Saturday, October 21, 2006

Chronicles 35 - Speed, Mark It, Set, Action


Well, the first thing I learnt this week on the set of my first film, (albeit a short - 15 minutes), was that contrary to what I had always thought, people on set (at least on our set anyway) don't say "Lights, Camera, Action" but a mix of "Speed, Mark It, Set and Action".

The second thing I learnt is that film making is a mixture of joy, awe, frustration, and sheer unadulterated stress.

Essentially we had about 3.5 days to cram in about 5 days of shooting and in strict accordance with Murphy's (or is it Sod's?) law a number of spanners were ceremoniously thrown into the works by the 'Film Gods' during the course of our long shooting weekend, which kicked off on Friday October 13th 2006. Yes, that is Friday the 13th. Well, since I'm not superstitious that didn't really bother me. Or did it?

Day 1 (Friday) - Lights, camera, action - NOT!

I flew in to the UK on Friday and took the tube down to South London and met one of the producers who led me into this huge labyrinthine housing estate to an empty flat where the actors were rehearsing. The flat assigned to us by the council was a perfect location for the character who was supplying his mind and body-chemistry-altering wares from a destitute, grimy squat. The squat didn't need any art direction. Various artistic scrawlings, cartoons and Russian aphorisms covered the walls. Perfect.

Once we were done with rehearsals we were ready for our first bit of filming. It wasn't going to be that exciting, a time lapse shot of the estate from another tower block, still, we were going to shoot some real footage and the team were all buzzed up. The evening was perfect. A panoramic view of London with a beautiful blue and pink pre-sunset sky. Things were looking good, or were they?

The first problem - the lift didn't work. We were talking about 6 or 7 flights of stairs! When I saw the Arri truck arrive with what looked like enough gear to kit out a Stones gig I was thinking how the hell were we going to lug all that gear up the stairs. Luckily, the crew were used to this type of heavy lifting and before we knew it we were on the roof of this tower block and ready to set up the Arri camera.

We'd lucked out on the camera big time. The DOP has a great relationship with Arri and because of this we managed to hire out the latest Arriflex D-20 high definition camera (see picture), not only as a stand-alone but with what looked like various boxes containing the mother(s) of all lenses. The focus puller picked one of them up and told me that the lens in his hand was worth about 80 K sterling. The Arriflex D-20 can use standard 35 mm and 16 mm film lenses. Nice.

So, I was of course excited to see this baby start rolling and as the sun was about to set, and the camera was all ready to rock 'n' roll, the DOP turns to the director and tells him that we've been given the wrong stock. Pants! The chances of us getting D-20 stock at 6 p.m. in the evening in London (i.e. rush hour!) before sunset were slim to none so we had to abandon the shoot. Now there are 2 ways we could have looked at this:

Option 1:
Put it down as a bummer experience and stress ourselves out at the prospect of having to beg Arri to hire the camera for another half a day which was further complicated by the fact that there was a time lock on the building: The block that we were shooting on, giving us a wonderful, panoramic view of the estate was due to be demolished in 12 days!

Option 2:
Put it down to a bummer experience with a silver lining. We were on a really tight schedule mainly due to the restricted availability of one of the actors who was in a play 6 days a week. The days would be short. If we'd have found out about the stock in the morning when we were due to film the actors doing their thing then we would have been even more screwed. In film making, I quickly realized, because the clock is always ticking, it is better to go for the silver lining approach and look for creative ways around the problem. It may be for the betterment of the film.

Day 2 (Saturday) - Smoke 'em out

I arrived 'on set' pretty buzzed up. This was 'show time' where I'd meet all the crew and start seeing some real action with the actors. I walked round the corner and saw this Arri generator van feeding these big fat cables into the squat location. The yard and kitchen were full of boxes and boxes of various Arri lighting and camera gear. The front room was gearing up for a shot using a Pee Wee - a device used for overhead shots, in this case, a view of the actor from the ceiling.

I then walked to the 'unit base' and met the wardrobe girl who was reading the script, (my script! Wow!) and one of the actors was preparing himself, in costume. Sh*t, I thought, this is a real movie set!

Filming started with a scene that required some atmosphere so the smoke machine was brought in. Now the idea was that the smoke level would be subtle but not clearly visible. Unfortunately the gaffer released too much smoke and the next 30 minutes were spent wafting the smoke out. It was looking like The Hounds of The Baskervilles in there for a while!

Once the smoke was dispensed with it was finally time for some action and the actors did a great job. I was amazed and sometimes incredibly frustrated at how long it takes to set up a shot. Of course, apart from consulting on the authenticity of the art direction here and there my role on set was seemingly dispensable. Essentially, my job was complete. I'd written the script. It was now up to the director, the DOP and the actors to realize mine and their vision. My experience of theatre, and now film, is that the vision on stage or on film never corresponds to the one in my head. The settings, actors and other details always look different. Luckily, so far, my experience in working with a number of directors is that they have always enhanced my vision and realized the project in ways that I never would have imagined.

