A Scene Comes Together

I recently came across this little video from a location scout we did way back during pre-production. What's nice about having documented so much of this process is that you can stand back from the project and look at a specific scene in each phase of production. Let's start at the beginning. [vimeo 24679219 w=500 h=281]

The major things to note are where we talk about putting the camera, where we talk about putting a fish tank, and the entire look of the room we are standing in. While so much can change your plans on the day of shooting, I'm surprised at how much we stuck to the initial map.

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As you can see, Marie Lynn Wagner did a killer job dressing up the place. Harder to tell in the behind the scenes shots, but check out these stills from the final cut once the lights were up. Below, you can see the main camera setup we were discussing in the video.

EthanFionaOne thing that completely changed from our initial discussion at the top was the placement of the bookshelf. The idea was that we would follow a character, Saul, from the couch to the bookshelf. We ultimately put the bookshelf opposite side of the wall in order to keep the lighting scheme consistent as we did the move. The end result was a reverse shot like the one below.

SaulBooks

Finally, you can see some other angles of this particular setup in the trailer for the film. Specifically, look at moments from 1:25-1:29.

[vimeo 46904894 w=500 h=281]

Scout Talk

I found this video from an early scout of one of our interiors for the film. In it, we are going through the shot list in the space and making notes for the sake of production design and the AD department. I've watched this a few times now and I'm still not quite sure what any of us is talking about. No wonder we had to go back three times! 

Cast Read-Through

Thursday was our day for a cast read-through. We circled up in chairs with our scripts, and plowed through the whole thing from start to finish. Although there were a few actors who couldn't make the event, it was terrific to see the shape of the whole thing and hear it flow out loud.  Everyone was so on point and the on-book performances were easily good enough to capture on film. It's time to get excited. This group is so incredibly talented. We start shooting in one day and I couldn't feel better about the actors playing these roles. Speaking of which, here is the cast list as it stands, with some other additions to come:

  • Harold Blumenthal - Brian Cox
  • Saul Blumenthal - Mark Blum
  • Cheryl Blumenthal - Laila Robins
  • Christina - Mei Meloncon
  • Fiona - Nicole Ansari
  • Lee - Kevin Isola
  • Isaac - Alexander Cendese
  • Emmy - Laura Jordan
  • Orchid - Maureen Sebastian
  • Sadie - Lisa Masters
  • Raphael - Teddy Canez
  • Karen Metzler-Worth -  Robyn Rikoon

Rehearsal

Today was our one and only real day of rehearsals for our actors. On a low-budget indie like this one, we are lucky to have any time at all. Needless to say, today was a real luxury and pleasure. Nestled in an empty, comfortable space in midtown Manhattan, the day started early with myself and one of our main actors. We jumped right in with some preliminary discussion about the character and some of the action. After the intro, we got straight to work on a few scenes that only required the two of us. It was great to finally connect as actors. (Did I mention I'm acting in this?)

Up next, a second actress joined the rehearsal and began delving into the scenes where both of the actors featured. What a thrill to watch/hear some of this stuff come to life! The screenplay has only a few scenes where we have more than two actors on-screen at any time, so today was almost exclusively spent working on duets. With many of the actors, it was the first time I've seen them in these roles as some of them hadn't auditioned, but were offered parts directly. I'd made my casting decisions based on my impressions and familiarity with their work, so I wasn't terribly worried. No one disappointed.  In fact, everyone brought so much to the table that I had a plethora of stuff to work with and shape where needed. It is a true delight to work with actors who can bring substance to a role, while being open and flexible to try different things in any given scene. These professional qualities give me a strong sense of confidence that I can work the way I want to on-set and keep the pace needed to see this thing through.

The rest of the day was a revolving door of cast members. There were friendly introductions and healthy discourse on the script. We did not work on any blocking (actors movement within a scene), but simply sat at the table with scripts. For me, rehearsal is about specifying the moments, the beats, the relationships, and overall pacing in a scene. Once everyone is on the same page, blocking becomes very organic for actors. Or rather, blocking becomes more apparent to me and I can direct the actors appropriately. Table work is also a terrific way to let the cast hang out, chat, and relate.

I took a few writing notes here and there, but for the most part everything played out how I had intended. In many cases there were actually some terrific surprises. Reacting to those surprises, I  would give adjustments and watch as the actors took the scenes to a whole new level.  Exciting stuff. All in all, today gave me a fresh look at many of these characters and scenes. The character relationships are only as vivid as the chemistry between the actors, and I truly felt that I was working with an exceptional ensemble.

