Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Fourteen

5 September 2009

People are generally surprised when I tell them that we shot a feature film in six weeks with no external source of funding. That surprise turns to open-jaw astonishment when I tell them that we actually only shot for fourteen days of those six weeks. But somehow, this is what we managed. Here we are at Day Fourteen and we are ready to wrap up.

Despite the fractious night a few days before, everyone (me excluded) is in a pretty positive mood. I'm still concerned enough that the camera will be used as an implement of murder in our final hours that I feel nauseous. Everyone else is upbeat, which is what we need.

We all know that if we can get through the first shot of the day, we're probably going to feel pretty good about ourselves. The first shot of the day involves us having to chase down a bus, the difficulty being that no one was going to give us a bus to play with, so we're having to depend on the buses that naturally run through the wilds of urban Montreal at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. We're aware that this presents dangers- chiefly that the side of the bus is going to be plastered with advertising that will require editing room trickery to conceal.

We're fortunate, in that we're shooting along one of the city's busier bus routes, but it's morning and the light is subject to change and we do have a full day of shooting to get to once we capture this bit. So we're all feeling a bit nervous as we run through the blocking of the shot, to make sure that an otherwise perfect take won't be ruined by Paul and I not being in the right position in front of the camera. Since the camera is positioned on the other side of a busy street and our bus spotter/ wrangler (Nik) is located several blocks away, we're having to rely on sign language and cell phones to get everything staged. It's all very stressful.

Then, as we go to get the extremely tricky first shot, something odd happens. The bus that whizzes by turns out to be the only bus in Montreal that doesn't have advertising on it. One take, one shot and it's perfect. Of course, Paul and I don't know this until after the take is over, because we're too busy trying to make sure our feet and bodies are doing the right things to notice what's on the bus. But that's the sort of moment when you have to think that, in some way, what you're doing is supposed to happen. After the accumulating pressure of the last six weeks and the fear that somehow everything was going to fall apart when it was so closed to being finished, this is like the gods giving me a pat on the head. It's important to notice this kind of thing and hang onto it. There are moments when these sorts of strange coincidences are all that's going to stand between you and a pit of despair.

We get the other shots we need and we move on to the film's final location, which happens to be an office where I used to work. Getting an office space that looked more basic, more like a regular office (not like the advertising agency we used previously) turned out to be one of the biggest challenges. People in advertising agencies, with big plush offices that have swimming pools get that indie filmmakers need places to shoot. People who work in non-entertainment fields, with offices that look like, well, offices are suspicious of what you might do. Getting this space was a stroke of luck and a big favour. Which I repay by having to wake one of the managers up at home on a holiday weekend because I can't get the door code to work and I trip the alarm trying to get in. The police arrive to the spectacle of the world's weirdest set of thieves, loading up the place they're breaking into with a lot of expensive-looking equipment.

Once we get the alarm turned off, things progress pretty smoothly. We're very clear on the shots we want, the order we need to do them in, who's needed when and when we'll be finished. Six weeks of filming has made us surprisingly efficient, so even when we take a somewhat longer than planned lunch and one of our performers shows up late, we're moving at a pretty good clip. We still finish a little later than I'd imagined, which causes a bit of panic, since it's getting dark outside. (Only months later, organising all the footage to get it to our editor, does it occur to me that seeing people working in an office after dark is not particularly strange. This is the sort of tunnel vision you develop.) The biggest challenge of the day actually turns out to be sound, because despite the fact that we are in an enclosed office with carpets and low ceilings, we have no control over the central air for the building and it makes a lot of noise. But we muddle through, George does what he can and, in the end, the day goes by pretty quickly. For a brief moment, I feel like we could keep working together for another six weeks and it feels nice.
Coming to the end of shooting has a surreal quality to it. I feel like someone should be there to give me a hug and some sort of certificate; "Congratulations, you have just completed something big, even though you had no idea what you were doing." That isn't how things work, of course, although someone does give me a beer and I'm fairly certain a couple of people patted me on the back. What I know in hindsight is that what we've completed is basically giving ourselves a solid frame, but that the majority of the work is going to come in what we can add to that. But as we're cleaning up after the day's shoot, I feel content in the idea that we've accomplished something. Not many people have been able to do what we've done. Months before, when I pitched Dom on the idea of making the film, I didn't imagine that we could have done this much. It still feels sort of amazing.

We're smiling because we can sleep again. (Photo courtesy of King-Wei Chu)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Thirteen

3 September 2009

Um, oops. OK, I didn't mean to take a break from the shooting diary. Sure, when we released the trailer, there was a bit of a high and that had me a lot more focused on the future than on thinking about the process of actually filming and I've been sufficiently distracted by other things that I haven't come back and then it started to seem really embarrassingly long, which made the whole task seem so onerous and there are a lot of reasons why I haven't finished this, but really, there's only one big one... It's because I really didn't want to write about this particular night. And I know that no one's forcing me to do this and I could say "Oh, I forgot", but I'm the kind of person who would be so bothered by that sort of omission that I'd probably develop a rash or a tic... That's just me.

So you've probably figured this out: This is the night where everything was terrible. Worse than running hours late and having to cut scenes from the schedule. Worse than people not showing up. Worse than the roof caving in. This was the point at which tempers just came to a head, when things got ugly- permanently ugly. The one redeeming feature of the night was that there were so few people working (we were trying to be lean and quick and get a bunch of things done that had fallen through the cracks on previous shoots). In retrospect, there is absolutely no reason why things on that one day should have resulted in people blowing up at each other, in arguments and recriminations, but when you have weeks of tension on your backs, small things can tend to get thrust under the microscope.

When I say that this was the worst part of filming, I mean that it was the one time that I really thought that we were going to fail- that we wouldn't end up shooting the entire film. And that idea, having become as passionate about the project as I have about anything else in my life, was unbearable. In the end, I think that the only reason we did finish that night, let alone the rest of the film, was that the people involved couldn't bear it any more than I could. The only thing worse than having to work together at that moment was the idea that the time we'd put in was time wasted. It was truly one of the worst nights of my entire life.

Almost two years of post-production and time to reflect has given me a different perspective on things. That night, I was a basket case, desperately trying to think of solutions that would not result in a principal player walking out in a huff. Hey, it wasn't one of my best moments either. I take a small amount of comfort in the idea that it was a good lesson in terms of what to watch out for in potential coworkers, which I imagine might be useful in the future. It kills me to think that, the individuals involved being who they are (and, to be clear, I include myself in this), I don't know if there's a way that the ugliness that ensued could have been avoided. But I've seen the final product and I feel proud of it and I can honestly say that it is in part the result of those same huge, flawed, fragile egos working, however briefly, as a team. Does that make this bad night worth it? Actually, no it doesn't. I have a feeling that reconciliation will come when the film is out in the world and I get to find out if other people can see what I see. For now, I'll content myself with saying that, while this was one of the worst nights of my life, it was not a defining catastrophe of my life.

Lucky day #13. And now, let's never speak of it again.

Monday, April 4, 2011


The title says it all... Thanks very much to Ben Goloff for helping us put this together and credit to Dom for doing all the conceptual work.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Twelve

30 August 2009

One of the most surprising things about Conversion is how little it changed from start to finish. Most film scripts are rewritten so many times that the finished product often has nothing in common with the original story. No one in our circle knows that better than our director, who was forced to rewrite the script for his first film the week it started shooting in order to account for the fact that his producer didn't bother to secure most of the props or locations needed.

The one exception to Conversion's stability was what we call the "Clinic Scene". It has a lore all its own within the Conversion story and I could likely write an entertaining series of pieces just on the history of how this section of the film- which comprises roughly twenty pages of a hundred page script- came to life.

Mr. Ash entertains the waiting troops
In "Conversion 1.0", this scene was not set in a clinic at all. It was set in a hospital emergency ward. And, while it had a number of extras required, there weren't any really developed characters save one. Just a bunch of injured people and some hospital staff trying to deal with them. It was months before filming that Dom and D.J. sat me down and brought me face to face with the fact that the hospital was a huge chasm in our otherwise paved road to getting the movie made. Sure, we could get people to loan us offices. Shooting outside was easily enough accomplished. But no one, no one, was going to entrust us with a hospital. Something had to change. So the three of us, as perfectly and creatively in synch as we were at any point in the project, started throwing ideas around. And what's surprising, when you read the two versions of the script (not that anyone who already hasn't ever will), is that the version of the scene that takes place in the walk-in clinic is so vastly superior to the original that I shudder to think we might ever have ended up with the first version (assuming we'd found anyone sweet and stupid enough to give us a hospital).

