Still Making Sense of 'CENTS': 5 Mistakes I Made on the Set of My First Feature Film
I learn the most from the mistakes I make. It sucks, but it's true. And on my first feature film as writer/director, I definitely made mistakes.
Before we even started pre-production, I knew making my first feature film would make me a better screenwriter, because the process would illuminate scenes and sequences that needed rewriting in my script. My production team and I worked tirelessly in pre-production to anticipate as many scenarios as we could and prepare the best we could. Once we got on set, I certainly learned several lessons as the writer, director and one of the producers. Nevertheless, mistakes are inevitable. Three months out from wrapping principal photography and deep into post-production, the mistakes I made on set are crystal clear. In my effort to learn from them, I want to share with you five mistakes I made on the set of CENTS and how I'm addressing them for this film and my future screenwriting and directing endeavors.
1. I Avoided Establishing Shots Because I Hate Them (But They’re Necessary)
At key points in my screenplay, I wrote transitional scenes. I knew these would be important to move the story along visually, to keep audiences engaged and to give viewers context as we moved from one scene to the next or one location to another. As a result, I didn't plan establishing shots for most scenes. Why? I kind of hate establishing shots. I trust audience members to keep up with the film and understand where they are as we jump into a scene, which is usually right in the middle of a conversation or a particular action. Most of the time in CENTS, this works very well.
In a few places, the film cuts too quickly between scenes at different locations or on different days in our timeline. Mostly, this is due to tightening our timeline or even deleting certain scenes. Establishing shots would have been great to smooth out these new transitions. After holding off until a recent test screening, I finally decided that we needed one day of additional 2nd unit photography to shoot these transitions to help viewers readjust their perspectives and keep the timeline straight. The one benefit of getting these shots now is I can be very specific about the time of day and content of each shot to serve very specific points in the film.
2. I Assumed One Quick Visual Would Establish Our Protagonist’s Motivation
Early in the script, a short scene highlights our protagonist's main goal. The script sets this up with a visual, which we shot with a close-up just like we storyboarded. The shot looks exactly as I envisioned it as a I wrote the scene. Anyone who read the script knew exactly what motivated our protagonist because the description of the prop made it clear. This prop is front and center in the shot. Everything should be crystal clear.
But it's not. The film moves quickly. We certainly settle on this shot long enough for the audience to see the prop clearly. For certain audience members, they get it right away. Other audience members, though, miss it entirely. They are engaged with our protagonist's actions, even though she is slightly out of focus and the prop is clearly in focus. Color correction is going to help this to a certain degree, but what we really need is something else later in the film to bring the message home.
So, on the same day we shoot the establishing shots for our visual transitions, I've added an insert shot of a computer screen with our protagonist's object of desire clearly (yet naturally) identified. This additional visual should crystallize the character's motivation. If viewers missed the first reference, the second reference should seal the deal. Better yet, the insert fits nicely into an existing scene, so the new photography will be seamless with our original photography.
3. I Overwhelmed an Actress on Set Because I Made a Stupid Assumption
In the script, one of the scenes is intercut with a series of shots that illustrates what one character is saying to the other characters -- a case of Show and Tell. In the production draft of the script, a character's dialogue continues during the intercut series of shots as voiceover. On the day of this shoot, I made the (stupid) assumption that our actress would prepare her voiceover lines because they essentially work as a short monologue. Of course, I never shared this assumption with the actress.
At this point, I would like to say that this particular actress is a consummate professional. She was meticulously prepared every day, plus she was flexible when I needed something different from her performance. Because the voiceover scene was not on her call sheet, she didn't prepare that dialogue for that day. Nor should she have.
So, when we started the scene, I naturally expected our actress to roll right through the voiceover dialogue and into the dialogue at the end of the continuous scene because that's how I always heard the character say the lines in my mind. Plus, this would make editing easier. And that chunk of voiceover dialogue was a mouthful, not some throwaway line. When we got to the end of the dialogue before the voiceover for the series of shots, the actress stopped -- like a normal human being who was never asked to prepare the voiceover dialogue by a reasonable and thoughtful director.
