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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closure Recap Day 7: New week, new locations, and a great new actor

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 the last day of our first week of shooting. Next up, another company move. 


It’s the weekend! Well, not a full weekend, it’s actually 33 hours from when we walk off set on Saturday until we are back in bright and early Monday morning. But it’s a great break!

For me, the break was about 15 hours. I did get to enjoy Sunday morning, going to the farmer’s market with my son and my mom; my parents came to town to replace Catia’s mom on grandson-watching duty. After lunch I dove back in on the script, working on cutting pages for our hell day (coming soon, stay tuned) and preparing my shot lists for the coming days. While I always have my big bulky script with me everywhere, I quickly figured out it’s easier to pull up my shot list on my phone, so I need to have it readable and ready to go. Also, Sunday evening was the only time to have a location scout as there were still two locations the creative team hadn’t seen. So Beau, Paul, Senda, and the art department team met up at Flame, a pizza place we are using as a location the next day. After dinner we drove across the valley to a bar we are using on hell day and checked it out. I got home around ten and rushed myself to bed so I could get some sleep before getting up at 5am to start the week.

First location, Flame Restaurant, less than 12 hours after the scout. Another day, another tight space to set up our universe.

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How you know you are in Los Angeles: when even the guy making the pizza has show biz experience. (Photo: Katie Rosin)

As the crew was setting up we did another Prius driving scene. It’s the first scene of dialogue in the film, as Nina encounters her first Angelino, an Uber driver played by the hilarious Amy Heidt. Amy did an excellent job of acting while driving, and after an hour we moved back into the restaurant.

And it was crowded in there. The back half of the restaurant was the set, an intimate restaurant with maybe a half dozen tables. The front half of the restaurant: holding, craft service, production office, wardrobe. Tight is an understatement.

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Catia Ojeda (Nina) waits to act while Gaffer/Key Grip Adam Unruh, Unit Production Manager Justin Kelley, and Director of Photography Senda Bonnet lament the loss of any personal space (Photo: Katie Rosin)

As on any ultra low budget movie, you make the most of the resources you have. So in the background of our restaurant scene were some familiar faces: our producer Katie, Donna (who let us shoot in our house on day 2), our second A.D. Kat, my brother, and my mother.

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The director and his mother. (Photo: Herb Hall)

Another added benefit of having people we know on set is that they are (hopefully) more forgiving of the tighter, cramped conditions.

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Our team is thankful for the working air conditioning. (Photo: Herb Hall)

The scene itself was fairly simple to shoot, once all the elements were in place, and we wrapped early and took a long lunch. Yes, a luxurious nearly 90 minute lunch as even though we wrapped early, we had a company move to our next location and couldn’t enter early. My only regret: we should have given our caterer the day off and let our chef/host cook for us. Our meal the night before proved that you can get great pizza in Los Angeles.

Our next location was a 10 minute drive into the hills for our scene with The Superior, the shady character who may have all the answers Nina is seeking regarding her sister’s disappearance. The Superior is like The Wizard in Oz; the one with all the answers and all the power. In my career so far as a writer/director one of the unexpected joys is getting the chance to work with talented actors I grew up watching on the large and small screens. I directed Billy Dee Williams in the movie Today Will Be Yesterday Tomorrow. Ron Palillo acted in the world premiere of my play I’m in Love with your Wife. And today, the incomparable Dee Wallace. You’d recognize her from Cujo, The Howling, and most famously, starring as the mom in E.T. She is also on Just Add Magic with Catia, who slipped her the script a few months back. She immediately accepted the part, gleefully saying “I get to smack Catia around? Sign me up!”

So here we are on a lovely afternoon, in the backyard of a lovely house next to a pool, watching two talented ladies face off. Just two women, sitting by the pool, casually reclining as they exchange cutting and at times brutal dialogue. As a writer, it was a joy to watch my words leap to life. As a director, all I really had to do was stay out of their way. I gave each actress a few tweaks and suggestions, but mostly stood back and let them do all the work.

And it was great.

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They are not really enemies… it’s all acting! (Photo: Katie Rosin)

Week two, day one is in the can. We are over half way finished with principal photography. We can do this.


Coming up next: creating a police station on a low budget.

Closure Recap Day 6: Week One Draws to a Close

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 five. Next up, another company move. 


Last night may have ended roughly, but fortunately there is no time to overthink things. There is barely enough time to think about anything else. Every night this week we’ve come home, had a lovely dinner prepared by my mother-in-law (sadly, without wine, which I am forgoing the entire shoot), a half dose of a sleeping pill, and then hope for six to seven hours of solid shut eye. My system has been working so far, and even after last night I got some sleep.

