Tuesday, September 28, 2010

12 Months Ago: Day 32

DAY 32 – September 28, 2009

On this rainy Monday evening, a meeting of the Rochester Movie Makers featured a guest speaker encouraging Rochester filmmakers to be ambitious and make features. Apparently some people who knew me and had worked with me turned to look at me to gauge my reaction … and discovered that I had left.

The reason I ducked out of the meeting was so that I could go film the one remaining scene for the movie, featuring Kathy Coughenour.

Kathy, a local theater actress, was a friend of John Sindoni's, and he had recommended her to me back when I was originally casting the role of the female voice in Josh's head. I'd spoken to her but decided that her voice wasn't quite what that role required.

However, I still remembered her over a year later, and thought she might be a good fit for the role of Josh's stepmom. John S. gave me her contact info (which I'd mislaid), and she was delighted to be involved in the movie.

Josh's stepmom was to be part of the payphone scene that was (mostly) shot on Day 23. That scene was a hasty replacement for a different scene in the original script, so J.D. had ad-libbed one half of a conversation. When it came time to edit the scene, I figured out what the unseen stepmom's lines should be, to match J.D.'s improvised dialogue. I wrote the lines down, recorded them in a silly voice, and dubbed them into the rough cut. Now it was time to record those lines with a real live woman!

I recorded Kathy's lines at her house. Although the stepmom was originally intended to be just a voice on the telephone, I told Kathy in advance that I would film her, so that I would have the option of using the visuals if I wanted to.

This turned out to be the right decision, and the final stroke of luck to occur during shooting. I did not know what Kathy would look like, or what she would be wearing. But her Ileana Douglas-ish looks, and the cute multi-colored sweater she had on, made her a telegenic addition to the movie.

Kathy generously allowed me to move furniture and lamps around so that I could get better angles and better lighting. Having spoken her lines for the sake of the rough cut, it was now my turn to feed her Josh's dialogue.

And on that triumphant note, the filming of Saberfrog finally came to an end.


Well, I hope you've enjoyed this real-time trip through the making of the movie as much as I've enjoyed writing it, reliving good days and bad.

A few weeks ago, Mike Boas asked me how I was able to remember all of this information. Part of the answer to this is that I had a lot of reference material to draw on – dates written down in my daily planner or printed on receipts, emails in my Sent folder with schedule information, and tape logs that detailed what order we shot things in. Plus, I was also the cameraman and editor, so I knew which days had gone well and which days had had problems (conveniently for my memory, most scenes were shot entirely on a single day except when a reshoot was needed). Sometimes there were problems that I wasn't aware of during shooting, and only discovered while viewing or editing the footage. There's no way that I could have kept this kind of a journal during the shoot itself, as I had way too much on my plate.

It's a Tuesday evening as I write this. Yesterday, I missed a Rochester Movie Makers meeting because I was acting in an RIT student film. An oddly appropriate way to mark the one-year anniversary of Saberfrog's final shoot.

Monday, September 27, 2010

12 Months Ago: Day 31

DAY 31 – September 27, 2009

Several offscreen characters were represented in the rough cut by my own voice. This was adequate for editing purposes, but for the finished film I would need a wider variety of actors in these roles.

I'd worked with Keith Jurgens on the short film “Enter the Dagon”, which featured his deep voice as a narrator, so it made sense to cast him as the voice of a TV reporter who contributes exposition in the opening scene.

Keith's material, like Meredith's the day before, was recorded in my small apartment, and I know that at least one recording break was required to wait for the noise of my refrigerator to stop. Welcome to the glamorous world of low-budget filmmaking.

And with that, most of the offscreen voices had now been re-recorded, although my own voice would still remain in place performing the role of an operator's voice on a payphone.

But there was one more voice I still needed to get – Josh's stepmom, still represented in the rough cut by my own silly voice.

Tomorrow, this would be remedied.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

12 Months Ago: Day 30

DAY 30 – September 26, 2009

I got some more cutaways shot today. Meredith Powell, who I'd acted with in at least five previous film projects, made an onscreen cameo, and also provided voice-overs for three offscreen characters: Laurel's boss from Day 15, a cheery newscaster, and an adult film actress.

