Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Twelve

30 August 2009

One of the most surprising things about Conversion is how little it changed from start to finish. Most film scripts are rewritten so many times that the finished product often has nothing in common with the original story. No one in our circle knows that better than our director, who was forced to rewrite the script for his first film the week it started shooting in order to account for the fact that his producer didn't bother to secure most of the props or locations needed.

The one exception to Conversion's stability was what we call the "Clinic Scene". It has a lore all its own within the Conversion story and I could likely write an entertaining series of pieces just on the history of how this section of the film- which comprises roughly twenty pages of a hundred page script- came to life.

Mr. Ash entertains the waiting troops
In "Conversion 1.0", this scene was not set in a clinic at all. It was set in a hospital emergency ward. And, while it had a number of extras required, there weren't any really developed characters save one. Just a bunch of injured people and some hospital staff trying to deal with them. It was months before filming that Dom and D.J. sat me down and brought me face to face with the fact that the hospital was a huge chasm in our otherwise paved road to getting the movie made. Sure, we could get people to loan us offices. Shooting outside was easily enough accomplished. But no one, no one, was going to entrust us with a hospital. Something had to change. So the three of us, as perfectly and creatively in synch as we were at any point in the project, started throwing ideas around. And what's surprising, when you read the two versions of the script (not that anyone who already hasn't ever will), is that the version of the scene that takes place in the walk-in clinic is so vastly superior to the original that I shudder to think we might ever have ended up with the first version (assuming we'd found anyone sweet and stupid enough to give us a hospital).

And this scene has already proved to have its own series of challenges. A chunk of it was written around the character of an unstable denizen of the night who is at the clinic with several rats. Unfortunately, our rat wrangler had a horrific accident early in the summer (details here) that almost took his life. Astoundingly, up until a week before, there was a slim possibility that he might be able to show up- with a couple of truly astounding scars on his head to add to character's believability. Unfortunately, the rehab centre had some issues releasing him to the clutches of a bunch of amateur filmmakers on an unsecured, uninsured set so that he could handle his rats. This is really one of the only instances where I think Conversion fell just a little short of what it could have been, through the fault of absolutely no one.

And, of course, there was the little issue that we were shooting in a hallway. No jokes. A hallway. When I first watched Dom and D.J. getting excited about shooting the clinic in this space- in the basement of BOS Advertising, which looks absolutely nothing like the upstairs- I was extremely skeptical. Possibly more skeptical than when I originally saw the alley where we ended up shooting the scenes outside the clinic. But, as I've come to expect, when we show up to begin the day's shooting, a visual miracle has been worked while I was quite literally asleep.

The lovely and fabulous MARQUISE
One of our hardest working and most reliable crew members has had an idea that quite possibly saves the scene from being suspect- too clean, too sterile, too cavernous for the space where it unfolds. His idea is that in order to disguise the pristine, unused quality of the area, the set should be decorated as if it is a space under construction. When I arrive- a good two and a half hours after the crew- the space is rigged with low hanging beams, scaffolding and heavy-duty plastic sheeting. From a nondescript passage, it has been transformed into a weird, claustrophobic little room with cheap folding metal chairs and long shadows that look like something out of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. I'm used to catching my breath when I see what the people who have dedicated their time to the project have done, how much it means to them to put together something that will ultimately be a source of pride. Of course, what I'm really feeling, although I'd hate to admit it, is a sort of egotism. After all, I wrote the screenplay, I asked Dom to direct it... Sure, I love the fact that so many people are putting time into making a really good picture, but there is also a part of me that smiles thinking that they are doing all this because they are dedicated to something I created.

Truth be told, I'm still on a bit of a high from Friday night, at the fact that we pulled everything off, at the fact that I faced down my acting demons. So when I arrive, I feel like the life of the party, especially compared to those who have been doing a lot of hard physical work since the sun rose. I want them to know that I really appreciate, that we all really appreciate what they're doing. I get some smiles and a lot of weary looks and I have a sense that everyone would be feeling that appreciation a lot more if it were accompanied by coffee and baked goods. Unfortunately, I have neither the time, since I'm involved in all the scenes being shot today, nor the finances to be able to oblige. I'm already nervous that today I have to cover the expenses of a makeup artist (money well spent) and lunch for a large crew and a larger number of actors. As it is, in my rush to get everything together on my way down to the shoot, I've forgotten a couple of important parts of my own makeup kit and have to send Paul out to the nearest drug store (actually better termed the "least far" drug store) to pick up a couple of emergency supplies with the remains of petty cash.

