This is Part 4 of a 4-part series. Click here to start at the beginning, or here to read Part 3: Final Pieces of Pre-Production.
You may notice that the number of fun behind-the-scenes photos peppered throughout this blog starts out at “quite a lot,” then moves down to “once in a while,” and finally plummets to “what is this, a book?”
This is because film shoots tend to become more hectic and taxing as they go on. As the crew gets busier, fewer people have the spare time to take photos, until it drops off the priority list altogether.
However, if you’d like, you can pretend this was an artistic choice for the blog. I won’t mind.
L to R: DP Maria Palmö, producer Brandon Laventure, and director me
I sometimes envy filmmakers who specialize entirely in one area of production. I bet there’s a greater sense of familiarity and advancement that comes with working at one particular craft, consistently inching toward the mastery of it.
For all that I love about being a combination screenwriter/director/editor, the cycle can be harsh: write the script, prepare the shoot, film the scenes, edit the movie, promptly forget how to do each thing, and repeat.
Directing is the most rewarding phase, but it’s also the scariest. You’ve been trusted with worlds of responsibility, and any moment — on-set or off – feels like the potential seed of a world-ending catastrophe. Even sleep offers little relief; throughout the filming of my first picture, Apocalypse Theory, I was haunted by set-themed nightmares and fever dreams, spending many a midnight hour yanking my sheets into random positions so they would “match the previous shot.”
Of course, back then, we had to store all of our lights at the foot of my bed. I doubt the watchful glass gaze of those towering mechanical sentinels was doing my psyche any favors.
On the last few nights before the shooting of >1, I once again found myself wrestling with the old questions that flit through my dark bedchamber like an overcaffeinated bat:
“Can I give this movie what it needs?”
“Who gave me the right to boss around these wonderful, talented people?”
“Why do I want to be a director, if it scares the shit out of me?”
“What does a director do, exactly?”
I knew, from my previous projects, that there was only one way to answer these questions: to get my ass back on set, and see what happens.
WEEK #1 – Getting My Set-Legs Back
As with most undertakings, getting started was the hardest part.
With one evening left before our first shooting day, Brandon and I were working frantically at the Scott House, the rickety-yet-lovable historical abode where we’d be doing most of our filming. I was scrawling my first round of acting notes and double-checking our photoboards, while Brandon crafted headsets and other props with the manic drive of a pygmy shrew consuming its body weight.
But our efforts weren’t enough. As the designated Negative Nelly of our team (every partnership needs one), it was on me to announce, “Dude — we ain’t ready.”
It felt like a bad omen to be delaying our first day, and I’m sure we made a sheepish impression as we called up our cast and crew with the news. Still, it really was the wisest course. We needed every extra minute.
On the actual evening before shooting, we had our second upset: a performer had fallen ill, so we would need to start out with a different set of scenes than originally planned. This sent me into Freak-Out Mode for a short period, since I hadn’t written acting notes for these scenes, and each one presented new, unique directing challenges. But the show must go on, as they say; and before it can do that, it has to actually start, at some point.
So I attempted to sleep through my worries, and on Thursday, June 6th of 2014, we began in earnest.
It’s always weird how ordinary the first morning is: rolling out of bed, mumbling “g’morning” to Brandon, singing Space Jam in the shower to pump myself up, and throwing on a button-down shirt for a professional, directorial look.
I used to wear an MSU baseball cap on my sets (as seen on the right, for Apocalypse Theory), but I was lying to myself. Proud as I am of my alma mater, I am not a hat man. I never will be. (that’s AT actor Brett Kline on the left and AT effects supervisor Scott Oberlander in the middle)
We scarfed our oatmeal and scooped up our materials: annotated script copies, photoboard print-outs, little on-set amenities like coffee and paper plates to accompany our catered lunch (which Brandon and co-producer Ethan Weiner had done an excellent job of securing from local establishments). Our equipment was already stationed at the Scott House, which was fortunate because I hate lifting heavy items more than almost anything (I’m definitely more of a point-at-things director).
Maria stands guard at the equipment station
We arrived early in the dark morning and blared the feel-good Austin Powers soundtrack for our arriving crew. The team — a roughly even combination of familiar faces and new friends — fit together like a Lego spaceship. After a few minutes of coffee and easy laughs, Brandon and I took turns improvising kick-off speeches (“Um…welcome, and yeah! Movies!”) and led the crew upstairs to the Blue Room, where we’d be shooting throughout the first week.
The triumvirate in the background, with actress Katherine Schooler (Madison) in the chair.
