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.

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