Today’s first location is a parking lot. A scene between Nina and DJ Space Coyote (played by Demegio Kimbrough) whom she met in Club. This is a typical information dump scene. You see these all the time on Law & Order as the cops follow a construction worker around as he does his job while he answers their questions – doesn’t anyone actually stop to talk to the police? The trick to these type of scenes is to have something interesting happen visually while your brain uploads the important information. When I first wrote the scene I set it in a mattress store, as Nina accompanies the DJ as he buys a new bed. Throw in an offbeat Indian Mattress Store Clerk and you have an entertaining scene where maybe you learn something important at the same time.

But we can’t afford to rent a mattress store.

Throughout pre-production I kept having to rewrite locations to accommodate our budget. Now we have lots of conversations inside and out front of the apartment, and inside cars. My fear is that it’s too much apartment and cars, and will come off as boring. Catia reminded me many great films have worked with less. And I hope she’s right.

So instead of the mattress store we are in a church parking lot, secured with a donation to the church. All things considered, the scene still has its moments. And to make it entertaining, we reveal a little more about the DJ’s career.

The energy at the lot was pretty chill. It was the last day of the week, we had all survived so far, and no one (other than the production team) had to work insane hours. Katie, one of our producers who joined us from New York two days earlier, was pleased to discover that everyone was relatively happy and the energy was positive. And I couldn’t agree more. People were working hard, all thinking about how to make the movie better.

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Literally, we are made in the shade (Photos courtesy Katie Rosin).

For the last shot of the scene, Nina pulls her Prius out of the spot next to DJ’s Prius (in Closure California, everyone drives a Prius). The rest of the parking lot is empty. To get this shot we needed to be up high. And how do we do that without a crane? Senda wanted to climb to the top of the grip van. The view would be good, but could the roof support her and the camera? Adam, the key grip, looked at me with skepticism. And I agreed. I told Senda “if this was day 12 I’d say go for it, but we need you for another week.”

So we reached a compromise:

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Senda in action, and only putting half her weight on the roof. That’s me behind the van, most likely checking our insurance policy.

Shot achieved! After 3 4/8 pages of shooting, we head back to Denny Ave home base. Three scenes left on our week, two daylight and one evening. All three scenes featured only two actors, Catia and John Sloan. I’ve known them both for years. They work well together. It’s almost so easy that I forget we are attempting eight pages today!

We move relatively quickly, as people are keen to get out and enjoy their one day off. We were worried before production that shooting in this busy neighborhood on a weekend night could be a disaster. We heard horror stories from other shoots of irate neighbors who throw loud parties, looky-loos who hang out off set and heckle, or drunken arguments. The absolute worst: neighbors who hold the movie ransom. They do that by blasting music until a ransom is paid, which can cost hundreds of dollars.

Fortunately, this neighborhood was pretty relaxed. Sure, there were more cars going up and down Denny Avenue, but as we worked into the evening we had very few interruptions.

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Catia Ojeda (Nina) and John Sloan (Jack) do their acting thing while I do my director thing.

We actually got through our eight pages slightly ahead of schedule. Our workday started at noon and we wrapped just after 10pm… over eight pages in ten hours!

But does quantity translate to quality? What I’ve seen on the monitor looks good, but that’s not a complete assessment. We haven’t watched any dailies yet, although Beau promises we’ll have some by the end of the weekend.

As people quickly packed up gear and headed home, I thought back on what we have accomplished. We weathered a rough final days of prep when we had to replace a cast member, multiple people on the crew including a designer and first assistant director, not to mention a caterer. We cut shots, but we didn’t cut any scenes. The actors were doing a great job. We shot 45 pages in six days. And had some fun. Week two was going to be ambitious, but slightly fewer pages and not as many difficult scenes. Well, we had one big day we were already calling “hell day,” but otherwise we can do this.

Right?

On my way out (one of the privileges being director, less for me to wrap up so I can get out earlier) I walked around and thanked the team. My last stop was the grip truck, and I said thanks to Aaron, one of our grips. He just stared at me and didn’t answer back. I didn’t give it a second thought…

… but I found out on Monday that two minutes before I had my brief encounter with Aaron, he had just quit. Why? And I would soon learn that there were others who weren’t happy on our production. And would make that known to us very clearly in the coming days.

But I get ahead of myself. Week one is done. Our 33 hour weekend begins. Next week’s problems can wait for next week.


Coming up: next week is now this week.