Punching Above Your Weight

We finished shooting the movie-in-the-movie sequences yesterday after ramping up through months of stop & start misery and pigfuckery. To be honest, the shoot was so painful it nearly broke me. Had pre-production for principal photography two years ago been this bad there’s no doubt in my mind that we would have pulled the plug on “Clocking the T” there and then.

I’d originally put off filming these scenes for good reasons. I’d wanted them to look different—in tone and production value—than the rest of the movie, so they needed more prep and planning. Besides, these ‘movie scenes’ for the fictitious “Triple Helix 3, ” never really existed in the script except as callout lines to represent the protagonists watching them. I figured if we could put these scenes on the long finger then I could attack them surgically, tailoring the writing and the subsequent production to the final cut of CTT and shoot exactly what was needed and no more. Great idea, right? Except, it barely worked for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is I was too ambitious and we were just too small a crew.

There is a modern mythology to indie filmmaking: You can buy a camera off the shelf and with your friends make a movie. That you don’t need a big crew, you can just Do It Yourself. And yeah, you can. But it’s fucking
painful. Because to make your movie you have to double and triple everybody’s jobs. And it isn’t multi-tasking that’s the issue, it’s the negation of key positions that fucks you. You know all those people listed on the long list of credits at the end of a movie? Well, they’re there for a reason. So yes, you can do without having a gaffer or an assistant director or continuity or props or a location manager or [insert position here], but you really don’t want to. Every single one of those people support your ability as a filmmaker to be creative. They allow you to delegate work and responsibility so that you can focus on your work. They allow you to take that critical two minutes and put your mental microscope on the story and characters and intent of the work before you.

We’ve had crew members over the past three years—during interviews and in production—that would lecture us as if we were taking pride or something in eliminating crew positions. I can tell you we have never gloated about that. In fact, we’ve been miserable because of that choice. But it’s a Faustian Bargain. To make this movie for the money we had meant we had to pare away the crew to the absolute bone. And while we were able to skirt that edge during principal, when the majority of scenes were interiors with people talking, it blew up in our faces on the “Triple Helix” shoot where we had to coordinate locations, costumes, stunts, and a even rent an RV so the crew would have a toilet. In the end we Crossed The Line of what we were capable of with a thinned crew. It wasn’t by much, maybe a single step over. But if you plant your shoe one foot off the
Cliffs of Moher you’re going to find yourself hanging by your fingernails real quick. And I did.

We all have limitations. As Americans we don’t like to admit to them. And though they may be transparent as a glass ceiling, they’re also solid as brick. Making the movie was a constant state of dancing near my limitations as a filmmaker, as an artist, even as a father and husband. But this shoot for the “Triple Helix 3” scenes was One Step Too Far. One step beyond my abilities on a micro-budget movie support system. If we’d had a UPM, an AD, a gaffer, I think I wouldn’t have come out of the other end so utterly
destroyed. The last couple of days before the shoot I was so overwhelmed I would put my keys down and completely brain dump where they were. I’d waste a half hour looking for them again. And it wasn’t just keys. Gear, scripts, props, and once even a cashier’s check for payroll that I’d forgotten in the scanner. I was burnt to a crisp.

It all started
months ago when we began hitting brick wall after brick wall trying to secure locations. I wanted someplace that didn’t look like the rest of the movie. Problem was, we shot all over Los Angeles and there wasn’t much geography we hadn’t already film. We did find a reservoir in La Canada last October that we thought would be aces only to discover upon our return this year that the place had flooded after the rains three months earlier. See those bushes in the lake? They’re the tops of trees.

Devil's Gate Location PAN_1200px

Fuck. I mean,
there wasn’t a lake there before.

Our second and third possibilities had also flooded, one with a roaring river right down the middle of ‘The Shot. ’ So that sent us on a mad scramble to find another location. And after awhile it became
any location. See, it turned out the writer’s guild strike deadline was May 1st, so the studios were in overdrive filming everywhere to try and shelve as much content as possible if the strike happened. So everywhere we looked the availability was slim and the prices had skyrocketed. Ranches in Santa Clarita wanted $6,000 for four hours on a patch of desert. We looked into Sepulveda Dam, but that’s run by the Army Corp of engineers and that’s about $11,000 just to walk on. And that’s before the hidden charges (There are always hidden charges). Most places wouldn’t even call us back. We found the Japanese Garden at the Tillman Center but the woman there obviously didn’t want us to film there and walked me clean around to the back ass of the building and said we could only film there for the same $1,700 smackeroos. I started looking outside the county and even those rates were ridiculous. Everyone on southern California wants their piece of the studio movie pie. We were considering shooting in another state when I internet-tripped on the pre-existing, pre-lit Laurel Canyon Stages. At the same time I did a pre-scout at LAX and found we could pop off three scenes right there on the same day.

