Wednesday, February 9, 2011
ON THE SET: THE HOUSE—DAY ONE
Tuesday we arrived at the house where the rest of the film will be shot. We got there about 2:00 p.m. One of the producers (Hilary) was already there with the owner of the house, finalizing some details. It’s an incredible house. Not huge, but VERY nice.
Jon took photos of several rooms to make sure everything is put back exactly the way it was found after the production is over.
I helped Hilary put plastic over some of the furniture in a room next to the kitchen, to be used as a kind of green room. Everyone will be wearing booties during the shoot to protect the carpet. Hilary said she wanted to make an extra effort to make things run smoothly, because everybody likes Jon.
The cinematographer (Libby) showed up soon after and started walking the house with Jon, discussing shots.
Jon had been hoping to get the first shot complete by 9:00 but it ended up being 9:30. There was just a great deal of prep needing to be done. In particular, the lighting is essential at the house. The lighting crew set up the lights and screens in the backyard. One of the reasons Jon decided on this house was because of the numerous windows. That way he could light the house easily from the outside and get the look he wants. For the majority of the night, the issue most of the time was the intricate lighting that had to be done. In order to get the effect Jon was wanting, the actually light it brighter than will actually show up on film. The final result will actually show it much darker than what we actually saw in reality.
The first shot was of Alma walking in the front door, silhouetted against the light. Jon took several shots of this, making sure she was positioned just right. At one point she had trouble getting the keys in her purse and they had to get another take.
One of the best shots was the dolly pulling back as Alma stands there at the entrance of her own house. It really created a tone of her being alone and overwhelmed. It’s amazing how the slightest movement of the camera can shape emotion.
Once in a while the camera crew will “check the gate” which means to open the lens and make sure there are no stray hairs and such in the shot.
The plan was to get 5 shots off by “lunch” at midnight, but when lunch arrived the shoot was pretty far behind. Again, the light was such a significant factor, it took extra time to get it just right.
When it comes lunch time, the rules are pretty strict. SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) ensures that actors and other crew members are not pushed beyond reasonable limits. But that also means it’s pretty frustrating to have to quit right when you have some real momentum, in front of the camera as well as behind the camera, because of the policy.
Last night, Andy the 1st Assistant Director called “grace,” which means asking everyone to push the time limit just a little in order to finish the shot that is in process.
After “lunch,” it was time for several shots with the steady cam, which is a camera that isn’t on a dolly, but actually carried by the operator using a complex system of levers. This allows for smooth shots but with more maneuverability. The steady cam cameraman (Brian) told me a little about his job. How the camera weighs 70 pounds and it makes it difficult if the director isn’t aware that standing there for long periods of time during set up can cost him energy and as a result, a good, smooth take. Brian indicated that Jon knew how to make the most of the steady cam. It takes two men to make the steady cam pull off the shot. Brian actually maneuvered the camera, but another guy stood next to him with a remote focusing device that he adjusted as they moved. The tap for the steady cam is a wireless remote screen that had a tendency to cut out. This made it difficult for Jon to know if he got the shot he wanted or not.
Around two, you could tell that the late night shoots were beginning to whittle some of us down. There were a few casualties sprawled on the couch, catching some Zs.
At one point, Jon was gracious enough to let me help with one shot.
It’s amazing how well the system works. Each department is responsible for one particular aspect, of course. The first assistant director can go do each department head and get information as needed.
Some interesting details. There were lots of cameras other than the actual camera. It seemed like every department head was snapping shots to get what they needed.
The light crew wore gloves to adjust the lights since they get so hot.
The first assistant director would call out “settle down,” to get everyone quiet. Then he would shout, “going for a take,” then “on you, Jon.” That was the point Jon knew he had everything ready and would say “Action.”
We were coming up on 4:00 a.m. and the night was still way behind schedule.
One of the most exciting moments of the night was unplanned. Keep in mind that all the lighting was outside on the back lawn set up to shine through the window. Lots of hot lights and vulnerable screens. At about 4:50 p.m. the sprinkler system came on.
The lighting crew rushed for the backyard. One of them (because of the booties he was wearing like everyone else) slipped on the marble floor and fell, hitting his head. He was only dazed but I imagine it wasn’t any fun at all.
Jon ran to the garage and switched of the sprinklers. All was peaceful again.
Around 5:00 a.m. with about an hour to spare, the shots became a little more urgent as everyone knew they were quickly running out of time. But the set-up and prep and all the little details still had to be done and even though they were moving fast, each shot took up valuable time.
Under the circumstances, with the exhaustion and the pressure and the shadow of Murphy’s law hovering over everything, in most cases all of this would have caused people to snap at each other and generally lose their cool. But everyone maintained an extreme level-headed professionalism—a balance of cold efficiency and quaint etiquette. The last shot was a very important one for the film and Jon got several takes just in time.
After it was done, he thanked the crew for holding together and pushing themselves to help him get what he wanted and everyone applauded the job well done.