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.
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 Perplexed, which 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.
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.
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.
Rewriting the script today.
We did a table read on Wednesday. The beginning doesn’t work, the story takes too long to gets moving.
And I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle scenes where a group of people are talking and not really moving. Time to go to the well…
I decided it’s better to make them move more and talk less, to give them props, and let the characters inhabit and interact with the space more.
I re-watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and saw how Bunuel moves the camera and the characters around to say so much and play with the frame.
Once I have the thought that they have to move, it gives the scenes more life. Not just speaking words, but moving each other around, pushing and pulling with words.
And re-watched Rope as well, another dinner party film.
Last night we looked at another location. I’m not going to post photos of it because the owners lives there (as opposed to just renting it out on AirBnB). It’s a promising option. I’m hoping that we lock down the location this week.
We’re working with Compass Casting for… casting. Auditions start and (with luck) finish next week. Two of the big three are close to complete. We’re still talking to DPs, which is the last of the big three things that you need to make a movie. Or that we need at least. I’m breathing a little bit easier now.
The most stressful time is when all three of those are complete unknowns and you’re talking to people but you can never really talk to them because you don’t know that you’ll have one of the other things in place, which means you can’t really be sure of your dates. I prefer to work linearly. It’s easier for me to hunker down and work through something. It’s very unnerving to work on three things that are all uncertain and all rely on each other.
I think that after the first time, it will be easier and I will be confident. My first short film felt like this, only 10x worse.
Tonight I’m going to see Hinds at Lincoln Hall with some friends so I can check out and relax a bit until it starts again tomorrow.
Up to Appleton, WI today with the producer and a non-film friend to see about another house.
The movie takes place almost entirely in a single home, so getting the right house is important. It’s so much easier finding one location instead of 30 or 40 (like insanely easier), but it’s still a bit difficult to find a house that we can use for two weeks with our limited budget.
We’ve been mostly talking to people on AirBnB and they’ve been much more amenable to letting us use their houses, because they’re already letting people stay in them. Finding a homeowner willing to vacate his or her house for two weeks is almost impossible on our budget. An apartment would’ve been much easier.
That has set us further afield than Chicago, where rental rates are lower. On the one hand, this is more difficult because it means it takes an entire day to scout a single location and there are logistical challenges with production. Will the cast and crew be willing to go away for two weeks? And if we go outside the city, we need a second house to lodge the cast and crew.1
We’re treating it a bit like going away to summer camp. Yes, you’re working all day, but in the evenings you are sharing meals and drinks in the warm summer air, outside of the city and away from your day-to-day life. For some that will be too inconvenient, but for the people that join us, we’re hoping to create an unforgettable experience and forge friendships for life.
A conversation with friends on a summer evening is better than going home to Netflix.
And I really want the making of this film to be a special experience. It’s a low-budget affair and in a perfect world, it serves as a calling card for myself and the others involved, furthering our careers. Maybe on the next one, it’s a little easier to raise money…
But beyond that — beyond making a good film (which is nearly impossible) — I want it to be a fun, joyful experience. Something that people look back on and remember fondly. The best possible outcome is a good film and great memories, with the people we bring together forming bonds for life.
Appleton is a small city in northern Wisconsin, about 190 miles north of Chicago and 100 miles north of Milwaukee. About 70,000 people live there. The main street is thriving with shops, cafes, and a performing arts center. Away from the main drag are streets with colorful houses and big front porches. People don’t lock their doors there and the air is crisp and fresh.
We visited an occult bookstore with an in-house psychic and the book selection was wonderfully eccentric. Where else can you find a book on bird magic?
OK well I just found it on Amazon, but you get the point. And hey, it’s actually well-reviewed there, with 4.2 out of 5 stars, although one person did have this to say:
Sigh. As usual, a magical book with no balanced perspective on masculine/feminine energies. I really do not like metaphysical books that claim to be about balance and harmony while ignoring half of the energetic balance of nature. I was excited to get this book from both a naturalist and Pagan perspective but if a book gets such a crucial thing wrong, it makes the whole book suspect that to me
This was my favorite title:
I opened to a random page and found a chapter called something like “how to know if the spirit you’re talking to is really your loved one,” which yeah, of course, once you start to consider this seriously, there are some practicalities that have to be worked out, like ID verification.
Soon enough, all spirits will be given unique public keys on the blockchain and we’ll all look back and laugh at our archaic analog methods of spirit-ID-verification like giving your loved one a secret passcode that only they know before they die.
