Closure Recap Day 3: How to Stage an Orgy

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  I have recapped our last days of prep, day one and day two, and now we move on to day three.


After our difficult and volatile day two, we were all happy to return to our home base. After all, nothing majorly went wrong on the first day, right?

Of course, one has to make it to home base first. I arrived on set on time and ready to forget yesterday’s problems and start the new day fresh when I quickly learned of our latest setback: the grip and electric truck broke down on its way to set. On The 101. I heard grumblings about an alternator needing replacement, and a P.A. was on the way to pick up the crew (who were stranded on the highway) and any “essential” equipment that can go from a large truck to the trunk of a car.

What constitutes “essential” when everything gets used on a near daily basis? And how long was this going to set us back?

We didn’t have the luxury of time to figure that out. Even though we were home it was a complicated first scene. We are dealing with four actors, and a group of “sextras.” More on them later. As we learned yesterday, time is too precious for us to wait. We can’t afford to lose a half day. Or an hour. So what do we do?

Improvise. Our art department quickly stepped in, raiding their own supplies and taking down curtains to become an impromptu grip department:

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Art Department MVPs! Paul and Cameron hold up a curtain from one of our apartments. The golf umbrella is from their collection as well. Notice the back of a framed picture being used as a bounce board.

Amazing. It wasn’t perfect, and the color might be off in some of the shots, but we were well on track when the real G&E team showed up on set. Almost back on schedule.

“Get to the sex orgy, Goldberg!” Ah right, of course. In the first two days I dealt with two actors at a time, or in one scene four actors, but the blocking was mostly simple and the two additional guys weren’t doing much talking.  Today, for the first time, I’m dealing with a complicated scene (on a small indie film, not as complicated as this). This scene involves four principal actors. And five sextras. Nina leaves her apartment to discover the neighbors Jack and Prudence in a fight. Prudence is leaving Jack, bringing her luggage to the curb. He struggles to find out why, all the while Yasmina provides positive “energy” via chanting and incense for Prudence’s journey. Lots of movement back and forth, different setups, and then at the climax of the scene, a blacked-out van appears to whisk Prudence away. And inside the van, a rolling sex party.

After conceiving (yep, a deliberate word choice) this scene, I knew I would need help. I can manage my principal actors and getting the shots I need. But casting and choreographing a moving tableau in a van, where it looks like people are having sex without looking pornographic (meaning, show the sex without showing man and lady parts) is a challenge. Fortunately, I knew where to turn for help. I’ve known Yehuda Duenyas since college and followed his remarkably varied career, which included being part of a sensational off-Broadway theater company, working at Disney’s Imagineering department, creating award-winning commercials and virtual entertainment experiences, and serving an interesting niche as a sex choreographer on Broadway. Also, he lives just a few miles from me in L.A. Weeks prior to shooting we met for lunch and discussed how to make it happen. We had no line item in our already thin budget to hire him, but I pushed Beau and Steve to find a little bit. They did, and he came on board.

And it saved the day. While I was focusing on most of the scene with our principals, Yehuda guided our extras, made them comfortable, and staged exactly how it would work. And when we were ready for them, they were ready for us. And it was fantastic. One of the first times in the process where we made something look how I envisioned it when I wrote it.

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You think I’m actually posting a photo of that? You’ll have to wait, like everyone else…

 

The scene may have taken an entire half day, setting us behind, but it was worth it. We played catch up for the rest of the day, and rushed to an outside location to shoot footage of two characters on a foot bridge, then a car sequence where Nina follows Iskandar, who she thinks will lead her to her sister. A simple shot when you watch it: side view of Nina driving. But practically, another matter. Senda sat in the passenger seat, lugging her camera. In the back seat I was in the middle, wedged between our sound guy (with his pack in the trunk) and Brieana, our first A.C.

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Senda getting it done.

Who would have thought my years of improv training would actually pay off in a real world situation? If you can’t adapt quickly, you will quickly fall behind. The shots need to be made, no matter the obstacle. And if it means contorting your body to keep a camera steady, or taking down part of the set to create makeshift grip gear, so be it. That’s the attitude we need to make our days. Let’s hope we can continue like this. But, let’s hope no more vehicles break down.


Coming up next: A big dinner, and a big farewell to one of our principal cast members.

Closure Recap: Day Two: You Can Make It If You Cut

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  I have recapped our last days of prep and first day of shooting, and now we move on to day two.


