Working With Murphy 2:Beyond College

More Moviesplaining out of me.  On the day of graduation, one of my instructors asked if I had anyone there to see me get me go up. I told him my mom would be there so he deemed it worthwhile to point out that my shirt buttons were out of alignment.  Good save. I have finally learned something worthwhile from him. Our previous conversation days before in his office found him asking me what I plan to do after school with my life and I said I’ll write my screenplays and direct them.  He said, “So you plan to pass yourself off as a writer-director, eh?” There might not have been an eh but it’s there for the tone.  I honestly do not remember what I said in response.  I found irritation boiling up.  Had I not believed he still could lower my mark or something, I might have said, “Better than passing myself off as a writing and directing teacher!”  Or, “Yes, I’ll fool people by writing the script and then directing it.” To this day, that mind fu*k still bothers me.  It makes me potentially a control freak.  I don’t want to put an asterisk beside my credits.  A screenwriter gets feedback on a script so it might not be word for word dictated to me by the Archangel Gabriel.  But even if someone points out an “issue” with  script, I like to solve it myself. In directing, I do like to storyboard everything and follow that as closely as possible.  There are so many ways Murphy’s Law can trip you up but the only way I feel vindicated for my vision is if I follow it.

After graduation, I had a health problem that made walking difficult and ran me down so I returned home from the big city and recuperated at my dad’s house. I found myself writing out monologues that had only been glimmers of ideas a year before.  Something had opened up in my mind after downshifting and beginning to convalesce.  Organized and performed in a couple of monologue shows, and for the community channel 12 Halloween show that year I knuckled down and made a short called The Basement about a young woman who has car trouble and asks a nice old gentleman to use his phone and he traps her in his basement.  We shot it at my dad’s place. Used equipment from Cable 12, shot on 3/4 inch.  The old man was played by a nice man who had operated camera for a one-woman show I had recorded in the studio.  A couple of local theater actors had turned me down.  The heroine was played by a girl I met in a production of Dark of the Moon.  The lead of that production had said no. A lot of this movie turned out quite nicely. The actors were enthusiastic.  It had some dark humor and suspense.  As written, it had a great turning of the tables and escape.  Unfortunately, this was a two day shoot and the second day would have been a coffee scene for character development and then the escape from the basement but my actress was a no show.  Cell phones being less common then, I heard nothing until a week later.  So I only shot the bad-guy’s side and implied the death of the girl he had locked in the basement washroom.  One joke is, “Did you die in there?” I was told finally that the reason she was AWOL on day two was that she stayed with a girlfriend who had been suicidal.  My unspoken reaction to that was “so… did her place have a phone?” But maybe she didn’t have my number and I just let it go. Years later, since we know some of the same people, I met that actress in Toronto and then later on Facebook we touched base.  Bottom line was that she asked me not to post The Basement on-line.  Annoying.  But I have been re-adapting it off and on for a possible remake that I can share in the future.

The next year I wrote a short called Forty Winks, about a charm a child wears to bed that will freeze time while he is asleep and because his babysitter is in contact at the moment he conks out, she is able to roam around find the neighborhood in stasis. There are some tableaux moments she re-positions.  I started shooting with a friend of the family, and still used a couple of shots where she could not be identified.  But I ended up with an actress who was very good despite her reputation for maybe starting a fire at school.  The boy arguably was a little too old to be told bedtime stories.  While some of the movie might have been clunky, it mostly turned out.  There had been a written enactment of a legend of Forty Winks that involved a harem and a pharaoh winking at each wife before he slept and them clinging to his garment as time froze.  I cast the pharaoh with one of my home town’s strongest young actors and he was in a robe on a throne in the studio and ready but the sisters who had played the friends of the lead in another scene were supposed to be featured harem girls and they did not show up.  So a chunk of the movie is more telling than showing. And it may not have made me look good for the actor who did show up.  His father had turned down the role of the psycho in the previous year’s short.  When I made the leap back to Toronto permanently, I showed that actor a terrible draft of another script (where I tried to combine two of my ideas and it was too busy). He showed up drunk outside the place where I was staying and just yelled in passing, “It’s garbage!  It’s garbage!”  So he’s gone on to better things but as far as I’m concerned he is in the a-hole file.

