Friday, January 28, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Six

15 August 2009

Let us take a moment to appreciate the sound guys. Virtually every movie made since the early 1930s has sound, but unless a film has hyper-complex edits or noticeable sound effects, chances are that the sound guys (and girls) remain in the shadows. Successful directors of photography are highly in demand, since it is often they who give films their distinctive visual style- and we all notice the visual element of film, being primarily visual creatures- and many go on to be directors in their own right. Writers, too are often bumped up the cinematic food chain. Quentin Tarantino wrote scripts for others before taking over the helm himself. But the same is not true for sound people. We'd miss them if they weren't there, but we often don't appreciate them when they are.

I mention this because day six of Conversion shooting really warrants a hats' off to our principal sound guy, Georges Kandalaft. Keep in mind that as we assemble to caravan to the night's location that virtually all of us present had been shooting until six in the morning. Yes, it's after dark when we start shooting again, so in theory we've all had time to get some rest, but it's difficult to convince your brain to sleep through an entire summer day in a country where snow in May is always a possibility, even if you can convince your body to do it.

As we are heading to our location, I think that Georges is still in a state of advanced denial. Yes, we have told him that we are shooting under one of the city's busiest highway interchanges, but there still seems to be some part of him that believes that surely we could never be so cruel to someone who has shown such patience and dedication. We would have to be both sadistic and insane. None of us really want to drive home the point that we probably are.

When we selected this location, we knew it was perfect for what we wanted. A couple of shifts of the camera allow us to create the illusion of a much larger area and it definitely has the surreal, gritty urban look that we are going for in the film. This is what happens when people who know nothing about sound pick a location. As I said, we are visual creatures all. On location scouts, we were driven entirely by what looked right. The noise was the sound guy's problem.

At a glance, one would be tempted to say that background noise shouldn't present a problem. After all, cities do have background noise and it's not exactly like we're pretending to be in a farmer's field. And it's true that this would not be a problem if we were shooting every angle in one long take at the same time. But even the highest budget movies aren't shot this way. Rather, each angle is shot as a complete take and then the camera is moved; so if you have two people speaking, the camera might shoot one close-up, then the other, then a shot including both of them.

Now imagine that during the first person's speech, an ambulance passes by in the distance. When it's time to shoot the second person's dialogue, that sound isn't there, despite the fact that the conversation is supposed to be happening in real time. Now you have a problem. Your options, when the pieces are being edited together, are to keep following the first person, even when the second is talking, which will give the impression that the focus is only on the first person; or you could cut between them, which will mean that in the middle of the conversation, the sound of the ambulance siren will drop out abruptly when the shot switches from one person to the other. Your third option is to get yourself a really good sound guy, who will pay attention to detail and who will make you keep working at it until he's satisfied that the sound is consistent from one shot to the next.

We arrive in our desolate little corner under the giant structures of the soon-to-be-flattened Turcot Interchange, a little ragged around the edges, but ready to work. Tonight's shoot is very carefully planned. We have the exact sequence of shots so that we can move quickly from one to the next, which is especially important, since we're due to shoot all the next day, starting at nine in the morning. We don't want to make this a late night. Heather shares with us that she actually ended up driving home- two hours outside Montreal- after the shoot the night before- which is another great example of the dedication we have on the project.

It is immediately obvious that sound is going to be an issue. There is a constant, but subtly inconsistent roar of traffic above. There are people all around having conversations. There is a bus that passes nearby about every ten minutes, meaning that when it's there, we can't do anything at all, lest it show up in the final product. While the three of us- Ash, Heather and I- are wearing individual mics, we also need to get a "general" sound through the boom mic. When you're shooting inside, this doesn't present a huge problem, as long as the boom doesn't get in the shot, but outside, it's a nightmare, since the boom has to be at a greater distance and has to be very carefully maneuvered not only to insure that it stays out of the picture, but that there is no shadow cast of a tall man holding what looks like a scythe as the characters are speaking (although, in certain circumstances, that could be a cool effect).