And this scene has already proved to have its own series of challenges. A chunk of it was written around the character of an unstable denizen of the night who is at the clinic with several rats. Unfortunately, our rat wrangler had a horrific accident early in the summer (details here) that almost took his life. Astoundingly, up until a week before, there was a slim possibility that he might be able to show up- with a couple of truly astounding scars on his head to add to character's believability. Unfortunately, the rehab centre had some issues releasing him to the clutches of a bunch of amateur filmmakers on an unsecured, uninsured set so that he could handle his rats. This is really one of the only instances where I think Conversion fell just a little short of what it could have been, through the fault of absolutely no one.

And, of course, there was the little issue that we were shooting in a hallway. No jokes. A hallway. When I first watched Dom and D.J. getting excited about shooting the clinic in this space- in the basement of BOS Advertising, which looks absolutely nothing like the upstairs- I was extremely skeptical. Possibly more skeptical than when I originally saw the alley where we ended up shooting the scenes outside the clinic. But, as I've come to expect, when we show up to begin the day's shooting, a visual miracle has been worked while I was quite literally asleep.

The lovely and fabulous MARQUISE
One of our hardest working and most reliable crew members has had an idea that quite possibly saves the scene from being suspect- too clean, too sterile, too cavernous for the space where it unfolds. His idea is that in order to disguise the pristine, unused quality of the area, the set should be decorated as if it is a space under construction. When I arrive- a good two and a half hours after the crew- the space is rigged with low hanging beams, scaffolding and heavy-duty plastic sheeting. From a nondescript passage, it has been transformed into a weird, claustrophobic little room with cheap folding metal chairs and long shadows that look like something out of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. I'm used to catching my breath when I see what the people who have dedicated their time to the project have done, how much it means to them to put together something that will ultimately be a source of pride. Of course, what I'm really feeling, although I'd hate to admit it, is a sort of egotism. After all, I wrote the screenplay, I asked Dom to direct it... Sure, I love the fact that so many people are putting time into making a really good picture, but there is also a part of me that smiles thinking that they are doing all this because they are dedicated to something I created.

Truth be told, I'm still on a bit of a high from Friday night, at the fact that we pulled everything off, at the fact that I faced down my acting demons. So when I arrive, I feel like the life of the party, especially compared to those who have been doing a lot of hard physical work since the sun rose. I want them to know that I really appreciate, that we all really appreciate what they're doing. I get some smiles and a lot of weary looks and I have a sense that everyone would be feeling that appreciation a lot more if it were accompanied by coffee and baked goods. Unfortunately, I have neither the time, since I'm involved in all the scenes being shot today, nor the finances to be able to oblige. I'm already nervous that today I have to cover the expenses of a makeup artist (money well spent) and lunch for a large crew and a larger number of actors. As it is, in my rush to get everything together on my way down to the shoot, I've forgotten a couple of important parts of my own makeup kit and have to send Paul out to the nearest drug store (actually better termed the "least far" drug store) to pick up a couple of emergency supplies with the remains of petty cash.

The first thing we are shooting is a very brief cutaway to be used in another scene, making use of a third area of the Bos building. It takes virtually no time, but it does slow things a little, because it forces me to get into a different costume and makeup, then change back to my regular attire. When I come down from my costume change, ready to start the bulk of the day's filming, I'm a little thrown by what's happening. First of all, no one, not one of the actors there, are on the set. Everyone is still in the adjacent room awaiting instructions. Dom is sitting alone in a corner of the same room, looking through his copy of the script. Second, the crew seem to be in the process of changing the set around. I try to insist that it looked fine the way it was, only to be told that part of it collapsed, followed by a very defensive parry that the actors could still be taking their places and running through their lines.
Set malfunction

When I go to talk to Dom, he says that there's no point in getting people in place until the crew have finished rebuilding the set. He says this with some certainty. All of a sudden, I'm not quite so eager to take ownership of the project. I don't particularly want to argue with anyone, because they all have more experience than I do, so I attempt to make myself useful by applying some basic makeup to some of the scene's strange characters. I'm just as glad that the events we're filming are supposed to be taking place late at night, because I can feel my eyelids folding in pleats around my eyeballs. After some time of me trying to act cheery, one of our actors rightfully asks when things will be ready.

I sneak out to look into the progress on the set and discover a group milling around, looking much like they're also awaiting instructions. Straightening up to my full height (still not tall enough to be close to intimidating) I ask for an update, only to be told that the set is finished and that they've been waiting for us to be ready. It occurs to me that I'm so sleep deprived, so stressed about money and timelines and so woefully inexperienced that I have no idea if anyone told me that before. I'm almost certain I didn't know, but it seems like every time I open my mouth today, I chip a tooth on my foot. So I go back to see Dom. He's fidgety and annoyed that no one's told him the set was ready. Actually, I think that he's annoyed at other things and at everything. Remember when I said I came in on a bit of a high? Yeah, that's gone.

We corral the actors into the set and let them sit randomly while we take a moment to work out the logistics. There are a lot of logistics. There isn't a single extra in this scene. Everyone- almost a dozen of them- has a named character and, if not lines, important gestures. Virtually all of them move, as well and therefore all of the positions at the beginning have to take into account every future action, because space is limited and you can't have an action blocked because someone else is in the way and you don't want actions to become clumsy to get around the fact that the actors were put in the wrong place to begin with.

Normally, when anything gets this close to me, I expect a cocktail
Dom continues to look through his script while I try to figure out where he wants everyone so that I can tell them where to sit. After all, it's a team effort. Unfortunately, the team is a little off today. Every time Dom says where he wants someone, I'm able to point out a problem that this will cause later on. He's flustered, because, although we'd all talked about ways in which the seating could be arranged, he had imagined it differently and it's thrown off his instincts as to who should go where. Although I'm able to stop him from doing anything that will cause complications, my wits are too dulled to come up with any better ideas, so I just sit there, pointing out the flaws in each new position he recommends until he snaps. Things proceed like this for far to long, while everyone waits, until we're finally able to come up with a plan of attack that will allow us to begin shooting the scene. Begin. It's already afternoon and we're just starting.

None of the four of us who've been involved in the project more or less from the beginning are in a particularly good place.

Dom is overwhelmed at the length and complexity of the scene. His preferred style is to be able to adjust as he works, without feeling locked down to a particular sequence of shots or pre-planning. The geography of the scene demands a working method that is exactly the opposite and, all of a sudden, the director is in crisis, trying to reconcile the needs of the project with his method of thinking and working.

Paul is his usual amiable self, but he is obviously unnerved by his temporary lapse of memory the other day. He actually has the lion's share of the lines today and his character really finds his inner strength, something that he has to channel despite the fact that he is rattled. He should be able to focus on acting, on getting his head back where he needs it, but he's frequently required to run errands- as I mentioned- or to keep track of where people are, to make sure that no one inadvertently ruins a good take by returning to the set from a bathroom break.

D.J. is tired. He's physically tired because he's been the one doing the literal heavy lifting- loading up equipment, building sets, rigging lights and carrying the camera around for hours at a time (sure, it's light- try holding a cup of coffee perfectly still, so that there's not even a ripple in the surface, for six or seven hours and see how well you do). But he's also tired of us. One of the reasons that he was such a great addition to the team was that he had more experience than Dom, or Paul and certainly far more than me, working on films. Before we started shooting Conversion, he had directed his own short film and, early on in Conversion, the producers of the short film had apparently received a green light to develop it into a feature. A real feature, with a paid crew and a well-organised schedule where people are going to figure out in advance the sort of things we're taking care of ad hoc on set. More to the point, that film is his baby- where he'll have to work hard, but he'll ultimately be able to make things work the way he wants. The longer he seems to spend on the set of Conversion, the more visibly disenchanted he is growing with the rest of our abilities to run a tight ship.

You already know where my head is at.

And that's where we all are as we start filming. The first couple of shots go smoothly enough, but the four mindsets I've just outlined collide very shortly into the scene over whether or not we need to take a single extra shot in one section of the scene. Debates that are civil at best seem to surround every single movement of the camera. I'm personally certain that the worst acting that I do in the entire film comes that morning (hurrah for the editing room), because I'm barely able to get back into character between bickering over how everything unfolds. There is a moment where I seriously think that blood is about to be shed. Wouldn't that be ironic in a scene taking place in a walk-in clinic?

