Monday, October 25, 2010

Bikers in the Rain

I shot a short film in the spring of this year. It is now complete. I do not know what will come of it. I do not know, or care, if it is a great film or not; I only made it because I had to. Since I did not keep a journal for this shoot, I will have to simply remember it. That said, everything noted herein is absolutely true.

(Photo by Mark Webster)

April 20th, 2010.
1) It is about to rain. This much is obvious. I drive in to downtown Portsmouth to pick up my Mom and her friend (no relation to filming). I drive back and probably exude some vaguely anxious, pessimistic mood the whole way. This is what happens in the absolute final stages of pre-production; you are waiting for everybody to arrive at the location, but you know something will go kaput. It practically is shooting time, but not quite. Some problem will certainly wedge its way in.

2) I pedal my bike to Little Harbor Road. Now is when the wedge comes; I get a call from Benji. He tells me his car broke down on I-95. He had to pull over and call AAA, but he had no idea when he can get here. I’m anxious, and I’m the one directing. So I ask him if, when he gets the car fixed, he can still show up. (Yes, this is the wrong thing to say. I don’t care at the moment.) He says he will. He’s a loyal friend. Without Benji, we will have no idea when a car or a person is coming down the road to interfere with our shot until it’s too late. It has to be completely clear for the purposes of the film; the most inherent point of the story is that the main character is isolated in his surroundings. If there is a major problem, there will be only four people to fix it. Maybe that’s enough, maybe not.

3) I arrive at Little Harbor Road. I wait, watch the traffic swish by, watch the clouds move as if they are made of molasses. After some minutes, I get a call from Kevin. He and Zach are here, but they drove too far down the road. They describe where they are, and I tell them to drive back the way they came. It takes no time for them to get here.

4) Mark has arrived. He came out from the South Street Cemetery, just like he did when I first met him in this same spot: a lanky, shaggy dot on a bike, wheeling defiantly past the gravestones. It occurs to me only now that he appears as a character would in one of Ford or Kurosawa’s more sentimental shots. But this image looks bizarre and nearly hilarious. It could have been more interesting than any shot in the actual film. But it passed us by.
(Photo by Damon Griffin)

5) I’ve attached the tripod to Mark’s handlebar. Everybody’s been introduced. I look over my four pages of silly notes for the shoot. I hand Zach a trash bag filled with two masks, a tuft of black and white feathers, two tiny bottles of dark and light red solution (respectively) that will serve as blood, and some ragged clothes that look like they could be lying around by the side of a road. Because they will be. We set off down Little Harbor Road.

6) One important thing you should do when directing a film is just let the location take over. It is inevitable that it will take over. So if there’s going to be rain, let there be rain. If your pants get muddy, let them get muddy. If there’s too much wind blowing to hear the bike pedaling, mix the sound later on so that it all sounds like wind, or remove the sound entirely. If cars drive by and yet it’ s the best shot you got, cut it up in to several shots, excluding the car, and live with the jump cuts. If you don’t just let nature have its way with you, not a single shot will be captured. If you don’t let nature have its way with you and your film is still finished, it will suffer the consequences of perfection.

7) We are gathered at the mouth of the dirt road that veers off from Little Harbor Road, and will serve as the “beginning” of Kevin’s journey. I tell Mark and Kevin where to position themselves. Kevin is applying blood to his leg. The fact that it looks very real cheers me. Mark turns on the camera and starts shooting as Kevin bends over to touch his wounded leg, lost and confused on some wooded road. I realize I am talking through the first half of the shot. We’ll edit it out later.

8) The first shot doesn’t work. This is because Kevin misunderstood the moment when he is supposed to jump on the bike, after wheeling it for uphill for about a minute. He goes past the crest of the hill, still wheeling it alongside him. Mark follows, not realizing anything is wrong. Can I accommodate this mistake? Can we make do with this way? No. Man up, Damon. Put your foot down. When an actor does something wrong, then you tell him that he did something wrong. I yell for everybody to stop, many seconds after I should have.

9) The next three, four, five shots go over just fine. I actually enjoy watching Zach place the bird feathers by the side of the road and spread them out so they are intermingled with the leaves and shrubbery. I enjoy sprinkling blood on the feathers, and making sure that Kevin knows where the feathers will be, when he should notice them and stop biking. We are playing with orientation, and I am actually enjoying the (supposed) fruits of our labors. This is a good sign, right? It’s ironic if it is, because this good sign comes right at the moment of the first sign of danger in the film; a dead bird, followed by Mark’s rough dolly close to Kevin’s leg as he rolls up his pant leg and surveys the dried blood on his knee.

