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 …


  1. Ah, my fist day of shooting. I had been sick for the week prior and had no voice only the day before. I went into this feeling like complete crap. I remember having a huge bottle of honey that I would pour directly into my throat so I could speak at all.

    I also remember the moment I managed to get an adverse reaction from Karyus regarding a perverse gesture. Possibly the greatest accomplishment in my life.

    I maybe finally reaching the point where I can stand to watch my performance in this film... maybe. It might be far enough away. I can watch Dagon because it's only about 20 minutes and, really, I'm not in it too much. But Saberfrog is way too much me to deal with.

    Ah well. Interesting blog and you may be hearing my take on some of these events.

  2. Oh no less screen time :( hehe oh well that's show business. I honestly can't wait to see the finished product Curt. You'll have to let me know if you are going to do a screening of it so I can make the trip up to Rochester.