Rolling... for now...
It's bad enough that an argument almost erupts over the fact that I have to get up to go pay for the pizza that's being delivered for lunch. Once everyone starts to get cross with each other, it just sort of snowballs.

I'm too nervous to eat anything (stay tuned for Conversion: The Diet Plan) and I've discovered that my normal resourceful self has departed. Luckily for me and for the project, Paul has his head on straight. The problems we're facing can be dealt with, but we have to help Dom calm down and think carefully and sequentially about everything that needs to be done. There's no point in just leaving him to his own devices, so Paul rightfully suggests that we should sit him down and help him go through everything that we will need to cover once the gang returns from lunch. And that's exactly what we do.

With three cooler heads, we're actually able to make more progress. Talking through how the scene will unfold makes it much easier to deal with and to plan out what shots we need to do in what order. It's not a military-level plan, but it's at least something we can get a good start from. We eat and then we're in place, ready to resume our shooting, all of us in place, up to speed on our lines (despite some truly hilarious mistakes during rehearsals). we are ready to go.

I'm especially pleased that we're in place and ready to continue a half-hour later, when D.J., his face still grim with frustration and skepticism, returns from an animated discussion on his personal project. We are ready to continue and we are able to rip through page after page of script, shot after shot, movement after movement, like plodding professionals, until, well, until the roof caves in:

We're all a little rattled by the events of the day. We know what shots we want to take, but, amidst continued bickering murmurs, it's easy to get screwed up. I feel like I need three extra sets of ears to keep up with everything that's going on- with all the people moving around, with all the needs of the various actors, with all the concerns about the set and sound, with all the issues of timing and angles and... It occurs to me that I have suddenly become this small figure with very, very large ears simply trying to compute everything that I'm receiving, unable to form rational reactions to what is going on. At some point, did I think that I had control over this thing?

For all actors, having a clear eye line is important. Really important
It's during a longer break between shots that I have my awakening. People are taking bathroom breaks, we're moving folks around to suit the next set of shots that we're doing, explaining to others why we they need to stay in absolutely the same position in order to preserve the integrity of the scene (yes, in your world, it's been six hours, but in movie world, this all takes a few minutes only. I'm pretty useless, because I'm not sure exactly where to put anything and so, like most times when I've proved useless, I'm trying to hide behind others, lest someone think I know what's going on. Yeah, this is my thing, sure. Immediately in front of me, two people who have been closely involved throughout the project are having a conversation. And, as has become my habit today, I listen to what they're saying.

What they're saying is hard to hear. Essentially, they're enumerating everything that's being done wrong on the shoot. Or, rather, they're enumerating everything that's being done and discussing why it's wrong. As far as I can tell, the film is doomed. Every single scene we've shot is fatally flawed, rife with the signs of amateurism and will, ultimately, if the film ever manages to be assembled into something watchable, be an embarrassment to all involved. And these are people who have the experience to know what they're talking about. Then one of them pivots his head enough to notice that I'm standing there with my big ears and shrugs saying "I mean, there's different ways we could do things".

I believe that at this point, I'm supposed to feel like I want to die. Or I'm supposed to get angry and be determined to show these snobs up by making the best damn movie we can make. But the fact is, I'm so tired and worn down that I just hear the criticism and accept it, hoping all the while it's not true. We're too late in the shoot to change what's been done. I don't think that what we have warrants that kind of criticism and I'm damn sure going to do everything I can to make sure that the edit of the film showcases us at our very best. What I feel is humiliated. I walked in here this morning believing that everyone was here because they believed in the project, because they believed in something that I had created. For a lot of the people here, this is a job and, like any job, everyone thinks they could do better than the bosses. I am drenched in a wave of self-pity and, if I had the time, I'd go into the corner and sulk for a while, until the people responsible came and made a specious apology in order to keep things moving along. I don't have that time. We need to get back to work.

And, just afterward, the roof falls in.

So now, we have a dilemma. We have a portion- a small portion, but important- of the scene left to shoot. I feel like a monster, because, as we make our way through the rubble and stunned bodies, all I'm thinking is that we need to find a way to keep going. Mercifully, I'm not the only monster on set. D.J. is actually the one who comes up with a plan to restrict the camera's movement so that we are, essentially, never looking at the portion of the set that's collapsed. It's very clever. In fact, I can say with authority that in the end, it will be impossible to distinguish footage taken before the disaster than after.

The stable part of the set
We get what we need. Personal disputes and set malfunctions aside, we have made it through our longest scene and we have every line recorded. (Strangely, the very end of the scene is possibly even more effective than it would have been under the original script.) If the set had collapsed ten minutes before it did, we would have been doomed. We'd never have been able to get the shots that we needed and the whole day would have been a write off. We would have had to re-book the site and hope that our fragile coalition held together an extra week or so. But fortune smiles on Conversion. We have to cheat a little, but we can cheat with style. It's not a bad curse to have placed on you. As long as it holds up.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Eleven

28 August 2009

"What we've done so far is great, but the film lives or dies on what we shoot this weekend."

Why do I keep saying that to people? Sure it's true. For some reason, when I was doing the schedule, it seemed like a good idea to pack the film's climax and the scene that makes up almost a fifth of the script into one weekend. Logically, I can see how it works, because of other constraints on the shooting and because you really wouldn't want to have the most intense scenes earlier in the schedule anyway. You want them to come at the point where people are emotionally invested and when they've had the film on the brain for several weeks. At least, that was my theory when I was throwing darts at a board, trying to figure out when things could be fit in. What the hell do I know about doing a shooting schedule? I'm still trying to figure out enough to be able to express my ideas. But that's the thing about producing something yourself. There is no safety net. You are the only person you can rely on. Well, you and your other producers, who are generally just as strapped as you are.

It's definitely true that, because of the way that the schedule has been put together, this weekend has the power to make or break the film. But why do I keep feeling the need to tell everybody?

First up is the climactic scene of the film. We've managed to get back on decent terms after Wednesday's "boring" incident, but there's still a current of unease. Complicating things further is the fact that Georges, the sound guy who has attended us faithfully in the last few weeks, had a prior engagement and is unavailable for the weekend. This wouldn't have been anyone's choice of scenes to start a new key crew member, but we're lucky to have found anyone. Marc Desaulniers comes to us from Jean-David and is from the beginning a true professional. This at least allays some of my fears for the evening, but I'm still on edge. We start off by shooting a very brief scene outside, in front of the Parc metro station. It goes pretty smoothly, but there is one person who is hassling us about our right to be there and capture him on film (despite the fact that the camera is pointed away from him). I say nothing, but throw him a look that causes him to demand why we're threatening him. It also makes him move away and shut up. Yeah, I'm not in cheery form tonight.
Fred guards the coffee from a possible thief
I should feel great. After all, someone has agreed to loan us a cafe for the evening. Not some dump, either. It's been consistently voted as one of Montreal's best cafes and has a lush interior to die for. It's the perfect offbeat, memorable space for an offbeat film to reach its high dramatic point. Besides, how many times can you say that someone loaned you a cafe for the evening? Plus, our actors are raring to go. One of them- Mikaela Davies who, fortunately, is nothing like the character she plays in the movie, ends up spending the entire night with us, when one of her later scenes gets rescheduled until just after dawn.

Everyone arrives on time and is ready to go, but there's still an immediate delay (hey, it's our trademark), because the way that we had planned to shoot the whole sequence seems, in light of our conversation on Wednesday, too static. So we start to move furniture around, plan ways that the actors can move, plan ways that the camera can move, generally try to compensate for the fact that what we're filming is a very long stretch of dialogue between two people sitting in a cafe.

Normally, I'd be maintaining my determination that everything will be OK, but for tonight, I'm not that person. You see, tonight, I have to do some real acting- not just cheeky grins, smartass one-liners, or acting like myself generally. I have to act. I'm supposed to get emotional, which, ironically, is something I find difficult to do in real life. So I'm not being a good producer tonight. I'm being a strung-out actress who sort of wishes that her fellow producers were able to spare a few minutes to calm me down. That's just not how it works on a production this small. Our director and his right hand (Jean David) are pulling sofas around.

