Directing is glamorous. Directing is a huge responsibility. Directing can be a rush. Directing can be a nightmare. And directing a film is not something I intended to do. But I am so grateful that the opportunity was thrust upon me, and even more glad that I took up the challenge.
It was spring of 2015. For months, I’d been using most of my free time preparing a film acting curriculum to teach at the 1-week Film Acting track at the MasterWorks performing arts festival. Having worked on a couple dozen features, I had plenty of experience in certain capacities, but hadn’t directed or written anything of my own yet.
Less than two months away from our D-Day, a suitable script was still MIA, and I faced the facts: this was my mission, if I chose to accept it. Was I ready for this? I didn’t feel so. But this would not be the first time I’d learned on the job.
Let’s pause a sec for a quick disclaimer: The following account of my directorial debut is an attempt to distill what I learned throughout the process of producing and directing a short film under my particular circumstances. Your circumstances will likely be vastly different, so I don’t expect you’ll be able to copy and paste what I did (assuming this would be desirable), but hopefully it will provide a modicum of insight.
Setting the Stage
The first thing I had to come to terms with were the unique parameters:
– Each of the students accepted to the program was promised a speaking role
– All students would need to double as supplemental crew
– We had limited locations available
– Less than 15 hours of on set time, broken into 4 segments
– A budget of $0.00 – unless it came out of pocket (and I don’t wear pockets very often)
The second thing I realized is that I could allow these constraints to foster my creativity rather than stifle it. So in many ways I approached pre-production and the script-writing process backwards. I cast the film before writing any characters. I scouted locations before scripting a scene. I also simplified blocking from the get-go, as we wouldn’t have time to try anything complicated, nor have the man-power to support more than a few cast members being in any one scene.
After designing characters to fit each individual, I worked with the festival coordinator to find out what locations might be at our disposal – realizing that with musical rehearsals going on at all times on campus, trying to film any outdoor scenes would pretty much kill our sound. We ended up filming in a medium-sized office room, and in a closed-for-the-summer coffee shop space. Then I basically wrote a script to fit what we had.
Because of the MasterWorks schedule, filming during a mealtime wasn’t an option. This meant we didn’t need to worry about food for the shoot. But it did handicap our time-frames to 3.5-hour blocks. We would have precious little margin for unforeseen delays. Pre-production became essential to success.
Like many indie filmmakers with low (no?) budgets, I wore many hats: writer, director, producer, 1st AD, 2nd AD, location manager, production designer, wardrobe supervisor, etc. My co-director for the MasterWorks program, Zack Lawrence, did his own set of multi-tasking. He served as DP, camera operator, and gaffer, as well as providing basic training for our cast in their crew roles (sound/boom op, grip, electric, camera team, slate, PA work, etc.). Between the two of us – along with my sister, Laura, who agreed to supervise continuity – we headed up every department.
There was plenty to do before arriving on site. Once I finished the script, I sent it off to our students, assigning roles, giving them a detailed profile for their character, and instructions for wardrobe options to bring. Then Zack got to work making a shot list and gathering needed camera, lighting, and sound equipment, while I secured our filming locations, found props, and finalized our shooting schedule.
After we arrived, Zack and I did a short tech scout to our locations and discussed the shot list in depth to make sure we could accomplish everything in the time we had. Laura and I were also able to do some set dressing in the coffee shop ahead of time, rearranging all the furniture and accessories how we needed.
Once the program was underway, most of the rest of our pre-production got slipped in as part of the program during classes, using the script as source material to apply what the students were learning. For example, following a class on personal presentation, I did an open wardrobe consultation with each actor to make sure the clothing selected reflected their character, matched the tone and season for their scene, and didn’t clash with their scene-mate’s outfit.
Since one of the primary purposes was education, rather than doing a character discussion with each cast member separately I combined it with our group read-through. The first time through was without preamble, just to hear what depth of delivery and character comprehension each actor had developed up to that point. Then we went around the circle, and in an interactive conversation, I would share my vision and guide each actor to a fuller grasp of the person they were portraying, where and how they fit into the story as a whole, and an exploration of lines and subtext. We followed that immediately with a second read-through. The students were much more confident, emotive, and energized this time, and we were all encouraged at the tangible difference!
I hadn’t seen it done exactly that way before, but I think it certainly helped our actors (most of whom had little experience) to understand the context for their role and feel a part of the team, even if they have a smaller role. With a feature film it would be harder to do more than a basic read-through, simply because of the greater scope. You would need at least a few days to do it all justice.
Each afternoon, over three days, we would all meet at the coffee shop “set” and knock out three scenes – or between 2 and 3 pages worth of script. I always made sure to get there early. Lead by example, right?
The lead actor was in every scene, but most everyone else only had one or two. So if they weren’t acting that day, they helped with crew work: camera, lighting, sound, AD team, slate, stand-ins, or make-up assistant (for last looks/removing shine). All except two of the students had no prior film crew or even set experience. They were eager to learn, though, so we were able to go at a decent pace in spite of rotating positions.
While dolly track or lighting rigs were being set-up, I had a good 10-15 minutes to go aside with the actors before each scene and talk it over one last time. It was important to me to provide that physical and emotional space to shake out any nerves and let nuances of the character shine through. This mostly consisted of character interrogation: addressing them as their character and “getting to know them” and what they were going through in the story. If there was any insecurity about having lines memorized, word pronunciation, or any last minute questions, I’d help with those too.
Next time, in Part 2, we will delve more into what I learned personally, and also the post-production process!