Tag Archives: Alex Lisman

Watching Our Footage PLUS An Out Take

Watching footage to “check the gate” and make sure we got the shot.

Photo by SHARON MENDONCA

Kathryn and I began the process last night of systematically watching our dailies – all the footage shot on any given day – to decide which takes were the strongest (or, sometimes, which parts of particular takes were strongest so that we can combine them as cut between different angles). It had been just over a week and, to be honest, I was glad to have the distance before trying to approach the footage with a critical eye – distance gives you… distance. I was also dreading it. I mean, what if it sucked? What if we didn’t get the performances we want/need to make a good film? What if…what if… You get the picture.

Not to worry, dear reader, the footage looked better than I could have hoped for. I mean, it has been compressed into low res files to upload it to our Vimeo account (god love the interweb) so that we could share the dailies with Greg Ng, our editor in Richmond, BC. As a result the edges were fuzzy and there are lots of jpeg artefacts that are unpleasant to watch. But the composition, lighting and focus were quite lovely. I’m going to start asking for a commission for all the free advertising that I’m giving to Alex Lisman, our Director of Photography, but he’s done some lovely work with very limited resources and he did it from day one.

And it’s the first day’s shooting so we only saw Manuel Rodriguez-Saenz, our lead, and Dalal Badr, who plays his dearly departed wife. As we watched we were reminded that the first shot on the first day was a scene with them dancing in their living room with Viviana (Dalal’s character) singing a nursery rhyme/love song to Santiago (Manuel’s character). They had met perhaps 20 minutes before shooting this scene, in the context of the furnace room, I mean, dressing room in the basement of our location. They immediately were able to generate romantic sparks somehow. In the middle of the song they began to kiss and you could feel the passion between them. It was as though we were ghosts who they couldn’t see. Such good acting is always a miracle to me. It was also funny to watch because Kathryn and I had just finished watching Almodóvar’s sci-fi melodrama from last year The Skin I Wear with Antonio Banderas. ABNY has a certain kinship to that film in terms of a number of scientific themes, though our film is a comedy, which is why we wanted to watch it. Well, other than the fact that Almodóvar is a brilliant filmmaker. After watching the film itself (a weird and wonderful journey into Almodóvar’s obsessions) we watched the special features that had behind the scenes footage of the film being shot, of Almodóvar working with the cast, etc. He, of course, is a genius and a veteran filmmaker, but I think we felt a connection to his process, seeing those scenes being shot, though I was a bit surprised at how detailed was his work with the actors. He said the lines with them, directing them as to specifically how he wanted them delivered (of course, these are excerpts and those moments may have been the exception – but I have heard he likes to shape, at that level of detail, the performances of the actors). Our attitude, after blocking for camera, etc. was to let the actors follow their instincts and perform it how they had interpreted it – unless they had questions – and then refine and clarify where necessary and request variety in performance whenever there was time. Perhaps we’re too anarchist but I think that we felt that people are professionals – not just the actors, the other departments too – they need to be allowed to do their job and discover new possibilities and meanings. Our job, as directors, was to keep in mind the overall vision and try to facilitate the harmony of the different elements towards that common goal. Not that there is any one “correct” method – every director has a different method (and, no, I’m not comparing “our” method to someone of Almodóvar’s calibre, just musing on approach) – though I think that at our level (i.e. our first feature film) more humility is in order viz the production than for a veteran director.

