Posts Tagged 'Directing'

On-Set

On Set for "Reservations"

The simplest thing to say is there’s nothing like being on a movie set. There’s nothing simple about being on-set itself either. It’s chaos: all busy and technical and clustered and there’s a lot of waiting involved sometimes. But it’s the most exciting kind of chaos: creative. Nine people gathered in a Sherman Oaks townhouse: the DP and a grip talking about camera equipment and setting lights; the other grip setting up our food in the kitchen, just off camera. To the other side of the camera, down in the living room, a large pile of empty bookshelves that had cluttered the dining room with something akin to 500 DVDs and books, which now occupy a hoard of boxes upstairs in the bedroom of the producer. The 3 actors are bopping between upstairs getting into costume and make-up and downstairs eating Red Vines, Almond M&M’s and some new type of Pop-Tart that is kindof like S’mores, but different, too. I’m in the kitchen, too, playing with the concoction of foods and arranging them onto the plates for the actors. It’s about consistency, it needs to look gross and to achieve the effect we had to venture outside what is commonly referred to as “people food.” But I only do one of them, then stash it in the fridge and run over to check on lights, “We’ll be ready in fifteen,” he says, good to know, because upstairs, one of the actors is having hair problems. He can’t get it into a workable ponytail, so we’re scrounging for hair product and clips to hold it in place. I go ahead and explain the shot list to them to try to give a sense of the flow of the night, even though we went over it at our final rehearsal, but with so much going on it gives both them and me a bit of a foothold on everything to list out our agenda. Then back downstairs to make more nasty-fied food, and we haven’t set the table yet. “Which side of the plate does the fork go on, anybody know?” Left is our consensus, but then it’s switched and then a short discussion about napkin placement ensues, because film is in the detail and because this is a thing I don’t know and feel that I should at this point.

Exterior. Set. Night. Awesome.

Once everyone’s ready and we’ve done some final tweaking and we’ve discussed our shots and which angle both of our cameras will be getting and I’ve checked those angles to make sure I’m happy with the spacing – because for this film the close-up isn’t a thing that interests me – and then which of our two boom operators will be where so that no shadows are present, and the actors have all gone to the bathroom and then I’ve gone to the bathroom too, because it seemed like the thing to do and because I wanted to be in private alone for just one moment to offer up a quick thank-you for even getting this far… so after all of that happens, then the fun part begins. “Roll camera.”

“Speed.”

“Speed.”

“And…action.”

Then off we go.

I love how quiet it gets. There’s a short little beat there just before “Action,” that is one of the most quiet quiets there is. Before that moment the energy on set is everywhere; it’s bouncing off the ceiling and back and forth, and people moving here and there and over there too. But then once that sequence of directions and responses occurs, the energy becomes focused in sharp straight lines. The camera points there. The boom mic, angled here. All bodies and equipment point to the action of the scene. And we watch and we listen and then we do it again.

Stand Back... DIRECTING!!!

Maybe my favorite part of directing is calling audibles. We rehearsed the film for a long time, but there is something about being on the set with cameras, props, lighting, costumes that elevates everything. So sometimes during a scene, there will be a line reading or a bit of business or blocking or whatever that doesn’t work like I thought it would. So in the middle of a take, I don’t have to yell cut, we don’t stop rolling, but I can just give little suggestions here or there. Or if I know we didn’t get a certain moment, we can just go back a few lines and get it right. It’s very fulfilling seeing and hearing an actor get something perfect or do something a little unexpected and bring a whole new dimension to a moment. Even if you don’t end up using that moment in the finished film (although lots of times you do) it’s something everyone notices. It’s like a 52-yard field goal. It’s like an extra pass and a three-pointer. It’s like a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. It’s like some other sports metaphor somewhere. It builds momentum for the other actors. It makes the crew perk up just a little bit, it sends a little shock-wave through everything. It makes my eyes go wide and my heart swell and the hair stand up on the back of my neck. What could be better?

**All Photos courtesy of Alders Photography.

What Have We Learned?

On July 15th, 2008, I bought my first film camera. Panasonic HVX 100. That weekend I was making a movie during the graveyard shift both nights at a Fed-Ex Kinkos my friend worked at. The first night, we got delayed for over two hours while a woman and her mother decided that 1am is the best time to make demanding requests that they didn’t want to pay for. We didn’t do nearly enough takes, everyone was tired, and even though the actors hadn’t really bothered to learn their 15 straight pages of dialogue, I was hell-bent on doing every scene as a single shot. 

I’ve made 4 movies in the last year – one of which I partially re-cast and completely re-shot, so 5 “technically” – and it’s safe to say I’m not the same filmmaker I was a year ago. (Check out one of them here and another one here) I was reading over some journal entries from that week. Illuminating:

 

“Right now my focus is on breaking down the script and figuring out… how each scene should be covered. I have some ideas for certain moments, but when I really think about having a specific shot – an interesting shot or at least a quality shot for every moment, the task becomes daunting. It is entirely possible that I have barely gotten my training wheels off, and here I am diving down a steep, rocky hillside. We’ll see how many bruises I end up with.”          – July 15th

 

“The clearest, truest thing I can say is that I feel like a filmmaker now. My feet wet, my mind unstoppably active from this point forward, this is what I want to do.”          – July 21st

 

