Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Double - Part 1 - Seeing Double

Fill my eyes with that double vision
No disguise for that double vision
Ooh, when it gets through to me
It's always new to me
My double vision gets the best of me

In almost every way, Double* could not be more different than Plaster.

Where the director on Plaster was ill-prepared and inexperienced - always a bad combination - Leslie*, the director on Double, was a successful and talented commercial and music video director who had pain-stakingly prepared for her first feature film with clear and brilliant story-boards.

Where the producer for Plaster could sometimes be as immature as its director, Henry* was a seasoned commercial and music video director who could not have been more professional, and more of a gentleman.

Moving to below-the-line, the DP - Mike* - had worked with the director previously. They had a good relationship, and he was experienced and -you guessed it - talented. He brought along a solid camera and lighting crew (although I did augment).

What Double had in common with Plaster was that we had to fire the First AD (this time not her fault) and that it was not finished.

Unlike Plaster, where the producers were working with a wish budget  they thought would finish the film, both the director and producer on Plaster knew that more money would need to be raised. Leslie was confident it would happen once she could show her backers some solid footage.

This sort of thing happens occasionally, and it's something I discourage folks from doing. Filmmaking certainly requires some leaps of faith, but this is a leap that usually leaves someone face down in a ravine. To their credit, both Henry and Leslie were upfront about this, so I went in knowing we might be looking at a countdown to zero, and planned appropriately. Basically, that meant starting the "shut-down" process as a back-up from Day 1 of prep, and hoping Zero Day would not come.

I did do a breakdown to let them know how much money they needed to raise, and then sent them on the business of doing it.

I liked and respected both of them, but really got along well with Henry and enjoyed working with him. I have done commercials and music videos, but somewhere along the line, I got a rep for being an indie-film guy, so I did a lot fewer of them than most. Henry was a pro in that area, and there was a mutual respect as well as a sense we could learn from each other.

Having been Leslie's regular producer, he knew the good and the bad. The good was her talent. The bad was the excess. Music video directors, and to a certain extent commercial directors, use a higher shooting ratio than indie-film folks - or feature folks in general, for that matter.

Let's talk shooting ratio, a topic that was much more important in the days when even low budget indies were shot on film.

In short, shooting ratio tells you how many feet of 35MM raw stock is needed for one minute of screen time. I found a script supervisor blog that does an excellent job of explaining the math.

At the time, all the "books" told you that indies should shoot a 3:1 ratio. That would mean estimating approximately 270 feet of raw stock per page. Frankly, I don't know anyone who did that. Stan Bickman, my mentor, always said 1000 feet per page was safe and left you a little cushion. That is a more than 10:1 ratio, and it's a ratio that proved itself out for me on most shoots. Some came in lower, an occasional few came in higher, but usually only slightly so.

Henry warned me that even that number might be a little low for Leslie.  Here, we should talk about the script, and coverage.

The script involved many aspects of the life of a specific pair of female twins in the their 20s, but reflected on twins everywhere. Every scene had reflections, and sometimes reflections of reflections, and sometimes - well, my favorite was where one twin is outside of a cafe window, looking at the other twin. We sees a reflection of both of them in a glass of water, while the seated twin sees the same reflection in the glass of water, but from a different POV. The reflection from the outside window is also seen in one of the reflections.

You see where this is going.

As one of my favorite ADs once said to me, "Whatever happened to pointing the camera at people and filming them?" You know; master, single, close-up, with the occasional hero shot thrown in.

There was little of that here. Everything was a dolly with a focus pull with a reflection.

In low-budget filmmaking, when I would see things like this, I would explain my own little conversion chart, and it went like this:

You can either do multiple angles (more coverage) or multiple takes. If you went with more coverage, you needed to live with fewer takes, knowing that even if not every master worked, for instance, you had it covered somewhere else, such as the single or close-up. If you wanted to do a cool 360-degree dolly with 3 focus pulls, that's fine. You will need to do multiple takes to get it right - and you have to keep shooting until it's right because you have no back-up. In that case, you don't also shoot coverage.

What you cannot do is lots of coverage with lots of complicated shots that require lots of takes. There is almost never the budget for that on the indie-level we are discussing.

When I gave this little speech in a meeting with the Leslie, Henry and Mike, I got the following reaction. Henry  looked skeptical. Leslie said she understood, but the fact that her mind was already elsewhere halfway through the explanation suggested she didn't care. Mike, her usual DP, looked at me with a slight grin, as if to say, "yeah, that'll happen."

The latter told me a lot. It wasn't that Mike was blowing me off; it was as if he was saying, "You don't know Leslie."

The key thing to remember here is that these folks worked big, well-paying jobs with Leslie on a regular basis. Under no circumstances were they going to do anything that bit the hand that fed them. I don't hold this against them, I really don't. I get it.

That is why I was there.

The next hint of trouble was in the hiring of a First AD. Because Leslie was a member of the DGA, we had to hire a DGA First AD. I was happy about this, knowing that I would get someone with professional experience. I asked if there was a regular AD that Leslie worked with, and was told there was pretty much always a different AD.

DPs like to keep their operators; operators like to keep their 1st ACs. We develop relationships. Directors like working with the same First ADs. When an experienced director is working with a different AD every time, it does suggest that there might be some difficulty in that relationship.

I was relieved when we found a strong female First AD. As I've stated, films can reflect the personality of keys, and I didn't see Leslie as someone who would respond to a testosterone-driven AD. Our AD, Karen*, was a big, assertive and well-prepared woman. It was going to be great to have someone who could relate to Leslie and still run a tight ship.

While Leslie agreed to use Karen, I got the feeling she saw her as the best of a weak lot, which was certainly not my take. There was a definite coldness toward Karen from Leslie; but I thought, "Hey, they don't have to love each other, just work together."

It was a good script that was more visually than dialogue driven, on the border of being impressionist. Actual twins were cast, so we were not using one actress to play both of them, and they were solid actresses.

While the issue of having to raise more money as we were shooting was challenging, we certainly had the right group to pull it off; or so it seemed.

If only it were this easy:

*All names changed here. You know why.


JIM said...

I'm glad I found your blog. I found it really interesting and wondered if you get any black lash from writing this?? I'll be looking forward to reading more !!

JB Bruno said...

Jim. Thanks for the kind words - all followers welcome.

No, I haven't gotten any backlash from it. I am careful to not use real names when referring to negative comments, and with movies that were real problems, have changed the name of the movie as well.

This was not only to keep from making enemies (line producers and ADs make enough of those - we don't need any help), but because trashing people was not the intent of my blog. I said early on that if you follow anyone around all day for 12-plus hours on set, there are bound to be flaws.

Where I have had neutral or positive experiences, I have used real names. When not using real names, I have either clearly indicated or used asterisks to let readers know - usually to protect the guilty :)