When we left off with the story of my latest short film, the first installment in what we’re now calling The Short Stack Series, I had started to freak out. We were down a camera department. The first DP I’d brought on board had failed to keep in touch despite the need for vital pre-visualization discussions and, since we were paying to import him all the way from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, I felt like we needed to find someone more dedicated. My next instinct led me to call Josh Huval, who I had worked with once before on the first film I laid hands on after arriving in New Orleans. He had read the Hotcakes script and liked it; he had great suggestions for a prison location we had failed to secure on the cheap, where he had shot a short film before; and like me, he had gotten fed up and left a film program at UNO to strike out on his own two feet. I thought our problems might be solved.
For UNO's Fall 2010 "one Week Film Fest," we made a short Western, El Duelo Agrio. From left: Nicholas Whelton, Josh Huval, Eric Gremillion, Laura Steffan, Virgile Beddock, Jared Stanton, Jo Custer, Jeff Bruno, Beth Burris. Photography: Josh Huval and his fine Canon 7D.
Then Josh didn’t respond to a Facebook message, nor an email. I got nervous. This was the weekend before production. On November 22, for better or for worse, we had a U-Haul to pick up along with over $600 worth of props and flats and sandbags, a done deal. That was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and our production designer who had but one very green assistant and me (sort of) had to build our entire set and a long counter from scratch in five days. On the sixth day, a Sunday, Byrdie’s Cafe and Art Gallery would reopen for business, at the end of which (7 pm) we would need to come in and set up for both our kickoff fundraiser and our first night of shooting. We were already down a camera assistant and a gaffer due to a judgment call on my part and now, it seemed, two DPs.
In a last minute series of phone calls to my sound mixer, Jon Berguno, I got a bunch of names. A lot of them didn’t pan out. They were union and didn’t understand why the pay was so low on a short film that was never going to make a profit. They were coming from really far away and had a day job they had to be up for at 4:30 am and there was no way they could fit in night shoots for even one night, let alone four — especially after they heard how low the pay would be. Even the non-union people dithered over this. The one name Jon gave me that came attached to a real person with real world expectations about a short, indie film was Michelle Kowalski, a director who is known a little bit more for her cinematography than her other talents. We talked on the phone for maybe 20 minutes and I decided to give her a shot. She would meet us Saturday, the day before the shoot, and we would go over the script, line by line, until we had a basic shooting plan.
I can’t be sure because it had gotten to the point where I was wearing too many hats — not just writer, director and producer, but all the work that their assistants and then some (like a location manager) would do — but I think the very next day, I talked to Jeff Bruno. Jeff’s the other half of the very dynamic filmmaking duo that is he and Josh Huval. He was our gaffer, assistant camera and entire grip and electric team, really, as well as our second camera operator. Turns out, Josh hasn’t been blowing us off. He has been ensconced at his grandparents’ for Thanksgiving, recuperating from two months of shooting on G. I. Joe without working Internet access. He didn’t get my messages because, well, just that: he didn’t. Josh called moments later, very tired and okay with not doing the shoot, even if we were both sorry about how it had come about. Our DP wanted a 7D to shoot on and had found somebody who would rent us one for cheap. But Josh would lend us his 7D for free and, together with Jeff’s 60D, and their lenses combined with Bob’s, we would have a pretty complete camera system to work with — a tremendous load off.
They’re good guys, Josh and Jeff. I like them both a lot. They know what’s important. Also, Jeff applies his ample drawing talents to the slate, between takes, making post a treat:
Take 4 of our 4th shot, Day One. Hadn't even broken out the Red Bull yet.
I want to be clear about something, here. We went with Michelle not because she was my first choice, but because that was the deal. It’s a hard lesson to learn because it’s hard to separate, to know where to draw the line. As a director, I should hire the DP I know can best communicate the story; but, as a producer, I have to hire the DP being responsible, even if the irresponsibility has a naturally occurring explanation like no Internet access. And apparently, I’d forgotten how to use a phone. I guess I’d gotten used to writing. I hadn’t seen a second of Michelle’s work and, as of this post, I’ve only seen Trust Bob, which showed last night at the foburg film fest. I was running on base instinct, really.
It turned out to be an interesting experiment. If you’ve never sat down with a DP you’ve never met before as a director, your 17 page script and your respective film experiences the only palpable thing you really have in common, you’re kind of missing out. It’s not an easy way to work, but it has a purity and an honesty that I enjoyed. All Michelle and I did the day before production began was talk script, story, character and shots — and, of course, the concessions we had had to make to time and budget and location.
Michelle collects actors' head shots and character descriptions, day before the shoot.