“I got this,” I thought as I zipped along The 101. Only at 6:30am can you drive 70 miles per hour in L.A. for more than five seconds at a time and I reveled in the pleasure. Day one was smooth, despite all my anxiety and all our last minute changes. Day two we leave our home base location and venture to the house of Herb and Donna, two friends who have been supporters of my plays, and have been actively involved with making Closure. They volunteered their resources, including their home. A free house cannot be passed up, and theirs is lovely. Equally important to its beauty is that Herb and Donna have no problem with two dozen of us tromping through their place. So they signed our paperwork, and we invaded.

As I arrived on set 15 minutes early I discovered our first problem: no one notified our hosts what time we were coming! When our production department showed up at 6:30am expecting to begin set up for the day, no one answered the door. Because people were asleep inside. Because it was 6:30am.  Our genial (and understandably bewildered) hosts said they would get up quickly and let us in, but it wouldn’t be until about 7:15am or so. So because of a simple error we started our day behind and on this ambitious day of over 9 pages to shoot, would be playing hurried catch up all day.

In addition, we would be breaking the law. Sort of. Not “the law” of course, but going outside our permit jurisdiction. To legally shoot a movie in Los Angeles you need to receive permits from the city production office. And that costs money. We had to get permits, of course, but over the past few weeks we had to scale back what we wanted based on permit add-on costs. For example, I had a lovely scene along the L.A. River where two characters walk and talk. Beautiful. Picturesque. La La Land-ish. But to be legal, we’d have to pay to park our vehicles on the street (over $50 a FOOT), pay for police to be with us on set, and pay for so much more. So no park shot.

For our current location we secured a permit, so it was all legit. But lets just say (hypothetically, of course) I want a shot of our character Iskandar entering his house from the point of view of Nina, who is sitting in her car. Well, to get that shot we need to set the camera up across the street so we get both Nina in her car and Iskandar entering his house. Could we afford a permit for the house across the street to set up our camera on their lawn? Could we afford the police presence to shut down the street so Nina’s car can drive forward five feet to its parking spot? No, we can’t. So hypothetically, one would have to steal these shots. And do it in a hurry. We have a good relationship with the permit office, but we know that one spot check (and there was no if, but when it would happen) could shut us down immediately. But we also know that the permit office doesn’t open until ten, so if we can pull off any (hypothetical) illegal shots before ten, we should be in the clear.

Shortly after ten, and a lot of rushing, we finally made it through those shots and we were back on the property for good. That was a relief.

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I’m telling everyone we can relax, because we are totally legit again. (Photo: Justin Mays)

But our problems only exacerbated from there. The shots took longer than we thought. The setups were slower than expected. And we kept falling further and further behind.

What made it harder was the cramped positions. We were spoiled on day one with our home base of three apartments. Now we were set up in and around a house, which is comfortable for a family of four, but less so for a cast and crew of 25. It was, to put it politely, cozy.

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The back of the driveway. Notice the grip and electric truck parked snugly between wardrobe in the foreground, and hair and makeup in the garage (next to catering). The grips kindly put up a flag so our actors could have shade while in makeup. (Photo: Justin Mays)

We were packed together. And the SoCal sun was, like almost every day, relentless. And there was nowhere to go.

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Steve and Beau successfully meet in private for 20 seconds before anyone needs a costume or something to eat. (Photo: Justin Mays)

We slogged through our day, and the inevitable came: sacrifices were going to have to be made. We weren’t going to get all our shots. Not only that, there was a scene we might have to cut. The question came up: could we come back to this location? Our hosts were certainly amenable to that, but the bigger problem was when. There were no days in our schedule where we could afford a company move to get a half day here. We’d have to add a day at the end. And we don’t have the money for that, certainly not on day two of 12. There would have to be cuts.

So Senda and I cut shots. One important dramatic scene had seven camera set ups. We reduced it to four. Another scene took place in a different room in the house, and we chose to do it without sound (there wasn’t dialogue anyway) to save on crew time. And we were still racing the clock.

To add to the stress was an unexpected outside variable: my mother-in-law, the generous caretaker of our son for week one, had locked herself (and our son) out of our apartment without her phone, and his bedtime was quickly approaching. The sun was setting, and we were at best 30 minutes away. Doing our job got harder knowing that the care of our child was being compromised. It does put things into perspective: everyone is working very hard, but we all have families and personal lives that take priority. We rushed through the final scene; the crew may or may not have noticed that Catia and I were slightly more manic than usual. We got it in, and Catia quickly raced home to let our family inside. 20 minutes later, after another post-shoot production powwow, I returned home as well.

