Monday, March 30, 2015

Confessions From An Angry Artist #5: Making Three Lives Come Together Perfectly!

When you attend the New York Film Academy's 12 week program you are required to complete three film projects.  The first is a continuity film.  I wrote about this experience in another post a few months back.  It was my short film called, Russian Roulette.  After that first project I was really depressed and questioned many things.  Should I even be doing this?  Am I cut out for this?  Filmmaking takes time and dedication.  When you work with a crew it's all in or nothing.  But on Russian Roulette everything seemed to fall apart.  The actor I casted stood me up the morning of the shoot.  My other actor, Adrian, got sick and went home after Sid's shoot and Annie was difficult to work with behind the camera.

Should I have given up?  No.  Never.  That is not an option.

The first piece of great news came on the night that we actually reviewed all of the continuity films.  For all the drama and bullshit that played out during the making of Russian Roulette, it was actually well-received by my classmates and instructor, Billy Tyler Smith.  Aside from a few gripes everyone really liked it.  That feeling was quite good and it lifted my spirits immediately.  I took something that I didn't think had a chance to be glued together and made it my own.  And having others say positive things about it was even better for my confidence.  

The second piece of good news came after class when Billy told us that he'd be changing up the groups.  This meant that Annie was no longer in my group.  It was for the better.  We just didn't gel at all.  Fortunately, Sid and Adrian would be sticking around.  Taylor, another girl in the class took Annie's spot.  I was still kind of worried that Adrian would flake out again and come up with a million different excuses why he couldn't finish the full day's shoot and all the projects.  

Nonetheless, our second project was a music video.  Not a band playing to their music, but a video with the music telling the story.  Billy stressed that we tell our story with image and music.  Being a death metal fan I immediately went to something dark and heavy.  My first choice was Six Feet Under's Braindead, from he album, Bringer of Blood.  I wanted to shoot an autopsy scene in a hospital with the song telling the story.  My shooting and editing would've made this perfect because this was the style I was going for.  With time restraints, and location problems this just wasn't feasible.  You have to remember we only had a few days to prep for the project, because not only were you prepping for yours, but you were prepping for the others in the group too.  

I was always a huge Donnie Darko fan and fell in love with Gary Jules' version of Mad World from that soundtrack.  I listened to that song over and over again the ideas immediately started to brew.  My wife Jackie, and I, started bouncing ideas off each other.  We began storyboarding, and soon this story about three very different people living three very different lives began to take shape.  The outcome for these three lives would all be the same:  heartache, dispair, failures, addictions, and loss.

I wasn't about to retrace my first mistakes and depend on people who I knew I couldn't trust to show up and help.  This time I would use real people and challenge myself as a director.  I used Sid once again, because he was just so menacing in Russian Roulette and I knew he was dependable.  I used Jackie's cousin, Pam, and her father, Willie.  Jackie was a gimme because she was already trained as an actor from guess where?  

Did you guess New York Film Academy?  

Then you're correct.

On the first day of shooting we snuck into the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.  Jackie and I had a specific location:  her father's head stone.  I loved shooting in the cemetery because it was April on an overcast day, and it just looked so beautifully bleak.  Adrian ran the camera while I just concentrated on direction.  This was perfect for me.  Adrian and I got along so well.  The first thing I noticed on this shoot was how much more relaxed I was without Annie involved.  It was just me and my little crew doing what we love best: telling stories. 

Jackie was completely natural in her ability to act.  She did go through the real loss of a loved one.  So she knew how to act and react in the scene.  She's beautiful in it.  She's also extremely organized where as I'm the opposite.  So when I got lost, she'd put me back on track and helped me keep my mind on the project.  I get Jackie's loneliness.  It seeps through the screen.  I can feel the anger, sorrow and regret through her performance.  

Willie is credited as The Guitar Player.  Jackie's father was a guitar player, as is Willie, so this was another natural element to the film.  Raw and real is what I wanted.  Shooting Willie was a breeze because he really didn't have to do much.  Looking back, I'm so honored that he was in this because he was just so good.  His scene really gets to me because for me it is really happening.  I hope Willie realizes the talent that he possesses. 

After wrapping up the shots in the cemetery we head straight to our next location, Pam's bedroom.  Pam plays the struggling artist who just can't kick the addiction or maintain self control.  She never acted before this (that I know of anyway) so I was unsure of how this would turn out.  Pam is a truly gifted artist and the work you see in the film is hers.  When I shot Pam, we used minimal lighting.  I didn't want it to be bright in that room, because the character's life isn't bright at all.  She took direction well and seemed to know the character in and out.  She was usually one or two steps ahead of me.  She knew what was going on at all times on set.  She was ready each and every time I called action.  Maybe her true calling is acting.  

That night I went home to watch the dailies and was delighted at what I saw.  I knew right then and there that I had something good.  I just needed to finish up the film with Sid's shoot in the city.  

I chose to shoot Sid right in front of the NYFA building down in Union Square.  The reason was because we didn't need a permit and had every right to shoot there.  So I just made it easy and hung out there.  Sid plays the bum in the film.  It's funny because you can see people just staring at him, and they have no clue I'm running the camera.  At one point he was actually holding out his little can and asking for some change.  Sid was method during this shoot.  He was extremely convincing.  I love the scene where he pulls out the apple from the dumpster and takes a desperate bite.  That one pulls the heart strings just a bit.  We shot different endings for Sid.  For one ending I had Taylor give him some money and he mouthed the words, "thank you."  Once I edited the film it didn't make much sense because he would've been the only character with any closure.   

I finally wrapped and went into the editing suite to finish up.  My first edit wasn't too good.  The lives of the three people didn't mesh properly.  I showed the editing teacher and he said I should cut the film again.  "This time make sure you tell the story of the three people," he said. In the first cut, Jackie's character was in it more than the others.  I re-edited the film, this time,  giving each character their time.  The second cut weaves through all three characters naturally.

It was done.  I was excited; I wanted to show it off to everyone.  I hurried home and showed Jackie that night.  I could see how proud she was of the film.  It just came together so natural and perfect.

When I showed it to the class they all agreed that it was better than Russian Roulette.  Billy had a few odd remarks about the film.  He asked about Willie's character.  Evidently, he thought he was some pervert prowling around in the graveyard.  Most of us rolled our eyes when he made that remark.  I think it's pretty obvious what Willie's character represents.  Maybe Billy wanted to see something different, I'm not sure. Other than that he thought it was a good film. One kid, two seats down, said nothing after the film ended.  At first I thought he didn't like it.  After his long, dramatic pause he whispered, "That was beautiful."

I knew then that we made something incredibly special.  Just based off of that single remark. 

This shoot was the best one for me.  It was so easy, and everyone involved just gave me 100% of their time, dedication, and talent.  This is a piece of time I'll never forget and will always appreciate.  I still get many compliments on it today.  I, along with the rest of us, deserve them.


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