Before long, we began settling into roles that would last the rest of production. Brandon and I would begin a shot by going over photoboards with DP/third-leg-of-the-central-creative-tripod Maria Palmö, considering and voting on any last-minute corrections and rearrangements. Brandon and Maria would then work to get cameras, lights, and sound into place, doing frequent check-ins with each member of the crew to keep us all in tune.
Once the cast began to arrive (their call time was always a bit later than the crew’s), I would use this time to convene with them, discussing the circumstances of the scene and needs of the characters. I would then guage Maria and Brandon’s progress to see where I could help out or weigh in creatively. Then, if time permitted, I would return to the cast to run rehearsals until the shot was ready.
We soon found that we wouldn’t always have time for these rehearsals. Perfectionist that I am, this had me shaking in my little director boots. So, with the cast’s approval, I began to e-mail out some of my advance performance notes on the night before each shoot, so we’d all have a foot in the door at the start of the next day.
This basic shot-setting process would continue until the sound and camera departments announced their readiness. Then I’d kick off the shoot with the ol’ “Lights! Sound! And when you’re ready…begin.”
I try to avoid screaming “ACTION!” unless there’s a specific need. My theory is that people work better when they’re not startled and afraid. (on the left: actor Rico Bruce Wade as Dr. Hasani Cole)
In the world of our film, the Blue Room is the temporary home of Madison McHale (Katherine Schooler), one of the two test subjects in the film’s consciousness-bridging Mindlink experiment. On our first day, we were shooting scenes between her and the devil-may-care neurologist Dr. Cole (Rico Bruce Wade).
Our first two scenes constituted a bizarre starting point. To carefully skirt any severe spoilers (as I’ll be attempting throughout this blog), I’ll say the following: Madison would be spending both scenes in altered neurological states. For the first scene, we shot mostly without sound; everything rested on the physical movement of the performers. The odd situation of the scene mandated that I give strange, stumbling directions like, “When he steadies you, you must react to the presence of his arms, but not as if you can tell that they’re there.” Major props are owed to both Katherine and Rico for processing my jittery first-day directions and turning them into something marvelous.
The next scene featured heavy dialogue. Madison would have a distorted personality due to the effects of the Mindlink. Brandon took over much of the direction here; as writer of the first draft, he was the pre-eminent expert on the intricacies of the fictional Mindlink tech, and was the most qualified to let Katherine know what would be happening in her character’s head.
Already, I was immensely grateful for our pre-production rehearsals. Having worked with Katherine and Rico to develop their characters’ more day-to-day behavior, we were far less cowed by having to start out with such extreme moments. We could swing for the fences as we came out the gate (I’ll mix a thousand metaphors, I don’t care).
I tend to give a lot of directions right after each take – unless I’ve asked Brandon to take the lead, in which case, he’ll start them off. In any case, I’ll always ask if Brandon has anything to add before we dive back into shooting. Often, one of us will pull the other aside to whisper something, and we’ll negotiate a mutual direction that we feel comfortable giving. He and I have reached a smooth collaboration with our performance directions, even if we’ll sometimes disagree so strongly that we simply have to “try it both ways.”
Overall, it was as smooth and breezy a First Day as we could’ve hoped for. We’d need to iron out the kinks in our hierarchy and communication, and we didn’t quite reach every scene we wanted to shoot, but our successes stood out far more. Right from the start, Rico brought exciting flourishes to his portrayal that we could never have fathomed at the scriptwriting stage, and Katherine embodied some of her character’s more surreal moments in a way that took enviable courage and imagination. It’s a good thing they’re so skilled, because I’m sure my first-day leadership was sloppier than a pile of slugs in a hammock.
On the left, we have script supervisor Glenna Johnson and camera assistant Daniel Mattei
The crew was just as joyous to work with; our inevitable stalls and periods of downtime were made infinitely more tolerable by the presence of a fun, serious, and *seriously fun* group of people who could switch between hard work and breezy shit-shooting in the blink of an eye.
Despite my misgivings about starting with such wackadoo scenes, they proved to be a terrific icebreaker. Brandon and I were starting to think we could pull this off, after all. We went home, high-fived, and, utterly spent, doggedly prepared for the rest of the week.
On the right: Jennifer Jelsema, starring in the film as Dr. Emily Rho
Our next few days were also spent in the Blue Room. It was an exciting moment when we shot our first scenes with Jennifer Jelsema, our lead actress. Like her character, Dr. Rho, she proved to be tremendously empathetic, as well as a wonderful listener and collaborator. Each day of working with her was more impressive than the last, as she continuously demonstrated the formidable skill and adaptability to take her character to every corner of the emotional map.
