I’m standing by the cemetery, handcuffs around my wrists and an undercover officer finds a blunted butcher knife on my person. Suddenly I start thinking “what would have happened if Romeo really did get caught by the local authorities?”
It was late evening in front of Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, and John Robert Hurley was directing me in the Paris/Romeo scene in front of Juliet’s tomb. We were about a month or so into filming for R & J (the web series), presented by Ready Set Go Theatre Company, to be released on October 31, 2014.
The people present that evening were Sean McCormack (playing Benvolio), Imran Sheikh (playing Paris), Jim Anderson (playing Friar Laurence), John and myself. We had already built that bond that happens when you are part of a team touring the nation. We were used to our guerilla-style tactics, and knew exactly how the system works: efficiency, patience, and swiftness. Our budget was $0, John only had his 5D DSLR Camera, and we had a basic Zoom recorder. No artificial lighting. No real crew, other than actors helping out when they weren’t in the scene. It was the five of us taking on the “detestable maw” and “womb of death” on a warm summer’s night.
John gives Sean and me the go-ahead to start the scene. CUT. The first take always seems to be a warm up. In fact, I am always ready to start once we complete filming. It’s guaranteed that I will always find some new nuances about my character and my relationship with the other actors by the end of the filming session.
I need to focus. I want to leave everything on the table and be present in the scene. Forget the rest and just have fun.
Take 4 or 5. At this point I am losing track of everything that is going on, but Benvolio and Romeo seem to be clicking. John asks Benvolio to move off into the shadows and leave Romeo in front of the gates of Greenwood Cemetery. Juliet’s tomb. I start thinking “how am I going to make myself cry for the tomb scene?” No, stop it, Andreas. You are off in dada land and thinking about other things. Be present and just work one a step at a time. Focus on the now.
Cars are driving past us in the late night, and they don’t seem to notice us.
We have to take that section again because a truck just lumbered past us. Sean and I quickly reminisce about the Ravioli Gang. A gang that was created between Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo. To this day we aren’t sure why “Ravioli,” but it seemed to work. Yet another sign of our bonding and becoming good friends.
It’s Imran’s turn and we start to focus on Paris drunkenly approaching the tomb to bring some broken flowers to what he thinks is the deceased Juliet (played by the mesmerizing Jessica Ranville). By the gates he finds Romeo and the choreographed fight sequence between a butcher and a businessman begins. In this world, Fair Verona is New York City, and the Montagues and Capulets are rival butcher families. I was armed with my blunted knife and I warn Paris to back off before he throws his hip flask towards my head. It misses and we start to fight. It’s a quick fight and my knife plunges into Paris.
Alright. That’s it for the close-ups and we start to focus on the medium-wide shots. We have to wait a few minutes for John to find some crazy angle. It’s his signature to try and find new and innovative camera viewpoints. He doesn’t have any lights or lenses, so he has to be measured about his choices. While he’s doing that, Jim and I go over our taekwondo moves for tomorrow’s Friar Laurence and Romeo scene. We had been developing a teacher-student relationship in the hope that it would translate into a father-son relationship on camera. We also thought it would be interesting to include Jim’s knowledge of taekwondo into the story. And I wanted to learn taekwondo. It sounded cool.
Jim corrects some of my moves. Wait, what am I doing? Why am I thinking about tomorrow when I should be thinking about tonight? My thoughts get interrupted when John shouts from on top of the traffic light: “Alright, let’s go, I can’t stay up here too long. Andreas and Imran, top of the scene.”
I kill Paris again. Cars drive by. CUT.
My grey a-frame is drenched in sweat. My ripped up jeans are ripping even more. Paris looks disheveled in his business suit. My butcher knife is at the ready. I kill Paris again.
My mind starts to drift again, and I start to wonder about my acting. Am I good enough? I want people to see this web series and think I am a great actor. Am I hitting my beats? Is my objective clear? C’mon Andreas, you are being self-indulgent again. I forgot why I am here. I was taught “it’s always about the other person,” and yet, I was not available to Imran at all. A mistake that keeps creeping in, but I just take a breath. One second. And I’m focusing on the present again. This is a learning experience, and I remind myself why I do this: make-belief, storytelling and collaborating. There is nothing more satisfying than being part of a team and creating stories together.
