Bring the Noise…

Now our film is a film.

Well, it’s not finished yet. And it was shot on video, not on film, so it was never technically “a film.”

But you get the point.

What I meant is that Closure is now officially picture locked. The movie is what it is. The story is there and is not changing any more. Or is it?

We move on from our lush edit suite in Santa Monica to a post production facility in Hollywood to focus on audio. This excites me for two reasons: first, the drive to Hollywood from Burbank is MUCH easier than the 60-90 minute commute each way to Santa Monica. I mean, all I have to do now is take Olive to Barham and then sneak through the Cahuenga Pass into (EDITOR’S NOTE: no one outside of Los Angeles cares which route you take to get places. Move on).

Second, the nature of the work excites me. The movie is locked, for better or better. Now it’s time to expand the aural universe. This means adding foley, which is the reproduction of everyday sound effects. I get to ask and find answers to a lot of fun questions like these:

  • How angry can we make the seagulls in the first beach scene? (Answer: very angry by the end)
  • What sounds can we add to get across that Jack’s apartment smells and no one has been there in a week? (Answer: flies!)
  • How loud is the music coming from the car stereo? (Answer: louder than I first thought.)
  • How much of Marco’s panting (played by producer Beau’s heroic dog Buddy) should we hear? (Answer: exactly what we recorded during production, no more, no less.)
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The view from the director’s seat of the amazing comedy duo of Iskandar (Marcelo Tubert) and his dog Marco (Buddy Bubstein). (Photo: Alex Goldberg)

And of equal fun, we get to fix some of our problems. That air mattress noise during the bedroom scene? Gone. The leaf blowers from our first day of shooting? Erased. And the dialogue we can’t hear well?

Well, fixing dialogue takes an extra step. We brought in a few of the actors for ADR, a.k.a. automated dialogue replacement, a.k.a. dragging actors back in to look at themselves on the screen and try to match what they are saying. Sort of like this:

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How the magic happens. (Photo: Alex Goldberg)

Much of our dialogue was well recorded from the shoot, but we still had to bring in five actors. Each one spent roughly 15 – 30 minutes filling in dialogue holes, and helping us fill in logic holes.

Wait, what?

As I said at the top of this entry, “the movie is what it is. The story is there and is not changing any more.” Except it is. Remember those story issues we had? Now’s our chance to change dialogue to help the story.

Here’s a dirty little secret about the movies and TV: whenever you hear someone talking but don’t see their mouth move, only the back of their head, chances are you are hearing something they did not say in the moment. If you can’t see their lips move, we can make them say almost anything. Go ahead, put on your favorite show now and watch two minutes. Right? See it now? No, I didn’t just ruin your viewing experience, I enhanced it! You’re welcome.

And that’s what we did. A few moments where characters are in a scene but not on camera or facing away from us, we made up new dialogue. Cleared up some sticky plot points. Streamlined the story. AND YOU’LL NEVER KNOW WE DID IT.

Except I just told you we did it.

So now our audio track is clean, shiny, and sounding great. All that’s missing is the music.


Coming up next: the highs and lows of getting music into your film for no money.

 

Hearing Feedback

“I create art for art’s sake.”
“My opinion of my art is all that matters.”
“When I stop caring about what other people think is when I create my greatest work.”

Bullshit. Bullshit. And mostly bullshit.

I’m not speaking for everyone, only most of us. Yes, there are those out there who exist in a void where they can live and breathe their creative life, without a worry about money, commerce, and anyone else’s opinion of their creative works.

And if you want to meet these people, visiting hours are between 3pm – 6pm on Saturdays.

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The entire process of making a movie involves the feedback of others. While the script and story began in my brain and my brain only, it has been greatly improved by collaborators. Smart actors round out their characters and motivations. An experienced producer has an eye on making sure the story makes sense. But all that collaboration is theoretical until we actually see it on the big screen.

Since I am relatively inexperienced at making feature films, it is important to surround myself with people who have more experience (read: know what they are doing). And it worked. My game was elevated because of the wisdom of others.

A friend once gave me some amazing advice regarding receiving and processing feedback: when one person gives you a note, it is only their opinion. However, once three different people independently give you the same particular note, then it is time to seriously consider what is being said.

Now that we are editing, it is especially important to bring people in throughout the process who have more experience. Our editor Jeff frequently sought the advice of two mentor editors who would give him notes. When we had a rough cut we’d invite in members of our production team to watch and give notes. Then after taking in their notes, we would bring in people unfamiliar with the story to watch and give notes.

From the feedback sessions we received a lot of notes, most of which were either immediately addressed, incorporated, or ignored. However, some big concerns were raised. These concerns were brought up by multiple people. In some cases, almost everyone:

  • The first act of the movie (the first 25 minutes) is too long. And way too slow.
  • One of the supporting characters’ motivation is completely unclear until it’s too late.

The first note was easier to address: cut, cut, cut. Lines of dialogue and even entire beats were cut. Beginnings and ends to scenes were removed. Even individual frames were snipped from moments. Some of my favorite jokes: gone. We scrutinized everything and managed to shave over seven minutes from the first 25.

The second note was a little tougher. How do we reveal more information about a character, specifically how do we tip off to the audience that this character might be playing for the bad guys? And how do we do this now that the movie is shot? We can’t go back to a location and do re-shoots. Even if we could magically get our locations back and convince actors to come in for free, the cost of crew and equipment would push us well past what little money we have left.

