he could use my cameras and that I could use all the footage later on for my reel. I then asked how the squid could’ve made it into the great lakes. He drew me this picture while staring at me the entire time. 

20151110_132852

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The first scene took place at Hank Cleveland’s rented house that had a swimming pool.

 

Steve – The first scene involved me and my girlfriend about to have sex. However, Lenny couldn’t find a woman so it  was just me in a raft, in a swimming pool yelling at my girlfriend that I needed to finish my beer before I had sex.

Debra – Setting up the shot was a nightmare because Lenny wanted the camera to be directly above Steve. So, Chuck had to hang from the waterslide while Hank held his feet. I had no money for Squid appendages so I used Hank’s fun noodles that he had next to his pool. Lenny told me it had to be a surprise when I hit Steve. He wanted the reaction to be authentic.

Steve – I remember I was almost done reciting my line “Hold up broad, I’m drinking here” when I see a fast moving noodle in the corner of my eye.

Debra – I didn’t mean to hit him in the eye but the noodles are very unwieldy and I had only previously used them to float around in the ocean.

Chuck – The noodle hit Steve in the eye and he screamed out “Holy shit” and threw his beer bottle in the air. The beer bottle hit Hank in the face and he let go of my leg while yelling “you son of bitch!”. I slid down the slide and my camera hit Hank directly in the nose. Luckily, Debra was able to catch my belt on the way down but the camera lens cracked on Steve’s head. I was one day into the shoot and was already down $1,000 because of the lens and fact that I had to buy all the snacks and beer. 

Debra – The shot actually looks kinda cool because it was real blood gushing from Steve’s nose.  

Hank – I remember Steve crawling out of the pool and running away. It pissed me off because he got a ton of blood in my house and had hit me in the face with that bottle. 

Steve – I was drunk while filming the scene because of all the beer Steve bought. I’m not proud that I ran away from the house but it just felt right.

Sidenote: The scene features zero editing and you can hear Hank in the background yelling “you son of a bitch!” I remember wondering if the blood was real. It was.

 

With the first week of filming completed the next scene involved Steve fighting a squid underwater. Instead of shooting underwater, Hank’s garage was used instead, This provided an interesting problem for Debra.

Steve Balsawood – The direction for the scene was that I was underwater and the squid was attacking me. Hank was still giving me crap for the beer bottle throw so I couldn’t wait to punch him in the face.

Debra – I bought $20 worth of saran wrap and hung it from the ceiling to make it look like it was underwater. I also drew, cut and pasted several fish onto the plastic wrap. It looked terrible.

20151208_111045

The terrible props added to the charm of the film. Thank you Debra for the photos.

Steve – The set was all saran wrap but Lenny loved it. He was very excited about the bed sheet squid and gathered us around to talk about the squid fight. He told us “it needs to be primal and brutal and that Hank and I should not hesitate to throw haymakers at one another. That sounded good to me.

Debra – I gave Hank a helmet to wear under the costume because Steve had a weird look in his eye. 

Hank – I tried wearing the helmet but I couldn’t see anything under the sheet. So I decided to not wear it.

Chuck – The fight got off to a rocky start because Hank was inside a bed sheet and could only maneuver his noodle arms like a rower in a ship.

Hank – So I’m rowing my arms trying to hit Steve and Lenny is yelling that we aren’t giving it our all. I accidentally tripped on the sheet and ended up headbutting Steve. That pissed him off so swung a haymaker at me.

Steve – My fist went clean through the sheet and knocked Hank out. He dropped to the floor and Lenny was screaming “keep fighting! Keep fighting!” So, I jumped on top of the squid and crushed the PVC pipe. I then started rolling around on the ground with Hank. I was really floundering so I started slapping Hank to wake him up.

Hank – I don’t know if you’ve ever been knocked out but it is really startling when you wake up. Steve was slapping my face and I was completely surrounded by a dirty sheet and pointy PVC pipes. I kinda went crazy and started swinging and screaming.

Chuck – I’m holding the camera in amazement as Steve and Hank are rolling around on the ground swinging and screaming at each other. Eventually, the massive amounts of saran wrap fell on them and got intertwined between them. It got to the point to where Steve couldn’t move and Hank landed about 40 unanswered hammer punches to the top of Steve’s head.

Steve – I figured the fight would be fair if I let him hit me a bunch of times.

Chuck – It got really brutal but I didn’t want to cut because I felt like they needed to resolve their issues.

Hank – I eventually calmed down and heard Lenny yell “cut!” I ripped off the sheet and saw Steve laying on the ground with a massive black eye and blood streaming from his nose. I guess I blacked out.

Debra – The tension was palpable and it was amazing. I was watching a train wreck and I thought that just maybe this movie could be bad enough to be good.

In the version I saw in the theater the fight lasts nine minutes and features two men rolling around on the ground and screaming obscenities at each other. Steve slaps an unconscious Hank for 90 seconds while taunting him. When Hank wakes up and starts screaming it becomes an animalistic battle between two men who have no idea how to fight. It is uncomfortable yet very watchable. It is never explained why there is a man inside the squid.

Debra – The following Saturday the crew (sans Steve) and I borrowed my dad’s boat and cruised around the ocean and shot about 45 minutes worth of ocean B-roll. I had no clue what the plan was but I remember Lenny saying we needed to film a moment with Steve’s character.

