The weekend before production

We start filming on Monday. It’s a 10-day production, over the next two weeks, with the weekend off.

This week has been a whirlwind of last-minute prop pick-ups, phone calls, meetings, waiting to hear back from rental houses and friends about what we can use and how much it will cost. Yesterday I spent the afternoon finalizing the shot list and our approach with the cinematographer, Zoe.

And of course, Costco:

We spent $406 on crafty and supplies and hopefully that lasts the whole two weeks. Most people understand that working on a micro-budget indie film means that they’re not going to get paid a lot and I am dearly grateful for their contributions. But you have to feed them! I try to get healthier options but the producer reminded me that some people like to eat gluten and sugar.

We got to the coffee section at Costco and were severely disappointed. I’ve never had Kirkland-brand coffee1 but I’m incredibly skeptical.

I found reviews online and it’s well-reviewed on Amazon but I started reading the reviews and they were all people saying “I used to drink Maxwell House and switched to Kirkland and it’s just as good!!!” So, no. Besides, I believe that even if Kirkland coffee was just as good as, I don’t know, Metric, it wouldn’t matter. The branding does affect the flavor.

But it doesn’t matter because we lucked out — the producer, Josh, emailed all of the local Chicago roasters and one of them finally got back to us — Metropolis is donating a 5lb bag to the production! That’s some seriously good coffee and I’m really overjoyed.

Part of making a movie, in my mind, is about the culture you create on set. Little things like having good coffee ready for people in the morning, they go a long way. Movie making is hard work. It’s really hard. But it’s not some crazy ritual of suffering — it’s a lot of fucking fun, or at least should be. Yeah, there are a lot of down times and yes, there are painful compromises at every turn (when you don’t have money), but there’s a real joy to working incredibly hard with a tight group of 10-15 people for two weeks straight. But, you better have some good coffee.

One compromise we made was not having a full-time makeup person on set, which led me to my first purchase of makeup, a jar of Laura Mercier translucent powder. The makeup person recommended it. Basically, you need to keep the actors’ faces from looking shiny on camera and this creates a matte look on their faces.

I was re-reading my dog-eared pages in Werner Herzog’s book and he said that he likes to carry a small makeup kit with him whenever he directs so that he can touch up an actor before a take if he feels like the actor needs a little more time to get ready, not unlike a baseball umpire dusting off the plate as a courtesy to a catcher after taking a foul ball to the body.

Besides saving money, going the DIY route with makeup saves time.

We’re taking the approach that if this film succeeds, it will succeed on story, performance, and interesting visual storytelling. It will not succeed because of breathtaking-ly beautiful imagery, incredibly meticulous set design, or high production value. Not that we don’t want it to look good. And I think we are going to deliver some truly striking images, but my goal is to move the audience with emotion, not abstract beauty.

My living room has been transformed into a holding pen for all of our props, crafty, and some lighting and grip equipment.

OK, I gotta make some last-minute rewrites and then load all that stuff into my car and drop it off at the location. We’re setting up the location house today and tomorrow, and maybe even stealing a few establishing or non-talent shots, then a table read tomorrow afternoon, and hopefully a few free hours to do my laundry and cook some food for the week.

Bang on, as my English friend says.

And thank you to all the people who have offered material and emotional support, lent us gear, gave us honest feedback and good advice, encouraged us, and said “yes” when others said “no.”


  1. the Costco store brand 

The Party (2017)

I watched The Party tonight. No, not the Peter Sellers one, although I love that movie, but a different one made in 2017.

A single-location stageplay film, like the one I’m directing later this month. I really enjoyed this. Good rhythm and loved the use of the wide-angle lenses, makes for really interesting depth of shots and brings you close to the characters.

And it made me feel a lot better about shooting in a single location — this film takes places in a single house and most of the action is in the living room. My film has the same basic parameters but it’s actually spread around the house more. Yes, I guess it can feel claustrophobic, but at 72 minutes or so, it wasn’t an issue.

Coming down the home stretch. Casting is wrapped. Cinematographer is on board. Location is signed and paid for.

I went to Fedex to print a copy of the script and put it in a binder. I like working with a paper script so I can annotate it and put all the notes in the margins, the notes that I’ve been collecting off and on for the last few years, since I started writing the script in 2015.

I went back and looked at my first draft from 2015 and much of the dialogue is the same, although much has changed. Kind of amazing how much from the first draft stayed though, like an almost fully-formed film just came out of me. OK, that’s an exaggeration, I did have an outline.