The first thing we are shooting is a very brief cutaway to be used in another scene, making use of a third area of the Bos building. It takes virtually no time, but it does slow things a little, because it forces me to get into a different costume and makeup, then change back to my regular attire. When I come down from my costume change, ready to start the bulk of the day's filming, I'm a little thrown by what's happening. First of all, no one, not one of the actors there, are on the set. Everyone is still in the adjacent room awaiting instructions. Dom is sitting alone in a corner of the same room, looking through his copy of the script. Second, the crew seem to be in the process of changing the set around. I try to insist that it looked fine the way it was, only to be told that part of it collapsed, followed by a very defensive parry that the actors could still be taking their places and running through their lines.
Set malfunction

When I go to talk to Dom, he says that there's no point in getting people in place until the crew have finished rebuilding the set. He says this with some certainty. All of a sudden, I'm not quite so eager to take ownership of the project. I don't particularly want to argue with anyone, because they all have more experience than I do, so I attempt to make myself useful by applying some basic makeup to some of the scene's strange characters. I'm just as glad that the events we're filming are supposed to be taking place late at night, because I can feel my eyelids folding in pleats around my eyeballs. After some time of me trying to act cheery, one of our actors rightfully asks when things will be ready.

I sneak out to look into the progress on the set and discover a group milling around, looking much like they're also awaiting instructions. Straightening up to my full height (still not tall enough to be close to intimidating) I ask for an update, only to be told that the set is finished and that they've been waiting for us to be ready. It occurs to me that I'm so sleep deprived, so stressed about money and timelines and so woefully inexperienced that I have no idea if anyone told me that before. I'm almost certain I didn't know, but it seems like every time I open my mouth today, I chip a tooth on my foot. So I go back to see Dom. He's fidgety and annoyed that no one's told him the set was ready. Actually, I think that he's annoyed at other things and at everything. Remember when I said I came in on a bit of a high? Yeah, that's gone.

We corral the actors into the set and let them sit randomly while we take a moment to work out the logistics. There are a lot of logistics. There isn't a single extra in this scene. Everyone- almost a dozen of them- has a named character and, if not lines, important gestures. Virtually all of them move, as well and therefore all of the positions at the beginning have to take into account every future action, because space is limited and you can't have an action blocked because someone else is in the way and you don't want actions to become clumsy to get around the fact that the actors were put in the wrong place to begin with.

Normally, when anything gets this close to me, I expect a cocktail
Dom continues to look through his script while I try to figure out where he wants everyone so that I can tell them where to sit. After all, it's a team effort. Unfortunately, the team is a little off today. Every time Dom says where he wants someone, I'm able to point out a problem that this will cause later on. He's flustered, because, although we'd all talked about ways in which the seating could be arranged, he had imagined it differently and it's thrown off his instincts as to who should go where. Although I'm able to stop him from doing anything that will cause complications, my wits are too dulled to come up with any better ideas, so I just sit there, pointing out the flaws in each new position he recommends until he snaps. Things proceed like this for far to long, while everyone waits, until we're finally able to come up with a plan of attack that will allow us to begin shooting the scene. Begin. It's already afternoon and we're just starting.

None of the four of us who've been involved in the project more or less from the beginning are in a particularly good place.

Dom is overwhelmed at the length and complexity of the scene. His preferred style is to be able to adjust as he works, without feeling locked down to a particular sequence of shots or pre-planning. The geography of the scene demands a working method that is exactly the opposite and, all of a sudden, the director is in crisis, trying to reconcile the needs of the project with his method of thinking and working.

Paul is his usual amiable self, but he is obviously unnerved by his temporary lapse of memory the other day. He actually has the lion's share of the lines today and his character really finds his inner strength, something that he has to channel despite the fact that he is rattled. He should be able to focus on acting, on getting his head back where he needs it, but he's frequently required to run errands- as I mentioned- or to keep track of where people are, to make sure that no one inadvertently ruins a good take by returning to the set from a bathroom break.

D.J. is tired. He's physically tired because he's been the one doing the literal heavy lifting- loading up equipment, building sets, rigging lights and carrying the camera around for hours at a time (sure, it's light- try holding a cup of coffee perfectly still, so that there's not even a ripple in the surface, for six or seven hours and see how well you do). But he's also tired of us. One of the reasons that he was such a great addition to the team was that he had more experience than Dom, or Paul and certainly far more than me, working on films. Before we started shooting Conversion, he had directed his own short film and, early on in Conversion, the producers of the short film had apparently received a green light to develop it into a feature. A real feature, with a paid crew and a well-organised schedule where people are going to figure out in advance the sort of things we're taking care of ad hoc on set. More to the point, that film is his baby- where he'll have to work hard, but he'll ultimately be able to make things work the way he wants. The longer he seems to spend on the set of Conversion, the more visibly disenchanted he is growing with the rest of our abilities to run a tight ship.

You already know where my head is at.

And that's where we all are as we start filming. The first couple of shots go smoothly enough, but the four mindsets I've just outlined collide very shortly into the scene over whether or not we need to take a single extra shot in one section of the scene. Debates that are civil at best seem to surround every single movement of the camera. I'm personally certain that the worst acting that I do in the entire film comes that morning (hurrah for the editing room), because I'm barely able to get back into character between bickering over how everything unfolds. There is a moment where I seriously think that blood is about to be shed. Wouldn't that be ironic in a scene taking place in a walk-in clinic?

