Filming Murder, Sincerely

It was a gray Saturday morning in Los Angeles, with the occasional misty rain. My costar and I were running a bit late for our breakfast meet-up with the director, a delay caused largely by my inability to get out of the hotel room with everything I needed. We were both groggy, having not slept well despite a comfortable bed at the Hilton (a hotel whose motto should be “we charge extra for that”). Chalk it up to anticipation for the events of the day.

Yours Truly stretching his acting ability to the limits by putting on shoes

Yours Truly stretching his acting ability to the limits by putting on shoes

Breakfast was nonetheless pleasant. Eggs over-easy (flipped too soon) and decent pancakes at a place called Twain’s on Ventura Boulevard. fuego, Harlean, and I managed to communicate while blessed caffeine worked its magic. fuego told us stories from the previous days of shooting. I’m really looking forward to seeing the other episodes — especially the one I wrote. Eventually fuego had to go pick up our Director of Photography and a bunch of gear. He left us with a map to the day’s location and an hour to kill.

Getting a shot of the prop script over my shoulder

Getting a shot of the prop script over my shoulder

The location was a beautiful house overlooking Universal City. (The sound guy later pointed out the set for ‘Desperate Housewives’ below us.) The crew set to work and they all seemed competent as far as I could tell. While this was not nearly the size of production as “Moonlight Sonata” there was still plenty of stuff to set up. Once again we were shooting on a Red, although the lens kit and lighting package were more modest. The sound guy and his assistant were on the ball. While that was going on my costar/make-up tech went to work on my face. Soon we were ready to shoot.

fuego frames the shot of the producer coming up the stairs

fuego frames the shot of the producer coming up the stairs

The first few shots had no dialog, which was good. It gave me a chance to get comfortable and get in the flow of things. At the same time, I haven’t the slightest idea how my facial expressions work onscreen. Too much? Not enough? I guess I’ll know soon. In the end there were quite a few shots to put the action together, getting me from reading a screenplay up the stairs with an extension cord and into the bathroom where my wife was bathing.

There was a rather long break while the crew put gels over the windows in the bathroom to adjust the light color. Meanwhile Harlean took care of her own makeup and we went over our newly-redrafted lines. (The original lines were overtaken by events, particularly the time of day we could shoot.) Finally everything was ready, the special effects guy and his helper showed up and went to work, and we broke for lunch. At that point I was ready to just get going with the dialog, but the ribs were delicious.

Tinting the bathroom windows.

Tinting the bathroom windows.

The afternoon went smoothly, as far as I could tell. Nobody complained about my acting to my face; and Harlean did a great job — such a good job we added a line to let her exercise her pissed-off/sarcastic vocal tone (the one that will make her all the rage in Hollywood). A blow-dryer took a bath, sparks flew, breakers popped, and I said the line “This is awkward” about a dozen different ways over the course of the shooting.

One thing I can say as an actor, I’m not the sort of guy who complains about doing another take. There’s always something I want to fix about the last performance. In fact, as I sit here now, I think I’d like one more go at the speech that leads up to the blow-dryer toss. I think I could have been a lot more expressive, with more expansive gestures. Generally more mood-swingy, edging toward euphoria.

Preparing the bathtub

Preparing the bathtub

Next time.

The day ended with director, DP, and the two actors enjoying a beer in a Studio City living room, watching the sun set over Universal City. It felt good, having it behind me, having a general feeling that I didn’t mess things up too badly. Over dinner that night we made plans to get back together when a rough edit is done. I wonder what I’ll see.

Note: You can see a bunch more pictures at my gallery.

Road Trip!

That’s right, kids, tomorrow my sweetie and I will be hitting the open road, just the two of us, a few clothes, and a cooler full of munchies. Good times!

