Sketchy Stuff, Part II

The first installment can be found here.

I drew the following sketches.  Most of them are from 5-10 years ago, but the first and last are quite recent.  I like them, and you might like them, too.

You Look Tired

You Look Tired

Men: don’t be the eel in the little hat.

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Kirby vs. Sylar at Kirby Plaza

Remember Kirby?  Remember Heroes?  Here are the two opponent-consuming ability thieves demonstrating what happens when an unstoppable force and an immovable object try to eat each other at the same time.  If there’s a petition to put Sylar in the next Super Smash Bros. installment, I’ll sign it.

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Morgan Freeman: Penguin God

Headcanon for March of the Penguins/the real-life actor Morgan Freeman.

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Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

A poster for Nintendo’s 1995 psychedelic reimagining of the Nativity Story (citation needed).

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Mila Kunis, Kreeping on a Kremling

In which a crocodilian gentleman would just like to enjoy his God damned evening, thank you very much.

Guess there’s a lot of Nintendo in these, huh?  Even for me.

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Effarig the Humble, Begging Your Pardon

One time, I saw an upside-down photo of a giraffe head, and I perceived it to be something very different.

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Good-Bye Forever

I cry, every time.

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I Will Show You All Realities

I started to draw Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Connelly in profile, facing each other.  Then something else happened.  Then, finally, this happened.

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The Good, the Bad, and Waluigi

The third installment in the “Waluigi with No Name” trilogy, after A Fistful of WAAAAAAllers and For a Few WAAAAAAllers More.

Inspired by this poster.

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>1, From the Director’s Chair – Part 4: Shoot, Baby, Shoot

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.

PREFACE

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.

THE CYCLE

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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

10624683_10204501428796271_5265729863404900675_nAs 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.”

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[screaming internally]

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.”

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Madison(1)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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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).

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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?”

IMG_3280Once 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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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1: Put the crew in the shot.

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2: Put your cast in that shot.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

LookingAroundBrandon 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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“Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun.  I will do the next best thing…”

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

LaPorteByeAnd now, at last, it was upon us:

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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!

mqdefault 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.colebye1

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.

09_1280We also wrapped the Scott House. God bless you, Scott House, you beautiful old storage beast. May you live forever.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

>1, From the Director’s Chair – Part 3: Final Pieces of Pre-Production

This is Part 3 of a 4-part series. Click here to start at the beginning, or here to read Part 2: Putting Together a Special Team.

Welcome back to my “weekly” series on the production of >1!

This post was almost ready for primetime a few weeks ago, but then I spilled water all over my laptop.  And since post-production makes you broke as hell, the darn thing remains busted.  I knew the risks when I became an independent filmmaker and bought a poorly-designed water bottle.

Anyway!  Back to business.  This final pre-production blog will focus on a few of the remaining, crucial tasks required to get the >1 shoot underway.

VISUAL PLANNING

I’m not a technically-minded director.  Cameras frighten me.

“Don’t move! Its vision is based on movement.”

On set, I leave most of the camerawork in the capable hands of cinematographer Maria Palmö, with myself and Brandon contributing secondary input.  Most of my contribution re: visual composition is given in pre-production, through steps like storyboarding and photoboarding.

I’ve been drawing for fun since I was a wee little baby, so storyboarding is a natural fit for me.  Before putting pen to paper for >1‘s ‘boards, I had several conversations with Brandon and Maria about the movie’s visual style, and the sorts of choices that would support this aesthetic: sparing use of mobile shots, lighting with diegetic sources, strategic use of left-to-right orientation to suggest comparisons/contrasts between the mentally-intertwined characters, etc.  Once we felt confident in a unified vision, I went through the script and listed some basic ideas for the shots of each particular scene.  I then printed several pages of this handy template, and started to build my masterpiece:

image8 image1 image5Sure, they’re not my prettiest drawings, but storyboards are time-consuming and clarity is king.  I gave each goony stick figure a signifier (long hair, glasses, Mega Man helmet) so the reader could at least comprehend which character was doing what.

But these ‘boards were not, by any means, our final say on shot choices.  Due to a childhood full of sidescrolling video games, my visual imagination is a bit two-dimensional, and my compositions tend to reflect this.  Thus, the shots were subject to continuous feedback and contribution from Maria and Brandon, who brought further layers and depth to the imagery.  We cycled them between the three of us until we were all reasonably happy with what we had.

Then, it was on to the even sillier process of photoboarding.

After turning a cardboard box into a tiny makeshift set, Brandon went to ToysRUs and purchased a crew of GI Joe knockoff figurines.  Together, Brandon and I assigned identities to each of these stiff little men, twisted them into the appropriate shapes for each of our shots, and then took hundreds of photos, creating a preview of >1 populated entirely by our li’l American heroes.

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(L to R) General Beefknock as Dr. Cole, Action Tom as Dr. Rho, Sergeant Armsley as Dr. La Porte…

…and Dr. Pestilence as Dr. Allebach.

We took printouts of these photoboards to set each day.  Together with Maria, we’d start most mornings by organizing the photos into a logical shot order.  To minimize lighting setups (often the most time-consuming of our on-set endeavors), we followed a tip from Sidney Lumet’s excellent filmmaking tome, Making Movies, by ordering the shots according to which wall would be shown in the background.  With these preparations in place, Maria would create our lighting setups and bring each shot to glorious life, with continuous input from Brandon and myself.

Of course, as with all meticulously-prepared aspects of production, you occasionally have to improvise.  A location might defy expectations somehow, or you may fall behind schedule and realize that you can only shoot 5 of your 10 planned shots.  But no matter what, it’s always easier to have an idea going in.  I’m sure there exist plenty of directors who are comfortable with winging it on the visuals every day, but I myself can’t fathom that degree of cocksurety.  I’ll have no part of it.

WARDROBE DESIGN

Brandon’s vision of >1‘s futuristic fashion was centered on the notion that a war-ravaged, famine-stricken future society would embrace a nostalgic, formal aesthetic.  Brandon and his girlfriend Caitlin Pistor took the costume design largely upon themselves.  They supplied clothing of their own, purchased unique articles from China, rented several items from the Costume Shop of the Riverwalk Theatre, and on occasion, saw what the actors could bring to the table themselves (Dr. Rho’s wardrobe, in particular, was mostly supplied by Jennifer Jelsema).  We then scheduled fitting sessions for the individual actors, making corrections whenever an outfit looked weird or didn’t fit.  On set, we had to keep a close eye on our costume schedule (written onto a dry-erase board) to keep everything consistent.  Ultimately, I think our lofty wardrobe plans paid off.  The clothing brings a lot to the film’s unique sci-fi aesthetic.

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(L to R) Rico Bruce Wade as Dr. Cole, Jennifer Jelsema as Dr. Rho, Megan Mockensturm as Dr. La Porte, and Mike Stewart as Dr. Allebach

PROPS

Creating the props for our first science fiction project was an exciting challenge.  For one thing, the film’s researchers use various sci-fi instruments throughout their experiments, many of which we had to create by altering the appearance of real-life devices (e.g. spraypainting a temple thermometer black-and-white to create the Orca medical device).

The most crucial and difficult props, however, were the scientists’ BMI (brain-machine interface) headsets.  In the time period of >1, these high-tech devices are as common as today’s smartphones, allowing users to control computerized apps and interact with holographic screens with only the power of their thoughts.  This technology is already starting to exist in our world, and we found inspiration by looking to existing designs for headsets that have been brought to market.

