Saturday, August 28, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 18

DAY 18 - July 28, 2008

Today – a Monday night – we shot another of the most important scenes, in which J.D. and Reuben reunite for the first time in years. Diane Conway once again played the wife of Reuben's character, and Wendy provided some props.

This scene was shot at Dana and Fran's house, as they had generously given permission to use their living room to film. I relied on source lighting for this scene, which is a fancy showbiz way of saying that we used lights which were actually there in the room. (As on Saturday, I chose to rely on available light sources because I was concerned about the amount of money I'd spent so far on this project, so even the relatively small expense of another lighting kit rental seemed like something to avoid.)

Due to the long summer days, a portion of the scene in which Reuben opens the front door had to be saved for last, since the scene is supposed to take place at night. (The relative lateness of sundown would affect another shooting day, but more about that later.)

The shooting script also contained a scene of Josh sitting in his car, hesitating, before going to the door, but by this point I must have decided that this was unnecessary. Again, low-budget filmmaking was tightening up the script out of necessity.

All the actors were in fine form, and Reuben in particular gave it his all; during editing I would later find myself selecting the more toned-down takes, which suggests that even I will occasionally resort to subtlety. J.D. got in a good ad-lib or two – although the meek character he had to play may have been stifling, he continued to handle the underdog comedy well.

After this shoot, I had all of the “without these scenes, there's no movie” scenes filmed. But I still had several “I could maybe do without these scenes, but it would be extremely challenging to make the movie work without them and would completely change the structure” scenes. So I wasn't out of the woods yet ...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 17

DAY 17 – July 26, 2008

Today – a Saturday – was one of the longest shooting days. In hindsight, I find it extremely difficult to believe that we actually shot all this material in one day, but my notes, receipts and old emails indicate that we did.

This shooting day would be spent in Buffalo, and I spent part of the trip there getting some more shots of J.D. driving. Apart from this, our first destination was the Shadow Lounge, where Liz had gotten us permission to film a scene in which Liz's character is performing onstage as a musician.

When I originally wrote the script, I'd envisioned the character of Laurel as more of a tattooed punk chick. With Liz cast in the role, however, it seemed more sensible to make Laurel an indie folk musician, especially since Liz is a poet herself.

Tom's friend John Reinbird played a guitarist in this scene. He and a drummer, played by Ian Belknad, improvised a minimalist riff while Liz ad-libbed some beat poetry as “lyrics”. Impressively, Liz kept this up for ten whole minutes while the camera rolled – obviously, not all of this ended up in the finished scene. (Don't worry, you'll get to see more of it at a later date.)

We had two background extras for this scene, although Wendy and Sean stepped in and thus brought the number up to four. Sadly, you have to look quick to even notice that there were other people in the club at all, so obviously I wasn't positioning people on camera as creatively as I'd done on previous shoots. However, one of the extras seemed to fit another small part that still needed casting later on. (More about him later …)

My memory insists that the Shadow Lounge scene was the only thing we shot that day, and that everything else was on another day altogether. Apparently, my memory is wrong. We got lunch at Super Fuji Buffet again – maybe this was the day I had my nose buried in the schedule instead of socializing.

After this, I checked into a hotel room that I'd booked for filming another scene, and dropped off some excess equipment that wouldn't be needed until then. We then hit the road in J.D.'s van to film the longest and most complex of all the driving scenes, which concludes with a lengthy monologue as J.D.'s character, Josh, explains the story arc of the sci-fi novels that he's so obsessed with.

When I wrote this scene, I'd envisioned it as being sort of like the Indianapolis speech from Jaws. My idea was that Josh would describe these fictitious events with grave importance, as though he himself had experienced them and lived to tell the tale. J.D. had a funnier idea, though, which was to play it as an overly intense fanboy who was determined to finish his anecdote even while realizing that his unwilling audience had no interest.

J.D. also insisted, understandably, that he should pull over before telling the story, since performing this complicated scene while driving would be too difficult. This turned out to be a good idea, as the driving portions of the scene turned out to be a continuity nightmare.

Due to the sheer amount of material we were trying to crank through in a short time and under awkward circumstances, I figured it would be absurd to demand that the actors deliver the lines in this scene exactly as written; the most I could ask was that they hit all the essential beats of the scene in their own words. Nonetheless, I think this was J.D.'s finest hour as an actor. He nailed both the tone and the content of this massive scene, and stuck closest to the script out of anyone.

We then went back to the hotel to film a scene there - actually two scenes, one set in the evening and other taking place the next morning. Since the sun was setting as we shot, we actually filmed the morning scene first, then filmed the evening scene after we lost the light. In a well-meaning attempt to save time and cut costs, I relied on available light to shoot these scenes – fine for the day scene, somewhat less fine for the night scene.