We’re heading down to Los Angeles where my brother is currently hanging out. He was working on a movie, but it got canned, so instead he’s devoting his time to making a series of short films all tied together thematically. My better half and I will play a married couple, in a very very short film based on a story that first appeared right here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas — though I didn’t write it. (The story was posted as a comment before I moved the blog to the new platform, so it’s in the old comment system.)

fuego and company will also be filming a short based on the original blog episode that inspired the comment, and a couple of other shorts as well. Filming is under way already, but I haven’t heard how it’s going. They have a good crew of people and a good camera, though, so I’m optimistic.

Rough Cut

Today I got my first look at Moonlight Sonata footage, a rough cut that gives a general feel for how the thing will look, but also demonstrates that we have a long way to go to get to the finished product. We had planned to have the opening shot be a long, continuous steady-cam shot, but as fuego has combed through the takes it seems we don’t have one that really works from start to end. That’s not a disaster; there is plenty of footage to make Paul’s entrance into the café a nervous and disorienting time. Not all the takes in this cut are the ones I remember most fondly from shooting, but it’s about making all the parts work together.

Man, I sure wish we’d had more extras.

The cut did not even include the concert scene, so I don’t know how that is going to work, and the voiceovers aren’t there and the walking through Prague and all the audio post, so at this point all I can really report is that there are shots that look fantastic. The voiceover raw files are on their way to me; and I will be going through them and picking out the best takes over the next few days, and putting the bits together into seamless delivery. It’s a job that can take as much time as I’m willing to give it.

Cowboy Bob reflects on the contents of his glass

Cowboy Bob reflects on the contents of his glass

The underground bar looks great. Really really great. I was worried about the video noise I was seeing but at least on the version I have (far from big-screen quality but pretty good for a computer monitor) the noise is not a problem. Using the real audio and getting the music in comes much later, so I’m trying to not worry about that too much (yet).

A long way to go, but so far, so good!

Voice-Over Day

There was one remaining task for Moonlight Sonata that had to be done before I left Prague. We had to get actor, director, producer, and sound guy in the same place for an hour or three to get the voice-overs recorded. It turned out the only time all parties could be present was Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem but the night before was my (not yet documented) going-away party. Perhaps it was a good thing that there was something important to do the next day.

I resolved to bring donuts for everyone. There is a store near the metro station in my neighborhood with a sign saying DONUTKY, which I assumed was a czechification of the English word. Closer inspection of the sign, after four years of walking past it, showed that the sign said DOUTNIKY. Apparently that means “cigars”. Happily there was a shop filled with yummy baked things two doors away, and it had very donut-like items.

Apparently, what you might call a jelly donut (similar here but smaller and rounder) is in this country called by the name “horse poop” (in Czech, of course). My guess is that it has something to do with the shape. Dobrou chut’! (rhymes with ‘Bon Apetit!‘)

But I digress. I got to Brad Huff’s new studio on time, with donuts. We recorded the audio. Coaching someone in reading my words was educational; I became aware of cadences of long and short vowels and a flow I give my words that I had not been consciously aware of before. Sure, I like to make my writing sound good to the ear, but I hadn’t given any thought to just how I do that. Maybe that’s one reason I can spend so long on a single sentence. (Not here, of course, this is Muddled Ramblings.)

We recorded the sound, and after a great deal of confusion and uncertainty got copies to all parties who needed them. The data distribution chore ended up eating several hours of precious packing time, but it was by far the more important task.

Now the ones and zeroes are in the hands of the editor, and a rough cut should be in the works. I’m really, really excited about seeing it.

Shooting Old Ray

One thing about making a little movie on a very low budget: when you don’t pay the extras you never know what to expect. You really can’t twist elbows too hard, and since most of the people who show up are friends, you also don’t want the experience to be too bad. But there’s just no getting around the fact that being an extra in a movie is mostly about sitting around waiting.

In this case we managed to come up with some small compensation for the extras; we were shooting in a little blues club so we opened a tab for coffee and other beverages, including a keg of beer. We told the extras to be there at 3 in the afternoon, and we had no idea how many to expect. We were hoping for at least twenty, but we’d spread the word far and wide, so it was possible that the siren call of ‘free beer’ would bring in a lot more. Then again, it was also possible that no one would show up at all. No way to tell.