On the drive home my mind raced with regrets. Shots we couldn’t get. Times when I should have pushed for another take instead of just moving on because we were pressed. The rushed last scene which no doubt looked sloppy. The frustration everyone felt with our tight conditions. This was not a fun day of moviemaking.

Did we make our day? Technically, yes. But at what price? We’ll find out in post-production. There is simply no time to reflect on what went wrong: must stay focused on tomorrow. That is all I can (somewhat) control.


Next up, Day Three: How to successfully stage an orgy.

 

Closure Recap: First Day of Shooting

Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun.  Before memories fade, I will devote the next blog posts to daily recaps: the highs, the lows, and the long long days. Yesterday was the final harried days of pre-production. Today: first day of shooting.


Alarm was set for 5:45am. I was up at 4:30. Not a shocker, but I also wasn’t panicked, because 1) after the previous chaos of prep, things had oddly settled down and I could focus on directing, not producing, and 2) the night before I ate healthy, abstained from wine and took a sleeping pill. Last meal of champions. I was asleep by 10:30pm. Those six hours was the best night of sleep I have had in over a week. Catia didn’t fare as well. She told me she probably got two to three hours total.

Catia and I alternated showers and breakfast. Our son blissfully slept in his room, his nana asleep on the air mattress next to him. If you think making a movie is hard, factor in caring for a 2 1/2 year old at the same time. Sure, we could dump him at day care but they are only open from 8am – 5pm, and we are doing 12 hour days at least. The math is not in our favor.

Fortunately, we rigged a system with the grandparents. Catia’s mom would handle the first week and my parents would be there for the second week. Any worry I felt about neglect for my son I compartmentalized and pushed out of my head. There was still a few days of child care to cover, but that was on days 12 – 14. A lifetime away.

I walked on set right at call time: 7am. Set today was our home base: an apartment complex in North Hollywood that was being renovated, and through a series of connections and luck we managed to secure and rent three apartments for cheap. Two as set locations and holding areas for our art and camera departments, and one as our production office and home to crafty (a.k.a. craft service, a.k.a. where you get bagels, coffee and other munchies throughout the day).

Set was humming: nearly two dozen people briskly moved, doing various tasks. Over the past 96 hours I had met only a third of these people. Hell, exactly one week ago the set and our ENTIRE production team looked like this.

Move in day

One week before day one: Line Producer Steve Rousseau and Producer Beau Genot.                     This was basically the entire operation.

Oh how far we have come. And here we are now:

Day One

Our fearless crew. Spoiler: four of these 27 would not be with us by day 12.

An assortment of “good mornings” and various other greetings from crew, many of whom had been here before our 7am call to unload equipment, as it was our first day.

As boss, I made one smart move in advance of day one: initially scheduled (by our recently fired First A.D.) was to start the day with a car shot. Two actresses in a car. Simple to visualize, but difficult to make happen. First we needed to wire the car for sound, and then we needed to actually get on the road and shoot it, leaving the majority of the crew behind. I knew with that as our first shot, we would immediately fall behind. I wanted day one to seem like a typical day, which is all of us in one location. Of course, our days were not typical. A normal big budget movie shoots one, maybe two pages a day (One page is roughly equivalent to one minute of on screen time). A normal TV show will shoot three to five pages a day. To make our film in two weeks, we were scheduled to shoot 7 to 10 pages each day. Each day. Every day. Although day one was “easy,” only 6 5/8 pages.

Do you like how I called myself “boss” in the previous paragraph? Ha. Other than our production assistants, I probably had the least amount of set experience. I have directed two shorts and a feature. The feature had a budget of $25,000. And was shot over 15 years ago. The last thing I directed on camera was a promotional video for Johnnie Walker. Over 10 years ago. As long as the crew doesn’t find out…

I dropped my bulky bag filled with my giant script binder and laptop in the office and found Paul, the first A.D. He told me that normally he liked to start the day with a meeting of all department heads: me, him, the D.P., the art department, and sound. We would go over all shots for the day. But since this was day one, everyone was feeling things out and we would just aim to get first shot off at 8:30am and then meet up. First day jitters. “Speaking of first day jitters, I’d like to make a speech before first shot.” He told me that wouldn’t be a problem. “Also,” I tentatively added: “it’s been a while since I’ve done this. What’s the last thing I will hear before I call action?” It may seem silly, but if at least I can call “action” with authority people will respect me. I know that Paul announces that picture is up, sound tells us they are speeding, but what’s next? Paul gently advised that the D.P. will say that she is set, that camera is ready. Got it. I’m ready to direct.