But thanks to editing tricks (what our editor calls “fakery in the bakery”) there are subtle steps we can take: we can reframe a shot to focus on a detail that otherwise might have been overlooked. We can blow up a shot to capture an emotion better that the original framing. Add a music theme that repeats, which subtly reminds the audience. Add sound effects. Hopefully using these tricks and others we are able to fix the problem.

Notes, adjust, notes, adjust, notes, adjust. After a few months of this we were ready for our next level of feedback: producers.

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We sent our movie out to those who make movies. People with experience doing exactly what we are doing. I won’t name names, but roughly a dozen people agreed to watch our film, and we got their thoughts. Most of it was positive; we were on the right track. Surprisingly, some of it was contradictory (one person thought we didn’t see enough of one character, another person thought we saw too much of the same character). Much of the feedback was constructive. We were on the right track.

Was all this feedback seeking worth it? After all, we didn’t get the feedback we really wanted. The comment that EVERY artist craves. Feedback like this:

“It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.”

Does that unicorn of feedback exist? If not, we didn’t find it. But we did find a place, months into editing, when the three of us (producer, editor, director) looked at each other and said “this is it. This is our movie.”

So now our movie is picture locked. That means that while we still have sound to enhance, colors to correct, effects to create, the basic edit of the movie is done. Roughly 90 minutes of entertainment.

Is it perfect? No.

But it’s a movie now. And we are getting closer to showing it to you.

Editing Away

Compared to the grueling shooting schedule, life in post-production is pretty genteel. At least, for our movie. I set the hours. We sit in a darkened, climate-controlled room. There are snacks and a stocked fridge. We go out to lunch or bring in take out. J.J. Abrams’ production company is one block away. Also, I have my own parking place!

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When you know you’ve made it in Hollywood…

But it is work. I knew it would be a difficult process. First difficult part: the commute. In my five years in Los Angeles I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked out of my home or in offices conveniently located near my home, with occasional meetings in far away places. We even shot most of Closure less than five miles from our home. I’ve watched Catia trudge all over town for auditions and sympathized, but never really experienced it. The edit room in Santa Monica is 15 miles from my home, and it takes 45 to 90 minutes to get there, depending on time of day. And in Los Angeles, there is no good time to hit the road. Maybe if I went to work at 11am and came home after 8pm the traffic gods would be kinder, but keeping up that schedule is difficult when, you know, you have to pick a kid up from day care at 5pm.

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If I leave the edit room after 3pm and before 7:30pm, this is what it’s like. Every week day.

 

Why Santa Monica? The editor (who was working well below rate) lives there. The edit facility (which gave us a deal also well below rate) is there. And when you are making an extremely low budget movie on limited resources, you sit in traffic. Totally worth it.

Once I get past the 405 and into the facility, then we can focus on the work. It is immediately apparent where we succeeded and failed. Fortunately, successes are many:

  • Excellent continuity. Our five principal actors (Catia Ojeda, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Sloan, Milena Govich and Tom Choi) are all TV veterans with experience as series regulars. This means that continuity has been worked into their blood. And I’m not just talking about making sure the drink level is the same. Continuity involves turning the head the same way every time, folding arms the same, walking and stopping at the same place. The continuity is important so we can use different takes, depending on which line delivery we like more. And with these five, they are VERY reliable.
  • It looks gorgeous. Our D.P. Senda Bonnet and her team certainly did a lot with very little, but it looks magnificent. And Chantal Massuh-Fox and the rest of the art department dressed things wonderfully with extremely limited time and budget. Many times after watching footage, I would say that “it looks like a real movie.” Because it is.
  • Everyone involved got the script. What I mean by that is that this movie is slightly surreal. Characters aren’t 100% true to life, and the actors understood this, as did our Costume Designer Jennifer May Nickel, who’s take on costumes was as slightly askew as the characters wearing them. Everyone is working from the same playbook. Which means as director, I guess I did my job!

But it’s not all roses and Oscar nominations. We shot the movie so quickly there was little time to breathe, let alone reflect on how we were doing. But now, sitting in the cold and dark room, staring at a large screen, all the flaws are sobering. And MAGNIFIED. There is no escape from the mistakes, and each time we watch there are more. Regrets? I’ve had PLENTY: some casting choices, some directing choices, many missed opportunities for better lines, better plot twists, better everything.

So I spend my days on a roller coaster of emotion, bounding between elation for what was going right and the lows of anxiety, debating internally whether I was more of a hack as a screenwriter or as a director.

Jeff, our zen editor, kept an even keel. He liked what he saw, and much of what he didn’t he said could be fixed with “fakery in the bakery.” So after over a month of faking, restructuring, hiding flaws and magnifying gems, we had my official directors cut, which ran an hour and 42 minutes (including a four minute blank spot for closing credits, which are usually included in the run time). Time to show it to some trusted members of the team.

And we did. And that’s when we REALLY went to work.


Coming up next: Surviving multiple feedback sessions.

 

CLOSURE: In Post

When you talk to film veterans, “post” only means one thing: post-production.

Post-production is exactly what it sounds like. “Production,” i.e. the actual making of the movie, is complete. Now we are in the phase of what comes next.

Movies are actually made three times: Writing the script, shooting the movie, and editing. Each part is instrumental and very different, and what’s important to note is that in each era of a movie, the movie is created. Each time. And differently. By the time production is complete, the movie is very different from what was in the initial script. And after the edit…

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…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Post” can also refer to post-traumatic stress a.k.a. “PTSD.” A caveat: I use this term with much respect to people suffering from actual PTSD following much more horrifying situations. While making a film has been described in this blog (and in many other places) as akin to going to war, it is not the same. At all. Days are grueling, but lives are not risked (usually).

