Saturday, July 31, 2010

Today Does Not Exist

There will be no “25 Months Ago” post today, because today is July 31, and 25 months ago would have been June 31. And there ain't no such animal, but you knew that.

In its place, I offer you some beat poetry. Imagine me in a beret and black turtleneck, playing the bongos, as I recite this.

Yoda talks like Grover

Jar Jar talks like Elmo

Jabba talks like Cookie Monster

If he had indigestion

Lando talks like Gordon

Mace Windu looks like Gordon

Lobot looks like a photonegative of Gordon

But can he talk?

But can he talk?

Of course he can talk

He's in “Superman II” reciting a poem about trees

It's true

Go watch it if you don't believe me

Boba Fett talks like Oscar the Grouch

Or he did, before becoming a Maori

Han Solo thinks like Oscar the Grouch

Watto lives like Oscar the Grouch

So do the Jawas

And the Ugnaughts

In fact, every intelligent race less than five feet tall

Seems to have a thing for trash

Perhaps if you're too small to tame beasts of burden

You can't make the transition

From a hunter-gatherer society

To an industrial society

If you can't develop your own technology

You can only live off the refuse

Of other civilizations

Where was I?

Oh yes

Obi-wan talks like Mr. Hooper

Palpatine looks like Mr. Hooper

Nute Gunray talks like the Count

Which is why he's friends with Dooku

Artoo and Threepio don't talk like anyone

But they don't have to

Because they've been to Sesame Street

Because they've been to Sesame Street

So they're part of the family

And Luke was on the Muppet Show

So he's like a cousin

Anakin talks like Bert

Boss Nass talks like Ernie

George Lucas talks like Kermit

But where is Snuffleupagus?

But where is Snuffleupagus?

I'll tell you where

Snuffleupagus is invisible

Very few can sense him

Very few believe in him

But he is real

He surrounds us at all times

To know him is to be powerful

Beings of fur and felt are we

Not this crude matter

The Force is Snuffleupagus


Snuffleupagus is the Force

But if you're looking for Big Bird

Don't bother

The Ewoks killed and ate him

Sorry kids


Friday, July 30, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 3

DAY 3 – June 30, 2008

On Day 3 I checked out a rented lighting kit from Hahn Photographic to use over the next 2 weeks. (Day 1 was shot with available light, and Day 2 was lit using gear available at the location.) Today was also the first day of my 2-week rental of a vacant space at Tobey Village Office Park to shoot various office scenes; this first week would involve piecemeal construction of the sets, with the actual shooting to take place the following week.

In terms of actual filming, Day 3 was pretty light, and consisted of a brief shoot at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, made possible by Liz's connections in the Buffalo arts scene. We used a small room at CEPA to shoot a brief scene in which Karyus' character, Bert – employed as a university videographer – is instructed by his director to log and digitize some footage.

The director was played by Roberto Petrilli, a professor friend of Liz's. Roberto – who is from Italy – became the first of many supporting actors in the film to ad-lib embellishments to his dialogue, finishing his single line with “comprende?” After a few takes this changed to “capisce?” which I remember being uncertain about because I associated the word with stereotypical movie mobsters. But I must have warmed to it, because that's what I ended up using in the finished film.

With some tight reframing I used the same room to double as a TV control room, for some cutaways in which Roberto's character directs Bert during recording of the aforementioned footage (which would be shot the next day).

Finally, I shot one more scene in this room, of Bert working at his computer, editing some different video footage from a later scene. Because this room had a large glass window facing a hallway, I was able to shoot this scene from the hallway, with the camera facing through the glass so that Karyus's grinning face was visible from behind his computer screen (which wasn't actually displaying anything anyway).

If you've seen any edit of the finished film, you may have trouble placing this last scene. This is because the scene was never used. Although many scenes in “Saberfrog” were shortened during editing, this is the only filmed scene not to appear at all in the finished movie.

It's unlikely to appear as a deleted scene on a DVD or Blu-ray, though. Unless your idea of entertainment is seeing a static shot of John Karyus sitting at a computer with a goofy grin on his face. Hmm, maybe it is.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 2

DAY 2 – June 29, 2008

Day 2 of production on “Saberfrog” was spent shooting a sequence that took place in a private, ad hoc screening room. When I was writing the script, I pictured the location as a dingy, menacing warehouse – the kind of place that 80s action movies and “Torchwood” episodes always seem to end up at.

