THE OBSERVER EFFECT

Until I directed “Occupying Ed” I had a rule: never let the screenwriter on set during filming.  Why?  Because I knew—even though I’m very confident when it comes to staying focused while directing a movie—the presence of that extra set of eyes would sneak in and prevent me from being able to focus 100%.

Even if that screenwriter promised to stand in the corner and keep still, silent as can be, I would be aware of their presence.  Even if it were a small number, there would still be some kind of percentage of my focus wondering if they liked what they saw, liked what they heard, and so forth.  And, it would be doubly difficult to rewrite something in the middle of the scene if certain words just weren’t flowing as well verbally as they did on paper.

I like the freedom to rewrite a scene while we’re filming, and having the ability to feel the natural flow of what comes from letting the scene organically change when needed.  Having the screenwriter present can sometimes cause a challenge in that process.

What I’m talking about is The Observer Effect.  Which, I just learned, is an actual thing!

According to Wikipedia, The Observer Effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.  It is a significant threat to a study’s internal validity, and is therefore typically controlled using a double-blind experimental design.

An example of The Observer Effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards.  Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds.  Often when a song is played backwards, a listener will fail to notice the “hidden” lyrics until they are explicitly pointed out, after which they are obvious.

On a film set, observers have a great influence on the process regardless whether they are screenwriters, production assistants, other actors, or camera crew.  It is because of this my new rule is: keep the sets closed at all times.  From everyone.  No one should be there on set but me.

Okay, I’m kidding.  I won’t go that far.  But I do think it’s a wise move to limit the numbers of eyes on a film set.  Actors are delicate creatures (cough) that need to feel safe in their environment so they can do what they do.  Same goes for directors, cinematographers and sound people.

Really there shouldn’t be anyone else on set that doesn’t need to be there.  On occasion for a tricky move, it’s important to have assistance and various crew people on hand.

Sometimes, of course, The Observer Effect is so minimal it’s as if there is no effect.  When we filmed “Occupying Ed” the screenwriter Jim Lair Beard and his wife, Christine, were extras during some scenes.  And you know what, it was an absolute pleasure to have them on set and to share in the experience.  I never once felt like my focus as director was in any way compromised.

That experience was so lovely that it changed my mind about The Observer Effect.  But, it’s still true: You can never purely observe anything because the presence of the observer changes the thing.  Keep that in mind.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 4 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE, TWO, and THREE.

The STUCK! shoot was marvelous.

One of the best parts was the food.  See, when the cast and crew are only a handful of people it is possible to go to someone’s home for a dinner party.  You can eat superior food.  Feeding 42 people on a traditional crew likely means scraps and bulk-made meals.  And there is no intimacy about that kind of thing.  With a set like mine we eat homemade slow-cooked masterpieces every night.  We can sit around the same table.  It becomes a far more rewarding experience.

Like WATCH OUT, the STUCK! shooting days were just as efficient.  We’d work from 9 AM and wrap around 5 or 6 PM.  We worked every day with no days off.  It took less than two weeks to complete.

The reviews were amazing:  Film Threat writes, “Balderson just doesn’t make simple films, and this is no exception. It’s not in the words, or the plot or the story; but it’s in the air, it’s in the beat, it’s in the very soul of the work.” The LA Weekly said it was “Revolutionary.”  And UK Critic MJ Simpson writes, “Steve Balderson is the best-kept secret in American independent cinema. He makes his own films – which are unfailingly brilliant – and the rest of the world very, very gradually catches up with him.”

In February, 2010, the American Cinematheque hosted the LA Premiere of STUCK! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The cast was there with me to present the film and do a Q&A after the screening.  One of the people in the audience mentioned that because all the actors were there, talking enthusiastically about this new way of filmmaking, it spoke volumes about the process.

I signed a deal with a sales agent who is selling STUCK! to buyers around the globe.

