They say the most exciting day on set is your first day, and the most boring day on set is your second day. That holds true, give or take a day or two. Moviemaking seems exciting and in many ways it is. However, it is a slow process where things need to happen in order to get a shot:
First, the director and D.P. figure out the shot.
Then, the D.P. tells the grip and electric crew where to put the lights, and the stands that hold equipment that diffuses the lights, and if needed, where to plug things in, etc.
The G&E team take over the space, executing the plan. This can take anywhere from five minutes to hours. On our set, our team rarely takes more than 30 minutes. We don’t have time for more finessing.
The shot is then focused and tweaked. To do this, people will stand in place of our actors. On a bigger budget movie or TV show, “stand ins” are hired. They generally are the same gender, height, skin color, and hair color of the actors for whom they are standing in. On our production, our actors generally stand in for themselves. Occasionally, we get the luxury of crew members who can help out.
After tweaks to lighting, the art department tweaks the set. Then the actors come in, we rehearse for them and for camera (camera moves and focus pulls need rehearsal too!) and then hair and makeup tweaks and then the room gets locked down and then we get the shot off. Phew!
So yes, it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour to get a shot off. Then, once we do enough takes (we are averaging 3 to 4) we move on to the next shot, and generally the process starts all over again.
Of course, during all the setup I’m not twiddling my thumbs. I have other scenes to work out in my head, problems to anticipate and address in advance, rehearsals and line revisions with actors, production logistics to consider… for example: I want a certain prop but we are out of money or the resource to get it, so how do I adapt? So the days are full.
But, after three days of shooting the adrenaline has evaporated somewhat. The anxiety of actually making the movie has passed. Now we are in the midst of it. And the days are long. And the work is hard. For the first time, working two six-day weeks with only one day off in between seems ambitious. And exhausting.
In other words, time to stop sprinting and settle into a marathon pace.
Which isn’t to say I wasn’t looking forward to day four. On the docket, a dinner scene with our four principal actors: Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Milena Govich, John Sloan, and our leading lady, Catia Ojeda. All four bring excellent comic skills, not to mention dramatic heft to keep the scene rounded and not jokey. My mantra for the actors this entire shoot has been to take themselves very seriously. If anything is played for a laugh, the joke will fall apart. I couldn’t wait to play, and even though it was the second to last scene of the day, since we were holed up in our Denny Avenue location all day (and there weren’t any major outside incidents to slow us down) we were on schedule and could spend some time playing.
And it was a joy to watch. With actors like these, the best thing I can do is to stay out of their way, dropping in to offer tweaks and suggestions, sort of like chipping away at a sculpture as it nears completion. With each camera setup we got to experience the scene through fresh eyes. What does the scene mean when Jack and Nina are in the shot, versus Jack and Prudence? We’ll find out more when we edit, but it’s a relief knowing that the script and the acting are working well together in this scene. Added proof: the crew had to stifle laughter much of the time, waiting until I yelled “cut” to make noise. It is an interesting dynamic after decades of theater work to not have any audience response in the moment.
It’s hard to believe that at the end of day four we would be bidding farewell to one of our actors. We were fortunate to have Cynthia play Yasmina. We had a week to cover all her scenes before she returned to her “day job” as a series regular on the TV show Shooter. I’m sure she appreciated getting to use her comedy chops again, just as much as we appreciated her comic performance. And on a personal note, Catia and Cynthia have been friend since, like, forever.
They met waiting tables at a swank bar in Manhattan, both serving drinks to support their fledgling acting careers. And here they are, years later, having separately moved to L.A. and working steadily, becoming series regulars on TV shows, do they finally get to work together again. And, for the first time, they get to work together as actors.
Of course, a night waiting tables paid MUCH better than a day on our set.
Coming up next: we move to Burbank and put out fires (by starting one).