After this, I headed to Writers & Books to reshoot the audience reactions from Day 13. I'd made a decision that now seems curious in hindsight – I screened the entire rough cut of the movie (there were still some castmembers who hadn't had a chance to see it yet) in the performance space I'd rented, then quickly filmed the audience footage for the scene involving Terrance's play; the extras had now watched the scene in question and understood what their response was supposed to be.

The audience footage was much better this time – not only technically, but in terms of the performances, as this time I was taking the proper time to direct the actors. Renell Edwards, one of the breakout stars of Liz Lehmann's film Fury, gave the most memorable performance as a particularly disgusted audience member.

I then moved the actors outside so that they could double as other characters in a brief crowd scene. Although the specific setting of this scene wasn't hugely important, Writers & Books has the shell of a red British phone box as an objet d'art outside its building, and I was kind of hoping the scene would look like it took place in England. This scene was supposed to take place at the same time as other scenes set in eastern North America during daylight hours, so in the finished film I would darken the footage a bit in order to make the time difference less glaring.

As the day's shooting completed, Renell gave me a huge compliment when he asked, incredulously, “Why haven't I heard about this movie before now?”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

12 Months Ago: Day 29

DAY 29 – September 22, 2009

Yup, another year passed before I shot any more footage.

Since September 2008, I'd been cutting the movie together. By June 2009, I had a rough cut completed.

Several elements were still missing. The animated dream sequence was represented only by onscreen text explaining what the visuals would be. Temp music from my CD collection was used in place of an original score. And several voice-only characters were represented by my own voice, which I was planning to replace later with other actors.

On Wednesday, June 10, I showed the rough cut to the Rochester Film Lab. One of the filmmakers present was artist Frank Kielar, who later volunteered to provide the missing animation.

On Saturday, June 27 – almost the one-year anniversary of the first day of shooting – I had a small screening for most of the main cast, allowing the actors to see the fruits of their efforts.

With the movie roughly assembled, I was able to clearly see what holes needed to be plugged. By September, I was ready to get pickup shots.

I spent the third weekend of September attending Independent Film Week, a filmmaking conference held in New York City. I stayed with my friend Greg Draves, and he accompanied me to the airport as I headed home on Tuesday, September 22.

On the way, Greg performed as an actor in a brief cutaway that I would use in the film. I wanted the Empire State Building visible in the background, to clearly sell the fact that this was actually shot in New York. In the actual shot, the Empire State Building isn't that prominent, but the UN building is, and there are yellow cabs going by, all of which says NYC just as clearly.

So now the film was shot in NYC as well as Rochester and Buffalo!

25 Months Ago: Day 28

DAY 28 - August 22, 2008

Thank God It's Friday.

J.D. and I got the absolute last scene required for the main shoot. In this scene, J.D. arrives at a warehouse determined to find out what's inside.

This is another mystery location – J.D. found it, so I don't remember where it was or who owned it. We just knew that it would be closed, so we would be able to run around filming without anyone noticing.

For dramatic effect, I had J.D. hold the camera for a couple of takes, pointed at himself as he walks. Only in the age of lightweight digital cameras would it have been possible to get this kind of shot in a feature film, and it looked great.

And with that, principal photography was done. I don't know what J.D. did with that blue shirt he'd been wearing through most of the shoot, though I vaguely recall him making some joke about burning it. Or maybe I was the one who made the joke.

The two months of filming had been punishing. I'd gotten some great footage, and some footage that would take a lot of work to salvage. I'd had dramatic scenes transform into comedy in the hands of the actors, and I'd had comedic scenes that the actors imbued with unexpected dramatic power. I'd had scenes that came off pretty much as planned, and I'd had scenes that had to be cobbled together out of quick thinking in order to replace what was originally in the script. This was the most epic production I'd ever pulled off, and the romance of being an indie filmmaker had been sorely tested.

Many filmmakers my age and younger seem inclined to keep it very simple, and to pursue the Clerks / Reservoir Dogs model – one main location and a small cast. My blessing and my curse is that I've always dreamed big. As a sci-fi fan, I was always more interested in quests and adventures. That's the kind of storytelling that inspired me to become a filmmaker.

Maybe I'm more aligned with the 60s/70s generation of filmmakers in that regard. They made epics – ensemble dramas, period war films, existential Westerns, psychedelic road movies. They were worldly and literate, and had frames of reference other than pop culture. They had big things to say and wanted to expand the minds of the audience. They weren't crippled by self-pity, passivity and cynicism as so many Gen-Xers seem to be.