Fun fact I learned from Futility Closet last week: Houdini, who spent much of his career disproving psychic mediums, actually gave his wife a secret code, just in case he came back as a spirit (he didn’t). I don’t remember the episode, but it’s a great podcast.
After touring the town and calling our mothers for Mother’s Day, we went to a restaurant overlooking the Fox River, then drove back down to Chicago (after a stop for ice cream from Culver’s).
We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. ↩
Yesterdays travels were long and we returned home at night. No rest though, we had to meet up with a friend to talk about our plan for casting the film (after a jaunt to Costco for a windshield wiper blade and sundries).
Had a few drinks while we talked about casting which had me just exhausted, so I woke up in a bit of a haze this morning and had to run out to meet some old friends for breakfast at my friend’s new apartment. He’s going to Barcelona next week for 10 weeks and the thought of that, I envy it.
The film has a weight and sometimes I wish I could toss off that weight and go to Barcelona and forget about it. But of course, I wouldn’t forget about it and how would I live with myself after such a cowardly decision?
These are good friends and we can only get together about once every two months, because of our busy schedules. I always feel energized after talking to them and I think about how much better life would be if we all lived within a few blocks of our best friends and could get together without planning.
After breakfast I emailed for about 4 hours, following up on yet more leads for a possible location (we’re looking for a single family home in Chicago or within a 3-hour drive) and putting together a table read for Wednesday to see how it plays on its feet.
I went to Fedex Office (formerly Fedex Kinko’s, formerly Kinko’s)1 to print out eight copies of the script.
The print job was messed up so I had to wait for 15 minutes while new copies were printed.
The very nice man who helped me filled the time with his thoughts on Avengers Infinity War, about which he had many detailed opinions and I tried to smile and nod along because I haven’t seen it.
Then I picked up snacks and drinks for the reading, put air in my car tires for another road trip tomorrow (this time to Appleton, WI), replaced the frayed wiper blade, and emailed invites to actors for the table read.
I love road trips.
What a bad name for a store, Kinko’s. ↩
Drove down to Paxton, IL today to see about a house to make a movie in.
There’s a real joy to this part of making a movie, getting out and meeting people that welcome you into their home and are excited about helping you and then taking for hours about how the house isn’t perfect but it will work and now we can relax because of the 3 possible disasters that might derail this thing, one at least has a workable situation and if it all works out then we get to spend 2 weeks in a quaint town with good summer air with good people and the chance at at a transcendent shared experience.
And then we found this burger joint across the train tracks with a menu that I thought was a joke but it was real and the burgers were $1.20 and fries were 80 cents.
And sometimes I hate how flat IL is but then I think of that DFW line that goes:
Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
Which is a very good line, to my ears at least, and I don’t know where I’m going with this except that there’s a real joy in doing things that are overwhelmingly difficult and it brings out emotions and fears and pleasures that I never knew I had, like when you do a new exercise and you get sore in muscles that you never noticed before.
Good night and look up Just Hamburgers if you’re ever in Paxton.
I started some preliminary casting this week for the feature I’m putting together.
Which has led me to watch a lot of actor reels.
My thought is that actors don’t put enough thought into how they are presenting themselves online.
A lot of the reels have some bad clips in them. By bad I mean that they don’t show the actor acting well. And/or they have clips with very low production design, audio hum, poor lighting, etc.
I know that actors usually don’t have control over the final product and the production value, so I don’t hold this against them. I know they have to build up their chops and get in reps and take student films and gigs for practice and experience.
But you do have a choice in what you put into your reel and what you post on your website. Quality is much more important than quantity.
A better option, if possible, would be to show a single short film that you made, which really shows off your ability. I know, that’s hard, and if you aren’t going to produce it yourself then you have to wait until you get cast in something like that.
I really like the Cinema Lab shorts by Stephen Cone. The actors are all from a class he taught. It helps that he’s a great director, but these shorts really show off the actors in the best possible way.
I think I’d rather see no reel than a poor reel. With just photos and a resume, I can imagine what might be. When I see a weak reel, I’m forced to consider that maybe this is as good as it gets.
I’ve also seen some bad web series this week. There are a lot of reasons to make a web series, but if you’re an actor and you are making one to show off your talent — then you should really make sure that it shows off your talent.
If you’re an actor and you wrote and starred in the series, I’m going to assume that you made it to show off your talent. And if it looks bad, the writing is bad, or the acting is bad — then…
We’re all trying to get better and of course the first things we make are rarely the best. That’s certainly the case for me. But you have a choice in what you put forward and what you leave out.
OK, technically we won for best Illinois short. They had a category for films made in Illinois or Wisconsin. Really nice folks up there.