And the story as it is now, takes places at one location — an upper-middle-class home in Chicago (we’re filming in Ravenswood). The original script was split between the story at this house, and another two characters that are on their way to the dinner party at the house. In 2016 I split those characters off into their own screenplay, so in a way, I have a little cinematic universe going on. Maybe for the sequel…

A day after printing the script, I was already changing things. The writing never stops (and how I look forward to starting fresh on something new when this is over).

 

Also went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to pick up this Global chef’s knife. Good knives are expensive apparently. This guy was $124 before the mandatory 20% discount. I should return it but maybe I’ll keep it — I’ve never owned a really good (and sharp) cooking knife.

The worst sin a filmmaker can make

This morning I went to a cafe to work on the script. The directing part of the script. I read through my old notes on Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, an excellent book on directing. The main thesis of the book is that every movie has a theme, a central principle, truth, or message.

That theme guides all other choices. Once you have that theme, it’s easier to make your decisions and answer questions.

I spent about three hours thinking through the theme and how I want the camera to move and what do to with framing, the key moments of the film, the tone, and the rhythm. The rhythm is so important to me and I’ve learned from experience not to leave this to the editing room because there’s only so much you can do with cutting.

The movie is dialogue-heavy so it needs to feel in motion and to move forward at all times, so as not to get stuck in the single location.

And I leafed through my dog-eared copy of Werner Herzog’s book, A Guide for the Perplexedwhich I love dearly.

When he’s not talking about being shot in the stomach or bamboozling border agents, he says things like:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself.

Guess that one stuck.

This should be a lesson to filmmakers today with inexpensive digital technology at their disposal. You need only a good story and guts to make a film, the sense that it absolutely has to be made.

And

I learnt that the worst sin a filmmaker can commit is to bore his audience and fail to captivate from the very first moment.

And of course because why not

I tried things out with various pigs during pre-production, but none of them became altitude sick.

Back pocket notes

Another busy couple of weeks as pre-production intensifies on the feature film. Every time I feel like I’m on top of things, new things come up. The schedule, shot lists, finalizing the DP, food planning, contracts, etc. Sometimes it seems like there’s hardly any time to deal with the actual work of directing — thinking about and planning how to shoot the actual film, how to talk to the actors, etc.

Today I took a bit of a break. I try to keep some semblance of a day off on Sundays, with a leisurely morning and only some basic writing (i.e. journaling).

In the afternoon, I went up to 2112 to participate on a panel about pre-production for a group of female comedy filmmakers. The program is run by WiCo (Women in Comedy) and they asked for volunteers to talk about pre-production and other aspects of filmmaking.

One of the questions was “what went wrong on one of your projects?” and I told a story about the first time I directed anything (Words Fail Me). A few minutes into the improvisation on the first take in the first episode, I realized that I didn’t know what to say after saying “cut” and I was so nervous that I let the actors go on for about eight minutes while I thought of notes to give them.

After that I learned to keep a note in my back pocket at all times, so at the beginning of the day, I know what to say when I don’t know what to say. Sometimes you just watch a scene and think “hm” and don’t really know what to do and it takes a few takes to figure out why it’s not working the way you imagined it would work.

The Americans is over. It’s the only TV drama I’ve been able to get into in a long time and it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was an intense, heart-wrenching episode with some really nice surprises. Excellent writing.

What’s the most indirect, intriguing way to present it?

For the past few years I have been influenced by Lubitsch, whose very special twist of mind fascinates me, the more so since he has been gradually forgotten after having exerted an enormous influence at the time… This consists in arriving at things roundabout, in asking oneself: “Given that you have a particular situation to get across to the public, what will be the most indirect, most intriguing way of presenting it?

Francois Truffaut (from Truffaut by Truffaut)

It was by thinking of Hitchcock that I could find solutions

Lets say that if one loves cinema as an escape mechanism, well, one escapes ten times more in a Hitchcock film because it’s better narrated. He tells modern stories, stories of ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. Don’t forget that I grew up in fear and that Hitchcock is the filmmaker of fear. You enter into his films as into a dream of great beauty of form, so harmonious, so natural… I admired Hitchcock very early and I got into the habit of seeing his films many times, and later, when I made films, I came to realize that, when I had difficulties in directing, it was by thinking of Hitchcock that I could find solutions.

— Francois Truffaut (from Truffaut by Truffaut).

The Eternal Casting of the Director’s Mind: Fishing, Hunting, and Foraging

There are three ways I think about casting: fishing, hunting, and foraging.

Fishing

With fishing, you hold an audition, post an audition notice around town and online and see what comes back to you. You throw out some lures and see who comes in.