In the fall of 2010, I put together another top-secret film shoot and produced my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  A couple new stars joined the group for this shoot: namely Kevin Richardson (from the Backstreet Boys), Daniela Sea (from the L Word), and acclaimed stage actress Jennifer Grace.  We made the film in Palm Springs in exactly the same way we made STUCK! and WATCH OUT.  The entire experience is captured in director Anthony Pedone’s documentary CAMP CASSEROLE.

The shoot was a lot like summer film camp.  We rented a few vacation homes that would serve as the locations, and also would house all of us.  Staying together in the same place was magical.  Each day we’d gather to film scenes, and if any actors weren’t working, they would lounge by the pool, read a book, and basically turn their time on the set as a vacation.  This aspect of the shoot was the best.  I made sure that we’re doing the work we need to do, but it’s just as important for me to create an atmosphere that is a rewarding experience personally.

Each evening we would have a meal sponsored by one of the cast or crew, or friends and family.  Imagine being at summer camp and coming together over a meal and singing Kumbaya.  That’s exactly what it was like!  Only instead of singing Kumbaya, per se, several people would pull out their guitars and do an impromptu acoustic concert; or, there would be fun short films being made; or, night swimming and gazing up at the stars with a great conversation.

One of my favorite moments filming THE CASSEROLE CLUB came whenever we needed to do some exterior shots around the Palm Springs area.  We’d just jump in my car and drive around until we’d find the greatest place, jump out, film it, then rush back to the car and speed away as if nothing ever happened.  This is the kind of freedom I love work in.  It’s exhilarating.

THE CASSEROLE CLUB premiered at Visionfest`11 in New York City where we were nominated for 9 Independent Vision Awards and won 5: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kevin Richardson, Best Actress for Susan Traylor, Best Production Design.  And the most overwhelming compliment came in 2012 when the U.S. Library of Congress invited the film to be a part of its permanent collection.

Making films in today’s distribution landscape is drastically different than it was even a few years ago.  It is very important to spend as little money possible to make your films.  If your film cost $200,000 that’s fine.  But maybe you could try to find a way to make two movies for $100,000 instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Be realistic when you’re planning your expenses.  Regardless of the storyline, regardless of the actors, stars or location, if you think your project will make $100,000 in sales, your best bet at sustainability is to make sure that project costs less than that.

These are just some of the ways the distribution landscape has changed the way films are made.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 3 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE and TWO.

We began doing research on the best equipment to invest in, best sound package, and best HD camera (we judged each camera based on the level of color captured, best sound captured, and overall user experience).  Months later, we had the whole set up.

I was ready to make my next narrative feature.  And I wouldn’t need so much money after all.  By owning my own equipment, omitting unnecessary personnel and expenses, and keeping costs as low as possible, it would be possible to make a feature film for little more than the price of a used Toyota.

This also appealed to investors.  Distribution has changed significantly since the glory days of the million-dollar buys at Film Festivals.  That simply wasn’t happening any more.  A top sales rep told me, “no company is buying low-budget independently made films for more than $50,000 up front.  And if you get that much you’d be one of the lucky ones.”

The first project to test if my new renegade style of filmmaking would even work or not, was an adaptation of Joseph Suglia’s dazzling novel WATCH OUT.  Could I really make a feature-length movie using only two people on my crew, with me doing all the camerawork, and still make it high-quality art?

The answer was a big loud YES.

WATCH OUT, which became my third feature film, was shot in two weeks.  Our working days were incredibly light.  We’d start shooting at 9 AM and on a few days we were done by 4 PM.  It felt like summer camp and everyone had a ball.

The film was highly praised by critics as “One of the great cult films of all time, (MJ Simpson).”  WATCH OUT also premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London to sold-out crowds, where it was nominated for Best International Feature.

A review in Film Threat wrote, “(Balderson) makes movies that are so gorgeous that it’s not unreasonable to say that, cinematographically at least; he’s the equal of an Argento or Kubrick in their prime. Some people have perfect vocal pitch, Steve has perfect visual composition.”