10) This film actually follows a rough orientation in the biking scenes. We are behind Kevin; Kevin is biking straight ahead, down the middle of the road, surrounded by forests on both sides. It will suffice. But we don’t know where specifically he is, why the dirt road suddenly became a paved road, at what point he began or at what point he intends to end up. Orientation in the context of chaos is what we are aiming for on this film. It is the same combination Herzog perfected in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and earlier, Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer disorients us with startling montage and constant close-ups that elude any setting. But he orients us with a steady gaze of Maria Falconetti’s face-- all faces for that matter-- usually shot from a low angle. Herzog simply orients us with setting--the rainforest--and a group of people who are moving through that setting, by foot and raft. Later, he disorients those same devices. I am taking the Herzog approach. Except I’m not waiting until later to distort anything.
(from Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972/dir. Werner Herzog, Anchor Bay Entertainment)
(Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928/dir. Carl Theordor Dreyer; Gaumont/Janus Films)
11) Kevin starts biking at the dead end of Little Harbor Road; he is moving back the way we came, to Sagamore Ave. I’m letting him and Mark take it from here. They know what they’re doing. In the meantime, I walk with Zach back towards a bend in the road where he will hang the masks on delicate tree limbs. He remarks on a large, ominous tree with roots that look like their steaming mad about having been confined to a tree. He says it’s creepy and I should get a shot. I agree with him and seriously consider it, but the shot never happens. I feel that we are on surer footing now, and when I watch the footage later, it looks that way. As strange as it may sound, I think this feeling can be entirely attributed to us being on paved ground rather than a bumpy dirt road. Literally, surer footing.

12) When a film is being made on the fly, with semi-professionals and non-professionals, with no money, and was planned and instigated entirely by the director, then there really is such a thing as an auteur. I am the auteur of this film; but it doesn’t make me feel all-powerful or special. It is getting too dark for the camcorder we’re using; cars are coming by too often, stalling the shot; Benji couldn’t make it; it will rain any moment. Nonetheless, I did organize just about everything. The three people I am with are all assuming this is my vision and I know what I’m doing. So I am forced to feel the same way. I am sure all young film students and teenagers trying to make it in to film school feel the same way, until they realize that they aren’t much of an authority, that their voice sounds too squeaky, that they can’t answer a lot of questions, that they’re probably talking too much in the first place.

13) Kevin bikes down the road on the final stretch of his journey. Mark wheels close until he is parallel to Kevin, then pulls behind him. It is a very smooth, graceful shot. Then a car comes by and ruins it all. We shoot again.

14) Kevin wheels to a stop at the clothes sprawled across the bushes. The cloudy sky has decided to saturate all colors for us.  Kevin inspects the clothes, confused, and sees the blood trailing away from them. Cut. He is back on his bike, pedaling away from the scene furiously. Rain starts pouring down. The woods begin to clear. They stop when a car slows down and honks at them. It was bound to happen at some point. Kevin just starts biking again from the spot where he stopped and soon comes out on to busy, civilized Sagamore Road.
(Photo by Damon Griffin)

15) We are wet. I don’t want the camera to get damaged, or the bikes to get rusty. Shooting is done for this day. We still have to shoot the scenes in Cambridge on the weekend. I still have to haul myself down to Boston for that segment of the shoot. In time, I will realize that Mark had accidentally recorded only the minutes where we rehearsed the final three shots of the film, and stopped recording for the actual takes; a week later, we will do a quick re-shoot. In time, I will realize just what a bitch it will be to edit this film. In time, I will submit it to, and see it get rejected from, the New Hampshire Film Festival. Fuck it. I just keep going. If you want to make films, you don’t wait for them to happen to you, you force them on the world. You will be subjected to a cannonade of disappointments, compromises, dead-ends, technical breakdowns, lost commitments, and you just keep going.  You make the same mistakes over and over again until you just stop making them out of sheer soreness. You try to save up more money, you try to use a better camera, make more connections, submit to more film festivals, and they all ignore you; the camera you want is too expensive. You just keep going. You kick and scream and raise a ruckus and fall hard against the pavement, and everything happens short of God himself stepping down from the sky to personally tell you to quit filmmaking, and you keep going. And even if God does in fact come down from the sky to tell you the facts, you tell him to go to hell and you keep going. Eventually, you’ve found some images that people want to see. You have better cameras. You may have made some money. It doesn’t matter, dammit, none of it matters, reality will have to crack someday, you keep going.

Postscript by Will Treacy:When your actors do something "wrong", it could actually be brilliant. If it truly is wrong for the shot, you don't just tell them they did something wrong, you say something like, "that was great, but why don't we try it like this this time" Another good trick is to ask them for their ideas until they align with yours, and then they feel like they're contributing and came up with the idea. A huge part of directing is knowing how to work with actors