These clever filmmakers bring new meaning to the phrase ‘blend into the scenery.’
There’s been a lot of attention lately on cruise ships. But if you’re not quarantined on one chock-full of infected passengers, a cruise ship could be the perfect floating film set. If you think about it, there’s catering 24/7, nearby sleeping quarters, and thousands of background actors. That was the thinking of writer/producer Josh Itzkowitz and writer/director Chris Roberti when stealthily set out to make a feature about a time-traveling assassin on a cruise ship without telling anyone.
Josh, Chris, and DP Darin Quan sat down with No Film School virtually to talk about their bold experiment, Same Boat, which is out this week on iTunes. Check out the trailer and read all about how they pulled this thing off.
No Film School: Did the idea start with filming secretly on a cruise ship, or did you start with a script on a cruise ship and need a way to film? Basically, how did you come up with this crazy idea!
Josh Itzkowitz: The original seed of this was to make an indie film on a cruise ship. I had produced other low budget indie features and hated how much of a strain the mechanics of production are when you have limited budget and crew. I had gotten the idea that filming on a cruise ship might be an environment where a lot of production needs get taken care of for you; craft services, lodging, locations, set design, background actors, etc… With that in mind, I approached Chris, whom I had met on my first film Jammed, asking if he wanted to collaborate on the project. I loved his comedic voice—silly, slightly irreverent, but also thoughtful, and was excited about the idea of building a film around that tone.
Chris Roberti: Josh approached me with the idea to shoot a film on a cruise—it was his brilliant idea. I immediately said yes and we began (along with wonderful writer Mark Leidner) to write a script that was a zany heist film. We liked the script and decided to take a test cruise to see if shooting a film would be possible. So the three of us took the cheapest cruise we could and scouted the whole ship. Onboard we decided that we could indeed shoot a film on a cruise, but not the film we had written: it would cause too much disturbance and would just be impossible. So we had some writing sessions in one of the bars on the ship and came up with the main plot of Same Boat.
NFS: How did you pick the cruise? Are there rules in place that you had to work around, like no filming on cruises? Did you consider asking the cruise if you could film?
Itzkowitz: We had a list of cruise companies that we reached out to on the small chance that one of them would be interested in working together. It was a long shot, and understandably, no one wanted to partner with us. So we went with the original plan which was booking tickets on the cheapest cruise available. It was about $400 per person for 4 nights with all meals included. To film, we actually took two back-to-back cruises. Half of our cast went on the first cruise, the other half on the second. The cruise left out of Miami, and most of the cast and crew were NYC based, so I signed up for a credit card and used the points from the signup bonus to fly everyone down there.
"It was about $400 per person for 4 nights with all meals included. To film, we actually took two back-to-back cruises."
NFS: How were the actors in the film prepared for this secret filming? Were there interruptions when you had to pretend you weren’t filming?
Roberti: I had worked with everyone in the film before, and Josh had worked with almost everyone, too. We knew it was going to be scrappy and wanted people who would be game and fun. We worked very fast—which is how I prefer it. We shot like 90 pages in 7 days. So we’d rehearse briefly in a room before shooting and then head out. The biggest stress for me was not getting shut down, but being found out by the other guests. I didn’t want gawkers. The first shot on the first day was the scene were James meets Rob and it’s in public. We had everyone around (even the small crew made it look like a film). We stopped and discussed that this wasn’t working. From then on we just blended into the scenery and I felt much more relaxed.
NFS: So how did you blend in? What was your crew like?
Roberti: Our only dedicated crew member was our ingenious DP, Darin Quan. Josh produced and monitored sound, and Jeff Seal who plays Gary would also monitor sound when he wasn’t in a scene. It really was hard to separate directorial roles between Darin, Josh, and me, everyone was able to have creative input during production.
Itzkowitz: On our first cruise, we had one additional crew member, Ben Scheiner, who helped with miscellaneous producing needs. Blending in felt pretty seamless, since on average there weren’t more than 4 people (cast and crew included) needed to film a scene. It was fun being so nimble and I think the only way to pull off a film like this is to have a tiny crew like ours.