So I'd filmed the movie I wanted to make. All I had to do now was edit ...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 27

DAY 27 - August 19, 2008

There is a pivotal scene in Saberfrog that I will only describe as a dream sequence. It features Josh (played by J.D.) and Terrance (played by Reuben) as sci-fi characters in an apocalyptic environment.

Originally, I had planned to film the two actors on a greenscreen, and to create their environment using animation. However, I eventually realized that this would require not only finding and/or building a greenscreen, but also having costumes made for the actors and choreographing an action sequence. Therefore – and I don't remember when I committed to this decision – I chose to depict the scene entirely through animation.

All I needed from J.D. and Reuben, then, was their voices. So I postponed recording this material until very near the end of principal photography. Once again, John Sindoni provided his home as a recording location.

Somehow, it was while recording this scene, as I attempted to convey to the actors what the scene was about and what kinds of emotions they needed to provide, that it fully sunk in for me what a strange script this was.

My plan from the beginning had been to record the scenes with the most actors first, and then get individual actors' scenes completed so that I could set people “free” and be working with fewer and fewer actors as the shoot progressed. This aspect of the shoot had been a success. I was now finished with Reuben's scenes, and indeed the scenes with almost all of the major actors.

After this, J.D. and I went off to shoot another payphone scene – this one taking place at night, as J.D.'s character stops to call for directions. We used a payphone at some gas station that J.D. had identified as a suitable location – I don't remember where. Maybe someone watching the finished film will recognize it. It was in Monroe County – I'm pretty sure of that much, but otherwise I have no idea.

Then we got some shots of J.D.'s car pulling off the road, which we filmed by stopping in an unlit, pitch-black section of road so that I could get out and film J.D. pulling the van over. Remember when I said that I'd filmed this on Day 21? Well, judging by the footage logs it was actually part of the payphone-at-night shoot. My bad.

All that remained now was a short sequence requiring only J.D, and some offscreen characters heard only on the telephone or as TV narrators. The latter could be recorded anytime, by anyone, so my goal now was just to finish one scenes with J.D., and the main shoot would be complete.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 26

DAY 26 - August 18, 2008

While searching for a suitable locale for the cafe scene (which we shot back on Day 9), I learned that one Rochester cafe, Equal=Grounds, was closed on Mondays. It later occurred to me that this would therefore be an ideal time and place to shoot a scene of Liz and Reuben's characters, Laurel and Terrance, having an argument outside – since this cafe was closed, we wouldn't be in anyone's way.

This scene wasn't absolutely essential to the plot, but it was a good character moment between Laurel and Terrance and I was glad to be able to film it. The scene didn't appear in earlier drafts, but I added it after feedback from blogger John Nolte, who I met at a film festival; after reviewing the script, he felt that there was a lack of conflict in the story at this point, so I wrote this scene establishing Terrance's resistance to the epic quest that he's been dragged into.

There was no lack of traffic at the corner where we were filming, which caused some sound problems. We were losing light as well. Nonetheless, we got the scene done.

After this, I got a quick audio-only line reading from Liz for an earlier scene, to fill a missing gap in the Day 17 shoot. In that scene, Laurel is asked to join the quest, and she gets excited … and leaves. I had Liz record a line (which would be dubbed over the scene) saying “I'll get my stuff.”

(Oddly, this parallels a scene in The Muppet Movie, one of this film's influences. Kermit and Fozzie ask Miss Piggy to join them on their journey to Hollywood. She gets worked up emotionally, and suddenly runs away. Baffled, Kermit and Fozzie shrug and go on their way … not realizing that Miss Piggy had gone to pack her suitcase.)

With this line recorded, and the argument scene filmed, all of Liz's scenes in the movie were now completed. Of the lead actors, only J.D. and Reuben had scenes still to film.

The end was in sight.

Friday, September 17, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 25

DAY 25 - August 17, 2008

Today we filmed another scene using Dana and Fran's house as a location. This was a flashback scene featuring a character who is pivotal to the entire story, but who only appears in this one scene and thus had gone uncast for the duration of the shoot until the previous Thursday, when I pitched the role to actress Mary Criddle.