But I was showing similar symptoms. For weeks I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, wondering what shot I missed, what mistake I made, and dozens of other ways I ruined the movie. I would wake up to the angry voices of fellow crew members, collaborators, or even one of the dozens of investors yelling at me, only to hear their voices fade as my darkened room came into focus. Then I’d breathe, and relax. It was over. We got all of our shots. Except for some b-roll…

…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Once my life returned to normal (i.e. taking care of my kid, various writing jobs, having wine with dinner, not waking before dawn) we geared up to edit. As the anxiety and fears of production subsided, new fears crept in: sure we got all our footage, but how does it look? Does the sound hold up? Is the story clear?

Fortunately, my fears would be addressed quickly. The day after we wrapped I met our editor, Jeff, in a scene worthy of any Coen Brothers movie. Jeff agreed to edit our movie for an extremely cut rate, provided we could fit it in to his other conflicts, namely a TV show he would be working on for the next month. We agreed, and he said in the initial weeks he would work on his own time. Totally fine. When you have no money to spend, you get creative. And Jeff liked the footage he saw and felt he understood the tone, which is very important in picking an editor.

While we were shooting, Jeff had started cutting together footage on his own time. He even “employed” a friend as his assistant to cut some scenes together. The bit of footage I saw was good; he understood the tone of the movie. The day after we wrapped we needed to get the last drive of footage to Jeff, and since I was free I volunteered so I could meet the guy shepherding the next phase of our movie. He was working in Hollywood on his other project, so I had the address and was told to text him when I got there. He would come out and meet me, since he was technically working on another project and I couldn’t just drop in and talk shop. Fine.

So I park my car on one of the seediest blocks in Hollywood, which is a big claim since most of Hollywood is seedy, and walked past multiple homeless people to the address Jeff provided. The address was for multiple bungalows behind a security gate, and sure enough the names on the buzzer were legitimate companies; this wasn’t a flophouse but a legitimate film chop house. I texted Jeff that I was out front, and I waited.

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The scene of the handoff.

Parked next to the gate was a faded VW Beetle, and a heavyset driver sat behind the wheel, staring at me.

“Hey. How’s it goin’,” the driver called out to me through the open passenger window.

“Pretty good.” I looked down the street. The homeless were unfazed.

“Waitin’ for someone?” Why the third degree, bub?

“Yeah.”

“Me too,” he replied. Great, glad we had this talk. Stared at each other awkwardly for a few moments until the gate opened. A lanky, long haired guy in flip flops walked out, holding a drive identical to the one I was holding. He looked at me, nodded, and walked to the car, holding out the drive.

“Have fun with Dee Wallace,” he said, handing the drive off to the guy behind the wheel. Then they both looked at me. What’s going on here? Dee from my movie? Is that one of OUR drivers? The other car spun off, as quickly as a decade old VW Beetle could speed off.

“Ah. You must be the director,” said the surfer dude. For months, our movie had been compared to The Big Lebowski. And here, standing in front of me, was a very Lebowski type of guy. And our movie was now in his hands.

And that, my friends, is a true Hollywood story.


Up next in Closure: The edit, a.k.a. reinventing the movie a third time.

Closure Recap: Splinter Days, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beach

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  I have recapped each day of shooting, from Day 1 to Day 12. Next up: our splinter days.


Shooting a movie in 12 days is a complete lie.

Yes, we had only 12 days of principal photography. That is what we could afford, two six-day weeks of crew, locations, equipment, meals. But even though we had limited location, very few special effects, stunts, crowd scenes, or complicated set ups, not to mention talented actors who could handle 7-10 pages of dialogue each day, it still isn’t possible to shoot our 103-page script in 12 days.

To make it work Beau and I planned to have splinter days, which is when a smaller group splinters off from the main production team. There are certain scenes that can be shot outdoors (so no lighting) and without audio (so no sound team) and with fewer actors. A smaller crew is definitely cheaper to maintain. And, a smaller crew draws less attention in case you happen to be shooting in areas where you did not secure permits NOT THAT WE WOULD DO ANYTHING LIKE THAT OF COURSE, THIS MOVIE IS A LEGITIMATE PRODUCTION AND WE WOULD HAVE NO NEED TO SAVE MONEY BY NOT GETTING PERMITS SO WHY ARE WE EVEN TALKING ABOUT THIS? NO FURTHER QUESTIONS!

So technically we shot about 95 pages in 12 days, leaving roughly eight pages of the script we still needed to get. Beau, Paul and I planned out three additional days, and the biggest crew day would be first. Then we’d reduce our footprint each day until our third day would just be me, Senda and her camera, and Catia.

We were scheduled to shoot Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the week immediately following our wrap of principal. Taking Sunday off (and even that involved running a lot of errands and scheduling) Senda and I spent Monday scouting locations and even picking up a shot or two. Then, we were back in.

Splinter Day 1: The Beach

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Senda and Brie set up for what will become the final shot of the film.

We had multiple scenes to shoot, so our stripped down crew met at an out-of-the-way beach at the county line (no need for permits). In fact, the beach was so popular that there were two other shoots going on simultaneously! First we did some driving shots on the PCH. After our grueling schedule, this felt like a vacation…

…only it wasn’t, of course. Next we went to the beach itself. Our stripped down crew included me, Beau, Catia, another actress Ellen Karsten (who will be playing the soon to be memorable “Ha Ha Yoga Lady,”) the full camera crew, our AD Paul, our UPM Justin, Jennifer our Costume Designer, and Celina, our hair/makeup one person team, who also used her car as the makeup room.