Back to the dailies. In general directors watch their dailies from the day before at the beginning of the day, while the first shot is being set up and while the talent are in with make-up and wardrobe. So, why have we waited so long to do this process? First off, we did watch some of the footage at the end of the day – but in the face of exhaustion and an early start the next day (and a three-year old who rightfully expected some attention, food, and a bedtime story from her parents) it wasn’t systematic. In the mornings it simply wasn’t possible. First off we were in our house and were often trying to get Beatrice (our daughter) fed and dressed and out the door for 8:30 (crew generally arrived at 7am to start set-up). That was our childcare reality. One of us would focus on childcare and one of us would focus on getting the first shot ready, etc. Cast would arrive at 8am and be ready (in theory) to shoot around 8:45, though in reality it was generally 9:15 or 9:30 before we got the first shot off. In between there was more than enough for the directors to do to fill the time, including reviewing our plan for the day, discussing different performances we wanted to get from different actors, etc. Besides which, our computers were often being used to deal with data management and weren’t available. Such is the reality of a microbudget film. But it is also freeing. We didn’t have the kind of hourly expenses – whether we were shooting or not – of a typical feature film, even a low budget one. There were no lighting rentals, grip trucks, trailers for talent and make-up, et al. In fact, we had no rentals at all (other than a car for one day). So the clock wasn’t our enemy in the same way. And, to be honest, I don’t relish the idea of working 14 hour days. I don’t see how that is conducive to the making of good art. Even 12 hour days are not appealing to me. We worked over one weekend, which was gruelling, but not as difficult as going four weeks without seeing my kid because I leave before she gets up and return after she’s gone to bed. My brain also shuts down after about ten hours – creatively anyway.

Our goal now is to watch at least one day per day while Greg re-organizes and prepares the files for editing in Adobe Premiere, before sending a hard drive back to us. One of the brilliant things about Premiere (I’ve never used it but Kathryn uses Lightroom for still photographs) is that you work on proxy images and the software simply saves a project file that doesn’t include the footage itself but references the edits. It means that once we have a clone of Greg’s hard drive with all the organized files, he can send us a small project file via e-mail and when we open Premiere on our end, it can reconnect to the footage on our hard drive and let us see the work he has done. I’m looking forward to the first assembly!

Now, for a little treat, here’s an outtake from the first day. I’ll try to put one up every day after we view the dailies. Let me just say that no one ruins a pair of pants like Manu.

Manu splits his pants from Shawn Whitney on Vimeo.

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EPILOGUE: Lessons In Microbudget Filmmaking, Part 1

 

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.

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Day 12: Taking On The Final Challenges

Photos by SHARON MENDONCA

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

There were moments in the last 12 days that I didn’t think I’d make it, to be honest. Around day 6 and day 7 I was hitting a wall of exhaustion and I heard a voice in my head tell me that I couldn’t do another 6 days, then another 5 days, then another 4. Each day it got a little quieter and by the time we only had 3 days I left I knew for certain that I (and we) would make it.

However, it was clear on the morning of our 12th day that most people were pretty thoroughly exhausted. Sometimes, when the end it closest, that is when the struggle through those final hours becomes hardest. People were showing up 15 minutes late, we were bumbling around, unable to get the first shot off. It wasn’t clear what our first scene of the day was – after we had rearranged things the night before to pick-up some scenes that were missed. Santiago arrived upstairs for the first shot in the wrong wardrobe and had to change and be re-mic’ed for sound by Zoe, which took an additional 15 minutes. By the time we took our first shot we were 90 minutes behind schedule – and Alex, our DP, was in the foulest mood I’d seen him in during the entire shoot. It felt like a gargantuan effort just to restore focus.

But – like we had done so many times before – we did refocus. And by the time lunch rolled around we had made up all of our lost time. We went into the afternoon entirely caught up with where we were meant to be and we’d even banged off a very short scene that we’d thought we were going to have to drop. With that momentum we went into the afternoon feeling positive about what we could pull off.

We didn’t take account of traffic. Murray (Clinton Lee Pontes) was traveling to set from the other side of the city and got caught in the mother of all traffic jams. It took him 2.5 hours to arrive, making him about an hour late. Again, we were scrambling. We shot what we could without him and made contingency plans for other scenes we might shoot – though we were really setting up to shoot stuff that we’d already decided to ditch. But then Clinton finally burst through the door just as we were finishing off the last of the non-Murray scenes. We quickly re-jigged our plans and not only caught up again, we shot a scene that we had cut (but which was a contentious decision because it’s a lovely, if secondary, scene) and we reshot another scene that I had been unhappy with.