We created personalized designs for each of the characters’ headsets, reflecting their individual personalities and fashion preferences, and Brandon went through a multitude of processes to craft them.  First, when we got most of our actors together for the first time, we took plaster casts of their heads.  It was a time-consuming process, but we used the opportunity to get to know one another as we listened to the Austin Powers soundtrack in our basement.

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(L to R) Mike Stewart, Brandon Laventure, & Jennifer Jelsema

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(L to R) Caitlin Pistor, Jennifer Jelsema, Rico Bruce Wade, & Megan Mockensturm

With these measurements established, Brandon used various substances to sculpt prototype models for the headsets.  Turns out fondant (like, for cakes) was the ideal material, because it’s malleable enough to push through a clay extruder, but unlike clay, it stays the same size and shape as it dries.

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IMG_20140403_205446One time, we left a fondant headset out at a filming location and a mouse tried to eat it.  Mice don’t understand cinema.

Once the models were finished, Brandon worked with 3D printing specialist Jeffrey Hall at East Lansing’s Technology Innovation Center to create 3D-printed plastic replicas of the models, which Brandon then sanded and spraypainted.  The headsets were intricate and fragile, and had to be placed on the actors’ heads each morning with great care.

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Finally, there was the Mindlink itself, a unique headset designed to connect the brains of the test subjects, Madison and Faisal.  Brandon went through several designs, most of which were at least as complicated as the scientists’ headsets.  The solution he found, however, was this simple and elegant little number:

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EJ Assi (Faisal) dons the Mindlink headset.

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Brandon Laventure (R) applies the Mindlink to Katherine Schooler (Madison) (L).

Once our production designer Susie Simons joined the team a week into production, she helped us to craft new props (such as Dr. Allebach’s cybernetic enhancements) and maintain our old ones.  The Mindlink, in particular, had a tendency to become asymmetrical, slip off, or spontaneously fall to pieces.  Fortunately, Susie was on hand to set these things right every time.

LOCATIONS/SET DEC

Most of >1 takes place in Dr. Allebach’s opulent homestead, where the four scientists and two subjects undertake the Mindlink study.  Early in our preparations, we were in talks with the City of Lansing to film these scenes in the Turner-Dodge House: a historical building owned by the city, and former home of the world-famous Dodge family.  We were all set to go, with filming scheduled for late March.

Then the pipes in the house froze and exploded.  I blame ghosts, personally.

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As it happens, the ghosts were on our side.  The pipesplosion forced us to delay shooting from March to June, and we ended up needing every second of extra time to prepare our shoot properly.  Our access to the Turner-Dodge House was now restricted to a week of shooting, so the city generously offered us a second house for the majority of our scenes: the Scott House.  This building had long been used as a storage site and meeting place for various city clubs, but had now fallen into disrepair.

This meant that Brandon, Matt, Maria and I had some work to do.  We spent days and nights clearing out and cleaning up the house’s cavernous rooms in order to make presentable sets out of them.

The most challenging sets were the guest bedrooms of Madison and Faisal.  The four of us worked for several days and nights to select our patterns of red-and-blue wallpaper, remove the old flakes of paint that hung down like jungle vines, rip up the aged carpet, pull the scary nails from the floor, and ultimately deck out each room from floor to ceiling.  It seemed utterly impossible at first, but when you see these rooms in the film, it’s impossible to tell that they used to be disgusting.

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Faisal’s room (before)

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Faisal’s room (after)

Allebach’s home was complete.

These historical houses were the primary locations for our shoot, but we had a few others, too. We had the opportunity to shoot for two days at the happenin’ Avenue Cafe in Lansing.  We had to block off our section of the restaurant and roll with the patrons’ background conversations as best we could, but it was worth the effort.

SXSW Cut.Still003We were also permitted to re-decorate and use an office space at the Technology Innovation Center (same place where we had the headsets made) for an early scene of the film.  Here, we had to keep our presence as quiet and unseen as possible, to keep from distracting the neighboring professionals.

SXSW Cut.Still004And for our last day, we shot in an empty apartment at East Lansing’s Gaslight Village, which we decorated extensively to look like Dr. Rho’s home.

SXSW Cut.Still005At each of these locations, we tried to take the absolute best care of our environment.  We’ve always done our best to follow a leave-no-trace philosophy, and I think we’ve done pretty well so far in that regard.

PERFORMANCE NOTES

Some directors carry a megaphone on set.  Some keep their eyes and hands on the camera.  My weapon of choice is an annotated copy of the script, which I clutch to my chest as if I’m guarding the nuclear football.

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Here I am, directing from my Director’s Nook

The margins of these pages were packed to the brim with my hand-scrawled notes, which I added before the rehearsal stage.  I’d generally take some time to myself, carefully consider each character’s role in a scene, and use the blank spaces to write down each character’s overarching goal, as well as notes for the readings of individual lines.  I would write several different, contradictory versions of each note, in order to give myself as many different on-set options as possible.  Then — because my jagged handwriting belongs in a Tim Burton movie, and cannot be read by other humans — I would verbally discuss these notes with Brandon, to get them swirling around in both our heads before using them as a springboard for working with the actors.

I held these notes close on-set, but I rarely looked at them during the shoot.  Once I was in the heat of the moment (or as I often called it, the Director State), I tended to abandon introspection and focus solely on what was happening in front of me.  But the notes were a constant source of comfort, and they had left an imprint on my subconscious mind that gave me the necessary confidence to direct each scene.  It always helps to know that — even if the stress of a shoot renders me completely speechless — I’ll have a folder full of notes to fall back on.

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE SHOOTING

Shooting can be an anxiety-inducing storm of toxic emotion, but there’s enough thrills and adrenaline to make each day a rewarding experience.  Post-production is more relaxed, even if the uncertainty can make it a white-knuckled ordeal at times.  The rush of adventure and constant achievement makes these phases tolerable at even the worst of times.

The same can’t be said of the few nerve-shattering days and nights immediately preceding the first shooting day.  They are worthless stress gauntlets, and I hate them.

On the afternoon before our first shooting day was originally scheduled, I had to persuade Brandon — as he toiled, day-in and day-out, on the scientists’ incomplete headsets — that we would need to postpone our first shoot by two days in order to have everything ready.  This poorly-timed revelation forced us to call up our collaborators and reschedule everything in a big, sloppy hurry.  Having to begin with this slapdash emergency option felt like a dreadful omen of trials to come.

So, the night-before jitters were expanded to two-nights-before jitters.  On the actual night before filming, we had to make yet another quick call, switching the shooting order of our earliest scenes.  This meant we’d be starting with one of the more challenging parts of the film, from a directing perspective: one where (to avoid giving too much away) two of the characters would have their minds connected, requiring a hybrid performance of sorts.  Not an easy thing to direct, especially when the director’s out of practice.

That last night of anticipation was a twisted Christmas Eve of sorts.  I lay awake, tossing and turning, paralyzed by a looming terror of the challenges ahead, unconvinced of my own ability to tackle them.

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as re-enacted here by Action Tom

If you want to know just how those early shoots went, you’ll have to wait for the next production blog.  I’ll try not to drown any more laptops in the meantime.

This is Part 3 of a 4-part series. Click here to read Part 4: So Shoot, Baby Shoot.

Click here to start at the beginning.

Click here to read Part 2: Putting Together a Special Team.

>1, From the Director’s Chair – Part 2: Putting Together a Special Team

This is Part 2 of a 4-part series. Click here to start at the beginning.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the screenwriting process for >1.

But words aren’t enough!  Movies need people.  In this post, I’ll be recounting the recruitment and rehearsal of the team behind the film.