I did another community TV Halloween short, this time called Maniac Wannabe about various horror situations going wrong because the prospective victim is smarter or the would-be killer is accident prone.  In hindsight it was pretty ambitious.  One exterior scene was compromised because I had the wrong filter on.  It was yet another camera borrowed from the station and I had overlooked why the image seemed so easy to see in the viewfinder.  It was over-exposed, but I was able to take out some of the light in post. The killer is a successful stand-up comic and MC in Toronto now.  No thanks to me.  We also did a strange short about wandering around the public library fearing he is being watched or followed.  It allowed for some good editing gimmicks and represents the one time I got some production value by getting the library to allow us to film during the closed morning of “Rae Days” when the Provincial government cut back on library hours.

I visited Toronto to help a couple of other filmmakers in a minor capacity.  I was continuity and second assistant camera on an “erotic” anthology.  I was continuity and a production assistant on a Humber classmate’s black and white feature.  That was another case where one of the actresses did not want to sign a release after shooting had started.  That made for some nerves but must have been resolved.  That movie was not finally edited until more than a decade when a couple of us really badgered the director, but he finally had a screening and we got closure and a copy and he is still the one of us that has directed a feature at the time of this writing.  One danger is that right after shooting something you might hear the dialogue differently.  There might be a temptation to lose passion for a project once some of the steam pressure has vented.  However imperfect a movie might be, better to complete it near the time of shooting.

In the year 2000, a school friend from the same project who had encouraged me to make a more permanent leap back to Toronto sold me a roll of 16mm film stock that required an exterior shoot.  I had sat down to type up a batch of short scripts with the intention of gradually shooting them all.  One was “Klepto the Clown” and one was called “Support Group” and one was “Nic Fit” of the few that actually got shot.  I had met a random character named Sterling in a Second Cup who noticed I was storyboarding Nic Fit and let me know he had a Bollex camera he had not yet used to shoot anything.  He had spend enough money on the camera that it put a strain on his marriage, and yet it sat there.  Many of us buy cameras and then don’t dive into projects.  They can be monuments to inertia.  Another friend (brother of the guy who sold the stock) agreed to help load the film.  A magazine was rented from LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) as well as a tripod but I neglected to test the mount and it didn’t fit.  Found out on the location, a lot behind my cousin Linda’s apartment building.  The behind the scenes account is a little more elaborate in the following commentary video.

 

Working with Murphy on Movies

Nobody wants to collaborate with Murphy of Murphy’s Law when it comes to making movies, but we have no choice but to collaborate with that POS.  Here are some sob stories about encountering situations where I failed to anticipate what could and would possibly go wrong.

First year Humber Super 8mm assignment: We should a parallel action short I conceived and directed which relied on specific movement and cuts to create scene transitions.  A classmate who looked enough like a vagrant because of the Nineties Grunge trend was recruited to act.  His last name sounded like the opposite of his character. He would also supposedly help with post.  He was supposed to meet me in the library to help edit.  I was in plain view and waited but he did not show up, so I did the edit myself, splicing physical film the old fashioned way.  I was pleased to see how my planned cut came together.  Looked forward to screening it.  Then I packed up and made the mistake of doing what we were told to do — putting the equipment and finished reel back into our crew bin on the shelves of the post-production classroom.  I went home that night feeling I had saved the day and showed up for the morning screening but my film was not there. Grunge boy showed up and handed the reel to the instructor.  In turn with the others, it was screened and I was horrified.  I was not vindicated by this at all.  My work had been destroyed.  This tool had come in early or after I left and had gone through the film and snipped either side of my splices and re-spliced it.  He was a vandal.  It was not just a matter of “learning to edit” and “getting experience.”  It was passive-aggressive and rendered my involvement worthless.  To redress the matter would require him to create something he cared about and then for me to destroy that.  If it had occurred to me to try to get the guy thrown out of the program, no doubt he would plead misunderstanding or that his was a “fine cut” and he is “here to learn.”  Decades later, I still think back to this anecdote and feel the rage.  Over the years, the same guy has proven to be a low-life despite the fact that he gets work in film as an electric.  Had I not been naive, I would have put a note in the crew bin, “Bringing the edited reel home.  Will bring it for screening.” In a time-travel fantasy, that is the advice for my younger self.

