Take Two #33: Making a Movie
By Kyra-lin Hom
In honor of the Seattle International Film Festival I thought I'd add a little film spice to my column. See one of my bachelor degrees is in screenwriting, otherwise known as writing for film and television, but I've also worked on my fair share of film sets as a production designer, costume designer, wardrobe coordinator and make up artist. Most of the time this isn't all at once. Others... Well, it's a well known fact that the film crew never sleeps until after picture wrap (that being the end of principle photography).
So how does an independent film get made? Truth, there are a lot of different ways. Sometimes you start with a script. Other times you start with a concept and an interested financial backer. Last summer I dedicated (more like sacrificed) several months of my life for a truly minimal budget independent feature film. Since I was on that project near every step of the way and just recently got to see the rough first act, this seems like a good example to use.
This project began as an ambitious seed in one of my best friends' head. At the time she was facing down her senior and final year as an undergraduate film student and needed a project for her 15-minute senior thesis film. She caught me early and asked if I would be her production designer. I figured, 'A 15-minute project? Why not?' and agreed. Before long this little seed had grown into a truly logic defying master plan. And just like a tree house, I was dragged along for the ride.
Before I continue I must mention that despite the PTSD way in which I may describe these events I am exceedingly proud of what we all managed to accomplish. It bonded us like a war story and I wouldn't take it back if I could.
Anyway, we started with the script. Then there was the hyper-speed revision process – which as per usual continued even after the camera began to roll – and on to pre-production. This is when we fundraise, get the permits, scout the locations, acquire/make all of the props and costumes, hire the crew, reserve and rent the equipment, cast the actors, organize everyone's living and eating arrangements and then last but absolutely not least schedule the shoot. Even at this early stage, the smaller the crew, the more everyone has to do.
Despite popular belief, which position (director, cinematographer, producer, etc.) does what on a film isn't clearly defined. Instead of a puzzle with its neat little puzzle pieces think of mushing a bunch of different colored clays into a box. Each color has its general space but all that matters is that the box gets filled with clay. Major motion pictures have the whole crayola spectrum to work with. Independent films have what's left after a year of preschool. So understandably, the people on an independent film crew have lots and lots of responsibilities and not always the ones you might expect. I once had to assign one of my assistants to be our official chicken wrangler of the day. And that's not nearly the weirdest thing that I've done while making a film.
One of my favorite war stories from last summer involved propping up a set of stairs made from several strapped together wooden boxes ('apple boxes') in a natural cave system so that the barefoot and freezing actress could gracefully descend from one rock formation to the next. Oh, and these boxes would rock with her weight so my boyfriend (the assistant director) and I had to crouch down out of frame amongst moldy rat dung and hold them steady while she walked. Yup, film is definitely not always a glamorous pursuit.
Plus just when you think you're done, you're not. Post production and distribution – that last little 10 percent – is enough to make you bury your head in the sand. Reshoots? Seriously? I hate to think how many films never get 'made' because of this last little bit. It really does make all the difference. Cleaning up the sound, reshooting a scene because the camera angle doesn't fit right with the next scene or the actor is wearing the wrong clothes – audiences really notice these things, and they will not forgive you for them. I know I don't.
So why do we do it? Why do we go literally days without sleep, crawl through rat dung, shower in a barn and live off bagels for weeks at a time? Because the final product is so freaking cool. You never know if you've done your job, not really, until you see the film. And that moment, when everything is going right, is gold.