For my part, I'm most concerned for Heather. There is a lot of pressure on her to deliver and how long we will be here tonight is dependent on how quickly and regularly she can nail the copious lines of dialogue she has. For Ash and I, it's almost like a night off. All we have to remember is to keep pace and make little noises on cue. This evening, we are nothing more than punctuation. She is the text. Fortunately for us, she is uncanny in her ability not just to remember her lines, but to deliver them in consistently the same way over different takes, which makes everyone's job easier. Even when she's getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, she barely flinches, although my flesh is crawling even thinking about it. (Mosquito bites are a particular hazard of this night's shoot.)

Many times, we have to repeat shots in order to get the sound dead on, along with the usual problems of the camera freaking out, people moving around or making noise and, at one point, almost losing our power generator and a crew member into the Lachine Canal. But somehow, despite the odds being against us, we get everything done in an orderly, disciplined fashion. We're getting better at that. Best and most surprisingly of all, Georges opts neither to kill us, nor to run away in frustration. It's a good night.

As we're packing up, he does mutter something about how this better be the only location like this. I smile and reassure him- no more scenes under highways. I don't mention that the place we're shooting the next day is a loft with creaky floors and a dance studio next door. I'll just let that reveal itself on its own. Besides, Georges is awesome and I know he'll make it work no matter what, so I feel like I have nothing to worry about.

You see? Even when I know I owe him big time, I'm taking the sound guy for granted. So let us take a moment now to appreciate everything we hear at the movies.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Five

14 August 2009

The first shot of the night is beautiful. I know it is before I've even seen it. Normally, I try to look at all of the shots as soon as they're taken, if only to enrich my understanding of how films are put together and what the different terms I'm hearing actually mean. This time, however, I just get in position to move on, because by the time we finish the first shot, we're running over an hour and a half behind.

This first part of the evening was supposed to be the simple part. We're filming on the balcony of two of the film's actors, because we wanted to break up the action in one party seen by having a bit of the action take place outside. We specifically wanted to shoot on this balcony, because it has the most beautiful view in the city- you can see it at the beginning of the trailer. (Sadly, that shot is now an archive. The next door neighbour decided to extend his building, obscuring the view completely.)
Once this simple scene is done- more than two and a half hours later and well after we believed we'd be finished- we have to move on to a new location across town. Unlike the week before, we do not have the option of rescheduling, because this entire weekend- the only one where we will shoot all three days- is required to get down all the scenes with actress Heather Nangreaves, who has come in from out of town to play a key role for us. She's incredibly prepared and hardly ever requires a retake. It's almost eerie how perfectly she matches the cadence of the lines as I heard them in my head, without me even saying a word. I feel confident that, once we get this first quick scene, which requires a number of extras and tricky camera angles, that we will be able to make good time on the rest of the shoot. I'd feel even better if it weren't well after midnight by the time we leave for our second location.

The funny thing is, we didn't even know where we'd shoot this part only a few days before. We had a couple of ideas, but they were really good, or at least they didn't feel right. So D.J. and I had set out in different neighbourhoods, trying to see who could find something workable first. He won. Without wanting to get too descriptive, as soon as I saw it, I knew it was right. I am even more certain of that when I see how Dom and his cousin, Jean-David (who is responsible for the majority of our inside locations and who will distinguish himself as an iron man, going beyond the call of duty every time he is on set) have decorated it. For a moment in the hectic process that is Conversion, I'm unable to just go on with what I'm doing. I have to take a moment to look and appreciate what's being accomplished.

Knowing that our fancy opening shot has eaten away a lot of time and that we still have a lot to shoot, we settle and are able to start getting shot after shot in quick succession. There are a lot of shots, dialogue captured from different angles and there are occasional interruptions from passing traffic (and one from passing drunks looking to start a fight), but tonight, things are moving remarkably smoothly. We block out each section and the number of retakes required are fairly minimal. Between takes, we're running lines to keep ourselves fresh. This is working remarkably like a real movie.

In the blur to get everything done, for the first time, I can picture in my head exactly how everything is going to come together, how each shot will cut into the others. Thus far, I've sort of been getting lost in the vocabulary of lenses and angles and lights, but as we're firing these bits off, I have the sense that the end product is going to be something special. (If I can be permitted to leap forward for a moment, it so happens that my favourite sequence in the film is part of what we shot there. Ironically, it's a sequence with almost no dialogue, so I really can't take credit at all.)