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Catia probably now misses her dressing room from last week.

The last link was our sound department. Or rather, sound guy, our fourth to be hired this movie. He was hired last week and as a favor to Beau, cut his rate to fit our budget. Unfortunately, we may have cut the rate too much as he backed out on us at the last minute. Undaunted, Beau called sound guy #3 (who was the best of the bunch, actually) and he was free and within an hour, joined us.

Because of the sound delay, we had to do some rearranging and wound up staging the first scene without audio, making sure to get the back of Catia’s head at the crucial time she had dialogue so we could add it later. No one will notice (we hope). The sound guy did show up for our last beach scene, and miraculously we got clean sound, which is next to impossible with crashing waves just off camera. A minor miracle. And, as quickly as he came, the sound guy was wrapped. And there would be no more sound recording for the rest of the movie.

Splinter Day 2: The Park

Even though we are no longer worried about blocking out external sound (like planes flying overhead, loud car radios, etc.), today won’t be easier. We are shooting the climax of the movie, a montage set to music with a little voiceover we will record later. Two wild cards: working with a young child, a friend’s daughter, who isn’t an actress and is usually camera shy. We’ll have to trick her into performing. The other: Catia is playing two roles today, both Nina and her sister. This means we have to shoot the full sequence twice, and in between give Catia a chance to get into the other wardrobe, makeup and hair.

Fortunately, everything worked out (although big lesson learned: don’t shoot in a strip mall parking lot during lunch hour). We wrapped on our adorable child actress late in the afternoon, took our lunch break, and then an even smaller crew (just the camera team, Catia and me) went back to the abandoned apartments from Day 10 to pick up some shots that we missed when we ran out of time. Senda commented on how nice it was to move with a stripped down crew, and I agreed. That said, as we wrapped that night we bid a fond farewell to Brie and Joey from the camera department. We need to be completely stripped down for our last day.

Splinter Day 3: The Airport

IF one was to shoot a scene from a movie at an airport (and I’m not saying we did), then I imagine the best way to do it is have no one know you are shooting a movie at an airport:

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Just two people going to the airport. Is that a cart loaded with bags, or is it a camera dolly?

I am not advocating shooting a location without a permit. Nor am I acknowledging we did anything of the kind. Hey, look behind you! (Alex runs off).

After “looking” for “our luggage” at “the airport” we broke for a glamorous cast and crew lunch for the three of us. For the past two weeks we enjoyed on site catering. Today: a Wendy’s that is attached to a gas station. The glamorous show biz life!

Then a few driving shots. Then, we unceremoniously picture wrapped while in the car. It was a small group: me as director/producer/production assistant, Senda as director of photography/first assistant camera/second assistant camera, and Catia as actress/makeup and hair assistant.

Catia and I dropped Senda off at home, then we drove home ourselves with a few hours to spare before having to pick up our son at day care. We sat mostly in silence, stunned that after years of writing, rehearsals, fundraising, preparation, we had set out to do what we wanted to do: make a movie.

We did it.


Coming up next: QUICKLY diving into post-production.

 

Closure Recap Day 12: Last Day of Principal Photography

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  I have recapped each day of shooting, most recently Day 11. Next up, the last day of principal photography.


Do you have a favorite birthday memory? I’ve had some memorable milestone birthdays and a few I’d like to forget, like the time my parents got lost on the way to the park and we only got to spend five minutes there before we had to turn around and go home.

But spending my birthday directing a feature film I wrote… well, that may be the best of the bunch (so far).

Yes, hard to believe that our 12th and final day of principal photography, April 22nd, is also my birthday. And this is exactly my wish. Well, maybe a cupcake and a shot of bourbon. The latter I knew was going to happen; the production assistant who drove my car most recently left the stickie note with Catia’s list of my favorite bourbons, presumably as a gift for me. But I kept my mouth shut…

…and my nose to the grindstone. Because even though we are down to one actor today, we have a lot to shoot. Nina has many brief scenes in her sister’s bedroom, and while most of them are short, they involve a number of costume and light changes. It won’t be an easy day.

I tried to savor every moment, but we were quickly falling behind. Not only did most of the bedroom scenes involve lighting and costume changes, but we were having trouble getting text messages and phone calls to come through on the prop phone (a.k.a. my phone). I could see the minutes ticking away, and the number of shots we had left. And I was pissed. And I yelled at the team. How could we move so quickly for 11 days, but now people were getting sluggish as we approach the finish line? People picked up the pace, but the idea of us wrapping by 9pm was quickly fading. We’d be lucky if we got out before midnight.

But there is still time for me to reflect on this great group of people, nearly two dozen of them, most of whom I had not met two weeks earlier. After today, I won’t see 90% of them until the wrap party, the opening of the movie, the next time we work together, or possibly never again.

They all poured their hearts and souls into this movie.

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Second A.D. Kat Marcheski and Set P.A. Michael Wilson wait to jump into action.

For very little money.

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Costume Designer Jennifer May Nickel makes a final adjustment to Iskandar (Marcelo Tubert). (Photo: Justin May)

All the time with positive, professional attitudes.

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Second Assistant Camera Joey Skaggs (photo: Herb Hall)

 

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Prop Master Ashley Cradeur and Art Dept. P.A. Paul Martin (Photo: Justin May)

My days were long, but theirs started before me and ended after me. Without complaint.