Finally, we shot another driving scene, this one at night, as the characters arrive at the hotel. As originally scripted, this dialogue was originally going to play out in a hotel lobby, with a concierge listing in amusement to the characters arguing, but it was simpler to play the scene in the car instead.

This last scene of the day was one that I have almost no firsthand memory of shooting. Obviously I did shoot it, since the footage is in the movie, but I must have been just dog tired by this point, and I'm sure the actors felt the same way.

Still, we shot an impressive eleven pages of material today – about a tenth of the shooting script – and I must have breathed a lot easier knowing that these scenes were done.

Friday, August 20, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 16

DAY 16 – July 20, 2008

Day 16 … more than a week after Day 15. (We're talking shooting days here, not total days.)


In all the madness of production, I think I'd sort of forgotten that my old college buddy Greg and his wife Misha would be staying over for a visit on this particular weekend. (They often crash at my place when they're visiting relatives in the Rochester area, just as I often crash with them when I'm visiting NYC.)

But I wanted to keep up at least the semblance of a regular shooting schedule, and to me this required filming at least once a week. So I had to shoot something this weekend.

I believe strongly that once you start a big project that involves other people giving up their spare time, you have to finish it as quickly as possible. If you don't, people will lose momentum and interest, and drift away before you can finish it.

When making a low-budget movie (or perhaps a big-budget one as well), you should bear in mind that things could fall apart at any point. Ask yourself: If the shoot was suddenly halted for some reason, would it be possible for someone to make a coherent movie out of the footage you've shot SO FAR?

There are some scenes that, even if you're fond of them, could theoretically be cut or substituted. And then there are the scenes that you HAVE to shoot or else the film is incomplete and makes no sense. There were at least three of the latter that I still needed to get at this point. (As I review my old notes for this blog, I see that they were the next three scenes that I ended up shooting. Wasn't I the clever one.)

By far the simplest of the must-haves was an early exposition scene in which Josh, played by J.D., hears mysterious voices and begins his quest. This was a simple scene, which only required J.D. to sit in his trusty van, give some reaction shots, say a couple short lines of dialogue, and drive away.

We filmed the scene in a hotel parking lot. J.D. acted to his usual high standard, and I used some swooping, handheld camerawork to convey Josh's disorientation. Greg and Misha, eager to take part in the making of a feature film, came along and helped out behind the camera.

Not the longest or most epic day of shooting, but I breathed slightly easier with this scene done.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

25 Months Ago: Intermission


The initial two-week marathon of shooting was over. After filming a set walkthrough (which might be a DVD extra one day), I had signed out of the rented office space and returned the lighting kit. It was time to take stock of what I'd shot and what I hadn't, and to make plans for the remaining shoots.

I found that I had managed to shoot slightly less than half of the script. The remaining scenes (mostly in the first half of the movie) were generally smaller in scale, and would require only two or three of the main actors onscreen at one time.

For the next month or so, I would be filming on nights and weekends, about two or three days a week on average. The next shoot would not be until the following weekend, on July 20. An important scene, but a simple one. But more on that next time ...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 15

DAY 15 – July 12, 2008

There's something to be said for setting a firm deadline and saying “I'm going to start on X date, no matter what,” and then move heaven and earth to meet that self-imposed deadline, rather than wait for everything to be perfect – because things will never be perfect, and if you wait for perfection then you'll never begin. I learned this the hard way in film school.

But there's also something to be said for giving yourself time to dot your i's and cross your t's, and not going off half-cocked and underprepared. On Saberfrog, I started shooting with an incomplete schedule and several small roles still not cast, thinking that I could plug the gaps as I went along. Of course, once I started shooting there was no time for casting or any other additional planning. I'd gotten off lightly for most of the past two weeks, as friends or friends-of-friends were able to step in just in the nick of time. But by today, my luck had run out.

Today was Saturday. The last day of the two-week marathon. I had planned to film a scene in which J.D.'s character, Josh, goes to a sci-fi convention and learns, to his horror, that his favorite author has died. This was an important exposition scene which sent Josh on his soul-searching journey.

If you've ever been to at least a medium-sized sci-fi convention held at a hotel or convention center, you probably know that there tends to be a “main” room – a big auditorium where the really famous or important guests appear onstage – and then there are smaller rooms where discussion panels take place. The latter are sometimes well-attended and sometimes not, depending on whether the event in the main room is a bigger draw.

The scene I'd written had Josh walking in during a poorly-attended discussion panel and – after comic banter with the cranky panelists – learning the terrible news. In addition to its plot significance, it was one of my favorite scenes in the script, partly for the characterization and dialogue and partly for its satirical take on fandom. And there was a room in the Tobey Village space that would have been perfect to stage it.

But I would be unable to shoot this scene today, for the very simple reason that I didn't have any actors to play the panelists or the (small) audience. I had no choice but to cut the scene for now, and think about where and how to film it later on.

