Posts Tagged 'Filmmaking'

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.

This Week’s Sermon Brought to You by Quentin Tarantino

Today’s sermon at Pacific Crossroads Church was called “Single Like Jesus” and it was all about being single. Which I am. The pastor referred almost exclusively to 1 Corinthians 7, which contains a lot of guidance on the matter. “ The over-arching point of the sermon was that there are times in life when we are called to be single and single for a reason. There may be something God wants us to do that we can do better uninhibited and unattached. If a given person is called to do this or that, it might be easier to do single. They can give it more attention than if they were in a relationship. And if they can do that, great. But maybe that person can’t do that, because they also really want to be with someone; well, that’s another division of focus, and they can either fight against that and maybe they’ll overcome it, maybe not, maybe their plans will change, who knows? But one thing is for sure, and that is that there is a division of focus when two people are together. It’s not good or bad, it just is, it’s just true.

I saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “Inglourious Basterds” on opening day, which was a little over a week ago. Since then, I can’t get the movie out of my head. It keeps coming up, and I find myself pouring over reviews and interviews, and the other day I found a new Charlie Rose interview with Tarantino (click here to download it for yourself). So, I’ve been watching it, and I finished it this morning before church, and during the sermon, it hit me. Tarantino has talked about this very same subject in the interview. I’ve copied down what he said, though this is not a 100% accurate transcript probably:

 

Charlie Rose: What would be the greatest impediment to achieving the things that you want to do?

Quentin Tarantino: If anything, I’ve learned not to get distracted by side things…For instance…I’m not married, I don’t have kids…I had a couple of situations that if they had worked out in a different way maybe I would be married now and maybe I would have kids. And that would be fine. But you know, I wouldn’t be sitting here at this table talking about “Inglourious Basterds.” But those little things could have made it very very different. Truth be told, I would rather, I don’t want anything to be more important than my movie right now…This is the time to climb Mt. Everest…

Charlie Rose: But you don’t want to do anything right now that divides your focus.

Quentin Tarantino: No, I don’t want to serve two masters.

 

I think about this often. I am a different writer when I’m in a relationship. I don’t become a bad writer, it’s just the focus thing. I don’t write as much. I spend time with that person, talking to them, thinking about them, I’m just not as active in some ways. My junior year of college was my most productive year by far in terms of how much I wrote, the progress in the quality of my writing, and how much I was reading. That was the only year I was single.

But I am also different. I’m perhaps an angrier writer when I’m alone. Part of that is because I may have the instinct for that. Partly, it’s because I’m usually mad about the relationship, if in fact it is the same relationship it’s been forever. But I don’t think that’s all a bad thing. That anger can be a drive. Rather than just unravel a person, it can focus and direct. Anger can create additional energy, and a great way to use it is to point it at a screenplay or at editing or any artistic endeavor. Does it change the way you view things? Maybe, but so does being happy. So does having a cold. Some people shut down in this situation. I like to think I’m more active.

There are things I want to get done. I used to think I’d have a family by about now. Wife. Kid. But those were a 20 year-old’s thoughts. They were misguided, but perhaps understandably so at the time. And things have changed. For now, there are things to be done. There is writing, there is editing, there is filming, there is directing, there may be acting. There are projects and projects and projects. Maybe I’m a bit cold. Maybe I’m a little bitter. But maybe I can use that to my advantage right now.

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.

One Night Stand

Most cities have a film festival of some sort, even the small ones. Usually a 48 hour film challenge. 2 days to make a movie, not bad. Some up the ante and do a 24 hour festival. But only Kansas City does a 10 hour festival. Put on by the Independent Filmmakers Coalition (IFC-KC), this is the 9th Annual Event, and they call it the “One Night Stand” (ONS).

Works like this. 9am – Big meeting: They announce a time limit ,theme, a line of dialogue and a prop. All films must contain all items and be under the time limit in order to qualify for competition. 9:30am ’til 7:30pm – shoot, edit, export a  minute movie and be back at the theatre to turn it in. Anything past the deadline will still be shown, but isn’t eligible for prizes. 8pm – show starts. 