I can also notice the differences in myself when we're working. Normally, I get wrapped up in things and time flies by. Instead, tonight is crawling. It feels like something is interrupting us every five seconds, whether it's a passing car or a light needing to be removed, or someone stumbling on a line (it happens) and the fact that we're getting interrupted is making it more and more difficult for me to get into what's going on. The producer part of me is agreeing or giving opinions, but the stuttering pace is unnerving the actor part of me.

At some point, I'm sent out, with Dom, on a mission to get food for the masses. I'm aware that we still seem early in the sequence for how late it is, but I figure it's just my sense of time distorting a bit. When we get back with our bounty of bagels, I find out differently. I try to talk out the next series of shots that we need to get and D.J., who's been quiet all night, responds flatly "Then we're f**ked". [Note: he did not use asterisks, since they are difficult to pronounce.]

You always have to have some fun...
We still have the meat of the scene to shoot, there are at least a half dozen camera moves planned, coverage of a variety of different actors, plus the lengthy part at the end where Paul and I have to be dead on for the film to hold any emotional resonance in the end, and, I find out, it's after three in the morning. Our staccato method of quick shots and multiple angles so that we can figure out later which ones look the best together have pushed us over two hours behind schedule. And that normally wouldn't be a problem, except that there's this flaming golden sun that's going to start rising around five which is going to make it impossible to get consistent looking shots of the people in the cafe. The normal way to fight the sun (and it is, apparently, always the enemy for filmmakers) is to use a large curtain-like rig that blocks the light. This could have been done, but... The but breaks down into an argument over who should have thought of the need for one of these curtains, who should have told whom that one was needed... And thus do we lose another few precious minutes of night.

We get started again, trying to focus (at least most people are- my brain is like a pile of scrambled eggs and I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing). The stress and the pressure are making everyone prone to having brain spasms. We're not acting like the well-oiled machine we have been. I'm too worried about the acting part of my night to function well as a producer and to complicate things, I have a wicked case of the giggles. Discussions that would normally be rational are taking on the taint of the childish and every time something has to move, everything comes to a dead halt. I'm struck with this sense that something is about to give.

Since D.J. has been the uneasiest about this scene, I'm expecting it to be him that ex/implodes, so it comes as a surprise when the victim of the night's stress turns out to be Paul. He doesn't yell, doesn't throw things, doesn't stomp away or start throwing punches, but he hits a wall where he simply can't get the words out of his mouth. It's the kind of thing that happens to people under pressure and the pressure isn't helped by the fact that he's angrier at himself than anyone. This is not something that's happening because he's unprepared or because he doesn't have a sense of what he should be doing. Like me at the loft, this is what happens when you're wearing a lot of hats. Eventually, the head breaks down.

The good thing is, when you're dedicated to something, as he is, you find a way to overcome it. He pulls himself together, works through the lines like the trooper he is and then, all of a sudden, it's my turn. This is what I've been afraid of all night. One long-ish speech that's supposed to be emotional, sad, defeated. It's the most challenging thing I've had to do as an actor and it's the one scene in which my inexperience had troubled Dom just a little when I said I wanted to play this part. I have to think that he's got to be having doubts again, because I am still finding it really difficult not to laugh. I can't even make eye contact with some of the people in the room. I've been trying to help Paul get through his bits and as a result, I'm not entirely sure I can remember what I'm supposed to be saying. I have this insane fear that the cameras will start rolling and I'll spit out all Paul's lines as quickly as I can, then turn around to find out that the sun's come up.

As a trick, I try to think of the piece as a number of blocks of text and then remember one key word from each block. Then all I have to do is memorise the order of the blocks and I can make it through. As long as I don't sound like a child reciting words at a spelling bee, everything should be fine. At the moment, I'm most worried about letting everyone else down, after all that's been put into the project.

The camera and lighting are moved, Marc checks my microphone, which has been showing a nasty tendency to fall down the inside of my dress and we're ready. D.J. reassures me that, if I need to stop, I just have to signal, that we'll get the lines from different angles, so I don't need to feel pressured to do one perfect take. I feel like I'm hearing him from underwater- all distorted and distant. It's not exactly nerves, what I'm feeling anymore, it's as if I've slipped into another area where there is only me and my little blocks of words. Dom tells me to signal him when I'm ready, so a give myself one long, deep breath to push any remaining and nod- let's go.

Dom calls action and I start. Then, abruptly, something goes wrong with the camera. That's the sort of thing that makes actors freak out and lose it on set, I'm sure. 

My memory of the next five minutes is gone. I'm so terrified of giggling that I can't bring myself to even look in the direction of anyone else in the room. So I look down and just try to focus on the words. I'm completely unaware of what's going on in the room around me, I wouldn't know if the place was on fire. If there are traffic sounds outside, I don't hear them. I just jump from one lily-pad of words to another until I can make my way back to the pond. The one thing that I do remember is that, at a key moment, my voice sort of cracks. I can't say that I meant to do it, but I feel when it's about to happen and I certainly don't fight it. It's just a fleeting realisation before I go back to my lily pads.

Professional actors don't think like this. They are focused enough that they are within their characters, inside the moment as the character experiences it. Even at the most intense moments, I don't achieve that. I'm always aware that I'm acting, aware that I'm pretending. But I like that little crack in my voice, because, whether from exhaustion or fear or because I'm overwhelmed, that instant is quite real. So when the take ends- only a few seconds before the camera hits its cut-off point of five continuous minutes of filming- I exhale and take just a second to feel good about myself.

"Do I have to do that again?" I ask, terrified that I'm going to find out that one of the lights was blinking, or my microphone fell down my dress again, or the camera focus wobbled... all sorts of things that have scrapped other, perfectly good takes in the film.

Dom and Ash both smile reassuringly and tell me no, what I did was perfect and my feeling of pride grows just a little bigger.

"Yes she does," D.J. reminds us, obviously exhausted from a few too many nights like this. "We have to do the wide shot."

Well someone has to get me back to planet earth. We reset and run through everything again to give us an angle to cut to. We still have a lot of work to do, a lot of shots, because there's a lot that needs to be captured in order for the film to truly come together- after all, this weekend is crunch time, where the big scenes are unfolding. There is no time for me to get lost in my profound sense of relief that I've faced down my acting demons and I can go back to being me again- split between producing and acting throughout.

It's a bit of a cop-out to end this here, but I honestly can't get into too much more detail, because, of course, these are the big scenes we're shooting and I can't give away everything that happens... By the time we finish, it's after seven in the morning. It's no longer dawn, the sun is up and there's traffic on Parc Ave. outside. We pack up and move things back to the way they were. Jean-David, having tended to us all night, half making sure that we had everything we needed, half making sure we didn't accidentally wreck the place, decides to stay on and open the coffee shop. That's right, he goes from working on the film to making espressos until the morning shift arrives (which won't be for another few hours).

I'm so elated at having made it through the evening that I'm barely able to contain it. Everyone else looks at me with weary smiles or avoids me completely. As high as I am, I'm aware that we've just put in a very difficult night- almost twelve hours by a group of people who were, for the most part, working for the eight hours previous. I'm fairly bouncing, but there is a weight on the shoulders of a number of the people there. We knew we were going to feel tired, but this is a dangerous time to be feeling it. As we part, there's a little sense of anxiety cutting into my buoyancy. What we have to shoot on Sunday is longer and more complex and if everyone is going into it tired than there's no guarantee we can get it all finished. Ah yes, the producer is back.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Ten

26 August 2009

I've never been what you'd call an athletic person. That's not to say I'm unhealthy- I've never owned a car, so I do a lot of walking, I eat well most of the time, I enjoy getting fresh air and I used to use my bike to get around a lot. Part of the issue is that I'm asthmatic, which means that I have a very short window of intense physical activity before I stop being able to draw air into my lungs. My body won't be tired, but it just can't keep going because it's deprived of oxygen.

So you'd think someone in my condition, writing a script in which she wanted to play a major role would know enough not to put her character in a lot of situations where she had to run. Turns out, I'm not that smart. Tonight, a potentially ill-advised Wednesday night shoot, we will be running. In fact, that's virtually all we'll be doing.

This is the night that we'll be capturing a lot of little bits that would otherwise be forgotten. Tonight, we are only four- me, Paul, D.J. and Dom- no sound, no script, no lighting, nothing. What we're after is a succession of quick shots of Paul and I running as well as some shots of the city, which is, in its own way, a central character in the film. In contrast to our shoots over the last couple of weekends, tonight is pure chaos. There is no real plan, other than to go downtown and grab shots until we think we have enough or until we collapse from exhaustion.

