Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Eleven

28 August 2009

"What we've done so far is great, but the film lives or dies on what we shoot this weekend."

Why do I keep saying that to people? Sure it's true. For some reason, when I was doing the schedule, it seemed like a good idea to pack the film's climax and the scene that makes up almost a fifth of the script into one weekend. Logically, I can see how it works, because of other constraints on the shooting and because you really wouldn't want to have the most intense scenes earlier in the schedule anyway. You want them to come at the point where people are emotionally invested and when they've had the film on the brain for several weeks. At least, that was my theory when I was throwing darts at a board, trying to figure out when things could be fit in. What the hell do I know about doing a shooting schedule? I'm still trying to figure out enough to be able to express my ideas. But that's the thing about producing something yourself. There is no safety net. You are the only person you can rely on. Well, you and your other producers, who are generally just as strapped as you are.

It's definitely true that, because of the way that the schedule has been put together, this weekend has the power to make or break the film. But why do I keep feeling the need to tell everybody?

First up is the climactic scene of the film. We've managed to get back on decent terms after Wednesday's "boring" incident, but there's still a current of unease. Complicating things further is the fact that Georges, the sound guy who has attended us faithfully in the last few weeks, had a prior engagement and is unavailable for the weekend. This wouldn't have been anyone's choice of scenes to start a new key crew member, but we're lucky to have found anyone. Marc Desaulniers comes to us from Jean-David and is from the beginning a true professional. This at least allays some of my fears for the evening, but I'm still on edge. We start off by shooting a very brief scene outside, in front of the Parc metro station. It goes pretty smoothly, but there is one person who is hassling us about our right to be there and capture him on film (despite the fact that the camera is pointed away from him). I say nothing, but throw him a look that causes him to demand why we're threatening him. It also makes him move away and shut up. Yeah, I'm not in cheery form tonight.
Fred guards the coffee from a possible thief
I should feel great. After all, someone has agreed to loan us a cafe for the evening. Not some dump, either. It's been consistently voted as one of Montreal's best cafes and has a lush interior to die for. It's the perfect offbeat, memorable space for an offbeat film to reach its high dramatic point. Besides, how many times can you say that someone loaned you a cafe for the evening? Plus, our actors are raring to go. One of them- Mikaela Davies who, fortunately, is nothing like the character she plays in the movie, ends up spending the entire night with us, when one of her later scenes gets rescheduled until just after dawn.

Everyone arrives on time and is ready to go, but there's still an immediate delay (hey, it's our trademark), because the way that we had planned to shoot the whole sequence seems, in light of our conversation on Wednesday, too static. So we start to move furniture around, plan ways that the actors can move, plan ways that the camera can move, generally try to compensate for the fact that what we're filming is a very long stretch of dialogue between two people sitting in a cafe.

Normally, I'd be maintaining my determination that everything will be OK, but for tonight, I'm not that person. You see, tonight, I have to do some real acting- not just cheeky grins, smartass one-liners, or acting like myself generally. I have to act. I'm supposed to get emotional, which, ironically, is something I find difficult to do in real life. So I'm not being a good producer tonight. I'm being a strung-out actress who sort of wishes that her fellow producers were able to spare a few minutes to calm me down. That's just not how it works on a production this small. Our director and his right hand (Jean David) are pulling sofas around.

I can also notice the differences in myself when we're working. Normally, I get wrapped up in things and time flies by. Instead, tonight is crawling. It feels like something is interrupting us every five seconds, whether it's a passing car or a light needing to be removed, or someone stumbling on a line (it happens) and the fact that we're getting interrupted is making it more and more difficult for me to get into what's going on. The producer part of me is agreeing or giving opinions, but the stuttering pace is unnerving the actor part of me.

At some point, I'm sent out, with Dom, on a mission to get food for the masses. I'm aware that we still seem early in the sequence for how late it is, but I figure it's just my sense of time distorting a bit. When we get back with our bounty of bagels, I find out differently. I try to talk out the next series of shots that we need to get and D.J., who's been quiet all night, responds flatly "Then we're f**ked". [Note: he did not use asterisks, since they are difficult to pronounce.]

You always have to have some fun...
We still have the meat of the scene to shoot, there are at least a half dozen camera moves planned, coverage of a variety of different actors, plus the lengthy part at the end where Paul and I have to be dead on for the film to hold any emotional resonance in the end, and, I find out, it's after three in the morning. Our staccato method of quick shots and multiple angles so that we can figure out later which ones look the best together have pushed us over two hours behind schedule. And that normally wouldn't be a problem, except that there's this flaming golden sun that's going to start rising around five which is going to make it impossible to get consistent looking shots of the people in the cafe. The normal way to fight the sun (and it is, apparently, always the enemy for filmmakers) is to use a large curtain-like rig that blocks the light. This could have been done, but... The but breaks down into an argument over who should have thought of the need for one of these curtains, who should have told whom that one was needed... And thus do we lose another few precious minutes of night.

We get started again, trying to focus (at least most people are- my brain is like a pile of scrambled eggs and I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing). The stress and the pressure are making everyone prone to having brain spasms. We're not acting like the well-oiled machine we have been. I'm too worried about the acting part of my night to function well as a producer and to complicate things, I have a wicked case of the giggles. Discussions that would normally be rational are taking on the taint of the childish and every time something has to move, everything comes to a dead halt. I'm struck with this sense that something is about to give.

