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Shooting — Day One: Snails Get Stuck in Molasses

I decided to take the train into the city last night. I don’t have the patience for rush-hour traffic, and it seemed timed well: the 5:44 arrived at Union Station at 6:31, giving me 30 minutes to get to the space, and the last train of the night left at 12:40, which gave me 40 minutes to get there, assuming I left at midnight like I was supposed to.

I didn’t leave at midnight like I was supposed to.

Now, before I get into the dregs of this entry and cause my many fans to lapse into a boredom-induced coma, I’d like to write a disclaimer at this time: shooting this film was not filled with hilarious reverie or anything remotely fun. It was boring as all get-out, and I plan to dive into why, exactly, it was so fucking boring. Also, it was pretty irritating, so maybe that’ll at least be fun to read about.

At any rate, on with the show…

I was supposed to call The Filmmaker—who called me Monday night to confirm the start date of Tuesday—when I “got into the neighborhood,” and I thought I’d call him from the train and let him know what was going on. I turned on the phone and checked my VoiceMail. I had two messages*, both from The Filmmaker. The first was from Sunday night, with The Filmmaker requesting that I check out some local thrift stores to find an end table. Oops, too late for that. The second was from about five minutes earlier; The Filmmaker was testing his cell phone’s reception in the concrete shooting space.

I decided not to call him because, dammit, I just didn’t want to. My subconscious often plots against me, so I think it was telling me not to call him just yet, because it may have been plotting for me to stop, say “Fuck this,” and get on the next train back home.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

So I did the Union Station thang, did the CTA wander around the Loop and transfer roughly 500 times just to get to Chicago Avenue and State Street, and I emerged from that subway at exactly seven o’clock. It would have been 6:50, but my train was 10 minutes late. I called The Filmmaker as I wandered down Chicago toward the space.

When I got there, the first thing I noticed were extension cords snaking their way down the tiny concrete corridor into the larger shooting space. Great—now, in addition to low-hanging pipes, I also had to worry about tripping on cords.

The space itself was filled with props, lights, the 16mm Bolex we’re forced to shoot on, and several bowls filled with fruit and drinks chilled in ice. (I’ll say this for The Filmmaker—he comes prepared.) He asked me to take the stacks of newspapers and start tearing out propaganda-esque words to fill in a bowl. I did as he asked, somewhat irritated that he himself hadn’t done this earlier. I no longer admired his preparation skills.

As he wandered around, re-positioning lights, adjusting the camera, and so forth, he said, “I think we’ll be able to take our first shot at 8.” Terrific.

By the time 8 o’clock rolled around, he did seem to have the lights properly focused and the camera set up.

And then the power went out. The 720-watt lights, in conjunction with a television (which was unnecessarily left on) and a lamp, blew a circuit. The Filmmaker tried fiddling with several circuit boxes in the room, but to no avail. He had to call Engineering, he said, and I half-expected Geordi La Forge to show up and talk about polyphase ampules and its effect on the stability of the warp core.

Damn, I am a geek.

Flash forward an hour. The Filmmaker’s friend, a lanky African-American guy who is helping out, had shown up. The power was back on, and The Filmmaker knew exactly where to go to reset the circuits in the event the he blew it again (he did, three more times). We were finally ready to snap off our first shot, two hours later than I expected. I suddenly suspected that we wouldn’t finish by midnight, and I addressed my concerns to The Filmmaker.

“When do you think we’ll finish?” I asked, trying to sound concerned.

“Well,” he said, sighing, “I’d just say we’re finished when we’re finished.”

Huh. That was not the answer I was expecting. Here is the answer that I was expecting: “Well, we’re slightly behind schedule, but we can make up for it by working faster, but no matter what, we’ll be done by midnight.”

So I told him that I had to catch a train at 12:40, so I had to leave at midnight. The next train left at 5:30. He said, very coolly and calmly, that if worse came to worst, I could stay at his apartment. This unnerved me a bit, because while he seems nice enough and trustworthy enough, I still don’t know him. At all. And I really don’t feel comfortable wandering over to his apartment to have a li’l sleepover.

But he was just so nice about everything. I was slowly but surely getting more and more pissed off, and I imagine that by Thursday night I will explode, but last night I kept myself in check. No matter how much he pissed me off, he was just so pleasant and nice, I didn’t want to be a dick.

This is an unfortunate problem with me: I enjoy being a fucking asshole. It’s arguably the only thing I’m good at. Verbal abuse, for me, is the most fun a person can have without access to prescription drugs. But I become weak-kneed and insufferably pleasant when people are nice to me, and I simply cannot bring myself to shatter a nice person’s existence with a little sleight of mouth.

