Monday, 12 July 2010

Short film diary - Week 10...

Bit of an epic this. But it's okay, the monkey made you a Spotify playlist to go along with it:

That Darn Monkey...

So last week I mostly did non-short film related stuff. Well, stuff that wasn't related to my short film anyway. Tuesday was Son of Moviebar, and on Wednesday the Brighton Filmmakers Coalition screened their latest Film Challenge films. It was watching other peoples' short films that made me want to do this in the first place so seeing so many really accomplished and interesting shorts this week gave me an extra burst of enthusiasm. Thursday Andrea and I went to see The Woman in Black in Worthing which was scary (I mean the play was scary, not Worthing...although Worthing is pretty scary). Friday I panicked because I hadn't done any organising for the shoot, then realised we were pretty organised already. Here's how it went...

Saturday 10th July

So back when I was at university I helped out on a film project with some friends. We were filming a 15 minute short over one weekend. We started on Saturday afternoon. By the time we left the location it was early Sunday morning and we were barely a third of the way through. We had a few hours break then went back and carried on, and sometime around 5am the following Monday we finished. Except the film was never completed. I think it was due to technical problems - things that would maybe have been picked up had we not been too exhausted and too desperate to finish the shoot to notice. This was fine - we were students, these are the things you learn from.

I've since helped out on a couple of other shoots that ran on way too late with similar consequences. In both cases the films were never finished due to mistakes that people made as a result of being pushed to their limits. And I decided that should I ever find myself in a similar position I would not make the decision to push on through the night, I would reschedule or find a compromise or something.

So on Saturday I was faced with that decision and guess what...I'll get to that later. The important plot point you need to note for now is that we started at 8am.

Things started off really well. We filmed a few scenes outside the flat which I'm always apprehensive about because of getting in the they way of the general public (or the general public getting in the way of filming). I also worry about men from the council on quadbikes turning up and asking if we have permission. But other than having to wait for someone to catch a bus so they would get out of the shot it went fine. We even risked death by setting up a shot right in the path of oncoming buses:

Then we went inside to start shooting the interiors. There were a lot of scenes to film, more than we'd shot on any other day, but I figured that because most of it was dialogue it would all be pretty simple. Also, the actors were less giggly as a result of my new fascist approach to directing:

At least I look like I'm enjoying myself at this point.

Anyway, there were two factors I hadn't really counted on -

1) filming with four actors takes twice as long as filming with two. Because you need twice as many close-ups. As I type this I realise it is obvious and I am a fool, but I am still learning.

2) my flat isn't that big and it's pretty much impossible to get four actors into one wide shot anywhere, so you have to break up the scenes into even more shots.

That said, my shot list was pretty epic anyway so I did have some idea of how long it was going to take, I just hadn't translated that into actual hours. That's a lie, I did attempt to translate it into actual hours but when I got past the normal amount of hours any sane person is prepared to work in a day (me included) I stopped counting and convinced myself it wouldn't be a problem.

When we broke for lunch it became pretty apparent we would probably only get through half the scenes we had planned to shoot that day. So we had a meeting and attempted to reschedule, preferably as soon as possible for I had also seen the opposite of those rushed, exceptionally long shoots - the film that goes on for months and months without ever being finished. And in that time actors change their appearance, crew members get paid work...people move on to other things and you're left with a half-finished project that will probably stay that way indefinitely. Then every time you see a fellow filmmaker in the pub they ask 'So what happened to that film you were working on?' and you reply, 'Oh we're just waiting to do this one last thing,' and they say 'But you've been working on this project for the last hundred years! When will it end?'. Then one day you give up and edit it into something resembling a finished film and hope people praise the lack of narrative cohesion as stunningly avant-garde. Which is kind of the way this blog post is going...

So we're trying to reschedule, except now it's four actors who have to commit to a new date at short notice instead of two. And we start to talk about dates in August and suddenly the finish line seems an awfully long way off and the scenario described above starts to seem like a reality. Gentle reader, I'm ashamed to say I did what I said I would never do.

'Is everyone all right to stay until we're finished?' I ask.

'I'll get pizza!' says Andrea. That's why she is the most awesome producer in the world.