Unfortunately, due to errors at the directorial/producerly level, one of our early scenes – the first meeting between Dr. Rho and Madison McHale — would eventually have to be reshot. Our energy was off. Some of our shots were misplaced. Brandon and I waved off some hair-related inconsistencies that would’ve compelled any self-respecting audience to stand up and leave the theater, pausing only to spit on the poster.
I take a lot of convincing when we need a reshoot. I suffer/benefit from a very past-focused mindset, and it can be tough to accept the sunk-cost fallacy of a hard day’s work that didn’t pay off. I would need some time to think this one over.
Despite our early successes, the overall shoot was still an overwhelming prospect. We felt destined to blow a fuse like the air conditioner in The Brave Little Toaster. So, on our first free Saturday, Brandon and I treated ourselves to a bar jaunt. This was one of our wisest decisions of production, because — as mentioned in a previous blog entry — it led to us meeting Susie Simons, our new and outstanding art director/good friend. Blessed are the weekends.
We returned to the Blue Room that Monday to shoot Memories with Madison (we gave cute alliterative code names to our most serious scenes). There’s a wonderful sense of wholeness that comes with devoting an entire day to one scene, especially if it happens to feature new technical achievements (tracking shots are hard when the budget is small) and some of the most jaw-dropping acting of the entire film. You’ll know this scene when you see it.
Sliders are funnnnnnn
Around this time, Brandon and I were starting to achieve a solid rhythm, trading off directions with the snappiness of a Skinner-and-Chalmers routine. For me, this was the first day that I entered the Director State – a fabled condition in which a director feels divinely, peacefully, and unstoppably in-sync with their project. It usually lasts a few hours.
Next up was our first location shoot. Lansing’s Avenue Cafe was chill and accommodating as all get-out. They permitted us to wall off a section of the restaurant to blast with our hot lights, staging a key conversation between Dr. Rho and Dr. Cole. The patrons were happy to oblige us, appearing as extras and even volunteering to help out. One customer requested the honor of yelling “QUIET ON THE SET” from the upper floor before each take; a request that I granted with an enthusiastic, “Sure, what the hell.”
A little something for the IMDB trivia section: that’s producer Brandon Laventure doing a headless cameo in the middle.
This vital scene establishes the chemistry between Dr. Rho and Dr. Cole, two old friends sharing a mutual fascination in scientific frontiers. Jennifer and Rico got along famously on set, and that friendship was expressed powerfully in the performances.
But unfortunately, we made some errors in planning and communication. The café was set to have a busy night. Pinball machines and shouted conversations were starting to ruin our sound. Ultimately, we had to leave before finishing the scene, with plans to return on Friday.
On the left: sound technician Mike Kidd. In the background: co-producer Ethan Weiner.
As a result, the rest of the week was fragmented and chaotic. One of our most important scenes in the Blue Room had to be split up and shot over the course of a few days, sometimes with only one of our two actors present (the dark magic of editing will obscure this truth in the finished film).
Half of our shots were tight little inserts like this one, making the whole process even more confusing.
That Friday, we had to pack up and dart straight from the Blue Room back to the cafe to wrap our dangling scene. It was exhausting to move so quickly, and unnerving to be chopping these scenes into such tiny pieces, spread across so many days. No matter how close an eye we kept on our continuity, there was always some irrational fear nibbling at the back of my mind: “What if we come back and the costume doesn’t match?” “What if the wallpaper color isn’t the same?” “What if, when we shoot the other side of this scene, we accidentally make a sandwich instead of a movie?” “What if it’s a bad sandwich?”
Once the cafe scene was wrapped, our first full week was done. This production was starting to feel manageable, even if we still had a long journey ahead.
WEEK #2 – The Scientists Convene
The weekend gave us a moment to catch our breath, but we still had to keep our eyes forward. The coming week would move us from the Blue Room to the basement of the Scott House for a series of scenes between the four scientist characters: Dr. Rho (Jennifer Jelsema), Dr. Allebach (Mike Stewart), Dr. Cole (Rico Bruce Wade), and Dr. La Porte (Megan Mockensturm).
L to R: Megan Mockensturm (Dr. Sydney La Porte) and Mike Stewart (Dr. Jason Allebach)
We started out with a few scenes between our two newcomers: Mike Stewart and Megan Mockensturm. They discovered their characters quickly, blending pathos, professionalism, and urgency in our first few scenes. Dr. Allebach and Dr. La Porte have a strained master-and-student relationship throughout the film, and it was exciting to see both performers grasp ahold of it so quickly. Susie and Glenna, our alternating script supervisors, had to keep a sharp eye on both actors’ headsets, as they were complex pieces of work with a nasty habit of slipping off the performers’ heads between takes.