Bringing collaborators into a production is a terrifying, exhilarating leap.  After months of the small, personal business of screenwriting, it takes a tremendous, sustained burst of self-confidence — or, at least, the will to fake it — to decide, “Yes.  We’re ready to bring this series of written words to several talented strangers and ask them to bet their time and energy on the idea that we know what we’re doing.”

Fortunately, our cinematic allies tend to be lovely people, and our initial nervousness is always eased by the warmth and dedication that a well-selected team brings to set.  It’s crucial to choose qualified people, but given the mental and emotional toll of filmmaking, I think it’s equally important to find people whose company you enjoy.  It’s far easier to shoulder the burdens and savor the joys of a shoot when you’re surrounded by people you can share a beer or a game of Mario Kart with after wrap.

The process of casting/crewing up is always different, but it typically begins with us reaching out and setting up informal meetings, where we discuss — as casually as possible — everyone’s needs, skill sets, and availabilities.  Brandon and I tend to view these introductory meetings as two-way auditions.  After all, we’re far too young and unproven to go strutting around the indie scene like some cock-of-the-walk, asking everyone to come and impress us.  Filmmaking is hard for everyone involved, and it’s on us to convince others that it’ll be worth the effort.

Back in our college days, preparing for Apocalypse Theory, we would hold these informal meetings in our basement, to keep some courtesy space from our five roommates.  When we realized that this was creepy, we switched to coffee shops.

CASTING THE FUTURE

Apocalypse Theory was a film about excess and embracing hedonism.  We put this theme into action by writing as many characters as the law would allow, resulting in a cast of about 40 speaking roles.

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Directing one of Apocalypse Theory’s smaller scenes. (That’s my back, and the great actors from L to R are Brett Kline’s hair, Carolyne Rex’s shoulder, Eric Allen, Alex Poling, and Annette Gianino.)

Proud as I am of everyone’s fantastic work in that film, Brandon and I weren’t keen on reliving the nightmare of juggling 40 schedules.  In writing >1 — a more intimate picture about empathy and personal discovery — we planned from the beginning to feature a smaller cast.  The prospect of focusing more closely on a smaller set of characters was both logistically and creatively exciting.

Ultimately, the script featured seven characters.

JENNIFER JELSEMA AS DR. EMILY RHO

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Dr. Rho, the protagonist of >1, is a skilled psychologist and researcher.  She joins a team of intrepid scientists to study the Mindlink: an invention designed to merge the brains of two human subjects.  Brandon and I wrote Dr. Rho to be a curious, guarded, empathetic hero.  She’s present in nearly every scene of the film, guiding the audience through both this unique vision of the future and the minefield of ethical crises posed by the Mindlink experiment.

Early in the writing of >1, Brandon and I were introduced to Jennifer’s work by our friend and fellow filmmaker, Ariel Vida (founder of Wondria Films).  She  showed us a scene from her upcoming horror drama, Sleep, Wake, Forget, in which Jennifer played one of several survivors of a zombie armageddon, hiding out and conversing in an abandoned barn.  When the script was complete, Brandon remembered Jennifer’s performance, got her contact information from Ariel, and reached out to set up a meeting.  They had a great conversation about the film, its influences, and their artistic goals, then agreed to embark on this project together.

As our film’s lead, Jennifer was undertaking a mighty challenge, but working with her never felt like one.  It was an endlessly fulfilling experience to see Jennifer peel back the character’s layers like an archaeologist unearthing priceless treasures.  Working with Jennifer to bring this character and her journey to life has been one of my most rewarding directorial experiences to date.

MIKE STEWART AS DR. JASON ALLEBACH

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Dr. Allebach is the charismatic, part-machine, all-genius scientist who spearheads the Mindlink experiment.  Brandon and I wrote him as a charming, eccentric antagonist with a larger-than-life presence and mysterious motives.  Honestly, Brandon and I probably wrote more of ourselves into this character than any other.  I have no idea what this says about our self-image.

We met Mike Stewart during Apocalypse Theory’s 2012 theatrical run (which consisted of two showings, so it was really more of a theatrical walk).  After a screening of the film at East Lansing’s Hannah Community Center, Brandon struck up a conversation with Mike, who was working at the venue.  He told us of his acting experience, and when it came time to shoot Frank the Assassin Goes on a Date, we cast him as the nefarious Joyful Ned (pictured above, to the left).

We were simultaneously blown away by Mike’s talent and stricken by shame that we had only written one scene for him.  Naturally, when it came time for Brandon to write Dr. Allebach, he kept Mike in mind as his first choice for the role.  When the script was ready, Brandon called Mike, sent him the screenplay, and soon, we were working together again.

This was one of the most demanding roles we’ve written, and we knew we were asking for a lot.  Yet Mike not only delivered what we were after, but routinely exceeded our expectations, bringing an incredible depth of feeling and sense of explosive power to this sometimes-intimidating, always-fascinating character.  Each Allebach scene was a tremendous joy to shoot, knowing that Mike would bring something thrilling to the table each time.

RICO BRUCE WADE AS DR. HASANI COLE

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Dr. Hasani Cole is a devil-may-care neurologist and an old friend and colleague of Dr. Rho.  The twists and turns of the Mindlink experiment test his moral boundaries and his duty to his patients.

I first saw Rico Bruce Wade’s work in 2010 during my MSU film studies capstone course, which took the form of a short film production: American Terrorist.  This was before the launch of Airship Cinema, back when I lacked a single iota of directing know-how.  I was working (quite badly) in the sound department. But my small role did provide me a front-row seat to Rico’s chilling, layered performance as American Terrorist‘s lead character.  Three and a half years later, when it came time to cast someone for Dr. Cole, I was able to heartily recommend Rico.  From there, Brandon got in contact with him, and they met in person to discuss the role.

Once Rico was on board, he was absolutely terrific to work with.  In addition to bringing the written part to life, he also discovered new, subtle aspects of the character’s personality that we were happy to incorporate into the film.  With his improvisational background, he was able to give us something new and interesting with each take, which was exciting from both a directing and editing perspective.

MEGAN MOCKENSTURM AS DR. SYDNEY LA PORTE

Dr. Sydney La Porte is a focused, brilliant, driven grad student, and the youngest of the four Mindlink researchers.  As part of a generation raised on BMI (brain-machine interface) technology, she hails from a world that has yet to exist.

We knew this role would require a uniquely talented performer, and sent out casting calls through various channels for some time.  Two actresses were briefly signed on for the role, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.  Just when prospects started to look grim, Megan Mockensturm contacted us about the role.  Brandon met with her, and based on his recommendation, I agreed that we should cast her.

I was deeply impressed by how Megan captured the gait and physicality of a person who’s spent most of her life interacting with brain-operated software.  She also perfectly conveyed the subtle nuances of a woman who’s trained herself to appear constantly strong and composed in a demanding, overwhelming profession.  Dr. La Porte is a particularly fascinating character who provides a window into this compelling future, and I’m jazzed for the world to see Megan’s depiction.

EJ ASSI AS FAISAL AL-GHARSI

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Faisal is a reserved, mysterious immigrant from Yemen, who takes part in the Mindlink experiment with the hope of bringing the fractured human species closer together.

I was working at the local theater/bar/restaurant chimera known as Studio C when we started seeking an actor for Faisal.  When the acclaimed independent film Detroit Unleaded was screened there, I informed Brandon, and he immediately went to see EJ Assi’s performance.  He knew right away that EJ was the one we were looking for.  We contacted him, gave him the script, and were thrilled to learn that he loved the story and wanted to be a part of it.