My day started much earlier. I woke up with the sun (pretty early these days) and couldn’t get back to sleep. I decided to use my Saturday morning to get a couple of errands done. There is no getting anything done in Strašnice on a Saturday morning, so I hopped tram 7 and headed for the shopping Mecca known as AndÄ›l. In that neighborhood there is a big electronics store, and I bought a nice little external hard drive that holds a whole bunch of ones and zeroes. This was going to make passing data to editors easier, and also reduce the weight I was going to have to lug back to the US when I moved.

New technology in hand, I considered what to do next. Breakfast sounded good. I decided to mosey down to the area we would be shooting that day and wander around, learning the streets a little better. Eventually I’d find a place to have breakfast and get another dose of caffeine in my bloodstream.

Yep, one week before I was to leave the city I’d lived in for four and a half years, I finally learned my way around the center. Part of the center, at any rate.

It took me a while to find a place for breakfast that appealed to me. Finally I stopped in at Subway for a meatball sandwich. Perfect. Sometimes that stuff really hits the spot. I cracked open my book, enjoyed the sandwich and a coke, and life was pretty good. When I was done it was still early for my scheduled meeting with fuego and the shooting crew, so I found a sunny place and kept reading. After a short time I got a message from fuego: “We should meet early and grab a bite to eat.”

We met at Chillilili’s (rhymes with chile Lily’s), just a few doors down from Blues Sklep, and fuego had a snack while I had tea. For the record, the people at Chilli Lili’s (spelling varies by signage) are really cool. fuego and I talked about this and that and the crew for the exterior shooting gathered. We wanted to get a few more beauty shots of the two walking through Prague, and we finally had found the right doorway to be the entrance to U Nikde.

Honest, officer, we're just making a little video of our vacation...

Honest, officer, we're just making a little video of our vacation...

There is a rule about shooting films on the streets of Prague. If you put your camera on the ground (by using a tripod, for instance), you must get a license first. I watched as the crew set up the camera on a tripod. “Um… how much is the fine?” I asked. “I’ll tell you later,” fuego said, but I could tell he was nervous. Finally, for the shot right at Charles Bridge, among throngs of tourists, they decided to go handheld and stay off the sticks. fuego was visibly relieved. The fine, it turns out, is 500,000 Kč, which even when divided by 20 remains an uncomfortably large number. Tomas and the rest figured they could pretend to be innocent film students if trouble arrived, while any non-czechs disappeared in the crowds. They neglected to mention this plan to me, though.

Exterior shots finally complete (the door worked out nicely), we went back to the bar, where preparations were already well under way. Extras were starting to arrive, and mill about, not needed yet and underfoot in that small place. The crew was assembling a large jib arm with remote head for the first shots, and soon the band arrived and began to set up while the art director (Soup Boy had no idea that would be him when he arrived) tried to dress up the stage area a bit. Zlato was our mule to bring munchies and other supplies from a nearby department store. Everyone was pitching in.

Still, we weren’t shooting yet. People were fiddling with the jib, and I assumed that was the cause of the delay. Perhaps the jib setup was behind schedule, but that wasn’t the real problem. It turns out the lighting guys had locked their keys in the van. They couldn’t get to their stuff. Ever-resourceful Steve tried to help, but eventually it became clear that a locksmith was going to be necessary. Meanwhile, no shooting. The band was getting bored, the extras were getting drunk, and I was getting more and more stressed out.

It took an hour and a half to get the lighting truck open. Yikes.

So then we shot, finally using the extras at about 7 pm, the time we had originally told them they would be able to leave. That was when the owner of the bar started to get pissed off. He was supposed to open at seven. While that wouldn’t have bothered us (more extras!) he didn’t think it was a good idea. I’d feel worse for him, but the extras and crew were buying far more than he would have sold to the first arrivals of the day. Still, his anger added to my stress.