Our enemy tonight is the clock. As much as our shots unfold with precision, it takes time to get the shots right, move the lights, get the sound perfect... Eventually, inevitably, the sun is going to come up and then we're out of luck. By the time we have to shift our filming to an alley across the street, I'm thinking that we're going to have to cut things short once again and that we'll have to reschedule another segment. However, I'm surprised that, unlike last week, no one else seems ready to give into exhaustion. We have a fairly dialogue heavy sequence to shoot and the first part is one long shot, the kind where things are prone to going wrong and every step has to be timed perfectly. And still everyone around me is game to make it through until the end. (Even the guy who's only scheduled to be on set two days later, who dropped by when we were shooting on the balcony and who agreed to hang around to be in a shot that, as it turns out, is the very last thing we will end up doing this night.)

We keep at it, because there seems to be a resoluteness setting into the addled minds of everyone there that we will not allow ourselves to be defeated by time. As we're taking those last shots, when exhaustion is causing little pinwheels of light to dot my field of vision, I feel humbled at the fact that everyone else soldiered on when I was ready to give in. It's a strange realisation, and one I seem to keep having, that other people care about getting this finished and getting it done well.

As we're slowly disassembling the lights and cables at the end of the night, having finally captured every shot we'd meant to, I realize a couple of things. I've been awake for twenty-four hours, as have many of the people there. (In fact, Nik once again is leaving to go in for a shift at work.) We are scheduled to resume shooting in just over fourteen hours. All day Sunday, we will be shooting in a place with a lot of actors and extras- our biggest crowd yet- in a location where the power supply is a little questionable. There's lots to keep me anxious for the next couple of days. But at the moment, nothing is making me anxious. At the moment, what I want is just to sit and look at the rapidly lightening sky and enjoy the feeling that a combination of good luck and good work have made for a pretty good night.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Four

9 August 2009

Have I told you about how I originally came up with the story for Conversion? No? OK, it’s pretty quick, so let me indulge. I was DJing at an event at the old Katacombes Show Bar. There had been a bunch of bands earlier in the night and then there was me, playing to an increasingly dwindling crowd and spending an increasing amount of time chatting with my friend Ash, who had showed up following a stand-up comedy show where he had been performing. We left at closing time, both feeling a little glow-y. As we wandered out into the December night and tramped through fresh snow covering grimy snow, it occurred to me that, with both of us living in NDG and the night bus on the other side of downtown, getting home would have been quite a challenge if we didn’t have cab fare. All sorts of things could happen. And over the course of the next few days, I started scribbling down an outline of all the things that I thought could happen. And that’s the story of Conversion. (That photo below was actually taken the night that Conversion was conceived.)

When I decided to try writing the story as a script rather than as a short story (my normal default format), I had an exceptionally strong sense of what each location should look like. Some of them I knew were impossible. Two of the locations I had in mind were in Toronto, for instance. But one thing that was constant was that I always pictured the scenes in the bar, the launching point for the night’s adventure, taking place at Katacombes. And the fortunate part of that was that Dom and I could actually approach them to ask about using the bar as a venue.

As it happened, just before filming, the bar was forced to move, as part of the city’s attempt to clear out the seedy neighbourhood adjacent to the Place des Spectacles downtown. They moved up the street to a much larger space, spread over two floors. The funny thing was that their moving time fell perilously close to the beginning of our shooting time, so for months we were unsure which Katacombes we would be using.

In the end, as we enter our fourth day of filming, we are at the brand-spanking new Katacombes. They are still getting moved in, but they’re generous enough to allow us to take over the place for an entire day, using their space as both a comedy club and a bar for different parts of the movie.

After the stress of our Friday night shoot, we’re somewhat better rested and I’m hopeful that starting at nine in the morning will mean that we at least have a shot at finishing at a decent hour. In my head, I believe we’ll be here until around seven. I’ll be happy enough if we can get out before eleven, but I don’t share this with anyone else.