I'd met Mary recently at a filmmakers' group meeting, and decided she would be a good fit for the character, so over coffee at Spot Cafe I explained the character as best I could, and gave her a copy of her lines.

I know that this particular character must have been difficult to make sense of without the context of the complete script, but Mary gave it her all. She'd put some care into selecting her wardrobe, and had even grayed her hair so that she would look closer to the intended age of the character.

Mary brought the required serenity and gravitas to the character, intended to contrast with the craziness and immaturity of most other characters in the film. Of course, I've since seen Mary in several other local films in which she plays much more over-the-top characters, so now even this scene looks comically skewed to me.

I remember being a bit anxious shooting this scene, at least at first. I knew that my energy and enthusiasm for this movie was by now dipping dangerously low, but this was an important scene and it couldn't be done in a half-assed manner. Fortunately, I hit upon what seemed to me a suitably artistic way of shooting the scene.

Because this scene represented another character's memory, I staged the scene so that this other character (I'm not saying who) was only visible in a mirror. It was also helped to make a somewhat exposition-heavy scene a little more visually interesting.

Almost done...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 24

DAY 24 - August 16, 2008

“Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the Old West. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.”

That's a semi-famous quote from French director/actor Francois Truffaut, in his 1973 film Day for Night. It's a good thing I went online to verify the exact quote (or as exact as a quote translated from French into English can be), because in my memory it had metamorphosed into the following:

“At the start of filming, every director wants to make the greatest film ever made. Halfway through, you just want to finish the damn thing.”

Well, if Frankie-boy didn't actually say that, then I must have created it without knowing. In any case, it's pretty close to how I was feeling about Saberfrog.

Today was a Saturday. On the previous Wednesday I had sent out a revised schedule with several cuts made to it. Terrance's backstory was to be simplified, some other early character/expository stuff was gone for good, and today I was once again cramming several still-needed scenes into one day.

First up was a scene on campus between J.D. and Wendy. We didn't film it on Day 8 (when we were at UB) because at that time I cared mainly about getting the shots that had Karyus in them, so I had put off that section until today.

We went to a small, quiet corner of the SUNY Brockport campus (where I'd taken classes many years earlier), which seemed to match the Buffalo campus well enough. In theory, shooting this scene should have been simple, but it ended up being a tough shoot for a couple of reasons.

In the script, J.D. and Wendy were supposed to run across campus. But since the original shoot on Day 8 had subjected the cast to the hot sun, I thought it would be easier on the actors – and more visually interesting – to stage the scene in a stairwell, where there was shade. It didn't occur to me that making J.D. and Wendy climb a flight of stairs multiple times (so I could get different takes and angles) would be physically punishing.

To make matters worse, Wendy's shoulder bag – which we left outside, thinking it would be safe because school was out and there wasn't a soul around – disappeared mysteriously between takes. Wendy was horrified, and I felt miserable because this damn movie was the reason why we were out here in the first place. Fortunately, it hadn't been stolen after all – some Good Samaritan had seen it lying out in the open and moved it to a sheltered spot. But we were all shaken.

To cap it all off, J.D. badly needed to use the bathroom by the end of this shoot, but we couldn't find a bathroom that wasn't locked. I should have thought of this, but I didn't, so J.D. was still in this unhappy state when the morning shoot completed.

All in all, this was the one shoot that made me feel like an absolute bastard. The only way this shoot could have been any more uncomfortable for the actors was if one of them had been injured in some way.

We went our separate ways after this shoot, and J.D. and I met up again later that afternoon, at a party for Tom's daughter.

I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think that this same day is when J.D., Wendy and I filmed the one remaining scene between them. This was a fairly complex scene in the script, and would have required supporting actors, access to someone's apartment to use as a location, and a couple of special effects. By today I had scrapped that version and changed it to a simple one-on-one outdoor dialogue scene, which we filmed behind the Village Gate plaza in Rochester.

Despite some noise from a teenage skateboarder in the area, we got the scene done and thus completed all of Wendy's scenes in the film. Amusingly, on the way to the location we bumped into Jen Avila, who'd been an extra during the Day 2 shoot. She'd been there at the beginning of filming, and here she was again as we were nearing the end.