I had written a jail scene for the opening, but we had decided, on actor Michael Martin’s (Jacques) advice, to lose it rather than maybe be able to get those shots later. What that meant was that my carefully planned four day location shoot for 13 pages of a 15 page script was now a four day location shoot for all of what was now a 17 page script. Using a location that was an art gallery that would be booked for every day of the rest of the following year. What we had, essentially, was a trade-off: The risk of never finishing the film on two locations had been replaced with the risk of never finishing the film on one. When you’re working without an AD, that’s a lot of unnecessary pressure to manage.
Michelle and I came up with a pretty bare-bones shooting strategy. I marked the script and we sort of came up with an overall shot list that I would pretty much rewrite every night, just before shooting — and one night, the third or fourth night (I forget), mid-shoot. I explained to her that I had written the dialogue scene after they had finished eating for a booth, but that we couldn’t afford to rent a booth, hadn’t been able to find any used or discarded booths, and had no time nor resources to build one from scratch. In order to get around that, we would shoot a little wider on the scenes leading up to that one — nothing closer than a cowboy shot — and then we would go in closer on the now-table scene. This made sense on several levels because while our three principal characters have met before and certainly know each other by sight, name and reputation, they’re hardly friends. Also, I wrote this philosophically as a Western, so the cowboy shot is almost expected in those opening scenes where Chico is pushing Marty’s buttons — and his luck, especially. It’s almost like Marty’s just lost a pretty high stakes poker game and Chico won’t let it go.
Slating the first shot of the night...sometime after midnight, I think.
This is also the scene that Michelle has the hardest time lighting. It’s not surprising. We should have had months or weeks to discuss this and bounce ideas around.
We had a day.
Michelle had a few major contributions to the shot list, including a salient one she came up with early, before we started shooting. The fortune teller scene was of such import that she suggested we do a high angle – low angle sequence. The scene was broken into three parts in the script, so she suggested shooting each subsequent shot in the timeline at a slightly lower angle on our fortune teller, the bringer of mysterious news, while shooting the reverse shots equally higher on Marty, the poor man left to make sense out of what she had told him. In theory, this worked great. Co-producer and editor Bob Krieger liked it, too, but he cautioned that if we were going to do that, we would want to get the entire exchange on an even angle, just in case. The main problem was that the location didn’t really allow for Michelle’s idea. The camera had to be set up behind Marty to get the fortune teller, with the tabletop to be taken into consideration. We could only go so low.
The wall behind our fortune teller, meanwhile, made the angle on Marty start out high and go skyscraper on us by the third shot. Marty’s eye line became too angled for us to really connect to him fully, one, and two, the angles of the shots weren’t evenly matched.
Probably…well, two probabilities here. First, probably almost no one will notice this but me. But probably the best thing I can say about these shots is that we hadn’t wanted the over the shoulder shots to be too dirty — we wanted as much space between their bodies as possible until that breaking moment of realization on Marty’s part — and I think we achieved that. When I look at the spatial relationship between them and their body language, I’m pretty pleased. It’s natural and yet distant. Just like falling into a dream you know is a dream. It’s a credit to Michelle’s ability to think and see clearly on her feet that this scene works at all. The rest was just tightening, creativity in editing and a little ADR.
The secondary problem was that we ran out of time. Really, on this third day of shooting, a Tuesday, we should have had plenty of time because Byrdie’s is closed for business on Tuesdays. But again, I was working without an AD. So the call, which was already late because of people’s schedules, became later and got started even later. But you don’t know yet what happened on the first two days of shooting, so let me back up a moment.
On the morning of Sunday, November 27, I got a call from Jerry Lopez. We were set. Byrdie’s would close at 7 pm for a kickoff Kickstarter party, during which people could set up accounts online via Bob’s and Michelle’s laptops and pledge. A lot of things had come together last minute. We had found Tony Fennelly, our fortune teller, mid-rehearsals. Jeff showed me a link to a student film he was still editing called Mugged in which Tony fends off a would-be mugger who turns out to be her grandson and scolds him. It was a funny, little 3-2-1 script (no more than three pages with no more than two characters on no more than one location) that I had given feedback on during the writing stage and I loved the way she embodied the character. The wig she wore for it was great, too. Cassie had also just finished building the set in time. We had to import my roommate, Steph Novakov, to help and Cassie had to import her Dad for a couple of grueling overnights, but the job got done. The counter looked amazing, an easy $800 on the tag at Ikea. And on Thanksgiving Day, I asked Michael Martin’s partner, Eric Martin Webb, to be our stylist, since Crystal Wells, whose house I also live in, had her leg in a cast and was in San Diego.
