Shooting Day 1

I woke up early this morning, really early. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. Today was the first day of shooting “Moonlight Sonata”, and I have to admit that I was pretty excited. It’s been a long and winding road, as Paul McCartney used to say every once in a while.

My first job of the day was clearly defined: making copies. I was waiting outside Copy General when it opened at 8, and I think the people there were a little surprised to have someone there at the crack of opening on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. But there I was and without any grumbling they followed my instructions to the letter — except that the guy was so sure I had asked for three of something at some point he had a hard time accepting other numbers. Nevertheless he was friendly and helpful and I got what I needed. I tromped up to Zvonařka and the crews were already hard at it.

The first shot of the day was the most complicated, a long steadycam shot, and there was a hitch. The steadycam rig was an elaborate piece of equipment but it was home-grown and there were problems getting it to work with the Red. (More on the Red later.) We were delayed getting started, and our time using the main room of the restaurant was limited. Yikes.

There were some positive aspects, however. One of my regrets with “Pirates of the White Sand” was not spending enough time with some of the actors, coaching them and challenging them to bring more to their roles. Steadycam delays today meant idle actors, and these guys were all for running the lines, discussing deliveries and timing, and just being professional. Steve (rhymes with Cowboy Bob) had the most complicated lines today, and there were a couple I was worried about. He was a bit nervous himself, but then he would nail the line dead cold, adding nuances I hadn’t thought of before. Likewise Curt (rhymes with Paul the Piano Player) showed a range of expression within the boundaries of a fairly introverted guy.

The steadycam was finally ready and work commenced. Unfortunately the monitor wasn’t working, so I could not watch the feed. Also, I didn’t realize that the walkie-talkie I’d been given wasn’t a walkie-talkie at all, but a digital receiver for the audio. Later, when I learned that I could hear what was being recorded I was in a happy place.

But our time in the main room was limited, and we weren’t going to get the necessary shots and coverage in time, and the woman in charge of the place made it clear that it wasn’t her idea to let a bunch of film people in. In one case, when we identified the source of a nasty, persistent noise to be a mirror ball motor with no mirror ball on it, we asked if we could turn it off. “Impossible,” the woman said — a common Czech response when one doesn’t wish to be bothered. Happily, one of the gaffers found the magic switch. But I digress.

The woman in charge was getting increasingly uptight, as we were pushing in on the time she needed to prepare the place for paying customers. fuego pressed on, working with Tomaš, our director of photography, to get the shots we needed. I had spent the previous day twisting the arm of my former czech teacher to be the waitress, and I didn’t get to see her performance. Or hear it, because I still thought I had a walkie-talkie. How might I have affected her performance? I’m told she did well.

All around me people were doing stuff. Subtle stuff, like wrapping the compact fluorescent bulbs in the overhead fixtures with… I don’t know, some sort of softening stuff. Dolly tracks laid without a fuss, lenses swapped and data transferred, actors made non-shiny, water brought around to the crew.

Once we got off the steadycam the monitor was working correctly and with my headphones getting the audio I was able to stay out of the way and still get a really good feel for how things were going. I monitored the performances of the actors, listened for trouble, and every once in a while chimed in, either to call out “smoke!” to remind them to light the cigarette smoldering in the ashtray, or to slide over while the crew was doing technical stuff to talk to the actors. “Like the hair a lot,” I said once, and people seemed to think my opinion was important (perhaps because they all agreed – it was a no-brainer).

I should probably have been looking for visual problems as well, but to be honest the stuff hitting my monitor was just plain blowing me away. It was a combination of things: the Red, bringing film qualities to video (not just resolution, but the whole feel), lighting, sound, and actors who may not nail the line every time but when they do… damn. And you only need the one. At one point fuego and Tomaš were watching the footage and were obviously pleased with the stuff coming out of the Red. “And this is raw,” fuego said, “we haven’t done anything to it yet.” Some of the credit for that has to go to gaffer and focus puller, to the dolly grip and all the others. You can’t fix bad focus in post. Yet in the end the Red proved worthy of all the business that went on around it, giving us raw footage that looks (to my eye) really damn good.

I’m excited.

I’m also a little scared. All the skill and technology in the world can’t fix a bad story (though Hollywood is striving to prove me wrong). Does my story hold up? Is the screenplay fuego and I created worthy of all this amazing talent? I sure hope so.

There was one other job I had today as producer. Paying people. This little project isn’t so little anymore, and I’ve ridden along because the value is increasing much more steeply than the cost. For example our boom guy knows how to point a microphone, and while he’s working for a song, it’s not free. Nor should it be. Several people on this production think they are working for free, and I’d really like to surprise them. You can help. (To be honest, I’ll do my best by these folks no matter what you do.)

Which brings us to this button:

I suppose there should be defined donation levels, with commensurate rewards. That’s how high-class beggars work, right? I’m inventing this as I type, so it’s subject to brothers and lawyers smacking me around and making me change things (one might say ‘subject to change without notice’ or something like that). Let’s try this:

  • less than $50: Hearty slap on the back. You can say “I believe in you guys”, and we will be honestly grateful for your vote of confidence.
  • $50 – $150: Seriously cool people who want to make sure the little guys can still make movies. Your name in the credits!
  • $151 – $500: Honest-to-God supporter of the arts. Your name in the credits, recognition in any Web presence this film ever has, and a foot massage. I’m pretty good at foot massages.
  • $501 – $1500: My new best friend. You get a whole card in the credits, your name and/or logo (whatever you want) all alone right there for people to read. Plus, a foot massage. No, let’s make it TWO foot massages.
  • $1501 – $5000: Where have you been all my life? Tell us what you want. We’ll probably say yes.
  • $5,000,000: Guess I’m done. You’ll have to watch the movie to understand that one.
Support the arts (or, failing that, me). Someone’s got to do it.

I hate to end on such a mercenary note, but even while I was writing this episode I came to realize that I’m one of those people who wants to add to the human experience through art. In my case, it’s storytelling. I’ve always thought of myself as a commercial artist, a guy who’s going to make things people will buy, which are no less art for that. Moonlight Sonata will never sell. It’s just cool. There’s a closeup of Curt that makes me chuckle, and a line by Steve that gives me chills. I don’t care what you bastards think. I like it.

Tomorrow: smoke and doubt below the streets of Prague. Don’t miss it!

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