Logistically, working with EJ provided a unique challenge, as he was living in New York City throughout our pre-production.  Fortunately, his talent and dedication made the distance feel like a minor hiccup.  Brandon and I conducted our meetings and rehearsals with EJ over Skype, holding many discussions of the character’s psychology and the inner workings of the Mindlink.  It amazes me to think of how much the three of us were able to accomplish so many miles from each other, and how unfeasible this would have been a mere decade or two ago.

EJ’s scenes had to be filmed quickly, as he was scheduled to come to Lansing for a tight, two-week window.  Fortunately, he came prepared, and blew the role out of the water every single day on set with incredible depth and sincerity.  We collaborated well, and constructed the sort of character whose quiet, concealed nature pulls the audience in to discover the answers.

KATHERINE SCHOOLER AS MADISON MCHALE

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Madison is a nervously extroverted participant in the Mindlink experiment.  She’s drawn to the study by her amazement at the technology’s potential, awed respect for the four scientists, and desire to make an impact on history.  In the written words, Madison had a very distinct, vibrant voice that we were excited to find a match for.

As with Megan, we found Katherine by putting out casting calls.  We met with two actresses in person, then clicked especially well with Katherine; right from her first line readings at the cafe, we could tell she understood the vulnerabilities and quirks of the character at least as well as we did.

As with EJ, we had to learn not just how Katherine would play Madison, but how she would incorporate certain elements of Faisal as their minds become connected in the film.  On her own, Madison would already have been a complex, fascinating role, through which Katherine could display her impressive range.  The film, however, takes Madison to some powerful psychological extremes, all of which are spectacularly conveyed by Katherine.  There were a lot of bold choices and experimentation involved in bringing Madison to these places, and it was inspiring to see Katherine’s willingness to take those artistic risks.

ZACK SZTANYO AS THE SOLDIER

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The soldier features in an early scene of >1 as a traumatized patient of Dr. Rho’s.

I met Zack at MSU when we shared an introductory theatre course, and soon had the idea to cast him as the titular, bumbling killer in Frank the Assassin.  Brandon and I loved his work so much that we’ve cast him in nearly every project we’ve made since; he reprised the role of Frank Lee for Frank the Assassin Goes on a Date, and starred alongside Alex Poling in Apocalypse Theory.  In >1, Zack brings a vulnerability and stirring pathos to a character whose presence introduces some of the grimmer, sadder aspects of this future world.

Working with Zack has always been a great honor and a lot of fun.  One of the best things about working with an actor multiple times is the creative language that you start to develop, and the increasing efficiency with which you can discover each new character.  I feel that our collaboration benefited from sharing an acting class, too; personally, I couldn’t imagine directing actors without having some first-hand experience with the craft.

Casting was a challenging process, to be sure.  But once it was over, we were enamored by our new team, and thrilled by the opportunity to help them craft these characters for the silver screen.

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From L to R: Rico Bruce Wade, EJ Assi, Jennifer Jelsema, Mike Stewart, Megan Mockensturm, and Katherine Schooler

But casts aren’t enough!  Movies need crews.

CREWING UP

Building a crew — at least, the way we do it — entails meeting a reliable group of wonderful people, learning to work together with them, and making powerful, lasting friendships in the process.  In the universal language of unbearable corniness, it’s like starting a family.  Probably.

We reunited with several crew members from past projects, many of whom we hadn’t seen for some time.  We cherished the opportunity to be working together again, having become very close through tackling so many challenges together.  We also connected very quickly with our new crew members.  Artistic collaborations are a great way to meet some of the most fascinating, talented people around.

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L to R: Matt Riggs, me, Maria Palmo, and Brandon Laventure

The first people we ever made films with were Maria Palmö and Matt Riggs.  I met Maria when we shared the capstone course that made American Terrorist.  Walking away from the first day of class, we started talking, and soon began to discuss our cinematic aspirations.  I learned that she was a cinematographer, and we agreed to collaborate on Frank the Assassin.  She then introduced me and Brandon to her boyfriend Matt: a skilled composer, brilliant handyman and all-around excellent guy.

When we shot Frank the Assassin later that year, Matt and Maria were our entire crew.  They ran camera, sound, and whatever else happened to be necessary at any given moment.  We’ve been fortunate beyond comprehension to have them on our team with every Airship Cinema project to date.

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Matt Riggs and Brandon Laventure building a thing.

Matt was able to help out on the >1 set as a PA on certain days, and is now the film’s composer.  His score is already beginning to convey the mysterious, stirring atmosphere that we’ve been hoping to express with this film.

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In addition to helping us with storyboarding and creative conception throughout the entire process, Maria ran the camera throughout most of production, visually designing the film with an eye that would make an eagle barf with envy.  When it comes to the visuals of our films, it could easily be said that Brandon, Maria, and I form a creative tripod (or a Triforce, for the Nintendo-inclined).

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L to R: Dan Mattei with our makeshift slate, and me in my directing nook

Maria was assisted in the camera department by Dan Mattei, her co-worker from the local radio station, WKAR.  Dan assisted Maria with the daily construction and maintenance of the complex RED SCARLET camera (which we rented from our aforementioned colleague, Ariel Vida) and expertly performed various PA duties, such as running the “slate” pictured above.

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Annette Gianino worked as sound mixer, having once pulled double-duty in both the cast and crew of Apocalypse Theory.  Her abilities and unmatched professionalism pulled us through some difficult days full of screaming trains, noisy bats, and loud, distant conversations.  She’s also worked on the set of Transformers: Age of Extinction, and is currently working on Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

10532551_811820192175814_909347221657667484_nAlso kicking ass in the sound department was Mike Kidd, another co-worker of Maria’s from WKAR.  When Annette had to leave production to work on Batman V. Superman, Mike stepped into her shoes and headed the sound department for the remainder of production.

This kind of shift is pretty common, given how difficult it is for everyone to reconcile their schedules with the demanding, ever-changing itinerary of an independent film.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who are able to learn on the job and move to new roles when it becomes necessary.

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Glenna Johnson helped us immensely with Apocalypse Theory by acting as our liaison with the university while we shot in an empty dormitory, and working as a PA for that period to boot.  For >1, she helped us with a variety of tasks, as our crew positions tended to be pretty flexible, and often overlapped.  Primarily she worked as script supervisor, keeping our shots organized and our continuity solid so we wouldn’t go mad from a chaotic post-production.

On previous productions, Brandon and I were forced to handle more tasks than any individual ever should, juggling schedules, call sheets, and nearly every other organizational function to keep our precious shoots from collapsing like neutron stars.

On >1, this is where Ethan Weiner stepped in to saved our butts, after being brought on board by — you guessed it — Maria Palmö.  As unit production manager, he kept schedules organized, kept the team constantly updated, wrote our daily call sheets, and helped to secure and deliver catered lunches, among countless other tasks.  I simply can’t overstate the benefit of having someone like Ethan on board.  Even now, he’s helping us immensely from LA as >1‘s co-producer.

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Susie Simons was a true hero of the >1 production, but we didn’t actually discover her until a week into filming.  Up to that point, Brandon had been making all the props himself, sacrificing sleep and most other human needs in order to create each item in time for its designated shooting day, atop his billion other producerly tasks.

This was untenable and bordering on inhumane.  On our first free weekend, with a few shooting days under our belt and countless props remaining to be built, Brandon and I took a night off at Stober’s Bar, a medieval-themed pub in downtown Lansing.  There, we happened to meet Susie.  We started discussing cinema-related matters and hit it off right away.  I can still recall the sound of Brandon’s overjoyed, accidental booze-snort when he discovered that:

A) Susie was into filmmaking,

B) Susie was into production design,

C) Susie was very interested in being part of >1, and

D) Susie was awesome.

