Photo by SHARON MENDONCA
BY SHAWN WHITNEY
The experience of shooting A Brand New You was unbelievably fruitful not only as part of a process of producing a film but also as a learning experience for next time – and to share with others. I’ve read lots of excellent articles that offer “ten tips to shooting an indie” or “5 lessons” or “6 Essential Things…” etc. But in my experience there were more than 5 or 10 things to learn from shooting a feature film. But in the interest of not overwhelming you with too many points all together, I’ve broken up the things we learned into the producer, director & writer category that I’ll post over the next three or four days so that they are easier to digest. In many cases whether something is a lesson for a director, producer or writer is a bit arbitrary as responsibilities bleed into one another. So, if you think that I’ve put something in the wrong category, you may well be right. If you disagree or have any questions, please feel free to e-mail or leave a comment.
1) We made a great decision to work with Alex Lisman as our DP – he has lots of experience doing run and gun doc work, producing “promo” videos for the union and student movements, including journalistic style shooting on demonstrations and picket lines, as well as the more measured pace of studio and location interviews. He is used to working with limited lighting and even more limited time. He’s also very good at very steady handheld shots. The pressure of our assistant directors to keep moving and Alex’s speed are (along with pro actors) the reasons we were able to always get our days even with a very heavy load. Make sure, if you have a short shoot, that you have a DP that can handle it. If you get someone who is used to leisurely shoots where they can finesse the lighting for hours on end you will spend your entire time fighting with your DP. I have done this, it sucks and is stressful.
2) Limited lighting kit (mostly two or three lights) made it quick for us to set up our shots. And shooting on DSLR gave us flexibility with lighting – it may not be as sophisticated as a Hollywood film but three point lighting with a shallow depth of field and great composition can look damn sexy. Our main goal was to always have an ISO under 200 and to be careful of the fact that the Nikon D7000 has a very limited dynamic range. During the day we often put neutral density gels on the windows (bought cheaply off of eBay) to make sure that they didn’t look blown out while the interior room looked like it was in darkness.
3) Paying for good sound was worth it: We never worried about sound and while it cost us about ten percent of our total budget, it’s less hassle than having to organize a day’s worth of ADR (which would also cost money – especially if we had to get to add in foley) and risk having terrible, echo-laden sound.
4) Glad we used professional talent. Again, it cost money but we were able to get our shots more quickly. Even where we were so pressed for time that we, as directors, didn’t have much opportunity to work with the actors they gave solid performances.
5) Related to the above two points: the point is not just to be cheap (which was a necessity) it is prioritizing what you spend money on given your available resources. If you don’t have the cash for sound or actors, don’t let that paralyze you, just know the consequences of that and adjust.
6) Be as organized as you can be. Disorganization costs time and time is money (even if only in lunches and snacks to the crew). It also means that you are more likely going to get what it was that you wanted to get. We had a detailed shot list but we didn’t prepare detailed emotional arcs and potential variety in performances in advance for each scene. This was partly the result of our inexperience and partly a result of the face that we are also co-producing, which was quite demanding. We generally had time in the morning while the first shot was being set up to note the kinds of variety that we wanted to see but not always and often it felt rushed because were also revising our shot list in light of our experience of shooting in the actual location (as opposed to how we imagined it would be in our heads). Time pressure during the shoot also prevented us from doing more than getting a good shot and full coverage so that planning to capture a variety of performances was sometimes a bit utopian anyway but better to be prepared than not.
7) Make the script the best that you can before you go to camera. Lyn Shelton may have made Humpday without a script but she also worked for six months with the actors to develop the characters’ relationships to each other so that they could improvise the scenes that she had worked out for the film. And, imho, while Humpday is an enjoyable film and, in many ways, a breakthrough, the dialogue leaves something to be desired with lots of awkward pauses in places where there shouldn’t be awkward pauses. Film isn’t real life and film dialogue shouldn’t try to emulate real life dialogue with all those pauses, filler words and sounds that bridge thoughts like “um” and “fuck.” In real life they’re natural. Onscreen, when they fill every scene, they’re brutal. Having a script is a subsidiary of the point above about being as organized as you can be. (I confess to being biased by the fact that my first calling is as a writer). On the other hand, to my mind, there’s no point in spending two years refining and re-working your script (but maybe that’s my thing). I feel like a script must, ultimately, be tested by the fire of production.
8) To contradict myself a little bit: the script is an architectural drawing not the Holy Bible. Just like having a detailed shot list so that you have an idea what you want to get, your script provides a guide. But how the script sounds in your head or even read out loud by the actors sitting on your couch, isn’t the same as shooting it with the actors standing up and moving around. Stuff that seemed funny or sad will parse as on-the-nose or cringe-worthy. Plot points that soared on the wings of angels on the page will sink like a lead zeppelin in front of the camera. You can’t be precious about your script. We changed lots of scenes to work more effectively or fit changed circumstances.
9) Write a detailed shot list. Throw out your detailed shot list. This will drive your 1st AD crazy (sorry, Elinor & Michelle) but when you’re shooting ten or eleven pages in a day (we had one day that was eleven and a half!) you’re going to have to make compromises. And sometimes you’ll find that a really important scene has been under-covered in your shotlist and you’ll want that extra angle or cutaway (like a close-up on what the actor is doing with their hands). Just know that if you lose time getting extra coverage on one scene, you’ll have to give it up on another. We had a few short scenes that ended up being single shots but mostly we made sure to get at least three.
10) Be polite. Thank everyone often. Tell them how much their work means to you and to the film. You had a vision for a story that you felt so compelled to tell that you’re making it into a feature film. All these other people who are working their butts off are helping you realize that vision and tell that story. Without them: no film. And you’re not even paying them (probably) or paying them very little. Be thankful for whatever they’re giving you, it’s more than you could do on your own.
11) Be nice to your actors. Perhaps this is as obvious as thanking your crew members frequently but I still read stories about directors who try to humiliate or intimidate their actors into good performances. Don’t roll your eyes when they are “insecure” or need a quiet place to prepare. The camera is an unforgiving, unblinking eye and if they give a bad performance, have a pimple or are shot from the wrong angle that makes it look like they have a double-chin, everyone who sees them in your movie will comment on it. They know it. You know it (how many times have you and your friends made jokes about how some actor looked in a film or photo?). I generally found that where an actor wasn’t giving me what I wanted it was because I wasn’t being clear enough.
12) Get your day. You know what’s worse than not getting that awesome shot or beautiful lighting set-up or the perfect performance? Having a film that makes no sense because you only shot half the script. There’s just no way around it: shooting a microbudget feature on a limited schedule requires compromise. We dropped a couple of scenes – generally ones that involved a character getting from point A to point B – but I was very happy that we basically shot all the scenes on our schedule and even a couple extra ones (including live concert footage involving our two leads). Besides the awesome cast and crew, this was possible because we were willing to compromise and shift on the fly based upon where we were at. Having scene an amazing script basically ruined because the director failed to shoot more than two-thirds of the script and the editor didn’t have the material to cut together something coherent, I was cognizant of the importance of this throughout the shoot.
There are some other lessons that will be worth discussing after post-production but I think it’s premature to discuss them at this point. Should we have gotten more or less variety in our shots, for instance? We’ll know when we try to edit it all together. I personally don’t like a lot of “trick” shots and could only watch about fifteen minutes of Wes Anderson’s indie breakout success, Bottle Rocket. The high angle/low angle shots between the lead and his sister made me nauseous. On the other hand, we were shooting a lot in just a few rooms in one house so we did try to switch it up a bit to give us some visual variety – who knows if we did enough of this or if it will come across as contrived.