Tomorrow is our company read-through of the script from start to finish. Can't wait!

Building Our Shot List

After many days and hours of work and thorough discussion, Zak and I have completed our shot list. This is a major milestone for us in pre-production, because we now have a much clearer sense of what we are setting out to achieve when filming. As we continue to scout and re-scout locations, our shot list becomes the reference point for everything. A shot list is literally a list of every single shot in a movie. Shots can also be referred to as "setups" as every shot has the camera set up in different way and location. The process of building a shot list is simply going through the script page by page and determining what you want to show and how. Even though determining your shot list is a creative task, the considerations are entirely technical and logistical. At present, Passing Harold Blumenthal has almost 250 different shots. I'd have guessed there would be more, but this is plenty.

Things to Consider when Building the Shot List:

  • What is the layout of our location?(Can a jib fit in the bedroom?)
  • What is the action of the scene that we are trying to convey? (How do I make sense of this? Who wrote this?)
  • How do I envision the final edit of the film? (How will this piece together?)
  • What is the overall visual style and approach to the film? (What would look cool? Or at least make me look cool?)
  • What are the technical considerations/equipment needed for a shot?(Can we afford the awesome tracking shot through the heart of Chinatown?)
  • How much time do we have to get this scene done? (We don't have enough time to get this scene done!)
Ultimately, the shot list will wind up in the hands of our First Assistant Director, Brad, who will scrutinize it for details, make notes and then use it as our guide-book as he navigates us through every day of shooting. On-set, the shot list is our bible. If we've done the necessary thinking ahead of time and accurately documented it in the shot list, we can trust that we've captured every angle, insert, and moment before moving on to the next scene. In addition to compiling a shot list, we will have  over-head diagrams of each location with notations of where the camera will be placed. I will also have some selected scenes storyboarded. I do my own storyboards as simple stick figure drawings, but I find it extremely helpful to go through the process of "seeing" the film.
More to come. I should start Twittering more.

This is Crazy

After a whirlwind week of some easy decisions and some extremely tough decisions, Passing Harold Blumenthal is completely cast. It'll be a week or so before all the deals are sealed and we can make an official cast announcement, but we are all very excited by what we found in our auditions. From casting sessions here in NY to audition tapes sent in from across the country, there has been an overwhelming amount of enthusiasm shown for these characters and I believe it will ultimately translate to the screen. Amidst the week of casting, our producers have been hard at work pulling all other aspects of the project together. From refining the schedule to securing more locations to nailing down contracts, there is always plenty to do. We are well past being able to dedicate our time to one single task. Now, everyone is doing everything. This is the thrill/pain-in-the-butt of no-budget filmmaking. Everyone must overextend. Job descriptions must become broader as everyone invests all they have into making something they can be proud of. It's tough, though. While everyone has something to gain by sacrificing a little more than usual, it can wear on you and the morale of your team. The only real consolation is that everyone is in the same boat. We are all battling doubts at this point in pre-production: Will this get done on time? Will finish on schedule? Will this location work out? Can we afford any of this?

When these questions build to the point where you feel like you're drowning in a sea of stress, that's where you have to man up and just get it done. A few months from now, I will be sitting in front of a computer, editing the film and these stresses will be a distant memory. In fact, when we are shooting in two weeks, these stresses will be gone. Never mind that they will have been replaced by a whole new set of obstacles, but that's how it goes. Everything will get done because it has to get done.

This week is sure to be even crazier than the last. There is so much to think about that I literally have to be told where to go next. This Monday, however I will stay put in one place as Zak and I work on our shot list. It's slow-going to be sure, but it's an essential part of creative and logistical planning.  More on that process to come.

Here's to a productive week!

Casting the Film

The past few days have been spent auditioning actors for all the remaining roles in the film. With the experience and guidance of our awesome casting director, Sabrina Hyman, the sessions were terrific. The actors who came in were incredibly talented and brought so many different colors to these characters. With no real decisions made yet, I thought I'd share some ruminations about the casting process. I've been anxious and excited to watch people read scenes from the film and breathe some life into everything. While it's always a pleasure to hear someone reading something you wrote, I was surprised to find myself leaving my "writer hat" behind. In fact, I found myself listening to these auditions as though the scenes were written by someone else entirely. I had gone into the process very curious to hear how some of the auditions scenes worked or didn't work, and was actually prepared to revisit the writing based on what I might learn. This wasn't the case at all. In the audition room, it's the actor's job (and director's) to push the limits of how a given scene might work. As a writer, I have given them a certain amount of information in the scene and script with which they can interpret and ultimately articulate through performance (aka acting). Enter subjectivity.

