On the Set

Thursday, July 25, 2002

Well. It’s really late now — about 4 AM. I spent about five hours today helping Joe move. The last hour of that five came after the AMODA meeting. I came over to his place from the Flightpath at about 10:15 and we did a couple loads of boxes and furniture, taking them from his old place near 50th and Duval just around the corner to Eva’s home, where Joe will be for the next month-or-so as he figures out his next housing arrangement.

Anyway, that’s not the important stuff. That’s just the set-up. The lead in. The more exciting bit came after the move.

Joe’s been volunteering as a PA (production assistant) on a film called “Severance” that’s being filmed here in town. It’s not a major production — nearly everyone involved are in their twenties and (I think) this is the writer-director-star’s first feature-length project. Yup, one guy has decided to take on all of those roles. It’s his project.

My brain’s groggy. I’ll read this tomorrow afternoon and think, “holy crap, I thought I could write kinda…”

So Joe’s volunteering with “Severence.” He’s actually volunteering with another project as well, but I don’t know much about that. “Severence,” though is a black-and-white comedy about a guy who gets laid off from his day job and decides to become a private dick. Alright. We got that.

So — Joe (his car being in the repair shop) had me drive him down to the Hideout, where they would be shooting tonight. I obliged, took him downtown, and decided to poke my head inside for a few minutes just to see what the shoot was like. Ended up being a lot of fun, really. They had about fifteen people in the Hideout — ranging from the core production staff (the director/star, the assistant director, producers, audio guy, camera guy, an actress, makeup girl) and a bunch of PAs to move stuff around, stand in as extras when needed, and just generally help out when needed. All these people are there, and they’re all film people, having studied film at UT (or studying currently) or some other school (one guy, Vira, I talked to had a year left out at USC in LA, from whence came Lucas) and they have some food and sodas to snack on, quite like being at a littel private party in the coffeehouse. Most of the time most of the crew were kind of waiting for someone else to get something done. At first the lighting, camera, and audio had to be put together, and the makeup applied to the actors. This took a couple of hours and didn’t really involve most of the crew, so people hung out, introduced themselves to me (all of them, each and every one, were incredibly friendly — I was astonished). I ended up talking to Vira for a while and talking to Blaine, the audio dude. (I sent the producer an e-mail about a month ago trying to grab that position, but Blaine has much more experience and, um, owns his own portable DAT and so must be quite attractive to the cash-strapped indie film scene. Blaine was a good guy. He explained to me the basic of what he was doing, showed the DAT to me, said that his job wasn’t really all that difficult. He just set up the DAT and had one of the PAs hold a boom mic over the actors.

Sound actually became an interesting problem when the first scenes were being filmed. After each take the place got quieter as we listened in the silence and hear hums coming from various sources such as the fridges and the various lighting. Took an effort to figure out where that last little AC buzz was coming from. Didn’t want noise on the audio track, so we had to find it. Turned out to be the lamps over the bar. That was me, figuring that out — heh. I expect full credit on the movie as “grip.” My union contract would allow no less…

Anyway, I jump ahead. Or maybe not. Anyway, the shot was intended to be night-for-day, a term I’d never heard before (heard of day-for-night plenty). The Hideout is, well, busy during the day. Can’t have a student film crew taking up the place and asking the paying clients to stay quiet on the set. Have to get in there at night and then set up a lighting rig to imply that reflective sunlight is flowing through the wide windows onto the sides of the actors’ faces. Shooting in black-and-white helped here, I guess, since they didn’t have to color balance and pretty much any light would do as long as that light was bright enough to seem dayish. They had maybe four spots and one wide blue-ish light that seemed to be specially designed for night-for-day situations. The light it shown was very much like sunlight filtered through blue atmosphere. Very nice. We had an explosion of light inside this otherwise dim bar along the dark lonely 2AM Congress Avenue. From outside it looked like some really exciting stuff was happening.

My theory is that people just feel very comfortable having a main bright area with some action happening and a fringe, a penumbra, to hang out in, at the edge of the action. That architecture book, “A Design Pattern,” makes a note that lighting in a room should be arranged such that the penumbra of light just encompasses whatever sort of action you wish to happen in that room. Meaning, use small lamps that only light up enough space for two people if you want to facilitate intimate conversations. Use bright space-filling overheads if you wish to have a board meeting with twenty people. Having a bunch of people along the edge of the light, with just a couple actually in the focus, made for a very comfortable time. This is the sleepy paragraph that I write when I have an idea, but not the brainpower to express as anything besides goo. Maybe I’ll go to bed soon.

I don’t know what else to descibe. The scene, I guess. I heard it gone through about eight times, four from a straight shot from the side, of the two (Troy and Jennifer — don’t know the character names) having their conversation. And four just of Jennifer, straight on (with Joe in the background, skillfully acting the part of a random, book-reading coffeeh?user). It, the scene, went something like this: Girl starts bitching about being laid off (“God damn cocksucker assholes…” — lots of swearing). Guy listens to her and cracks a little joke. This eases girl into a better mood, and they joke about some stuff as she looks increasingly ohh-lala googly-eyed at him, he flirts on, and eventually asks her out to dinner, which she accepts (aww). Jennifer is quite cute, in a charming southern sort of way. She had a bubble face and loads of curly dark hair. And she did a very good job acting the role. Before saying anything negative (in case someone from “Severence” ends up reading this), I should say that getting this whole thing together must have been quite a task, and I’ve never done it, so I can’t really take any sort of ground as a higher authority — though I can react naturally to what I see and report those reactions. The script didn’t lunge out at me. It was decent, but not striking. Jennifer had to do some work to get some of the lines sounding natural, especially since the scene included an eight-or-so sentence tirade from her. So good job, Jennifer.

Afterwards Joe and I discussed the evening, and touched on this subject of quality in the script. Again, not bad. I felt it had some problems, though, especially with jokey lines that sounded very cliched (like saying “c’mon, let it all out,” jokingly after the girl nearly has a conniption at the table). I laid out my point ot Joe something like this: in the business world just doing a solid, competent job is enough. If you’re a bank manager, you don’t need to be the most unique bank manager in Texas to be a success and earn a good living. You just have to be solidly competent. In the arts this is not true. Such stiff competition exists for a relatively small number of openings in theaters (Joe says about 3,000 features are made every year — how many play at your local Cineplexes, even in a cool town like Austin?) — and in order to stay in the game, you have to fucking make sure you’ve got something unique — especially (it seems to me who knows very littel, really, about filmmaking) in the script. Why would people pay to hear jokes they’ve heard before?

Let me say again, most of this project went very smoothly, and I know this is a learning experience for all of us. I just tend to gravitate towards the problems… And I probably had the strongest literary background of anyone in the crew making me the best candidate to be that-snotty-guy-who-just-bitches-about-the-script. Every movie has to have that guy. “What ruined ‘American Beauty’ for me was when the guy’s army-general dad kissed Kevin Spacey and turned out to be an in-the-closet gay guy… How cliche!” (For example.) The criticism is intended to be contributive, anyway.

So that’s probably all I need to write about that. Lots more happened, of course — I was there between 11:30 and 3AM. They’re probably still there — the shoot is scheduled to last until 6:30, to leave time for the Hideout staff to come back and get everything in order for the day.