Tonight doesn't really require a plan as such. We all have ideas of shots that we want to get (I will say that my main one turns out to be an utter failure, because, when I envisioned it in the winter, I failed to take into account that trees grow leaves). The lack of equipment means that we're able to pick up and move between locations at a moment's notice and the fact is that we have lots of ideas means that there's an air of excitement about the night. I'm sort of hopeful that we'll get what we need before we become a batch of cranky children, desperately in need of nap time.

The first order of the night is to get some shots in one of Montreal's loveliest but least used metro stations. There's no specific plan, but once we get going (which, true to form, takes a little while), the sequence of shots becomes self-evident. I get a little uneasy when, during the first shot, I take a very nearly disastrous tumble on a steep staircase. Did I mention that I'm running in four-inch heels? I recover well-enough and we get the rest of the shots, step by step. Then it's off to the city for more running shots and some landscape shots.

As we're doing the city shots, I become aware of something that I hadn't realised before. Despite our general enthusiasm, it seems that we have different ideas of what Conversion is. It's been the case from the beginning, of course and there have been little disagreements on how certain scenes should be done, but up until this point, we've more or less been locked into a script. With the restraints off, there is a difference in aesthetic approaches that comes to the fore. As we discuss the difference in aesthetics, the differences in our interpretations of the script become more obvious.

For my part, I believe I've written a script about the difficulties of finding and maintaining individuality. Dom and Paul are both focused on the idea that the principal theme of the script is the importance of friendship, but in different ways. Dom's view is that the story is dramatic, emotional. Paul, being a stand-up comedian, sees a story that is human, but ultimately light-hearted. D.J., a fan of high-energy and high-impact films, sees a frenetic urban adventure on a small scale. In fact, all of these views will inform the final picture, but they make it strangely difficult to agree on how the shots of the city should look and should function.

I want still, haunting, slightly seedy images that emphasise the indifference of the surroundings to the individuals in it.

Dom wants big, expansive vistas that capture the scope of the city in comparison to the smallness of the characters.

Paul is the most amenable of any of us, but also wants to try to include a few moments of visual humour as a way of linking back to the humour in the script.

D.J. wants shots that jump and move and capture the kinetic, constantly moving nature of an urban environment.

We proceed at a decent pace, but these strange squabbles break out over the most innocent things. On the bright side, it's a sign that we're all pretty invested in our visions of the film. On the bad side, it's making something that should be easy a lot more complicated.

The night ends with us ascending Mont Royal, the mountain at the centre of the city and the discussion that develops is indicative of the different opinions at work: Dom wants to walk to the main lookout to capture the spectacular view of downtown. I want to drive around to the lookout on the far side of the point that looks out towards the city's gritty east end. D.J., aside from wanting us to hurry up and make a decision, is decidedly ambivalent about doing either shot, since he doesn't think it will add much. Paul is open to either option and tries to negotiate between all of us to find a settlement. (In the end, I get my way that night and we also get shots of the main lookout in the early morning. Both shots will end up in the film. So compromise is not always necessary or desirable.)

Having gotten our shots from the mountain, we pile back into the car to head home. We're too worn out to keep going, even though we know we don't have all the shots we need. We may have been too ambitious, thinking that we could shoot every insert we wanted in one night, but there's a pervasive sense of defeat in the car as we descend back into the city.

At length someone brings up the subject we're all a little shy to talk about; the coming weekend. This will not be the longest weekend for us. It will not involve the most movement, because we are primarily shooting in one location each time. The problem is that we're actually shooting a third of the film in those two days, including the longest single sequence, the scenes with the most speaking roles and the dramatic crescendo of the story. And now that we know that we have these competing visions, it's obvious that we're going to have disagreements as to how the most important scenes in the film should look. The inevitability of these debates makes it crucial that we are more organised, more professional than we have ever been and the fact is that we haven't truly scouted the locations as well as we should have.

The debate grows in intensity. D.J. is nervous that things don't look well organised and nervous that Dom doesn't seem nervous. In the middle of this "robust dialogue", D.J. starts to talk about the importance of working out shots so that the camera is moving frequently, which is when I get involved. For the scenes we're scheduled to shoot next, I don't want the camera moving a lot. As exciting and rich as our big shots have been until now, I'm dead set on having as little movement as possible, because I want the focus to be entirely on the words. The two of us are spitting out arguments as fast as we can, neither really listening to what the other is saying, with Dom chiming in over the top to add to the tangle of verbal confusion, when D.J. says something that stops the whole thing short. He says that without a lot of camera movement, the scene will be boring.

He means that the scene will be static, flat, visually uninteresting, but I'm heated up and I think that he's saying the writing itself is boring. It's two in the morning on a Wednesday. We have been working on this for weeks and organising for months, with the understanding that we all believe in the project. I can feel something hot erupt in my sternum and for a moment I actually feel smoke curling out of me. Dom and Paul intervene to at least allow us to part in peace, but it suddenly seems like there's a very heavy wedge thrown in the team.

At the end of the night, on the way home, I'm indignant, convinced I've been grievously insulted. I'm not thinking about whether or not what we shot was any good. For the only time in the shoot, I don't care. And for the first time in weeks, there's an icy fog of tension hanging over the production.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Nine

22 august 2009

Oh, how I have been waiting for this day. For starters, after the killer schedule of the last week, this weekend involves only one day's work. We've asked everyone to be on call for the following day, but looking at what we have to shoot, none of us thinks we'll need that unless we're horribly disorganised. Second, the day's shoot is actually a day shoot, meaning we don't have to be up until all hours (although we have to be up early). And of course, there's the fact that, for the only time in the entire shoot, I have the day off. Well, not off exactly, because I'll have plenty to do, but the difference is that I won't have to do it while acting. I have no scenes today! But the reason I have most been looking forward to today is the venue in which we are shooting, Bos Advertising, a chic advertising company in a 19th century industrial building, stunningly refurbished with ten-foot windows, exposed brick walls and... wait for it... a swimming pool that we're free to use. I already know that the main thing getting me through today will be the knowledge that, at the end of it, i get to go swimming. Whatever works, right?

My first duty of the day is to run and get breakfast-type food for everyone while the crew get set up. When I return laden with fruit and baked goods, I'm astonished to see that, not only are they getting everything together for the first shot, but others (it was not hard to assemble a crew for this particular day) are putting things in place for subsequent scenes, so that we're already well ahead of the game. In fact, throughout the day, as the main group moves from one place to another, part of the crew is always going to the place we've just completed shooting and moving equipment to the place we'll be going next. We are an efficient little machine.

Although it was easy enough to get crew for the day, the same did not hold true for extras. The glorious office space in which we find ourselves is open-concept to let the light flow everywhere. It must be wonderful to work in (when Jean-David, who does work here in "real life" first showed me the place, I didn't want to leave), but the problem is that you can see everything from virtually everywhere and if desks are empty, it's going to be painfully obvious. Plus, of course, you want to show some movement, to give the idea of a buzzing, active and tense workplace, which is what we're supposed to have. So our first challenge is to look extremely carefully at every position that the camera will occupy and determine the absolute minimum number of desks we need to fill. It's a very delicate affair and the annoying thing is, this isn't anything that people will likely notice in the final version. It's just that it's the kind of thing they'll notice if it's not done properly.

The other challenge is in keeping things moving along. True to our established pattern, it takes us about ten times as long to get the first shot- another thrilling drop in that shows off the full beauty of where we're shooting- as it does to get anything else that day. So, despite our best efforts, we're already well behind where we wanted to be by the time we've finished shot one. We've organised the order of shots around the fact that it's easier to move people than equipment. However, since the action takes place on two different days, we're frequently forced to ask everyone to change between shots. Some days, you can do everything right and it'll still be complicated. I just try to keep smiling. Everything is going pretty smoothly. And the smoother things go, the sooner I will get to go swimming.

Next up on the list of things that I get to be stressed about is that one of our actors hasn't shown up. I try calling him and get voice mail. I make signs to put up around the building in case he hasn't been able to locate the door. I leave a message with every number I can think of for him to call. No luck. So now we have a shortage of extras and I need one of them to play a defined part. I watch the efficient team moving lights and cords around and I wonder how I'm going to break this little piece of news to the others who don't have a break from their regular duties.

