Filmmaking is hard, hard work. Every day that you walk onto set, there is an unknown. Will you get the shot? Will the story gel? Will it come together, will it work… or will it tank? You really never know what will happen. You can write the script, you can cast the roles, assemble the team and lead the project through production and post, but at the end of the day, it’s a bit of a crapshoot, for you really don’t know how it will all come together.
That’s a daunting realization for the most seasoned professional with millions of studio dollars behind them. Multiply this unknown tenfold, and you have a glimpse into the life of the independent/no-budget filmmaker.
Recently, I found myself navigating the rough terrain in the land of the unknown during one night’s shoot for my web series “They Live Among Us.”
A few weeks before, I had rented a warehouse in the garment district. I wanted a particular look for Caim’s home; a bit industrial, dilapidated, lots of natural light – and a killer skyline view of DTLA. I had been contacted by the owner of a building, after putting out some feelers. He was a gangly fellow, a Brit, with stovepipe pants, a morning coat, very thin with nicotine stained fingers. He spoke incessantly, yelling about the “f*cking hipsters” who were gentrifying the area. We agreed upon a price – almost 10% of my budget – shook hands and signed an agreement.
This was quite a coup, as we had the interior of the second story for 12 hours, and an agreement to have access to the roof, as well as a staging area and bathrooms for any additional time if needed. The building offered multiple setups: Caim’s home, Lucian’s torture room, the alley where Serafina and Rocco fought, the exterior of the Paradise Bar, Skid Row. All in all, 14 pages – an ambitious day, but we were organized and prepared for anything.
Or so we thought.
The day arrived. Crew call was scheduled for 1 pm; cast began at 2 pm. 2nd unit had cruised down through Koreatown to pick up an exterior shot of Buer’s church. Because of talent schedules, we had a bit of wankiness, moving from interior to exterior then rinse and repeat – but nothing we could not handle.
I arrived at the location at 12:30, to meet Steve, the property owner. He was not there; I wasn’t concerned. There was an Occupy movement downtown, and traffic was a bit snarled.
1 p.m. The crew arrives. No Steve. I called and left a voice message.
Along with the crew was a grip that I had hired who, every 15 minutes reminded me that after 12 hours I would have to double his rate. We had planned to wrap by midnight, so we were still within that time frame.
1:30. No Steve. No answer. I left another voicemail. Then another.
2:00 p.m. rolls around, and the cast began to arrive. There we were, on 15th and Los Angeles street, with no place to set up, or even sit. I called again. And again. And again…
2:50. Steve pulled up in his Audi, leapt out and, waving his skinny arms energetically, began to scream about losing his “f*cking cell phone.” I didn’t care. I was just glad that he showed up.
Steve let us in and crew began to set up. I was concerned; it was almost 3, and we had a big setup to shoot inside (Beth’s audition) before moving outside. I tried to reverse the shot order, but Beth had to go to work and Lucian had a date. We needed the Buer/Caim Skid Row scene at golden hour to match the second-unit shot. I realized that we were not going to make the match. Shit.
As pondered this, Steve approached. “By the way,” he said, “there will be a band coming here at midnight to setup.” I looked at him. “Steve, we had the floor until 1, when we were starting at 1. You were two hours late. We’ll be working until 3 possibly.” “Oh, right,” he said. “That’s it. Not a problem. If they show, they’ll be on the hush-up. Back later,” and he flew out of the building, looking like a steampunk Mad Hatter.
The shoot began. It was slow; boom kept dropping into frame, causing multiple retakes, but we moved along. We wrapped Beth, Alex, Lucian and Beliala. New setup: Caim’s lair. A delicate, quiet scene, mainly illuminated by candle. I put the actors through an emotional grinder; it was an intensely personal scene.
I glanced at my phone – Steve had called. I listened to his voicemail: “Hello, Anne, the trucks are on their way, it’s 11 and they’ll be rolling in any moment.”
I shook my head and glanced at my AD/Producer. He sees something register on my face and crossed over. “Steve just called,” I whispered. “The band is on their way…” VA-ROOM.
The band had arrived.