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Makeup/Hair stylist Celina Dalnim Yun puts the finishing touches on Jack (John Sloan) (Photo: Herb Hall)

Hard to believe that less than a month ago it was only four of us, including producer Beau and line-producer/co-producer Steve. Beau had been working on the script with me for over two years now.

But before that, it was just me and the muse who inspired me to write the story: my best friend, my wife, and my favorite actress.

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Late last year she said her new years resolution was to make a movie. And here we are.

Despite falling behind early, we managed to finish while it was still my birthday. Barely. Paul called out “that’s a wrap on principal photography” at exactly 11:59pm.

Happy birthday to me!

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Not pictured: a delicious shot of Basil Hayden.

We all briefly celebrated the end of the movie and my birthday. The moment was slightly ruined by a very anxious babysitter who kept texting, saying she didn’t think we were going to go that late and had to go because her mom was waiting out front. Ah, show business.

The following day was slightly relaxing, and we were able to take joy in that we had met our very ambitious schedule, and made all our shots…

…so far. There was still 10% of the movie left to shoot.


Coming up next: Three splinter days, and guerrilla shooting.

Closure Recap Day 11: How to Shoot (my wife in) a Sex Scene

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  I have recapped each day of shooting, most recently Day 10. Next up, getting near the end.


Spirits are better today. We can see the finish line. We are down to three actors: Catia, Milena and John, and two of them will wrap today. Now, with most of the film in the rear view mirror, it finally hits that we are almost finished.

Not going to be an easy day (what day is) but at least we are back to our home location for the rest of the shoot, which makes all of our lives easier. Now we can focus on sex.

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“I want you to go in there and have sex with another guy. And we’re all going to watch.” (Photo: Beau Genot)

Those familiar with my writing are aware that sexual content frequently pops up in my script. This movie is no exception. I wrote previously about shooting the sex cult scene but today brings on new sexual situations. In multiple scenes Nina is trying to sleep when she hears her neighbors Jack and Prudence either having sex or arguing. And those sounds have to be recorded. A few days ago I mentioned to Milena Govich, who plays Prudence, that we will likely pick it up in post production, and she said “why? Let’s bang it out now.” (Her word choice, not mine). Indeed. We have the equipment and the personnel. Let’s do it now.

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Milena Govich: ready for anything (Photo: Herb Hall)

So while the camera team is working on the next set up, I steal the actors to the other room. How do you direct a sex scene for audio? Say something like “okay, when I say action, pretend you are having sex. Jack, you are enjoying it slightly more than Prudence. And… action!” And they did. Got to hand it to the actors, they jumped in and did it, with gusto. When you hear it in the movie, keep in mind that in reality it was two actors sitting on opposite ends of a couch, in broad daylight, while a boom operator hovers over them with a microphone.

15 minutes of moaning and slapping later, we walked out of that apartment and Greg, our G&E team swing, sat there, grinning. He said “it took me about 10 minutes to figure out you were recording sound in there.” Now that would have been a way to spend my break!

We picture-wrapped Milena, then while preparing to shoot a Nina scene in the kitchen while she is on the phone, we realized we never got the other side of the conversation. So we called Marcelo Tubert who plays Iskandar to see if he was available. He was, so we briefly un-picture wrapped him to grab his scene, and then we moved on.

As time flew quickly and slowly as it does on a film set, day turned to evening and we prepared for the big sex scene. Actually, it’s a near sex scene that is interrupted, but no spoilers here. I had a chance to do some rudimentary blocking with our actors, so we were good to go.

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Nina (Catia Ojeda) and Jack (John Sloan) pretend to take my direction while planning the big scene.

People asked if it was difficult directing and watching my wife in a make-out scene. It was honestly not a problem. First, it is such a technical thing, stringing together beats, moments and camera setups, that it doesn’t feel real or honest (although I hope it does on screen). And second, after nearly two weeks of long days, I was purely interested in getting the shots done correctly, and quickly, so I could go home and get some sleep.

However, we did have two unforeseen obstacles to overcome: first, due to a scheduling conflict with the actor playing Franklin, we had to wrap him yesterday which mean that the fight scene had to happen yesterday. Therefore, our lead actress now has bruises over much of the skin she is about to show on camera (she’s an easy bruiser, I HOPE we didn’t beat her up too much last night). Our makeup artist worked double time and managed to cover her with makeup.

The second obstacle was financial. The art department couldn’t afford a real bed and wisely decided to not grab an abandoned mattress from the highway overpass. Instead they purchased an air mattress. Under sheets and with bed posts (as you can see above) it looks very realistic. However, once our actors started going through the motions there was a loud sound every time they moved. And not a pleasant sound. Basically, a farting sound.

Sure, we can cut out a lot in post production. But it certainly was a mood killer, even more of a mood killer than having a small crew of people watching while the making out occurs.

So we adjusted the blocking to minimize the amount of noise, at least when dialogue was happening. In all of my film studies, no one ever advised “make sure you adjust your sex choreography to minimize mattress farting noises.” Another day, another lesson.


Coming up next: Day 12, the last day of principal photography. Also, it’s my birthday.

Closure Recap Day 10: Aftershocks, Staging a Fight, and a Little Light Breaking & Entering

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  I have recapped each day of shooting, most recently Day 9: Hell Day. Next up, the hardest day of the shoot.