It’s balls to the wall. If you’re not done shooting by 3pm or so at the latest, you aren’t going to get done. With so many chances to fatally blow it, it’s is a test of endurance as much as anything else. It asks, can a good movie emerge from under extreme pressure? Will the films be “good for being done in a day” or just good? It’s also a test of coordination and time management. Can you get the footage you need in 4 hours of shooting? It’s a festival in which the distance between 2 locations, even the distance between the theatre and the location becomes a very important factor. There are groups every year that don’t finish. 

Without further ado, here is our creation. It’s called “Worth Noting.” The theme was Unrequited Love. Prop was Paper. Line of Dialogue was from “Frankenstein” – “It’s Alive…It’s Alive!!!” All were drawn randomly from a hat, from 10-20 options each.

Lessons Learned:

  1. When Jason tells you to make sure to charge the battery, (a) do it, (b) have the back-up battery ready, (c) find the expensive charger that I entrusted to you, Adam! (Time Lost – 15 minutes)
  2. When you’re only doing 3 takes, make sure the boom mic is out of frame. Otherwise you have to work around it in editing (Time Lost – oh, 5-10 minutes)
  3. Always make sure when you are “importing” footage, the camera is actually importing it. (Time Lost – 30 minutes)
  4. Even if your editing program is set to auto-save, save it after nearly everything. We didn’t and the program crashed. We had to redo some of our work, luckily it didn’t kill the whole project. (Time Lost – 20 minutes)
  5. After aforementioned program crash, you do not have time to throw a fit and be angry (finger pointed directly at self). This wastes even more time. (Time Lost – 10 minutes, in spurts of rage)
  6. If you are being overly-complicated and using voiceover, it would behoove you to edit that material ahead of time (which is in keeping with the One Night Stand Official Rules). (Time Lost – 15 minutes-ish)
  7. Leave yourself time to export the film in a high quality. For a 5 minute film like this, that can mean about an hour. If not, you’ll be forced to dial down the resolution so you can make it on time. (Additional Time Needed – 45 minutes-60 minutes)
  8. Total Time Lost – 95 – 100 minutes

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard was to write a spec script based on a show I liked. So, Adam and I chose “Arrested Development.” We wanted to challenge ourselves and see if we could pull off the tone and style and pacing. Narration sets up joke, dialogue delivers the punch-line (or the opposite). Nothing pays off more when you’re filming than the planning you did before that day. We spent at least 4 or 5 hours talking through ideas and bits and planning wardrobes and deciding on shooting locations, so that when it came time to do it, we weren’t worried about any of that while filming. Spontaneity is vital when filming, but some things need to be written in stone if you want to get anything done. 

The biggest benefit of this experience was it proved that shooting quickly and shooting effectively aren’t mutually exclusive. We’re prone to doing double-digit takes, spending longer than needed just to have one more. One of the jokes on the set of “Trailer: The Movie” was that I would say, “That was perfect. Let’s do it again.” Part of it is, I really enjoy the filming itself, and I like tweaking performances. The day after this, we were up before 6am to go to Warrensburg for the final day of filming on “Trailer: …” It was our hospital day, and we’d planned on a 10-hour day.

We got all our scenes done (without feeling rushed), added 3 shots, and we were finished and loaded up in under 6 hours. If not for the ONS., that level of productivity and efficiency would never have happened. If you have a chance to make be in a festival like this, do it. Write, direct, act, be on the crew. We had a blast, got a great response, didn’t win a damn thing, but did have people seek us out afterwards and congratulate us. If you can get that, you’re on to something.

Mac Attack

No, I’m not craving two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. I’m craving a gun. Let me spell it out: a “Mac Attack” is when you realize that while your iMac is, indeed, a great computer, it is also a monumental pain in the ass (and is attacking your ability to do cool things for free). That’s right, I said it. The Mac folks are smart, because they know the things a Mac can’t do tend to be on the less-than-legal but often easily accomplished side of things. No reason for them to put that in their commercials, and the PC companies can’t exactly say, “Buy our computer: you won’t believe all the free shit you can download with ease.” If they did, I bet their computers would sell more.  I know people, for instance, who make movies and were able to download all $1700 worth of Adobe Creative Suite 4 for no money down, no payment plan, and no elaborate system of bartering agreed upon either. Free. FREE. Fucking free. Stupid damn Mac.