Of course, all of this was going to cost

There was no way around it.

But at least it would be straightforward. No Witchy Woman forcing us to shoot in the fucking stairwell. Once we’d settled on LAX I went ahead and submitted for a permit and waited for our coordinator. It became apparent after a week plus that we’d fallen through the cracks. Worse, their software somehow regurgitated our submission back into the ‘waiting to submit’ column and we’d been at a standstill the whole time.
Jesus Christ. I thought that by getting my submission in early we’d be able to have everything locked in the week before shooting and have some breathing room to prep. But instead of being ahead of the curve we were now firmly behind it and scrambling to play catch up. It was only after a serious phone call to FilmLA that everything sorta kinda got back on track. Sorta. Kinda.

Look, here’s the ugly truth about shooting in Los Angeles: They don’t give a fuck about independent filmmakers. Like, not
one fuck. Everything is geared toward a big studio production—prices, support, consideration, you name it—and they just can’t wrap their head around this movie being made by my wife and I. So every time one of these offices would screw around giving us straight answers, or even tell us what they fucking wanted from us, they’d be burning our available hours to be creative. Because we don’t have an office of people supporting us.

It’s. Just. Us.

And they truly, honestly, unequivocally Do Not understand that.

And so you’re following rules for a game that you aren’t playing. You never know exactly what something costs or what’s required or what they want from you. They tell you the day before. Maybe two days, if you’re lucky. They run you around. And the more you tell them you need a heads up because it’s just my wife and I they just nod, “Uh, huh. Well, just send your runner over. ”
I am the runner, you fucking idiot. And when I’m doing that I’m not making a shot list. About the only person who was straightforward and no nonsense was the LAX coordinator, John, who was great. Oh, and there’s no bullshit at LCS Stages either; they’re awesome. But the rest of the city? If they’re wondering why productions are leaving California, well, shit like this is why. You know when I wrote that we were considering filming in another state? Well, we could’ve flown everyone to Arizona for the weekend and gotten them each hotel rooms and it would have been cheaper. Seriously, we ran the numbers.

During all of this we started casting and crewing. And even
that became a hassle. The casting was pretty straightforward although we didn’t get a lot of responses once we sent the sides out. Look, the scenes themselves are slightly ridiculous. They’re supposed to be. It’s difficult to explain that the rest of CTT isn’t like that. But the ones who could see the sly wink in the pages responded and we lucked out again with our actors. We offered the same rate we’d paid before: $100 for an 8 hour day and overtime after that. So if we went 12 hours it was the ‘industry standard’ $150 for a low budget crew. We got a lot of people applying and when we called they’d sneer that they, “could never work for that rate.” Um, okay. Why did you apply? It said right on the job post what the rate was.

I’m getting off topic here.

It’s almost impossible to convey what a brutal assault these six weeks were without babbling. Because it’s all tied together like layers and layers of frosted hassle and sprinkled bullshit and marzipan illogic heaped on a chocolate shitcake. And then you forgot the cake box in the back seat of the car and it’s all melted together like a pre-production turd with a candle stuck into it like a limp dick. Every day there was a new explosion, usually two. For example, here was dilemma #5,767: To film at LAX meant we’d have to supply the information for all cast & crew arriving on set for a security check. And that had to be provided a week out, effectively chopping a week off of possibly hiring crew.
A week. Poof. Gone. So I’d be driving around town meeting people only to have them disappear the day the security check was due. In the end we replaced three people the very morning we had to deliver their information for the security check submission because they’d gone MIA. Strangely, they’d call back later, apologize ‘because they were busy, ’ and ask that we ‘keep them in mind’ down the road.

At this point we were constantly frazzled. We’d been backed into a corner on locations and didn’t have any other options. It dawned upon us that
this is how movies go batshit over budget. Once you’re locked into a date you find that the only solution to most problems is to throw more money at it. So while we were able to contain costs and get the maximum result for our $39,000 during principal photography, the cost of these two days of shooting escalated like a fucking MIM-104 Patriot missile leaving a Senate budget committee. *whoosh* It’s gooooone. I haven’t plugged in all the numbers yet, but we’re somewhere around $15 K just on these three days (we had a looping and photo shoot day as well). I have a newfound sympathy for what a studio executive goes through, married to a release date and watching semi-helplessly as the budget of their summer spectacular aims for Neptune’s orbit. There really isn’t much you can do about it. Keep going and you’re hemorrhaging money. Pull the plug and you’ve thrown away the money you’ve already spent. You know when you flush the toilet and the water starts rising and rising and you’re not sure it’s going to overflow? It’s that feeling, every minute of every day.