Our new friend Susie was quickly on board as >1‘s inspired production designer and occasional script supervisor.  I believe we’ve told this to Susie multiple times, but to make it a matter of public record: meeting Susie was a freaking miracle.

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Having Susie on board also led to us meeting her now-husband, Chris Russell, who is currently working on some amazing concept art for the film’s post-production effects.  Here’s one awesome piece to get you pumped.

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In addition to our regulars, there were many who helped us in a smaller or less frequent capacity.  Margo Sawaya headed our sound department on one shooting day, after having done phenomenal work as Apocalypse Theory‘s script supervisor.  Brandon’s girlfriend and my regular-friend Caitlin Pistor helped select the future-based wardrobe for the cast, and was often able to help out on set.  Susie also recruited three more PAs to help out on various shooting days: Samantha Kodeski, Shaun Williams, and Brianna Vinton.  And on our very last day, we received some emergency help from Matt Hannah, a damn good sound mixer who came to our rescue when our usual sound-people weren’t available.

It’s hard work to find such a good team, but every day of editing reminds me of the fantastic results.  And throughout production, a good crew makes the bad shoots survivable and the good shoots positively rapturous.

But a good cast and crew isn’t enough!  Y’all need to rehearse.

THE REHEARSALS

Many directors don’t bother with rehearsals.  Not for cast, not for crew, not for anyone, ever.  Logically, I know this to be true.  Emotionally, however, it strikes me as an outlandish lie, constructed to baffle and offend my very being.

I think rehearsal is important.

TECHNICAL REHEARSAL

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L to R: Sound mixer Derek Byrd & me on the Apocalypse Theory set

I recall the first day of shooting Apocalypse Theory.  Standing, mortified, in my college-house kitchen, surrounded by four actors and about 50 billion crew members.  In my desperate attempt to look like a director, I’m donning an MSU baseball cap, my hands filled with a tiny megaphone and a huge frappuccino.  Time for the first shot.  “Um–lights?” I squeak, betraying my state of severe overwhelm.  The set is quiet.

For all the prep work we’d done, we had never bothered to sit down and figure out just what the hell I was supposed to say.

That shoot ultimately did come together, but I can’t imagine any crew feels particularly inspired by the sound of their director whimpering uncertain instructions.  That’s one reason why a technical rehearsal is so important: so everyone knows who’s supposed to do what, who’s reporting to whom, and how the whole puzzle will fit together when we have 12 shots to film and only enough daylight for five of them.

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L to R: Glenna Johnson, Dan Mattei, Maria Palmo, Brandon Laventure, me (hidden), Katherine Schooler (mostly hidden), and Rico Bruce Wade.  This isn’t the tech rehearsal, but it looked a lot like this.

For our tech rehearsal, we brought a couple scenes’ worth of storyboards, scripts, and other necessary materials to the city-owned Scott House — where we would shoot most of the film — and performed every step of an “average shoot,” minus the actors-being-there-and-saying-things part.  It was a great way to get everyone comfortable with working together, and iron out any hiccups in the process before the pressure was on.

CAST REHEARSALS

We didn’t take any pictures of our cast rehearsals.  Hope you like dry text!

In the weeks leading up to production, we tried to schedule as many rehearsals as we could.  We started by getting each actor into a one-character session.  These tended to be pretty informal living-room gatherings.  We’d zero in on a few particular scenes; typically ones that introduced the characters, defined something crucial about them, or signified a major shift for them.

Brandon would read the lines opposite our actors, and I would supply the bulk of our directing notes between “takes.”  It was a good way to start developing and experimenting with these characters in something of a vacuum, reaching new conclusions about them by trying everything a few different ways.  As with every other part of our direction, this was very much a two-way process; often, the actors would discover traits and revelations about the characters that would never have occurred to us.

This was also a great way to find out what sort of direction each actor was most comfortable with.  I’m not confident enough in any particular style of directing to presume that there’s one “best” technique for everyone, especially since so many of our actors were far more experienced than us, and therefore more confident in their methods.  Some of our actors wanted to use each take to come closer to a singular performative goal, while others wanted to try something very new each time.  Some wanted to converse about the characters’ motivations and inner lives; some preferred that Brandon and I do all the steering.  Some wanted to hear verbs; some wanted to hear adjectives.  We didn’t want to wait and discover all these preferences on set, with so many other cogs in motion.  It was infinitely better, and far more efficient, to start learning them well in advance.

With EJ and Megan — who were living in New York City and Ohio, respectively — we held many rehearsals via Skype.  At first, I was skeptical as to how productive this would be, but was quickly amazed by how much we could accomplish creatively over our sometimes-spotty Internet connection.  Though the physicality of the characters would, for the most part, have to wait until we were working in person, we were able to make a lot of progress through conversation and early line readings.

The next step was to bring in a few actors at a time.  We based these rehearsals on the relationships most important to the film: a rehearsal for Rho and Allebach, a rehearsal for Rho and Cole, a rehearsal for the four scientists, a rehearsal for the two test subjects, etc.  Having begun to establish the characters’ individual personalities, we now had the chance to see how they’d work off of one another, and what else we could discover about them through their interactions.

Then, at last, we held one final Mega Rehearsal, featuring all of the cast except for Zack, whose only scene would take place opposite Jennifer.  EJ was still present via Skype.  For this event, we rented out a small space and spent a day running through our largest, most demanding scenes, most of which featured the entire group.  Here, we could work on early versions of the blocking, now that we had the space for the actors to move around one another.

The main points of focus in this rehearsal were the mood, level of intensity, and overall trajectory of each scene.  Now, as never before, we could see what the movie was going to look like, and start to experience the emotional highs and lows of the story in motion.  We were also getting a sneak peek at all the fun we would have during production’s high points, since the actors were getting along so marvelously and building so well on each other’s energy.

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Working with these amazing people, cast and crew alike, reminded me of the best parts of childhood, diving into imagination-based adventures with like-minded friends.  There are many parts of the >1 production that I hope to remember for the rest of my life.  But I think my fondest memories will be of this team, and the feats we accomplished together.  We made a movie about empathy, collaboration, and co-existence.  As before, the themes on the page were enacted not only in the film, but in its production, as well.

This is Part 2 of a 4-part series.  Click here to read Part 3: Final Pieces of Pre-Production.

Click here to start at the beginning.

Click here to read Part 4: So Shoot, Baby Shoot.

>1, From the Director’s Chair – Part 1: From Science to Script

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L to R: Jennifer Jelsema as Dr. Rho, EJ Assi as Faisal, Rico Bruce Wade as Dr. Cole, & Megan Mockensturm as Dr. La Porte

In a future where people interact with computers using just the power of thought, a team of scientists attempts a bold experiment: to electronically connect the minds of two human test subjects, granting them the ability to share senses, thoughts, memories, and emotions. Over time, they become less like what we think of as individuals, and more like something the world has never seen.

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L to R: Actors Rico Bruce Wade & Jennifer Jelsema, director Cameron Laventure, producer Brandon Laventure, cinematographer Maria Palmo, and Camera Assistant Daniel Mattei

My brother Brandon and I make movies.

We raised the banner of our production company, Airship Cinema, in 2009.  Our early efforts spawned the award-winning short film Frank the Assassin, the feature-length college comedy Apocalypse Theory, a music video for local hip hop duo The Specktators, and the short sequel Frank the Assassin Goes on a Date, all within three and a half rollicking years.