Chuck – Steve wasn’t there so Lenny told me to stand at the front of the boat while Debra filmed me staring at the ocean.

Hank – From what I can remember Chuck had to stand around acting like he was thinking for about ten minutes.

Chuck – It got really uncomfortable on that boat because I had to stare into the sun and think. I had just gotten off a pretty gnarly bender because I do my best drinking during the week. I was definetly dehydrated and was still feeling the effects of whatever I took the night before. The water was really choppy and I was already feeling sick so about five minutes in I started throwing up.

Quick note: During the screening a ten minute song sung by Lenny (?) plays over Chuck staring at the ocean (lake). The music even plays over Chuck’s vomiting which was oddly left in the final film. Also, it is never explained who this puking character is. Here are the some the lyrics that I found in my notes.

 

Life of the ocean

Squid on the shore

Breathing the lake air

I hope that squid won’t kill more

I don’t know where I am

Or what I wish

My legs can’t stand on water

I hope I don’t land on a fish

Sidenote: The best shot of the entire film is a nice moment involving some Dolphins swimming by the boat. I talked to Chuck and he has no recollection of ever filming this.

The big set piece of the film takes place on a boat and features Steve delivering a show stopping monologue that defeats the squid.

Steve – The big shot of the film was a two page monologue in which I never saw the two pages for. On the day we went to a dock located on a canal and Lenny told me this was my Oscar moment. He handed a napkin that had dialogue written on it and told me to learn it in a half an hour. I didn’t read any of it. 

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Debra – Lenny told Hank and I that we were going to be standing on either side of Steve and hit him with fun noodles while he monologues. I guess Steve making a final stand against the squid and was standing tall in the face of attack. Hank was still pretty angry at Steve and it all went downhill from there.

Chuck – Imagine this. A poor guy with obvious problems is standing there reciting an intense monologue while fun noodles are repeatedly hitting him in the nuts and face.

Hank – It wasn’t cool of me but I was still mad about the fight from the previous week. So, Instead of hitting him in the body I hit him about 50 times in the balls.

Steve – When you watch the footage you can actually see me crying. I am not acting, I am actually crying. Also, the last half of that speech I totally made up because my body went into shock.

Chuck – He was crying and driveling on about how the squid never paid him attention and how nobody respected him.

Steve – The whole process brought back some terrible memories.

Debra – When the moment was over everybody was at a loss for words. I was pretty pissed at Hank and poor Steve literally jumped into the canal and swam away.

Chuck – Lenny Loved it. If you listen closely you can hear him laughing constantly and yelling “good, good, people love this stuff!”

Sidenote: I could’ve sworn I heard him yelling this during the scene.

 

With the film finished Debra brought the final product to theater manager Mason Jar.  Mason was the manager of the Conch Shell Cinema and was working on how to compete with the larger theater chains.

 

Mason – We were a tiny theater that only had three screens. We basically only stayed alive because of out midnight shows featuring Rocky Horror, The Room, Birdemic and Dirty Hofmeyer. You can take a look below and you will see the type of movies our clientele loved.

 

 

Mason – When Debra approached me about screening the film I was very excited. I knew her from my semester at the online film school and I trusted her when she told me Squid Lake was pure gold.  Anytime I get a chance to screen a terrible movie I jump all over it. I was guaranteed to sell out the theater and keep the doors open for another couple months which was good because I was also living in the theater at the same time. 

Steve – Mason was making a huge deal about the screening and I was a little worried about hundreds of people watching me cry and get beat up. 

Hank – I really didn’t want to go to the screening because the entire filming process was pretty miserable. However, I wanted to watch Steve get beat up on screen. 

Chuck – I couldn’t wait for the screening. I actually set up a booth the day of and tried to sell my World War 2 Samurai Epic beforehand. Please visit http://www.worldninjas.fundme.com

 

The night of the screening was full of mixed emotions. The 75 minute film featured 40 minutes of ocean footage, a ten minute song and some of the worst cinema known to man. The rowdy crowd was like a rollercoaster of menace and laughter. He was unbeknownst to me at the time but Chuck was working the crowd into a frenzy.  The one scene that brought the house down was when actor Steve Balsawood managed to mutter his way through a five minute monologue while repeatedly being struck in the face and nuts. The scene got the audience laughing, then gasping and back to laughing.

 

Steve – I couldn’t believe the applause the crowd gave me after the screening. I begged for them to carry me out of the theater and they literally didn’t put me down for two hours. 

Chuck – The party afterwards got out of hand. I broke my ankle jumping off of a bar roof and eventually we destroyed several store fronts and cars.

Mason – I went looking for Lenny after the show and he was nowhere to be found. He took the DVD, the DVD player and my print of Animal House and vanished.

Debra – We have no clue where he went and what he is going to do with the movie.

Steve – The filming wrecked me emotionally and physically. However, since the screening I’ve been performing a stage reenactment of the film once a month in front of sold out crowds. People have tried to recreate it on film but nothing comes close to what we filmed years ago.

In conclusion.

I have no clue what happened to Lenny and the Squid Lake footage. However, the experience of watching the film with a packed theater is one of the highlights of my young life. I’m hoping this post gets the word out and the movie finally sees the light of day. If you are out there Lenny please let the world watch Squid Lake!

Check out the Sharkdropper podcast featuring an interview with the cast and crew!

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