I repeated the road-show tour concept we did for FIRECRACKER and released WATCH OUT theatrically in 2008 to sold-out audiences in the “Stop Turning Me On” world tour, to promote the self-distributed DVD release several months later, where it debuted at #24 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

The third and final installment of the WAMEGO TRILOGY on DIY Filmmaking (WAMEGO: ULTIMATUM) chronicles how we did it.

Once I knew we could do it, I decided to raise the bar a bit more and experiment with a cast of all well-known actors.  The production would cost and be the same = the film would be shot in my new renegade style, without permits and in a secretive manner.  There would be no equipment trucks lining the street, no craft service table, no excessive lighting or camera gear, no substantial crews, or anything to attract attention.  The cast and crew would resemble tourists, which would give the production the freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

With no make-up or costume person the cast would be required to do their own make-up, take care of their own costumes.  We’d all be staying in people’s homes, not hotels, and would have to accept there would be no cash per diem.

I approached several stars, some I’d worked with before, and others I hadn’t, and to my astonishment, they all agreed.

That project, my fourth film, became STUCK!

When I called SAG to ask them if they had special deals for projects under $50,000 they laughed at me and said, “It’s impossible to make a feature-length film for less than $50,000.”  They also said I “needed to seek professional help.”  Actual words.

But, they were wrong.  I had just proven it was possible with WATCH OUT.  I thought about telling them, but decided that they were just like those insecure filmmakers who needed all that phony “stuff” for passers-by.  Trying to educate SAG on the reality of the world was going to be a waste of time.

(To be continued next week)

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 2 of 4

Click here to read PART ONE.

By that point the industry had changed so dramatically I wasn’t sure what was happening.  HD Cameras were becoming technically more advanced.  They were finally beginning to have the look and feel of celluloid.  Shooting on actual film was becoming obsolete.

Then I got an idea to do a documentary on the life of my friend—Los Angeles icon, writer/poet, and punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman (aka universally celebrated belly dance star Princess Farhana).  Traveling with her, and filming her for a year, really helped put my career path in perspective.  Why was I making movies to begin with?

I didn’t need to have fancy equipment trucks lining the streets so it would “look” like I was making a movie to passers by.  I didn’t want the phony photograph with hoards of crew people posed behind me while I stood nose-to-the-sky next to the 35mm Arriflex (or today’s version: The RED).  I know those kinds of filmmakers and that isn’t the kind I aspire to be.  My desire is about what’s on screen.  What is there for the viewer, regardless of the format.

When a person is watching a movie they can’t see what kinds of snacks are on the craft service table, or if any of the actors had personal make-up trailers.  So why should I waste the money on frivolous stuff that doesn’t enhance the image?  Why worry about it?

I realize that many aspiring filmmakers out there try to mask the fact they don’t know what they’re doing by “playing the part” of Director.  To passers by, so long as they “look like” a director, they will feel like a director.  And the equipment, crew, cash, and drama of the “production” become props in their disguise.  And without those props they would feel amateurish and worthless.  And they will often talk down to the ones who don’t follow in their footsteps.

During this time, I learned David Lynch was planning to downsize from celluloid to video with a project called INLAND EMPIRE.  Getting rid of all the “production” associated with film and moving to digital has tremendous cost savings.  By omitting shooting on celluloid, we filmmakers would omit having to house and feed 42 people.  We also omit the excessive equipment rental costs and several hundred thousand dollars of unneeded expenses associated with a project shot on film.

I started thinking really seriously about the way Kubrick shot his movies.  And the way Cassevetes liked to work.

They preferred a kind of intimate production.  One where the crew was made up of just a few people: they did their own camera work, had just one or two people on the crew (sound, lighting) and a few actors.  Why, it would be no different than a few friends shooting in their backyards like we all did in film school.  It would appear to passers by to be exactly the same.  Amateurish.  Except that each person in that small group would be respecting their craft.  I realized that so long as there is a respect for what you’re doing, the appearance to passers by is totally irrelevant.

