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.