On Day 5, it stopped raining.
For the length of the production, the out-of-town chunk of the production (myself, Ben Moseley, AD Jennifer Hegarty, Production Designer Jen Saguraro, Tina Frank from the Art Department, Sound guy Xander McGrouther (replacing Paul Quirk, who was only available for part of the shoot), and 2nd AC in training Charlotte Bagshaw) are all staying at the house of filmmaker Dawn Furness. There’s about a half a bar of Wifi there, if you stand by the window and hold your computer at an angle, and according to that it isn’t supposed to rain on Day 5. It’s even sunny out all afternoon and on the way up to the location.
And then we get there and it pours for about 10 minutes, which is just long enough to make everything wet, especially the tall grass in the field where Ben and I will be setting up the 2K. So much for dry clothes.
Today’s challenge is to light a tree fort (yes, a tree fort) on the other side of the river, about 100 yards downstream from where we lit on Day 3. Downstream means closer to the barns, which is theoretically a good thing.
It also means we have to get the 2K across the river via a walking bridge the Runners have built out of pallets and other random wooden things they’ve found laying around. It’s safe, but when you mix in the rain and the mud, it’s not the ideal thing to carry a heavy light across. It needs to go down the hill to get to that, then up a hill and through a gate so that we can get it to the only place where it’ll be able to hit the tree fort, and even then you’re looking at a moon that’s at best on the same axis as the actors.
Augmenting the moon is our usual assortment of Redheads, 2 on each side of the river, gelled green and pointing up at the canopy of trees all around the tree fort, the idea being that if you’ve got nothing but blackness behind actors in a scene like this, it looks pretty dull. But, some indication of foliage in the distance, blurry and out of focus but definitely there, adds perspective to the scene. If nothing else, it helps sell the illusion that we are in fact in the woods, which we actually are.
Think of it this way: there’s no point in going to all the trouble of filming in the fucking woods if it looks like we might have shot the damn thing on a soundstage.
By this point, we’ve got this pretty well down to a science. It’s not all that complicated. It’s just a question of execution. The only hitch in the system is that today they want to put a practical in the tree fort, and even that is pretty simple. The hardest part is catching the extension cord as it’s being thrown up fifteen or so feet.
We don’t even have to flip the lights. Suddenly I’ve got a pretty easy assignment.
The problem is, there’s not a whole lot to take pictures of. All the light is focused on the tree fort, and it isn’t strong enough or big enough to hold extra people. Down below, at the base of the tree, is pretty dark.
Of course, that’s only a small part of what’s going on. While it’s still light out and we’re setting lights, it’s obvious that something bad is about to happen. No one is happy, even more so than yesterday.
“Have you ever been on a film where the crew mutinied?” I ask Ben.
It’s to the point where it isn’t a question of if things are going to fall apart, but when.
It’s strange, because our G&E team is mostly out of the picture for all of this. We run around, setting lights and stringing cables while there’s all this bickering and anger going on. We see it–you’d be blind not to–but it doesn’t affect us all that much, really. It does, but it doesn’t.
All through the shoot, the director has had to spend a lot more time than normal working with actors before the camera even rolls. They don’t know their lines, for the most part and to call the working relationship between the actors, the director, and the production unprofessional is kind. It’s the single biggest drag on the schedule. I can tell that no matter where I am in the woods, matter how far I am from the action.
On Day 5 they add a new actor to the mix. James has never met him. No one in the production has. They rehearse him, which by all accounts goes well, but when the camera starts rolling, he freezes. Completely. The production comes crashing to a halt.
He cannot function on camera. This is why you do your research before you bring someone on. It’s easy to chalk an actor freezing up as something out of your control, but is it? If this person has acted before, then you should rather easily be able to learn about his stage fright with a quick phone call. And if he isn’t, then why are you hiring a non-actor without at least meeting with him? Why are you hiring anyone without doing at least a cursory reference check?
And then the AD quits.
Jennifer Hegarty has been unhappy pretty much from Day 1. That’s been obvious to everyone, but as the production fell further and further behind, she became more and more vocal in her displeasure, telling anyone who will listen how badly things are going, and even confiding to me things you shouldn’t tell the embedded reporter on your set.
I don’t want to get into the why because I honestly don’t know. Nothing on a film set happens in a vacuum. Anyone who tries to tell you that the problems on a set are all one person’s (or several persons) fault is either lying to themselves or trying to sell you on their own innocence. I do know that a very unhappy Assistant Director quit the film, and that spun everything into a panic. Suddenly people are doing damage control left and right. Richy Reay (the DP) asks me to take over for him as he and James go and “take care of some things”, and suddenly Ben and I are in charge as we’ve got to figure out a scene that was supposed to take place in the tree fort, and now happens and the base of the tree, where it’s completely dark. It strikes me that the best approach is to slide the moon over, throwing it at the tree trunk, and staging the scene in a way that the new actor is in silhouette, thus making his dialogue much less important (and really easy to replace in post, as needed).
So we go to work re-lighting the scene. The Runners start knocking down bushes and nettles in the way, Ben moves the 2K and I start re-lighting the canopy, basically trying to figure out how Richy would want this lit. By the time we’re ready, Richy is back. He tweaks a few things and we set some branches between the actors and the lights to give some dapple. Then James come back and we shoot the scene.
I have no idea what transpired in that time frame. And I don’t really care. As a journalist, I know my job is to cover the story, but I’m a filmmaker first. Priority one is getting the shots in the can. The rest is just things to write about.
When I get back to the barn, Jen asks if there’s anything she can do to help out G&E. I put her to work organizing the gels. Fittingly, they’ve exploded into a giant mess.
Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.