The first part of the day is taken up with getting our comedy club scenes down. We have a bevy of extras, including Ash’s real-life wife and sister-in-law and even some of our crew. In fact, we’ve scheduled two entirely different sets of extras for the morning and afternoon, so that we don’t have to worry about the same faces appearing in the background of both.

Once again, it seems to take us an inordinate amount of time to get going. Our first shot requires several takes, although not as many as the previous shoot, but after that we seem to hit a stride. One of the advantages to this sort of set-up is that, for almost the entire scene, everyone remains in one place. There is no choreography to remember, we all just have to sit and mime reactions. (Actual laughter and applause will be added afterwards, because having the people present do so would sound unnatural… I still don’t understand how that works, but that’s one reason why I’m not a sound guy.) Despite this, these very brief scenes seem to be taking a worrisome amount of time. We’re short on crew, which means that moving lighting around takes longer than one might expect and the camera seems crankier than usual.

Indeed, by the time we’re finished, it’s about two hours later than I had hoped and the bulk of the day’s shooting has yet to be done. The other thing that worries me is that, despite the fact that we are so late, none of the extras for the afternoon shift have actually showed up and one of the actors is AWOL. It’s kind of a grim consolation: The scenes in the afternoon are taking place in a bar on a Friday night. If we don’t have people to populate the bar, it doesn’t matter how far behind we are, we can’t shoot.

We break for lunch and the depth of our predicament starts to sink in. None of the people we had been counting on to play our bar denizens are there. A couple of the morning extras agree to stay, but we’ll have to be exceptionally careful about using them and keep their faces hidden from the camera. Dom and DJ are quarreling over how the shots will be done in the afternoon and about which need to be done first. This isn’t helping my rising sense of panic, but it’s nothing I can help with, so I do the only thing I can. I start calling people I know and begging them to come down. Ash does the same, including contacting the people who had signed up to be there and not letting them off the phone until he knows that they’re on their way.

We seem to get a lucky break at one point when one of our extras runs into a couple of girls he knows who are in town for a show later that night. They’re from Ottawa and they happen to have parked their car in the lot behind where we’re shooting. He talks them into staying around to be extras by promising that they can enjoy a free lunch. Unfortunately, he ushers them over to the lunch table without getting them signed in and by the time we’re getting ready to recommence, we notice that the two of them have dined and dashed. That’s right, no matter how small and vulnerable your production is, there will always be asshats ready to prey on you.

We finally do get some extras. At first, there’s a bit of a problem because everyone who shows up is male. I hadn’t written the scene as taking place in a boy bar and two of the speaking roles are women and really won’t make any sense at all if they’re subbed by men. We start shooting one brief scene that fortunately doesn’t involve extras or our absent actors and I start to survey those people who have arrived to try to figure out who among them would look decent in a dress.

Eventually, we do get a grand total of two young women who show up to be extras and are immediately drafted to speaking roles. We creep forward in tiny increments, shooting each line from different angles (something that we’ll be happy about later). Because we need silence on the set, we have to keep those people not in the particular shot we are doing corralled outside, while making sure that they don’t wander off. We aren’t sure what to tell people about when they’ll be needed, because everything seems to be taking an exceptionally long time. It’s clear that, despite the fact that we (me, Dom, D.J. and Ash) had walked through where each part of the action was to take place, there are a lot of details that have not been attended to. We know roughly who says what, where, but we don’t know how many angles we need, or how many individual lines need to be shot from each angle, or at what word we need to cue extras to move, turn or mime talking. And making these decisions on the spot takes time, especially when you’ve got four people whose opinions are not always aligned.

By late in the afternoon, the people who scurried down when we called in a panic are getting a little antsy. They’re hungry, which we can’t help because they arrived after the food was consumed, including by those who then took off. It starts to rain, which means that a lot of them are damp. And we can’t tell them when they’ll even be needed, let alone when they’ll be able to leave. Those people on set who have worked on films before are able to shrug this off as the way movies are made. I’m on the other end of the continuum, quietly wondering how many of my friends are going to talk to me after the day is over.