Rolling... for now...
It's bad enough that an argument almost erupts over the fact that I have to get up to go pay for the pizza that's being delivered for lunch. Once everyone starts to get cross with each other, it just sort of snowballs.

I'm too nervous to eat anything (stay tuned for Conversion: The Diet Plan) and I've discovered that my normal resourceful self has departed. Luckily for me and for the project, Paul has his head on straight. The problems we're facing can be dealt with, but we have to help Dom calm down and think carefully and sequentially about everything that needs to be done. There's no point in just leaving him to his own devices, so Paul rightfully suggests that we should sit him down and help him go through everything that we will need to cover once the gang returns from lunch. And that's exactly what we do.

With three cooler heads, we're actually able to make more progress. Talking through how the scene will unfold makes it much easier to deal with and to plan out what shots we need to do in what order. It's not a military-level plan, but it's at least something we can get a good start from. We eat and then we're in place, ready to resume our shooting, all of us in place, up to speed on our lines (despite some truly hilarious mistakes during rehearsals). we are ready to go.

I'm especially pleased that we're in place and ready to continue a half-hour later, when D.J., his face still grim with frustration and skepticism, returns from an animated discussion on his personal project. We are ready to continue and we are able to rip through page after page of script, shot after shot, movement after movement, like plodding professionals, until, well, until the roof caves in:

We're all a little rattled by the events of the day. We know what shots we want to take, but, amidst continued bickering murmurs, it's easy to get screwed up. I feel like I need three extra sets of ears to keep up with everything that's going on- with all the people moving around, with all the needs of the various actors, with all the concerns about the set and sound, with all the issues of timing and angles and... It occurs to me that I have suddenly become this small figure with very, very large ears simply trying to compute everything that I'm receiving, unable to form rational reactions to what is going on. At some point, did I think that I had control over this thing?

For all actors, having a clear eye line is important. Really important
It's during a longer break between shots that I have my awakening. People are taking bathroom breaks, we're moving folks around to suit the next set of shots that we're doing, explaining to others why we they need to stay in absolutely the same position in order to preserve the integrity of the scene (yes, in your world, it's been six hours, but in movie world, this all takes a few minutes only. I'm pretty useless, because I'm not sure exactly where to put anything and so, like most times when I've proved useless, I'm trying to hide behind others, lest someone think I know what's going on. Yeah, this is my thing, sure. Immediately in front of me, two people who have been closely involved throughout the project are having a conversation. And, as has become my habit today, I listen to what they're saying.

What they're saying is hard to hear. Essentially, they're enumerating everything that's being done wrong on the shoot. Or, rather, they're enumerating everything that's being done and discussing why it's wrong. As far as I can tell, the film is doomed. Every single scene we've shot is fatally flawed, rife with the signs of amateurism and will, ultimately, if the film ever manages to be assembled into something watchable, be an embarrassment to all involved. And these are people who have the experience to know what they're talking about. Then one of them pivots his head enough to notice that I'm standing there with my big ears and shrugs saying "I mean, there's different ways we could do things".

I believe that at this point, I'm supposed to feel like I want to die. Or I'm supposed to get angry and be determined to show these snobs up by making the best damn movie we can make. But the fact is, I'm so tired and worn down that I just hear the criticism and accept it, hoping all the while it's not true. We're too late in the shoot to change what's been done. I don't think that what we have warrants that kind of criticism and I'm damn sure going to do everything I can to make sure that the edit of the film showcases us at our very best. What I feel is humiliated. I walked in here this morning believing that everyone was here because they believed in the project, because they believed in something that I had created. For a lot of the people here, this is a job and, like any job, everyone thinks they could do better than the bosses. I am drenched in a wave of self-pity and, if I had the time, I'd go into the corner and sulk for a while, until the people responsible came and made a specious apology in order to keep things moving along. I don't have that time. We need to get back to work.

And, just afterward, the roof falls in.

So now, we have a dilemma. We have a portion- a small portion, but important- of the scene left to shoot. I feel like a monster, because, as we make our way through the rubble and stunned bodies, all I'm thinking is that we need to find a way to keep going. Mercifully, I'm not the only monster on set. D.J. is actually the one who comes up with a plan to restrict the camera's movement so that we are, essentially, never looking at the portion of the set that's collapsed. It's very clever. In fact, I can say with authority that in the end, it will be impossible to distinguish footage taken before the disaster than after.

The stable part of the set
We get what we need. Personal disputes and set malfunctions aside, we have made it through our longest scene and we have every line recorded. (Strangely, the very end of the scene is possibly even more effective than it would have been under the original script.) If the set had collapsed ten minutes before it did, we would have been doomed. We'd never have been able to get the shots that we needed and the whole day would have been a write off. We would have had to re-book the site and hope that our fragile coalition held together an extra week or so. But fortune smiles on Conversion. We have to cheat a little, but we can cheat with style. It's not a bad curse to have placed on you. As long as it holds up.

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