As filmmakers, this was our first time relying heavily on post-production effects. Throughout the film, the four scientists use future-tech BMI headsets to mentally project images onto the walls, which they then refer to and interact with.
In reality, this technology doesn’t exist quite yet (and certainly not on our budget), so we will be adding it in via CGI. In the meantime, our actors had to perform across blank walls. This added a new, strange dimension to our directions, as we now had to describe the invisible pictures while waving our hands across the walls like melodramatic wizards. The actors committed to the concept and filled in the blanks wonderfully.
We shot several of our wall-staring scenes on the first basement day. The last, titled Death of the Mind, was an ominous affair, featuring three of the scientists holding a grave discussion. This scene required us to create a fake nighttime; a first for the production. We barricaded the windows with heavy black sheets, and Maria devised a lighting setup that emulated a dim, eerie evening so closely that it temporarily mangled our biological clocks. Enveloped by the dark world we had conjured in that basement, we lowered our tones and guided the performers to a quietly unnerving place. It was one of our most rewarding days.
Our next day was a greater challenge. It was our first scene with all four scientists at once. This called for more complex blocking, more shifting of the camera, lights, and actors, and more impromptu cutting/adding/replacing of shots than any previous shoot.
1: Put the crew in the shot.
2: Put your cast in that shot.
3: Get to filming the shot. And that’s the way you do it.
At the same time, each of the actors had more to do than ever before. Brandon and I started to direct the performances more-or-less simultaneously; he would start paying closer attention to two of the actors, and I would start paying closer attention to the other two. Over time, this became common for our more populated scenes. Sometimes we would explicitly divide our efforts, but more often, the division happened organically as each of us stepped in to fill the other’s gaps.
We followed this scene up with Showing Off Gadgets, our first true nighttime shoot of the film. The scene depicts a celebratory evening of drinks and frivolity between the four scientists. In order to keep the mood light and the actors laughing, we kicked off many of our takes with hilarious science jokes like this one:
A photon was going on a vacation. When she got to the airport, the attendant asked her if she’d be checking any bags. “No thanks,” the photon replied. “I’m traveling light.”
Just some light humor
The nighttime posed new lighting challenges, requiring all hands on deck. By the end of the night, we were getting pretty short-staffed; for our widest shot, Brandon had to exchange his producer hat for a boom operator hat, climbing onto a chair and holding the microphone high above the actors.
That’s sound mixer Annette Gianino on the left.
Ordinarily, we tried to avoid shooting on weekends. Allebach’s Pitch, however, was a true behemoth of a scene, and it demanded an exception. We reconvened on Saturday for the scene that essentally launches the premise of our film, with Dr. Allebach delivering a stirring address to his fellow scientists on the staggering potential of his Mindlink invention. Mike Stewart’s memorization and endurance, in particular, blew me out of the water, as he had to spend the entire day delivering a novel’s worth of lines with unassailable charisma and enthusiasm. Some of our actors had to leave much earlier than others, so we had to make strategic choices about the order of our shots. After individual actors left, Brandon and I would take turns reading their lines while the other continued to direct.
That’s PA Shaun Williams in the upper left.
We felt enormously accomplished after Allebach’s Pitch, but we only had one day off to celebrate. For this next week, we would have to begin filming immediately, and keep the energy going as hard we could, due to two new time constraints: EJ Assi was flying in from New York City for a limited stay to play the role of Faisal Al-Gharsi. And we had only one week to shoot in our next location: the big fancy Turner-Dodge House.
WEEK #3 – The Big Fancy Ticking Clock
Most of >1 takes place in Dr. Allebach’s imposing mansion. We had originally planned to shoot these scenes entirely at the grand, historical Turner-Dodge House, but location-securing talks were stalled due to a plumbing incident. We eventually secured just one week of filming at the Turner-Dodge House, which is why we’d been using the Scott House for the rest. So when you see Allebach’s mansion in the film, half of the rooms will be from the Scott House, and the other half from the Turner-Dodge. Movie magic.
Brandon and I immediately claimed the space, designating our dining and changing rooms on the ground floor. We had scenes to shoot on three separate floors, linked by a series of hidden staircases in a very theatrical, backstagey sort of way. Far from the “this place is being torn down in a week anyway” vibe of the Scott House, the Turner-Dodge carried more of a “TOUCH NOTHING BUT THE LAMP!” feel.
Introducing EJ Assi on the left as Faisal Al-Gharsi.
