Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Nine

22 august 2009

Oh, how I have been waiting for this day. For starters, after the killer schedule of the last week, this weekend involves only one day's work. We've asked everyone to be on call for the following day, but looking at what we have to shoot, none of us thinks we'll need that unless we're horribly disorganised. Second, the day's shoot is actually a day shoot, meaning we don't have to be up until all hours (although we have to be up early). And of course, there's the fact that, for the only time in the entire shoot, I have the day off. Well, not off exactly, because I'll have plenty to do, but the difference is that I won't have to do it while acting. I have no scenes today! But the reason I have most been looking forward to today is the venue in which we are shooting, Bos Advertising, a chic advertising company in a 19th century industrial building, stunningly refurbished with ten-foot windows, exposed brick walls and... wait for it... a swimming pool that we're free to use. I already know that the main thing getting me through today will be the knowledge that, at the end of it, i get to go swimming. Whatever works, right?

My first duty of the day is to run and get breakfast-type food for everyone while the crew get set up. When I return laden with fruit and baked goods, I'm astonished to see that, not only are they getting everything together for the first shot, but others (it was not hard to assemble a crew for this particular day) are putting things in place for subsequent scenes, so that we're already well ahead of the game. In fact, throughout the day, as the main group moves from one place to another, part of the crew is always going to the place we've just completed shooting and moving equipment to the place we'll be going next. We are an efficient little machine.

Although it was easy enough to get crew for the day, the same did not hold true for extras. The glorious office space in which we find ourselves is open-concept to let the light flow everywhere. It must be wonderful to work in (when Jean-David, who does work here in "real life" first showed me the place, I didn't want to leave), but the problem is that you can see everything from virtually everywhere and if desks are empty, it's going to be painfully obvious. Plus, of course, you want to show some movement, to give the idea of a buzzing, active and tense workplace, which is what we're supposed to have. So our first challenge is to look extremely carefully at every position that the camera will occupy and determine the absolute minimum number of desks we need to fill. It's a very delicate affair and the annoying thing is, this isn't anything that people will likely notice in the final version. It's just that it's the kind of thing they'll notice if it's not done properly.

The other challenge is in keeping things moving along. True to our established pattern, it takes us about ten times as long to get the first shot- another thrilling drop in that shows off the full beauty of where we're shooting- as it does to get anything else that day. So, despite our best efforts, we're already well behind where we wanted to be by the time we've finished shot one. We've organised the order of shots around the fact that it's easier to move people than equipment. However, since the action takes place on two different days, we're frequently forced to ask everyone to change between shots. Some days, you can do everything right and it'll still be complicated. I just try to keep smiling. Everything is going pretty smoothly. And the smoother things go, the sooner I will get to go swimming.

Next up on the list of things that I get to be stressed about is that one of our actors hasn't shown up. I try calling him and get voice mail. I make signs to put up around the building in case he hasn't been able to locate the door. I leave a message with every number I can think of for him to call. No luck. So now we have a shortage of extras and I need one of them to play a defined part. I watch the efficient team moving lights and cords around and I wonder how I'm going to break this little piece of news to the others who don't have a break from their regular duties.

As I try to think of a solution, I find my mind kind of wandering. I'm sitting on some filing cabinets, chin in hands, looking at the action upstairs and knowing that the next scene we shoot needs the missing actor in it. But really, I'm thinking about the fact that one of our extras has this really amazing shirt on. Being a really unapologetic aesthete, I'm fascinated by this shirt and I'm sort of saddened to think that the fact that he's so far from the camera will prevent the complex sheen of the fabric from appearing in the final film. I'm not joking, this is actually what's running through my mind.

The extra in this case, is Dom's uncle and Jean-David's father Jean-Guy Marceau. It's always a thing with me when a man takes care about how he looks and this shirt, a rich sort of purple-magenta colour that changes in the light is the kind of thing that says to me that the person wearing it thinks carefully about their appearance. It's not the sort of garment one picks up on a whim. It also looks like something that a person working at an energetic, image-conscious office run by a guy sporting bleached hair and a couple of earrings (as this one is) would wear. So it occurs to me- why not ask him to play the featured part? I mean, he looks perfect and the role, while distinct, doesn't even require him to speak, plus, he has family members there, so he'd be more inclined to help out than a stranger on the street, which is my other option at the moment.

