Late Recap of the Film Shoot (11/11-11/14)

This is a much belated warning that Mercury Retrograde is once again upon us, so beware of mechanical/electronic malfunctions, don’t buy gadgets, beware of miscommunications and don’t sign contracts. We’ve got another week together.

I’ve also learned recently to NEVER shoot a movie during Mercury Retrograde. We shot the film on Nov. 11th-14th up in Agua Dulce on this canyon road, and the production was hindered by all kinds of bizarre technical issues and miscommunications.

So the film is called Pieces and it’s about a couple in a dysfunctional marriage who start thinking they see severed body parts lying in the middle of a dark rural road. We were going to be shooting 3 nights in a row, basically from sundown to sunrise, outside on a dirt road in the freezing cold. We all knew going into it that it would be a hard shoot, but we had put together an amazing crew so we weren’t worried.

The first day, our call time was 1pm but due to a couple of accidents on the freeway, one of our signs being blown down and just general confusion regarding country roads, people got lost and we didn’t assemble our crew until sundown. This was followed by some technical issues (getting the picture car to start) and we didn’t get our first official shot of the night until 10:45pm, a whopping 9.75 hours after our call time. We had issues with our first assistant director who talked a big game but was revealed to have obviously had no experience as an AD, who is basically the hub of communication and order on set. This translated to different departments being ready, but waiting for other departments who were in fact, also ready. We shot until sunrise and all went home to sleep away the day.

Before the next day, I called my mom to tell her about the shoot and how many technical problems we’d had. She recommended setting out an offering of incense and fruit to the spirits of the night, apologizing to them for the disturbance and asking them for accommodation.

I didn’t have time to stop by an Asian store to buy incense, so we went to Albertson’s instead to pick up some candles and fruit. There were some kids wearing bright vests collecting money outside the doors. I indifferently glanced at them, but had to do a double take. Once inside, I asked Reggie, “Tell me what it says on that kid’s vest.” I figured, I’d been up all night, had only gotten 4 uncomfortable hours of sleep during the daytime, and it’s not impossible that my mind was melting. Reggie does a double take, then squints to make sure. “Holy shit. It says ‘Help Retarded Children.” Someone had enlisted 12 year old boy scouts to collect money for retarded children. Not kids with special needs. Retarded Children. Way to be PC, guys! I love it.

Unfortunately, the vests distracted me so much, that I forgot to buy fruit. Luckily, Reggie had already picked up some bananas so I set up a shrine of candles and bananas and said a prayer asking for accommodation.

It’s common knowledge that the hardest things to work with in film are animals and kids. We had decided to start the second day with the shots of Dana, the wonderdog, where she was required to run across the dirt road with a human head in her mouth.

I couldn’t afford to get a real human head on such short notice, but luckily, the amazing Mr. Alex Chen hooked me up with John Goodwin who does Special Effects for CSI: NY. He in turn hooked us up with some pretty real looking severed heads and a couple of arms.

Dana and Claire, her trainer, were amazing to work with. Dana knew how to create a mark and hit it, had a great attitude, and didn’t get tempermental with the multiple takes. Her relationship with Claire was also incredibly special…Claire was a very sweet, soft-spoken woman and you could especially see the high level of trust that Dana had in Claire, considering Claire was asking her to run in front of a moving car and Dana would do it unquestioningly and without hesitation each time. We got the shots we needed efficiently and we were all confident that we could make up for the delays that happened the night before.

So we broke for lunch, got the actors ready to do their driving scenes and everyone’s in a good mood setting things up. Everything is ready to roll and suddenly, the picture car won’t start again. It takes us a few hours to get it started and we’re ready to roll, but on the next 5-6 takes, something random would happen, like the lights would go off, or the camera would jam or the sound wouldn’t roll, or the actor would drive into a ditch (not kidding. By then it was almost so tragic it was funny. It was an absurd number of technical issues to happen in such a short amount of time). Tensions ran high, people were snapping at each other, and we started seriously worrying if we would get any shots that night. At this point, only about 10% of the movie was in the can.

With 2 hours to go before sunrise, we finally get everything working and we rush through as many scenes as we can, ending strong. Moral is higher as the sun comes up, but we’re very behind.

I get home at 8am but spend another hour talking to Reggie, the producer, about the shoot. I think we can still catch up but everything needs to be working. But there’s another big problem…we have a big scene coming up first thing the next day that requires 3 rural Mexican gang members…and we don’t have any of them. I suggest that we post a Craig’s list ad and hope for the best.