But an existing, functional screening room was more convenient, and Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo fit the bill. Squeaky Wheel staff member Brian Milbrand kindly let us take down some of the folksier touches – the string of Christmas lights hanging on the screen, and a “Cinema” sign hanging on the back wall – to capture at least part of the grungy atmosphere we were aiming for.

Shooting in Buffalo meant a long car journey for all but two of the actors (Liz and Karyus, both of whom were living in Buffalo at the time anyway). This was a long and pivotal scene in the script, and the only scene for which I scheduled an entire 8 hours. Most scenes in “Saberfrog” would be shot in 4 hours or less, with available light whenever possible, but this scene was an all-day epic featuring six major speaking parts, four extras in effects makeup, atmospheric lighting, and an abstract video playing in the background, plus action and lengthy speeches.

My philosophy is that, when shooting a low-budget movie, it's important to begin with the most important scenes, the most complex scenes, and the scenes with all the actors together. That way, you are eventually left with simpler scenes that are easier to shoot, or less important scenes that you can afford to cut. This is important if you fall behind schedule or the cast have other commitments.

I normally have a quick n' dirty, guerrilla approach to shooting, but I was determined to put in the extra effort to frame and choreograph this pivotal scene well. Blue gels and tilted “Batman” angles were my tools for giving the scene atmosphere, and Karyus (a fellow film school grad with plenty of real-world crew experience) helped immensely in achieving this. When you see the finished scene, you'll spot an anteroom with a shelf full of videotapes. Karyus noted with amusement that the tapes were of a public access show circa 1993, which we both agreed was perfect for the underground ambience we were going for.

This was the first day of shooting for J.D. Edmond, in the lead role of Josh; and also for John Sindoni, in the supporting role of Dr. Garrison, a professor from Josh's college memories (I'm phrasing this carefully so as not to give too much away). The first half of the day was spent shooting a stretch of dialogue between J.D. and J.S., while Tom Gleason was busy putting effects makeup on the extras: Shawn Gleason (his brother), Jen Avila, Jessica Lerkins and Beth Clark.

J.D. and J.S. blew me away. I'd envisioned their encounter as slightly absurd and over-the-top, but they brought real drama and gravitas to the scene, elevating it beyond what I'd imagined. J.S. spent this part of the scene standing and walking towards J.D. while speaking, and I took care to reframe and refocus for each section of the speech. Now this is directing! Enough of that handheld crap!

The rest of the cast were left idle until after lunch. On Liz's recommendation, I bought everyone takeout from Falafel Bar on Elmwood Ave. Liz and I went to fetch the food so that the others could finish their makeup and go over their lines.

After lunch, we filmed some shots that featured an abstract video being projected. I'd spent the previous night (or was it that very morning?) chopping this material together out of random junkyard footage I'd recorded for a music video but never used. This pre-recorded sequence played on a miniDV deck connected to the video projector, and after most takes I would rewind the deck so that this background footage wouldn't run out during a take. When Karyus saw these randomly assembled shots, separated by the occasional gap of blackness, he laughed out loud and said “It looks like a thesis!” Again, this was exactly what I was going for.

By this point, cruel reality was setting in: The amount of time I'd lovingly spent on the dialogue between J.D. and J.S. meant that I had only a few hours left to shoot a massive amount of important material. I can still remember standing there, a horrible grimace on my face, as I struggled to restructure the scene in my head and think of shots that I could achieve quickly in the time remaining, and what shots I could live without (or recreate later). Working as fast as possible – sometimes by shooting one take and one take only – we managed to finish up a mere 45 minutes after the completion time I'd agreed upon with Squeaky. I think they would have let us stay a little later, but I didn't want to abuse their generosity.

Whereas Day 1 felt like a triumph, Day 2 left me feeling frustrated. More recently, Tom and I had a conversation about that day, and he observed that if I'd had someone else taking on more of the production duties I would have been able to get more done. The great thing about digital filmmaking is that you can do it all yourself … but that doesn't necessarily mean you should.