I also had no one to play Liz's boss during a flashback scene in which Liz's character, Laurel, gets fired. In this case, however, I was able to devise a crafty solution. Scrapping the scene that had been scripted, I filmed an improvised scene from the boss's POV – a handheld shot storming into a room and arguing with Laurel. Liz and I did five takes, improvising different dialogue each time. (I would later dub someone else's voice over my own – I'd intended Laurel's boss to be female.) While it's preferable not to have to resort to such shenanigans, this turned out to be yet another example of necessity forcing us to come up with something more unusual and interesting than what had been scripted.

Next, I filmed some extra material of Karyus for the scene filmed on Day 2. I couldn't show his face because he'd shaved since then, but I recorded an extra line of dialogue that had been skipped on Day 2 (and would have to be delivered offscreen in the finished film), and I also filmed his hand picking up a prop. I'd had second thoughts about an action performed by Karyus' character in that scene – I was worried about the thematic statement it would make – and so I had thought of a slight alternative that might be less morally ambiguous, which would require changing only one shot. I ended up not using this alternative in the finished film, because the original gag was just too good. Plus it seemed foolish to worry about mature and upright behavior in a character played by – and written for – John Karyus.

Then I filmed a brief flashback scene of Liz and Reuben in a park. A very short scene, and I couldn't tell you where we shot it, because I don't remember. There were kids playing, which made it hard to get a good sound take, but that's all I can think of to say about that.

After this, it was off to Monroe Community College again, this time to film a classroom scene. For this scene, at least, I had extras to play the student audience, although some doubling up of actors was again needed to make the crowd look a little bigger than it was.

This scene required a number of students watching a video on an auditorium screen. I brought the pre-recorded video on a miniDV deck, but found that I didn't have a needed connector to patch my deck into the classroom's media system. Local video-production guru Derrick Petrush – who I don't believe I'd ever met before today – was an extra in this scene, and he saved the day by rushing home to get his own supplies while I concentrated on getting other shots (that didn't require the video feed) until he returned. Derrick also provided mad skills that helped to make a particular special effect (which I won't spoil here) more convincing on camera than I expected.

I also shot a much shorter scene of a classroom flashback. I won't say much about this scene either, except that it offered an opportunity to show off some of the effects that Tom Gleason had created for Day 2 but which had gone unused due to the scheduling challenges of that shoot.

After this, several of us – myself, Karyus, Derrick, Liz, and Wendy – went to TGI Friday's to celebrate. For me, and for most of the lead actors, the shoot was far from over, but for Karyus this was it. He had finished his scenes and would be flying home on Monday.

I first met John Karyus at RIT, where his John Belushi-esque persona made him a frequent character actor in other students' films. It was my dream to one day cast him in a major role in one of my own films, and now that dream was achieved. Not only did he deliver the goods as a comedy actor, but he was a tremendous asset behind the camera, helping with lighting and sound (he'd been a boom operator today and on Day 5, and perhaps on other days that I can't remember) and also helping me to build the sets.

But his contribution to the film goes deeper still. John and I have been friends for over ten years now, and the long conversations he and I have had over the years – about school, about work, about movies, about culture, about life – gave me a lot to think about, and were a major influence on the themes, tone and direction of Saberfrog.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 14

DAY 14 – July 11, 2008

Friday. The last weekday before I go back to work. It was also the last day of shooting on the main office set at Tobey Village, although I would manage to squeeze a little bit more use out of the space before checking out.

Wendy, in the role of Aymee, finished her office scenes today. One of these scenes co-starred Reuben as the younger, louder Terrance, dressed in a bright lime-green shirt and a dinosaur-print tie, while a dinosaur toy is visible in the background. Another amusing bit of set dressing which seemed funnier at the time than it probably does in the finished movie.

Co-starring in this scene was yours truly as Aymee's boss. The scene required Aymee's boss to lose his temper and strike her, and although Wendy wouldn't actually have to be touched (with the right camera angle, you can miss someone by a mile and it still looks good, especially with a sound effect added), I thought she would be more comfortable if someone she knew and trusted were to play her hostile boss. I asked her if she would like me to play the role, and she said she would.

I'd acted in films before – including my own – but for this film had decided it would be wiser not to give myself one of the main roles in the film, but instead to wait and see if a smaller part (such as this one) needed to be filled or recast quickly.

Giving yourself a leading role in your own movie might seem like a good move in terms of scheduling – you're the one person you know is always available! – but if you don't have a big crew and are doing a lot of things yourself then it's probably not a good idea. You won't look your best if you're running on four hours of sleep a night and working up a sweat all day (unless this suits the character somehow), plus you have enough on your mind without having to give a performance and memorize lines.

In fact, I had a fair amount of trouble knowing my lines even for this small scene, which made me all the more impressed at how well the cast was coping with the complicated dialogue I'd written for them.

