Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reflection

Firstly, I must apologize to those following this blog for the huge gap in posts. One of the reasons for this is that it has been very difficult to write about this next stage in the production of the film. Secondly, for those just joining the blog - please do return to the first entry to read about the making of the film in sequence, right from the start.

After shooting Shutterbug in November 2006, I felt we had accomplished a huge feat. The dailies looked great. No one could have guessed that we were shooting a no-budget feature film out the back of a van. The film has a 'few-hundred-thousand-dollar-look'. But there were some very big holes in the film and in early 2007 when I returned from our holiday vacation, these holes were gaping at me.

1. One key plot point scene was totally wrong. Wrong writing, wrong casting, wrong location, wrong atmosphere. It obviously had to be re-thought and re-shot.

2. The film was an amorphous lump of difficult to manage HD footage and an incomprehensible tangle.

3. Many small scenes were missing.

4. I had not shot the ending.

This all meant more shooting. I called Nando and we figured out a shooting plan. About a couple of weeks of work. Most of the small scenes that were missing we shot just ourselves, Nando and I. Parking the van on the side of the street, grabbing a few exterior shots and jumping back in the van. I actually enjoyed the process of shooting without a crew, just me, Nando and the camera. We were relaxed. These scenes work very well because of this. But I must give huge credit to Nando for being able to just walk through busy downtown locations, with a camera shooting him across the street, and give a subtle and engaging performance despite the distractions of the city, curious pedestrians and noisy traffic. It's a big deal for most actors to just get up there and work in the middle of the street, exposing themselves with no support other than the guy with the camera at a distance. We were bare bones and no fluff.


For some other scenes we had some assistance from Brett. The key scene I had to re-shoot was a bigger production. I gathered a select few of my colleagues to help and we shot in a basement location dressed to look like a psychic's parlor. It was a two camera shoot, with detailed set dressing, make-up and a lot of dialogue. We spent the whole day on it, and got some great material. I had re-cast the psychic to be a darker, more absurd character - and for this I turned to
Anna Gutto. Anna and I had worked before on some short films I had directed photography for. She had impressed me with her utter professionalism and understanding of the process of working with a camera and was very trusting and giving in her performance. She also totally got into the role.


We then had to tackle the ending, which was not only another production issue, but it was an aesthetic choice. In the script I had written an ending that offered closure and contentment to the audience. In short, I didn't like it. I wanted something more ambiguous. Something that would leave the audience with a good feeling, but at the same time a "but, wait..." thought that would linger with them. This decision was interesting as it brought out one main underlying theme of the film: telepathy.

We shot the ending in a gorgeous location, and I handled the scene like an epic - wide angles and a moving camera. The shoot was successful - finally we had a real wrap. That's when the nightmare began.

The process of organizing and logging hours of footage is the Assistant Editor's job. This was my 15th hat and I launched into it. This work is very tedious but essential in order to familiarize yourself with the material. However, I was back in the movie. The disassociation I had achieved with the trip to Italy had totally disappeared. So I put the film down again for a few weeks - worked on some shooting gigs, scraped some money together.

When I went back to the film, I finally finished a rough cut. It was an excruciating three hours long. It was full of fat, slow scenes and a strange twisting plot that had to be clarified. Disheartened, I put the film down again. By now it was mid 2007.

I got a call from my father around that time saying that he was going into production and wanted me to shoot his new film, which would be an HD production. Because of my recent experience with the format, and knowing the light and environment in Cyprus, I was the right guy for the job. So I got involved with the production of Little Ulysses and the Cyclops (coming soon...) and flew to Cyprus for what would be a 2-3 month pre-production & shooting period. That production is a long and intriguing story in itself and I can't really go into it here, but by the time we were wrapped and I was ready to return to NYC, it was January 2008.

Upon my return to NYC, Rossana and I had separated, I had to move to a new apartment, and was trying to pick up the various pieces of my life in New York. My first priority was to set up shop and start working again. At this time I returned to one of my old jobs: Cinema Village.

Throughout my college years, and for some time after, I was working as a projectionist in movie theaters. Initially at The Screening Room (now the Tribeca Screening Room), and then later at Cinema Village. I had always kept ties with the theater, but before I left they had a supervising manager who was controlling the venue - and he had recently quit. So I stepped back in as GM. I spent a lot of time re-organizing the theater and hiring new film-savvy staff. By film savvy I mean a bunch of film-geeks who can list all of John Hughes films in order of production date. The favorite down-time game of the staff is 'guess the movie in 20 questions'... I could go on. In any case, Cinema Village was my baby and I put a lot into it. I also picked up quite a bit of production work in the summer and was basically back on the scene.

Time to turn my efforts back to Shutterbug. I started cutting and rearranging the scenes in the film. I dropped a few scenes that were obviously not working. I also stuck to my father's advice - he had seen the rough cut and basically told me that the film had to be 'distilled.' The word 'distilled' stuck with me and I stopped editing and started my cinematic distillery.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pressing on...

The Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) bridges Queens and Brooklyn, stretching parallel to Manhattan, elevated some 50 feet off the ground in places. As you drive Brooklyn bound, the BQE offers some breath-taking views of Manhattan rising in the distance, the skyscrapers echoing the tombstones of a huge cemetary in the foreground. I explored this startling visual in my short film Kalipolis (2004). When we were shooting Kalipolis there I noticed the incredible sound of cars rumbling past at speed overhead. They would trundle by emanating repetitive thumps as though the whole expressway could not bear their velocity or weight. It seemed like a perfect setting for an ambience of doom. I loved it.