In the evening, J.D. and I met up with Reuben at a Subway restaurant in Spencerport, and from here we hit the road to film a driving scene. As I've said before, the long summer days make night shoots a challenge, and waiting for the sky to be pitch-black would have meant keeping the actors up very late for shooting. Rather than force the actors into a vampiric shooting schedule, I opted to start filming when the sky was almost-but-not-quite dark (and in the finished film there are shots were this is noticeable if you look for it).

After this, we parked to film another brief scene between J.D. and Reuben. And with that, the day's – or night's – filming was done.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 23

DAY 23 – August 12, 2008

Today's shoot must have been a spur-of-the-moment thing, because I have no written or emailed record of scheduling it. In fact, I'm not even 100% sure that today (Tuesday) was the day we shot this scene; the date on a receipt for some tin foil is my only concrete evidence that this was the day we filmed it.

Anyway, the scene featured J.D. at a payphone, and the aforementioned tin foil was for covering up the company name on the payphone in a token attempt at respecting trademark law.

In the shooting script Josh, upon losing his job, breaks the news to his stepmom from a payphone – because his cel phone belonged to the company – but she refuses to take him in. The purpose of this scene was to explain that Josh has no family to fall back on, and no contact with the world while on the road. These explanations seemed necessary to me in order to set a 60s/70s-style, finding-yourself road movie convincingly in the ultra-wired present day. The payphone scene was to be followed by the sci-fi convention scene I've mentioned before, in which an already-dejected Josh learns of his favorite author's death, which is the catalyst that finally sends him on his quest.

By this point I had officially given up on my beloved sci-fi convention scene, and decided to combine both scenes into one: Josh calls his stepmom from the payphone, and she mentions that his favorite author has died. This revised scene was never actually written down – J.D. and I worked it out as an improvised replacement, with J.D. adlibbing some lines to deliver to his unseen (and nonexistent, or at least not yet cast) costar.

This shoot was as basic as it gets. No tripod, no boom pole (the on-camera mic recorded the audio). I didn't want to attract attention. I just wanted us to get the shots and get out of there. I got two angles of the scene so that I had freedom to cut. Then we bolted.

Another early expository scene that I'd probably abandoned by this point showed Josh's pathetic home life, in which we meet his college-age roommate. One of my influences for this movie was the Peter Sellers film Being There, in which Sellers' character's old life disappears out from under him and, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, he heads out to explore the world. With my exposition scenes cut to the bone, I found myself making something more fast-paced and plot-driven than the meandering indie comedy-drama I'd planned to make.

But now there's no explanation for why Josh has no cell phone. I don't think anyone cares anyway.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 22

DAY 22 - August 9, 2008

A Saturday, and by my reckoning one of the most packed days of shooting.

Two days earlier I had sent out a revised schedule to the cast, announcing that only 33 pages – about a quarter of the script – remained to be filmed. This included an early scene in which Josh stops at a truckstop diner and starts to befriend a waitress, but kills the mood by going into a fanboy tirade. This was to be filmed on August 10, and the previously-mentioned sci-fi convention scene was scheduled for August 16.

By today I must have given up on the diner scene, which would have been a nice character moment for Josh but was not essential to the plot. I don't remember when I abandoned the sci-fi convention scene, which was an essential exposition scene in the shooting script but needed to be replaced with something simpler.

The day before today, I'd had lunch with my mom and sister in memory of Dad, who had passed away one year ago. I was feeling like Josh, a once-carefree guy now worn down by the pain of adulthood. The strain of keeping this production going while holding down a technically demanding day job was taking its toll. But I was determined to finish what I'd started.

Sean Sherman, who'd pitched in on previous days as an actor and crewmember, made a final contribution to the main shoot by providing the location for a scene in which Josh attempts – unsuccessfully – to get himself hired by a temp agency. Val Perkins, a former RIT classmate of mine, played Josh's would-be employer. Val did a great job, despite only being given her lines the day before – I really must have been running on empty at this point.

J.D. and I then went off to Pittsford so that I could reshoot some of his monologue from Day 17. During that shoot, J.D. said that he thought we had skipped over a section of the speech, but I thought we had gotten it all, until I later reviewed the footage and discovered that he had been right. So we stopped at a park that looked vaguely like the original location (which had been in Buffalo) in order to shoot the missing section.

I don't actually remember shooting that on the same day as the temp agency scene. Nor do I remember shooting a brief outdoor scene of Wendy storming out of the office on the same day. But I guess I did.