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Pictured: rollicking

Brandon and I have different skill sets, to be sure, but our roles often overlap.  Brandon, with his business degree and stellar intellect, has always been a crackerjack producer.  If there’s a mountain standing between us and picture-lock, he’ll find a way to get it moved.  And I, with my film studies degree and space-faring mind, have done my part as director.  Having grown up as the human embodiment of social awkwardness, I never used to envision myself as a team leader.  But through four productions’ worth of practice, I became comfortable with driving the charge, keeping spirits high and inspired through even our toughest, longest days.  In time, I came to love the work.

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Pictured: loving the work.  That’s me on the left, Brandon on the right, on the set of Frank the Assassin Goes on a Date.

And work, we did.  We worked hard, and I daresay we did all right.  We were also lucky as hell, but I didn’t know that until tougher times arrived.

TOUGHER TIMES

After I graduated from MSU in 2012, our airship flew into stormy weather, where the winds blew financial hardship and the lightning crackled with self-doubt.

It was harder to launch projects without the comfortable academic structure that once cradled us like a couple of filmmaking, hard-partying babies.  Sparty had indulged our every absurd, expensive whim throughout the massive production of Apocalypse Theory.  The equipment, the credit, the convenience, the amazing cast and crew — we didn’t have the experience to appreciate just how easily they had come to us, compared to the trials of most beginning filmmakers.

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They gave us a dorm! A whole dorm!  (that’s cinematographer Maria Palmo in the middle)

Now that Brandon and I had to juggle numerous day jobs — car manufacturing, theater ushering, coffee-serving, transcription — we found it nigh impossible to summon the time or energy for our next big step.  There were things we knew we wanted to do.  We wanted to give comedy a rest, and try our hand at drama.  We wanted to tell fascinating stories with diverse, compelling characters.  In the long term, we dreamed of becoming Nintendo’s equivalent to Joss Whedon, entertaining the world with lavish, moving cinematic adaptations of The Legend of Zelda and Metroid.

But we were losing touch with our dreams and our fundamentals.  We suffered some severe creative misfires.  Costly shoots that crumbled in our hands.  Disjointed screenplays that ate their own tails.  Baffling outlines that shotgunned Four Loko and vomited into the fireplace.  We chased after fickle market desires and clever trope inversions, abandoning the pursuit of true meaning.  Soon, we were drowning our creativity in desperate, gun-jumping marketing campaigns for films that would never be: a short that never reached the edit bay, and a feature that never left the page.

Filmmaking had never been easy, but we weren’t used to these kinds of mistakes, and had no idea how to recover from them.  We couldn’t even figure out what our litany of errors was supposed to be teaching us.  Our vision was turning to exhaustion.  I couldn’t get inspired enough to make a decent breakfast in the morning, let alone a film.

The Airship was losing altitude, and we were going down with it.

It was Brandon who hoisted the sail again.  And attached a rocket to the Airship’s underside, just to be safe.

SALVATION THROUGH SCIENCE

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Mike Stewart as Dr. Allebach in >1 (photo by art director Susie Simons)

In October of last year — which was 2013, for all you future-based readers who just got home from the Legend of Zelda premiere — Brandon discovered an article in Scientific American that seized his imagination.  He relayed the details to me with the sort of inspired verve that I hadn’t known for some time.

There were groundbreaking neurological breakthroughs afoot.  At this moment, brilliant scientists were hard at work, unraveling mysteries of the brain that were too mysterious for me to have known they were mysteries.

Their feats were astounding.  They gave a chimp the power to mentally command a pair of robotic legs, with a response time that outmatched the human nervous system.

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Image from TechGadgets.in

They connected the brains of two rats, stationed on different continents, allowing them to share information; when one rat was touched on the whiskers, the other responded to the width of said whisker-touch.

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Image from New Scientist

These advances begged an intriguing question.  The sort of question that’s been driving science fiction since the genre’s inception, from “What happens when you reanimate a corpse made of other corpses?” to “What happens when you take a man’s face…off?”

A question that would be the rock upon which we’d build our next movie:

What happens when two human brains are joined together for the first time?

From this launching point, Brandon was out the gate in a mad flurry of first-drafting, leaving only a Brandon-shaped cartoon cloud in his wake.  Pretty soon, he was busting out the works.  Laptops.  Notebooks.  E-mail addresses of consulting scientists.  Notecards on corkboards.

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The works.

I stood back for the time being.  I knew something big was underway, but I was happy to play the bemused Watson to my brother’s manic Holmes (though thankfully, he never picked up Holmes’s cocaine habit).  Revision has always been a team effort with the two of us, but first-drafting can be too personal, vulnerable, and mind-screwing a process to be tackled by two people at once.

It’s often best to fight that battle alone.

But don’t take it from me!  Here’s Brandon Laventure, with a few words on his first-drafting process.

Hey, Cameron.  Thanks.  I started that draft with a lot of slow outlining, figuring out story beats and characters simultaneously, trying not to let either one race ahead of the other.  I can’t just dive into writing scenes like some people do.  Occasionally, there’d be little flashes of dialogue in my head, maybe three lines at a time.  Most of them got scrapped or seriously altered as I went, but some of those early ideas survived to become major dramatic beats of the film.

At some point in developing the story beats and characters together, it started to become apparent to me what the whole thing was about.  That was actually really freeing about using this technology as a starting place, that I didn’t feel any need to have a theme in mind when I started writing.  So it just kind of emerged out of the story that was taking shape.  This is all before writing a single page.

When it was pretty clear what my A plot (the experiment), my B plot (conflict between the scientists), and my C plot (inner conflict) were, I bought a corkboard and started writing down ideas for scenes on index cards, with notes on what I wanted each scene to accomplish — for each plot-line, for each character involved, etc.  Then I stuck them all up in order, looked at it for a while, worked on the stuff I didn’t like, and started writing.

Solid outlining made it a lot easier to get through that first draft, because even when I hated what I was writing, at least I knew what was going to happen next.  I feel like the major struggle of writing a first draft is to constantly forgive yourself and keep your fingers moving.  If I had to actually think about the story at the same time: ugh.  That would be rough.
I don’t remember how long the first draft took me once I started writing, but it went quickly enough that I was able to maintain some consistency of mind.  I skipped scenes that hadn’t grabbed my imagination yet, then came back to them later.  When it was all written, front to back, I spent some time fixing the things I already knew were wrong.  There were plenty of other things that I could tell were wrong, but didn’t have the juice left to fix.  I didn’t spend long working at it before I passed it to Cameron and said, “It’s our problem now.”
Actually, I was pretty excited about it.  Just the fact that I got through the first draft and still liked Brain-to-Brain Interface was a good sign.

Of course, this is just one man’s way to write, and we’ll see how it all turns out.  If it happens to be any good, some credit should go to Film Crit Hulk, whose essays have been influential to us in the last year.  If you really want to learn about screenwriting, I highly recommend his book.  Cameron, can you grab a link for that?  I’m done.

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As Brandon wrote the first draft, I busied myself with Miguel Nicolelis’s book Beyond Boundaries.  For a layman like myself, it’s an engaging true story and a wonderfully enlightening tome, offering an easy-to-follow primer on basic brain function and the amazing ways that brilliant minds are redefining its limits.  This book gave me the necessary foundation to help Brandon with the script, once the time came.

And come, the time once…did.

Before long, I was sitting with Brandon’s new first draft:

>1.

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A harsh truth about first drafts: they are garbage.

