Making Sense of 'CENTS': 5 Lessons Learned on Set of My First Feature Film
Here at No Film School, my posts focus on screenwriting. I can honestly say searching for lessons from professional screenwriters, sharing those lessons with NFS readers and adding my own take on those lessons has made me a better screenwriter since I started writing for this site back in May 2012. But, by far, my biggest learning experience as a screenwriter to date happened this summer when I had the privilege of shooting my first feature film, thanks in no small part to many NFS readers who supported our CENTS Kickstarter campaign. Now that principal photography is complete and we're heading into post production, I'm excited to get back to NFS to share with you 5 lessons I learned on the set of my first feature film as writer, director and one of the producers.
1. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite Before You Shoot
When we locked the production draft of the script in May, we were officially on draft nine of the script. Realistically, between drafts 7 through 9, there were some very minor tweaks that didn't warrant full new draft status. Regardless, I had rewritten this screenplay extensively since I completed the first draft back in late 2011. With those initial rewrites up to white production draft, I endeavored to make sure the story worked from start to finish and the characters were fully fleshed out on the page.
Inevitably, things change as you go into production. By the end of the shoot, we were on our Green revision (or lucky draft thirteen, after going through Blue, Pink and Yellow revisions). Many of our revisions, however, were the result of the realities of production. We could get certain locations, but not others, so scene headings changed to reflect our new environment. Actions also changed based on the physical realities of our sets. Finally, some dialogue was tweaked soon after auditions to reflect the natural cadence of our talent. Of course, we changed a few things on the fly during the shoot that never made their way into a revised script because a line or action wasn't working.
If I hadn't spent so much time living with the story and rewriting the script before we went into production, I imagine I would have been rewriting much more on set and in the evenings. The real revision to the script will happen in the editing process when the scenes are streamlined and even rearranged.
That reminds me. I did revise one major sequence during production, but I never revised the script. Instead, I simply realized that we should shoot a sequence of scenes as written, but we should intercut certain moments of those scenes to reveal parts of story just before the audience makes a connection so we can keep one step ahead of them. This was something that had been bothering me before production, but I had never put my finger on the solution until we were getting prepared to shoot the final scene in the sequence. My director brain jumped ahead to post production and saw the intercut sequence with all of the in and out marks so clearly. Honestly, if I had written the sequence with the intercuts on the page, I probably would have confused the reader too much, but the movie's audience will get it when they see it on the screen.
2. Be Prepared (a.k.a. It's Not About the Page Count Each Day)
When you don't have much money to shoot your feature, you need to make the most of your time. And the most important time you can spend on your film is during pre-production to get everything ready before you shoot. As soon as we hired each of our department heads, I would either meet with or call them to discuss my vision for the film and how it related to their departments. Conversations covered everything from which sets we should design and build (and how they should be designed based on characters and the story) to the progression of certain characters' hair and makeup styles over the course of the film.
When a 1st AD breaks down a script to schedule the shoot, the page count per day tends to become the metric used to figure out how much can be filmed each day. In reality, page count helps, but it's not really the determining factor in what can actually be shot. Instead, the amount of setups needs to be considered in conjunction with the scenes and pages scheduled. So, our 1st AD Jimmy Bullwinkle hounded me to finish my shot list as soon as possible so he could map the shot list to the schedule to see if we needed to move scenes around based on the number of setups, not just the page count.
Even with all of this planning, some adjustments needed to be made in production. But instead of waiting for days to get out of control, we actually moved scenes up while we were in production to give us time for key scenes later in our schedule. We could only do this because of our prep work during pre-production so we could work efficiently on set.
I would say the most productive time I spent during pre-production was sitting with our DP Corey Weintraub, walking him through my shot list for the entire film, having a conversation about the visuals, getting his feedback, and finally having Corey sketch quick storyboards for every shot of the movie. Yes, every single shot of CENTS was storyboarded, thanks to Corey. This meant Corey and I spent a combined total of a week, seven to eight hours each day, going through the shot list and translating it into storyboards.
As a result when we were on set, I would open my binder to the storyboards for the scene we were about to shoot so Corey would remember our conversations and how I wanted the scene covered before we set up a single light. When we were pressed for time at the end of a day, the storyboards were invaluable in saving time between setups as well as helping us figure out which shots could be covered by multiple camera setups or should be consolidated into one setup. And on those days when we really had no time left, Corey had already seen the movie in his mind, too, so he could offer great suggestions on how we could get out of our time jam and still make the movie we both wanted to see.
3. Communicate Clearly (a.k.a. Be Specific)
One of the director's main jobs is to answer questions. If something isn't spelled out in the script, the director needs to have the answer. More importantly, the director needs to be specific with the answer.
Early in production, I made the mistake of not being clear about how certain props should look or how certain elements of wardrobe would be featured in some shots. This caused me a bit of frustration on the first day of shooting with regards to certain props, which in all honesty I should have cleared well ahead of the first day of shooting (see Lesson #2). We made adjustments as necessary and figured out how to avoid these mistakes moving forward by making a point to meet several days in advance of the use of props so I could communicate my desires clearly and specifically.