It was as though the universe threw at us one final series of tests and we managed to pass all of them, finishing the day and our entire slate of scenes. It’s true that we dropped some scenes along the way – mostly just a few transitions from place to place that were unnecessary – but nothing critical got lost. Was this really possible? Did we really just shoot a feature film in 12 days? We never went beyond 10 hour days for crew and 8 hour days for cast. We managed to work in a concert scene with an awesome local indie band. And we shot a “sex scene” that didn’t make me cringe and was actually quite cute and touching. In 12 days.

I don’t know yet what our final budget will be: Dagny Thomson, our production manager, is crunching the numbers and they will change as we sell some of our gear. But my guess is that we came in below $20,000. Perhaps substantially. Nor did we go into overtime on any of our days, which ACTRA was so convinced we would do that they insisted we demonstrate the ability to cover such overtime with money in our bank account. Of course that’s not a “real” $20,000 (or whatever the number ends up being). The real number ought to include the actual value of the labour that was contributed by the entire crew. It we had paid everyone what they ought to have been paid, the budget would have been closer to $90,000-$100,000 (that’s my guess). That’s still a microbudget by definition but a rather more expensive one to personally finance, as this film has been.

At the end of the day most of us went out to a local restaurant/bar and celebrated our heroic achievement (which explains why this entry was so slow to be written) – for most of us our first feature film. People toasted and celebrated the hard work that they’d done and the awesome work, I must say. Cast and crew really felt a part of something bigger than themselves and gave an incredible amount of themselves to that artistic vision. That contribution is still a wonder to me and for it I feel a profound sense of gratitude. A Brand New You wouldn’t have been possible without them. And, as if an omen of something wonderful being born, my co-director (and wife) Kathryn Palmateer became pregnant in the weeks leading up to the production and another crew member became pregnant during the production itself.

Finally, a very special shout out to David Halls. I’ve known Dave for 5 years since I was accepted into the writers residency program at the Canadian Film Centre. He attended the year before and was asked to meet with me and talk about what I ought to expect at the CFC, etc. It’s a sort of mentoring approach that the CFC takes with new residents. We’ve kept in touch on and off over the last five years but not been close. He read an earlier post about the challenges of childcare during the shoot and offered to babysit our daughter, Bea, on the final day of the shoot when we had run out of childcare options. Because he did this both Kathryn and I were able to be on the set for the last day when we’d come to the conclusion that one of us would have to spend the day with Bea. Bea also seems to have fallen in love with “Davey” and has been asking when she will get to see him again. She was very excited to show us the wind-up sushi that Dave gave to her. Thanks, Dave!

Dru Soo and her niece and nephew also showed up on the last day to help out as PAs and to be generally awesome and supportive. Dru has a youtube channel here of some funny stuff that you can check out.

Now comes the post-production process – editing, mixing, correcting, rearranging, scoring, and all the rest of it. It is a slower process, taking place probably over the next 4-6 months but we will keep you abreast of that process, if on a less frequent and intense basis than the last 12 days of madness. I hope you’ll continue on that journey with us.

– Shawn

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Day 11: Actors Save Directors’ Asses

Photos by SHARON MENDONCA

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

Let me just say this: Boy am I glad that we have such good actors. There are the obvious reasons why that you don’t have to make a movie to understand: you want the performance that appears on screen to be good (with “good” usually meaning naturalistic, as though they aren’t acting). But when you’re making a film you’re thinking about it on a few more levels. You want the actors to be able not only provide a compelling delivery of their lines and actions but also to be able to repeat that over multiple takes (like saying the same line at the same point in the room that they are walking across), take directions and provide alternative performances (angry vs sad, for instance) – just to name a few things that actors must keep in mind.