Even though our first location of the day was on a picturesque tree-lined street in a glorious block in Burbank, everyone looked a little shell-shocked. Sure, one could say it was showing up for 10 of the last 11 days, but we all knew that the day before was brutal, and not everyone survived. To add to the stress, our replacement sound guy was running late, and would likely be up to an hour late. AND, he was replacing two guys, so he would be doing both the mixing and the boom operating. A great start.

The crew looked like they were going through the motions, and they probably were. But there was something deeper going on; most troubling, Paul our First A.D. and Senda the D.P. weren’t talking to each other. Normally they have to communicate frequently to keep on schedule, but they were barely acknowledging the others existence.

I could have said something. I should have. But I couldn’t massage egos at this point. I needed to stay focused on the script.

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Just because I’m sitting in a comfy chair on the lawn doesn’t mean I’m not working. Note the red pen: still making cuts on the third to last day.

Tonight we were shooting our big fight scene and I was still not confident in how we were going to pull it off. Sure, I got a sex choreographer on board, but I naively thought my theatrical fight experience was enough to cover. As I reviewed my notes, I wasn’t sure I was qualified enough.

But that was still hours away. First, a house in Burbank. This time, we waited for the Fire Marshall to show up before we started shooting so everything would be on the level. We got the shots off all right, but there was a definite gloom in the air. Catia and James Walsh as Detective Franklin were giving great performances, but it was a struggle for the rest of us. Senda looked like all the energy was gone. Even her ready for action call (which I still haven’t figured out what she is saying!) was low.

Of course, the struggle led to a slow down which meant we were once again behind schedule. We needed to have a company move to our abandoned apartment complex location, find a location for our parked car scene and shoot it before we broke for dinner.  That way we could spend the entire time after dinner working on the fight sequence.

Senda and I raced ahead and found a location where the light was kindest. The crew and actors arrived, and we quickly got into place. If we could magically pull off two setups of a two page long scene in 40 minutes, we would be back on schedule.

We did it in 25 minutes. James and Catia were brilliant. The photography was great. Even our new sound guy said everything sounded perfect. We actually broke for lunch early.

After “lunch” (since we started our day at noon, lunch was at 6pm) we started to set up for the establishing shot from across the street. The sun started to set. The light was perfect.

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The camera team (Brie, Senda and Joey) is ready for action.

We did a take of our actors approaching the fence. Officer Franklin pretends to unlock the padlock and remove the chain, which can easily be faked as we are far away and he’s blocking it. Then he and Nina walk into the gloriously decrepit abandoned apartment complex we had rented. The take went well, but now the light was perfect and we needed to do it again. And then, a production disaster: on the walkie we heard the P.A. from across the street say “hey, who has the key to this lock?”

Yep. The P.A. locked the padlock. Totally unnecessary. There was one key. And that key was with our location manager Sean, who had left us for a few hours to work his other job, backstage at a theater. During a play. With his phone off.

Of course we should have kept the key. And of course we should never have locked the lock. But we did. And here we are, with the cast and 1/3 of the crew outside the locked property, and the rest of the crew locked in the property. Rather than explode in front of the crew (which would have done nothing) I went around the corner, cursed and punched things. It felt better, but didn’t solve anything. Someone ran out and bought bolt cutters and we were back in business, but we lost 45 minutes in the process. And the clock was ticking.

The fight scene was meticulously planned, but it involved many different shots. Each shot that took minutes longer than normal set us back even further. We blew our power generators, but bribed nearby neighbors to utilize their power. Tick, tick, tick.

Staging the actual violence took time, and adjustments had to be made. Tick, tick, tick. Beau glared from the corner, reminding me that we need to wrap up immediately. I was wracked with regret. I should have had a fight choreographer; while I had experience I wasn’t completely versed in how to get what I wanted to achieve. Our costume designer Jen doubled as our actors’ safety monitor, and that helped, but we just didn’t have enough people (stunt people might have helped) and time. Tick, tick, tick.

Got the last shot at the 12 hour mark. How did it all look? Absolutely no idea. It felt rushed and at times, crappy. To top it off after we raced to wrap I congratulated the crew but left my lead actress, who did all the heavy lifting, standing alone, shell shocked from the trauma of being beaten up and thrown around for the past few hours. Not checking in with her made me both a bad director and a bad husband.

After wrap, I drove home our exhausted and justifiably angry actress. We made our day, but it took its toll. Two more to go, but I don’t know if I can take another one like today.

Making a movie is VERY difficult.


Coming up next: back at home base, and saying goodbye to all but one of our actors.

 

 

 

Closure Recap Day 9: Hell Day

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  I have recapped each day of shooting, most recently day 8: building a police station in a bedroom . Next up, the hardest day of the shoot.


Many filmmakers have compared making a movie with going to war, with apologies to all those who have served in actual combat. But there are similarities: the days are long, there are a lot of logistics to work out, things can go wrong, and often do. And it is physically exhausting and grueling.

We knew today was going to be a battle, for many reasons:

  • It is our longest day, page wise. Initially 11 pages, I had cut it down to 8 1/2, but even then it was still a long and ambitious day.
  • We have a finite amount of time in the location. We have access to the place at 7am, and we have to be out by 6pm. And “be out” doesn’t mean stop shooting. Wrapping the location could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, so we were aiming to finish shooting by 5pm.
  • There are only two ways in and out of the building, and both are narrow passageways. This means the high possibility of traffic jams.
  • At six actors, it is one of our largest cast days. And this doesn’t include:
  • 20 background actors. In our other scenes with extras, we were able to use friends and volunteers we knew. Today, over half are strangers, responding to a call on either Craigslist or Facebook. And these strangers are working for free.
  • We have no space inside for departments to set up camp. Which means holding, makeup, wardrobe, and craft service are all outside, in the warm California sun.