On our second day at the Turner-Dodge, we hit a major benchmark: our first scene between EJ and Katherine. Their characters, Faisal and Madison, spend most of the film in a state of neurological symbiosis, and much of the film’s central fascination hinges on the collaboration between these two performers. There was some early trial-and-error in discovering just how two Mindlinked people might interact with each other and the other characters, but we quickly started to see something wondrous. EJ and Katherine played off each other spectacularly, and we continued to work closely with both to find and explore the different stages and intricacies of their connection. There are moments throughout the film where the actors borrow one another’s mannerisms and characteristics, and it was a privilege to spot these details as the performers developed them.
Our scenes in the Turner-Dodge had very diverse requirements. We had one key piano-playing scene, which required some old-fashioned trickery because the real-life piano was so out-of-tune that it was basically a giant beautiful toaster. We filmed one conversation on a very tight stairwell, forcing us all to jam ourselves into every available crew-nook. And one of the last Turner-Dodge scenes was an eerily beautiful, dialogue-free sequence on the top floor of the building, driven by close-ups of subtle expressions. This was where Brandon’s directing skills shone brightest, as he guided each of our skilled performers in what started to resemble a form of group meditation as much as traditional filmmaking.
Generally, working at the Turner-Dodge was a blend of the austere and the haphazard. We frequently borrowed items of furniture that had been strewn about the hidden wings of the house, though we were careful to avoid the forbidden chambers and trinkets that were too expensive for us to even blink at.
Also, this was the third haunted set we’d worked on to date. We had to avoid angering the ghosts at all costs. Most vengeful spirits passed from the mortal plane long before movies were invented, so we couldn’t expect them to appreciate what we were doing.
The main cast breaks for lunch on a sunny day.
Despite our great successes, and our occasional opportunities to enjoy laid-back lunches on the gorgeous, sunbathed front lawn, the time crunch was always weighing on us. As usual, we were always an hour or two behind our ambitious schedule. Fortunately, the back of the brain has a way of devising solutions while the front is in a state of complete focus. As Brandon and I darted up and down the secret stairs to retrieve props during lighting setups, we would have flashes of time-saving brilliance:
“Brandon! The ‘United’ scene can be filmed outside the Scott House instead! It’ll look better there anyway!”
“Cameron! We can shoot that scene between La Porte and Rho on the front lawn! There’s no time limit out there!”
“Brandon! If we don’t eat or sleep this week, we just might make it in time!”
Thanks to the Heraclean efforts of our cast and crew, we wrapped the Turner-Dodge House and cleared out our clutter with seconds to spare. Our infinite thanks to the city for letting us shoot in this hallowed space.
WEEK #4 – Intensity Now!
We were out of the Turner-Dodge house, and beyond the grasp of its wayward ghouls without a single possession. I did hear some demonic laughter in a stairwell, but it wasn’t hurting anybody.
We still had to move quickly, though, as we had a week’s worth of Faisal scenes to complete before EJ’s return to New York. Fortunately, he had a wonderful habit of giving us a terrific performance on the first take, which saved us a lot of time.
Most of these scenes would be shot in the Red Room of the Scott House. In the world of the film, it’s where Faisal stays throughout the experiment. This set was a much smaller counterpart to the Blue Room in which we’d already shot. We kept screencaps of our Blue Room shots on hand, as our intent was to precisely mirror them with many of our Red Room shots. This creates a pretty cool effect as Madison and Faisal form their mental bond, with the visual comparisons/contrasts complementing the progression.
While the Blue Room had been a large, welcoming environment, with crannies and corners everywhere for the crew to tuck into, the Red Room was a tiny boiling cocoon, seared to the temperature of a blue star by our film lights. Due to the heat and cramped space, we had to reduce the population of the room for long stretches of time, cycling cast and crew in and out as needed. We also had to surround ourselves with air conditioners, most of which were makeshift (styrofoam coolers filled with bottles of ice water and poked full of holes, with tiny electric fans blowing into them). Only one cooling device was storebought. It screamed at us and imploded on its first day of use. We had it replaced.
Just off-screen: cramped, burning chaos
We filmed a stirring Faisal monologue and a pulse-pounding medical disaster in the Red Room, then spent a day in the Scott House basement with the entire main cast for Investigating the Disconnect. In our young filmmaking career, this was the scariest, most intense scene we had yet filmed. We took no chances, getting a great deal of takes for each shot, bringing everyone closer and closer to the scene’s frightened, high-stakes mood. One of our performers, in particular (we won’t say who, no spoilies), had to give an unhinged, unsettling portrayal. Rather than trying to bring the performance “closer to correct” with each take, we opted to mix it up, asking her to alternate the quiet and understated with the explosive and startling. The unnamed performer did a spectacular job switching between these extremes, which kept the atmosphere appropriately tense and allowed us a formidable range of options in the editing bay. This scene was a tough one altogether, requiring near-constant reconfiguration of our many shots.