Everyone agrees to keep going until the bitter end. I try not to think about what time that will be. And whether anything we film after 8pm, when we'll have been going for 12 hours straight, will be any good. And how much sleep everyone will get before the 7am start the following day. I put all those things to the back of my mind and press on.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Brother Pete was making this:

Which would later be applied to our creature, part of which you can see here:

I debated over whether to post more pictures of the creature. We have some cool photos of it in action but I think I'd rather show it off in the finished film. It is the most awesome prop I've ever filmed. I am a fan of gloopy horror. People don't make gloopy horror films much anymore. This was very gloopy indeed.

We made most of the gloop from a cheap KY Jelly substitute (turns out KY Jelly is quite expensive if you need loads of it) mixed with black food colouring. The problem is that our gloop needed to be edible. The label declared it to be 'safe if ingested' but that didn't fill me with confidence. So we made some edible gloop out of condensed milk, cornflour and more black food colouring. The combined effect of the two gloops was pretty disgusting, which was obviously awesome.

I'm really glad we took the time to film the scene properly as Geraint, our own Rick Baker/Stan Winston/Rob Bottin/KNB (let me know which comparison you'd prefer, Gez), had put a lot of time and effort into making the creature. I owed it to him to do it justice. I also need to mention Dominique, the actor who had to 'operate' the creature and it's associated gloop, who did an awesome job and was a real trooper. For my part, I think it was the most fun I had shooting a scene and it felt like we were making a proper old-school horror film.

So we carried on and at around 8pm finished the scenes in the lounge. We had been filming for twelve hours. I now looked less like I was enjoying myself and more like this:

I think Darren is holding me up in this picture.

I was really, truly tired at this point. Mostly I was concerned that despite the collective commitment to get it done and despite the refuelling on pizza there was still a lot to shoot before we could call it a day. It also meant setting up in two different rooms which meant even more time was needed to get the lights ready. On top of that we had to compensate for the fact that it was dark outside meaning we had to put lights everywhere.

For example, for the scene in the kitchen we not only had to put lights in the room itself but also had one out on the fire escape (where Darren is in the picture below) and one in the spare room (with Mike, our Sound Recordist). It worked really well - when you walked into the kitchen it looked like daylight coming in through the windows. The only problem was it took a while to set up and I was starting to worry about annoying the other residents.

Then we had another (thankfully non-monkey-related) continuity error that meant re-shooting a whole set-up again. That's when I started to worry that we were losing control. The thing I'd learnt from those disastrous shoots I talked about above was that there's a fine line between working those extra hours to get finished in time and working everyone so hard everything you film in that extra time becomes useless. It felt like we were just about crossing that line.

We had three more scenes left to shoot - two in the hallway and one outside. I scrapped the exterior first as it was far too dark outside and involved some shouty dialogue. That one would have to be rescheduled. Then I rescheduled the second hallway scene for the following day, citing the lack of light as the reason but mostly it was because it involved all four actors in a tiny space and was a bit of a logistical nightmare. The plan for Sunday was pretty crammed too but at that point rescheduling one scene was preferable to the thought of still filming at midnight. Instead we finished some time before 11pm.

I haven't seen the footage yet but I think we pulled it off. I think I was the only one who physically looked like I'd been filming for fifteen hours - the actors were still as energetic and on form as ever, if a little more hysterical than usual, and the crew were doing an amazing job. At no point did anyone complain or throw a tantrum and I'm pretty confident we won't have to reshoot any of it...I shouldn't say things like that just in case.

I still don't ever want to film for that long again and I think it's always a bit of a risk, but I also know now that if you have awesome, hard-working, committed people around you it is possible to still do good work at the end of a fifteen hour day.

Sunday 11th July

So at the end of the night when people were checking what time they needed arrive the following day I realised that the planned 7am start was a little unreasonable considering the hours everyone had put in. So I went easy on them and amended it to 7.30am, which obviously made all the difference.

For the first time since we started shooting the seafront scenes we had problems with the weather. The sky was full of clouds, but that didn't matter so much. It was the penultimate scene of the film, it was supposed to look a little bleak. But it was also very windy and constantly threatening to rain.

In the weeks since we've started this, the bench we've been using as a location and a base has started to feel like a second home. Maybe in years to come we'll get a blue plaque saying 'Jenny Ringo and the Monkey's Paw was filmed here'. At the moment it's hard to imagine a weekend when I won't be at that bench shooting a scene, so maybe they won't need a blue plaque.

It was also freezing, hence everyone wearing coats and jumpers which strangely makes it look more like a proper film. Or maybe that's just the hat again. Which on this day was completely unnecessary.