The surprising thing is that people don’t leave. Our friend Kathleen, who was only scheduled to be an extra the following week and who was tense rather than excited about having to speak on camera, ends up canceling plans for the evening so that she can stick around and finish her scenes. Once again, people who are unaffiliated with the production prove willing to stay and help out however they can, despite the fact that it must be hideously boring for them at best.

There is a section of the bar scene where several of us have to dance. Because we’ll be adding music later, we’re all actually dancing to nothing. This means that the first few run-throughs are more than a little awkward. Everyone obviously has their own ideas about what they’d be dancing to at a bar and it is immediately obvious that we do not go to the same bars. Some are undulating slowly, some are bouncing with high energy, we even have one showing some serious moves. It just doesn’t look like these people are even cognizant of each other’s existence.

Once we get our rhythm issues worked out, we have to get the actual shots down. This is a little complicated, because the shots are taken from what we’ll call interesting angles. So we get quite a little workout as the camera rolls back and forth, over and over, getting the first shot.

For the second, it’s supposed to be later at night, so things have gotten a little weird. Ash lets his hair down, we draft our sound guy to play “guy passed out on the sofa” (because everyone else present seems to have been on camera at least once). As a joke, I jump up on one of the sofas at the edge of the balcony. I’m expecting someone to tell me to knock it off, but everyone seems to think it looks appropriately weird. So we start doing takes. The camera maneuver is tricky. It takes a lot of attempts to get it right and we’re told basically to keep moving, to avoid having the beginning of the shot looked like we just jumped to action.

As we’re doing this, it occurs to me that my dancing on the sofa stunt might not have been the best idea. I’m standing in heels on a soft surface, looking at a very long drop to the third floor. The only barrier between me a very painful fall ends just below my knees, since it’s made for people who aren’t standing on the furniture. I can keep a hand on the railing to steady myself, but I can only keep one hand on it at a time or it looks like I’m humping it. I have grossly underestimated the amount of muscle control it takes to stay upright and relatively stable, let alone to start moving around like I’m having a good time and what’s worse is that I have to keep doing this again and again, until I’m almost convinced that shooting is going to end with me doing a swan dive and breaking my neck. Note for beginners: If you think you have a cool idea for something to do in a particular scene, think about how cool it’s going to be to do if five, ten, fifteen times in a row before committing.

After this, we have basically entered the home stretch. We’re all very, very tired, having been working non-stop for the last ten or eleven hours. Instead of resulting in irritability, though, we suffer a pandemic of giggles. This isn’t helping us work faster, particularly because I’m one of those sad sorts who gets laughing and can’t stop (it’s a genetic thing, all the women in my family have it). So there are several takes that end prematurely because I lose it partway through. Even when we succeed in getting through a take, the read is so bad that Nik, holding my script and looking bewildered, doesn’t even know where to begin to tell us what we’ve done wrong.

Of course, we’re eventually able to keep it together enough to finish. We’ve taken every single shot we needed, despite the panic for extras and actors not showing up and the confusion over the sequence of shots, what we have seems like it could be really good. We finish just before ten and, unlike Friday, we’re not leaving with an air of defeat and dread surrounding us. If we can keep this up, it’s not only possible that we’ll make a film, but we might actually enjoy the process.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Three

7 August 2009

Lights! Camera! Action! It’s time!!! OK, we started filming last week to get some of the basics down, like finding out for sure that the camera would work, that Ash and I could make our way through the script without forgetting the English language and that we had a fighting chance at shooting outside without getting arrested, but really, this is where it starts. This is our first big night- a night with a crew that includes people I don’t know already, extras, multiple actors with speaking parts, a van full of equipment, two on-set photographers and a giant black curtain that obscures our activities from the busy thoroughfare nearby.

This location was a sort of last minute thing. We’re shooting scenes that take place around the entrance to a seedy medical clinic and for months, we’ve been trying to find something that fit. There was mention of a location in the north of the city that might have been perfect- it apparently had one of those caduceus signs that lit up the night. I hadn’t put a lot of thought into it, because the entire scene where one would see it had been included as a throwaway paragraph of the script and I thought that, if it ended up not appearing, that would be one of the compromises with which I would be comfortable.