I then casually asked the actress to keep going through the voiceover dialogue into the dialogue of the continuous scene for ease in the editing room. The actress admitted she hadn't prepped those lines. This was the moment in time when I should have stopped everything and spent five to ten minutes rehearsing with the actress one-on-one. But I didn't because at that moment I was not being a reasonable nor thoughtful director.
To summarize what happened next, I pushed this actress to do something she was unprepared to do. As a result, instead of taking ten minutes to rehearse with the actress to get the scene right, I caused an emotional train wreck.
This was probably my single biggest f*ckup on set.
I made a really dumb assumption, then didn't stop to consider what I was actually asking one of our actresses to do on the spot and on camera. I made a ridiculous request of an actress and thought it was nothing. Talent has to expose everything in front of the camera and the crew. Then they have to listen to me, the director, ask for changes in their performances when they are particularly vulnerable. I lost sight of that at the very moment when I needed to remember it.
I owned up to my mistake that day and apologized to the actress after we wrapped. Every day after that, I made sure to check in with each actress and actor when they arrived on set to go over the scenes slated for the day and my specific expectations. I also asked if they had questions and listened to their thoughts for the scenes. This was so simple to do, but was so easy to forget to do until that day when everything came to a screeching halt.
4. I Relied Too Much on Storyboards and My Shot List for a Key Classroom Scene
Shooting with young talent meant sticking to strict guidelines for the number of hours we could shoot each day. Ultimately, this was great because this sense of urgency each day kept us motivated and we finished each day at a reasonable hour with plenty of turnaround time for cast and crew. Less hours on set also meant that I had to be very prepared for each day, knowing exactly what I needed to shoot for each scene. I created a shot list for every scene in the script, and worked side-by-side with my DP Corey for several days as he storyboarded each of those shots so we both had a visual reference to use on set.
We had an important scene to shoot in a classroom one day with five different characters, each of which has dialogue. Writing scenes with four or more characters with dialogue is not recommended, but this scene was crucial to the plot, and all five characters needed to participate. The scene in the script also reveals one of these characters at a specific moment during the scene, so establishing the other four characters while framing her out was very important to me.
On my shot list and in the storyboards, the scene looked like we had enough coverage. Every shot made sense and I could see how the scene would come together in the editing room. On the day, we shot the coverage we scheduled.
Many days, we noticed an angle that we should pick up that wasn't on our list. In this particular scene, there was an incredibly obvious angle we should have shot. This angle was so obvious, I was convinced that we had it when I was in the editing room several weeks later. And yet, we never shot it. As the director, while the scene plays out on set, one of my jobs is to make sure we are capturing the story on camera the way we need to tell it in the final film. Preparation is very important. Storyboards and shot lists are great tools to stay on time and share your vision with crew members. These tools, however, are not substitutes for capturing the moment as it happens on set. Flexibility is also required to tell your story on film. The next time my DP asks, "Do we have everything?" before we move on, I'll definitely think twice.
5. I Didn’t Push for More Background Talent for Specific Scenes
Shooting a film that takes place in a middle school means you need students for background. Shooting a film on a very low budget means you can't bring in too much background talent because you have limited space to hold them and limited funds to feed them. On CENTS, I was not only the writer and director, but I was also one of the producers. Staying within budget was definitely one of my main responsibilities. Unfortunately, when it came to background talent, I was too cautious for particular scenes, and I should have made a case to bring in more for two specific days. Had I done this, my fellow producer Ella would have made it happen. She even asked me about background talent for these scenes a few days in advance, and I asked for what I thought was the right number of extras, but I was still being too conservative.
I realize some will make the argument that the AD department should figure out the background talent numbers for scenes and then clear it with the director. This is essentially what happened on CENTS. Our limited budget loomed large, though, so we were all being cautious. Judicious blocking and my thematically driven choice of shallow depth of field helped mask the dearth of background talent in certain scenes. Ambient sound added in post has helped even more. In the future, though, I'm asking for more background talent and making sure our catering budget can handle the request.
Thankfully, my cast and crew helped me do more things right than wrong on set as I directed my first feature film. Realizing I have made mistakes that I could have avoided on set is never easy, but they certainly make me a better filmmaker for the next project.
What are some mistakes you have made on the sets of your films and how have you become a better filmmaker as a result? Share your experiences with us in the comments.