The one photo of the scene that doesn’t spoil anything.
By this point, Brandon and I were getting dangerously tired. Photoboarding and acting notes were falling behind. To our shame, we often found ourselves arriving at set and having to keep our crew waiting for 20-30 minutes, which we would spend cobbling together shot orders with Maria on roughly eight hours of sleep (divided between the three of us).
The Great Intensity was headed for its peak: an all-day shoot spent sweating in the volcanic attic of the Scott House for the long-awaited Climax of the Film.
I freaking love movie climaxes. I’ve geeked out over them since I was small. If I have access to Netflix and only 15 spare minutes to watch a thing, I’ll throw on the boat fight from Face/Off and follow it up with the cathedral chase in Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Disney is *very* good at these.
So, when it came time to shoot the final showdown for our first dramatic feature, I was as amped as a filmmaker or a cinephile can be. This enthusiasm would be my shield against the trials of one of our hardest days.
Obviously, not much can be said about the scene itself. Spoilers are worse than murder.
I can only provide this portrait of my looming, cackling self to set the mood.
What I can say is that the scene features four of our sublime actors performing the most heated dialogue and intense actions of the entire film. We made some bold choices with our 20-30 shots, flirting dangerously with the 180-degree rule and the classic “don’t look in the camera” guideline to create an unsettling, unforgettable mood. These visual notions originated in conversations between me and Brandon, and were expanded upon in my stick-figure storyboards, but it was Maria with her genius-brain and genius-eyeballs who brought them to shiver-in-your-seat fruition.
The heat up there was nigh intolerable. We ran our conditioners and fans constantly between takes, and escorted cast and crew downstairs to cool off whenever they weren’t needed. We kept several chairs on hand to keep everyone from becoming too worn-out to function. The cast displayed incredible tenacity; not only did they have to deal with the same heat and long hours as the rest of us, but they also had to switch between mining darkly quiet emotional depths and shouting at one another, while trapped in their heavy, layered wardrobes under our bright lights.
Meanwhile, life was imitating art outside the attic. We had planned to add all our rain-and-thunder sound effects in post-production, but the heavens lent us a hand and battered our poor little set with an epic storm. I, for one, harbored nagging concerns about the ceiling and all of its exposed nails caving in on us. I never did share these fears, as we already had plenty of real things to worry about.
Meanwhile, our sound department was atop their game; Annette Gianino and Mike Kidd excelled in handling the storm-noise, paying close attention and keeping us updated as to whether the storm was interfering with the scene, or accompanying it perfectly.
Toward the end of this day – somewhere around 8 or 9 p.m. – we moved into tighter shots, louder lines, and shorter staff. Between her shifts of amazing acting, Jennifer Jelsema switched gears to help out with the slate (on our set, the slate = a dry erase board followed by a person clapping).
Behold: Jennifer’s hands holding the slate, and not a spoiler to be seen!
We must have all been pretty jazzed for the climax of the film. It’s the only way to explain how we struggled through that long, stormy heat, with enough energy and camaraderie left over to sing a group rendition of “Mack the Knife” as we tore down the set.
The next couple days off allowed me and Brandon to get back on schedule. We returned to the Scott House on a Sunday to shoot our final scenes with EJ. One of them took place at a gorgeous garden near the house. Nearby workers were tremendously courteous with us, helping us navigate the hedges and powering down their equipment whenever we began shooting. It was an emotional scene featuring our entire main cast, and requiring some of our only handheld camerawork of the film.
The sun was our enemy on this one. Matt Riggs took the lead on developing a cloth-and-metal-poles contraption, which we named Monty Burns, to provide shade. When the summer sun overpowered Burns, we elected to shoot our takes quickly whenever a cloud passed overhead. It was a delicate dance.
“Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I will do the next best thing…”
“Block it out!”
And with that, the Faisal scenes were complete. Having brought incredible emotional depth and powerful reality to a compelling character, EJ headed back to New York.
Our strictest time limits were up, and our most intense scenes had been shot. We were in the home stretch, as a person who understands baseball might say.
WEEK #5 – The Last Three Weeks
Eagle-eyed readers will note that a week cannot be three weeks long. From a temporal perspective, this is true. From a thematic point of view, however, this was very much our Last Week – the shooting days were increasingly spread-out, the prophecized Wrap was in sight, and nobody wants to read a production blog that’s seven chapters long, anyway.