Here is what’s frustrating. Instead of buying the $1700 programs for my iMac, I could save a ton of money, go buy a suped-up PC and then download all the programs. I’d get a new computer AND all the software for less than the cost of just buying it for my iMac. I take no comfort in knowing that I’ve not taken the programs. I take no solace in the idea that I am told my computer is better. It’s better at not letting me get cool shit, that’s for sure. I suppose if it’s harder to get things from my end, it should at least be harder for thieves to hack into my computer. But how the hell do I know? I betcha it could still happen with the right two passwords. And then I’d have bought a big shiny box.

I’m angry and annoyed, because on top of all that, I spent the entire night trying to LEGALLY transfer some footage from my editing program to a friend’s computer – a PC. No dice. No matter how I tried to “Share” the footage on my computer, it was having NONE of it. If there is a way, I’ve not found it, and because of this, I’ll have wasted a good 10 hours of editing and tweaking and frustration for nothing. Because if, no WHEN I have to re-import the footage onto my friend’s computer, there is no way in hell I’m going to sit down and re-edit the thing again. I had it edited. I just needed sound effects, which my POS editing system doesn’t have. 

Mac, I’m sure we’ll be friends again soon. But you stay away from me for a while, you hear? ‘Cause I will fuck you up bad, you jerk.

Creative Screenwriting

When you’re making a movie you kindof just want to cocoon yourself with film and live in that place for a long time. It’s a great place to be. For me, it’s very hard to divide attention. Because of how large and all-encompassing “Trailer: The Movie” is – not in a bad way either, but there is a lot to do – it is very difficult for me to do any fictional writing. I think it is because I have created (and intend to continue to foster) a link between acting and directing. They fold into one under the banner of Filmmaking. Writing is the first step to directing. Anyway, it’s different with acting, because I’ve always kept writing and acting separated. Point is, I still like to write and want to write, and I still have ideas, but I’m not pursuing them at the moment. So, when I can spare a moment, I write blogs, journal, and read. So that satisfies that side, while the director side is in full swing. 

Anyway, none of that is the point (these muscles they are rusty). What’s surprised me is that I’ve been finding time to watch a lot of movies, as well as listen to a lot of interviews and podcasts. I’ve been loading up my iPod lately with them, and I’ve been ingesting them rather quickly. In addition to my regular routine of listening to Battleship Pretension and Filmspotting, I ocasionally listen to The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell, and I have begun listening to the Creative Screenwriting podcast, with Jeff Goldsmith. And it’s great! There is a whole slew of interviews: Charlie Kaufman on “Synechdoche, New York.” Jody Hill on “Observe and Report.” David Wain on “Role Models.” Andrew Stanton on “Wall-E.” (Just now looking through, I found 7 more to download. I’ve got driving to do this weekend). The interviews are in-depth and almost always at least an hour long. That’s amazing! Most Q&A sessions are about 10, maybe 15 minutes long. These interviews cover everything from origins of projects and how the subjects got involved either in writing or directing or filmmaking in general. It’s comforting for a young filmmaker to hear that Charlie Kaufman worked for 11 years before anyone would read anything he wrote. Or that Jody Hill made “The Foot Fist Way” for $70,000.00 less than 5 years ago. It can be frustrating letting people know you want to write and direct because the two most popular responses are both polar opposites and totally unhelpful. One is the person tells you it’s impossible to break in to the business and you might as well not try. On the other hand, the person assumes you’ll be famous two months after you move to LA. No. I won’t. Yes, I get it; it’s difficult. Thank you for opening my eyes.

the second film from Rian Johnson

the second film from Rian Johnson

And in a strange turn of events, the Kansas City Film Festival is going on this weekend, and guess who one of the judges is? Jeff Goldsmith. Tonight he is recording an interview with Rian Johnson after a screening of his 2nd film “The Brothers Bloom.” Unfortunately, it’s sold out, but I’m still thinking of trying to stand in the will-call line just for the experience. I loved Johnson’s first film, “Brick” and he is also a good friend/ fan of Filmspotting. And the world gets smaller still. If you have any interest in making films for a living, check out the podcast, you’ll be glad you did.


It Has Come to This

May 2017
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