The rushed shoot compromised this sequence in some ways. There were several important shots – and lines – that I just didn't get, and would eventually have to shoot back in Rochester, using tight framing to disguise the change in location. A key dialogue exchange between Reuben and Liz, which was supposed to be pivotal to Liz's character, ended up being improvised because it was simpler to shoot it that way, costing the scene some of its nuance.

But in other ways, the scene was made tighter and better by the limits of time. The scene I'd written was full of complex actions and effects that would have been more suited to a Hollywood epic than to the cheap, mumblecore-on-LSD indie film that I was making. The ticking clock forced me to strip the scene to its dramatic essentials, and I believe that what I ended up having to shoot was, on the whole, sharper and more dramatic than what I'd written and planned. This unfortunately meant that Tom's effects makeup was featured less prominently than planned, but it was necessary to prioritize the plot and characters over the effects – which is just how it should be, especially on an indie film.

This was the most challenging day of shooting, though. From here, things would mostly get easier; in fact, the next day's shoot was much simpler …

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 1

This blog is a re-enactment of the experience of shooting the movie “Saberfrog”. The blog is called “25 months ago” because I was too busy a month ago, when it would have been a nice 24 months (2 years) ago, just as I was busy a year earlier, when it was only 12 months. Hell, I'm too busy now, but at some point you gotta bite the bullet.

Anyway, 25 months ago today – June 28, 2008 – was a Saturday. John Karyus, one of my lead actors and an old college friend, had flown in from LA on the previous Thursday so that he could spend two weeks, and three weekends, taking part in my little epic. I'd stayed up way too late the previous night creating the box art for an adult DVD that plays an absurdly large role in the plot of the film.

This first day of shooting occurred at a mom-and-pop video store, Hyatt's Classic Video in East Rochester. The scene was supposed to take place in Canada, so I added two minor bits of set dressing to help sell this: a “No Public Washrooms” sign (our northern neighbors say “washrooms” rather than “restrooms” or “bathrooms”) and a bogus flyer advertising a film screening at “Cinema Forum” (a play on Cineforum, famous for its ubiquitous zine-like flyers all over Toronto).

Most of the main cast – Karyus, Reuben Tapp, Liz Mariani, Wendy Foster – were present, plus Tom Gleason (playing a small acting role and also providing some makeup effects), Lance Kazmark (helping with the makeup, and actually the only crewmember not to double as an actor during principal photography), Jess Gonzales (a supporting actor) and Anthony “Ace-yon” Owens (Reuben's understudy, destined to steal the movie in a different role altogether, but today helping out as boom operator).

Some last-minute costume decisions were made just prior to shooting. Some weeks earlier I'd taken Liz shopping for second-hand clothes to fit her funky, artsy character, Laurel. I knew Liz wasn't thrilled with the Colin Baker-esque dress sense I was trying to foist on her, but we'd bought a ton of odd clothes for about $50, and that morning we finally decided on the outfit that she would wear for most of the film. Karyus brought various beat-up old clothes of his own, in keeping with his Harvey Pekar-like character, Bert. A hole-ridden T-shirt he brought was too degraded even for my tastes, but he also brought a dark, greenish flannel shirt that met with my approval.

Karyus set the tone for the movie early on when it came time for his character to respond to disappointment with a humorously exaggerated “No!!!” He asked me, “Do you want a Darth Vader 'No'?” and I, laughing, replied: “Yes, I want a Darth Vader 'No'.” Karyus delivered what he promised, and I wish I could have used every take of that line.

There were complicated scheduling reasons for shooting this scene, with its makeup effects and multiple speaking parts, on the first day. Day 2 would involve all the main cast, and Tom Gleason – then living near Ithaca – would be in town only for that weekend, so it made sense to shoot both scenes requiring makeup effects on the same weekend.

This first scene to be filmed was funny and entertaining, and seemed to get everyone in the right mood. However, it was my first time directing in several years, and also my first time properly using the new camera. After reviewing the footage I found several technical mistakes – some shots had severe audio problems for some reason, and I spent much of the scene breaking the 180 degree rule. Oh well. Day 2 would be better … right?