As I try to think of a solution, I find my mind kind of wandering. I'm sitting on some filing cabinets, chin in hands, looking at the action upstairs and knowing that the next scene we shoot needs the missing actor in it. But really, I'm thinking about the fact that one of our extras has this really amazing shirt on. Being a really unapologetic aesthete, I'm fascinated by this shirt and I'm sort of saddened to think that the fact that he's so far from the camera will prevent the complex sheen of the fabric from appearing in the final film. I'm not joking, this is actually what's running through my mind.

The extra in this case, is Dom's uncle and Jean-David's father Jean-Guy Marceau. It's always a thing with me when a man takes care about how he looks and this shirt, a rich sort of purple-magenta colour that changes in the light is the kind of thing that says to me that the person wearing it thinks carefully about their appearance. It's not the sort of garment one picks up on a whim. It also looks like something that a person working at an energetic, image-conscious office run by a guy sporting bleached hair and a couple of earrings (as this one is) would wear. So it occurs to me- why not ask him to play the featured part? I mean, he looks perfect and the role, while distinct, doesn't even require him to speak, plus, he has family members there, so he'd be more inclined to help out than a stranger on the street, which is my other option at the moment.

When I raise the subject with Dom, he looks at me as if I've just asked if I could pierce his testicle sack with a pen. You see, the fact that his uncle is here at all is kind of remarkable. He's literally just finished a round of chemotherapy that week and it was a real unknown whether he'd be able to come and how long his strength would hold out. It's a very difficult debate to have when your best argument is that you have a gut feeling based on someone's shirt. But at length, Dom agrees to ask him. Yes, I am aware that this makes me a monster.

Now the ironic thing is that Jean-Guy has actually been acting since before most of the upstart producers of Conversion were even born. He's an acclaimed stage actor and at this moment (February 2011), he's actually performing with a theatre troupe in Europe. So we're that much more fortunate when he says that yes, actually, he does feel up to staying and playing a larger role. In fact, he gives the character a remarkable amount of depth for the brief time he appears and it's the things like his performance that, I believe and hope, will give Conversion an added dimension that makes it worth viewing more than once. (Ironic touch: The scene in which he is most visible actually is set on another day than the first scene, so the shirt I so admired never does get its moment on camera. You can catch a glimpse of it in the background, but most of his action takes place when he is wearing a very elegant blue shirt instead.)

The day is filled with little issues that are the kind of thing that independent films face all the time. We have a shot that we all agree is probably the "hero shot" of the film, a long pull back that Dom and I had separately envisioned as soon as we saw the office. However, our shortage of extras makes it seem awfully empty. As a result, several of the people in the final shot are crew members, seconded to appear in that shot only.

Midway through one of the early scenes, Dan Derkson, a member of an esteemed Montreal Improv group who gives us enough material to create an entire "Best of Dan" DVD, knocks a cap off his tooth in the middle of a particularly intense monologue.

One of the scenes is shot in a closed office with a giant glass wall looking out at the rest of the desks that requires an unbelievably intricate set up of equipment and people to ensure that nothing is reflected in the windows. As we're shooting, there is a small pile of bodies on the floor, all filling some role in between takes, but basically like large sandbags while the camera is rolling. Even Dom has to basically flatten himself after snapping the slate and ends up calling action from underneath a table.

These are the sorts of problems you face even when you're prepared. There are always things that come up and, in moments of frustration, it's easy to forget that this is all part of the adventure. A woman I worked with once got annoyed with a coworker who was complaining about how there were always problems to deal with and she snapped "Yeah, well if there weren't problems, you and I wouldn't have jobs". It's remarkably apt statement in a number of situations, but definitely in film-making. If there weren't always issues getting a picture to look just right, or positioning everything properly, or making sure that things look and sound believable, everyone could run outside with two or three friends and a camera and shoot Raging Bull. The problems aren't just a side effect of the process, they are the process and your ability to overcome them defines your talent as a film-maker. Or so says the woman lying in a pile of bodies on the floor, who has no film-making experience.

It's strange, but even though I swear we've lost time shooting, we end up on our final scene a little earlier than I would have liked. It's one of those little things that strikes me as odd, even though there's nothing wrong. I had pictured the scene taking place at night, in the dark. Instead, it's shot at twilight, with the sun setting visibly as the characters deliver their lines. As we're starting to set up, I'm tempted to offer to buy everyone dinner in order to stretch the shooting time so that it gets dark, but looking into some of the exhausted faces and realising that D.J., charged with organising all the technical aspects of the scene, is getting short-tempered, I decide to let things proceed without objecting. Besides, if we push things too late, everyone will want to go home right away and I won't get to go swimming.

In the end, I don't think that there's anything wrong at all with the way this scene turns out. It's just one of those moments where there's a divergence between what I saw in my head and what ends up on film. In a way, those are the most interesting parts of the film to me.

The day winds up with us enjoying a sunset by the pool and, most importantly, with me in the pool. I'm happily bobbing up and down, swimming from one end of the pool to another, beer in hand and maintaining a conversation. Let it never be said that I can't multitask. Obviously, not having to act has made this a particularly relaxing day (and has made me wonder what I could have brought to the party if I hadn't been so egotistical as to insist I could play the lead), but my zen-like bliss goes beyond that. Yes, there were some frayed tempers towards the end of the day, but here we are as a group, sitting around a pool on a beautiful late summer's night, feeling a sense that we've all put in a good day's work and earned the sleep we're going to have. At the end of the day on the 16th, I felt pumped, empowered, victorious. Today, I am serene. The roughness and shakiness of the first couple of days has resolved itself into this, a feeling that we have things under control, that we can all take some time at the end of the day and toast our own accomplishments. We're more than halfway through and, strangely, things really do seem to be getting better.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Eight

20 August 2009

We're flying now!!!

We worked three consecutive days last weekend! We got some amazing footage! We didn't get in fights! Life is good on the set of Conversion, which is why this makes a particularly good time to do a weeknight shoot. After all, everybody's psyched, we're making progress and personally, I know I'm going to have an easy weekend, so bring it on!

As I sit at my desk, working away, I can feel the excitement building. We are shooting on a Thursday night, so we'll all have to be at work in the morning. I know I'll be exhausted, but I'm not terribly worried, because I know that I used to be able to do this kind of thing no problem when I was in my early twenties. It's not like anything would have changed in the meantime. I'm excited.

I'm even more excited, because I keep getting text messages from Dom telling me that a) I won't believe what DJ's done for the shoot tonight and b) Dom has added a little extra just to make things that much better. I can't wait to see what it is. By the end of the day, I'm not sure I'd know how to respond if someone asked me my name, but somehow, I make it through. I could jog home, I have so much energy, but I realise that timing dictates that I should take public transit. Plus, I have asthma and it's just going to spoil everything if I end up collapsing on the street.

In the wake of the past weekend, where we got so much done and where we were so on top of things, everyone seems motivated. Everyone except the person who's supposed to be playing a busker at the beginning of the scene we're shooting tonight. I talk to him during my brief stop at home to change clothes, put on makeup and haul ass down to our location, immediately adjacent to the place where Dom and DJ work. He seems a little hesitant about the role he'll be playing. It's possible that he thought it would be larger, but what we want is to have someone perform- literally perform a whole song, as a street busker. It's supposed to be a poignant moment within the whole, the moment where the story changes gears and you first get a glimpse of the serious emotions underlying the glib dialogue of the main characters. I'm not making this up. I wrote the damn thing, so I know what everything means.

As I head down to the night's location, I notice for the first time that it's starting to get darker earlier. I know how long we had to wait for the sun to go down even a few weeks ago. It's still Summer- I'm comfortable in the sundress I'm wearing- but Autumn is coming.

I arrive and it seems like I missed a call time. Everyone is already there, and things have been dragged out and put into place. I don't even make it to the door of the office (to drop off my bag with the night's necessities). I stop dead in my tracks part way along the street.

Let's back up so that I can explain what's going on. Tonight, we're shooting one scene. That doesn't sound that ambitious, but it's a long-ish scene and it's pivotal in the script. So it's kind of important that things unfold well. The action takes place at a bus stop and one of the reasons that we've selected this location is that it has a sign post that could pass for a bus stop sign. Plus it has nice graffiti.