A good thing about casting yourself in your movie, though, is it means someone else gets to man the camera for a change. I think Wendy and Reuben took turns during my shots, or just turned it on during shots where all three of us were visible.

After filming my scene, I recorded the “slap” sound effect by slapping my own hand. Hard. It must have hurt (I'm not visible on camera in the raw footage for this, but Wendy's expression indicates that she's reacting to my expression after doing it) but it made for a good sound effect.

I think I was a bit miscast for this role – the character should really have been a big, square-jawed, SUV-driving macho yuppie guy, not a skinny little Turlough lookalike such as myself. But it wasn't the only character to veer slightly away from the script concept as a result of casting against type, so I'm probably wrong to worry.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 13

DAY 13 – July 10, 2008

Karyus and I went shopping for some more last-minute props. We went to Pier 1 for set dressing for Professor Mbaye's office, and we also went toy shopping for the opening money shot of the main cast – in younger, happier times – goofing off at work.

Today's shoot started with the office set for Professor Mbaye, allowing Jahaka to complete his three remaining scenes in the role. Two of these scenes co-starred Reuben as Terrance, and both he and Jahaka – like other actors on the shoot far – soon started bouncing off each other, although I couldn't use many of Jahaka's ad-libs as Mbaye is supposed to be a serious character.

We then captured some shots of the main office, now dressed with ridiculous toys (and handmade flyers), and it was license for the main cast to go wild. They did not disappoint.

A very fun day of shooting so far, and I thought the day couldn't get any nuttier. Wrong.

Next, we returned to Writers & Books to shoot a flashback scene in which Terrance humiliates himself by performing a bad one-man play. From that description you might instantly assume that this was a comedy scene. In the script, however, it was written as a traumatic experience for Terrance, one of the few scenes in the script that is meant to be deadly, gravely serious.

This was not to be.

For this scene, we had rented the main performance space at Writers & Books. While we were setting up, someone (I blame Karyus) discovered, hidden away in a corner of the room, two big tree branches. Why they were there, no one can say. But then the suggestion was made (perhaps with the knowledge that the director of this opus was easily amused) that Reuben should brandish these props during his “performance”.

This was another scene where the audio was to be covered over with present-day narration, so it didn't matter what the dialogue was. Reuben was given full rein to ad-lib whatever he wanted. Whatever he said, I didn't expect it to be heard in the film. Neither, I imagine, did Reuben.

What came out of Reuben's mouth, as he waved those branches onstage, was such surreal comedy that I had to use it. As with the record store scene, I kept the camera rolling, figuring that I would stop taping only when Reuben stopped being funny. But there as here, the longer I kept taping, the more bizarre the material became, until finally I had to ask, “Who are you, and what have you done with Reuben?”

I'd planned to film Reuben's performance only, and to capture the audience's (disgusted) reaction another day. As luck would have it, a class was going on in the room next door, and Jahaka – who accompanied us to this shoot – knew someone in that class, and invited the class to be extras. I filmed them as they gave disgusted reactions, then stomped out en masse in what also turned out to be a humorous moment.

I left that shoot with a heady mix of delight and concern. After a week and a half of shooting, I had observed that all the actors – even those who only appeared in one scene – were eager to sink their teeth into the material and contribute their own wacky additions, making almost every scene bigger and bolder than I'd envisioned. To see the same absurdity envelop a more serious scene, and to see myself happily going with it, gave me pause. What kind of movie was I making here? What had been written as an edgy balance between comedy and drama was rapidly mutating into weird comedy throughout.

Of course, a different director would put his foot down and say, “No, that's not in the script,” or “No, that's too ridiculous.” Actors said, or did, or held, or wore, absurd things on camera because I allowed it and even encouraged it, even if I wasn't conscious of doing so. There was no way I wasn't going to use the extra material that the cast was giving me. I was happy to surf this rising wave of weirdness rather than attempt to tame it.

In that regard, I guess I lean towards the Terry Gilliam approach of letting actors and artists contribute eccentric ideas, and deciding which of these ideas are usable, rather than the Stanley Kubrick/George Lucas approach of sticking to a specific vision and forcing the actors to conform to it.

The footage of the audience turned out to be lit poorly – I hadn't expected to be filming the seats – and I would end up reshooting most of this audience-reaction material over a year later. The extras in that shoot would be directed to behave as the audience extras in this shoot had done.

Wendy and I went to Zebb's Deluxe Bar and Grill for dinner afterwards.

Monday, August 9, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 12

DAY 12 – July 9, 2008

When I first met Reuben, he had his hair braided and he looked very sleek and no-nonsense. When I bumped into again, some days or weeks before the start of the shoot, his hair was unbraided. I thought the unbraided hair made him look younger and more casual.

For this reason, Reuben would have his hair unbraided to play his younger self in flashback scenes, of which there were three to be filmed today.

The first was of the young Terrance quitting his job. The second was a brief interview scene. The third was a college office scene with John Sindoni.

