18 September 2010

things learned Up Country

Jonny Mars, actor

It's no secret that I come from the DIY school of filmmaking. I never went to film school. I majored in Broadcasting with a bunch of literature/writing/english minors, but even then I never took a video production class. I focused mostly on radio. I've taken exactly one class in my life that relates to film: Introduction to Cinema. We watched Citizen Kane. The first shot of the first short film I ever made was the first time I'd ever operated any kind of video camera. I was a senior in college. I'm as self-taught as they come. I like to say I have a Masters in Film from Netflix University. A lot of my early shorts have been more or less lost to history (thank God). Each time I make a film, I get a better idea of what the hell I'm doing. Each film is more ambitious than the last.

With that in mind, here's 5 things I learned on Up Country:

1. Get a really, really good Script Supervisor.

I recommend Caitlin Mattis. She's amazing. I tend to work off of outlines with a good deal of improvisation worked in. I like how the dialogue sounds, how it has a more naturalistic approach than just going off a script. It's also scary as fuck in terms of continuity. Enter Caitlin. While we charted, and re-charted (and re-charted), the character beats of the story, Caitlin kept it all straight, freeing the rest of us up to focus on performance and camera stuff. Four days into shooting, I misplaced my script. It didn't really matter. Caitlin had it all figured out. Honestly, I don't know how we survived on Blanc de Blanc without a Scripty.

2. Shooting on location is a whole different ball game

All my other films have been weekend deals, the sort of thing where everyone more or less goes home at the end of the day. But here, we were in a cabin hundreds of miles from people's homes. Personalities matter more. Small things come up that wouldn't otherwise: the DP leaves his toothbrush at home, the sound guy forgets his laptop charger, stuff like that. It all adds up. Someone is going to spend a lot of time driving around doing stuff. It'll cost more than you think, because sometimes the nearest place to laundry is 30 minutes away. You also have no idea what the hell is going on in the outside world. That's probably a good thing.

3. If you can get dailies every day, do it.

This is kind of an off-shoot to #1, but when you're shooting far away, you can't come back and pick up a scene. It ain't gonna happen. The dailies are a vital look at what exactly you got. And when you leave the camp at 5am, only to get back at 8pm, you'll be surprised just how little you remember the first couple hours of shooting. It's great for the actors to get an idea of their performance, and it gives you a chance to confer with the DP on what's working and what isn't. Plus, you might just catch something you have to re-shoot.

It cuts down on your sleep level, but it also cuts down on your stress. And if the footage looks good, that alone can keep the excitement level high for the cast and crew.

4. Hybrids are all the rage.

If you're making a micro-budget film and you're bringing on someone to do a specific job, it's worth your time to make sure they can do something else as well. There's no divas. You simply don't have the time or resources for it. Take, for example, our second lead, Jonny Mars (pictured above). Jonny was in nearly every scene of the film, but at various other times he: negotiated down the grip rental place, scouted locations, drove, cooked, researched his character in detail, held grip equipment, slated, carried grip equipment, revised the shooting schedule, found us fake blood, stood in for other actors, carried the camera, grabbed camera equipment, conferred with the DP on lenses, helped tighten the story, and many, many other things. In one scene, he stood in a brook up to his knees for Kieran Roberts' closeup, and while providing Kieran an eyeline, slated, then held the bounce board with one hand while using his other hand to help steady the DP.

Jonny wasn't alone in his dedication. It was a crew-wide approach. A film like this just isn't going to get made without people like that. There's no time for "that isn't my job". If you're the only person with a free hand, it becomes your job. But, as a director/producer, you need to let people know that when you're hiring. Otherwise, find someone else.

5. The value of pre-production.

I did several months of pre-production. I should have done several more. It's one of those things where the deeper you get into it, the more you realize you need. I spent a lot of time on Twitter bitching and moaning about Celtx, but it really was super helpful in the end. Having the AD, DP, and Script Supervisor all on the Celtx Studio was something of a lifesaver. My only wish is that we could have been on it sooner.

Also, I learned this the hard way: somewhere in the last days leading up to shooting, get some sleep. You'll need it.

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