The thing that stops me part way down the street is that there is a bus stop- a real bus stop with a bench and lights and a sign- in the area where we're shooting. It's almost unreal. Here we are at an abandoned corner in NDG, normally home to derelict autobody shops and low-rent housing, and it suddenly looks like a busy strip with a night bus passing through it.

And to add to that, we have a bus. Not an actual bus, of course, but something that looks shockingly like a bus when seen through the eye of a camera. I've arrived on set and the magic of film is laid out before me.

We're all there, ready to start, except that our busker, whose part is the first thing being filmed that night, is AWOL. When it's getting to the point that we can't wait any longer, Dom calls him. And is told that he isn't feeling well and won't be coming. At the point in the conversation where I grasp this, I let out a sound the reverberations of which are still being felt in the outer universe. Such are the dangers of independent film-making. No one is obliged to do anything. Everyone in their own mind is doing you a favour.

Since rescheduling is not an option (we already have one scene to catch up on that we weren't able to shoot on Day Three), we assess the situation. We have one more crew member than we technically need, or at least, one more that we need for the first shot. And so, Peter Blair, who is one of those unsung folk who fill many roles on the set of Conversion, gets drafted to play a homeless person begging for money on the street. (If you look closely, you can also spot him as a guest at the loft party.)

It's later than we'd planned when we get started, but things are able to get rolling quickly. We even have a photographer on set to capture the magic. Unfortunately, the magic keeps getting interrupted by people using the street as a short cut, since it has no traffic lights. This is extraordinarily frustrating because we are absolutely buttoned-down for the night's shoot. We know exactly what we need to do, where and when. And we'd happily proceed with that, except that there are so many F*^KING cars going by.

We move from the first shot to what I consider the "money shot" of the entire film. I've told people about this so many times I don't know how to even describe it. The fact is that films use this kind of shot all the time, it's just that they don't use a still camera when doing it. So let me repeat: 5 inch camera mounted on 20 foot crane.

The placement of this shot is no mistake. the line that accompanies it is one on which the entire script pivots. There is a sea-change between what has gone before and after. Trust me on this one. It takes a few (ahem) attempts to get right, but once we do, it's pretty remarkable, as we all attest having watched it on the tiny monitor.

From there, we proceed to shoot at the actual bus stop. It's quite incredible how genuine it feels. Right down to the part where the bright lights at the bus stop start attracting bugs. Lots of bugs. The lights we've assembled are serving as a giant beacon for every flying thing in the known universe. I don't even want to open my mouth, much less speak, for fear one of those things will be flopping around my palate for the next hour. I remember that we were shooting during this time. I also remember that, whatever we were shooting, I was concentrating more on keeping my teeth clenched than on acting. I swear I found bug corpses in my dress for the next year.

One thing that is completely annoying is the number of times that we have to stop because there are cars racing by. The street next to which we are shooting is popular with speed demons because, unlike the street just above it, it has no traffic lights. Every other take is lost because a car comes rolling by, which is infuriating when you have a half dozen people whose actions all need to be coordinated. The rest of us are doing fine, but our positive energy is gradually turning into a sort of insane wrath against ANYONE who drives past our set. Sure, we'd probably come barreling past the same corner to save a few minutes ourselves, but for the moment, we hate you.

In a fit of pique, we decide- well, some of us decide, because I think we're joking until it actually happens- to send Jean-David out to redirect traffic a block north, so that it doesn't pass by our "set". I'm giggling about it, because it's not like drivers will automatically turn just because some guy happens to be pointing, right? As it happens, if you outfit the guy correctly, they will.

Of course, we barely get a couple of peaceful takes done before the police arrive to chastise us. We hang our heads dutifully, ready to tell them that we'll stop being bad as long as they let us continue what we're doing, but once they've said their spiel, we're all left a little confused.

They're very clear- we are not allowed to divert traffic one street north, as we've been doing. We figured that.

Then they add: You can stop traffic, you just can't divert it.

Wait, what?

That's right. The police force will let you go, even if you have no permits whatsoever, if you stop traffic. You just can't show them an alternate route. Go figure.

Thus goes the magic of the night. We know what we're doing. It still takes a long time. A longer time than I had imagined. But it gets done and it gets done well. We sit at our magical bus stop until the equally magical bus arrives, at which point we are finished.

By the time I get home, I am aware only that I have to make a choice between going to bed for an hour or so and showering immediately to get to work early. I'm slightly reassured by the fact that the major event of the subsequent day will be our company barbeque. I'm allowed to be brain dead for that, aren't I?

As I puzzle over that question, I'm hopeful that there won't be many other work nights that we have to be out.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Seven

16 August 2009

You might recall, or you might just hop back to Day Three of the filming diary, that I said I was so cold by the time we finished shooting that I had to be covered in a blanket between takes to stop my shivering. I'll forever remember this day, lucky day seven, as the day that Mother Nature decided to get back at me for complaining.

Today's shoot is at the loft of artist Steven Shellenberg, whose works form the backdrop of the day's scenes. As we arrive bright and early to start loading in equipment, I'm aware that it's warmer than it has been in the mornings. I joke to Heather as we're picking up coffee that this is the one day I want it to be cloudy and cool, because we're in a fairly confined space and, in order to get the sound perfect, we need to shut off any air conditioning. Nonetheless, I'm prepared for it to get pretty warm and sticky while we shoot. At least we're starting early.

This is a special day for us because LaPresse, Montreal's premiere daily newspaper, is sending a reporter (with photographer) to talk to us about what we're doing, how we're managing to make an entirely independent film and what the potential implications of the technology we're using are.

We're still getting everything set up when the media arrive, lights being installed, generators being fueled (I love the smell of gasoline in the morning), props being placed. Dom occupies himself with explaining the project to the reporter while today's crew efficiently get everything in place for us to start. There's a lot to cover today. There are numerous extras, five separate scenes to shoot, a lot of angles to cover in each scene and more.

The action today takes place at a bizarre party where the two leads find themselves, so we've asked everyone to show up looking at least a little offbeat. As part of the collection of oddballs, we've retained the services of a body painter, to make someone into a human statue. Unfortunately, when she arrives, we find out that she was unable to get her model to come with her. So now she has no one to paint.

Looking around, it's undeniable that we have a lot of crew today- more than we really need, given the space we have to work in. That's when Dom has the idea that Fred, one of the tireless labourers filling a plethora of roles behind the scenes on Conversion, would make a really imposing human statue. So, instead of spending the day moving equipment around, laying cable, lifting lights and helping place the boom, Fred will get to spend the day covered in paint and standing as still as humanly possible, to ensure that there are touch-ups are kept to a minimum. We'll definitely need touch-ups, the artist assures me, because it's starting to get warm with all the people in the loft.

As everything is falling into place around me, I feel pleased at how organised and how determined we all are. This weekend has been a bolstering experience for my confidence in our ability to make a film like the pros. Or at least like advanced-level amateurs. And at that moment, as I'm flushed with pride, it dawns on me that I can't remember a single one of my lines. It's like I've been so preoccupied with getting everything else done thus far that I haven't had a lot of time to think about the acting I'm doing. Now that I have nothing else to worry about, my brain's gone on vacation.

I know how all the action should take place. I know other people's lines. I know where each prop should be in the room. But I have no idea what I'm supposed to be saying. Desperately, I try running through my lines with Paul and Nik, which ends up with me watching the two of them do the lines together, because I can't remember any of it. I'm in a panic. We're almost ready to start and I'm stumbling like I've never opened the script before. Of course, panicking isn't making things better, because fear is causing my memory to fail more and it's making me aware of the fact that it is getting warmer with each passing minute, which is uncomfortable on top of everything else.

Somehow, Paul and Nik get me on track and I am able to muddle through. This will not be a banner day for me nailing my lines, I can already tell. It's been a point of pride with me that being the author of the script means that I'm usually able to knock off my parts pretty quickly. I feel like I'm going to make up for that today.

Finally, we're ready to roll. It's much later than I anticipated and I feel badly for the fact that all our extras have been around for much of the morning when they could have been sleeping in. But now things are ready. I dodge into the bathroom to retouch my makeup, because I notice that I've already started to melt a little in the heat. Then we start shooting.

The first shot of the day is of Paul and I walking down the hallway to a room at the end where the party is taking place. As we do our walk, something feels off. As we get to the main room it occurs to me: The air conditioner had been on earlier. I had assumed, given the temperature, that someone had already turned it off.