There would be no glamorous shoot, no luxuries, nor stylists applying make-up to actors in high-back chairs with their names stenciled on them.  It would be punk rock, baby.  We’d have to do our own work.  Lift our own camera case, do our own make-up and hair, bring our own lunch to the set.  Passers by wouldn’t stop.  They’d keep right on walking, paying us no mind at all.  We would be free of onlookers.  We would also be free of actors or crew people who placed more emphasis on the appearance of the set than they did their actual craft.

That possibility excited me to no end.

(To be continued next week.)

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 1 of 4

In 1997, I made my first film PEP SQUAD.  It was a campy, subversive satire on America that predicted what would become a string of school violence incidents.  It was shot on 35mm and cost roughly the GDP of Barbados.  It took six weeks to shoot with 40 people on the crew and with long, tiresome fourteen-hour days.  In 2000 after the controversy surrounding American school violence had calmed down it was released on VHS.  YES!  VHS!  See, in addition to the yet-to-be universally accepted “world wide web,” DVDs were not established yet.  Can those of you under 30 even imagine?

2010 marked PEP SQUAD’s 10-year anniversary with a special Blu-ray release from Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma.  Critics have called it the best B-Movie ever made and it has become a cult classic.

In 2003, I made my second feature.  It was called FIRECRACKER, shot on Super 35mm, and also cost roughly the GDP of Barbados.  Preeminent film critic Roger Ebert gave it a special jury award on his list of 2005’s Best Films.  It was a demanding production: eight shooting weeks, six days per week, fourteen hour days, 42 people on the crew, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on camera and lighting equipment rentals, housing and feeding people, costumes, sets, equipment trucks, cables, generators, and on and on.

When it came time for FIRECRACKER to be released, the rules of the film industry were rapidly changing.  The Internet had caught on, everyone had email, DVDs had replaced VHS, and certain companies weren’t buying movies the way they had a few years prior.  The exclusive independent film deals from Hollywood Video, etc., were nonexistent.  The top-tier film festivals were becoming “owned” by sponsors who dictated which movies they could screen (often these movies were also funded by said sponsor), industry “buyers” were offering less and less upfront payment for distribution rights, and even if you did make a sale (like we did) they would likely never pay you (fairly, or at all).

Domestic companies didn’t understand our movie.  I encouraged them to market it to Mike Patton’s fan base but they didn’t know who he was.  I showed them our website stats, where the fans were coming from, and they still didn’t get it.  It was as if they simply didn’t believe me.

So I decided to release the film in theaters on my own.

I took the film on the road in a first-ever DIY kind of deal with Landmark Cinemas.  It was the “Freak Show Tour” which I modeled after the kinds of tours a musician would take.  We screened in a dozen or so major cities across the USA, having some of the stars appear at the screenings for extra media attention.  And it was a massive success.  Not only did we sell out all of the shows, but suddenly, because of the media attention and critical acclaim, domestic distribution companies were all over us.

We struck a distribution deal with two companies: one for domestic and one for international.  Internationally, the rights for FIRECRACKER were sold to companies in Greece, Germany, Australia, Thailand, the Middle East, the UK, Scandinavia, South Africa, among other countries.  As of December 31, 2009, the foreign sales receipts added up to $97,240.

FIRECRACKER was also released in the USA.  AEC One Stop, Baker & Taylor, Blockbuster, DVD Empire, Hollywood Video, Ingram Entertainment, NetFlix, among other re-sellers.  As of March 2007 (our domestic distribution company refuses to send us additional reports) the total domestic sales receipts added up to about $159,468.

Did we ever see that money?  No.  With all their so-called “marketing” expenses—First-Class flights to festivals and markets in Milan, Cannes, Berlin, five-star hotel rooms, and other useless fees—it was clear to me that we would likely never see anything.