Right, Romeo, let’s do this!
And action. I am more present. My homework is there, but I’m not focusing on it. Awesome. I focus on Imran, on my objective. Juliet. I kill Paris.
It’s time for the wide-angle shots.
Everyone needs to clear the “set” and it’s just Imran and me. John finds a cool angle and even gets a mirror-effect from the puddle in front of the camera. The cars driving past create an interesting voyeur effect. ACTION.
I focus on Imran. Don’t worry about anything else. Have fun. I’m having fun. This is a good time. Things start to settle and I am not concerned about all the other things in this world. I am just focusing on Imran and why Romeo is here. Bliss.
Sweet. This is becoming more fun and I am not concerned about being good, nor am I stressed that all my homework is there. I’m just here, being Romeo. Andreas is having fun.
John comes up to us. Sean, who is holding the boom mic, and Jim come from the shadows and join us. John is in the middle of giving us notes when two police cars suddenly interrupt our conversation, lights flashing but no sirens. An undercover cop car is spearheading the attack, and men jump out of the cars, weapons drawn, and aim them straight at me. “You, in the grey wife-beater, hands up!” Everyone who is not a cop shoots his hands into the air.
A big man comes up to me, twists my arm and cuffs me. I get taken to a wall and am told to face it. The others are instructed to keep quiet and stay exactly where they are, guns still in the air. The policeman starts to question me. Who am I and why am I here? I explain our project and he asks me to recount the story of Romeo & Juliet. I know what he’s doing. I am surprisingly calm about the whole situation. I tell him the whole R&J story—cliff notes-style—and explain that we are filming the “killing of Paris.” He can check my left pocket and he’ll find a blunted butcher knife. “What does that mean?” Instinctively I respond: “as in not sharp.” Was that too cheeky? I certainly didn’t mean to be cheeky. He carefully grabs my knife with his fingertips. In the meantime John is explaining to the other cops that we are filming a web series. His camera is in the air, and it’s still filming the entire scene at hand. Imran is waving his hands in the background letting everyone know that he is indeed still alive. Everything starts to clear up for all parties involved. The cops see the camera and the boom mic, and we realize that someone must’ve reported a “murder in progress.” We were completely unaware of how the scene must’ve looked to an outsider. Especially without a set, fancy lighting or a trained crew around us. I guess the cars weren’t just inanimate objects driving past.
The cop who cuffed me takes a little while before he takes the handcuffs off me. He then escorts me to his car, and writes down some of my information. I correct his spelling of my name. I walk away in shame, and the police tell us to relax. We have to leave the “crime” scene, and we are told to get a permit next time. The cops leave as quickly as they came.
It’s just the five of us left by the cemetery with some cars driving past.
A moment passes, and then John looks around and says: “well, we have our alternate ending to R&J.” I guess this is what would’ve happened if Romeo were caught before he drank the poison.
We bond even more as a cast and crew. We start to express the adrenaline in our system. I giggle. I’m frazzled. Did that really just happen? Well, one thing is for sure, now I am very present in the scene.
Andreas Damm joined Ready Set Go Theatre Company (RSG) as the Managing Director after the filming of R & J (the web series). John Robert Hurley is the Artistic Director of RSG and he directed their first Web Series Shakespeare OTHELLO as well as R & J. Both films were made with no budget. It was just John, his camera, and a company of courageous performers. The locations are not closed and all lighting is natural. This is Shakespeare on film in the leanest, most aggressive style possible. All of this work is aimed at helping high school teachers and students to contract “love of the bard” syndrome. All Ready Set Go Company members are teaching artists who help create and teach unique, engaging lesson plans. Next up the company is bringing their style to HAMLET (the web series).
Previous FilmCourage posts by Andreas: