I’m not entirely sure what I can say about production that hasn’t already been said in hundreds of other articles throughout the web. For me, the most important thing to keep in mind is sheer flexibility—staying mindful of your end goals as well as the restrictions and actualizations of “doing it.” Rolling with the punches is key, as is looking ahead and calculating what might be an upcoming issue. If you did your due diligence in pre-production with hiring your crew, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about problems in the functionality of set operations. Just keep a finger on the pulse and stay prepared should a problem arise; otherwise just focus on the larger picture.
Rather than a step-by-step description of our production, I’m going to share a few vignettes that best represent the sort of problems, solutions and decisions that were a part of making the film.
SCENE 26. INT. SCHOOL – NIGHT
Around the twenty-minute mark of the film, the protagonist, Ralph, and his friend attend a speed dating event at a local elementary school. It is during this scene—though she is not a part of the dating event—that Ralph meets the love interest, Quinn. Initially the scene was written with Quinn (who works as a caterer) working inside for the event.
This night ended up being one of those shoots I was warned about, with a slew of extras needing to be wrangled and more setups than initially expected. We decided to film the “meeting” of the two towards the end of the night. To this day I am not sure what was off, but nothing seemed to work—which was unfortunate because our art department did a great job building the set. We ran into multiple issues with our 180. Geographically the space felt weird, and to get the coverage we needed we had to cheat open to the camera more than felt natural. Performances were off. Lights flickered. The extras were a distraction. I should have called it, but needed the scene, so I didn’t.
After reviewing the dailies, it was obvious the recorded product was just as bad as it had been in my mind. I knew it had to be re-shot, but there was no way we could get the location or extras back, which was likely okay since that was part of the problem. I poured over the script and found a scene that was scheduled for the following day, and decided that we could do without it. I called up my AD and told her we would cut the scene, rewrite the “Quinn Meeting,” and film it outside the school, adjusting the script to allow it to work. We made it happen and had a company move late in the day to accommodate.
It ended up being a very smart move on our end. Though the set might not have been as large, it added a lot to the production value to change the scenery. The scene also worked better having the two characters meet away from the rest of the group. Everyone relaxed, and the end product was a fantastic replacement scene. Never let scheduling inhibit your decision-making process. If your gut is telling you something, follow it and make it happen. I only wish I had made the call before we wasted several hours on a scene we didn’t use, but the lesson was learned: if a scene does not feel right, STOP and figure out a new plan.
SCENE 76 A-C VARIOUS – DAY a.k.a. “Mystery Day”
This batch of scenes that I created in the middle of production became known by the crew as mystery day. A couple of weeks into filming it became apparent to me that we weren’t showing enough of Ralph and Quinn’s relationship outside of her apartment. Everything else we knew was more or less from other people discussing it in other scenes. Again, this time looking at the schedule, I found a day filled with scenes at a single location that—in a pinch—I knew I could live without. They were good scenes, but really did nothing to drive the narrative. I decided to cut all the scenes that day in favor of spending the day shooting new material with Ralph and Quinn to better show their relationship.
I caught a lot of flack from several folks on this decision. My co-producer was worried that the actors we had lined up that day would be upset that their scenes were being cut. The actors WERE mad. My AD was irritated by the scheduling changes. The location’s manager was upset that he had to cancel on the original location, as well as find new ones at the last minute. The art department was upset that we only had two days to figure out what the set design might look like for three different locations in one day.
Before I wrote the scenes, to expedite the process, I decided on the locations: a wine shop, an outdoor café, and a yoga studio. I had no clue what the scenes would be about, what would be said, or why the characters would be there when I selected these scenes, and they weren’t written until late the night before—hence, “mystery day.”
All three scenes turned out great. And while it would have been better to have planned things before, we did ourselves a huge favor by allowing ourselves flexibility. The scenes we ended up with helped the flow and pacing of the film immensely—and as all three were conducted as stand-alones we had a great deal of freedom in the edit room to place them wherever the scenes were needed to help the narrative advance.
Never let the unpopularity of a decision stop you from following through on it. Trust the gut; it got you this far. Even my AD now admits “mystery day” was one of her favorite days on the shoot.
SCENE 1 – WEDDING – DAY
The scene was initially written to take place at a farmland venue. As the original opening scene of the film (now fifth scene after editing), we wanted to start things off with a bang. We (I) wanted extras, a band, lovely decorations, vast space. Fortunately, we scheduled the wedding later in the shoot, a solid week after the epic “Gala” scene I discussed in an earlier article. Big lessons were learned the night of the gala with regards to filling space, wrangling extras and managing multiple set-ups. We survived Gala night, and the next morning I called my AD and said we should reconsider the large venue we had lined up for the wedding scene. She wholeheartedly agreed.
We ended up taking the show to a very easy-to-secure location: the backyard of my parents’ house, where my sister and cousin both held their wedding receptions. Not only was it a much easier to manage location—being significantly smaller—but it also allowed us a great deal of freedom to set up, block and plan ahead of time. Having grown up there, I knew exactly where the light would be at what part of the day, so the abundance of trees—which also added a lot of depth, production value and free set-dress—were not expected to be an issue with regards to blocking light or casting shadows. When in doubt, always go with a location you know you can control.
The point of these short narratives is flexibility, as I’ve stated several times. After good communication, flexibility is probably the most important on-set skill you can have. Always know there are other options, and regardless of the decision being popular or not, never be afraid to make a call if something doesn’t feel right.
I could go on for days about other issues that arose during principle: crew vehicles being towed, scheduling and location conflicts, blocking and lighting issues, fire alarms, spending hours in a cold pool for a 45-second scene because you anticipated your camera mobility incorrectly. The point is, as long as you are willing, able and ready to deal with these issues, in the end they are nothing more than good stories to talk about later on down the road. Take things as they come, and understand that the film you make is likely the one you were meant to make. Besides, everything will likely change in the edit room anyway! Good luck and happy shooting.