We actually made it to first shot on time, roughly 90 minutes after call time. I gave my little speech, thanking everyone for being there and preparing them that we would be working very quickly to make our schedule. I also encouraged them to come to me with suggestions about anything. I’m comfortable listening to suggestions provided that they are all comfortable with me saying no. They took it to heart, and over the weeks many suggestions came forth, with over a dozen making it into the film.  And then we got started.

And the day went well. And was a lot of fun. Despite my early morning jitters I felt extremely comfortable at the helm. We spent the morning shooting exterior scenes with Catia and then Cynthia joined us, and we moved inside covering a bunch of scenes. The day flew, and in a breath we were at six hours and at lunch, which a few of us spent planning the next day. Since they were recent hires, Paul and the art department would be playing catch up every day for the first week.

As the day came to a close, we were faced with a big challenge: the last scene was simple logistically, just three camera set ups in the living room of Yasmina’s apartment. However, it was a bear for the actors: nearly three pages of dialogue. And I could see that Catia’s lack of sleep the night before was hitting her. That said, the two actresses pulled it off extremely well. We needed only two takes of each set up, then moved on. I learned that day that TV and theatre actors are perfect for memorizing and digesting tons of dialogue. Without these veteran actors, we certainly would not have made our day. We wrapped around 6:30pm.

Got home, had a nice dinner prepared by my mother-in-law, answered some emails, and made sure the next day’s shot list was on my phone for reference. Piece of cake, this directing thing. While the day was exhausting, I felt at ease and natural. I loved it.

Only one problem: I couldn’t figure out what our D.P. Senda says to cue me to say action! Paul mentioned it would be that she was ready. He didn’t prepare me that it would be in French, as she is a recent transplant from Paris. She speaks fluent and perfect English, but I was a little thrown by her “ready” call. Someday I’ll ask her what she’s actually saying. But for now, our rhythm is working nicely. We made our day. On to the next one.


Next up, Day Two: don’t get cocky, kid. It can all easily crumble.

 

Closure Recap: Last Days of Prep

We have emerged on the other side. Closure is in the can (or on the drive to be more 21st Century) and editing has begun. It was a wonderful, exciting, stressful, exhausting and at times terrifying whirlwind and I would do it all over again (well, maybe wait a few months). Before memories fade, I will devote the next blog posts to daily recaps: the highs, the lows, and the long long days. First up, the last days of pre-production which was a drama unto itself:


The last week of pre-production. So much work to do, and not enough time or resources to do it. But we were making it happen. I was rehearsing with actors at night and on the weekends. I finished my shot list with our D.P. Senda Bonnet early in the week, and in hindsight was glad I didn’t have the foresight to know that due to a variety of circumstances, most normal, we would throw out roughly 1/3 of our shots and create scenes on the fly. Stuff was coming together on the director side.

However, in the office is where we were all underwater. For years it had been just me and Beau. Then, in early March, we brought Steve Rousseau on board as Line Producer, who handles keeping everything on budget including staffing and allocating funds. For most of the month we were all doing many jobs outside of our titles, including location scouting, production coordinating, hiring designers and crew, applying for permits, for insurance, reviewing documents for investors, social media and crowd funding posting (although our other producer Katie Rosin took some of that off our plates).

To complicate things, we were waiting to officially announce our start date. We were aiming for April 10th, less than a week away. It all hinged on the availability of Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who we wanted to play Yasmina. She wanted the role, she had been involved for years, but she was also about to begin shooting season two of her show Shooter on USA Network. That show was scheduled to start shooting April 17th, which would give us enough time to shoot her scenes (we packed her schedule into three days). However, we wouldn’t know if she would be booked up the week prior to her official start. And wouldn’t know until April 4th. Which meant we couldn’t officially make the call until we heard. Once we got the go ahead, we made it final: shooting begins April 10th. And then it got crazy. It was too much. What we desperately needed was to bring in someone new to the office. And we didn’t have time to hire anyone outside of the mountain of work we were already doing. It felt like drowning. I was losing sleep, or more accurately falling asleep easily but waking up between 2am and 3am, mind racing, and staying awake for two hours. Not the way to be.

Then we finally brought in someone new. Justin Kelley became our Unit Production Manager. And with him in the room, we were suddenly able to breathe a bit. He brought us about 1/4 of our crew, ALL of the sex cult extras (more on THAT later) and found and booked us locations. Things were starting to come together.