We finished the interior shots for that day. I stepped outside and saw a police man and woman standing outside. It was evening, and, because of gang warfare on the estate the police had insisted that we had 2 coppers on stand by for evening shoots. Another last minute addition to the budget!

The final scene of the day involved filming the main character dressed only in dressing gown, underpants and boots burying a machete in the middle of a busy London roundabout. This is where the 100 pounds an hour for the police started to pay dividends as they stopped all traffic on the roundabout allowing cast and crew to avoid getting mowed down by fast moving chunks of steel!

The close-up shots in the bushes of the roundabout where filmed using a small Panasonic HD camera. The 500 pound Gorilla Arri D 20 was once again lugged to the top of the tower block for the long shot/zoom shot. The day was wrapped and we went back to base for a de-briefing on the day's shoot and then left the set. The producers, God bless them, stayed up for most of the night on the estate prepping for the next day as well as protecting the equipment.

Our job was done at this point, but the art department were busy working away. The grimy, destitute squat had now to be transformed into a habitable living room. The living room had to be wall-papered, painted and then decorated with carpets, rugs and furniture. All this activity went on until the early hours of the morning.

Day 3 (Sunday) - Here, there and everywhere

The location we were filming in was definitely not lacking in authenticity. On Sunday morning I travelled down to the set with the actress. As we drove past the estate, we saw that the building where we had filmed our aerial shot the previous evening was sealed off by the police. Not only that, two forensic guys dressed in white overalls appeared from one of the side alleys. Some serious sh*t must have gone down here!

It seemed that a few hours after we'd finished filming on the roof of the block opposite the guy who gave us access to the roof found this Columbian dude on his door step with a bullet in his head! In that same block is a club where this gang-retribution shoot-out took place between 3 and 4 in the morning. Apart from the fact that this guy might lose his life this was potentially a problem for us re. our shoot (no pun intended). We needed to get back up on the roof of that building for a time lapse shot but the police had blocked all access to the building and that building was due for demolition in 12 days!

In the meantime the show must go on:

Unlike theatre where you are usually seeing the rehearsal, tech rehearsal and performance in sequence, films are shot out of sequence and this film was no exception. Because of various restrictions either in terms of time, actor's availability or locations we shot the 'mid-point' on the first day and the final scene at the end of the first day. Even the written schedule seemed to be changing on a daily basis.

We were due to pick up two scenes on a separate day in another location, but, even though they were in the schedule and in my script the director decided to cut them. Luckily this turned out to be a good creative decision, those scenes were not crucial to the story and it saved us having to come back, shoot extra scenes and go even more over budget. It meant that whatever we shot in those 3.5 days was it. That was the film.

Because I hadn't been involved in scheduling, by the time I actually got my head round to what scene we were shooting (and why!) the film was over! At one point I quizzed the fact that the audience would be wondering where the machete had come from since it hadn't been introduced earlier. I'd literally 'lost the plot' and had come to believe that this mid-point scene was the first scene. It was a clear case of, "I'll get my coat".

The first time I actually saw the schedule I was really impressed. Wow! Someone has actually sat down and scheduled my film which originated from my script! I was like a kid in a candy store. I turned to the first AD and, all impressed, asked her, "Did you do this?" She looked at me as if I was on some highly hallucinogenic substance. She must have done hundreds of those things. When she said that there was a spare copy for me I almost wanted to hug it! My precious schedule.

Anyway, the day continued in the same non-linear fashion. Because the ex-squat (that had now been transformed into a habitable living space) was not yet ready we went out to shoot external locations. My job at one point was to ask people passing by to wait until we had shot the take before walking across the frame. I saw these two serious lookin' 'bruvvers' approach and asked them nicely if they didn't mind just waiting a minute while we shot the take. One of them looked at the other and said, "You comin', bro?" and proceeded to walk across the frame. I wasn't going to argue with them. I didn't want to have a close encounter with one of those guys in the white, plastic overalls! Luckily, they were not visible in the shot but so much for my on-set contribution.

After shooting a few shots with an actor covered in blood we went back into the flat which was now ready to film. When you're watching theatre rehearsals you are of course watching the actors directly. When I first came on set I started off by watching the actors and ignoring the monitor, but then I realized that this was not going to give me an accurate representation of what the film would look like.

It was important to watch the monitor, firstly to see what the final image would look like but also to see whether objects, booms, shadows were moving into frame. We had lights outside in the garden so it was important that the boom shadow wasn't picked up or that people didn't move around in the light and create shadows. We had a continuity person on set for a couple of days who was constantly watching out for all this stuff and also making sure that objects didn't move around from one take to the other.

The actors' make up and hair had to be checked constantly. Because we were shooting out of sequence and the actors would go home and clean up in the meantime the make-up and wardrobe girls needed to know on which side of the face they had applied the blood, for example. It would have looked pretty weird if a trickle of blood would be bouncing from one side of the head to the other in different shots, so, the make-up girl used a digital camera to make sure she always applied the blood in the same place and to the same extent. As a passive consumer of film these insider details had never occurred to me.