But this was garbage I could eat off of.  

Already, the script for >1 had a compelling hook, a tense narrative that went down smooth like coconut water, and seven compelling-as-hell characters.  It was the most page-turnin’, rip-roarin’ first draft I could ever expect to read.

Now, I was on board.  Now, there was a project.  Now, we were in pre-production, and the Airship was soaring proudly again.

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REVISION PHASE

When it comes to writing, Brandon and I don’t have a system.  I’m not saying this to be cool.

It would be arrogant of me, beginner that I am, to go listing universal truths about the rewriting process.  But I know one thing for certain: it takes hella work.

Through much of this phase, Brandon and I were living in different parts of Lansing, and feeding most of our hours into the daily working grind.  This gave us very little time to collaborate.  Generally, we shot the script back and forth, making and tracking our changes, sending our revisions back with extensive explanations, and rethinking a solid half of our revisions the next day.

The earliest changes I made were small.  I tinkered with sections of dialogue to help the characters pop off the page, and keep them from vanishing into the plot’s machinations.  I helped streamline the more jargonesque pieces of dialogue — though this was a tightrope walk at times, since Brandon understood the science better than I did.

Once I became more confident in the details of the script, and understood the objective of each scene within the larger whole, I began to feel some proper ownership of the project, and was able to venture greater changes.  Eventually, the two of us were transforming the script altogether, swapping out entire scenes, punching up the peaks of the action, and taking on character-specific revisions of the script to make sure each character had a meaningful, substantial role in the story.

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To words!

We showed the script to family, fellow screenwriters, close friends, and at one point, the BlueCat Screenwriting Workshop.  As we nervously awaited everyone’s notes, I recalled a bit of screenwriting advice from a forgotten source: If someone tells you something is wrong, they’re usually right.  If they tell you exactly how to fix it, they’re usually wrong.

This was, generally, a good philosophy for accepting notes.  When we were advised to add action scenes to our dialogue-driven drama, we knew it was the pacing that needed work.  When we were told to make the stakes larger — i.e., inflate our story to the save-the-world battle that’s happening in every modern blockbuster — we knew we had to make the conflict matter more, the stakes more personal — smaller, perhaps.

The biggest take-away from this phase, though, was to never write off criticism with the onanistic excuse that our readers “didn’t get it.”  By and large, people who read a script want to get it.  They want to enjoy themselves.  And if they’re not enjoying themselves, then the work isn’t done.  This was an essential part of the process, and I’m hugely thankful for all the help we received.

It was February of 2014.  The cogs were in motion, and we were entering our last three months of pre-production.  But still, we were missing something: time to collaborate on the script in person.

Then I was in a car accident.

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Pictured: tripping so hard, I’m aware I’m in a blog

The collision, thankfully, caused no deaths or debilitating injuries.  But it destroyed my car, banged up my spine, and yielded very little in the way of useful near-death revelations.

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There was a silver lining.  My daily, searing storms of backgony offered me ample, paid time away from my two day jobs.  Now — through admittedly twisted, unintended means — Brandon and I could finally co-write in person.

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Pictured: “This doesn’t feel like a scene yet. Can it be more of a scene?  Where’s the ‘this’ in this?”

Typically, we’d undertake long coffee shop stints, trading laptops and notebooks between us, acting out entire scenes together, and building on each other’s work with incisive, real-time commentary.  At its best, this mode of writing was an enlightening, thrilling process, providing the mutual self-esteem and carefree whimsy of an all-night tandem game of Donkey Kong Country.  The work was more efficient and more involving now.

At times, however, it was straight-up distressing.

Since Brandon and I have a long, complex history as close family and writing partners, our most minor disagreements between the words “an” and “the” could easily turn us into the pissiest pissmongers that ever pissed.  Most of our skirmishes were smoothly resolved, but if the night was young, we could easily spiral into hour-long meta-squabbles over which brother had been the first to employ a mean tone.

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“Quit drawin’ me, asshole! I’m drawin’ you!”

Learning to be better writers and learning to be better brothers go hand-in-hand.  We improved on both fronts, and found ourselves happier and prouder with each new draft.  We stepped back for a long moment between each major revision, allowing our thoughts to percolate while we focused on other areas of production.

We continued this ever-evolving process until filming began.  Ultimately, we reached a total of eight drafts.

Well, I say “ultimately.”  But we kept on rewriting throughout the shoot, in order to satisfy the movie’s shifting needs.  The writing isn’t really done until the movie’s in the can.

Or on the hard drive, I guess.  We’ve never had a can.

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L to R: me, sound technician Mike Kidd, unit production manager Ethan Weiner, producer Brandon Laventure, & cinematographer Maria Palmo

A narrative film lives or dies by its screenplay.  This is why screenwriters are the most highly-paid, exalted figures in the business (citation needed).  All in all, I quite like the script for >1, and I think you will, too — especially when you see our spectacular cast giving the words all they’ve got, supported by the best damn crew we could ever dream of.

Tune in next week to read about our spectacular cast and our best damn crew!

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L to R: Megan Mockensturm as Dr. La Porte, Mike Stewart as Dr. Allebach, Rico Bruce Wade as Dr. Cole, & Jennifer Jelsema as Dr. Rho

You can also stay updated on >1 by Following or Liking Airship Cinema.

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series. 

Click here to read Part 2: Putting Together a Special Team.

Click here to read Part 3: Final Pieces of Pre-Production.

Click here to read Part 4: So Shoot, Baby Shoot.

Elsa, Myself, and Living Alone as a Means of Growing Up

SPOILER ALERT

The following blog contains spoilers for Frozen, Man of Steel, and the events of my personal life over the last couple years.

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Am I too late to write a blog about Frozen?

I’ll do it anyway.  Besides, this post is really half Frozen-analysis, half autobiography-of-a-quarter-life-crisis.  (and, you know, the places where they meet.)

In the beginning of the incomparable Frozen, Princess Elsa is raised to be afraid of hurting others with her ice-based magic.  She enters adulthood with her coronation as Queen of Arendelle.  It’s a beautiful event, bursting with pomp and grandeur.  But, this being the first act of a Disney film, the celebration turns tragic.  Elsa’s powers are revealed, and the people start to turn on her.  She flees, unintentionally freezing the kingdom in her wake.  Once isolated in the mountains, Elsa finally lets loose with her pent-up abilities, building a beautiful Fortress of Solitude and singing of her newfound freedom, inner peace and self-confidence in the musical number “Let It Go,” a song that I probably should have gotten tired of months ago.

It goes like this, in case you’ve also been living in an ice palace without wi-fi.

A series of dramatic, expertly-scripted events and songs ensue, resulting in the destruction of Elsa’s ice castle, her reunion with her sister Anna, and her return to the kingdom.  She chooses love over fear, and for the first time, lives happily within her family and community.  It’s a fascinating story in many ways, and perhaps Disney’s most complex, thematically nuanced fairy tale to date.

Generally, you can point to any plot point in a Disney film and say, with absolute clarity, whether it’s good or bad.  I’ve read that Walt Disney would instruct his animators to make every scene so vivid and expressive that a child could understand them with the sound turned off.

Yet there’s no obvious, simple answer to the question of whether Elsa’s self-imposed isolation is positive or negative.  The power and beauty of her song, as well as her visible happiness after a lifetime of misery, suggest that it’s an extremely positive event.  But then, you could say the same about “Love Is an Open Door,” which turns out to be less of a romantic Disney meet-cute and more of a power-hungry sadist’s seduction of a sheltered, naive young woman.