Then, with moody lighting, we filmed several closeups of Sindoni – lines of dialogue as well as cutaway reaction shots – that had been missed on Day 2.

We also got a shot of Karyus's character being interviewed.

Not a lot to say here, as all of these scenes were quick and simple to shoot.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 11

DAY 11 – July 8, 2008

With all of Karyus' present-day scenes completed, he went and got a shave and a haircut so that he could play his clean-cut younger self in flashbacks.

We filmed a scene in which the young Bert walks through a park, contemplating his destiny. A funny, improvised shot had Karyus sleeping under a strange tree, like a fairy-tale troll, but this shot didn't really fit and I ended up not using it.

Next, we returned to Tobey Village to film a scene of Bert being fired from his old office job. We went to some trouble to dress Bert's cubicle as a squalid pig-sty, which I thought was hilarious at the time, even if it doesn't quite have the same impact in the finished film.

J.D.'s character, Josh, was in this scene, as was an obsessive engineer whose cubicle was next to Bert's. Originally I'd wanted someone older for this small role, to clearly differentiate him from the main cast. But this was another role I had trouble casting, so J.D. came to the rescue by bringing his friend and co-worker Michael Sackley onboard, and Michael had a lot of fun with the part.

I also had failed to cast an actor as Bert's manager, so Jesse Conklin, who'd played Josh's boss the day before, became Bert's boss as well, in another piece of serendipitous continuity.

The events leading to Bert's termination were being narrated by present-day Bert, so Karyus and Mr. Conklin were required to ad-lib some material that wouldn't be heard by the audience. Of course, this improv material was funnier than expected and I ended up using some of their dialogue in place of the narration that was meant to cover it.

Another funny ad-lib occurred between J.D. and Karyus during an establishing shot, and I'm pleased to say that it is featured in the finished film. While J.D. did a terrific job on this movie as a dramatic actor, it's kind of too bad that this character didn't give him more chances to show his comedy chops.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 10

DAY 10 – July 7, 2008

Today was a Monday. Perhaps fittingly, we spent it filming several short scenes at the Tobey Village office set.

I bought some office equipment at Office Depot to provide a little more set dressing, and also bought a pair of reading glasses for J.D. to use as a prop. Karyus helped with some last minute set-building before the shoot.

The footage of John Sindoni's scenes from Day 5 turned out to have flickering light levels, due to a bad fluorescent bulb in the set for his office. So we reshot those scenes today.

Next, we shot a brief scene of Reuben speaking to a college secretary. I had been unable to cast the role of the secretary, so Wendy read the lines off-camera. I was planning to replace her voice later, but would ultimately decide that having Wendy in this dual role had a certain logic to it (you'll understand when you see the finished film … maybe).

We then recreated the moody blue lighting of Day 2, and shot some close-ups of Reuben that I hadn't been able to get on that day – a missing line of dialogue and some physical actions.

After this, we shot an early scene of J.D.'s character, Josh, being let go by his boss, played by Jesse Conklin. Mr. Conklin was one of several actors (Anthony Owens was another) who approached me for a role in response to a casting announcement I'd made through Rochester Movie Makers. More recently he revealed to me that this was his first acting role in a movie (he's been in several local productions since), but that wouldn't have mattered even if I'd known. I just thought he had a solid, dad-like quality that made him perfect for this part.

For scheduling reasons, the shoot had been largely Karyus-centric so far, so it was good to finally do a scene which centered on J.D., who was, after all, the lead actor. It was also the first scene of the shoot in which he got to do comedic acting. Although J.D. had no lines in this scene, his Gromit-like facial expressions and body language spoke comedy volumes, so not many takes were required.

I wanted the costumes and set design to be bland and monochrome, to communicate the dullness that Josh's life has become. This was the first scene of the shoot to make use of the main office set, and it occurs at a point in the script when the office is relatively bare. That made it the perfect choice to shoot first, since I was still in the process of assembling the set and acquiring decoration for it. By this point, making the movie was like building the railroad track a few feet ahead while driving the train.

After filming this scene, I put tape marks on the floor to mark the tripod position, as I would later need to match this camera setup with a similar shot of a younger J.D. at his desk, during happier times.

The shooting day concluded with a simple close-up of Wendy's character being interviewed.

Another good day.

Friday, August 6, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 9

DAY 9 – July 6, 2008

We spent today in Brockport. I figured Sunday would be a good day to schedule shoots at locations that would normally be closed.

A few scenes in the script took place in a comic book store, and I had my heart set on filming at Collector's Choice in Brockport, which I knew to be closed on Sundays. However, one of the co-owners was going through a family emergency at the time, and I was unable to arrange permission.

So I changed the scene to a used record store (which actually fit better) and made arrangements to film at Trader Shag's. The owner's wife owned Coleen's Cafe down the street, so I decided to be a good host and take the cast there for breakfast before shooting.