When D.J. showed me the location originally, my impression was that it was an alley. He explained how it could be lit and shot so that one section of it appeared to lead to a door the audience would never see, how it could be made to look like a street, with people hanging around and an eerie atmosphere and I smiled and nodded and tried in vain to see anything but an alley. There’s a reason that I’m not the visual person in this venture. Against my normal instincts, I trust that somehow, magically, when I arrive on set Friday night, this alley will somehow magically have become the entrance to a medical clinic.

I arrive, already made-up and costumed despite the fact that I know we can’t start until it’s almost dark. (Note- never, never, never, never walk down a busy Montreal street wearing a lot of makeup and a slinky dress in daylight. People will not think that you are heading out for a night on the town. They will think you are trawling for customers and your walk will be unpleasant.) As I wander up to the location, I’m a little disconcerted to notice that it is still very much an alley. It’s an alley with a whole bunch of people in it, but it’s still an alley. Oh no.

I’m also a little flustered when I realize that, for all the people there, my co-star is not among them. He’s still downtown with one of our extras trying to round up bikes that we need as props for the evening’s shoot. Our thought was that a cheap way of getting bikes that look alike would be to avail ourselves of the ones that the city of Montreal offers to citizens and tourists for rent throughout the downtown core. Except that, as I find out when I call, the city has decided to randomly shut down the entire system on this particular night. I’m finding this out in real time as Ash and our fearless extra, talking on her own phone to the bureaucrat charged with answering questions about the program, wander from bike port to bike port, without success. At the same time, I have one of our people yelling at me in my free ear about how I don’t know where the bikes are and I don’t have a plan for dealing with this. Ah, the glamourous world of film-making.

Although I’m of the mind that we should just scrap the bike idea altogether while I think of a way to adjust the script to work around it (this turns out to be my fall-back position during much of the filming when problems arise, perhaps because it’s what I feel comfortable doing), one of our crew does offer to go get bikes that, while not matched, will be sufficient for our purposes. It would be a relief except that I’ve just been told that the extras need makeup, which is another emergency. This would not have occurred to me, but in truth I’m kind of a makeup freak, so I take the opportunity to play with cosmetics when I can. (I’ll just apologise now if I got a bit too creative with some.)

By the time I’m finished sweeping blush and eyeliner on the night’s punks and drunks, I’m surprised to notice that, even while there are people scurrying around to get the set ready, it’s gotten a lot darker. I wander a little closer to the action and, lo and behold, there is an entrance to a medical clinic where the alley used to be. There are caduceus signs lit by an unearthly neon green. There are sickly yellow lights at the clinic door (actually just an alcove in the alley where our sound guy is going to be crouching for much of the time). I turned around for just a few minutes and our set has appeared. Magic. (Magic aided by a lot of physical work from people I’ve barely spoken to.)

The lights glow, everyone takes their places and, although it’s a little later than we had anticipated starting, we are ready to roll. And roll. And roll. And roll. As it turns out, this is the night of slow. We are scheduled to shoot three scenes in this location, break down (meaning take the set apart, although other breakdowns seem imminent as well) and move to another location about six blocks away to shoot one final scene before calling it a night. Despite this demanding schedule, nothing seems to be moving in any way forward. In what is to become a Conversion theme, our first shot takes a good hour- no dialogue, fairly simple action and we cannot seem to get it done.

Again, this is a scene that lasts a short paragraph in the screenplay and yet somehow it has morphed into a seven-shot moving extravaganza with choreography that belongs in a ballet production. Every step counts and, as we keep finding out, we’re not especially apt dancers. Our grand finale, where Ash and I are to run down a tiny alley off the main one, towards the “doors”, takes a whopping thirteen takes and requires cast and crew to do some serious clean up when someone points out that we are, in fact, shooting in a city alley and the lead actress is wearing open-toed shoes. (This is underlined when, in the midst of clean-up, our lead actor emerges with a syringe embedded in the sole of his Doc Marten boot.)

