Photos by Michael Newman
It’s Sunday morning, and I have finally caught up on enough sleep to feel halfway human and begin the risky venture of using my brain again. After two all-nighters Thursday and Friday, I woke up mid-morning yesterday with the bulging disk in my neck throbbing like it never has before (I finished a series of three procedures designed to shrink the disk last week, but it has been resoundingly ineffective, which my pain specialist doctor seems to find personally insulting).
“Roller Coaster” is an easy cliché to use in describing a week of production, but it is apt. Any production situation is a roller coaster. But with documentaries, it’s more like the old-fashioned “out and back” ones that take more time between plunges and by today’s standards are like a drive in the country (I like those). This past week was more akin to the Screaming Zombie Executioner ones that throw and spin you twelve times before you’re settled in your seat. I’ve never been on one of those (and I never will!), but I’ve been through my first week of feature film production as a director and it whips any of those poser roller coaster’s butt.
We started day one with the fun stuff, the wedding receptions and Brian’s sexual fantasies in their midst. And it most definitely was fun. I’d never been in anything like it. In all of my documentary work, I think the biggest crew I ever had was six. And for Sir! No Sir! it was me and my DP May Rigler traveling around the country lugging our own equipment.
But here, to shoot three scenes, were forty people doing everything from wardrobe to lighting (and I have less money to make this film than I had for Sir! No Sir!). I have to say right now that we have put together an absolutely amazing group of people–artists and technicians–to bring this film to life. And I’m not just saying that because I have to work with all of these folks for another three weeks. Everyone is working on faith, dedication, and commitment to this project. They’re damned sure not working on this one to get rich (although let me say right now that is not a principal, so go to Kickstarter immediately after you read this and help us keep going).
Being amidst this group, I simultaneously felt elated and overwhelmed. Does it really take this many people to make a film? I am still wrapping my head around that one, but the answer began to emerge as Lorraine Heitzman, our Art Director, added subtle touches to give each scene its distinct quality; as Sica Schmitz, our Wardrobe Stylist, made the three brides and grooms look and feel like this was their big day; and as my Director of Photography Ardy Fatehi, Gaffer Justin Moran-Duquette, designed lighting schemes that gave us the maximum flexibility to film the scenes. And that is just naming a few. Working with everyone fed my collaborationist soul and made for a heady, satisfying day.
But then there was Day Two.
Day Two, a day that was a lesson in communication–or rather lack of it; a day that was driven more by lighting issues than by creating the scenes; a day when my own inner conflicts with how we are making this film emerged and even exploded; but through all of this a day that still brought forward incredible, complex and meaty scenes.
For me, the joy of making a film is in the process. And key to that process is the collaboration of creative people to bring an idea, an event, an emotion to life. But right from the start of Day Two that collaboration began to break down. We were at Shaker’s Diner in South Pasadena to film two key scenes–the breakfast Brian and Ethan have in the beginning of the film, and the after-game band hangout when Jimmie brings Ethan into his world.
Ardy was taking what seemed like forever to light the first scene, and I was getting more and more irritated and anxious, increasingly worried that way too much time was being spent on lighting minutiae, which was squeezing out the most important element, the acting. But I never said anything to Ardy about it, never took him aside and told him my problem with what was happening. I just got more upset. So by the time we had finished shooting that scene I was not in a very good state (it didn’t help that it was about 120 degrees that day, in fact the whole week). When a grip who had gotten some wrong information began drilling into a post in the diner I exploded, screaming at him like in a classically clichéd auteur to get off the set.
(There was, by way of explanation, a method to my madness. In an incredibly generous move, the management of Shaker’s had given us use of half of the restaurant for no fee–we’re talking thousands of dollars here that they essentially gave us for this film. In fact the entire South Pasadena community has gone to great lengths to support us, from the high school to the film office. So when I saw a crew-member drilling into a post I flipped, seeing that generosity and trust being violated before my eyes. But screaming at the guy who’d been told to drill a screw in was…well, you get the picture.)
I felt horrible. Just a few weeks earlier I had told my Assistant Director, Aaron Penn, in no uncertain terms that I wanted no yelling on the set. This was going to be a relaxed, enjoyable experience for everyone. And then, two measly days into the shoot, I had violated my own rule in the most spectacular, destructive way possible.
It took a lot of apologies and explanations to get things back on track, and the rest of the afternoon and evening netted wonderful work from everyone and several revelatory moments from the actors, especially Jacques Colimon (Ethan) and Eric Peter-Kaiser (Jimmie). I promise my next blog will be mostly about acting, the actors, and those revelatory moments that are giving such complex inner life to this story.
But for now, I just want to say that if I had just taken a few minutes to take Ardy aside and talk about what was bothering me, the day would have gone much differently. It’s a classic cliché, but communication is everything.
When I finally did talk to him the next day about my overall approach and the kind of collaboration I wanted from him–which was not about lighting but had to be focused on how the camera captures and enhances the emotional course of each scene–he told me that this was exactly the kind of collaboration he craved but most directors didn’t want. In fact, we were very much on the same page, which I really had known all along. But I had allowed that one situation to drive a wedge between us by not immediately addressing it.
So no matter how insane that Screaming Zombie Executioner gets, I have to be completely present and open at every instant or it will go flying off the tracks. Damn. I thought this was going to be an easy ride!
For the rest of the week Ardy and I, and all of the crew, worked much more closely together and I know that our collaboration will only deepen as the shoot proceeds.
I’ll leave you with a joke Ardy told me the last night of the week:
Q: Why should you never give a Director of Photography a cigarette?
A: Because it takes him two hours to light it.
Next week–the jigsaw puzzle effect and acting Acting, ACTING!