"We settled on a Sony a7S II, the prerequisite 5 charged batteries in a front pocket, a Canon 24-105 f/4.0 lens using a Metabones adapter, and finally a variable ND filter for shooting outdoors."
NFS: And more logistics. Gear and cameras and lenses and sound. What are the preferred shooting tools of a secretly-filming-on-an-ocean-bound-liner? What was the DP strategy? How about for recording sound?
Itzkowitz: Sound was a bit tricky, especially since we didn’t have a dedicated sound mixer on set. We tried putting together a lav system that would yield the least amount of interference from clothing rustle or wind. We had learned from our test cruise that a wireless system didn’t work because there was too much interference on the ship. For microphones, we found the Tram TR50 had very little handling noise. We used a Tascam DR10-L to record the audio. It’s a little pocket recorder that captures two different levels of audio in case one of them clips.
For monitoring audio, we plugged a Bluetooth transmitter into the headphone output on the Tascam and then used a Bluetooth receiver with a regular pair of headphones. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than doing it blindly. One of the most useful tools was using a Rycote Overcover to mount the lav. Those allowed us to film on a ship’s deck while getting useable audio. And for our camera setup, [DP] Darin can tell ya!
Darin Quan: Our criteria for the camera package, and indeed all our gear, was to keep it as simple and unobtrusive as possible, which meant a preference for a smaller DSLR type camera with a zoom lens, with good low light capability so we could shoot in a wide range of conditions. We settled on a Sony a7S II, the prerequisite 5 charged batteries in a front pocket, a Canon 24-105 f/4.0 lens using a Metabones adapter, and finally a variable ND filter for shooting outdoors. To the outsider, our camera package was, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from that of the average tourist, and indeed was at least equal in sophistication by some of the other cameras we saw utilized by other average Joes on the ship!
"When we were shooting 20 pages a day or whatever, there’s a contagious feeling of momentum. Should I not say contagious?"
NFS: So you didn’t get caught? Were you worried about having release problems, a la Escape from Tomorrow? What was the biggest challenge of making a film this way?
Itzkowitz: We had spoken to lawyers and there was a general sense that even though a cruise ship is a private place, in many ways it’s considered public domain. Everyone on the boat is filming and uploading their vacation videos, so there’s very little privacy. Escape from Tomorrow also proved to be a very useful case for getting people to feel comfortable with what we were doing. That film argued that what they were doing was a parody, and I think our film takes place in similar territory. For a release, our distributor Dark Star Pictures had to get an opinion letter from a lawyer in order to get E&O insurance. That ended up not being a problem, though our distribution was contingent on that being secured.
Roberti: As is often the case, I feel that the biggest challenge yields the greatest strength: we had a very limited time to shoot, so it had to be fast and fun. We booked the cruise before we were 100% done with the script and casting. All of these restrictions made it delightful for me. Darin was so flexible and the whole cast was up for it. When we were shooting 20 pages a day or whatever, there’s a contagious feeling of momentum. Should I not say contagious?
"I think setting deadlines is very helpful. We had a feature written and shot within one year."
NFS: Advice to others based on what you learned here?
Roberti: I think setting deadlines is very helpful. We had a feature written and shot within one year. The post-production was more of a slog, so I might advise folks to have a plan that includes post. I think Josh is a genius in many ways and were it not for him this film would not have gotten finished.
Itzkowitz: Like Chris said, post-production proved to be a lot harder than we anticipated, and in many ways harder than filming in secret on the cruise. We were submitting earlier cuts of the film to festivals and weren’t getting in anywhere. We eventually realized that we had to rework the film and brought on Josh Melrod, a really talented editor to help get the film to its finished state. We also went through The Edit Center, which proved to be an invaluable resource towards giving us new ideas to think through and connecting us to Josh. It’s a program where students who are learning to edit feature films use real footage to create assembly/rough cuts of films. The film ended up premiering at Cinequest, which had actually rejected a rough cut of the film a year earlier. That was a rough lesson to learn, only submit a film to festivals once it’s 100% complete. The other piece of advice is that there’s no better time to go out and make a film wherever and however you might want to!
Thank you Josh, Chris, and Darin!