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.

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