We moved in for close-ups; as we did, I became aware of a great deal of noise at the other end of the floor. The band was moving equipment in. I knew that our time was limited. We shot what we could, and began a company move to our holding area downstairs.
There was still one shot to catch – Caim, ankh in hand, gazing out over the DTLA skyline. I sent actor and crew up to the roof to setup, and turned my attention to the move. Once that was organized, I walked up the stairway.
As I neared the door to the rooftop, I heard yelling. Steve flew into the stairwell from the roof. “F*ck no!” he yelled. “Steve, what’s going on?” I asked. “It’s after bloody midnight! Get out!” I was really confused. ‘Steve, we have this until 3. You were 2 hours late.”
He jumped down a flight of stairs and cornered me. I could see the nicotine stains on his teeth. His pupils were dilated. He reeked of gin; he was twitchy and agitated. “F*cking filmmakers!” he snarled. “Go the f*ck home!”
It was obvious that he was under the influence of more than one substance. He glared at me and raised his hand. I caught my breath… and then, he wheeled around and shot downstairs.
When we arrived downstairs, we discovered that Steve had kicked us out of our staging area – and locked access to the bathrooms.
12:45 am. We have Rocco/Serafina’s fight, Serafina’s street shots, Caim and Buer saying good bye in front of the Paradise, and Caim and Buer at Skid Row.
I released the grip. I couldn’t afford his OT rates. I turned to Mike, my DP – and we both nodded. We went rogue. Guerilla style. Handheld, street lights.
We spent the next three hours running from one location to another, through streets lined with litter and the sleeping homeless, and through alleys that reeked of urine. It was cold. There was no place to sit. There were no restrooms. Emotions were raw, heightened. We caught it all on camera. We got her done.
Flash forward to a few weeks later. Episodes 1 & 2 are through post and launched. Episode 3 is on its way.
I’m sitting at Starbucks with a producer – one who is keenly interested in the project. He puts an offer on the table: full funding (though not quite specified) for TLAU as a weekly serial drama to be distributed via broadband in Asia.
The money is from a religious group. They want control over content. They want him on board as Executive Producer… and they want to use TLAU to deliver a religious message.
I sat there, as I listened to him, and thought of that night. The frustration. The stress. The filth. The cold. I thought of honey-wagons, and a real Art Director. A soundstage. I thought of lights. Sound. Effects…
So there I sat, an angel on my right shoulder, a devil on my left, uncertain of which to listen to…
…and then I thought about the project, and the actors. How we all believed in this little urban gothic fairy tale. How special we knew it to be. The passion and the love that we shared for it – and for one another. What it would mean to us to be used to deliver a particular religious doctrine that we, most likely, would not believe in. How the story would be sanitized, and through that sanitization, ultimately corrupted.
And so, I turned to courage. I thanked the producer, shook his hand, and walked away.
We’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign, in order to raise funds for Episodes 4-6. After that, we’ll move towards more traditional financing. It may not be as much as we were offered, not even close. I’ll still wear multiple hats. I’ll be tired. Bags will once again appear beneath my eyes. I’ll be poor.
But I will not be afraid.
An award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Anne Lower created On the Verge and Global Voices, two Outreach programs for Final Draft, Inc., which works to close the gap between Hollywood talent and emerging, disabled and under-served writers. She has served as a consultant for Save the Cat! and Blake Snyder, and as Director of Communications for the International Centre of Women Playwrights. As an Organizing Director for V-Day for three years, Anne has used Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” to raise funds for an awareness about victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. This work led to the establishment of the Delores Fund, which provides victims of DV/SA with stop-gap funding to enable them to remove themselves from dangerous situations by granting monies to secure rental deposits, turn on utilities, and, on occasion, provide them with educational scholarships.
Anne has led workshops and seminars for the University Film and Video Association, Women in Film Los Angeles, Women in Focus, Writers Faire, Freshi Film Festival and several others. She has been a guest judge for the Hollywood VPype contest, a featured guest on ScriptChat and Write On! Blog Talk Radio, a panelist for the International Family Film Festival, and is a member of Reel Ladies and Women in Film. She lives in Los Angeles, and can be found pushing her limits in the great outdoors and hanging out wherever creative people are in abundance.