With our Turner-Dodge scenes shot, our exciting climax in the can, and EJ heading back to the Apple, it would seem that our greatest challenges and tightest time constraints were behind us.
However, tension and fatigue were rising aboard the Airship. When you’re approaching the end of a shoot, every wasted minute begins to feel like an injustice. Amid the joy and excitement, there starts to emerge a powerful longing for the relative relief of post-production. Brandon and I, in particular, were struggling a little harder to rein in our managerial disagreements. We kept them to whispered, back-room asides so they wouldn’t explicitly impact the work, but the tone of our words was shifting from “I don’t think you’re looking at this scene in the clearest way” toward “I’m not sure if you’re a human who deserves love and respect right now.”
Pictured: more of a feeling than a specific moment
Fortunately, many of the week’s scenes featured intense shouting matches between the characters. Frustration is never good for a set, per se, but if there was any appropriate time for the bad vibes to start floating around, this was it.
It was also around this time that we began to wrap our remaining actors. After a couple more blistering attic shoots, featuring tense exchanges between Dr. Rho and Dr. Allebach, it was time to part ways with Mike Stewart. Every Allebach shoot had been a treasured experience, and we applauded with gusto after his last take.
This was one of the first truly emotional signs of the end. A real “This is it, huh?” moment. You know the ones.
We faced another new challenge in our final leg of shooting: the temporary exit of our DP Maria. She and Matt were headed to Ireland for a long-awaited, well-earned vacation. Fortunately, Brandon had been shadowing Maria’s work for the duration of the shoot, and was able to step up to the plate for a few days of filming. It’s a marvelous testament to both Brandon’s adaptability and Maria’s teaching skills that Brandon was – given enough space and extra prep time – equipped to handle the camera, asking himself all the while: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
The hills are alive with the sound of wordplay
Brandon was able to shoot several scenes without incident. The only casualty was a short scene that ended up too underlit for the movie, but – as is often the case in filmmaking – this was a disguised blessing. That scene had always been redundant, and we were happy to see it go.
We did have to cut my three-second back-of-the-head cameo, which I had been trying to squeeze into production from Day 1 because I love to act and I never get the opportunity, but it was necessary and I’m not upset. Do I seem upset? Maybe you’re upset.
We had one of our final location shoots in an office space at the Technology Innovation Center, where we’d been given a walled-off area for Dr. Rho’s therapy office. We had to mind our volume and slink around the hallways because this was a weekday, and Adults with Salaries were trying to work. We also had to pull wacky stunts like climbing up ladders to cover the hanging fluorescents with blackwrap.
Zack Sztanyo as the Soldier.
This was a big day for us, because we got to work with Zack Sztanyo. He had given us the magnificent lead performances of Frank the Assassin and Ethan Vitne in our previous productions, and had now flown in from L.A. to play the role of a soldier in therapy for trauma connected to several future wars. He worked tremendously well with Jennifer in a deep, demanding scene that was an absolute thrill to direct.
Two days remained.
On the first, we finally reshot our introductory scene between Dr. Rho and Madison McHale. Compared to the first time around, this shoot was as breezy and quick as Super Sonic crossing the Midwest on a temperate day. My directions were roughly the same as before, but perhaps a little more refined this time, and both actors knew their characters a thousand times better by this point. Reshoots aren’t such a terrible thing after all.
We then shot a brief scene between La Porte and Madison. Since Katherine had to act from a filled bathtub, and nobody was keen on endangering her or holding our hallowed RED camera over a basin of water, we had to construct an elaborate mirror setup that allowed us to film Katherine’s reflection.
If the trick is apparent in the final film, I will eat my entire baseball cap right in front of you.
And like that, Katherine’s work on the film was done. She had embodied Madison more perfectly than we ever could have hoped, and we’re forever grateful for her hard work.
We then zoomed off to the Turner-Dodge House for a final reckoning. This time, we only used the lawn, with a noisy on-and-off construction crew being our only nearby obstacle. We shot an intense, introspective scene between Dr. Rho and Dr. La Porte that formed the heart of their relationship. To avoid revealing too much, I’ll simply say that I was deeply impressed by the vulnerability and humanity expressed by both actresses, and was honored to be part of that work. This scene had only recently undergone some rewrites, and even in post-production, we weren’t quite done with it; we ended up moving the scene to a different part of the film entirely, and found that it worked better than we’d ever pictured it.