Adorable tune, though.

If Elsa’s isolation were the true solution to her problems, “Let It Go” wouldn’t have occurred so early in the film.  Elsa still has a long emotional journey to undertake from there; one that ultimately leads her to a very different, but just as positive, phase of her life, back with the people of her kingdom.

Narrative ambiguity like this can either be frustrating, or an amazing opportunity for various interpretations.  Frozen gives us the latter.  Naturally, a lot of writers—most recently at Collegehumor—have argued that Elsa’s ice powers constitute a metaphor for homosexuality.  When her intrinsic nature frightens and angers those around her, she finds self-acceptance through solitude, but an even happier situation is achieved when the people come to love her, ice powers and all.

Another, equally cromulent interpretation poses Frozen as a Christian allegory, with Elsa’s solitude mirroring Lucifer’s exile from Heaven, and Anna serving as an unconditionally loving, nonviolent Christ figure.  At first glance, this take seems a little harsh to Elsa (unless one thinks of the sympathetic Lucifer from Paradise Lost), but it’s undeniably compelling.  It’s certainly more interesting than the superficial, forced religious imagery we usually get from our blockbusters, in the vein of “Superman is Jesus because he sticks his arms out sometimes.”  I’m not sure if those are making anybody happy.

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He certainly turned Zod‘s other cheek.

It’s a testament to the power of a good story when people can glean several meanings from it, and each interpretation rings both true and powerfully relatable to the viewer.

My personal take is that Elsa’s journey is one of passage into adulthood.  Thus—unlike so many of the fairytale events that we ’90s kids grew up with—her momentarily triumphant solitude can’t be reduced to a “good or bad” binary.  It is simply something that Elsa needs at a certain moment, that was never meant to last.  The joy she expresses in “Let It Go” comes more from her newfound pride and freedom of artistic expression than the absence of other people.  Once she finds space to grow, Elsa is able to nourish those parts of herself, and eventually attain the confidence to choose love over fear.  Solitude makes her happy right then, but it’s no fix-all.  One of the harsher lessons of becoming an adult is just how difficult it is to boil every choice down to “right or wrong,” to turn one’s position in life into a “happy ending.”  The circumstances of life change constantly, and we never stop changing with them.

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I know the trolls said “people don’t really change,” but I’m allowed to disagree with the trolls.

That’s my interpretation of Elsa’s solitude.  And after some self-reflection, I realized that my take has a lot to do with my own inner journey over the last couple years, and the similarities it bore to Elsa’s.

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I’m not a winter person, but otherwise we’re identical.

To date, I have never been coronated.  My ceremonial passage to adulthood was my graduation from MSU in 2012.  I didn’t know it yet, but graduation would prove to be a dark event in its own way.  I didn’t realize just how comfortable and happy I’d become in college.  I didn’t realize how I’d been handed the perfect blend of intellectual stimulation, thrilling adventure, personal fulfillment, and, through a crew of great friends and a wonderful relationship, social satisfaction.

There was no moment, during or immediately after graduation, when I suddenly noticed that these things were gone.  But as they gradually vanished over the next sad year, I became lazy, shiftless, dependent, and bitter.  I started to see life as a thing that was happening to me, rather than something I could make happen.  My abandonment of agency led to countless problems in my life, including a period of creative foot-dragging, 8 months of unemployment (though the economy deserves some blame for that one), strain between me and my brother/roommate/filmmaking partner, and, ultimately, the straw that broke the camel’s neck: my first-ever breakup, which took place about a year ago.

This last, darkest turn illuminated all the others.  I spent months wallowing in the worst agony and regret I’ve ever felt.  Eventually I realized, with painful clarity, just how far I’d fallen, and how long and hard I’d have to work to achieve a life as satisfying as what I once had, or to become a person I’d be proud of again.

I questioned every aspect of myself, and started to feel that my emotional instability was as dangerous to my loved ones as freaky ice powers.  To relearn my independence, find space to start growing again, and perhaps recover some of my lost qualities, I decided to get an ice palace of my own: a little one-bedroom apartment in Lansing that I called Fort Cameron.

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I thought of cleaning the place before taking photos, but it didn’t feel honest.  This place was clean, like, twice.

In rebuilding myself and gaining a sense of control over my life, I set the place up to my tastes, and my tastes alone.  I decorated the walls with my heroes.

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I like to think of Teddy Roosevelt as the Samus Aran of presidents.

I set up dry-erase boards on the walls, so I’d always have a place to channel my unfettered thoughts at a moment’s notice.

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Mostly poetry snippets and to-do lists. It’s okay that you can’t read them.

Here, I felt free to express myself as thoroughly as Elsa with her frozen fractals, all around.  I experimented with new art forms and new ways of thinking.  I was the captain here.  I was free to make my own mistakes.

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I even invented a new one!

Even in college, I had wondered for some time if living alone was the most natural way for me to exist.  After all, most of my hobbies are solitary by their nature, and even when I was consistently happy, I frequently sought out evenings to myself.

But even as I enjoyed the benefits of Fort Cameron, I started to see its drawbacks.  For one thing, it was so exhausting to perform 100% of the housekeeping duties, that I had little energy left to devote to creating anything.  Worse yet, I found that I wasn’t half as introverted as I thought.  I missed being closer to people.  I had relished those solo nights in college when I needed to carve them out, when they were special occasions.  Now they were the inescapable evening routine.  And as an adult straight out of college, I learned that it’s far easier to get away from people than it is to find them.

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Even if you have a giant projector screen and a poster of Stephen Colbert telling you you’re awesome.

Strangely enough, I was just starting to rethink my isolation around the same time that I saw Frozen.  As much as I immediately loved the film, a part of me wanted to disavow everything that happened with Elsa after “Let It Go.”  Whenever I recognize myself in a work of fiction, I start out wanting one of two things: to be told exactly what to do, or to be told that I’m already doing the right thing.  Frozen was teaching a more nuanced lesson, one more suited to my adult life than the powerful-yet-simpler yearnings of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.  As is so often the case in my life, a character in a movie was lighting my path.

Seeing this connection made me glad that, at the age of 24, I still have enough imagination to relate to Disney heroines.  It probably helps that Elsa is the first Disney princess who’s old enough to order a beer.

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“Perhaps a NATTY IIIIIIICE”

And so, in lieu of crossbow-wielding thugs to bring Fort Cameron crashing down around me, I’ve decided to move in with my brother and his girlfriend for a time.  Today, I’m rejoining the human family.  There are countless lines from “For the First Time in Forever” that could be quoted here, but there’s a decent chance that song is already stuck in your head, too.

If not: you’re welcome.

As glad as I am to be opening up the gates, I never would have realized so many crucial things about myself if I hadn’t tried living alone for a time.  Like Elsa, I had to find space apart from humanity to appreciate my place in it.  I had to learn to love myself, so I could properly love my family and friends.  I had to master my own affairs for a time, in order to know how to do my part among others.

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Like dishes. Won’t miss solo dish-doing.

I’m tempted to bring this post to a tidy conclusion, but it wouldn’t be an honest representation of where I am right now.  Frozen ends with Elsa ice skating with her sister and friends, having the time of her life and everything she needs, and well, I’m just not there yet.

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For one thing, I don’t like ice skating. That’s two differences between me and Elsa.

I know life has no happy ending, but I know from experience that it has periods of time that feel like happy endings.  And—for the first time in forever—I feel like I’m heading for one of those times.  And I’m looking forward to it.

 

 

 

P.S.  I know I ended up writing a tidy conclusion anyway.  It was an accident.