As a director, you are also juggling multiple, competing demands in order to get the film made during production – what should the actor wear; how is their make-up and hair to be done; what shots do you want and which ones can you sacrifice if time runs out; which scenes do you absolutely have to have and which can you lose. And you also need to know what performances you want from your actors, including alternatives. Let me just confess something at this point. Kathryn and I did a detailed, scene-by-scene shot list before we went to camera. But we hadn’t done a detailed plot of each scene in terms of the different potential emotional arcs within the scene in order to get different performances so that we would have a variety to choose from in the editing room. For one thing, as co-producers as well as co-directors, who were doing this part-time when we weren’t working at our own jobs and a being parents, we didn’t have time. But it also reflects the fact that we didn’t make it enough of a priority. Our bad.

However, to redeem us: we have spent every morning before we go to camera mapping out different potential performances that we hoped to get from our actors and how those alternatives relate to the tone of the film and the arc of the characters in question. And we know the script very well – I wrote it and Kathryn, along with the talented Larisa Gutmanis, story edited the script over the course of more than a year. We are very familiar with the emotional arcs of the characters. And we’ve done pretty well.

All that is back story to today. Today we had a 7:00am call time but Bea’s caregiver didn’t arrive till 8:30am. And we slept in till 7:00am and were rushing around trying to get Bea fed and ready to go as the crew were bustling and setting up the first shot. Chaos? Yes. I focused on Bea and Kathryn focused on getting the production moving, dealing with outstanding details, etc. But it meant that we didn’t have a chance to map out the performances we wanted to get from our actors.

And then it was hot. Oh yes. Very hot. I’m not sure how many towels we went through drying off Manuel’s face but there were a lot of them. And exhausted. It was day 11 in a row. Exhausted, hot and harried are not an awesome combination. You could see that it wasn’t just Kathryn and I who were suffering from this combined assault on our focus. Generally speaking we’ve had three or four takes per shot, rarely more than that and often less. Today we usually had at least four and often had five or six takes. We were struggling to get what we needed and the actors were struggling not to pass out. Lesser mortals would have simply collapsed.

I have no doubt that if we’d had a more detailed emotional map for the characters we would have gotten more variety in performance from the actors. No doubt. But, to return where I started, that’s why I’m relieved that we got professional, solid talent. Even when Kathryn and I lose focus, the actors are able to pull off solid performances. Some say that 8/10’s of directing takes place in the hiring and casting process. Today I was glad that we hired/cast the right people.

Perhaps the most important thing to say about today is that it was the second to last day! Tomorrow we wrap – unbelievable. When we wrapped for the day today Mark A. Brown – our main script continuity (with a noble assist by Tica Simmons on Monday & Tuesday) – went through our shooting schedule and compared it to his script to make sure that we hadn’t missed any scenes. We had and we will have to pick those up tomorrow. How did this happen? The main reason is that the script changed days before we went to camera. What’s more, poor Elinor was stuck trying to schedule the shoot with Excel, instead of proper scheduling software. Here’s a tip while we’re on the subject (in case I haven’t mentioned it before): don’t scrimp on scheduling software – it’s worth the $600 or so to give your 1st AD the right tools. Scheduling can make or break your microbudget film shoot and a feature film has a lot of scenes to coordinate with different characters, times of day, locations, etc. ABNY, for instance, has about 110 scenes and 9 characters in total. Juggling all the details is like doing an eight sided Rubik’s Cube. We were frankly lucky that Elinor was so awesome and patient.

