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The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Life on a Movie Set

The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Life on a Movie Set

It’s the dream of every movie nut who ever lived to be able to get a job in movies by impressing the interviewer with a fiery analysis of a movie. Well, in March, I sat in a small library being interviewed by the director of a locally-produced independent movie for a job as a screenwriter. He told me to tell him about the last movie I saw, and what I thought of it. Now, every film nut who ever lived has a strict set of deep analysis of well-known classic movies he’s just dying to unleash on the first poor, unsuspecting listener who brings up the subject. I’m no different. I could have lied and launched into my prepared attack on Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo with real gusto. But I like to be honest, and the last movie I had seen at the time wasn’t a heralded staple of film classes. It was Premium Rush, a silly action flick with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a bicycle messenger, and it was fresh on my mind. So I launched into a high-powered, half-hour long dissection of a silly, bad movie. It got me the job.

My first day on the job was the following Monday, when I sat, read, and re-read the script for a movie for eight straight hours, correcting little details I happened to notice. I started the day with an outline, which I threw out after the first page and a half because the outline was for a version of the script that was so early, it came straight from the jurassic era. My doctoring the script eventually involved re-writing one of the characters so he would come off as a little bit angrier, and I touched up a handful of scenes so they weren’t so generic. My official credit for the movie eventually became Production Assistant and Still Photographer, though, because the truth about my writing contributions is that they were a light dusting at best. Proofreading here, small changes there, slight editing at the other. I spent more time at lunch than I did screenwriting.

Anyone who has ever taken a serious filmmaking class knows the process isn’t exactly a cakewalk. In college, I once spent two hours sitting around in a cardboard box painted up to look like Spongebob Squarepants while the film crew that wasn’t playing a real role in the student flick diddled around with the light riggings. Even after that, we weren’t prepared. Our eight-minute student production took close to three hours to film. We took three or four takes, and our actors missed cues, screwed up dialogue, and forgot everything by magnificent margins. Our best take involved the actor who was playing The Count (yes, THAT Count) getting confused, standing up from his talk show chair, and wondering exactly what he was supposed to be doing. We did, however, get a great performance from our Casper, who sounded like a stoner; thus, we inadvertently learned why Casper was so friendly.

Even being crammed in that box didn’t prepare me for the marathon days of pre-production. These were not fun or interesting marathons, either. Through most of them, I was stuck in front of the computer, writing out new shooting schedules or promotional letters. It was the kind of work which makes it hard to stay awake through the whole thing, and I did catch severe fatigue a couple of times, no matter how much coffee I pumped into my arteries or how much sleep I got the previous night. For the initial month before shooting began, I went into the production office twice a week to assist the director by writing out organized lists of props and scenes as he made phone calls for filmmakers’ insurance. The most trying day was one on which I had to recall my telemarketer skills to make cold calls in the hopes of getting free or reduced-price catering. After about four hours of phone calls, I remembered exactly what I had hated about telemarketing in the first place. It was the director and me in the office for my first month and a half of involvement. I would go in, work at the computer, eat lunch, sometimes discuss basketball – the director turned out to be an avid NBA fan – and leave when the time came.

It was weeks before I met anyone else involved with the production. The first person I met who would be working on the movie was one of the actresses, who dropped by the office to meet with the director briefly on a day I happened to be there. My own chat with her didn’t go very far beyond a hello before I turned back to my assignment, but she exuded a glow like a light bulb. She actually reminded me a little bit of Leslie, the singer I had been acquainted with in Chicago. (The actress turned out to also be a singer.) After she left, I was told that she had a powerful energy he thought matched the character, and that’s why she was given the part. About two weeks before filming began, our sound engineer started becoming a common presence at the office.

I had to miss the first two weeks of filming. My first day on set was at a location where we were shooting a series of scenes from characters’ apartments. That was the first day I was introduced to most of the people I would be working with. Before shooting began, I asked the director about letting me photograph the set in order to keep from getting bored during the long setup times, and he was nice enough to agree to it. Just my luck that my camera finished eating up my batteries on that first day after the first hour or so, but I made up for that misfortune by suggesting a finish to a scene in which the actors both felt like they were left hanging: I suggested that, after a pivotal conversation, they just sit on the couch and watch TV. They did a brilliant job improvising their dialogue.