The record store scenes provided small on-camera roles for Sean Sherman (who crewed on the cemetery shoot on July 4) as the store owner, and Anthony “Ace-yon” Owens (who crewed on the video store shoot on Day 1) as a teenager hoping to buy a bootleg.

Anthony had been in the running for the role of Terrance, despite being a little young for the part (which I would have justified by having the character be a former child prodigy). Anthony was enthusiastic and had done a lot of preparation for the role, before Reuben – my first choice – was finally able to commit to the movie. Anthony then became an understudy for the role of Bert, in case Karyus was unable to leave LA. When Karyus' participation was confirmed, I was determined to give Anthony a speaking role in the film, and so I offered him the small role of a teenager.

Anthony accepted the smaller part, but also said, “I hope you don't mind, but I think I could add some lines to this.” I figured there was nothing wrong with this – as long has he said the lines I wrote, he could say his own lines as well.

The scene in the script is a brief establishing scene in which Karyus' character, Bert, refuses to sell a raunchy bootleg to a minor. I'd originally envisioned the teenage character as nerdy and awkward, like the Pimple-Faced Teen from The Simpsons, but I was happy to let Anthony make the role his own.

What happened on-camera between Anthony and Karyus was comedy gold. Anthony not only had thought of several new jokes, but was continuing to think of more during his performance – all that prior preparation meant that he knew the script well, and he made full use of that background knowledge. Karyus had no trouble keeping up with him, and both actors stayed straight-faced and in character as they traded ad-libbed barbs.

If I had used all the material they produced, the movie would have been a lot longer (and raunchier), and I would later struggle to condense the scene down to the funniest bits. One of my favorite moments was Karyus saying “I don't even think you have money...” and Anthony replying “I don't think you have money! You fifty years old and you work in a damn record store!” What made this even funnier was that the actual owner of the store was in earshot, watching us work.

After this, we filmed a scene in J.D.'s parked van, and a scene on the street between Reuben and Liz. I felt a little weird filming an argument scene in a public place, but I don't remember any passersby taking much notice of us.

We then filmed a lengthy cafe scene at Java Junction, but not before having dinner there (again, be a good host). There was some unavoidable background noise due to a refrigerator, but the dialogue was still audible, although a middle section of the scene was especially noisy and was difficult to fix – an odd parallel to the parking lot shoot the day before. Again, we filmed the scene in sections, a few lines at a time. It's a tribute to the actors that these long dialogue scenes, which were so complex to shoot, flow so quickly and gracefully in the finished film.

All in all, a satisfying day.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 8

DAY 8 – July 5, 2008

Another Saturday. This shoot involved all the main cast, and took place at a parking lot at University of Buffalo, North Campus.

I had thought of a couple extra lines of dialogue to add to the scene, to earn Karyus' character an extra laugh. During the shoot, Karyus commented that this scene summed up the movie, and maybe he was right.

We filmed the scene in sections – the actors would perform a chunk of lines from the scene, I would get several takes from various angles, and then the actors would perform the next few lines, and so on. When not needed on-camera, Wendy helped out by holding the boom pole while I filmed.

I seem to remember Liz being the one to recommend the particular parking lot we used – or at least, there was some driving around from parking lot to parking lot with her navigating and me weighing her recommendations. Or did that all happen on some previous day, when we were scouting this location in the first place?

Anyway, July 5 was a clear, warm, sunny day. That was the good news. That was also the bad news. The intense heat didn't make anyone very comfortable – as director/cameraman, I could at least hide under a hat and sunglasses, but the actors weren't so lucky, with the partial exception of Liz who got to don a pair of sunglasses during the scene.

Reuben had some forceful dramatic dialogue in this scene, but unfortunately there was relatively little light on his face due to the position of the sun behind the campus buildings. When I looked at Reuben through the viewfinder, I saw a dark silhouette in a blazingly bright environment. I tried using the dashboard shade from my car as a reflector, but that didn't help the lighting much and served only to aggravate Reuben's (literal) allergy to sunlight.

I seemed to have only one of two choices for setting my exposure. I could set it for the environment, and let Reuben remain a silhouette. Or I could set it so that Reuben's face was visible, but make it look like he was standing in heaven, or in the middle of a nuclear explosion. Ultimately I tried to split the difference as much as possible without making the background too bright, while shooting Reuben from a slight angle so that at least his mouth movements were visible.

In the script, the characters separate and go off in different directions to explore the campus, but I skipped most of that material today. I only had Karyus for about 16 days, so he was my priority; pretty much anything that didn't feature him would have to be filmed later.

With the parking lot scene in the can (or rather, on the tape), we then shot some driving scenes. J.D. had generously allowed use of his own van for all of these scenes, which was convenient because he was the one doing all the on-camera driving anyway, and also because a van has more room than a car, making it easier to get camera angles.