Hunting

With hunting, you look for someone specific. Maybe a big name talent or a specific actor that you’ve seen somewhere. You know you want to work with them or they would be perfect for a role so find a way to connect with them and try to get them interested in the project.

You get an IMDbPro account and try to track down the contact info of an actor that you don’t have a relationship with and try to get them to read your script.

Foraging

With foraging, casting becomes an always process.

Every time you go to a play, you make a note of any actors you liked and jot their name down with some notes (“perfect for lead in ${filmName}” or “would make a great weird neighbor”).

This can happen when you see actors in shows, in local or even major films and TV, in classes, at meetups, through friends, whatever. I make a note of it in my phone or notebook and then when I get home I add it to a big Word doc I have with lists of actors that I liked or thought might be interesting to work with.

On The Deadline, we used a mix of foraging and hunting. There were a couple roles where I knew exactly who I wanted and made sure that they could come to the audition. Then we did a big audition and ended up with a mix of people that I had met before and those that were new to me, along with some real surprises.

For foraging to work, you have to get out a lot and see shows or watch a lot of short films.

But the truly awesome advantage of this is that you get to see actors working under good conditions — a role that that they’ve prepared for with a director.

To me, that’s much more informative than an audition — in an audition, there are nerves, they don’t know the material well, etc. Some actors are terrible at auditioning and some are great (and that doesn’t necessarily map to their actual acting ability).

 

So.

I like using a mix of all three.

When I started casting my last film, WHAM, I went through my lists of actors that I wanted to work with, cultivated over the past four years, and picked out names and put them in a spreadsheet next to the role. I made a column for first choice and backups.

Then I start reaching out to those actors and cross them off if they aren’t available, moving on to next choices.

My goal was to avoid holding an audition because auditions are a lot of work we and I only had about three weeks to cast it and I was working alone. Also, it was a 3-minute short — for a feature I would want to see them do a reading and meet them in person first.

That work got me about halfway there — out of six roles, one I knew professionally, one was a close personal friend, one I had seen at The Annoyance, and one I had seen in a Second City e.t.c. show.

 

Foraging online

For the last three roles, I did two things.

First, I contacted the agent of one of the actors that I knew I wanted to work with. Her agent asked me what else I was looking for and I sent her a breakdown of the available roles and she sent me about six headshots and resumes for the open roles.

I watched the reels of some of those actors and tried to find any short films that they had online.

I don’t really like reels because I’d rather see more than a clip. I’m usually looking for one solid performance where I can see that they can act well under good conditions.

If I don’t know them personally, I check Facebook to see if we have a mutual friend that could make an introduction. Or if they have an agent, I call the agent.

Pros, cons, etc

Sometimes an audition is necessary, but with foraging you get more control over who attends the audition and you get to write with certain people in mind.

If you don’t hold an audition, you cut yourself off to the upside of being truly surprised by someone.

An audition is also a great way to meet and see actors that might not work out for the current project but that would be great for something in the future.

If you want a ‘name’ actor, then you’re going to have to hunt.

 

 

 

 

How to make a microshort

It’s easy.

2 actors (optional)

Someone to hold the camera and press the record button.

Someone to hold a microphone (might be the same person that’s holding the camera and now pressing two record buttons).

A location that is free.

A 2-page script (optional).

Feed people when you’re done.

Physical comedy is hard

I was going through my Evernote to catch up on stuff I’ve saved but haven’t had time to digest and this Tony Zhou video came up. I realized that I already posted it but it’s worth posting (and watching) again, as are all of his video essays.

Having just directed a short film that relies mostly on physical comedy, and certainly using (or trying to use) it in The Deadline, I’ve really developed a profound appreciation for Keaton and the filmmakers he collaborated with. It’s insanely hard to pull of physical gags and requires a lot of good camera technique as well as performer technique. And rehearsal. And props. And special stages in Keaton’s case.

For the last short, I have people bumping heads on the sidewalk to pass out. Choreographing that was not easy, although it wasn’t impossible either. I’m still not 100% sure how it will turn out, but it looks good so far, at least in the long takes. I really didn’t want to use cheap tricks to get people to fall on the ground (hard pavement in this case), like cutting from the head bumps to the bodies on the ground. So we had to devise special padding that blends in with the sidewalk for the actors to fall on, which required the ingenuity of Jim Jarosz of Channel Awesome.

This was the third short I’ve directed and I would say 70% of my stress was around the physical humor — would it play well, would it look silly (in a not funny way), would anyone get hurt. 15% of my stress was the weather because we were outside and at the mercy of the rain, which fortunately the film Gods smiled upon us. The other 15% was the usual ever-present suspicion that everything would fall apart at any moment.

 





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