The movie was conceived as a short, but it wound up swelling into a feature. Due to the movie’s plot, there was a lot of mall filming at some of the local malls in the Buffalo area. Due to transportation issues, I was only able to put in a couple of days at one of them. The other was closer and a lot more convenient to my father’s schedule, and I suddenly found myself spending more time there than I ever had in my entire collective life before.

Most of my duties revolved around whatever I was needed for at any given moment, which meant that most of my work was photography for the movie’s Facebook page. Generally, I was the the guy who served to do whatever was necessary. On various occasions, I was the one on clap board duty; the one pushing equipment around; and the one standing guard for the equipment at times we couldn’t move it. During the times I wasn’t needed, there wasn’t a lot to do to amuse myself, so I got in everyone’s way trying to get good angles on my photographs. In a small capacity, I also got to play actor on extra duty. In one scene, I mock the main character by throwing small paperballs at him. Our lead actor seemed genuinely surprised by that, mostly because, for authenticity, I had neglected to tell him I was going to do it. Being a pro, though, he worked with it. In another scene, I’m in the background of a local restaurant, talking with another extra.

It wasn’t until the mall shoots that I met our main cameraman. I liked him immediately – he helped keep spirits on the set high and told entertaining stories. In a way, he was also our Mr. Hollywood guy. He had worked on big-time movies; he was on set for several bigger movies. I learned more watching him than anyone else on the set. Getting good shots at the malls was difficult because we didn’t have permission to use many of the stores or money to throw at lawyers if they sued us if we did it anyway.

Filming is a long and difficult process, and without a Hollywood budget, we had to be creative. At one point, to keep shoppers from tripping over the camera track, we turned butterfly nets into warning signs. New extra footage was created on the fly as it was dreamed up. There was one point where we filmed the lead doing push-ups as stock footage, something which the crew was inspired to do when he began doing them to warm up for a scene. There was another time when the lead actress grabbed all the shampoo bottles from a store display and ran off for no other reason than hey, why not? Her method of doing it added a cartoonish zing to the scene, so an offhand improvised act she dreamed up for fun was kept in every remaining take. It became one of our best scenes, and turned into one of my best photos. The mall security team were sports about letting us use their property. They added a couple of extras themselves, and let us invade and make over a kiosk right in the center of the mall for a series of scenes.

About a week before filming was supposed to end, the crew caught a bad break when one of the actresses was forced out of the production by personal issues. It says a lot about the temperament of the crew that no one seemed mad or upset at her despite the fact that the timing was monumentally bad and she was playing one of the leads. After learning of her departure, I joked that, if asked, I could write in a quick scene addressing the sudden, tragic death of her character. It probably wouldn’t have been too difficult for me to do, because this particular actress was the single cast member I never met. But as much as we joked about it, the character’s story was too important to the movie to leave any real options except a complete recasting of the part. Less than a week later, our new cast member came in for her first day of work, and she formed a quick rapport with everyone on the set and integrated with the cast and crew so seamlessly, it was like she had been there all along.

I had to phase out most of the locations from my own personal schedule because they were too far away to reach at a moment’s notice. The one time I was able to get to a place that wasn’t either a mall or an apartment scene was when filming was at one of the local strip malls, in a women’s clothing store. The lack of scenery changes made creative photography a little bit difficult for me, because it’s hard to be original in a location you’ve already shot a million times. My last two days of filming were for the reshoots of many of the apartment scenes. I didn’t make it all the way through the first day because the shoot ran until midnight. It was due mainly to an argument with two of the performers having problems with the way one particular scene was written. After hours of back and forth debate, I made a basic suggestion of how the scene should go that helped get things moving again.

If I ever make it big in filmmaking, I’ll always look back on this experience as where it all started. Maybe someday it’ll catapult me into a career in a big studio bureaucracy, and I’ll find myself reminding one of my co-workers from it of the good old days, blurring out the names of major chain stores, trying to direct mall traffic away from the camera, taking pictures, and sitting down whenever possible to keep my feet from cramping too much. No, we weren’t working with Hollywood cash, but there was something pure about making a film with pennies and unassailable belief in the project and in the people bringing it to life.

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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