Some of these driving scenes were on the UB campus, and some were on the road in Amherst; the latter were supposed to take place in Canada. I had in mind a particular type of house I'd often seen during my own car trips to Toronto, and so I asked Liz to direct us to a neighborhood where we would pass by houses of this type. She misunderstood the type of housing I was looking for, and kept leading us past housing complexes. But as luck would have it, we passed the appropriate type of house anyway, and I managed to get the shots I needed.

Again, getting Karyus' scenes done was a priority, so we recorded all car scenes that had him in them. In order to get various camera angles, we would sometimes return to a designated spot on campus and drop off or pick up a cast member, so that the cameraman (me) could occupy his/her seat to get a different camera angle.

We had lunch at the Super Fuji Buffet in Amherst. I honestly don't remember whether lunch was before or after (or between?) car scenes. I do remember having my nose buried in the schedule, planning the next scenes while the cast socialized.

This was probably my least favorite day of shooting since Day 2 – it was rough on the actors and on myself – and the pain continued when I finally watched the raw footage.

Reuben's close-ups were as problematic as I feared, although I would ultimately be able to correct them in post-production. If we'd shot this at a different time of day, maybe the situation would have been different. So it was a lesson learned about scheduling, and knowing where the sun is going to be when filming outdoors (as well as learning a new Final Cut Pro setting).

Also, a middle section of the big dramatic scene was underexposed to a degree that was not salvageable. The particular camera I was using (Canon HV30) does not have any f-stop settings; it sets brightness automatically when turned on, and the user can raise or lower the brightness from this initial setting. So I was having to adjust the brightness by eye – not an easy thing to do on a blinding July day, and I must have turned off the camera between sections of the script, and gotten a different light reading (or adjusted it differently) when I turned it back on.

Editing this scene would eventually require trimming as many lines from the affected section as possible, and patching over the remaining dialogue with cutaways from other scenes.

The car scenes weren't the best either – whether through my own fatigue, or wariness at pushing the actors too hard after such a hot day, I must have adopted a “just say some lines and I'll use them” attitude, because I'd gotten very few takes of these scenes, none of which were perfect. It would take some clever editing to make these scenes work, and I ended up cutting some of this material altogether.

The raw footage of the campus driving scenes did feature of one of the cast members (I won't say who) looking out the window and saying “Oh my lord. Now that's a behind!” I never saw the coed who inspired this remark, and this generously proportioned stranger was not captured on tape. Oh well.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 7

DAY 7 – July 4, 2008

Independents (sic) Day!

The main reason that the “Saberfrog” shooting schedule centered around early July was to take advantage of the July 4 holiday weekend. It meant less time I had to take off from work, and a little more time available from the cast.

Early on I'd decided that the morning of July 4, a holiday, would be a good time to film the cemetery scene at Mount Hope Cemetery, since I figured not too many people would be around.

In the past I'd heard from other filmmakers that Mount Hope Cemetery could be discouraging to people who want to film there, but I phoned The Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery and was given a verbal OK. It probably helped that the single scene I wanted to film there was a simple and serious scene with nothing supernatural or anything.

This scene featured J.D., Reuben, Liz, Karyus and Wendy, plus Diane Conway as Reuben's wife. Helping me out behind the camera was Sean Sherman, who would feature in a small acting role two days later; he also contributed his car as an onscreen prop.

Additional props included a fake headstone (made by a friend of Tom's) and a rose (I'd forgotten to get one, and I'm guessing that Wendy was the one who provided it). A newborn baby appears in this scene, played – convincingly, I hope – by a teddy bear wrapped in a blanket.

The fake headstone has a 'deceased' date of 2009 - at that time, one year in the future, since that's when I thought the film would be completed and shown. Karyus suggested I leave the stone there to see if anyone noticed.

All in all, this was (to quote Monty Python) a smashing scene with some lovely acting. The weather was beautiful. It was sunny and not too windy, and there wasn't much noise. The footage turned out gorgeous. Sometimes, things just go right.

After the shoot, I went to Dana and Fran's house. I was still seeking locations for other scenes at this point, so I'm betting my visit wasn't purely social.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 6

DAY 6 – July 3, 2008

I don't remember much about this day. A note in my daily planner on this day says “scout Mt Hope”, so I must have set myself the task of figuring out which part of Mt. Hope Cemetery I was going to be using for the following day's shoot. And the receipts tell me that I stocked up on some more miniDV tapes.

The only thing we shot today was a brief and simple scene in which Liz and Karyus talk to a college receptionist (played by Nikki Germany, another friend of Liz). The location was the University of Buffalo (North Campus, Amherst), and we simply used their information desk when no one was around. Nikki and Liz improvised a small joke about earrings, which I insisted on using in the film. It was unusual to see anyone upstage John Karyus, although he has since told me he played the scene as a sheepish husband being forced to put up with girl talk.