Since D.J. has been the uneasiest about this scene, I'm expecting it to be him that ex/implodes, so it comes as a surprise when the victim of the night's stress turns out to be Paul. He doesn't yell, doesn't throw things, doesn't stomp away or start throwing punches, but he hits a wall where he simply can't get the words out of his mouth. It's the kind of thing that happens to people under pressure and the pressure isn't helped by the fact that he's angrier at himself than anyone. This is not something that's happening because he's unprepared or because he doesn't have a sense of what he should be doing. Like me at the loft, this is what happens when you're wearing a lot of hats. Eventually, the head breaks down.

The good thing is, when you're dedicated to something, as he is, you find a way to overcome it. He pulls himself together, works through the lines like the trooper he is and then, all of a sudden, it's my turn. This is what I've been afraid of all night. One long-ish speech that's supposed to be emotional, sad, defeated. It's the most challenging thing I've had to do as an actor and it's the one scene in which my inexperience had troubled Dom just a little when I said I wanted to play this part. I have to think that he's got to be having doubts again, because I am still finding it really difficult not to laugh. I can't even make eye contact with some of the people in the room. I've been trying to help Paul get through his bits and as a result, I'm not entirely sure I can remember what I'm supposed to be saying. I have this insane fear that the cameras will start rolling and I'll spit out all Paul's lines as quickly as I can, then turn around to find out that the sun's come up.

As a trick, I try to think of the piece as a number of blocks of text and then remember one key word from each block. Then all I have to do is memorise the order of the blocks and I can make it through. As long as I don't sound like a child reciting words at a spelling bee, everything should be fine. At the moment, I'm most worried about letting everyone else down, after all that's been put into the project.

The camera and lighting are moved, Marc checks my microphone, which has been showing a nasty tendency to fall down the inside of my dress and we're ready. D.J. reassures me that, if I need to stop, I just have to signal, that we'll get the lines from different angles, so I don't need to feel pressured to do one perfect take. I feel like I'm hearing him from underwater- all distorted and distant. It's not exactly nerves, what I'm feeling anymore, it's as if I've slipped into another area where there is only me and my little blocks of words. Dom tells me to signal him when I'm ready, so a give myself one long, deep breath to push any remaining and nod- let's go.

Dom calls action and I start. Then, abruptly, something goes wrong with the camera. That's the sort of thing that makes actors freak out and lose it on set, I'm sure. 

My memory of the next five minutes is gone. I'm so terrified of giggling that I can't bring myself to even look in the direction of anyone else in the room. So I look down and just try to focus on the words. I'm completely unaware of what's going on in the room around me, I wouldn't know if the place was on fire. If there are traffic sounds outside, I don't hear them. I just jump from one lily-pad of words to another until I can make my way back to the pond. The one thing that I do remember is that, at a key moment, my voice sort of cracks. I can't say that I meant to do it, but I feel when it's about to happen and I certainly don't fight it. It's just a fleeting realisation before I go back to my lily pads.

Professional actors don't think like this. They are focused enough that they are within their characters, inside the moment as the character experiences it. Even at the most intense moments, I don't achieve that. I'm always aware that I'm acting, aware that I'm pretending. But I like that little crack in my voice, because, whether from exhaustion or fear or because I'm overwhelmed, that instant is quite real. So when the take ends- only a few seconds before the camera hits its cut-off point of five continuous minutes of filming- I exhale and take just a second to feel good about myself.

"Do I have to do that again?" I ask, terrified that I'm going to find out that one of the lights was blinking, or my microphone fell down my dress again, or the camera focus wobbled... all sorts of things that have scrapped other, perfectly good takes in the film.

Dom and Ash both smile reassuringly and tell me no, what I did was perfect and my feeling of pride grows just a little bigger.

"Yes she does," D.J. reminds us, obviously exhausted from a few too many nights like this. "We have to do the wide shot."

Well someone has to get me back to planet earth. We reset and run through everything again to give us an angle to cut to. We still have a lot of work to do, a lot of shots, because there's a lot that needs to be captured in order for the film to truly come together- after all, this weekend is crunch time, where the big scenes are unfolding. There is no time for me to get lost in my profound sense of relief that I've faced down my acting demons and I can go back to being me again- split between producing and acting throughout.

It's a bit of a cop-out to end this here, but I honestly can't get into too much more detail, because, of course, these are the big scenes we're shooting and I can't give away everything that happens... By the time we finish, it's after seven in the morning. It's no longer dawn, the sun is up and there's traffic on Parc Ave. outside. We pack up and move things back to the way they were. Jean-David, having tended to us all night, half making sure that we had everything we needed, half making sure we didn't accidentally wreck the place, decides to stay on and open the coffee shop. That's right, he goes from working on the film to making espressos until the morning shift arrives (which won't be for another few hours).

I'm so elated at having made it through the evening that I'm barely able to contain it. Everyone else looks at me with weary smiles or avoids me completely. As high as I am, I'm aware that we've just put in a very difficult night- almost twelve hours by a group of people who were, for the most part, working for the eight hours previous. I'm fairly bouncing, but there is a weight on the shoulders of a number of the people there. We knew we were going to feel tired, but this is a dangerous time to be feeling it. As we part, there's a little sense of anxiety cutting into my buoyancy. What we have to shoot on Sunday is longer and more complex and if everyone is going into it tired than there's no guarantee we can get it all finished. Ah yes, the producer is back.

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