Cassie sawed like a champ all night long all Thanksgiving week. It was really something.
So what did Jerry want? As it turned out, he had been experiencing kidney stones and on the morning of our first production day, had passed his fourth stone in two weeks. He had been pissing blood for a while, apparently. We had zero flexibility in the schedule, but I asked him if he wanted me to schedule the first night without him. It wasn’t really feasible and we weren’t really configured for it, but he was okay with working that night, as long as I scheduled him lightly. No problem. I scheduled two scenes that night that we didn’t finish, with just a few shots leftover, and I turned my head and looked the other way when he brought out the bag of Advil and the not-so-full fifth of tequila. When an actor’s willing to work through real, physical pain for a role, you don’t comment on his means of coping, even if it’s a thing that might normally be grounds for firing on any other day.
Aside from Jerry’s self-medication, two things cinematography-wise stand out from that first night, in my mind. One, Michelle’s lighting on the opening dialogue scene around the door looked stagey — then and now — but I liked it and still do. What I don’t like is that we had such little control over the set design in that shot. We were using a door to a shop pretty much the way it came. All we did was take down the excess stickers on the door and unknot the curtain. There’s a white wall to the left of the action that has nothing but light switches. Cassie and I had planned differently. There was supposed to be a brick facade where the white wall was, but we realized belatedly that we had suffered a small miscommunication on the set configuration and ended up, in the interest of time, putting the facade back at least 12 feet from where I had originally envisioned. No big, but still.
The second thing is that during the dialogue scene at the table, Michelle kept changing the focus mid-shot and often mid-dialogue. The first cut Bob put together, which by far was closest to the rhythm I was going for when I wrote it, had at least five shots in it we either couldn’t use completely or had to get extremely creative with in cutting. I never did get a chance to ask Michelle what the problem was, but my instincts tell me that she — like me — couldn’t see how bad it was on the 7″ monitor we were using. She was trying to follow movement without rehearsing movement and without a focus puller and it didn’t work. I’m not nearly as upset about this as I probably should be. It gave Bob and me some good lessons in post and although some people might disagree with me, I still managed to make one of my main directorial goals with this film: I wrote and filmed a very watchable, seated dialogue scene. The acting works. The tension works. Hell, the scene works without the music. I can’t wait to see how it looks once composer Mike Flood is finished with it.
That was Day One, in a nutshell. On Day Two, as I recall, the shit hit the fan. Technically, we started earlier because we didn’t have a kickoff party that took up over three hours of production time. Sure, we raised $100 of cold, hard cash that night thanks to little things like Tony donating her time and real-life Tarot reading to the nights’ entertainment, but I hadn’t realized that I would need to apply for a credit card to complete my Amazon payments account. I had thought my bank card with a Mastercard logo would be enough.
Not so much.
Toll Road screened for an audience of two -- Bob and myself, as I battled the Kickstarter site.
As a result of that and my forgetfulness, our party wasn’t all that it should have been. I forgot that we were supposed to be serving hotcakes fresh off a griddle which Jerry and Michelle ran to WalMart for at the last minute, along with the fixings. In the interest of time, we set aside the previous plan and settled for hastily bought and made sangria that night. I don’t think anyone noticed but us that the hotcakes were missing from the hotcakes party and, because the set wasn’t really configured yet — at least, not the table part of it — Jenny Martin never took pictures of people interacting with the set. Or she forgot her camera. I can’t recall. All I know is that our marketing fell a bit by the wayside as we struggled to get the production off the ground, which is a bit of a shame, $100 or no.
Day Two, partly because we wrapped so late on Day One, did not start well. People were just not in great spirits. In part, this might have been due to things getting boggled with Kickstarter and our party the night before; it’s hard to say. It was just one of those nights. I do recall that I hadn’t slept more than an hour or so in two nights and that this may have augmented any negativity I experienced during this time. I remember that I scolded an actor on set, in front of everyone. I couldn’t even say for sure why, just that he wasn’t really making my life any easier. Moments after this, I decided that we would wrap early. I had lost the ability to think clearly, not unlike mountain climbers do after they reach that critical ceiling, and I decided that Day Three, the day Byrdie’s was closed, would be our big push for the summit. The more we accomplished that day, the less we would have to worry about on our final night of shooting, when at some point, the absolute necessity of each and every shot starts to be examined in the interest of time and the best possible film.