Once the interior shots were done it was back out side for the night shoots which we had managed to sneak in without spending more money on police protection. The most expensive thing on the set was the D 20 camera and the lenses. Fortunately because there are only about 10 of them in the UK, it wasn't the sort of kit a crack-head could flog under the counter at his local pub. Unfortunately, you can sell a stolen i-Mac in a pub and someone managed to swipe one from the set.

The night shots went well but tensions were mounting. Time was ticking and the pressure was on. The actors were getting tired and they and everyone else were aware that the real core action of the film, which was quite a number of pages, had to be crammed in the following day by 6:20 p.m. This was the cut off point when one of the actors had to leave by taxi, get to the theatre and walk straight on stage in front of a packed house audience!

Finally, the night shots were done and they looked good. We were nearly there, or were we?

Day 4 (Monday) - The Heat Is On

We all knew that Monday would be the killer. It was all interior work and there were a LOT of pages to cover. This was the real core of the piece. The part that we would have loved to have had more time for. It wasn't to be. It was hit the ground running time. Is that what happened? No. In reality we hit the ground at a grindingly slow, painfully snail-like pace.

The actors were due to come on set for a shoot and then we got 'the call'. The make-up girl, whilst driving the wrong way down a one-way street had crashed into another car! Luckily no-one was hurt but she was all shaken up and had to wait for the police to arrive. This was a killer. Now we were really under the gun.

To add to this we had no grip (the guy who sets up the camera for the shot) this meant that any tracking shots would take for ever! Arggh! One of the actors, a veteran who has worked on many indie and Hollywood films, said that on low-budget films it was always the same pattern, the most important scenes are always left until the end. Mmmh, glad to see we weren't breaking with tradition here.

A couple of hours later we finally started shooting. The actors did a magnificent job and we captured some really electrifying drama. The clock was ticking and there were still obstacles. The boom appeared in frame and at one point the sound recordist complained of hearing a vibrating mobile go off, a siren and then some interference probably from the monitor system so he had to move his equipment.

Every obstacle and interference was a severe hammer blow at this point. Lunch was short and with a few hours left it was clear that the director wasn't going to get all his tracking shots in. He had a quick pow-wow with the DOP and AD and they decided to go hand-held for the rest of the shoot. I was hoping that all this restriction would result in some Dogma-style creativity-out-of-limitation scenario.

The next scene was shot on hand held and it looked and felt amazing. If that was the result of an emergency solution I could definitely live with that. We were finally approaching the point where the actor had to leave. We needed more time. Thirty minutes would do it. For this we needed a motor bike taxi! The producer got on the phone but none were available. They usually need to be booked a few days in advance. Persistence is omnipotent so she kept phoning and begging. Eventually she got one and at 6:35 p.m. the actor ran off the set onto a waiting motor bike for a mad dash across London.

We'd got the scenes and now we just had to do some close-up but the pressure was now off. Phew. At this point the monitors were in the garden so we were watching the action off set. The actress had to play a very emotional scene. She was amazing. I felt tears welling in my eyes watching her, and the amazing thing was she did two takes of this scene, and delivered the same level of emotional intensity the second time round! I realized that moments like this were the reason I had got into dramatic writing in the first place. Seeing the vision coming alive in such a powerful way is a buzz, a shot in the arm, it's down right addictive!

Once the close-ups were done I heard the words, "That's a wrap". This was music to my ears. The filming was great but the stress and time-pressure was intense so it was a relief when it was all over. It's an incredible experience working in such close quarters with 25+ people for 3 and a half days. For me, the experience has lifted the lid on some of the mysteries of film-making. People have often said that in film making it's important to chose a good team. Now I see how crucial this is. There are so many things to think about on a film set and seemingly small, but highly crucial tasks are delegated to people you might not know from Adam. You have to take it on trust that that person will do a good job otherwise you'll have some nasty surprises later on. Luckily we had a great crew, not everything ran smoothly, but it seems we've got the footage we wanted. Of course, not everything has been downloaded yet and we've yet to hear the sound so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

The Thursday after the shoot we managed to get the D 20 camera back off Arri and get access to the tower block, luckily no more Columbians were shot in the meantime. We got our time lapse shot.

Right now the HD footage is getting downloaded, the Super 8 is being processed and we're gearing up for post-production and producing a trailer that the producer will take to the AFM.

I've also been busy working on the other projects. I'm waiting back for a response from my lawyer in order to finalize the finer points of the re-write contract. True to form no agent has got back to me in the meantime so I've been doing most of the negotiation myself. A good learning curve. Pitching is one skill, negotiations and closing is another.

I've also finished a 13 page single spaced treatment for the animation feature along with the main character profiles. My partner, the animation artist is drawing up some visuals and we'll submit this next week. We're hoping they'll like it and move ahead with drawing up an option and start commissioning artwork for a presentation pack.

Apart from that I have to write a synopsis for the artistic director of a theatre and finish the content for the short film web site. I also have to write a pitch for the feature (which the short film is a teaser for), so that the producer can start raising development money, so, all in all, I have my work cut out for me. I'm trying to get all these pitches/synopses done soon because when I finalize the contract on the re-write I'll have to hit the ground running! Yikes! Time to wrap this post!

Ciao for now
See Chronicles 34

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