There’s a weird shadow, do it again. Took the turn a bit too wide, do it again. Someone glanced in the direction of the camera, do it again. Camera decided to randomly adjust the lighting, do it again. I’m starting to feel like we’re still going to be doing this when there’s snow on the ground.

What’s worse is that, while I have no sense of time, other than knowing we’re spending a lot of it on something I almost didn’t include, the other assembled actors are not so distracted. We have a very loveable dog and his owner who arrive around eleven, the time when I figured (foolishly), we’d be ready for them, since they’re in the final scene. We finish the first scene at between twelve-thirty and one.

As we’re setting up for the second scene, there’s still a debate going on over whether or not we should rearrange the order of shooting to get the parts that require our other actors- canine and human- out of the way first. Unfortunately, by the time we take a decision that yes, this is exactly what we should do, we’re told that it’s impossible because the crew has just lit the scene according to our original order. While we’re trying to come up with ways to cut the number of shots needed for the scene in order to get it done faster, one of our actors tells Dom that he has a commitment to work as a DJ and needs to go immediately.

In a panic, Dom drafts Nik Grozdanovic, our script supervisor who is on his first night of Conversion, to play the role. Nik is another one of these people who arrives apparently from nowhere and ends up becoming an indispensable part of the team. Although I’m entirely convinced that first night that he’s likely to flee the country or change his identity to avoid ever having to work with us again, he takes everything in stride, takes his role seriously and puts in an effort that most professionals couldn’t muster. And, as it turns out, he’s a pretty darn good actor to boot.

The night wears on, it gets colder, cold enough that crew members have to wrap me in a blanket between takes, because the camera can’t get a proper focus with my shivering. The police arrive, but simply wish us luck and move on. We’re now hours behind schedule. Those who are left, waiting patiently for their time, are getting restive and tired. Those of us who are invested in the full project are getting cranky and start snapping at each other. What’s worse is that these flare-ups are happening in full view of everyone, so if they weren’t convinced we were amateurs from the way we’d run the show thus far, we’re doing all we can to drive the point home.

By the time we’ve finally managed to drag ourselves through the last lines of dialogue and called the final cut at that location, two things are painfully obvious: 1. We are not going to be shooting anywhere else that night, which means we’ll have to add a day to the schedule and get one of our actors to come back and; 2. We have got to come up with a way to get things done more efficiently if we’re going to have any hope of completing the film.

Unlike the previous week, where I felt strangely energized at the end of shooting, this week I feel like someone’s run over me with a truck. I honestly have no idea what the footage we got looked like. I can’t even remember if I said the right lines, although I’m sure that Nik would have called me on it if I hadn’t. What worries me more is that I can’t remember if we’ve gotten everything we needed. I have that horrible feeling in my head like when you leave your house in the morning, convinced you’ve forgotten something, only to discover eight hours later that you’ve locked yourself out.

Months ago, when I was stressing over getting locations, actors and scheduling nailed down, D.J. had tried to calm me by telling me that this process was supposed to be fun. As we’re packing up, I’m certain that I’m not having fun and I’m pretty damn sure that no one else is either.

As I’m wallowing in the horror I’ve unleashed, Nik walks up to say goodnight. I thank him and, in the hopes I can convince him to come back, I tell him things will get better as we go along. And I tell him to get some sleep.

“I can’t,” he tells me. “I have to work in a couple of hours.”

My addled brain tries to process the fact that this man has just worked thanklessly for ten hours for a bunch of strangers and now plans to head off to his paying job as if he does this every weekend.

He hands me back my bible, my copy of the shooting script, and smiles. “I’ll see you on Sunday.”

That’s the funny thing about getting so worked up and caught in the moment. Even though there may be work to do and even though there are problems that will need to be corrected, sometimes things don’t look quite as bad from the outside. So maybe it’s not the end of the world.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Two

2 August, 2009

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can set you off in weird new directions. Today’s shoot involves scenes that were never included in the original screenplay, but which came from ideas that just seemed too good to pass up. One of the things that they have in common was that I didn’t think of either of them. One came from a giddy discussion with Ash and Dominic about enlivening a lengthy monologue late in the script and the second from a similar talk with Dominic and D.O.P. D.J. Matrundola on how to use an interesting location we had at our disposal.

