But It Begins Right Now
As I mentioned in my first post, this site is all about my journey taking a screenplay to the big screen (if that’s even possible). Even if I fail miserably, you’ll be along for the ride. If someone learns from my misadventures, then it’s all worth it.
I started this journey a long time ago when I purchased a book in the late 80s by Syd Field called The Screenwriter’s Workbook. I read that thing a dozen times but never tried my hand at a script. That is until my wife Sandy found the book and asked why I hadn’t written a screenplay. That was the beginning and here I am, many scripts behind me and one that I must see through to the screen.
My first step to make that happen was to take a script for a short film and shoot it – that’s right, make a movie. I wrote a short zombie film, Happy Birthday, You’re a Zombie, and with the help of some wonderful friends and family, shot it and uploaded it to Youtube.
I learned a great deal from my first effort.
Friends and family are priceless: When friends and family (my wife and daughter) committed to help then showed up on time and ready to go, it was the greatest feeling in the world. It gave me confidence and it let me know that these truly were people who wanted to be there for me. They wanted to help, to be a part of what I was trying to do. It inspired me to do my very best.
Lighting is the bane of a filmmaker’s existence: Shoot in one direction using settings gleaned from the available light and the shot looks great. Turn the camera around to shoot in the opposite direction and the shot looks like hell. You are constantly checking to ensure consistency in your lighting and it is a hell of a chase.
You can never have enough lighting: I MacGyvered a light that I never used, but I was so happy that it was there just in case I needed it. I had four lights available and I would have been comfortable, and happy, with even more.
Coverage – and I don’t mean by the press: In a time when digital means you’ll never waste film, there should never be a shot missed. I still kick myself for not getting more (and better) coverage of the amazing zombie makeup by Karen Dance. I may never have used it in the film, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use it in a reel or that she may have wanted some footage to use on her reel. There were a few instances during edits that I wanted to reassemble the team and shoot just a few more angles, a bit more footage.
Creativity doesn’t stop at the script: My creativity has to extend beyond the idea, script and shooting to problem solving. The aforementioned lights were one such dilemma. I had no budget for lights and used a 500W halogen work light indoors with a reflector to help extend and/or diffuse it. The Dollar Store is a lifesaver. Home Depot should be renamed Problem Solving Depot. I created my own dolly using two eight foot long channels laid on the ground side-by-side and used string to pull a $17 Walmart skateboard across them, the wheels of which I swapped out for Rollerblade wheels. I was forced to think on my feet and come up with affordable solutions to what seemed like problems only lots of money could solve.
You’ll never get the jail for asking: My parents always said, “You’ll never get the jail for asking.” They were right. Sometimes it’s hard to pluck up the courage and ask your friends, loved ones and even strangers to help you with your film projects. I took my parents’ advice and asked a lot of people for help because truly, the worst thing they could say was no. No one gets hurt. No one goes to jail. And, I’d never hold a grudge against anyone for saying no. But, now I’d beat myself up if I didn’t ask.
You’d think after learning all of this valuable information I’d easily roll into short film number two, Upon Reflection. Apparently I have a bit of a thick skull and it’ll take a few tries for lessons to sink in.
So, what did I learn from shooting my second short film, Upon Reflection?
Know your strengths: This experience drove home that my wheelhouse is writing; I was happy that everyone to whom I showed the script was impressed by it, even those performers who turned it down had praise for the script. So, I need to find strong people to bolster my weaknesses or at least in those areas in which I’ve yet to build experience.
Stretch: Reach beyond the familiar. In the case of this short film I reached out to actors I’d never met before; people who have been in stage or film productions. I’ve never been accused of being shy, but I’ve never been in a position to approach actors, especially asking them to work for free. I was thrilled with all of my actors; they clearly love what they do and they’re damned good at it. I can rely on that.
Never take rejection personally: It was clear that not every actor I approached was at my ‘no budget’ level. Many of the actors professed to no longer working ‘gratis’. I certainly would never hold that against anyone. There are always legitimate reasons why people may not be able to participate in a project. Some actors just had scheduling problems. In the end it was the best thing that could have happened because I ended up asking Peter Campbell, who originally was to play the lead detective, to take the lead of the man and his reflection. He was amazing! As were all of my performers.
Never fall in love with a shot: I made the mistake of falling in love with certain shots and locations. I saw a large bathroom for the main scene and searched high and low for it. There was nothing available without taking the route of permits, insurance and paperwork. I stuck with that vision far too long which delayed the shoot for months; that and the lack of a committed actor for the lead. I also saw a crane/jib shot in the production and no matter how I tried to figure out away to do it – rent or DIY – I couldn’t justify the cost. Still, I hung on to that shot and it cost me something more precious than money – it cost me time.
If I ever again fall in love with a shot, I’ll make sure the calculation is done more rapidly; either find a way to shoot it or quickly move on to an alternative. Hell, I’d cut out shots before I’d stall myself like that again.
A table read is a must: I lost control of my shoot. Before shoot day I finalized the script then created a shot list (I’m not a storyboard kind of guy). I stick to my shot list like a lifeline, that is, I did, until this shoot. I was challenged about many things, not the least of which was actor motivations. I saw this as a simple script to screen jump but I failed to see it from an actor’s point of view. That is one of the most important lessons I learned on the set of Upon Reflection; every actor needs to know what happened to their character leading up to any shot. I answered many questions I hadn’t considered while writing the script. To be candid, it threw me. I wasn’t prepared to be peppered with characterization questions. Time was fleeting and my shot list was abandoned in order to get the shoot completed on time.
That was a mistake. A very big mistake. I failed to complete many shots and that left me scrambling in post to make up for them. There were places that needed close ups, one shots of a two shot conversation, blank spaces that were absolutely critical for the effects I needed – missed because I wasn’t prepared for what wasn’t written on the page. That will never happen again because every shoot from this day forward will start with a table read; a gathering of the actors to sit and go through the script so they can ask any questions they have before we get on set.
Wearing too many hats gives you a headache: In keeping with my budgetary restraints, I wore many hats in the making of Upon Reflection: writer, director, cinematographer, camera operator, sound, lighting, props, continuity and editor. That was the biggest mistake of all, taking on so many roles that I couldn’t give them my full attention. My goal is to direct a feature that I’ve written. To do that, my focus has to be on the writing and directing. Upon Reflection was written to push me on both of those fronts but fell short because I took on too much responsibility.
If you’re reading this and are looking to gain experience in lighting, cinematography, camera work, editing…anything other than writing and directing, then stay tuned for word on my next project. Trust me, if you work for food, I’ll be needing you.
That’s a lot of lessons for two short films. Plus, I must realize that I’m a producer whether I want to be or not. Finding talent, gear, props, costumes, locations…so much to do on a film that it truly feels like it never ends. Well, it does. Film number two is done and I’m working on my third.
The journey continues. Stay tuned.