In the end it wasn’t a huge deal but it meant we had to lose a couple of transition scenes (an actor traveling from point A to point B), creatively merge a couple of others (Kathryn still hasn’t quite surrendered the “bathtub scene” that I think we can lose) and we will move two scenes to different locations in the house so that we don’t have to dress more than two sets tomorrow. It means we will have a heavy day tomorrow but it will be a do-able one. And then… no, it ain’t over. We might not even be over production – we may discover in the process of editing the footage that we don’t have a shot or a scene that we need. Then we’ll have to shoot a pick-up day(s) to get what we need. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. Things have gone so freakishly smooth up till now, I’m hoping that it hasn’t all been an hallucination and that the magic that we’ve been feeling is more than just a general vibe. I’m hoping that it is reflected in what we got on film, er, SD card.

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Day 10: Feel The Heat

Photos by SHARON MENDONCA

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

No, I’m not being figurative. This has nothing to do with the approaching end of our shoot. It has everything to do with the heatwave we are experiencing in Toronto. Oh. My. God. Hot: holy-hell-Satan’s-oven kind of hot.

It slowed us down and cost us focus. Manuel (Santiago) couldn’t stop sweating, forced to wear a suit in a house with no air conditioning on the first floor, a bunch of lights and too many people in one room. He must have lost a couple of pounds in liquid by the looks of his shirt and the water pouring off his forehead (ironically, sweating probably makes Manuel more able to deal with the heat than those of use who were sweating less. Growing up in Cuba has its benefits during heat waves). I can’t say for certain about anybody else but I know that the heat definitely made me more cranky than usual. Of course I’m tired. We’re ten days in without a day off.

Luckily, we had shot a scene scheduled for today yesterday. Plus we decided to cut a scene we felt was redundant and another had been cut from the schedule after my final revision to the script. It meant that we got our day, otherwise – particularly after a slow and excruciating morning of struggling to get sufficient coverage – we would have fallen behind. But… we are still on schedule, though tomorrow will be a 9 1/2 page day in the same heat. And we’re on the top floor, in the attic. (Note to self: put the window A/C unit upstairs first thing in the morning.)

I’m deeply impressed that we have gotten this far in, in this heat and nobody has lost their shit on anybody else. No yelling. Nothing thrown. Nobody stormed off set and refused to come back. We are being tested by the gods of indie filmmaking and we are whupping ass imho. We even managed to send off a hard drive to our editor, Greg, in Richmond, BC today. It helps to have awesome, professional cast. Today we had Elizabeth Whitmere on set for a short scene with Manuel. Even though she must have been melting in her undertaker suit, she had an amazing sense of humour, positive attitude, a razor sharp performance and great focus. Truly a pleasure to work with.

In other news, childcare has been an endless source of drama, giving me one insight into why women are so excluded from directing. Kathryn and I are both directing this and we have a three-year old. I can’t just forget about the question of childcare during the shoot. We have to both work it out together (though Kathryn is more resourceful and has more potential support than I do). Her parents took Bea last weekend for four days, which was a big relief (though we missed her dearly) and then we had our friends Holly & Dietrich take Bea for the night last night and after work today, until we were done shooting at 8pm tonight (H&D’s daughter, Zhadie, is Bea’s BFF – they spend four days a week together with a shared nanny). But we were calling around, trying to beg someone to watch her for the last three hours of the day – and we still haven’t found childcare for Friday all day.

Now, these challenges are existing for us on a short shoot of only 12 days with mostly 9-10 hour workdays and only three night shoots. Imagine life for people who work in the mainstream industry where 12 hour days are the norm with many more nights. And if you want to climb the ladder to director or director of photography, you have to put in years and years, decades even, of this lifestyle. Of course, we all know who usually gets stuck with childcare – women. How is it possible for women to have kids and try to be successful? So, besides the old boys club and the prevailing, sexist, attitudes about women that hold them back from entering directing roles in larger numbers, they are also hobbled very materially by the challenges of childcare. Co-directing with my wife has made me very aware of this.