We did a 16mm film documentary, and I suggested the Guardian Angels of Toronto having seen them ONCE on the subway.  I had a flurry of amusing editing ideas that would give that subject energy.  The vandal was against the subject because he didn’t like the idea of Guardian Angels (volunteer protectors against violence and crime) having a presence. No shock.  I was technically the writer, which has little meaning in documentaries. I had to submit storyboards so that the guy in “the cage” would issue our camera gear. That policy makes sense, but then I found out that we were not allowed to have the writer and director be the same person. Another classmate, Trina, was named director. She went over my storyboards and agreed with them. Then she had to be absent for an appointment so the crew advised me through producer Shaun that I should direct that day.  So I did the majority of it, the exteriors. That included half of a transition, a whip pan from the police 52 division that would take us to the headquarters of the Guardian Angels. The swish-pan was storyboarded, a transition gimmick seen in Some Like it Hot and sort of on the old Batman show.  Pan quickly away from something to a blur, cut on the most blurry frame of that and the following image which begins on the fast pan and settles on the new setting.  Vandal was to shoot the first half, the pan-away. I asked if he knew how to do a swish pan.  He was affronted and said, “Yes!”  Then I watched him and new his pan was wandering and wonky.  I politely asked if I can take a stab at it.  Mine was smooth.  The following day, Trina was back and we had to shoot the other half in the Guardians office. She wanted to skip the pan-in.  I confess I insisted we get it shot even if it isn’t used. She may have been miffed at not having the last word as nominal director. Audio of an interview was used as our sound, so there wasn’t much need for me to write narration.   When we looked at the raw footage I explained to our instructor why the swish was there and how it was to be used.  Yet, when the editor had his way, he delivered a cut that omitted my swish transition but kept the meandering, shaky attempt Vandal had done.  It was a disaster.  I spoke to our producer and asked if I can use the outtakes and restore what I had storyboarded.  He said yes.  I did a marathon editing session and made the doc as it should be.  The next day, there was a pall in the air in the cafeteria.  The editor was a popular basketball player and some (especially not from my crew) thought I had crossed a line.  I was put on the spot in production management class and had to apologize especially for hurting the feelings of the editor (never mind that he had ignored my guidelines and embarrassed me).  I got a nod of approval for my apology from the person whose opinion meant nothing to me, the vandal.  But eventually the editor looked at my cut and realized I was right and most of it was kept.  After all the melodrama, I was invited to direct the 5 minute drama the next semester. Years later, I put a satirical voice-over to it and put it on youtube.

I showed up at the earliest meetings for 16mm drama with a bunch of outlines, little paragraphs and titles.  Anyone could have pitched their own script ideas but one of mine seemed most promising so it was chosen.  I then wrote that into an eight page script and then edited that down to five pages.  It was agreed, so we went forward. Board Beyond Belief was about a customer returning a Ouija board to a service counter.  The shoot went well.  The cinematographer often asked to look at my storyboards to get it right. Then the editing process was like waiting for a baby to be born.  The editing partners included Vandal. When the actors arrived with their mates to see the screening with our class, what they saw had jump cuts because the most basic editing of a simple conversation could not be competently achieved.  Thankfully this time there had been a negative that I could take in and get transferred (albeit only to VHS at time). I took this to an off-line suite and did a complete video edit.  I took it to the screenings of another class and it played well so I felt vindicated.

In third year, I had planned to make a movie called Art Show if my script won people over.  It did not.  The script that had support was by Randy Chase, the writer in class more prolific than me.  He would also be producer and continuity.  That year I was living with my First A.D. Peter and his girlfriend.  I think Randy and Peter were popular enough that some of the crew rallied around them, and as I had asked them to be involved with Art Show I somehow retained the position of director on our 20 minute 16mm film drama project, Hearing Things.  Again I storyboarded the whole thing, let my cinematographer look through the thumb nail version with me and then I refined them after seeing the most likely location. What could go wrong?  The highly capable DP did the ordering of equipment and said he would hot access a video tap.  (In hindsight I think that may have been a fib so I wouldn’t be scrutinizing each shot in progress, which proved highly necessary.) He also showed me some excellent camera tests with various film stocks so I could choose the best look.  But then to save money and without asking he went for a cheap Agfa stock that proved to be kind of grainy and not what I would have asked for.