In Shutterbug, Alex the hallucinating photographer journeys in search of the apparition that keeps appearing only to him. He is led by her into the dark underbelly of NYC, meeting characters along the way as he spirals down through the various 'circles' of the city by night. Beneath the BQE he meets many such characters, each trapped in their own circle of hell.

Shooting under the BQE would start at around 4pm when it was dark enough to simulate night. Very often we shot late - very late - wrapping at dawn. We shot a scene with a group of fantastic Capoeira dancers who came on board at the very last moment, organized by Sujey De Coo "Rosa". We shot a scene with Frank Cadillac, a unique character actor whom Nando and I loved working with on Kalipolis. And, amongst others, we shot a scene with Mary Round, an wonderful actor who played the difficult role of a homeless vagabond. In all it was many late nights under the BQE in desolate parts of Brooklyn. Despite our fatigue, things ran smoothly, the exception being a run-in with a pipe wielding crack-head (a metal pipe). While the guys in the crew prepared for a fight - myself included (we had a machete you see) - our DP, Rossana Rizzo, calmly dispatched the wide-eyed assailant with a smile and a laugh!

At this point we were joined by Kat Rohrer of GreenKat Films who camera assisted Rossana on many of the GCC shoots, apartment shoots and BQE scenes.

With most of the night exteriors behind us, I was glad that we had managed to shoot everything by winter. Well, almost everything - there still remained a few transitional scenes that I was unsure of how to handle, that I kept pushing back... All through the film we were dropping shots because of missing locations or props or time constraints. One such missing prop was a dead rat. I needed a close-up of a dead rat under the BQE. I had walked by that location on my way home and had seen dead rats COUNTLESS times there. No dead rats that week. When you need a dead rat in this city you can't find one. So we had to drop the shot and pick it up when we could find a dead rat some time in the future (there was no way I was using a fake one).

In any case we moved on to larger set pieces and day interiors. A chaotic and complex scene of a fashion photo shoot was shot in Context Studios, a great indie-friendly space in Brooklyn. This was one of the most expensive days of the shoot and I figured I would need more crew to stay on budget. Unfortunately the gaffer I hired - whose name I will not mention - a friend no less - did not show up. And my AD was acting in the scene. The scene was also not scripted entirely. There were two streams of action happening: two groups of people interacting simultaneously and very little of the dialogue was scripted. So I sat down with the cast and we spent a good half an hour discussing their characters and their goals. We ran through some of the things they might be saying, and I left them to improvise in front of the camera. It worked. I think it was a combination of good casting, smart actors and the right environment for them to work in. I actually did very little but choreograph the camera with Rossana. I don't remember directing them much! We got the scene and came in on time and under budget, avoiding a costly overtime fee.

The other location that I used as a studio was The Greek Cultural Centre. The GCC had been supportive of my work in the past: I had shot a big segment of my short film Judith (2003) there. Despite the fact that they had a play running at the time - and geek dance lessons! - we were allowed to come in and build sets, use the rooms, set up a greenscreen cyc, and do as we wished! Without the GCC large parts of the film would not be as successful as they are. We even faked the place to look like a hospital waiting room one day - an executive office the next - and a thrift shop the next! We really moved in and set up the kitchen the way we wanted: Nando had bought me a crock pot for my birthday (I love cooking) and I would throw in raw vegetables, garlic, spices and olive oil at the beginning of the day, turn it on, and by lunch time we had a meal ready!

We also shot the opening of the movie at the GCC. An intimate scene where Alex takes a self portrait photograph of himself in a mirror before he goes to work. This scene was a pleasure to shoot. I am always most comfortable when I'm alone with my actors: just them, the camera and I. The immediacy is stimulating. Nando and I already had a relationship spanning back five years to the first short we made in 2002 and we were not only on the same wavelength, but surfing it. The scene is relaxed, natural and exactly how I imagined it...

We converted many locations to seem like something else. A friends' lounge bar became a psychic's parlor. The rooftop of a skyscraper was shot on the roof of a two-storey high building. A bar became a photographer's darkroom.

Other locations I didn't want to cheat for production value. We shot in a seedy gay bar; a very nice east village apartment ; Cinema Village movie theater ; an opthalmologists office ; Vin Noir - a cozy wine bar that used to be on Mott Street ; and my favorite, the beautiful plush restaurant The Strip House on East 12th street in Manhattan. All establishments supported the film and did not exploit us with high rental fees. For this they are portrayed beautifully in the film.

Production was taking a toll on us all. By week 4 we were all exhausted, anxious to wrap and our nerves were showing. Nando and I had a few small fights regarding timeliness (he was always on time - whereas I ran late every now and then by a few minutes)... And I would take out my frustration on Brett and Rossana when there were technical difficulties... We 'lost' a great dolly shot that we did in 14 takes to get perfect, probably due to a technical mistake on my part due to fatigue... not to mention the fact that we were all investing time and giving up paying work to accomplish the shoot.

I began to realize that we would not get everything shot in the 5 and a half weeks Rossana and I had allocated. It was a very difficult decision to stop shooting before everything was achieved. But I had no choice. We were almost at the edge of the world, but like Alexander, we had to turn back at the last minute.

Fortunately, it was only a film shoot. I knew we would be able to pick up a lot of the remaining scenes later. So I prioritized and shot the remaining main scenes. On our 'last' day of shooting, the champagne came out and we drank with zest.

I went home and amassed the hours of material we had shot, despite the gaping blanks. But, inevitably, the best thing to do after shooting a film is to forget about it. So Rossana and I went to Italy: Campania, Rome, Florence. During the trip I felt that I had accomplished a huge feat, and could say I had shot a feature film by 29.

Now whether it was a good feature film...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Shutterbug Teaser Trailer

video

The official Shutterbug teaser trailer. Stay tuned for the new trailer coming soon!