Like most things worth doing, there is a combination of total fear and breathless excitement. I remember toiling away over storyboards, wanting to be professional, doing script breakdowns, blocking out the movements like a play in some cases. Pages upon pages upon pages of things. It’s a little like having your journal open in front of everyone, and they’re all passing it around asking you questions about it. You’ve got a choice to make. You can either be embarrassed about what you’re doing, or you can be proud and bold about it. One of the things I think I’ve learned most this year is to stand up and speak loudly what you want. Making movies with your friends is one thing. Completely different is standing in the Kansas City slums at 7am on a breezy Saturday morning in April, 25 cast and crew around you, most of whose names you don’t even know, everyone looking at you, expecting you to know what in the world to do, because after all your badge says “Director” and you’re in charge and at that point there is no one to hold your hand and do it for you. I find that I thrive in those moments. I love them. The Police showed up? Fuck it, I’m the director, looks like I’m walking over to chat with them, here goes nothing. Actors have questions, assistant director has questions, crew want to know where to set up the camera, lights need adjusting, what time is lunch, how many takes are we planning to do this time, this line doesn’t make sense, are we really going to film in a plane and a hospital, and how will we get those locations, “We need a director over here, please,” how does his makeup look, where’s our next location, is the dolly working yet…. on and on and on, and if you read this and think the eventuality that all of those things will be happening at once is a nightmare, then directing may not be for you. But the idea gives me chills, I get excited, I just want to be there in that big circus of creativity and shoot for 20 hours and be dead tired on Monday, but what’s it matter anyway, they won’t fire me, and I’ll sleep during the week. 

 

Trailer: The Movie - Day 1 - I Predict a Riot
Trailer: The Movie – Day 1 – I Predict a Riot

There’s just nothing like being on set and doing the thing you were meant to do and doing it well. Lesson #1 is the same as my high-school drama teacher taught: You’ve got to love it. It’s too hard to do if you don’t, and with so many people who do love it, just get out of the way and let them through.

 

I like things complicated. I like difficult shots, I like scenes that walk a fine line, I like to do a lot of takes. All fine things. But sometimes, you’ve got to kill your babies. Much of this year has been learning that there is power in simplicity. That simple doesn’t mean bland. That sometimes, a splash of complexity will get more mileage than you think. That just because you can design a 4 minute shot through a store, doesn’t mean you can film it, doesn’t mean the mics will work, doesn’t mean it’s the very best way to tell your story.

One of the biggest lessons has been that you can’t just show up and hope for the best. When I made that movie a year ago, I did not understand how my camera worked. I’m just now starting to really get it. You’ve got to seek out a knowledge base, and that means surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you and playing Sponge. There has been no more valuable tool than the IFC-KC (Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City). It connected me to the majority of the actors and crew for “Trailer: The Movie.” They let me hold auditions at their offices. For FREE. And it’s community, it’s connection, it’s knowing people and watching their stuff and talking about it and giving them your stuff. Every week I look forward to seeing certain people at the meetings, knowing afterwards, we’re all going to the same place to relax, have a drink, discuss why Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is the suck. Is there really anything else?

I think I didn’t quite understand the bond that forms on set. I was probably too cynical. I’ll close with two moments that I won’t forget. First, being at Kinkos with Peter (who worked there) from 4am till 8am to help get all the work done he should’ve been doing while we filmed. Dead tired, but still on a high, talking about whatever. Second, finishing “Trailer: The Movie” in Warrensburg, we got it done faster than we thought, eating our last meal together as a crew. Having a beer with them, the sense of accomplishment and pride I felt sitting there with Adam, thinking how strange and amazing it was that we had somehow caused this group to be together, people we didn’t know 8 months ago who are now invaluable to us. I didn’t see that coming. But I think I’m starting to catch on.

Yeah, But What Do I Know?

I’ve had my film camera for only about 5 months. I’ve shot two short films so far, and now, moving forward, I feel like it’s time to close the gap of obvious things I don’t know. Everyone says it’s unfair to compare yourself at your age to a well-respected filmmaker when they were that same age. But here goes. I got a real treat tonight when I saw for the first time, Paul Thomas Anderson’s short film Cigarettes and Coffee. It is 26 minutes, stars Philip Baker Hall, is shot well, edited well, and made when he was 22 yrs old. Let the inadequacy begin! And while I can watch it and say, “Well, some of the dialogue is a bit too precious” I also have to look back at a whole heap of my own writing and say the same thing. Also, he was 22. Also, none of his full length films inspire that critique in me. Also, he moves his camera really well. His sound is good. His film looks like film. 

Where was I seeing this recently? Someone was talking about the distinction between the things you don’t know you don’t know and the things you know you don’t know. If you don’t know you don’t know, then you can’t be expected to take the initiative to learn right away. But if there are things you know you don’t know, then there is no fault but your own if you continue on in ignorance. I know I don’t know about the technical side of film. I know how to move the camera, how to construct shots and coordinate them. I know how to communicate with actors, and I can give them decent things to say. I don’t know how to light a shot. I don’t know how to get a higher quality shot with better resolution. Is it just getting better film? Are there functions on my camera that I can utilize better? I’ve thumbed through the manual, but I haven’t read it cover to cover. What other lenses do I need? What filters should I get? I don’t know how to make it look less like video and more like film. I don’t know how to get better sound from everything. I don’t know sound. DON’T KNOW SOUND. And I need to learn.

What I do know, though, is what I want to do. I’m writing a short film right now tentatively titled “Grande Venti Tall” which I think genuinely has the potential to be very very good. I’ve been writing a helluva lot recently, and one thing I know is, I don’t want to write something frivolous. I’m not interested in writing something simple and cheap. And already the “P” word is looming over me. The “E” word is close behind. But I don’t want to shoot some youtube video. It may be undue pressure, but I feel like I don’t have time to be dicking around. This is not to say that I am going to make serious, dramatic, unfunny movies. I intend to write a lot of comedy. But not “that” kind of comedy, you know? Yes, but even if I can manage to write it… can I make it and make it well? 

 

P = Pretentious / E = Elitist


It Has Come to This

May 2017
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