So here we go. I arrive at set 15 minutes early. Much of the crew does as well; they know the stakes. Nothing much a director can do this early in the game, so I help the production department hump craft service tables and supplies from the van to the holding area. The sidewalk between the bar and Burbank Avenue was wide, over 20 feet, so we were able to set up three pop up tents for shade. This area, roughly 30 feet by 10 feet, would hold our wardrobe, hair and makeup, craft services, and actor holding. All actors together, from principals to background.

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The glory of show biz: the tent in the foreground (on the right) is craft service, catering, and hair and makeup. The tent in the center is for wardrobe (notice the tiny changing room behind the beige curtain). Oh, and that table that looks like more craft service? That’s the props department setting up drinks for inside. The tent in the back left is a luxurious holding area where supposedly 25 actors will hang out. (Photo: Katie Rosin)

Everyone maintained good spirits. People painted the corners and stayed out of the way. But we could feel the creeping doom as everything took a little longer than normal, especially since the shots were not easy.

I had already sacrificed pages to make the day work, and in the first hours of shooting I made another sacrifice: I didn’t get to to work as much with the actors as I would have liked. I couldn’t push for the quality that we had on all other days. I’m giving notes, but it’s not enough notes and not enough time. We have to keep going.

And Paul the First A.D. is pushing us. Hard. Maybe too hard? This is definitely the most stressful day for him, and with each passing minute he becomes more agitated and stressed. He’s only level of communication is yelling. And whomever is on the receiving end jumps to it, for sure, but as the hours pass, I can see the glaze in the P.A.’s eyes. The yelling is consistent, so it’s hard to discern what is really important from what isn’t.

And it’s heating up, literally and figuratively. It’s crowded, and the air conditioning goes off for our takes. We’re starting to feel it.

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Fatigue setting in. (Photo: Katie Rosin)

As we approach our lunch break, we are already behind. The first shots of the day were the most complicated so we are already playing catch up. And there is noise coming from outside the bar, ruining takes. Paul runs outside, screaming at the P.A.s and the extras. This happens over and over again. Turns out that on either side of our locations are restaurants open for lunch, so the noise we hear is from the patrons, not our people. In fact, our people are being awesome, not uttering a peep during shots, only to be on the receiving end of Paul’s wrath moments later. Not fun for anyone.

For the second day in a row we push to get a scene finished by lunch. If we make it, it will be huge: most of our background actors could be released, and we’d be in a good place to come back from lunch. Once again, we ask for grace. Once again, every department grant it to us, except for sound.

Seething, Paul tells me in a loud voice for everyone to hear, that as long as I call “action” before we hit the six hour mark (we were minutes away) and as long as I don’t say “cut” we can keep going. This is not uncommon; it’s called shooting a sequence. Some times it’s easier to reset rather than cut, have everyone step away, have hair and makeup step in again, etc. We’ve done sequences throughout the shoot. But this time, it’s political as well as practical.

I call “action” with one minute to spare. The crew (except one department) is focused on getting the shot, no matter what it takes. We do the sequence, I announce “hold” and “back to one” and we reset without cutting. We do the scene a second time. In the middle of it, the boom operator has had enough. He loudly throws down his boom pole into its holder, and storms off the set, slamming the door and ruining the take. We do it again, and it is great (well, good enough) so I call “cut.” We break for lunch exactly six minutes late.

As people grab lunch I go around to each department head and as a courtesy, thank them for giving us grace. No one is bothered by it, but all are a little shaken by the day, not to mention witnessing a fellow crew member deliberately sabotaging a shot.

I go to the sound board operator and thank him, even though his department was the problem. He stares at me and says “we are never giving you grace again.” I was floored. They haven’t given it to us yet. Shocked, I made my way to Beau the producer to get his take on it.

“Have you seen anything like this before?” I ask. Beau has been on far more sets than I have.

“Never. I’ve already made calls for replacements,” he replied.

And after lunch, the day went from bad to worse. Paul the A.D. never recovered from his early freak outs and not only stopped yelling, he stopped running the show entirely. The actors were tired and frustrated from getting their makeup done while the crew and background actors were inches away, refilling on coffee and donuts. The sound mixer was scrolling through Facebook during takes (!!!), and I later found out was communicating with other sound people who were just offered his job. This was the time for me to stand up, whip people in shape, and keep this boat afloat.

But I couldn’t. Not because I didn’t want to. But because I was neck deep in getting the shots, and shots for a scene that I felt we were selling short because of the location limitations. I was (figuratively) banging my head against the wall, trying to figure out what I could do to make this date scene more exciting. But there wasn’t time. We just had to shoot it and hopefully it works out later. Hopefully.

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Portrait of a director as a tired man. (Photo: Katie Rosin)

We made our day. We wrapped out of the location with 10 minutes to spare. We got our shots. But at what expense? How will it look? Is the last scene going to be completely flat and boring?

In the midst of it all we picture wrapped Tom Choi, who played Nina’s love interest Hugo today.

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Tom Choi (Hugo) doing a fairly good Robert DeNiro impression. I might have been napping at this moment, which is no reflection on Tom’s impression. (Photo: Katie Rosin)

An unceremonious end to his work. He worked his ass off, continually pushing to give a great performance, make bold choices, and through it all he was extremely nice and friendly. A class act; it was just unfortunate that his final minutes on set were upstaged by fatigue and infighting.

