Monday, February 24, 2014

The Insane Process of Filmmaking

If anyone has every worked on a film production, you have to appreciate this film. It's a little like what "Office Space" is for corporate workers, only for film productions. In fact, some of those frustrations that you find in working on any collaborative projects, are explored and somewhat released in this film. And, it's just fun.

"Living in Oblivion", is a sweet little indie film (1995) written/directed by Tom DiCillo with Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney (Catherine's husband at the time), Danielle Von Zerneck, James Le Gros, and Peter Dinklage as the "dream dwarf", or, maybe not.

The guy with the clapper board on set, Ryan Bowker, is the guy who pulled this idea from Tom in just a few minutes at an event they both happened into one day. They had both been in acting classes together years before and when they ran into one another again, Tom had previously produced a failed film called, "Johnny Suede". So Tom gave him the role as the clapper board guy.

The idea came to Tom though because Ryan was so happy to see him because he knew he had actually produced a film. Tom's experience on this was so bad (the film only ran one week and because of that he lost financing for his next planned film, stagnating his career for a while), that he came off at Ryan about what a pain film production is. And that's when the idea hit him for, "Living in Oblivion".

I say again, if you've experienced the set of a film being made, you have to appreciate this film. Tom talks a lot about the technical difficulties and he explores that in this film. I can relate. I can really, relate.

I got my university degree in Psychology. But I also got a minor in creative writing that involved a year of a special screenwriting class with eight specially chosen other writers, from a previous playwriting class we all had together. Before that though, I shot a film for two of my Psychology Professors on Phenomenology. That was really my first experience in a film production. As a kid I was the go to guy for our family for our home movies whenever we would watch them. I learned to use a film splicer for 8mm. 

In high school I had a couple of years of Audio Visual where you got to run media devices for classrooms whenever a teacher needed the equipment. Then came my college experience. I was using a reel to reel half inch black and white video tape camera whose vidicon tube was really beyond its years of use. This equipment had really been run through its paces and were at the end of their life cycle. But I didn't know that. 

My first day of shooting was driving through downtown Bellingham, Washington. These were not small cameras and were attached by thick cords to the reel to reel. It had a battery in it so it could be used remotely which was great, but only lasted about a half an hour before needing a charge again. I was trying to drive, direct (that is find interesting things to shoot) and drive. At several points I nearly drove off the road and one time in particular, literally scared the hell out of myself in almost losing control of the car. But I got the shot!

My next shot was at the beach just south of Bellingham in a suburb called, Fairhaven. Essentially a community of ex hippies who moved there in the 60s and now they had kids who were going to college. It's a nice little community almost on the beach. I went down to the beach and found a sign that warned about "red tide" and said do not pick the shellfish. The shot had large storage tanks nearby for waste sewage or something and I really liked the composition of the shot.

So I have the tripod set up, the camera mounted, the reel to reel running and I was getting footage of the scene shooting out toward the Puget Sound waters. As I was shooting I noticed a family, parents and a couple of kids, picking shellfish. I looked at the sign. As they walked past me I asked the father if he had seen the sign, but he just said, "Naw, I don't pay any attention to that, it doesn't mean a thing."

Okayyyy.... Well, maybe he knew what he was talking about. One could only hope. I got about fifteen minutes of footage there. I was pretty happy at this point.

Then I took it home. I had gotten enough footage outside all over town. Then I was going to shoot footage inside. Then I realized that there was no way to hook up a microphone. There was a plug in but it wouldn't work with my microphone which was a normal 1/4 inch jack. Not wanting to admit defeat, I got out my electronic tools and wired together something that would work. During this production phase I came up with a paper with a light behind it and an embossed insignia (just happened to be my family name), but it looked cool. 

I had noticed while shooting around the town that I was having problems with the camera equipment. Before I got to doing any shooting indoors, I ended up at school that next day. So I went to the A/V department where I had checked out the equipment and asked them. What's up with the battery on this thing. Do you have another better one? I got a shocked look. 

It would seem that none of the batteries worked anymore and they had pulled all of them. You had to plug it in for it to work. But I had a battery. He said I shouldn't have one, but that would explain any problems I was having. They were getting new equipment to replace all this ragged stuff, next year. Which was too late for me.