And I really don't remember concluding this already-full day with a night shoot out in Buffalo. But apparently I filmed not one, not two, but three scenes that night, all at Liz's home. She was renting a room from her friend Roberto Petrilli, who'd played a professor in previous scenes. I drove Reuben – and, I feel sure, Wendy – out to Buffalo for this shoot.

We first shot a scene in Liz's bedroom between Liz and Wendy. It was raining a bit when we shot this, which made me worry about the sound, but fortunately the mic didn't seem to be picking up any rain noise.

We then shot two pivotal scenes with Liz and Reuben, filmed in Roberto's living room. These two scenes took place months or years apart, and I was concerned that – apart from costume changes – it might be obvious that they were shot back-to-back. To avoid this, I shot the two scenes in totally different styles. One was shot from low angles, using a tripod; and the other was shot handheld, using high angles.

The first scene had Liz's character saying to Reuben's character, “Where have you been?” and I couldn't resist saying on set, “Where have you been, Reuben? Steuben County?” Amazingly, Reuben was still willing to work with me after this. Seriously, though, this scene marked a point when the tone of the film changed from comedy to drama, and I remember having to spend more time than usual explaining to the actors what kind of tone was needed, and how it related to the scenes that came before and after.

The second scene was an argument scene that required far less coaching. Liz and Reuben performed brilliantly, delivering three complete, unbroken takes of the entire scene. I filmed the scene with a constantly-moving camera, being sure to shoot the scene slightly differently on each take. This allowed me to cut among the different takes in the finished film.

It was something like 1 a.m. when I got Reuben home from this shoot, and I remember feeling a bit guilty about that. I must have been relieved, though, to be so much closer to the completion of shooting after today.

Monday, September 6, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 21

DAY 21 - August 6, 2008

Wednesday night. A relatively short shoot that began with J.D. and I meeting up at Lugia's, an ice cream stand in Spencerport.

I left my car at the Lugia's parking lot, and J.D. and I went back and forth along Route 531 to get some nighttime shots of J.D.'s character, Josh, driving. As before, J.D. drove while I filmed him from various angles.

As I recall, J.D. only had a couple scripted lines of dialogue here, in which he spoke to the unseen voices that were urging him on.

There was still a nighttime driving scene between J.D. and Reuben that needed to be filmed, and I had J.D. ad-lib some lines to a non-present Reuben just in case the latter scene proved impossible to shoot for some reason.

We also stopped in an unlit, pitch-black section of Route 531 so that I could stand by the side of the road and film J.D. pulling the van over.

Apart from that, I don't remember a hell of a lot about this shoot, perhaps because there wasn't a hell of a lot to remember. It was relatively simple.

The next shoot would be a lot busier.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 20

DAY 20 - August 2, 2008

John Sindoni, who played Professor Garrison, was always very enthusiastic about Saberfrog. And today, that enthusiasm extended to letting us use his house as a filming location.

Today was a Saturday, and we filmed a dialogue scene between John S. and Wendy. I also recorded some voice-only lines from John S.

While shooting the scene between John S. and Wendy I discovered, to my disappointment, that the Sony ECM-K57 microphone I'd been using for the past decade or so was failing. It still worked fine in omnidirectional mode, but when the directional setting – which you really want to use when recording dialogue – was in use, I was hearing some kind of hum.

(In fact, this fault must have developed earlier, because I can hear this hum, buried in the background noise, in footage dating as far back as Day 8, though fortunately it doesn't seem to be that noticeable.)

This particular microphone – which is no longer made as far as I can determine – had served me faithfully on several projects. It ran on an ordinary AA battery, had a camcorder-friendly mini headphone plug rather than a XLR connection (removing the need for an adapter or mixer), and its tripod-sized screw hole attached easily onto a monopod to become a lightweight and easily assembled boom mic. It was the perfect tool for a low-budget narrative filmmaker shooting guerrilla-style with prosumer equipmment. And it was cheap – about $60 or thereabouts.

Nowadays, most prosumer mics I've seen in stores have non-standard bases that seem to be designed specifically to fit onto the head of a particular camcorder. To me this somewhat defeats the purpose of buying a microphone for your camera, since most camcorders already have an on-camera mic built in. As a low-budget filmmaker, what you really want is to get the mic away from the camera and closer to the actors.

