#12 So What Happens on Day One… That’s probably gonna be in your movie

August 2, 2012 (Part Two)

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”

Here’s the call sheet from that day. I had never really seen a call sheet before this one, and maybe you haven’t either.  (I’ve hastily blurred out the phone numbers and addresses on iPhoto.)

So we were going for 11 1/8 pages.

Ambitious.

Insane.

And under the circumstances, absolutely necessary.

The “shooting” script ended up being 6 pages shorter than the “real” script because I thought that might make shooting it in 8 days sound more doable. I didn’t cut scenes. I mostly just cut description/action, which we would need to shoot anyway.

Once upon a time, before we started to shoot the movie, Andy (actor/producer/partner in The Shower The Movie LLC) brought up something that the Duplass brothers had said about shooting a movie. And basically it was, “Everything you do on the first day sucks. So don’t do anything important or in the first ten minutes of your movie on the first day, because it will suck. And if your first ten minutes suck, you won’t get into any film festivals, because that’s probably all they’re going to watch before turning off your screener and moving on to the next one.”

Did we take that advice?

Not really. Most of what we shot on this first day was from the first 10-15 minutes…

The first shot was simple enough. The car pulling into the driveway. It went off without a hitch. Did it once, looked good. Hey, this making a movie stuff is easy! 

And of course, the very next shot is where reality set in.

Here’s that page from the shooting script:

First shot Killer Party

So you already know that my first-time director’s bravado was out the window. Now that the camera was rolling and there was dialogue to capture, sh-t got real.

When you write a screenplay, you see it and hear it in your mind, as a writer. It’s a complete fantasy. A lie.

A director needs to make that fantasy come to life in the real world.

The lessons of Day One (and 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) are all about staging/directing/communicating.

I think the hardest thing for me about making the transition from writer to director was communication: “This is what I see. This is what I want.”

You become a writer because that’s the best way you know how to communicate, and then suddenly here you are, as a writer-director, having to tell people what to do. (Believe me, I LOVE telling people what to do. It’s just a little bit different when you’re on a movie set, and not sitting on my sofa at 11pm and I’ve had five beers.)

In the primitive youtube videos I made years ago, I just shot everything on a camcorder, and we recorded the sound through the camera mic. The actors were all friends who I worked with, and we were never in a rush. I just put the little camcorder where I thought it should go and we shot. And I was pretty much just going for laughs, which meant there was zero thought put into how things looked and sounded. (There are small children who produce better looking videos. But their writing and acting sucks. So screw you, precocious children!)

Day One was kinda like showing up at a new job, with no training, and just starting to work immediately on the most important creative endeavor of my life.

Having done it once, I could certainly do it better the next time around. But I wouldn’t want to be in that position, because a few days of pre-production, rehearsals, camera tests…

WOULD MAKE A HUGE DIFFERENCE.

Here are a couple of thoughts from Day One… (Looking at the CALL SHEET is sort of like some sense memory experience where I can instantly go back and remember what I was feeling as it was happening. And mostly what I was feeling was “Oh sh-t.”)

  1. The guests arriving/introducing the characters— When I wrote the script, I imagined the party would be inside and we’d be meeting people in a montage as they came through the front door and greeted Nick and Mary.

Based on the location, we didn’t do the party inside, we did it in the backyard. So the staging was a bit awkward and we didn’t get enough coverage to do it right. We realized this during editing (and when we did the first 400 of our 1,000 test screenings). (And maybe people realized it while we were shooting. I didn’t “know” until later because I didn’t have time to watch the footage as we were shooting. I did get a chance to watch some of the footage during the time off after Izzy’s surprise birth, which confirmed my fear that we had to go back and redo some things. We didn’t get to everything.)

One fix was we added in post-production was FREEZE FRAME intros on the characters. These are all scenes from the first ten minutes, so… 

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 8.12.19 PM
Desperate times, desperate measures, mother-cker!

It was a band-aid, but I think it worked out and helped strengthen the movie. It was also an opportunity to add a couple jokes and let the audience know the tone. (FYI: That was my credit card debt three years ago. It’s much higher now.)

2. Another mistake I made was thinking we could do a lot of the movie in long, master takes. 

Woody Allen does this. Steven Soderbergh. Quentin Tarantino. Master directors with decades of experience.

It also requires perfect pacing in a scene, and for there to be no “mistakes.” (technical, line flubs, etc.)

We were not prepared to do this. I thought it would work when I wrote the script because we were gonna rehearse and production would essentially be recording a play. There are a lot of two person dialogue scenes in the movie that I dreamt would be done in one shot. 

I should have scrapped the idea when we didn’t rehearse, but I can be a real idiot sometimes.

We did a master or two, the first was basically shooting the rehearsal, then shot coverage, usually just one take on each actor. (If that. There was one case on Day 5 where we only had time to shoot one close-up in a two person scene. We had to go back and get the other shot 8 months later… Try not to do that when you make your movie.)

There were a few scenes where I felt the master was very strong, but I also liked what the actor was doing so much that I wanted it in close-up so the audience would really get it. Once we were editing, I realized the true value and importance of coverage and close-ups, whether it’s for pacing, emotion, or intensity.

