Let me set the stage: It’s 2009. John Gray just won the first round at The Doorpost Film Project. Doorpost awarded us $30,000 to make a follow up film, more money than any of us had dreamed of before (and the team was P-U-M-P-E-D). It was electric.
But, we had no idea we were heading into one of the worst filmmaking experiences of our lives. The resulting film was called The Glass, and no, it’s not online, or on DVD, or anywhere else you can watch it.
So, what happened? Theories abound and it’s not worth dwelling on any of them, but what I can do is look back and identify my mistakes and learn what I can from them.
I present to you: 10 hard lessons learned while shooting The Glass.
10. Involve outside help on the script:
Even with co-director Chris Pollock and I collaborating on the screenplay, we needed help. Writing a good story is one of the most difficult and complicated things you can do, and I was too proud coming off of John Gray to admit I didn’t have all the answers. While we did try to enlist a third writer, we should have tried harder. The result was a contrived story cobbled together at the last minute.
9. Skip complicated accents:
The film was set in a remote Chilean village, where, according to Wikipedia, they probably spoke Spanish (more on that later). There was a lot of debate during pre-production as to whether the film should be in Spanish, English with Spanish accents, or English without accents. Wanting to keep a touch of the exotic, we opted for English with Spanish accents, figuring we’d be hard pressed to find enough Spanish speaking cast in the mid-south.
Our gringo cast did their best, but the accents proved a troublesome burden. Take after take was wasted over the proper pronunciation of “general,” and the Spanish swear words peppered into the English dialogue sounded… well… muy estúpido.
Looking back we should have just stuck with English without accents. No, not nearly as authentic, but at least our cast would have been unencumbered.
8. Know what you’re talking about:
I’m lucky our production designer Sarah Hascher is forgiving. I caused that poor woman so much grief because I couldn’t be bothered to research my ideas.
One such incident revolved around a piece of wardrobe. We needed a character to wear that thick, heavy grass camouflage you see snipers wearing in war movies, the kind that makes them look like a bush or lump of hay. I sent her out with a vague description and she lost an entire day hitting up every sporting goods store in Memphis. We eventually had to cut the scene because she wasn’t able to find this mystery item.
Had I done a quick Google search before the production meeting, I would have known what I wanted was called a ghillie suit, and could be ordered cheaply online.
7. Use production audio:
The more that computers and software are available to filmmakers, the more you hear people say “we’ll fix it in post.” Do we really want film to go the way of auto-tuned pop-stars who are more look than talent?
The true qualities of performance are emotion and spontaneity, things that happen organically on set when your cast is in costume and reacting to one another. Do you think that can be replicated when they’re sitting on a stool, alone in an air-conditioned sound booth? Think you’ll have all the time, money and flexibility in the world to work in that mixing room till you ‘get it right?’ Don’t kid yourself by assuming the computer will fix your problems. Take the time on set to do things right; use production audio as much as physically possible.
6. Be prepared for your shooting environment:
Ever shoot in the deep South in the middle of Summer? It sucks. Or at least the menagerie of biting insects do. Outside for 12 hours a day with improper footware landed me in chigger-bite hell. I still have scars on my ankles from that shoot. It was horrible. My first purchase after that production was a pair of $80 waterproof hiking boots. I also carry Deep Forest Off and sunscreen with me now. Never again. Never, never again.
5. Deliver directorial materials well ahead of schedule:
Between the compressed contest schedule (we only had 3 months to write, produce and turn over a 20 minute short film) and delays in getting the script finished, we barely had time to create a day’s shot list the night prior to needing it. Without a shot list, overheads or storyboard, the production designer had no idea where to place props and the cinematographer didn’t know where to set up lights. When you fly by the seat of your pants, you sabotage the efforts of your team.
4. Don’t assume everyone knows what’s going on:
When things were hectic, it was hard to know what everyone was doing. There was this feeling that we didn’t have time to meet and discuss progress because we had so much on our plates. Inter-departmental meetings are critical because nobody can read minds.
3. Money is deceptive:
As backwards as it sounds, I think Doorpost’s $30,000 hurt us more than it helped. Part of what made John Gray great was the creativity and ingenuity that went into it. We had virtually no money for props and wardrobe, but that pushed us to figure out new ways to film. The results are obvious.
Money turned us into the Federal Government. Every time there was a problem we just threw money at it. There were so many problems and so much money going out the door, that nobody ever really knew how much we had, where it was going, and if it was OK to spend $100 to make a character look like a shrubbery.
Yes, you need a budget to pay cast and crew, get things like insurance and lighting packages, but don’t think it’ll solve all your problems. Seek simple solutions. Some of the best movies out there had no budget, and that didn’t stop them from being great.
2. Never shoot without an Assistant Director:
This almost made my #1 biggest mistake. The AD runs the shoot. They are in charge. Even with an AD, sets are still chaotic. Without, they’re a confused bramble of shouting voices and impatient cast.
Jessica Powers, our trusted AD on John Gray, was not able to be a part of the production due to scheduling delays (see points 3-5). For some reason, that I cannot fathom now, we decided to press on without an AD. This meant that Chris or I had to try and keep things organized while the other directed. But that was not enough. Shooting was so inefficient and disorganized that we kept cast waiting around all day and then rushed through key scenes.
Even somebody with no experience is better than no AD at all. Had we stopped and found somebody, I honestly believe the film would have been ten times better.
1. Write what you know:
Write what you know is a motto often thrown around by writers. Another cliché, but again, true none the less. Originally The Glass was meant to revolve solely around a young boy that finds a magic piece of glass, but logistics and encouragement to broaden the scope of the story led us to set the story in 1970’s revolutionary Chile.
A film should communicate truth. Not a contrived platitude or personal world-view you feel needs enforcing, but an observed, down and dirty truth. When your view is limited to Wikipedia searches, how can you really know the truth about a thing?
This point was driven home when a man from Chile commented on our film. I wish I had saved what he said, but in not too delicate terms he let us know that we had it all wrong. As good as my intentions were, I had no business using the film to comment on Pinochet, revolution or any aspect of life in Chile.
If there’s one thing I could say, it’s this: a film can survive hectic production schedules, conflicts, bad budgets and plot-holes, but it can’t survive falsehood. That’s the silver bullet. Lessons 2-10 can be learned in a book or through experience, but truth can always be fabricated. Lesson #1 requires a personal commitment.
What hard lessons have you learned on your own projects? Do you agree that truth is the most important thing in a film?