I try to get some sleep but reversed schedule with the sun coming in make it hard and I’m up 2 hours later feeling completely ragged and emotionally close to tears out of sheer exhaustion. I call my mom to tell her about all the crazy technical issues that had occurred the night before and she asks me if I had put out the offering. I told her I used candles and bananas and she said, “BANANAS! You NEVER use bananas!” (Okay, I had no idea there were rules to this thing.) She said I had to use round fruits because they represent bounty, and the bigger the better. Apparently bananas are an insult?

We leave for the location, still missing 3 very important extras for the scene we’re about to shoot in less than 3 hours, and we get a call from Tito, our editor. He was scheduled to come onto set to take production stills, and he asked if we still needed him to be an extra. The funny thing was that whenever he mentioned that he could be one of the extras, I always thought he was joking. Basically Tito is a big guy from Portugal, but he has a very kind face with warm eyes, so it’s hard to believe he could come off as menacing. Nevertheless, we didn’t have any extras at this time so we needed him. One down.

We head to Albertson’s and I buy the expensive stuff…fuji apples, tangerines and honeydew, the things I’ve seen my parents put out. My mom suggested that I put out Chinese dishes to share, but I honestly didn’t think a 3-entree Panda Express meal in a styrofoam container was going to be that impressive. I set up the shrine, said a long, desperate prayer, and then we were off and running.

Reggie gets a call from this guy who says that he and his brother can be the extras because his brother just got out of prison, was all tatted up and would be perfect for what we were looking for. They were also willing to do PA work (which was what we asked for in the ad), since our PA quit on us after the AD had promised to bump him up to grip and give him more money without permission and we had to come back and say we couldn’t do that, considering he didn’t have ANY experience as a grip. So based on their word that they have the right look, we tell them to head over to the location immediately.

We set up some shots and crank out some exteriors when I get a call from Reggie on my walkie that the extras are here and “your boy is perfect.” I tell him to send them down right away. The extras show up and the featured extra that we need t
o walk around the car and scare the female protagonist with the implication of being raped is this really sweet kid who’s all tatted up. He had his girlfriend with him who was Hispanic and unfortunately very possessive, because when I asked him if he could take off his shirt so I could see his tats (he knew that we may ask him to do the scene shirtless), she positioned herself in the way like she was gonna have some problems. I ignore her, his tats are perfect and he does his scene shirtless. We finish half his scene and then send them back to the trailer to chill until we do the rest of it.

The shoot is going really smoothly, and I honestly think we might be able to catch up. But then Reggie walks down and tells me, “Julia, we have a problem.” Apparently the brother of the featured extra was trying to hustle us for more money, figuring that we had already got his brother on film so we would need him or our continuity would be screwed. He wanted extra money, to do no PA work, and to leave in an hour. We figured we wouldn’t negotiate with punk terrorists so we paid them a minimum rate, sent them on the way, and then had to figure out creative ways to cheat the continuity. It was more bullshit that we didn’t need to be dealing with when we were under the gun.

Luckily, Melanie, our make-up artist is amazing. She made gave Tito a face full of scruff with makeup, worked with his hair and got him to look mean. I gave Tito a flannel shirt that was 2 sizes to small that made him look hulking. He was totally badass and looked so damn cool smoking, that we bumped him up to featured and gave him a line.

We wrapped up the night trying to get the rest of the driving scenes and everything was working incredibly efficiently, but we couldn’t beat the sun coming up and ended up getting half of our coverage and none of our driving exteriors. My voice was running out but it managed to make it through the shoot before crapping out as the sun came up (it was completely gone for the next 4 days). We have about 10% of the film left to shoot, and 2 setups to cover to make the driving scenes more dynamic. We definitely need another pick up day.

The experience overall was great because the project is strong and it was so nice to be directing for film again and the crew was INCREDIBLE. I feel like even though we need an extra day in the future which presents continuity challenges and scheduling coordination (not to mention a lot of money outside of the original budget that I have to pay for an extra day), it’s probably a blessing in disguise. This gives us a chance to put together a rough cut of the film so we can not only see what we still need, but we can see what I would like to shoot again to really make it a strong film.

We’ve scheduled this day for Jan. 21st so everyone, please set out candles and melons for me on that night and help us out. At the very least, we’ll be cleared from the retrograde so I’m really hoping that we get this all done!

So let my experience serve as a warning to you…do NOT schedule a production during a retrograde if you can help it. That tricky SOB can be a nightmare.