(Mostly pacing, I think. There were a couple of instances where an actor was saving up the performance for the close-up and not doing as much in the master. Which in our case, was probably a good thing, since we weren’t going to get any Altman-esque long takes. On the flip side, there’s definitely more pressure on the actor in a close-up, so sometimes actors were “tighter” in the close-up than in the master… And it probably didn’t help that they were only going to get one or two takes. Two, if they were carrying my child.)

So we wasted some precious time with our intrepid DP, Harry Frith, attempting to get these long takes, handheld, the camera bouncing between actors like you would see in The Office (U.S).

Harry did his best. The actors did their best. It was impossible under the circumstances. (I had no idea at the time that when we see those long takes in great movies, they are spending at least half a day to do it. The lighting. The blocking. The camera. The acting… We were taking about half an hour.)

Read Jim Hemphill’s great interview with Phil Joanou to get a sense of how long it takes on a $4 million indie movie. http://filmmakermagazine.com/97031-shooting-a-movie-in-25-days-for-blumhouse-phil-joanou-on-the-veil/#.VygYPaslfJ8

The closest we got, and it’s in the movie, is an exchange between Nick (Kurt Ela) and Ryan (Evan Gamble). (I’ll pat myself, and Harry, Kurt and Evan on the back for that one.)

Kurt Ela as Nick, talking about my unsold screenplay "You're Dead Meat, Piplowski"
Kurt Ela as Nick, talking about my unsold screenplay “You’re Dead Meat, Piplowski”
Evan Gamble as Ryan, a TV star gushing over my unsold screenplay, "You're Dead Meat, Piplowski"
Evan Gamble as Ryan, a TV star gushing over my unsold screenplay, “You’re Dead Meat, Piplowski”

In the future, I’d certainly like to try for long takes if they’re right for the movie, but I did come to enjoy the “control” of having the different shots, and really letting the actors’ faces (AND EYES) be the way into the story.

I was trying to edit the movie in my mind as we were shooting, so if something felt like it would work, well, it was in! (This stopped working after two days, because we weren’t able to get all the shots I envisioned in my mental editing bay.)

Now, I didn’t intend to “wing it” like this. I’m not that crazy or stupid. My plan was to study a bunch of movies and come up with a visual guide for how to tackle many of these scenes. There are 17 speaking parts in the movie. There are plenty of scenes where there are 8-10 actors on screen. (Hey, I was writing parts for my friends. I had a lot of friends back then… OK, maybe I am THAT CRAZY & STUPID.)

During the month leading up to the production I had ZERO TIME to watch anything. One movie that I planned to watch was the remake of Dawn of the Dead.

Dawn-Of-The-Dead_7199_3

They had a big cast. Zach Snyder is a very visual director. I was going to watch and see how he did the scenes with a horde of actors. For the scene with the most speaking actors (shortly after arriving at the mall), here’s what he did (and what I should have done): He opened the scene with a  wide shot that showed where everyone was geographically. Then it was all told in standard coverage. No long takes or camera movement. Just nuts and bolts shooting. Sort of like old school TV.

It works just fine, in my opinion.

So here are a few of the other things that I have had flashbacks about while looking at the call sheet:

Know your actors. This is something I would definitely attribute to being a first-time director. We had a scene that I wanted to get in one take. I thought of a more traditional (boring) framing, and our DP, Harry, had a suggestion for something different. I figured, “Let’s try it Harry’s way, sounds interesting.” (I wasn’t really taking into account a time crunch.) One of the actors wasn’t comfortable with the angle. Truthfully, I liked the idea, and we used a similar framing in later shots, but I sensed the actor’s unease. But we did it.  And it affected the performance and messed up the scene. We had to go back and do it again months later. This was a case where I knew better, and could feel the actor’s tension, but was weak in my handling. I should have just scrapped it right away. I was lucky we were able to redo the scene.

I almost fired someone. It was an impulse. I let it pass. Being on set, getting my ass kicked, things were going so fast that I felt like they were gonna spin out of control. Maybe I was gonna spin out of control. I wanted to call a time out. Hit reset.

THIS. WAS. THE. MOVIE.

I felt like things were unfocused, a bit too loose. More like a friend’s web series than a FEATURE F-CKING FILM!!!

(Yes, I know your friend’s web series was shot on a RED and starred that girl from Community.)

Man, the Duplass brothers were right.

Day One SUCKS.

"You should have listened to us, you moron!"
“You should have listened to us, you moron!”

I didn’t fire someone. It would have been a mistake. Not that I wasn’t making mistakes. But it would have been a massive overreaction. Which I also do. Probably because of Jimmy Malone from The Untouchables. “He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

the-untouchables-sean-connery-kevin-costner-church

It was the one time that day when I’m glad I didn’t listen to my gut, because my gut was wrong.

(Besides, Drew and I have since become really good friends.)

IMG_6414 IMG_6314

(OK, it wasn’t Drew. It was my mom. I was still mad at her for falling earlier and nearly ruining my big day.)

Day One wasn’t good.

I wasn’t good.

But as bad as it was, something was starting to form.

A family.

A wacky, somewhat dysfunctional indie movie family.

Yes, we were a ragtag, misfit bunch. Thrown together by fate and the hiring practices of a restaurant in Century City.

But we were starting out on a long journey together.

8 days. (Or more.)

“A three hour tour.”

We all wanted the same thing.

To show people what we could do.

To take our careers to the next level.

To make a good movie.

It didn’t get easier.

It actually got a lot worse.

But we were in it together.

A family.

Author: Alex

A married waiter/filmmaker with two kids.