Then there came a story on the front page of the New York Times about the producers from the Oscar-winning film CRASH not yet receiving any money from their distributor.  Turned out we had the same distribution company.  No joke.

Could we have taken legal action?  Sure.  We probably still could.  But it would cost more money to fight them than any we’d get in a settlement.  If they are ripping off big-guy Oscar-winners, who do have access to the kinds of money to pay for legal fees, there is no way us little guys even have a chance.  And if we did fight them and win, we’d be broke in the end regardless.

So we saved our time, money and energy, and moved on.  Productively.

(To be continued next week)

SCHEDULING: PART 2 OF 2

You do not need any fancy, expensive, or magic movie making software to schedule a movie.  You simply need some note cards, scotch tape, and Microsoft Word.

In the previous blog post, we learned how to make “shooting days” using colored note cards.

shooting schedule

I keep the note cards taped to my wall during the entire pre-production process.  The more you see it, the more familiar you become with each shooting day, and the more comfortable you will be when it comes time to shoot.

Now, we’ll incorporate that information into Word, ending up with a shooting schedule, or as I like calling it, the Master Plan.

I’ve built a template in Word (master-plan_template) so that each shooting day fits nicely on a single page.  At the top, you’ll write in DAY ONE, DAY TWO, DAY THREE, and so on, and work on building the entire schedule before you actually pick a date on the calendar.  It’ll also allow for easy swapping of days, say, if you want to move DAY THREE to DAY EIGHT, and so forth.

Here is an actual page from the Master Plan showing the first day of filming CULTURE SHOCK in London. master-plan_CSexample

It was the first day of filming, so I wanted to keep it light.  Even though there were only five cards in the strip for this day, there were several location changes and some travel time on the London Underground to consider.

The information at the top is where you can tell what actors are needed when, and where to show up.  I also list crew to the right, so I know which days we’ll have extra help.

The first column is for the time on the clock.  I’ve separated it into 15-minute intervals because it’s the most efficient.  The second column is where the scene numbers go.  The third column is for scene name, description, travel directions, addresses, eating venues, bathroom breaks, and so on.  Leaving the final column as a place to write what characters are in what scene.

Organizing the Master Plan this way eliminates the need for a Second AD, since the pages in the Master Plan replace the Call Sheets that experienced actors and crew are familiar with.  The Master Plan is much easier to read and understand than traditional Call Sheets.

What happens when your schedule gets wacky?  Well, if it does, use a ball point pen, or pencil, and make changes as needed.  Usually, if you do a good job organizing the time on the note cards in step one, and account realistically for travel and break time in the Master Plan, it’s likely you’ll remain on schedule.  Or ahead of schedule.

Once you’ve made your Master Plan, get out a calendar.  Pick the date you want to start shooting, and then all the days can be changed from DAY ONE, etc., to a specific day and date.  When this is complete, you can send the Master Plan to your cast and crew.  They can use it to plan which days will they be working, or not, or when to plan for a heavy day, or when to let loose on a light one.

Being organized is the most efficient way to make a movie.  If the entire cast and crew know what you’re to be doing at all times, it will help keep everyone on schedule and moving swiftly each day.

(If you need help creating your Master Plan, I’m available for consulting via telephone or Skype.)

SCHEDULING: PART 1 OF 2

You do not need any fancy, expensive, or magic movie making software to schedule a movie.  You simply need some note cards, scotch tape, and Microsoft Word.

To begin the scheduling process, buy a stack of colored note cards.

Colored note cards

Each note card will represent a scene from your script.  Use yellow cards for all exterior “day” scenes, green cards for interior “day” scenes, blue for inside “night” scenes, and purple for exterior “night” scenes.

To make a card, match the card color to the scene in your script.  Is it inside, outside, day or night?

On the top of each note card, write in the scene number and name.  Then write a brief description of the scene.  On the right, list the characters in that scene, and at the bottom, any special props or unique elements (such as a car, animal, special effects, etc).  Then, at the top right corner, put the amount of time you think it will take to shoot that scene.

