I didn’t have the luxury of meeting my actors in person until a day or two before shooting my latest film, Alienated. Pictures were the closest things that I had to perceiving the location that we would use. With long scenes involving lots of dialogue the script resembled more a stage play than a screenplay.
The first meeting that I had on location with our lead actors, Jen Burry and George Katt, was a brief one. I told them that what we were attempting to do was the impossible. And that it might not work. I foresaw everything about our production to be an incredible challenge, in all ways – physically, mentally, creatively, etc. We all loved the script, but could we really do it justice by cramming it into such a brief shooting schedule? And would it really project our company to the next level, or as much make it worth all our time and struggle?
I told them honesty, I didn’t know but we were going to try.
It certainly wasn’t easy. It was a learning experience. It was a spiritual journey. It was a bonding adventure. It was a worthwhile endeavor. But it isn’t something that I would recommend.
Our circumstances were fraught with naïve missteps. If you feel the need to take on such a similar challenge, I urge you to do so with a script that is not dialogue heavy or reliant on memorization. I also suggest that you get into town early enough to meet and rehearse with your actors and get to know your locations.
“…There’s plenty that you can do to help you film a feature in a week’s time. If I sound like I know what I’m talking about, I only do to the extent of my limited experience. Consider my words as inspiration for you to go out and make your own mistakes to learn from. For many, doing something yourself is the best way to become better at it.”
Brian Ackley, Writer/Director ALIENATED Movie
These obvious things aside, there’s plenty that you can do to help you film a feature in a week’s time. If I sound like I know what I’m talking about, I only do to the extent of my limited experience. Consider my words as inspiration for you to go out and make your own mistakes to learn from. For many, doing something yourself is the best way to become better at it.
Think Minimalistic – Write as few characters as possible. Or, if you must write an ensemble, devise scenes wherein the fewest number of characters are interacting at the same time. It’s faster to block, rehearse, and shoot 2 actors in a scene than 3 or more. Keep it simple. Keep your locations minimal, too. The fewer location changes that you have to make, the more time you’ll save.
Build a Trusting Team – You can’t do everything and trying can waste a lot of time with potentially poor results. Find passionate people whom you can trust and delegate work to. Find people that can commit as much as you can. Learn what motivates them and see to it that your partnership is mutually beneficial. You need team members willing to emotionally invest in your project, so be willing to emotionally invest in their personal or professional needs.
Plan Accordingly – You can never be over-prepared. Take your time to plan thoroughly. Research all you need to research, talk to everyone you need to talk to. Share your plan with every team member over and over again until they know it as well as you do. Anticipate all that can go wrong and brainstorm ways to counteract each scenario. The more time you spend on pre-production, the less time you’ll spend on post-production.
Schedule Realistically – There’s no room for blind optimism when planning your shooting day. Be honest in your assessments of what you and your team can do within a given period of time. Listen to your actors and the crew to determine how much time they think they’ll need to be ready, and then overcompensate to allow for any mistakes to have breathing room. Do the same for your own duties. If you think a scene will take an hour to set-up (block, light, dress the set, etc.), add another thirty minutes. It’s always better to finish early than late, and that extra time that you may find could easily be used to rehearse the next day’s scenes, or to reshoot.
Lead the Pack – While filmmaking is at heart a collaborative effort, little to nothing will get done without a driving force. This is most often the producer, the director or the assistant director, although I’ve played this role as a grip in my student days. It’s the person who says, “Let’s go,” and it can be more than one person. If this driving force is not obvious on your set, then you have to step up and lead the pack. Once you show passion and enthusiasm with what you’re doing, others will begin to take pride in their contribution.
“If you’re not rehearsing with the actors, you can be reviewing the beats or considering camera angles or considering backup camera angles. You can be considering future set-ups, collecting feedback from your actors and crew, or reviewing the day’s schedule. You don’t always have to be working either: give yourself moments to enjoy eating, socializing and resting.”
Brian Ackley, Writer/Director ALIENATED Movie
Manage Your Time – Always have access to the time and be sure that you’re using your time productively. During set-ups you can be doing a number of things that could go a long way to ensuring efficiency. The most obvious, of course, is you could how you will be filming the next scene. If you’re not rehearsing with the actors, you can be reviewing the beats or considering camera angles or considering backup camera angles. You can be considering future set-ups, collecting feedback from your actors and crew, or reviewing the day’s schedule. You don’t always have to be working either: give yourself moments to enjoy eating, socializing and resting.
Simplify Set-Ups – The fewer times you need to move the camera, the better. Moving the camera often means moving lights, changing lenses, adjusting blocking, framing, re-slating and all the other things that go into resetting a scene. If you can capture a scene in just one or two shots, you can ultimately move along quicker than if you follow the standard master/pickup rule of thumb. Watch filmmakers like Shyamalan, Spielberg, Zemeckis, Nichols, and Hitchcock to study cinematic efficiency.
Evaluate and Adjust – Look at the work you’re creating; look at how you’re creating it. Study the patterns of your team and the results. Ask yourself if you could be doing better. Look at your misjudgments, your mistakes, and anything that may have surprised you. Ask why these things occurred. Do this at least daily. Then make the necessary changes immediately.
Should you find yourself in such a predicament where your best option – or your only option – is to film your feature in a short amount of time, you’ll do well to hear from many others who have done it, successfully or not. The probability is that most of what you read or hear you already know. You’re going to have to work hard, be patient and trust your team. You’re going to have to take chances, experiment and forgive yourself when neither necessarily work out. You’re going to have to shut out much of your social and private lives while accepting the views and embracing the idiosyncrasies of a bunch of folks with whom you’re not as familiar. You’re going to have to be open-minded.
Brian Ackley’s second feature film ALIENATED won 13 film festival awards and was picked up for distribution by Gravitas Ventures. After a 5 city run in select theaters, it is currently available everywhere on VOD. Check out Brian’s prior Film Courage posts ‘Do Filmmakers Have to Live in NY or LA?,’ ‘6 Things Film School Didn’t Teach Me,’ and ‘Taylor Negron: Getting To Know A Familiar Face.’