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Day 8: Rocket Fuel, Tone & Improvisation

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Photos by Sharon Mendonca

BY SHAWN WHITNEY It seems like the doldrums of humpday (or the hangover of a couple of days ago) have passed. While I felt tired today (and drank a significant amount of coffee) I also felt a burst of renewed energy and enthusiasm. I think that many of the crew and cast felt the same way – or maybe I’m projecting. But the proof is in the pudding or in the eating of the pudding. There’s pudding involved anyway.

We spent the day on location at Lula Lounge, where we shot five different scenes. I should say that Lula is an awesome place and a real hub of arts & culture in the city. I worked there for five years, along with my co-director and partner, Kathryn Palmateer – and many of our cast and crew still work there. In addition to her, Celeste, our key make-up and hair, is a bartender at Lula. Manuel, who plays Santiago, bartends part-time at Lula. Two of the kitchen staff helped prepare food for our shoot on a couple of days. Clinton Pontes, who plays Murray, bartends part-time at Lula. Kathryn and I met Dagny, our production manager, at Lula many years ago through a mutual friend (and former employee). Over the years we’ve organized events at Lula, shows, shot films and Kathryn and I even got married there (yes, we’re the kind of people who have their wedding ceremony in a bar). One of the owners, Jose Nieves, is a good and dear friend of ours and also is our real estate agent. He helped us get the house we live in now (and tomorrow we’re shooting some exteriors at his warehouse building near Lula).

As you can see, Lula has been a rather important part of our lives, our family and our community. We were very happy to be able to include it in the film. Perhaps it was that Lula artistic energy that gave us a boost or perhaps it was the fact that we are well and truly past the halfway point but we managed to not only get much more coverage than we had scheduled, we also were able to shoot an extra scene that was scheduled for tomorrow. We are now about three pages ahead of where we expected to be by this point! It means that there is a good chance we will be able to use tomorrow to get further ahead since it was already a light day and we’ve eliminated one location move that was planned for tomorrow.

My hope is that we are getting ourselves in a position that we can sit down on Wednesday or Thursday evening and decide which scenes we’d like to reshoot or add some pick-up shots to scenes that we didn’t feel we covered sufficiently because we were worried about getting our day. This is still not inevitable and will mean pushing through another day or two at a good clip but it feels like an enviable place to be. Fingers crossed!

I’ve also been thinking a lot about tone and improvisation as the shoot has progressed. I think that probably every single day I have an anxiety attack that we’re not getting a consistent tone to establish what kind of film that it is. ABNY has a lot of comedic moments. But it also has a lot of dramatic moments – after all, it is about a guy whose wife died and whom he is desperate to revive in some way. Can you have ribald comedy and tear-jerking moments side by side? After all, having a consistent tone is supposed to be one of the alphas and omegas of filmmaking and it’s not something I’m very good at – even in my writing, even though I’m much more experienced as a writer than I am at directing. My tonic to calm my nerves has been to think about the films of Alexander Payne (and even Wes Anderson to some extent). What do you call a film like Sideways or The Descendants? By and large The Descendants has a dramatic tone – and yet the friend of Clooney’s daughter and his father-in-law in the film are clearly comedic characters who put in clownish turns. Sideways had me splitting a gut but there was also a sweet love story and some serious drama embedded within it. Or how about 50/50, about a young guy who gets cancer and only has a 50% chance of surviving it. I cried when I watched it – but I laughed at the clownish behaviour of Seth Rogan. Or how about the mixed-genre/hybrid tone films of Tom McCarthy, like Win Win or The Station Agent? Does genre and tonal consistency even matter anymore? I have no answer here. Any thoughts?