I was still able to get decent sound out of this mic by switching to omnidirectional mode (meaning that the mic picks up sound equally in all directions, rather than what's directly in front of it). But I knew this would not be ideal for all acoustic situations, and it was both sad and frustrating to have such a useful piece of equipment start to fail on me.

I could have switched to another mic – I'd bought one to use for Liz's stage performance on Day 17 – but I was worried about changing the sound quality mid-shoot, so rightly or wrongly I chose to tough it out with this mic as long as I could, except when the acoustics absolutely required that I switch to a directional mic.

I took this as an omen that I needed to finish filming. Soon.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

25 Months Ago: Day 19

DAY 19 - August 1, 2008

Friday night. Back to the Shadow Lounge, except that this time we were filming outside.

I'd had a bad day – or perhaps a bad week – at work, so apparently I wasn't in the best mood when I picked up Wendy before driving to Buffalo. Although Wendy was not needed on camera for this scene, she came along to help out.

Shadow Lounge was open to the public this time, so I filmed this scene handheld in order to minimize our presence on the street. Lightweight camcorders make handheld camerawork almost too easy, yet part of me is still slightly wary of filming without a tripod. I tend to go handheld only when there's a reason to stay light on my feet and keep moving – i.e. when time is short, the environment is awkward, or the scene is logistically complicated. I've always liked on-the-fly handheld camerawork in movies, particularly in indie films such as the French New Wave classic Breathless, and I'm generally pleased with the results when I try it in my own movies – it seems to encourage more adventurous and spontaneous camera angles. Yet I remember how sick people got (literally and figuratively) of shaky-cam indie films in the Blair Witch* era, so part of me is wary of pushing my luck. Sometimes the Godard/Truffaut approach will do, but sometimes you do need to be a little bit more Kubrick, if only to show that you do actually know how to make a movie properly.

John Reinbird and Ian Belknad were to reprise their roles as Liz's bandmates on this shoot, carrying their instruments as they leave a gig. But while John R. was able to make it, Ian had to cancel. Since this scene took place on a completely different day (and actually a different city), I reasoned that the lineup of Liz's band could be different, so Liz used the power of Craigslist to recruit someone else.

In fact, Liz overachieved in this regard – I had five extras show up, most of whom had even brought their own instruments to carry as props. Obviously this was far more than I needed, but rather than send them home I decided to have four of the extras portray another band walking out of the club with their instruments in tow.

The fifth extra, Adam Beaudoin, I selected as Ian's replacement on the grounds that he looked the most like Ian – on the off-chance that audiences wouldn't notice the difference. (In fact, no one who's seen the film has commented on the fact that Liz's band has changed drummers.)

Playing the band's former lead singer was Rob Suto, who had been an extra in the previous Shadow Lounge shoot and who struck me as the perfect choice for the role. Liz and Rob apparently didn't get along too well during the shoot, although I was too focused on making the movie to notice.

Rob, Adam and John R. all came up with some useful ad-libs. I seemed to be extremely lucky in the casting of this film – even bit-part actors were finding entertaining ways to embellish the script, without even being asked. I've thought about why this might have happened, and have two theories on the matter.

My first theory is based on the fact that this script had a complex structure, with numerous flashbacks and other short scenes, many of which end abruptly because we suddenly cut to another scene or another time period. Most of the bit-part actors had not been given the entire script, however – only their own scene, which often ended abruptly with a seeming lack of closure. So the actors may have felt that they needed to invent additional material in order to give the scene some kind of ending.

My second theory is that people nowadays are more media-savvy, and more eager to show off in front of a camera, than they might have been in years past. When I was making films during and after film school (back in the 90s and early 2000s), it sometimes seemed like a struggle to get performances out of people. Some people got it, and some people just seemed uncomfortable and awkward. But by the year 2008, the Internet and reality TV had gotten even non-actors accustomed to the idea of public self-expression. So now everybody's ready for their close-up.

During the drive home, Wendy told me that she'd seen my personality change during the shoot. When I first picked her up, I was in a foul mood. But by the end of the shoot, I was smiling and in high spirits, because I was doing what made me happiest – I was making a movie.

* Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I named the main character Josh in honor of The Blair Witch Project, where approximately 60% of the dialogue was people yelling “Josh!”