But on the bright side, this was supposed to be our toughest day. And we made it. We all lived to see another day of making our movie…

…except the sound guys, who were fired immediately after we wrapped for the day.


Coming up next: the aftershocks, staging a fight, and a little light breaking and entering.

Closure Recap Day 8: At the Police Station

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  I have recapped each day of shooting, most recently day 7: Uber, a restaurant and Dee Wallace. Next up, day 8 of 12.


Each department serves an important purpose. They all work independently at their respective jobs, then at the last minute come together, like a moviemaking Voltron. Each department has impressed me with what they can do with limited time and budget. The Art Department in particular had a more difficult time than the others.

Why? Because of the budget? Not necessarily; every department made sacrifices because of the money. It’s because they hit the ground, already behind and sprinting to catch up. If you remember, we had to replace the entire art department less than 100 hours before we started shooting. And the team we fired had done absolutely nothing towards making our movie. I mean, empty rooms:

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This was Friday. We start shooting on Monday. (Photo: Alex Goldberg)

So out of the gate they were behind. Chantal Massuh-Fox, the Production Designer, assured me that they have created movies with less time, but I wasn’t sure it could be done. She started immediately with Art Director Cameron Barrett, Prop Master Ashley Cradeur, and Art PA Paul Martin to transform the space.

But they did an amazing job to get us going on time. Here we are, less than 100 hours later:

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Day 1. First location is dressed. Off camera, the art team is furiously working on another wall for the next camera setup. (Photo: Beau Genot)

A great start, but there wasn’t time for a full meeting to go over what I wanted. The previous designer and I had the luxury of a long meeting, plus weeks where I thought she was procuring set and prop items. She wasn’t. Now all we could do is try to stay one day ahead of the shoot itself, which meant conversations between takes, late night photo approvals, and frantic moments when we realized we forgot to cover something. It was terrifying.

Which brings us to today, day 8. Our second location is a police station office or conference room. I wrote it in an office or room instead of an open bullpen a la Law & Order because, well, I know we are not getting to shoot in an actual police station. All we need is some conference room anywhere, and the art department can dress it up, right?

But what if we can’t secure an office space on our budget? Spoiler: we can’t.

Ultra low budget filmmaking is all about using the resources you have. What do we have? Apartments in a building. And in one of those apartments is a bedroom we aren’t using. Hmmm…

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Top photo: the spare bedroom. Bottom photo, a screen shot less than 48 hours later of the same room, fully dressed, with our detectives O’Leary (Michael McCartney) and Franklin (James Walsh) (Photo: Chantal Massuh-Fox)

That’s right, the design team turned a bedroom into an office. Not a strange concept when you realize that sound stages are empty rooms that are turned into any location, but for someone who has spent his entire filmmaking career shooting on location, it’s impressive. And extra impressive that they did it all without going too far over budget.

The day of shooting itself was mostly uneventful. Mostly. We were at the Denny Avenue location so we enjoyed that stability. Our big wrinkle came around lunch time. Lunch is always six hours after crew call time. We generally work right up until the six hour mark. Today, for the first time, we were cutting it close. We wanted to wrap a scene before lunch so when we came back, we could start the next scene. However, things were taking longer that expected, but it was still possible to get our last shot before lunch, if we ran over a few minutes.

The protocol on a union job is to ask for grace. This means that the first Assistant Director goes around to all the department heads (art, camera, sound, makeup, wardrobe, grip & electric) and asks permission to work an additional ten minutes before lunch. Generally, if it isn’t abused, grace is granted and we continue. We are not a union shoot (other than our actors) but Beau and the production team did their best to keep us on a union schedule regarding hours, safety, etc. We didn’t have to ask for grace, but we did. And every department granted it to us.

Except the sound department. They said no. And we can’t question it. And it’s bad business to single out the department that denied it to us. So we broke for lunch without getting the shot, which frustrated and confused most people on set. After lunch we returned to the scene and got our shot, but damage was done. The next scene involved a shot when Nina enters from outside, and the light outside was too dark. If we got our other shot before lunch, we would have had plenty of time for this one.

I didn’t think too much about the politics behind this because I was preparing for our next day of shooting, which we had been calling “hell day” since we first created our schedule. “Hell Day” involves shooting in a bar, The Good Nite. We are shooting a lot of material there: two bar scenes with extensive set ups, and then turning everything around and shooting another bar scene in what will look like a different bar altogether. So three different scenes spanning 11 pages of the script. That’s over 10% of our movie in one day. And here’s the tricky part: we only have 11 hours in the space. We get in at 7am, and we have a hard out at 6pm so the bar can prep to open. So I have spent the previous week carving away at the script, reducing dialogue to what is most essential. I managed to get the script down to 8 1/2 pages. Hopefully it will go as planned.

As our day came to a close we had put the grace moment behind us. I gave a pep talk about the next day, reminding people that it’s going to be difficult. We have limited room, and everyone has to be aware of everyone else. Adam, our gaffer, wisely suggested that everyone “paint the corners,” meaning that if we have to be in the room and we are not doing anything essential, we stick to the walls and stay out of everyone’s way. Great advice.

We broke for the evening and Catia and I went home, early enough to see our son and have dinner. As I went to bed I wondered if we could pull off this big day. We made it through eight. Can our hell day be really that hellish?


Coming up next. Day 9: Hell Day. Spoiler: not everyone survives.