Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The "Spirit Cabinet" Shoot - a feature in five days

About a year ago, Victor Varnado and I made a bet in front of the Iron Mule audience that I would have a feature film shot by February, 2010. Our plan at one point was to shoot a ghost story called Spirit Cabinet. However, it turned out to be too complicated a project to shoot by the deadline. So I made another film instead.

But the Spirit Cabinet script was still around, and we had a cast and crew ready to make it. So we shot it over the course of five days in March and April.

Five days you say? Are we crazy? Well, maybe. But we did also shoot a feature in one day. And Victor shot one in three days.

It was a grueling experience, and not necessarily recommended, but it goes to show that it is indeed possible to shoot an actual feature-length movie with an an actual script, an ensemble of 8 actors, real production design, and special effects in just five days.

Some of you may know that we shot my first feature The Changeling in six days, so a ridiculously short shooting schedule isn't new to me. But the main reason the first feature was possible to shoot in such a short amount of time is that we spent a huge amount of time preparing beforehand. The actors rehearsed on and off for nine months, and the director of photography and I spent time at the location in which we set up each shot and practiced shooting the movie with me standing in for the actors.

We didn't have that luxury on Spirit Cabinet. We had to work out a lot of the details as we went along. Also, unlike The Changeling, a large section of this movie involves scenes with eight people, which, if you've never tried, is a staggeringly difficult thing to shoot so that you can understand what's going on and still have nice-looking shots.

But we went forward, a little frightened by the task ahead of us, but undaunted. I knew in my gut that we could make this work, although to be honest, I had no idea how we'd actually be able to pull it off.

Here's why we were able to pull it off:
M. Sweeney Lawless, our screenwriter and producer, is a supreme organizer and tirelessly focused on details. She worked night and day to prepare for the shoot, and did about seven jobs on set at the same time, without missing a beat.

Our line producer and Iron Mule producer Lin Sorensen spent countless hours planning and finalizing all the necessary details to get the set up and running. He also was the pleasant face of the production and fearlessly venturing out into the neighborhood and getting people to turn their music down when we were shooting. No small task in NYC!

Alan McIntrye Smith is the fastest cinematographer I've ever seen on set. He is both an amazing lighter and intuitive camera operator. We shot the entire movie handheld to save time and to be able to cover the action, and Alan always knew where he should be. Since Alan is also a director, he was able to understand the rhythm and subtleties of the acting and shoot accordingly. Alan was on his feet all day every day, so the shoot was physically demanding for him, but he worked quickly and kept his focus. He also brings his own camera team made up of his colleagues and students, and they are all excellent.

Eric Berkal, AD extraordinare, kept a firm hand on the set and kept us moving, helping us schedule 17-22 pages of shooting a day, in spite of his better judgment (normal movies shoot 3-4 pages / day).

Robert Eggers, our production designer, came up with a simple concept for the set which was quick to set up and played to our strengths. And once the house was dressed it could pretty much stay dressed.

After a day on the set when it sunk in to the cast and crew just what they were going to have to do (shoot 20 pages /day; learn lines without ever having heard their acting partners say them; rehearse and shoot at the same time; break scenes down into small chunks which don't make sense out of context), they stepped up their game big time for the rest of the shoot. Without their focus and commitment we would have never completed the shoot in 5 days.

Between shooting days, M. Sweeney Lawless rewrote as necessary to combine scenes and otherwise streamline the rest of the shooting process. All this while working on other projects and going to work during the week, as we all were doing.

Why would this team of people go through this grueling experience without getting paid huge buckets of money? This is where I come in. I have been fortunate to assemble a great team of people together in my many years working in theater and film. And for some reason they trust me. Also, they really enjoy the chance to work together. Plus, M. Sweeney Lawless wrote a script that was both funny and scary with great moments for each character, and gave a chance for each department to do some interesting work. And that doesn't come up very often for actors and technicians on paid jobs.

So we leaped at the chance to do this together. The support team and their effort was herculean, but expected. No one for a second doubted that we would do this (at least not out loud).

The result? Sure you can shoot enough material in five days. You can technically do it in one (see earlier post). But shoot good-looking, compelling material that makes a movie as strong and compelling as if it had an actual shooting schedule? You all can be the judge of that when we're done with post production. But I'll close by saying that the performances were of a very high caliber, and Alan McIntyre Smith can light scenes with just a candle or natural light from a window and make them look as good as any Hollywood production and Robert Eggers and Polina Roytman (our costume designer) can define mood, style, and character with very few resources. On top of this the script was compelling, and better than many many other larger budget projects. I only hope that the work I did as director did justice to everyone's commitment and skill level. Stills from our shoot are below.

No comments:

Post a Comment