So I did the next best thing: blamed it on my parents. When it was getting to be about 11:40, with no end in sight (we were going to fire off one last shot, which The Filmmaker had started lighting at 11:15, and he kept re-positioning everything because he didn’t like what he saw), I called my mother and told her what was going on and what my options were. I could stay with The Filmmaker, I could get the fuck out and catch my train, or I could take a cab back home.

Of course, she said, “Do whatever you want,” but I sort of adjusted my end of the conversation to give the impression that she really didn’t want me to do anything but catch my train. When I got off the phone, I said she really wants me to leave at midnight, and even though she’ll say I can do whatever the fuck I want, she’ll be pissed about me coming in at all hours of the night when my dad is sleeping and has to get up at the ass-crack of dawn for work. This was a half-truth.

The Filmmaker was not pleased with this news, since he only had 20 minutes to finish setting up the shot, shoot it, and get it right. This shot was honestly the most complex of the night, so that presented an additional challenge. I agreed to a compromise: I’d call a cab to pick me up at 12:15 to take me to Union Station. Unfortunately, because Union Station was less than 5 miles away, I couldn’t specify a time to pick me. She just said a cab would show up in 5 to 20 minutes.

By this point, it was already 5 to midnight, and he was just finishing the setup for the shot. So I got into position, we ran through it a few times, and then we shot it. It did not come out well, but by that time it was 10 after midnight, the cab had probably already shown up and left, and I needed to get the fuck out of there.

He said, “I want to try this again. The cottage cheese didn’t go through the funnel.” (long story)

Ugh. I had to go. I finally grew a pair of balls and said, “No, I really have to leave.” And I really left. As I suspected, the cab had come and gone, so I had to hustle a few blocks over to Michigan Avenue, where I found a cab surprisingly quickly, and I hauled ass to Union Station with five minutes to spare. I got home at around 1:30, and I slept.

And, goodie goodie goodie, I get to do it all again tonight!

In total, we cranked off a grand total of 8 shots last night. And they were short shots. Very short shots. This is only a two-minute film after all. Of course, we had our share of technical problems (or, I guess I should attribute all the blame to him, since his direction was this: “Just sit there until I tell you what to do,” followed by, “Do this”): continuity errors, lighting errors, power failures, uncooperative props, and so on. But technical problems are really no excuse, since I waited around for an hour before we even had the chance to have technical problems.

Really, the meat of the problem was The Filmmaker himself. Now, it wasn’t so long ago that I was in Production I, scared out of my wits because I had no real grasp of lighting, film speed, or how to use a wind-up camera made during World War II. I knew what I wanted to see on the screen, but I didn’t know how to get it. But I learned quickly: trial and error, as usual. In Production I, you do quite a few shoots before you go out on your own and shoot your two-minute project. You get to have your errors before it has any real bearing on your work, and you learn how to light and how to position the camera and think on your feet to solve logistical problems.

Well, you do if you’re me. The Filmmaker is not me. He is him. Or her. But mostly him. I don’t want to toot my own horn, because in Production I, I never made any decent films (technically, they were fine; I’m just not proud of the content), but I shot my two-minute film in four hours. I just naturally work quickly, and somehow my brain functions in a way that allows it to solve every conceivable problem before it occurs. I didn’t have any trouble with my two-minute. At all. And I didn’t take a decade to set up every shot. When I’m working with 16mm, it takes me maybe 10 minutes to set up a shot, including lighting and camera placement. Tell the actors what to do, shoot it, the end.

I guess that’s just a stylistic difference. My attitude is this: as soon as I start something (and it takes me a great deal of effort to get started), I want to finish it as soon as humanly possible. So I work fast to get it done. I try not to make mistakes, but if it doesn’t come out perfectly, I’m not suicidal; I don’t demand reshoots or anything insane like that. It’s not necessary, especially in Production I, working with a film stock and camera you’ll never see again outside of that class.

There’s more that I can rant about as far as his technical inefficiency is concerned, but I’m sure nobody really cares, so I’ll just end it here.

I just hope tonight goes a little better. We’ve already started, so hopefully we can dive right back in when I show up at seven, and hopefully we’ll even get ahead of schedule. The Filmmaker did specify that the hardest stuff would be last night, and even though we didn’t get all the shots (we still had four left, including the one we didn’t quite get last night), if the shots tonight are simpler, I don’t see why—working for a complete five hours—we couldn’t accomplish 12 shots or so.

Here’s hoping…

*It should be noted that getting messages on my cell phone’s VoiceMail is a rare occurrence, as I don’t give it to anybody except (1) people I am planning to talk to, thus eliminating the need for getting VoiceMail; (2) people I don’t trust; and (3) bill collectors (aka, people I don’t trust). [Back]

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