This also relates to improvisation. Clinton, who plays Murray, is a strong improviser (which is a smarty-pants way of saying that he can come up with deeply offensive one-liners on command, as befits Murray’s character) and, I believe, he has had comedy training at Second City. His improv lines have encouraged us to try more improvisation in order to discover comedy potentials that aren’t fully realized in the script. But improv isn’t easy and not every actor is an improviser. It’s also important to give actors a structure around which they can improvise. Today, while we were shooting a scene there was a line that just wasn’t playing and we jammed out a basic idea for a new line to replace it. Having that structure gave the actor something to work with and she was able to develop a very funny line after we ran the section of the scene over and over and tried different variations. Later, when we tried to improvise without any structure, just encouragement, we were less successful and ended up going with the original conceit as it was written. There is alos the danger of getting stuff that you don’t want or that is tonally incorrect (there’s that tone thing again). This is not at all a criticism (I am the writer after all – and if there is comedy lacking in the script that’s my fault), just an observation about different methods for getting performance in collaboration with an actor.

Wish us luck tomorrow! Only four days left.

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Day 7: Tired But Still Laughing

Who knew that 7 days in a row of filmmaking would be so exhausting? Well, it is. There is no doubt that this is a real marathon that we are running. But it’s also a sprint as we run like hell every day to try and get all of the scenes that we’ve scheduled shot with enough coverage. The good news is that we’ve “made our days” every single day but one and we made that scene up the next day. Today was no different – we got our day and finished right on time.

But, damn, I’m tired. I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s also difficult because we’re shooting primarily inside of our house, so at the end of the day there’s still no escape from the film because the make-up and wardrobe department are in our bedroom and the camera dept’s gear is in our office. And craft services is in our kitchen. Etc. Not to mention the fact that half of our house is a dressed set. But we’re soldiering on and have no intention of stopping, come hell or high water or childcare challenges (Bea has been with her grandparents all weekend but we have to figure out childcare for Tuesday evening, when we shoot till midnight). We’ve come too far to give up now.

We’ve now shot in almost every room in the house (except for Bea’s room, which we’re trying to keep as a “sacred space” so that she doesn’t feel her whole life has been thrown up into the air). We shot in our backyard last night (and the garden got trampled badly, which breaks my heart a little bit, even though I knew that shooting a feature film in our house would lead to some damage). We’re even going to be shooting in our roommate’s bedroom. She has been very gracious about it and is staying at her sister’s place this weekend. I just realized tonight, however, that we didn’t tell her that we’re shooting a sex scene in her bed. Surprise, Lyvia!

Edsson Morales was on set today, playing the role of Phil, Santiago’s lawyer. Those scenes were shot in Spanish and he did an admirable job of speaking complex scenes in Spanish legalese with a delivery that was naturalistic and convincing. Kudos to you Edsson! Murray ran outside in his underwear and scared our neighbours as they marched in the annual parade of saints put on by the Catholic Church next door. They may not speak to us for a while – but I’m not sure if it will be out of fear or disgust. Or some combination of the two. Lord knows if they heard Murray’s potty-mouth on the set, disgust would win out.

The lab is now struck and April and Joffre rolled the main floor back in time to the arrival of our hero, Santiago, and made the place look like a total dump. It was very convincing, including leftover take out food in styrofoam containers that we’d kept in the freezer so that it wouldn’t start to stink while we waited to use them. It’s a bit surreal to move back and forth in time viz the time stream of the movie world. We shot the beginning, then the end, then the second half of the second act, then the middle of the first act, and so on. In the midst of all this we have to try and remember when we are and what has transpired in order to sustain consistent performances and even keep the characters in the right clothes.

We also did a lot of block shooting today, which means we set up our camera and lights and then shot several scenes in that location from that angle. Then we moved the camera and the lights and shot the same scenes back to back from another angle. Then we did the same thing again, for a third time. Our sound recordist, I’m sure, hated us. Every time we shifted to a new scene, she had to re-mic the actors to suit their new clothes. But it sped up the shooting and allowed us to get much more coverage than we might have otherwise. It was worth the effort.

Tomorrow morning we move the whole unit to a location for two sequences at Lula Lounge, which is being dressed to look like two places. 7 am will come early! So, it’s time to go to bed.

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Filed under About BNY, Micro budget, Production Diary, Science Fiction