Notice of Filming

Then four days before the shoot our first big snag. After not responding to our emails for nearly 48 hours, our Production Designer wrote a long email saying she was overextended with other jobs, could only give us 48 hours to get everything set up for day one, and recommending that we push our start date a week.

What was that? Now you tell us you can’t do your job in time and you want us to push? My instinct: fire her.

But it’s not up to me to fire a designer less than 100 hours from our first shot. Fortunately, Beau agreed with my instinct. Even more fortunate, within minutes Justin had three other designers reading the script and later that day, I interviewed two of them and made a decision. Chantal Massuh-Fox had great ideas, liked the script, knew how to work with our budget, and what may be best for the short notice, sounded like she was pepped up on lots of caffeine or speed. We hired her and her Art Director as well, and they got started right away. Steve called our (now former) designer and gave her the news. She told us there is no way we will find a replacement on such short notice. Which is why you don’t fire someone until you have a replacement on board.

Smooth sailing, right? On Saturday morning, I woke up to learn that one of our cast members had to drop out due to a sudden family illness. Totally understand; family comes first, and I have already had anxiety thoughts about someone in my family getting sick during production. Also, it wasn’t a big role which eased the sting. We had calls out to a replacement, Joe Coots, within an hour and by the end of the day Joe was on board, ready to shoot on Tuesday.

But that Saturday brought us three more personnel issues. Our caterer dropped out; turns out he had a day job as a private chef and while he thought he was in the clear for a month, his boss chose to come back to L.A. early. Sucks for us. Also, our props person had a family emergency and we had no idea if she would be able to stick with us. And our First A.D. was behind on paperwork and not returning calls. All bad signs for the final 48 hours.

By the afternoon the caterer issue was resolved. We had a replacement who could start Tuesday, and we’d buy lunch for our crew and do our own craft service on Monday. And our props person did have a family emergency but things looked like they were going to be okay, so no need to replace that person. But our first A.D. was a problem. After seeing a sloppy report she sent out, we realized that she was spreading herself thin and working another job until 11pm, and doing our job after then. Not the way to be. I learned right then and there that Beau is a loyal guy, but if anything gets in the way of our production he is not afraid to make an immediate change. He negotiated with a first A.D. he knew, Paul Holman, who came on board that afternoon. Beau fired our initial First A.D. and he said her immediate reaction was relief, a big sign that this woman had bitten off much more than she could chew.

The next day, we all sat in the production office, wondering if it would all come together. I feared our crew would revolt or worse, see through me and think I was a sham of a director. That they would look at me and Catia as amateur hacks who are married and making a movie just for fun. But I looked around and there was Beau, Steve, Justin and Paul working aggressively, all while Angela the P.A. came in and out running errands. They were proceeding as if everything was normal. So should I.

Around 6pm Paul, now on the job for about 24 hours, said he was heading home so he could do laundry before the shoot. I asked Paul if he thought we were ready. In the doorway, Paul turned around, smiled and said “we’re either ready or we’re not. Either way, we’re starting tomorrow.” Then he stepped out. I got home around an hour later, tried to go to bed at 9:30pm (to wake up at 5:30am) and wondered if we would be ready. And if I knew anything about filmmaking outside of writing.

We’d all find out, very soon.

Coming up next: first day of the rest of my life

Here We Go

This is our first location:

Location

INT. Yasmina’s Apartment

This photo was taken Friday afternoon, about 60 hours before we start shooting the movie. In the past few weeks we’ve hired our actors, secured locations, and hired 25 people for our crew. There have been meetings upon meetings, location scouts, conflict, firings, rehearsals, compromises, emails, fundraising shout outs, negotiations, scheduling, and the list goes on. Every night I go to bed wondering if I have done enough that day, because I know when I wake up in the morning that we are one day closer.

Will everything be ready? Will we have enough food for everyone? Will we have enough time to get our shots in every day?

But I can’t stress about that. I can only focus on what I can control: honing the script, knowing my shot list backwards and forwards, and getting the best performance out of my actors (who proved in rehearsals that they are all bringing their A game). Everything else is trust, and a leap of faith. Trust that everything will fall into place. Trust that we move quickly and efficiently. Trust that everyone is good at their job, doing all the things that I cannot do, or know how to do (and what I don’t know could fill a film school). Trust that the story is good enough. And trust that the set will be built in time.

40 hours have passed since I took that first photo. Things have changed.

Location 2

Not pictured: all the furniture and props waiting in the other room.

Less than 20 hours from now, dozens of people will walk in and be ready to work. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be long days. And if we do it right, it’s going to be a wonderful experience.

Here we go…