The opening shot was to zoom out from the darkness of the heroine’s profile to end below her shoulders so it is still a medium close-up profile.  Everybody had a thick booklet of all the storyboards.  I questioned why the camera was so far back and asked to move it closer. I wasn’t tough enough.  I’m sure when I checked the end position it was the shoulder shot.  The woman’s arm feeling at her ear had to read on screen, so I was furious to see that the zoom pulled all the way out and far away and her hand coming up was a detail that barely registered.  We also had an anticipatory pan.  She turns her head upon hearing her sister and looks down a wall to where she will emerge.  I had production stills and storyboards of this and was clear of the finishing position.  But what they showed our instructor was a meandering pan.  And in this case it was two smart guys, the DP and camera operator.  I heard them claim “That’s what Will wanted,” and was tempted to throw them under the bus but I didn’t.  There was also a planned jump cut from a wide view of the mailbox at the end of the driveway to a closer detailed shot of the mailbox; the cut was to occur while the camera was blocked by a passing car. This was before everyone had cell phones, so a miscommunication with the driver meant that he drove the car past once and then turned around and drove out of the driveway and onto the highway thinking he had passed twice. The producer was off that day and I think my roommate AD had a dentist appointment.  There was nothing in place to goose me or remind me.  I had been through the ringer for being a control freak and now I was too sedate and amenable on set.  There was one day when we had a huge dialogue scene and out DP had to go to work at a hotel. I told him we have to finish and maybe I could just shoot it myself.  The threat of me taking over anything caused him to call in and delay his shift, so that was one small victory.

Our sound recordist had his apartment robbed so out mic and the Nagra recorder went missing.  The school wanted him to pay for the replacement and instead he chose to drop out of the course.  So our post-production sound guy filled in on location as recordist.  After each take I’d ask “Good for Camera?”  “Good for sound?” and get a yes before saying it was a keeper.  There was one take where the framing was bad – a head in lower frame  – and the performance was not so good so that was not a keeper.  Camera, Performance and Sound had to be deemed acceptable.  There was an interior dialogue scene where I wanted to match the point of someone sitting into a chair as the conversation took another turn. Standard cut on the motion of sitting, from wide shot to close-up.  If helps engage the seriousness in the close-up.  Well, despite keenly watching to make sure the timing lined up with the takes I had chosen, the editor advised me that because different takes were used they didn’t allow for that editing choice.  The post-production sound guy had listened to the takes while transferring to mag and decided which ones he deemed to have the most clear sound.  Now direction, framing and performance were low priority and sound clarity decided which takes were kept.  The editor and post sound guy had spent Christmas holiday getting that editing done.  Despite the fact that I had marked up the script and given storyboards and they had my number for any questions they worked independently instead of interdependently.  Where I had no ideas for sound I would write “doesn’t matter” in the margin but I should have said “editor’s choice” because it gave the wrong message.  In most cases I was specific about sound.  In one case, a pan from the husband’s thoughtless purchase of a new car to the heroine in profile reacting was intended to be filled by a rise of score.  But the production management instructor saw the cut in progress without music and suggested cutting out most of the pan and starting the profile from her nose.  This ignored my note mentioning the composer.  One scare we had was that part way in, the lead actress resisted signing a talent release because she thought she would become quite famous.  (I have no recollection how that was resolved by the producer/writer.) I do know that when copies needed to be made on VHS for cast and crew it was done at a TV station where our editor had his co-op placement and he forgot to set the levels.  So the first run of copies for Hearing Things to play for agents and so on had muddy sound nobody could hear.

20 years later, the producer Randy presented me with a 3.4 inch tape which I had transferred to digital.  I was temped to change the end credits to put my name first as director but I kept it in the random way the editor did it, irritating as it is. There were only a couple of small edits I indulged in.

More examples in another blog. . . . .