Then I got a cold chill. After school I hurried home and ran the tape back and sure enough, the battery had enough power to run, but not record. All that footage I had shot, the risked possibility of driving into a telephone pole, the ironic footage of the family gathering allegedly tainted food on the beach, was all lost. I was crushed. 

I pulled myself together (a couple of days later) and realized I would have to plug it in, limiting me mostly only to indoor shots, and that was that. So I had to start all over again on my theme. I only had the equipment for a weekend at a time and each time might get me different equipment. One weekend I had a camera where the vidicon tube, which you should never aim at a bright light as it would make a permanent burn in on the tube. Then you would have ghosts in your frame when you record. 

This one weekend I received the worst camera I had used, with lots of these burn ins leaving it almost useless for me, so I got this idea. I noticed that if you did aim it at streetlights and moved the camera, you'd get trails. It looked like UFOs in the night sky. Which, was awesome. Things started to pull together and in the end, I got the film done, turned in and was done with it. 

Then I found that one of my Professors had shown it to all of his classes. He did that to me a lot, I'd turn in a paper one day and later find he had shown it to all his classes as a handout. The film needed an actor in one part, I had decided and no one was available in my time frame with the camera. So I thought I could use myself. Why not? No one but the Prof.s will see it. So I did.  

I became an instant semi celebrity around campus. Lots of attractive women would stop me between classes to talk to me, argue my theme, and so on. I was living with my long time girlfriend so all these interruptions weren't doing anything but making me late to my next class. So it was kind of lost on me at the time. And I was not pleased with the overall quality of the film. Luckily, it was a pass / fail kind of class. I passed.

Film production. What a nightmare. I figured my next turn at it would be much better. 

In 1984 just after graduating college, I had moved down from Bellingham to Tacoma. My sister's husband Joe, called one day to ask if I wanted to go with him to the Stanley Kramer film production series of seminars at Bellevue Community College. I was stunned and excited to think of meeting the famous director. I was broke, just out of college and Joe paid my $150 for the seminars. Thanks, Joe! [By the way, for the last few years Joe has been running Live it Out Loud!, an awesome kind of day band camp for teens.] It seems Mr. Kramer had moved up here to retire and be around his daughter and family and wanted to teach at the college. It was a fascinating set of Saturday's to sit and listen to a film legend. Needless to say, it was re-energizing in my love for film.

By 1986 I had split up with my girlfriend and moved up north to Seattle. One day a film crew was shooting the pilot to the new TV show, Starman, from the feature film with Jeff Bridges. I ran into them on the way home from work, on Queen Anne Hill. I heard them talking and they said they would break and then head to the Seattle Center for night shooting. So I went home, ate, and ran down to the center. It was amazing. The rides there were all running just for background for the show. They guy I saw with the walkie talkie up on the hill would give an order and all the rides would start up or stop.

The location guy in charge kept walking by me and seeing me just sitting there watching it all. He stopped one time and asked if he hadn't seen me on the hill earlier that day and what was I doing? I said yes, and that I had studied screenwriting but never been on a set. He said to follow him and we went beyond the security guys up to the monorail platform where the lights and camera were set up. He put me just behind the camera to the side of the director and I got to sit there all night and obverse. I learned a lot just from that one night. It was also kind of fun in that many of the crew kept looking at me like, who is this guy?

In the late 80s early 90s, I was involved with a project from the Psych Department at the University of Washington. My wife at that time was running one of the computer labs for the project, and I worked for MCIS at the UW and would help her out in the lab sometimes. We became friends with the head of the project and one thing led to another and my wife, our nearly four year old son and I were the subject of a BBC documentary. It was an interesting and difficult week to be the focus of a project like that, and that doesn't say anything about how fascinating the actual Psych department's long term project itself was. And so, I got to learn just how "real" a reality show could be, or not be.

Years later I became a public cable TV producer in Seattle. It was the wild west of the cable industry in about 1992. There were shows on like a girl that interviewed people, only in her bikini in hot tubs around the Northwest. Another with a woman who was naked and danced around candles. There was a garden show that was very low quality but ended up as a real cable show on a real cable channel years later. 