After each actor finished their session and left the room, I would chat with Sabrina and my producers and tell them what I thought. I think I found a theme  in my logic for how I decided whether or not someone was a contender for a role.  That theme of consideration was "Good or Bad" and "Right or Wrong". Focusing the questions like this doesn't preclude subjective judgment, but then again who cares? I'm the writer/director, this whole movie is nothing but a product of my own subjective judgment. With that settled, let's look at "Good or Bad".

Most every actor that came in was good. Some were awesome, though. How does one rate "awesome"? I did it by watching what their initial instincts were, then observing their ability to make adjustments or take notes, and ultimately what personal nuance and surprises came up while they were working. When determining whether or not I think an actor is good, I also take their general personality and likability into account. After all, I have to work with them when they are out of character, too.

Just because an actor is good, does not mean they get the part. This is where "right or wrong" comes into play. It must be said there were some phenomenal actors and actresses that walked through the door that will not be cast in this film. In fact, they could have given the best performances of the day and they still wouldn't have a chance. They were just "wrong" the part (enter subjectivity again). Most of the time, what we all discuss in between sessions is whether or not someone is right or wrong. "Good or bad" usually end up being pretty obvious, but "right or wrong" always produces heated discussion. Everyone in the casting room has read the script and imagined how each character, looks, sounds, and generally behaves. When actors start coming through the door, they are being measured against our own preconceived notions of what the character looks and sounds like. This is now proving tricky for me, because now my preconceived notions are out the window, and I have concrete choices of which version of a character I want to see walking around on the screen in my film.

A director sits in a casting session looking for answers. Every time an actor sits down to audition, I'm hoping they are the answer to my problem, my solution. But that philosophy only gets me so far. After seeing a few auditions where more than one actor was both "good" and "right" how do you decide? They are all equally good but different solutions for me as the director. That's where I am now as I  go through all these audition tapes. I have a few terrific answers and solutions for all of my characters. Surprisingly, I think the only way I can make any final decisions is to ask myself more questions based on the "answers" these actors have given me. As always, back to the script! Who are these characters? Does it help the story or hurt the story if the actress is more beautiful than another character? Will it be difficult to pair these two people as a couple if she is so much shorter than him? ......

On I go like this into the night. No matter what, I feel like I'm covered here. I'm lucky to be deciding between awesome and awesome. I hope to share the final decisions soon!

PrePro Intro

With only four weeks until we begin shooting, we are now in the thick of pre-production. As many of you already know, pre-production is the period of time before principal photography  when we make all the preparations for the shoot. These preparations include everything you can think of and more:

  • Scheduling
  • Hiring Crew
  • Casting Actors
  • Securing Locations
  • Banking/Accounting
  • Preparing Shot Lists/Storyboards
  • Contracts/Legal Matters
  • Arranging Set Operations (food, gear, transportation, rentals)
  • Design Prep (Set pieces and costume pieces)
  • Wardrobe Fittings
That's a fairly simplified and abbreviated list of the to-dos involved when prepping a film. One would think that being a lower-budget film shortens the complexity of pre-production. Well, it does and it doesn't. We don't have to worry about prepping big-budget luxuries like massive trucks, trailers, drivers, planes, explosions, dailies, airfares, etc. However, our budget constraints often require us to be a little more creative in terms of organizing logistics. For any given task, we end up spending 50% of our time finding a solution we can afford, rather than a solution that's just a good one.  But lack of money should really never be an excuse for what you show onscreen. Luckily, we have a terrific team that refuses to settle for the cheap, easy option if it won't help our film look better or play better. This is usually where we end up eating up time looking for the absolute perfect location/prop/actor what-have-you.
What have you?
This feeds into the big question I am perpetually asking myself throughout this process: What is the difference between making a movie and making a good movie. In pre-production it's hard not to get caught up in the web of logistical hurdles. It's easy to start feeling like you are a slave to your schedule, financial decisions, and location constraints, and you spend less and less time considering the things that most directly translate to the screen. I find that if I remind myself never to take off the "creative hat" then any and all non-creative decisions will be made from an inspired place as opposed to a place of indie filmmaker desperation.
More specifics on the pre-production particulars to come. Here's to a productive week!