After making him lug his kit all the way here for two weekends in a row for no reason we finally got James to film some Steadicam shots. They were really difficult, because a) they involved lots of running and b) the wind was not helping. But James pulled it off because he is awesome and we got some really cool shots. It's the closest thing I've got to an action scene.

The rest of scene went really well and it was cool to film one of the final scenes of the script. It's hard to talk too much about it without giving away plot details, but it was an important scene and I'm really happy with how it turned out. We also finished on time, which meant we could go back to the flat and film the tricky hallway scene.

In the afternoon we went over to Brother Pete's flat which was doubling for the bedroom of one of the characters. The main room is pretty big which was ideal for filming in. The problem was there wasn't much room elsewhere and at one point we had crammed about twelve people in there. It was also really hot, possibly hotter than when we filmed in the Marlborough (which now feels like it was about three months ago).

This is me looking all happy and confident because we're on schedule.

It was 2pm. We only had one scene to film. It was a long and complicated scene, but it was still only one scene. I estimated we'd be finished by 5pm at the latest. Little did I know, the monkey had other plans...

Only this time the monkey wasn't the only creature intent on ruining the shoot. This baby seagull got stranded just outside Pete's window and decided to spend most of the afternoon telling us about it.

I named him Steven...Steven Seagull.

Then I started to really lose the plot and decided to put Andrea in a sack.

It was for the film. I'm not really mental. Although she claims I enjoyed it a bit too much.

Again can't say much about the scene without ruining it, but the actors were all really amazing that afternoon.

Then this happened.

That's the monkey. He's on the floor. He's not supposed to be on the floor.

So all day everyone had been making a joke of my monkey-related paranoia. 'Is that monkey supposed to be in shot' they'd say, and I'd pretend to check and say things like 'That darn monkey,' and, 'I'm going to set fire to him when this thing is finished' (which was only half a joke, although I'm pretty sure that if I did set fire to him he would turn up, all-charred and demonic looking, on my doorstep the next day, chuckling...). The monkey must have been listening the whole time, plotting the next stage in his plan to drive me over the edge. There were many times he could've chosen to do it, many shots he could've ruined, but he waited. 'Not yet,' he would tell himself smiling, 'It's not time yet...'

Then we finish filming the first chunk of the scene in Pete's flat, the one where the actors were particularly awesome and I'm really happy, when James jokes 'Was there a monkey in that shot?'

'No,' I reply, then I think for a moment and the dreaded realisation hits me, '...BUT THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN!'

Epic monkey fail.

Damn that monkey. All this time we were looking for him, making sure he wasn't turning up where he shouldn't be, and he knew it. So he tricked us. He ruined a scene by NOT being in the shots that he SHOULD HAVE been in. He is evil and must be destroyed!!! But not until the film is finished. Because then we'd have no monkey and he will have won.

Dramatic exagerration aside, I had my first proper tantrum at this point. I threw my script on the floor. I am like William Friedkin firing guns on set, or Stanley Kubrick swearing at Shelley Duvall; I am a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Actually, throwing the script on the floor was pretty much it, then I moaned a bit until I realised most of the shots we'd just filmed were close-ups anyway - there was no way you could see the monkey in those. So then I started re-shooting the wide shot, this time with the monkey, and realised that even then the monkey was barely in shot. Turned out he hadn't ruined anything, except maybe my sanity.

We pressed on. After my meltdown everyone started taking things a little more seriously, as shown here:

Not really. We were setting up an effects shot that meant the camera had to be locked and nothing on the set could move for about half an hour. Cue lots of me shouting, 'Don't touch the camera!', and 'Watch the lights!!' and 'Don't sit there!!!'. No one did.

We finally finished at around 7pm. Another twelve hour day, but we were a fifteen hour day crew now. Twelve hours was nothing.

Overall I'm really happy with what we filmed and it definitely feels like the majority of the shooting is finished now. There are a couple of things to shoot next weekend and I'm reviewing the footage tomorrow in case there's anything we need to reshoot, but fingers crossed we should be about 80% done.

So next Saturday we are reshooting the dance sequence that we had to abandon last time. Which I'm not worried about at all, aside from waking up several times in the night thinking about it. We actually have less time to film it this time and aside from getting a better CD player we're still going to face a lot of the same problems we had last time. We will also have less crew. And the weather may not be great either. And I need to somehow manage to learn how to shoot musical numbers properly between now and then.

If I'm rambling about dancing monkey's next week then you'll know he finally pushed me over the edge...

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