How long will it take you to shoot the scene?  That’s up to you.  Think about it from the standpoint of shooting difficulty.  Is it a scene filled with action and multiple shots?  Maybe you’ll want to give yourself an extra 30-45 minutes.  Or, maybe it’s one camera set up but two pages of dialogue that you think you’d be able to do in less than an hour.

I average an hour of shooting time per one page of the script.  So if my scene is two pages long, I’ll write down “2 hrs” at the top of the note card.  If it’s half a page, I’ll write down “30 mins.”

Then, once I have all the note cards done for each scene in the entire script, I will separate them into piles based on location.  All the scenes/cards to be filmed at the “diner” in one pile, all the cards for “hotel” in another.  And so forth.

Once you’ve separated the cards into location piles, you can begin organizing them into “shooting days.”

To do this, lay the cards on the table and count the hours.  I try to keep the shooting times each day right around 8 hours total.  (Later, when you add in breaks, travel time, lunches, dinners, etc, you’ll see that 8 hours shooting time is plenty; more than 8 hrs makes for a long day.  On the flipside, 6 or 7 hours for shoot time is divine).

If your locations are shorter, say, you have just two cards for the “hotel” which add up to 3 hours, set those aside.  Either that day at the hotel will be very light, or you’ll match it up with another location and move sets mid-day.

When you’re finished organizing them, lightly tape the cards together on the reverse side (so if you need to move cards around later on, you won’t tear the front off).

Then, tape the strips of days up on your wall.

Shooting days

Each vertical strip of cards represents one shooting day.  At the top of each strip I put a pink card that says the location.  If you are doing a feature, and organizing scenes based on roughly an hour’s shoot time per page, you should have somewhere between 12 and 18 days, give or take.  Of course, that can be shorter if you aren’t changing locations, or longer, if, say, half of your movie takes place in Hong Kong (you’ll add a day travel time just flying there).

Feel free to rearrange the strips of “days” until you are comfortable with the order of locations.  I always try and select an easy location to start, as the first day on set is always the one that should be the lightest.

rearranging the strips

In the next blog post, we’ll open up Microsoft Word and make the shooting schedule.

(If you need help creating your note cards, I’m available for consulting via telephone or Skype.)

The Wamego Trilogy

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

FILM WEATHER

Unless I’m on a beach wading in perfectly clear seawater, the ideal temperature for me to exist in is 65 degrees F (that’s 18C for everyone else on the planet except the USA).  I keep interior temps at 65F all year long.  I sleep better, think better, and create better.  But, there are times when I can’t control the climate.  So before scheduling a movie shoot, it’s always best to consider where you’re going to shoot and what the temperature will be.

Dennis Hopper once told me it’s better to shoot in sweltering heat than it is to shoot in bitterly cold.  He was right.  It wasn’t until my first winter shoot that I realized how debilitating it is to shoot a movie in cold weather.

When the temps get cold enough, and the wind chill kicks in, it can be beyond miserable.  In addition it can be dangerous.  Frostbite is a concern.  It’s really hard to operate cameras and things with huge padded gloves.  Imagine being an actor, trying to compose yourself and stay in character when your body starts involuntarily shaking.  Or what about the blood draining from your face and leaving your nose bright red and cheeks pale?  These are problems that one must deal with when shooting in the cold.

There are some dangers when shooting a movie in the heat.  People are at risk for heat stroke and the sort.  But, tolerating the temperature impact on your body is manageable.  It’s easier to provide water to people, make sure everyone stays in the shade whenever possible, and avoid heat exhaustion.  Sometimes it happens, of course, and usually when the heat index is higher than normal (this is like a wind chill but reverse).

I’ve filmed many movies in warm temps.  My first film PEP SQUAD was produced in the humid Kansas July and August.  It was disgusting.  Actors make-up sliding down faces, and several people on the crew just smelled bad.