I was again lacking help to do a production,  but I convinced my best friend to do a film of some sort with me. He was being difficult. He didn't want to do it. I made a mistake in not using the resources of other producers and film makers at the station but I wanted someone I knew I could trust. We finally agreed on doing a documentary on his favorite topic. An old TV sci fi show, as it just happened to be its twenty-fifth anniversary. And he would do anything to talk about that show. 

As it turned out, he would be the host and narrator. He looked okay on camera but his speech skills weren't so good. He just wasn't an actor. As time went on he got better, though. But rather than using a script, which would have most likely made it more difficult for him, he just winged it. Which was okay, in that he was an expert in this area, but he hesitated at times. So I had trouble, to put it mildly, with the talent. And then, I was the entire crew.

We finally realized at one point that we needed an interview segment with him. That meant, even though I made it clear I never again wanted to appear on screen, I was going to have to, just to make it feel more natural. I fixed that in post. I interviewed him, then took some pick shots of me that would blend in. Not a problem.

One principle shooting was done, it was time to edit. I was the editor. I had Panasonic machines and just had to reserve time and show up to do it. It was professional equipment and I was very excited, after the University experience, to use real equipment. So I got to it. I could only do it in blocks of time within what was available so usually that meant only two or four hour blocks. It took a while, needless to say. 

One day I showed up to edit and the editing machine was gone. They had like six editing bays so that wasn't a problem. Right? I asked them and they said that machine #8 had been sent to California as it needed work. Something, was wrong with it. So they pointed me to another bay and I got to work. Except that, the other machines wouldn't correctly recognize my master tape. Oh my God! I asked when the machine would be back and they said a couple of weeks or so. 


In the meantime I had met this girl. Eventually, I moved in but for now, I was just spending a lot of time over there at her place which was in another town and so I'd spend the night sometimes. After a few weeks of that, I moved in with her, later we married, bought a house and ten years later got divorced. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I finally had to go back and see if the machine was back and finish editing. It had been a few weeks now and I was hoping it would have to be back by now. I don't remember but I may have called to check if it was back yet. So I signed up for some editing time and went back to finish the project.

I got back to the editing bay and there it was, good old machine #8. I got a feeling of elation. But now, would the old master tape work? I pushed it in and sure enough, it worked. I finished the cuts, finished the music overlays, the titling and (I may have had to go back one more time or so), I was done. I was overjoyed. I turned the tape in, schedule it for playing across the Pacific Northwest and waited for the premiere day. 

Finally the day and time came and I sat with my girlfriend and we watched the show. Then, there it was, on TV! Pretty cool! The quality wasn't what I had hoped, but it was all there, all that we had wanted to say, to show, to tell people about his favorite show. I did realize that I would like to have re-shot the whole thing, redoing what wasn't that good with what I had learned through the entire process. Maybe use a script and reader cards, for instance. But it was all good. 

Except for one thing. 

About half way through it, I realized that there was no background music whatsoever. At the end where the titles ran, there were the music references. But no music. What happened? I went back to the station and got the tape and rescheduled it to run again in a week. I took it back to the editing bay and listened to it again. And there it all was. All the music sounded great. But then I took it to another machine, a regular player not an editor. And no music! None! What the hell?

So I took it back and dropped it off. It ran its last time on cable TV and then I took it home and put it in a box. 

Film production, especially if you are doing it low budget, especially if you are using free help (as Tom mentions on the second audio track on the DVD of "Living in Oblivion"), or no help and doing it all on your own, can be misery. And even if everything is going well with the talent, there are always technical difficulties. 

After all this, would I like to direct a film? I don't know. I do enjoy writing screenplays. I can't say I have a great desire to be on the set or in charge of something on the production. Other than writing. And I'm good at writing on the fly, should things suddenly need to be redone. There are so many parts to film production that, it's a bit insane, really. 

Stephen King on the set of directing the film Maximum Overdrive (1986) with Emilio Estavez said that film production is insane and he hated it and didn't know how any film ever got completed, ever! I can understand that. I'll never forget the look in King's eyes sitting there at the camera on set that day in the middle of shooting.

Film making is a strange, surreal, sometimes psychotic and marvelous thing. 

Still, in the end, it is a marvelous thing. 

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