I'm not quite sure how to communicate the sort of heat we're dealing with. As a test, try holding your hand close to any light bulb in the room where you are right now. Feel how hot your hand gets. Now imagine that you're surrounded by about fifty of them each about a hundred times more powerful than the one you're close to, none more than a few feet away and many of them pointed at your face. Within the first couple of shots, I feel like someone is holding a lighter under my ears. Compared to Paul, of course, I'm lucky. He's wearing a wool jacket a jeans with socks and boots. I'm wearing a sundress. Even so, this heat is like nothing I've ever experienced. I can feel my ankles sweating. We've just started. Things are going perfectly, but we're going to be here all day.

As it turns out, this is probably the hottest day of the summer. Even when I step outside to get food for the damp and clammy masses, the temperature is well nigh on unbearable. Some of the extras help out between takes by patting the moisture off the principal actors. Needless to say, Fred needs to be touched up every five minutes or less as he slowly suffocates under a layer of paint. It's a hell for everyone- the crew have a lot of physical labour, but they can take shirts off, douse their heads with water, what have you. The cast don't have to move much (with the notable exception of Rob Brown, who steals the scene but almost dies of heat stroke in the process), but they can't do anything to change their appearance from one take to another.

Strangely, despite the temperature and the hard work, there's a pervasive spirit of camaraderie. Perhaps it's the heat turning our brains to mush, but the sort of temper flare-ups and frustration you'd expect when you pack a bunch of people in a confined space together aren't there. It seems strangely like we're having fun.

This holds true even at the worst point of the day, which comes late in the afternoon, quite unexpectedly, in less than a second. All I see is D.J. lunging forward and at the same time I hear an disquieting thud. Somehow, the camera got knocked onto the floor.

After some checks, we determine that the camera itself is fine, but that one of the cables needed was damaged and no longer works. As the sense of panic starts to rise again, I'm astonished that a good half a dozen people in the room are coming up with ideas on what to do to fix the problem. Everyone, all volunteers, many not connected with the film industry at all, wants to get things back on track. In the end it's Kathleen, drafted the week before to a speaking part and now back as an extra, who points out that there is a store that should have what we need and which is close enough that we can still make it before closing at five (we have about fifteen minutes). D.J. is packed into a cab and, miraculously, is able to replace the cable. Everyone waits patiently, enjoying the brief respite where we can turn off the lights and turn on the air conditioning again.

By the end of the day we're generally exhausted and all about six pounds lighter than when we went in. At the same time, it's a sort of happy exhaustion, as opposed to the oppressive feeling at the end of our third day. Things today were mapped out perfectly, sequenced properly and, most shocking of all, we finished at pretty much the time that we had planned. Despite the number of people present, nothing in the loft was damaged (one prop required a bit of surgery before being returned to its owner, but the operation was successful). For once, we're not crawling to our various abodes looking like roadkill. We're even smiling. I have never sweat so much, worked so intensely or been more tired, but at the same time, I've never been happier.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Conversion Shooting Diary :: Day Six

15 August 2009

Let us take a moment to appreciate the sound guys. Virtually every movie made since the early 1930s has sound, but unless a film has hyper-complex edits or noticeable sound effects, chances are that the sound guys (and girls) remain in the shadows. Successful directors of photography are highly in demand, since it is often they who give films their distinctive visual style- and we all notice the visual element of film, being primarily visual creatures- and many go on to be directors in their own right. Writers, too are often bumped up the cinematic food chain. Quentin Tarantino wrote scripts for others before taking over the helm himself. But the same is not true for sound people. We'd miss them if they weren't there, but we often don't appreciate them when they are.

I mention this because day six of Conversion shooting really warrants a hats' off to our principal sound guy, Georges Kandalaft. Keep in mind that as we assemble to caravan to the night's location that virtually all of us present had been shooting until six in the morning. Yes, it's after dark when we start shooting again, so in theory we've all had time to get some rest, but it's difficult to convince your brain to sleep through an entire summer day in a country where snow in May is always a possibility, even if you can convince your body to do it.

As we are heading to our location, I think that Georges is still in a state of advanced denial. Yes, we have told him that we are shooting under one of the city's busiest highway interchanges, but there still seems to be some part of him that believes that surely we could never be so cruel to someone who has shown such patience and dedication. We would have to be both sadistic and insane. None of us really want to drive home the point that we probably are.

When we selected this location, we knew it was perfect for what we wanted. A couple of shifts of the camera allow us to create the illusion of a much larger area and it definitely has the surreal, gritty urban look that we are going for in the film. This is what happens when people who know nothing about sound pick a location. As I said, we are visual creatures all. On location scouts, we were driven entirely by what looked right. The noise was the sound guy's problem.

At a glance, one would be tempted to say that background noise shouldn't present a problem. After all, cities do have background noise and it's not exactly like we're pretending to be in a farmer's field. And it's true that this would not be a problem if we were shooting every angle in one long take at the same time. But even the highest budget movies aren't shot this way. Rather, each angle is shot as a complete take and then the camera is moved; so if you have two people speaking, the camera might shoot one close-up, then the other, then a shot including both of them.

Now imagine that during the first person's speech, an ambulance passes by in the distance. When it's time to shoot the second person's dialogue, that sound isn't there, despite the fact that the conversation is supposed to be happening in real time. Now you have a problem. Your options, when the pieces are being edited together, are to keep following the first person, even when the second is talking, which will give the impression that the focus is only on the first person; or you could cut between them, which will mean that in the middle of the conversation, the sound of the ambulance siren will drop out abruptly when the shot switches from one person to the other. Your third option is to get yourself a really good sound guy, who will pay attention to detail and who will make you keep working at it until he's satisfied that the sound is consistent from one shot to the next.

We arrive in our desolate little corner under the giant structures of the soon-to-be-flattened Turcot Interchange, a little ragged around the edges, but ready to work. Tonight's shoot is very carefully planned. We have the exact sequence of shots so that we can move quickly from one to the next, which is especially important, since we're due to shoot all the next day, starting at nine in the morning. We don't want to make this a late night. Heather shares with us that she actually ended up driving home- two hours outside Montreal- after the shoot the night before- which is another great example of the dedication we have on the project.

It is immediately obvious that sound is going to be an issue. There is a constant, but subtly inconsistent roar of traffic above. There are people all around having conversations. There is a bus that passes nearby about every ten minutes, meaning that when it's there, we can't do anything at all, lest it show up in the final product. While the three of us- Ash, Heather and I- are wearing individual mics, we also need to get a "general" sound through the boom mic. When you're shooting inside, this doesn't present a huge problem, as long as the boom doesn't get in the shot, but outside, it's a nightmare, since the boom has to be at a greater distance and has to be very carefully maneuvered not only to insure that it stays out of the picture, but that there is no shadow cast of a tall man holding what looks like a scythe as the characters are speaking (although, in certain circumstances, that could be a cool effect).

For my part, I'm most concerned for Heather. There is a lot of pressure on her to deliver and how long we will be here tonight is dependent on how quickly and regularly she can nail the copious lines of dialogue she has. For Ash and I, it's almost like a night off. All we have to remember is to keep pace and make little noises on cue. This evening, we are nothing more than punctuation. She is the text. Fortunately for us, she is uncanny in her ability not just to remember her lines, but to deliver them in consistently the same way over different takes, which makes everyone's job easier. Even when she's getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, she barely flinches, although my flesh is crawling even thinking about it. (Mosquito bites are a particular hazard of this night's shoot.)

Many times, we have to repeat shots in order to get the sound dead on, along with the usual problems of the camera freaking out, people moving around or making noise and, at one point, almost losing our power generator and a crew member into the Lachine Canal. But somehow, despite the odds being against us, we get everything done in an orderly, disciplined fashion. We're getting better at that. Best and most surprisingly of all, Georges opts neither to kill us, nor to run away in frustration. It's a good night.

As we're packing up, he does mutter something about how this better be the only location like this. I smile and reassure him- no more scenes under highways. I don't mention that the place we're shooting the next day is a loft with creaky floors and a dance studio next door. I'll just let that reveal itself on its own. Besides, Georges is awesome and I know he'll make it work no matter what, so I feel like I have nothing to worry about.

You see? Even when I know I owe him big time, I'm taking the sound guy for granted. So let us take a moment now to appreciate everything we hear at the movies.