At times, I rejected props and set dressing upon first viewing because I hadn't been clear enough with our art department, but also I wanted something not just different, but better. I expect a lot out of myself when working on a film, and I expect my crew to push themselves to do their best, not just settle for "good enough". In the end, the art department would outdo themselves and exceed my own vision of what we could accomplish. I made sure to let them know when I was impressed with and thankful for their hard work.
On one particular day, I had not let the costume designer know that we would see the soles of a character's shoes for a particular shot. As luck would have it, the shoes that character needed to wear that day had huge logos emblazoned on the rubber soles -- logos we had not cleared. By the time we noticed, we were already shooting the scene. We enlisted the help of our art department to wear down the rubber soles by any means necessary (sandblasters gave way to using sheer force and rubbing the soles against the rough edge of a plywood table in a workshop). We continued to shoot other setups from the scene where the actress's feet weren't visible. Forty minutes later, we were reshooting one of our first setups, now with defiled rubber soles. Making movies.
4. Wrap Each Day on Time (a.k.a. Why 10-Hour Days are Great)
Too often, film crews work overtime -- ridiculous overtime. Overtime is inevitable on most productions, but 16-hour days are avoidable. In fact, I argue that 12-hour days are avoidable. I know because we just shot a low budget film in 24 days with scheduled 10-hour days -- and we wrapped everyone on time. Like I mentioned earlier, we moved scenes up on several days to make better use of our time when we were running ahead or needed to give more time to other scenes later in our schedule.
Because we were working with minors of a certain age, New Mexico child labor laws dictated that our main talent could only be on location for nine hours plus an extra half-hour for meal time, and they could only be on set for seven hours. So, our crew call time was usually 8 am (breakfast served at 7:30 am) with cast call times at 8:30 am and first shot at 9 am assuming initial setups could be completed in one hour. Our 2nd AD John Carrillo and our key set PAs Alex Benz and Patrick "Mac" Puhl also had to track every minute our minors were on set to ensure they had enough rest time and didn't go over seven hours on set. When the extra half-hour for meals was added, our main cast had to wrap no later than 6 pm each day. That meant we wrapped at 6 pm. Done. No more shooting.
I loved this schedule. Every morning as I prepped for that day, I would figure out how many setups we had scheduled for each scene. I would identify the midpoint of the setups and make sure our 1st AD Jimmy and I knew where we needed to be at the midpoint of our day -- which was not our meal time since that was six hours after crew call. Since our lunch started at 2 pm, but we wouldn't be back in until 2:40 pm or so, I learned how to maximize those final three hours before wrapping at 6 pm.
Everybody is happier when they are consistently working 10-hour days instead of 12-hour, 14-hour or 16-hour days. We even started production on the 4th of July holiday week, so we had a three-day weekend after our first shortened week of production. Most of our crew couldn't remember the last time they had a three-day weekend during production. No one was driving home and falling asleep at the wheel. Crew members could do their jobs well on set. Accidents were avoided and damage was kept to a bare minimum because people watched out for each other and the equipment.
This is actually the norm in some countries. When Game of Thrones shoots in Ireland, they are restricted by law to 10-hour days just like every other production in Ireland, and the directors love it according to two of the show's directors, Michelle MacLaren and Alex Graves, in their interview with KCRW's The Business. And if you're on a Clint Eastwood film, you'll be moving scenes forward from the next day and you still might be wrapped at lunch.
On my next film, I'll definitely plan to keep the shoot days short and efficient just to keep everyone healthy and sane. I encourage other filmmakers to do the same.
5. Set the Emotional Vibe
Even before we started principal photography, I realized how I approached each day emotionally would likely have a large impact on the overall feel on set. Of course I was anxious to get started and nervous how everything would turn out, but I made a conscious effort to keep things light and take opportunities to make fun of myself. Thanks in large part to a great crew and cast with a good sense of humor, we definitely had a good vibe on set most days.
I realized the opposite was also true when I came to set stressed or anxious. In the middle of our second week, I arrived on set frustrated with one particular setup from the day before after reviewing dailies, which also revealed a larger problem that had not been brought to my attention as a producer during pre-production. I was in a foul mood for most of the day, and it had a negative impact on the cast and crew. After I had quietly aired my grievances with those who needed to hear them, I had to hit the reset button at lunch. This made a huge difference for the final setups of the day as we raced against rain and had to shoot around reflections and mirrors in a practical location.
During the final days of shooting, weather and equipment conspired against us to slow things down. Thunderstorms rolled in almost every afternoon. Our A-camera recorder overheated. Footage that we confirmed was good after checking the gate mysteriously got corrupted with dropouts by the time our DIT ingested the data. I started referring to the ghosts in the machine as if they were real.
In the face of adversity with no time left in the schedule, I certainly struggled at times to keep things light on set. So, if I wasn't able to joke around, I did my best to stay calm and be zen about things that were out of my control. At a minimum, I knew this would help me and the crew stay focused when we had limited time to finish our day.
But we always made our day. And usually, we wrapped with a laugh -- or at least a smile.
I certainly learned much more than these 5 lessons on set of my first feature film, so stay tuned for part 2 of this post where I'll share 5 more lessons I learned during our shoot of CENTS.
Have you had the opportunity to helm a feature film? What lessons did you learn about yourself and the filmmaking process during your feature shoot?