When I raise the subject with Dom, he looks at me as if I've just asked if I could pierce his testicle sack with a pen. You see, the fact that his uncle is here at all is kind of remarkable. He's literally just finished a round of chemotherapy that week and it was a real unknown whether he'd be able to come and how long his strength would hold out. It's a very difficult debate to have when your best argument is that you have a gut feeling based on someone's shirt. But at length, Dom agrees to ask him. Yes, I am aware that this makes me a monster.

Now the ironic thing is that Jean-Guy has actually been acting since before most of the upstart producers of Conversion were even born. He's an acclaimed stage actor and at this moment (February 2011), he's actually performing with a theatre troupe in Europe. So we're that much more fortunate when he says that yes, actually, he does feel up to staying and playing a larger role. In fact, he gives the character a remarkable amount of depth for the brief time he appears and it's the things like his performance that, I believe and hope, will give Conversion an added dimension that makes it worth viewing more than once. (Ironic touch: The scene in which he is most visible actually is set on another day than the first scene, so the shirt I so admired never does get its moment on camera. You can catch a glimpse of it in the background, but most of his action takes place when he is wearing a very elegant blue shirt instead.)

The day is filled with little issues that are the kind of thing that independent films face all the time. We have a shot that we all agree is probably the "hero shot" of the film, a long pull back that Dom and I had separately envisioned as soon as we saw the office. However, our shortage of extras makes it seem awfully empty. As a result, several of the people in the final shot are crew members, seconded to appear in that shot only.

Midway through one of the early scenes, Dan Derkson, a member of an esteemed Montreal Improv group who gives us enough material to create an entire "Best of Dan" DVD, knocks a cap off his tooth in the middle of a particularly intense monologue.

One of the scenes is shot in a closed office with a giant glass wall looking out at the rest of the desks that requires an unbelievably intricate set up of equipment and people to ensure that nothing is reflected in the windows. As we're shooting, there is a small pile of bodies on the floor, all filling some role in between takes, but basically like large sandbags while the camera is rolling. Even Dom has to basically flatten himself after snapping the slate and ends up calling action from underneath a table.

These are the sorts of problems you face even when you're prepared. There are always things that come up and, in moments of frustration, it's easy to forget that this is all part of the adventure. A woman I worked with once got annoyed with a coworker who was complaining about how there were always problems to deal with and she snapped "Yeah, well if there weren't problems, you and I wouldn't have jobs". It's remarkably apt statement in a number of situations, but definitely in film-making. If there weren't always issues getting a picture to look just right, or positioning everything properly, or making sure that things look and sound believable, everyone could run outside with two or three friends and a camera and shoot Raging Bull. The problems aren't just a side effect of the process, they are the process and your ability to overcome them defines your talent as a film-maker. Or so says the woman lying in a pile of bodies on the floor, who has no film-making experience.

It's strange, but even though I swear we've lost time shooting, we end up on our final scene a little earlier than I would have liked. It's one of those little things that strikes me as odd, even though there's nothing wrong. I had pictured the scene taking place at night, in the dark. Instead, it's shot at twilight, with the sun setting visibly as the characters deliver their lines. As we're starting to set up, I'm tempted to offer to buy everyone dinner in order to stretch the shooting time so that it gets dark, but looking into some of the exhausted faces and realising that D.J., charged with organising all the technical aspects of the scene, is getting short-tempered, I decide to let things proceed without objecting. Besides, if we push things too late, everyone will want to go home right away and I won't get to go swimming.

In the end, I don't think that there's anything wrong at all with the way this scene turns out. It's just one of those moments where there's a divergence between what I saw in my head and what ends up on film. In a way, those are the most interesting parts of the film to me.

The day winds up with us enjoying a sunset by the pool and, most importantly, with me in the pool. I'm happily bobbing up and down, swimming from one end of the pool to another, beer in hand and maintaining a conversation. Let it never be said that I can't multitask. Obviously, not having to act has made this a particularly relaxing day (and has made me wonder what I could have brought to the party if I hadn't been so egotistical as to insist I could play the lead), but my zen-like bliss goes beyond that. Yes, there were some frayed tempers towards the end of the day, but here we are as a group, sitting around a pool on a beautiful late summer's night, feeling a sense that we've all put in a good day's work and earned the sleep we're going to have. At the end of the day on the 16th, I felt pumped, empowered, victorious. Today, I am serene. The roughness and shakiness of the first couple of days has resolved itself into this, a feeling that we have things under control, that we can all take some time at the end of the day and toast our own accomplishments. We're more than halfway through and, strangely, things really do seem to be getting better.

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