The other thing that these scenes have in common is that both are shot in the place where we live. This caused me no consternation until the morning of the shoot, when I realize from the night before that there is significantly more equipment involved than I had originally believed and that there will be more people involved than I originally believed. As I awake, I’m thinking all of a sudden that I’m not entirely comfortable having a half a dozen people shuffling through the living room, using a toilet with a tendency to explode when not flushed exactly right and I’m nervous that our superintendent, already a little irate that we have contraband feline, is going to be severely displeased when we start blocking access to one of the building’s public areas.

Then, of course, there’s the problem of sleep deprivation. Although we’re not scheduled to start shooting until late that afternoon, those involved in the first night’s events have preparation to do and have in general had little sleep. So we’re all going in with nerves that are just the teensiest bit frayed.

The first crisis of the day is that we discover that we’re short-staffed. Since both director and D.O.P. are going to be in front of the camera for one of the scenes, we need an extra person to shoulder the burden on the other side. Eventually a friend of a friend of Paul Ash’s, Katelynd Kuhar, arrives to save the day. In fact, she saves more than that, since she is one of the people unknown to any of us before the shoot, who steps in and fills a huge gap in the production, sticking with us throughout filming, being on site for many of the remaining days, often until ungodly hours. This is one of the truly remarkable things about filming Conversion. People who have no vested interest and no personal connection to the project end up becoming vital members of the team.

There are a few glitches during the day. We get off to a late start, which has me worried since we all have to work in the morning and I don’t want to be shooting in the building until all hours, lest someone complain. Our toilet does indeed live up to its nature and shower water over the bathroom floor several times while we are upstairs, forcing me to take on the added role of Bowl Wrangler while we are working in the apartment.

When we move outside, we face a problem that has been a concern since well before we started filming: it’s raining. The rain is light, too light to actually show up on the film, I’m assured, but heavy enough to show up on the actors who have to appear outside, namely Ash and me, and heavy enough to potentially damage the camera.

One performer doesn’t show up, although the particular part in question is one that easily accommodates a stand-in. A car alarm, fortunately on Dominic’s car, is tripped twice, sending a blaring announcement of our unsanctioned work echoing through the halls of the building. These are the little things that can seem very, very big when you’re working on a tight schedule.

This day also gives me a very important lesson in how to work on films, although I don’t fully recognize it until a couple of days later. As we’re shooting downstairs, I’m plagued by the thought that the way that the scene is turning out, it’s not going to look at all the way I intended when I wrote it. Normally, this would mean that the writer just has to suck it up, but one of the advantages of being a producer on your own project is that you get to argue for your own ideas. This turns into a vociferous debate between me, D..J. and Dom and eventually, in the interests of moving forward and because I have the least experience of any of the four producers, I relent. I’m more worried that we’re going to be blocking the entrance to the parking garage all night and that this will cause problems in my life outside Conversion. The decision rankles with me, but I have confidence that I’ve at least made my points and am reassured that I’m simply not seeing things the way that they will finally come together.

Here’s my advice to anyone in the same position: If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. No matter what people tell you, keep making your point until you’re either satisfied or forced to concede that what you want is impossible. As someone who struggles with self-confidence in general, it’s sometimes hard for me to stand up for what I think, particularly when faced with people who know better than I do. Listen to what others say- their opinions are as valid as yours, even if they’re opposed- but if you want something, don’t allow circumstances to cause you to doubt yourself. (If I can be permitted to flash forward for a moment, it turns out that we were able, in the editing process, to make the scene flow more along the lines of what was originally intended, a stroke of luck I had not counted on having.)

As it turns out, despite the day’s problems, we finish on time, no one comes to order us out and nothing gets lost or broken. Despite my unease at this last scene, we’ve accomplished something pretty remarkable- we’ve managed to get through our first weekend’s shoot and get everything we’d intended in the proverbial can. The scarier part is that this was the easiest shoot. It involved the fewest people, the shortest scenes and the fewest set-ups. Next week, we’ll start with the complicated parts, something that both frightens and excites me.