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.

 

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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

On Directing

I’ve spent years working on the script for the movie Closure, but so far mostly as a writer. While the writing never stops (and I mean NEVER, I could spend the rest of my days and the next two lifetimes rewriting all my plays, screenplays and TV scripts) it is time to shift focus. Put on another hat:

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“This is the best hat in America.”

Not that hat, sillies! Although he does look super sharp in it.

No, I’m talking about my DIRECTING hat.

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A little on the nose, but you get it.

I’ve been so focused on writing I can’t forget the big picture. Is that a pun? I’ve spent so much time writing, rewriting, revising and tweaking that I haven’t thought as much as I should about how the movie will look. I certainly have a vision for the style and tone of the script, but I haven’t worked enough on translating that vision into a language that actors, the director of photography, and all the departments can understand. Fortunately, I have some time to develop that language and learn more. A lot more.

Directing is hard. It helps that I’ve done it before, directing a number of short films, industrials, and even a feature that was seen by approximately thirty five people. Having this experience helps, as I can learn from past mistakes and hopefully anticipate most of the new mistakes I will make… and there will be plenty of mistakes. Daily.

But even with the experience. Directing is hard. Very hard. How hard? Let me give you an example: Natalie Portman.

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This photo is from the recent New York Times Style Magazine. Inside, she has a conversation about filmmaking. Last year Natalie directed her first feature, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which is a loosely biographical drama about the last days of Mandatory Palestine and the beginning of Israel. Portman directed the movie and starred in it. It took her EIGHT years to find funding and write the script, which she insisted remain in Hebrew instead of being translated in English. For her performance, she worked with a vocal coach to eliminate any hint of her American accent in her Hebrew.

So to recap, she raised funds, adapted the script, shot the movie in a different language…

…and if you look at this photo again, she did it all in her underwear. That’s right, the ad promoting a conversation between her and Jonathan Safran Foer (who, presumably, got to keep his pants on) features the director in her underwear!

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Natalie Portman has had quite a career so far. She has starred in the blockbuster series Thor and Star Wars (okay, not the good ones), worked with esteemed directors Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Mike Nichols, Anthony Minghella, Terrence Malick, Milos Forman, and Wes Anderson among others,  and has won an Oscar for Black Swan. She is definitely A-list.

And here she is, promoting her directing debut in her underwear. Let’s get past two obvious points: 1) she is a beautiful woman and looks great in whatever she chooses to wear, and 2)this is the style section, not the front page.

But yes, this is a HUGE double standard. No male directors have ever been asked to pose in their underwear, that I know of. Maybe Terrence Malick has been BEGGING to pose in his underwear, but no one has taken him up on his offer. But unlikely.

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“You want me to… do what?”

But here’s my takeaway: a director will do what it takes to get more exposure (heh heh) for their project, and their craft. Would Ms. Portman be on the cover in her underwear to promote Thor 14: A Thor in my Side? Doubtful. She did it to bring more attention to her other career.

This means while I’m preparing to get behind the camera, I need to make sure all the resources are lined up. And that will involve hustling: many emails, phone calls, and meetings to make sure we are ready to go. And if I need to get in my underwear on the cover of the NY Times Style Magazine, I’ll be ready… after a few more crunches.

 

 

Approaching the Fork

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Yogi Berra

YOGI BERRA

Over a year ago I posted an update about It is Done, my play turned movie script. To recap, the screenplay was optioned, and that experience of selling that script inspired me to write a movie that I could make myself. Thus inspiring this blog. In that post from last year, I talked about how that screenplay was optioned, then dropped, then optioned again by a different company.

Well, here we are a year later, and that second company has decided to not renew the option for a second year. After a year of positive collaboration between me and the director, we reached an impasse in the script. As the first year of the option ran out, we had long and serious conversations about overcoming that impasse, and if this collaboration was worth it for both parties. Turns out it wasn’t. The option was not renewed, and the rights to the script reverted back to me.

While it is disappointing to see a collaboration fall apart, I know it is best for this script, and best for the director; he and I are still collaborating on another project. No burned bridge here, the girders are strong and ready for more traffic.

But it leaves me with an interesting decision: which script should I direct? My initial impetus for writing Closure was in response to giving up ownership of It is Done. Now which script should I take to the next level?

No man is an island, and no career is forwarded by one person on their own (no matter how strong and independent that person may be). There are a few people I will always go to for career advice: my wife, my manager, and a couple of writer friends I respect are a few people in my inner circle. None of these people will bullshit me, which is very important. To all of these people I pose the question: which script should I try to direct?

There is a simple answer. At least, simple in theory: try to sell them both. The one that doesn’t sell first, direct.

But it’s not easy to sell a script. My manager suggests I commit to directing Closure and try to sell It is Done. He is trying to connect me with line producers who may be interested and may be able to help me budget the script.

I’m meeting with one of my other trusted advisors next week and see what he says.

But most of all, I should follow the Yogi’s advice. Regardless of how difficult the choice, it is important to take action and not perseverate forever. After all, 90% of the game is half-mental.