It was the right call and although Day Three was sluggish, it was also the day the cast and crew bonded most. It was Tony’s only day on set and she showed up just in time for the Chinese food I had decided to order, spur of the moment. After the night we had had, it felt like the best possible time to splurge, and it was well worth the $55. Lead actor Burton Tedesco (Marty) had come in early to not watch the dailies that Bob and I — first to arrive — were supposed to be going over with Michelle on Bob’s laptop. I had to call Michelle to see where she was and, as it turns out, an elderly woman had been mugged right in front of her building moments earlier in broad daylight and she was in shock. It was one of the more inarticulate conversations I’ve had in my life, so I decided to walk over to her place just a couple of blocks away from set and escort her back. Jeff may have come too…
The dailies looked pretty good. The focus issues in the table scene were more obvious, but I remember thinking we could try and reshoot some of that the last night, if we had time — always a nice thought to have, but often, it proves too hard to follow through on. We had had an overnight calamity as well, when my great plan to leave up the lamp that overhangs our main diner table backfired when Byrdie’s bicycle lurched forward and knocked over the flat beside it. Thankfully, we had two lamps and could switch them out and try to hide the broken glass better, but somehow, we ended up with the broken one in the fortune teller scene. I think we did it in the interest of time without considering the breadth of the camera setups. But it’s hard to say. All I know is it was another surprise in post.
Somewhere between Michelle’s sidewalk mugger and the broken lamp, it just felt like the day to take things easy at first and then begin a slow but steady and deliberate push. So I focused on accomplishing that. Dan came in with his laptop and pulled up Monty Python skits on YouTube and we all got our funny walks on. That helped a lot. And the actor with whom I had not parted on the best of terms the previous evening came in as rested as I and as professional as you please, which was good. It was all hands on deck time.
Tony and Burton’s big, pivotal scene together was not easy and went overlong, and that was the first thing we shot. When I say overlong, I mean that we ended up scrapping Bob’s advice to make sure we had the whole thing on the even keel. I’m not sure how this came about, but it must have been my fault. Michelle had wanted to get the entire two shot in a slow push-in and for some reason, we never did get that shot, with push-in or without. I can’t even tell you how much I wish we had gotten that shot. It has kept me up at night.
We wrapped Tony after maybe five hours of shooting her scene and then it was on to all of the big stuff that involved intricate and detailed camera work around the counter without actually pulling out that wall, stuff we wouldn’t really need our lead, Burton, for. I sent him home early that night, just after I had everyone take a break while I figured out exactly what shots we needed to get that night. We could live without him and I wanted him fresh for the two most important scenes the last night — the phone scene with Jacques and Frank (Dan Skelly) and the ending scene with our entire cast, for which he was also our trained fight choreographer. I would need him to be sharp, so I told Burt to go home to his wife. I think this must have been sometime between 11:30 pm and 1 am. Late, but early on this set. This resulted in one shot I would have done a little differently, in retrospect:
DiDi (Katherine Walters Loacano) and Chico play while Jacques (Michael Martin) looks on. But do you notice the C-stand leg in the bottom of the doorway, right? And all that space between Dan and the wall without so much as an elbow peeping out? Yeah, little things like that get to me...
Dan does a good job in the clip of making it look like he’s actually talk to someone. To the lay person, nothing looks wrong, but what if we were to cut directly back to this?
Yes, it's dark on purpose. But in retrospect, it doesn't help the fact that there should be space between Dan's head and the door. Again, probably nitpicking...you just keep blinking.
One of my favorite memories of Day Three came late. It’s during that scene everyone loves between Chico and DiDi, involving the gun. You know, this one:
That was an exciting scene for the actors and me as well. I had been chagrinned for days that I had cast someone I knew who had never been a waitress as a waitress, who had to learn how to hold a tray as we set up for her opening shot back on Day One. And it had been hard to shoot, honestly, because her self-consciousness surrounding the tray bled through. But put a gun in the woman’s hands and she was a new DiDi. That was awesome and, along with my experience with our stage actress earlier, Tony, it gave me ideas on how to approach directing differently in the next film. I love those moments, even if the impetus for them is never ideal for the moment at hand. Katherine came alive in that scene and it flowed so beautifully between them that it’s made me reconsider all of my notions for how energy between Capricorns (Kat) and Aquarians (Jerry) really works. One take we did, much of which we ended up using, made everyone within earshot laugh. I’ve been calling it “muskrat creepy” and it involves Jerry letting Chico get super excited about every little thing Kat as DiDi does. At the end of the take, which made some people feel uncomfortable, Katherine told him bluntly, Capricorn-like: “Don’t be creepy.”
It was too late, though, and their chemistry showed through. Jerry was literally jumping up and down saying let’s do it again! as much about their scripted action as he was about each successive take. I had to remind him that we had to wrap because Kat still had to drive all the way back to Hammond and it was already 5 in the morning. It was a great thing to see, and I’m glad it happened, because the film is so much better for it.