Minus a little voiceover work several months later, this marked the end of Megan’s performance as Dr. La Porte. We had expected this remarkably driven Grad Student of the Future to be one of our hardest characters to pin down, and were amazed every day by how well Megan had understood her from the inside out.
And now, at last, it was upon us:
We began, as we so often did, by gathering at the Scott House. Our first scene of the final day took place in the exact middle of the film. I don’t know if this is ironic or not.
The scene was a philosophical conversation between Dr. Rho and Dr. Cole about the ethics of the film’s experiment, taking place in a beautiful garden. We’d completely rewritten the scene only a few days before, but we felt ready as all hell to tackle it. There was only one problem.
We had nobody to cover sound!
Nobody failed to show up to set or anything. On paper, we already knew who was/wasn’t going to be available that day, but somehow we’d forgotten to find a replacement to cover what had been a crucial aspect of the medium since the 1920s.
So, feeling more sheepish than all the world’s sheep combined into one Master Sheep, we asked everyone to hang tight and started placing calls. If we had fucked up this royally on the first day, I wouldn’t have blamed our entire crew for skipping town right then and there. Fortunately, through our connnections, we were able to recruit local sound mixer Matt Hannah, who swooped in like Han Solo to the Death Star to keep >1 from becoming a silent film.
Once past this hurdle, we were in much higher spirits. Rho and Cole are at their most comfortable in this scene, and I think some of those good vibes rippled through the team. This being Rico’s final scene, we were soon exchanging a fond farewell. Every day that Rico was on set, he had brought joy and imagination to both the character of Dr. Cole, and to the mood of our production.
We also wrapped the Scott House. God bless you, Scott House, you beautiful old storage beast. May you live forever.
We were then off to our final location: an unoccupied apartment at Gaslight Village in East Lansing, which we had recently spent decking out with paintings and furniture for Dr. Rho’s home décor. For our final shoot, we’d be filming the first chronological scene of the movie (which is definitely ironic). We had also wrapped our old friend Spoken Dialogue, so the remaining shots were all wordless, based entirely in movement and expression (just like the first scene we shot! Bookends!). Yet still, this scene posed plenty of logistical challenges, and ended up taking us the entire day and night.
In this final shoot, we introduced one more actor, Jumpin’ Jax: an Ewok-resembling brussels griffon, wuvvabo widdo buddy, and surprisingly excellent dog actor despite no theatrical experience (or experience doing much of anything, frankly).
Somehow he just knew where his mark was, every single time.
They say “Never work with children or animals.” I don’t know anything about children, but I’ve had nothing but excellent luck with animals so far. (four horses and a dog, to date.)
Jax’s adorable presence helped to lighten the mood when our final tasks started to drag on. We were in danger of not finishing – an unthinkable notion, when you’re in the fabled Last Day itself – when DP Maria Palmö made her triumphant return from Ireland, swooping in to save the day like Falco at the end of Starfox Adventures.
Fortunately our entire team was game for a long night, because it was well into the a.m. hours when we did our last shot: a shower scene in the empty apartment’s empty bathroom. With a good 10-15 people crammed into that tiny space, I had a good audience for those legendary, long-awaited words:
Our elation overwhelmed our exhaustion. After a little packing up, we all slipped over to Matt and Maria’s apartment, which happened to be right down the hall from our final set. We cracked open some affordable champagne and gathered around a long table for a night of tales and revelry that we affectionately dubbed the Post-Wrap Nightcap.
As the night/early morning drew to a close/open, we embraced one another, pledged to meet again soon, and, tears in our eyes, wrapped our final actress: our incomparable, spectacular star, Jennifer Jelsema.
And like that, it was done. And, like any wrap, it was strange. You know the half-drained, half-exhilarated feeling that comes after a long jog? It’s like that, but multiplied tenfold, and stretched over several weeks.
I really can’t overstate the personal importance of this shoot, at this point in my life. After a period of aimless, post-college misery and confusion that I was certain would last forever, I had the joy and passion of my dream career restored by >1. This film saved me. I owe it my life, and I owe more than I can say to Brandon, Maria, Jennifer, and the rest of our amazing cast and crew for joining me on this adventure.
Post-production presses on, and >1 has a distance to go before its mid-to-late 2015 release. If the movie is even half as powerful and moving as its production, then y’all are in for one hell of a movie.
Thank you for reading. I’ll see you at the show.
(On-set photos by Susie Simons and Glenna Johnson)
This is Part 4 of a 4-part series.
Click here to start at the beginning.
Click here to read Part 2: Putting Together a Special Team.
Click here to read Part 3: Final Pieces of Pre-Production.