In the end, we got most of what we needed. More extras would have been good, more time at the end to shoot some confusion and pandemonium and whatnot. The story may have to be tweaked a bit as a result; we’ll find out once we get a rough edit.

Rene Trossman and his band were helpful and professional the whole time, playing the same song over and over while we shot from different angles and featured different musicians. I’m pretty sure we got what we needed to make a good scene. We’ll find out soon enough.

After the main shoot the band took a break and we cleared out all the gear so the bar could open for business. Just a little later than scheduled Rene and the boys took the stage for their actual concert. We set up in the back and shot the first set for them, Soup Boy catching other angles handheld. Hopefully it’s footage they can use for their own promotion. I was worried that after all that shooting they wouldn’t have any energy left for the actual show, but I was wrong. They had an excellent gig, and we stayed to listen, eat pizza, and unwind. The owner eventually bought the last stragglers a round of something really nasty that he apparently thought was special. Makes for one of those half-hearted thank-yous.

Finally home, bed, and a gradual sigh as the stress went away. We have a film in the can, as they say.

On the move!

I have plenty of stories to tell about my last days in Prague, but no time to tell them right now. As the Bars of the World tour draws to a close things are busy busy busy. Nostalgic retrospectives, details of our day shooting in Blues Sklep, and other tales will have to wait for another day or three.

Note that as I fill in the episodes the dates will be reflective of when I should have posted them, not when I actually did. I’m doing it for posterity. Or something like that.

A Slow Day

I’ve been waking up early lately. I’m not proud of this fact, but there you go. Six, six-thirty, sometimes earlier. I blame the sun. Wednesday night was my second late night in a row, and I resolved to sleep in on Thursday. I had no pressing engagements until noon, so it seemed like a good time for some extended shut-eye, if my body would allow it.

I was in that vague place between sleeping and waking the next morning when my phone rang briefly and stopped. Aargh. Still, I thought I’d better check who it was. I got up and fetched my phone, and noticed the time. 12:20. I was late for my noon meeting. I put on a different sweater than the day before to make it less obvious I was wearing the same clothes and staggered out into the day. I was unprepared for the rain that soon began to fall.

Soon enough I was in the friendly confines of Alex Bistro, a little place that’s the home of the best burgers in Prague (although this time it seemed a little salty for some reason). A thick 100% beef burger (not a given here, not at all) with fries for 95 crowns. You can do a lot worse in this town. Angelo and I had a pleasant lunch, as always (Angelo is good company), but I wasn’t exactly sparkling. In fact, it seemed a large part of my head was still off in the land of Nod.

Lunch done, it was time to go to the bank and get some of the local currency. I don’t have ATM access anymore, so I have to go to one of the big banks in the center that has a money-changing desk. Only thing is, I’d forgotten my passport. No passport, no money. It was that sort of day. I went home.

Later I hopped a tram again to meet with fuego and Rene Trossman, who will be playing Old Ray Black on Saturday. It’s our last day of shooting and in some ways the most complicated, what with a band and live concert as well as the carefully staged shots during the afternoon. Rene had a lot more energy than I did, and the dude likes to chit-chat. It was an interesting conversation, touching on the experience of the American in Prague, the evolution of the blues scene here, and what it’s like to have a life that’s not that firmly attached to a location.

I left that meeting with a good feeling about the shoot on Saturday, and rode the tram home (Tram 11—tram of the dead.). My plan: grab my computer and a bite to eat, and visit Little Café Near Home to use the internet for a while and defer paying my tab until after a visit to the bank. Once home, however, and sated on leftover pizza from Pizzeria Roma (it was one of those nights) all those stairs and doors and the short walk were just too great an obstacle. I went to bed instead.

Now it is morning. I woke up early, managed to doze off again, and got to LCNH at about 8 a.m. Unfortunately, their Internet is down again. I have no money, so it’s difficult for me to go elsewhere. The good news is that my brain seems to be functioning again.