Each and every day of pre-production for this shoot was bifurcated like this: In the morning there would be some fucking blow up regarding locations or crew or cast or permits or the ‘reservation’ for the RV wasn’t actually ‘a reservation, ’ and you’d spend the day wrestling with that. Then, around four or four thirty in the afternoon, the second blow up would happen after everyone involved had left for the day and you couldn’t do anything about it until morning. And this was each and every single fucking day. In the end I barely prepped for this shoot. I spent the entire time running around putting out fires. And when I finally ran knee first into a polypropylene case, I limped around putting out those fires.

The night before the shoot, at 12:09 AM, I hit the pillow for a luxurious four hours of sleep before call and absently checked my email. The make up person we’d hired had literally sent an email nine minutes earlier bailing on the show. She wouldn’t answer her phone and never responded or contacted us again. Erika and I got out of bed and for an hour and a half started cold calling people in the middle of the night. We hired Jason around one thirty in the morning and that’s how I walked onto the most ambitious shooting day in our movie with only two hours of sleep. During the next two days we suffered an unending train of equipment failures—lights, stands, tripods, batteries, blah, blah, blah. You name it and it broke on us. Seriously, like,
in my hands. It seemed like every other shot I’d have to re-conceive what I wanted to shoot based and what my ever dwindling lighting & grip options were. And those limitations just keep going down and down and down, like a packed elevator that’s stopping at every floor. By the time we wrapped I was pretty much as broken as most of our equipment, unable to focus on anything other than what was in front of me. Had it not been for Ashford and Reina Bringing The Fire, it would have been a disaster. In the end I didn’t have to direct them much because, well, they were fantastic. Alice’s stunt team was an incredibly well oiled machine. Adam managed to pull useable audio from a working airport. And Gabrielle… where is this woman’s Oscar already? They didn’t need me. And really, isn’t that the best kind of directing?

And the crazy thing is… the stuff we shot
looks good. Within that 16x9 frame you can’t tell I’m on the ropes or that we’re over schedule or that the fucking 500 LED panel just took a dirt nap. It’s like surviving a bad heroin trip. You start thinking ’I could do that again,’ when, really, you should probably count your blessing, Learn Your Lesson, and go back to church. I think back on principal photography and somehow the actual pain it took to film the bulk of CTT recedes farther and farther into the distance. I remember it intellectually, but emotionally it feels like the third echo after shouting into a valley.

And therein lies the danger, I guess.

Everything that went right during principal photography went horribly wrong into these pick ups. From the arguing with the nitwits at StaffMeUp who suddenly refused to run our job posts this year because minimum wage wasn’t enough in their eyes (despite running our posts with the same wages since we started), to our internet connection dying
the night before the shoot when we were trying to get call sheets out and staying dead until magically resurrecting the evening we wrapped (Fuck you, internet Gods). Don’t even get me started on having to change payroll companies on a dime so that we could get worker’s comp for the stunt performers or that the only two days we could get our locations days next to each other was on Easter weekend. It was six long weeks of a Shitshop Of Horrors.

Back in the 80’s I worked for Roger Corman. I always thought he was the kind of guy who tripped over dollars trying to pick up pennies. It was madness sometimes. And I think I fell into that trap on this shoot. I failed to step back and See The Truth: That though these pages were from the same “Clocking theT” script, they were NOT of the same ambition. Had I accepted that I could have approached pre-production on them differently and more effectively. Instead I made a sucker bet thinking, “Oh, it’s just this one little extra charge, ” or, “We’ll pony up for this and it’ll be fine, ” or, “Obviously, they’ll use lube next time, ” when really, a
little more money up front would have saved us cash in the end and had enormous benefits being able to execute creatively. I would have been better off popping for a production coordinator and an AD. It would have given me the leeway I needed to not be so fucking overwhelmed. Their cost was not money well saved.

Ah well,
next time, right?

But that’s the problem Chasing The Dragon. Evening comes and even though you may have skin missing from being dragged through the street, maybe the dip and dab tomorrow will give you wings to fly. Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna come clean on the next production. Get my pre-pro all up and shiny.

Right after this last do up.


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