Judging by emails from the time, this scene was originally scheduled for June 30, and then for July 2. Both of those days ended up solidly booked anyway, which may have caused the postponement. Or it may have been that an actress hadn't been found yet for the secretary role; I don't recall. It seems the scene just had to wait for a day when there wasn't much else to do.

Monday, August 2, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 5

DAY 5 – July 2, 2008

Wednesday. Odin's Day. Hump Day.

Today was the first day shooting in the Tobey Village space, which had a large open space, several smaller offices, and a bathroom (for which I bought supplies today).

I'd gotten one office set up as Dr. Garrison's campus office, which was the location for a dialogue scene between John Sindoni (as Garrison) and John Karyus (as Bert). After this, John S. put on some makeup so that he could also play a younger Garrison who appears in an old TV interview.

After this, Karyus and I headed to Writers & Books to film a faculty meeting scene in a classroom. (Karyus, though not needed on-camera, helped with the boom mic.) Wendy and Jahaka were the established regulars, while Roberto Petrilli, and Dana and Fran Paxson, played additional professors. When writing the script I hadn't envisioned that these professors would be characters who appeared elsewhere in the film (Roberto, Dana and Fran had already been featured in scenes shot on the two previous days), but this worked out well as a nice bit of continuity. It also meant I didn't have to find more actors.

Whereas other scenes I'd shot so far had been partly or mostly comic, this was one of the more dramatic scenes, and I shot it with a roaming handheld camera for a fly-on-the-wall feel, since Wendy's character, Aymee, is an observer in this scene.

This scene was exposition for the scene we shot on Day 2, and needed to be adjusted slightly to tie in with the on-the-fly changes made during that shoot. My creative energy was already starting to flag at that point, so I found myself describing the broad outline of the scene and encouraging the actors to improvise additional lines. The actors rose to the challenge, particularly Dana, who is a writer himself; and Roberto, who is a professor in real life and thus seemed to take some of the scene's themes to heart.

As a writer/director, I try not to be precious about my own dialogue. Sometimes I will insist that a line be spoken as written, if it's something that I took great care to construct just so – a particular joke, or a tricky piece of exposition – but otherwise I've learned to allow actors to rephrase the material in their own words, as long as they're still conveying the same points as the written dialogue. It tends to result in more interesting performances, and when time is tight it's simply easier for the actors to do.

In this case, there were not one, not two, but four actors ad-libbing and bouncing off each other, producing a mountain of additional, unscripted material that was challenging to edit. Some of it was so good that I substituted a lot of their words for the scripted lines (which I'd also filmed). But this scene was stubbornly overlong in most early cuts of the film, and it took a lot of effort to whittle it down.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 4

DAY 4 – July 1, 2008

Today I bought a computer desk (which still serves me to this day as a video editing station) for use in the office set. Fortunately for “Saberfrog”, the previous occupant of the Tobey Village space left a lot of stuff behind, including cubicle dividers and even some computer monitors, which meant less set dressing I had to procure on my own. Construction of the office set would continue throughout the week.

The location for today's shoot was Monroe Community College, Building 3. We filmed a college debate scene between two professor characters: Dr. Garrison, played once again by John Sindoni; and Prof. Mbaye, played by local spoken-word artist Jahaka Mindstorm. Bert, played by John Karyus, would be videotaping the debate … badly.

MCC provided two podiums for use in the scene, as well as chairs for the audience. A relatively small number of extras showed up to play the audience, but hopefully we disguised this by using tight angles, and by having some people appear more than once with their faces hidden. Some friends of mine, Dana and Fran Paxson, helped swell the on-camera numbers at short notice – not the last time they would be involved with the film, in front of or behind the camera.

If this had been a big-budget movie, I would have had the camera on a crane, swooping dramatically past the actors – think of podium scenes in Citizen Kane or Malcolm X, or even the “Evening with Kevin Smith” videos – but indie necessity dictated that I shoot the actors straight on, proscenium-arch-style, as if the camera was one of the audience members.

While I was filming the debate scene as the (movie) audience would see it, Karyus was fulfilling his character's videographer role by actually videotaping the debate from the back of the room, using the standard-def miniDV camera that I'd been using to shoot previous projects. This “source” footage would later be intercut with the regular footage I was shooting. Karyus kept the camera rolling while I was between takes, thus capturing the only “behind the scenes” footage to be recorded during production.

Roberto Petrilli had recorded his cutaways as the director yesterday, so he didn't need to be present for this shoot. His son Anthony, however, did appear as a secondary videographer annoyed by Bert's antics.

When I later reviewed the footage, I made an amusing discovery: without my knowledge, Karyus had videotaped himself with the standard-def camera, making various bizarre faces and utterances. By doing so, Karyus had – knowingly or not – completed an additional scene, of Bert goofing off on-camera for a viral video. One less scene to be scheduled, and I didn't even have to direct it. Thanks, man!