STUCK! was even worse.  Filmed during early summer in Macon, Georgia, where the humidity is so thick you can cut it and put it on a piece of toast.  The place we filmed the jail cells was on the second floor of a building with no air conditioning.  The owners refused to open the windows at night to cool it down for us.  So we had to work in miserable conditions.  Visually it looked great: everyone a little shiny with sweat and the contrast in B&W worked out in our favor.

During CASSEROLE CLUB we filmed in Palm Springs, and I made sure the air conditioning ran throughout the shoot.  Some people have the belief you should shut all the appliances off, or turn off the AC when you shoot.  That makes no sense to me, because you’ll just add room noise back in later.  It’s super easy to match the frequency of the room noise and air nowadays.  Maybe back in the day this was harder.  Anyway, I’ve never worried about shutting off the AC or Heat.  Or unplugging the fridge.

Likewise, think about other factors such as: is it hurricane season?  Tornado season?  Rainy season?  Dry season?  Allergy season?  How many hours of daylight versus night will you have?  In real life, it would always be ideal to live and work in an environment steady at 65F.  So think about that when you get ready to shoot your next movie.

VANITY ON THE CLOCK

If you’ve worked on a film set, you know how important it is to remain on schedule.  The art of scheduling a movie accurately is really one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process.

In order to schedule a movie, clear communication needs to take place between the crew and cast who will shape it.  Some DP’s will want to spend hours lighting “that shot” while some actors want another hour to prep for the scene – and soon you’re behind schedule.

The first thing I do is limit the DP set up time.  If he or she has truly given it some thought, there will be an easy way to light nearly any scene in less than 15-30 minutes.  On any given budget.  But, it takes the self-discipline to be able to sit down and plan it.  If you wait to decide what to do until you show up on the set, you won’t know what you’re doing until you get there.  In that case, you will not be prepared and it could take a long time before the camera team is ready to get the shot.

Another thing I do is tell my actors to show up Make-Up and Hair ready.  In some cases I have hired a hair and make-up person, but I tell them to be in charge of their own schedule.  And if Hillary needs to be camera ready at 3pm, she should be on set at 3pm.  It’s the responsibility of the make-up artist and Hillary to make sure this happens.

Preferably there won’t be any make-up or hair person, and each actor can just be responsible for doing it themselves.  If my actor isn’t comfortable doing it on their own,  they can hire their own make-up artist.  I’m happy to give the artist credit in the movie, but they most likely won’t be a part of our overall schedule and planning process.

I understand that everyone wants to look his or her best whether it’s in front of or behind the camera.  The DP wants the best lighting, the actors want to look their best, the props, costumes, all of it.  Each person wants to achieve their best.  And I think that’s great!  When I’m directing something, I want it to be the best possible experience for the viewer.  So I totally get everyone wanting to be and do his or her best.

What I don’t understand is how few people are really willing to take responsibility for themselves to make sure they achieve their goals.  I sketch storyboards before showing up on the set.  There’s no reason the DP can’t look at them and design his lighting plan in advance.  There’s no reason the actors can’t look at them and know which side of their face will be seen.

I made my storyboards available to the cast and crew of FIRECRACKER and I believe only about four people (out of 42) looked at them.  Karen Black was one of them.  There was only one moment Karen didn’t like where I was putting the camera.  But, I told her that now wasn’t the time for that discussion.  The time for conversation was all those weeks earlier when we went through each storyboard together.

Since I filmed FIRECRACKER, I’ve never had an unorganized shooting day.  And I’ve never been behind schedule.  Even if I’ve experienced a scene running over the pre-planned time, I average about an hour ahead of the scheduled wrap time each day.

Yes, it is possible to make a feature film wherein you don’t have to work 12-14 hours a day.  The trick is to check vanity at the door, really communicate with clarity and focus, and work with people who love taking responsibility for managing themselves realistically.